The Passing of Crowther
by Gregory C. Eaves
Argentina to Zimbabwe, Adelaide to Zurich, the Appalachian to the Zagros, and everywhere in between. Where do you stand concerning that most extinct of species: the writer of travel guide books?
In the U.S., there is a certain ilk that seeks out education at the Jackson School of International Studies or at the Walsh School of Foreign Service. These youthful idealists — mostly white, but not all; mostly middle- or upper-class, but not all — lie somewhere between the Peace Corps at one end of the spectrum and ROTC at the other end. They are often neither of those extremes, finding group comfort in the middle. Also binding them together are their bookshelves, for from the late 1970s through to even the early 2010s, all of their bookshelves were stocked with travel guide books. These were not on their official class reading lists, of course. Reading lists were only for serious tomes on foreign policy and foreign affairs, sociological studies of East African basket weaving, the importance of the collective in Luzon rice harvests, sociologists explaining economics and economists explaining sociology: Books About the World. However, the lowly foreign affairs undergrad, bracketed at both ends and fed a died of such serious tomes, would often branch out a little and add some spice to their curricular diet by adding some junk food; that is, travel guide books. These were not academic, but pretended to have real information. These were travel guides of those countries & policies that they were studying: never Michelin, and often Lonely Planet.
The Fermor Joie de Vivre
That parabola has since fallen, of course. It launched in the mid-1970s. It began to fly in the 1980s with wide-bodied aircraft and the arrival of more modestly priced mass travel. It really took off in the 1990s with a deregulated airline industry, the victory of Europe & the U.S. over the USSR, the opening of Mainland China, neon-clad Japanese on the slopes of Whistler and Aspen, and waves of democracy in post-colonial countries. It peaked with over-tourism in the 2000s, when nouveau riche Mainland Chinese themselves started to travel the world, when Europe became the Disneyland for rich East Asians seeking authenticity. Now in the 2010s, that parabola has returned roughly to the ground, the own-goal collapse of over-tourism, the coronavirus pandemic halting tourism, and, last month now, with the death of the godfather of backpacking, Geoff Crowther (March 15, 1944, to April 13, 2021).
Part of the parabolic rise and fall of the travel guide book is the technological advancements of humanity. It has only been 200 or so years since the Industrial Revolution. That, itself, was the greatest shift in human lives since the forming of collectivized agriculture & the foundation of cities. Well, like that quote from Arthur C. Clarke says: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It’s quite possible that since the smartphone, we’ve now taken another leap in the nature of human lives. The super computers we all carry in our pockets are magic compared to the travel guide book; pure magic.
This modest rectangle of glass, plastic and metal is – truly – “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, as updated, researched and verified by Ford Prefect. We have all of humanity’s knowledge in our pocket, and our mother can call us whenever she wants. Our pocket computer has replaced the calculator, the calendar, the map, the MP3 player (and the Walkman before it), the level, the compass (both mathematical and geographical), the credit card, the debit card, the portable wifi hotspot, the notepad, handwriting, the desktop or laptop computer, the book in many instances, the thermometer, the camera, the alarm clock, the light switch, the flashlight, the face-to-face conversation, the telephone, the airplane ticket and the travel guide book.
The passport* is the only thing it has yet to replace.
*Oh, and local public transport tickets in new cities.
It wasn’t just people on the Peace Corps-Jackson School-Walsh School-ROTC spectrum who bought travel guide books. Many families throughout the 1970s and through to at least the early 2010s certainly were consumers of many travel guide books, across many different publishers.
I, too, always bought the Lonely Planet. I always hated its maps, and never considered it either useful or up to date. However, like Wikipedia today, it’s was where you started.
Lonely Planet was also a brand. The minute you step into the Peace Corps-Jackson School-Walsh School-ROTC world, you see that Lonely Planet books are used as brand products, to signal to those around you, perhaps like sneaker or shoe brands among certain demographics. When you go to someone’s house for a party, you’d always peruse their bookshelf, see how dog-eared their Lonely Planets were.
The mind of a twentysomething is a twisted beast, socially aware, barely out of teenagerhood, and one must look the part when arriving at the youth hostel. Lonely Planet was part of that.
It was more a brand one used to show off to society, which, to be honest, was just in their head, as no one was actually paying attention to them. The flip side was that it was almost shameful to be seen with a Lonely Planet book in the youth hostel. You had to cover it with newspaper or thin cardboard.
The idiocy of youth; the arrogance of one’s 20s.
Like the writings of Marco Polo, they were so often relied upon at the time, and yet they were never very accurate; and, they are extremely remote from the tour travel world today.
Here in 2021, we can see why Lonely Planet books were never very good. They always relied on one or two people. However, people didn’t buy them because they were good. People bought them for the feeling they imparted, and that was what made the publisher brilliant. Faux internationalism packed and sold to middle-class Westerners: it was brilliant. I mean, imagine putting so much work into something that, in the end, sure, was the only one of its kind on the market, but which, honestly, was out of date fairly quickly and wasn’t actually that useful. That wouldn’t fly. You’d have to lace it in magic, in the Exotic East, and then the white people in New York and London and Sydney would buy it.
“Exterminate all the brutes!!” -Kurtz
from “Heart of Darkness” (1899) by Joseph Conrad
I respect the adventure and the hard work, but we must talk about the arrogance of it all; the neo-colonialism of it all. Certainly at the time, no one talked about arrogant white people gallivanting around the world; that was seen as the white man’s prerogative. However, now, in 2021, it must be mentioned.
Second, all that labor was out of arrogance; self-fueled egos. They wrapped it in lofty U.N./ Benetton rhetoric, but it was a personal arrogance that, again, saw them as fly-by-nighters; “a backpacker” or “a tourist” is just about the worst epithet you can give someone.
People like this populated the Jackson School, the Georgetown, the State Department, the Peace Corps; interestingly, not the intelligence community.
“Malgudi Days” (1943) is a collection of short stories by R. K. Narayan. One short story from that collection, “God and the Cobbler”, was published in Playboy in the U.S. in August 1976.
By 1976, India was already awash in the great unwashed of the West.
In this story, the “hippy” — not yet a negative word — backpacker encounters an old man who repairs shoes for a living. They talk a little bit in broken English. The hippy of course, being of Lonely Planet ilk, thinks the cobbler has found enlightenment in this simple work, and sees the cobbler’s work as a holy exercise of some kind. The old man, of course, thinks the hippy might be some god in disguise sent to test him, so he’s very cautious about what he says.
In “God and the Cobbler”, Narayan shows us connection, endurance, discontent, struggle, guilt, isolation and disillusion. The story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator. After reading the story, the reader realizes that Narayan may be exploring the theme of connection.
“I think that it would be nice.” – Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thinks of Western civilization
It glorifies poverty. It encourages people without money to get into situations, i.e., travel, where they really should have saved some money beforehand. It teaches rich Westerners that it’s OK to haggle with poor market-stall owners over, say, the price of a piece of fruit.
Travel guide books are audacious in their claimed scope; and fail miserably. Because of this ambition, they are rife with errors. Today’s online world is no better: the internet is rife with errors.
For a non-tourist area of a third world country, the Lonely Planet was all there was. Often, it was also wrong, but it was something.
Travel in some dictatorships today like Mainland China will be difficult, of course, since the internet is blocked and most commonly-used apps are banned.
It is a paean for analog travel. Much like Luddites in response to the Industrial Revolution, I can see the paean for analog travel, just as I can understand the joy of a manual transmission. However, like fountain pen calligraphy or playing the harpsichord, those are niche hobbies.
Travel today is to use your smartphone. You are never out of touch, out of contact; indeed, humans will never be out of touch again. Do not rage, rage against the dying of the light. This is no death. This is humanity’s ever-improving progress into the new, and into the world.
So I will miss the extinction of a species of people like Geoff Crowther (March 15, 1944, to April 13, 2021). He, and the book company for which he worked, were of their era, of their time. Of that, surely, we can say.
You cannot make all travelers humble. You cannot remove the gaucheness of the nouveau riche, nor the awkwardness of the twentysomething in a new city. The busloads will come, the cruise ships will dock. The ancient and revered will be trammeled. The sacred will be sold for a penny. That is all just what humans do, and we will do it whether we’re carrying around a dog-eared physical copy of Lonely Planet or whether we’re staring down at the screens on our phones.
The son’s eulogy
The Lonely Planet person’s obituary
From the Lonely Planet publishing house
NYTimes 1986 article