Travel, politics and political travel


Branch member Matthew Teller will be speaking at our October branch meeting about his work as a freelance travel writer specialising in the Middle East.  

The meeting is 7.00pm Thursday October 9th, upstairs in the St Aldates Tavern, St Aldates, opposite Oxford Town Hall, and it is open to non-members

matthew tellerIn this guest blog post, Matthew talks about his efforts to navigate “a journalistic path between the unthinking demands of tourist board PR, and the equally unthinking demands of breaking news”, and asks whether political aware travel writing is gaining ground.

Come to the branch meeting to hear more and join the discussion, 

WRITERS work alone. Freelancers tend to, anyway, and I’ve freelanced most of my life. That’s one of the reasons why the NUJ – alongside writers’ guilds and other trade bodies – is so valuable, creating networks and fostering working communities among writers and journalists.

So I’m honoured and delighted to have been asked to speak at the NUJ’s Oxford & District meeting on October 9th. It will be an informal affair: hearing about other people’s lives, and how they got to wherever they happen to be, is always fascinating. I’m proposing a hefty dose of that.

I write mostly about the Middle East. I’m lucky to have lived in Jordan, Jerusalem and other places, and privileged to have been able to travel widely on assignment across the region. A couple of clips: I wrote this from Egypt last summer, just before the military coup:

And my Radio 4 documentary on military relations between the UK and the Gulf aired last month – details here:

Beside the BBC, I write for newspapers and magazines both here and around the world.

My background is in travel writing, nowadays perhaps the most degraded and discredited branch of journalism of them all. It wasn’t always inconsequential, PR-driven and irredeemably fluffy, of course: there was a time when what we would now recognise as travel writing was virtually indistinguishable from foreign affairs reporting – and I’m interested in how we might be seeing something of a return to that today.

Challenging perceptions

With the enormous growth in tourism, the point of much mainstream travel writing has changed. Edginess has dissipated, description has faded and discovery has atrophied. For most people, most of the time, travel writing now means glorified tourist-board copy, telling safe stories about safe destinations from familiar standpoints. That’s not always the case, but travel journalism, digging below public narratives, and travel writing, challenging perceptions of people and places, both face existential threats amid the shrinking of our industry. Editors willing to push boundaries are hard to find. My word rates not only haven’t moved in fifteen years, they’ve mostly gone down.

A new genre?

Yet, along with the ubiquity of travel “content”, especially online, I’m sensing change in the air. The hunger for good stories, well told, will never die, and travel writing feels like it may be splitting. TripAdvisor and its ilk – clearly hugely popular – serve a purpose, as do Lonely Planet and Rough Guides (for whom I’ve written several titles), but have you been reading the website Roads & Kingdoms, for instance? Or have you been tracking Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Salopek, blogging for National Geographic?

Politically aware travel writing is gaining ground. Navigating a journalistic path between the unthinking demands of tourist board PR, and the equally unthinking demands of breaking news, feels new. And the countries the weekend supplements prefer to cover – the Frances, the Italys, the Antiguas and the Australias – aren’t at the core. It’s the places that don’t count as destinations – Central Asia, say, sub-Saharan Africa or my neck of the woods, the Middle East – where this new approach is being honed, feeding into how we, at home, imagine different places to be “newsy” or “touristy”. It’s an exciting time.

I’d be interested to discuss all of this, and more, on the night. See you there!


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Filed under branch meetings, freelance, upcoming events

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