Colin Thubron

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Colin Thubron, 2010

Colin Gerald Dryden Thubron, CBE FRSL FRAS (born 14 June 1939) is a British travel writer and novelist.[1] In 2008, The Times ranked him among the 50 greatest postwar British writers.[2] He is a contributor to The New York Review of Books,[3] The Times, The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages. Thubron was appointed a CBE in the 2007 New Year Honours. He is a Fellow and, between 2009 and 2017, was President of the Royal Society of Literature.[4]

Early years[edit]

Thubron is the son of Brigadier Gerald Thubron and of Evelyn (née Dryden), a collateral descendant of the poet John Dryden and of Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse Code. He was born in London and educated at Eton College. Before becoming a writer he worked for five years in publishing in London and New York City, and made independent documentary films that were shown on BBC television. He is married to the Shakespeare scholar Margreta de Grazia.

The Middle East[edit]

Thubron's first travel book, Mirror to Damascus, was published in 1967, the first such book on the city for a century.[5] It was followed the next year by The Hills of Adonis: A Quest in Lebanon, a lyrical account of a journey through the country, pre-civil war, and the next year by Jerusalem. While starting a parallel career as a novelist, he completed a travel book on Cyprus, Journey into Cyprus, in 1974, just before Turkey invaded the island.

Russia and the Far East[edit]

In 1981, during the Brezhnev era, Thubron broke with his earlier work (on cities and small countries) and travelled by car into the Soviet Union, a journey recorded in Among the Russians. This was followed in 1987 by Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China (winner of the Hawthornden Prize[6] and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award),[7] and in 1994 by The Lost Heart of Asia, the record of a journey through the newly independent nations of Central Asia.

In 1999 his book In Siberia[8] (Prix Bouvier, France), an exploration of the farthest reaches of the ex-Soviet Union, was published. In an episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme Bookclub in 2018, Thubron discussed the book with the presenter James Naughtie and answered questions from the audience.[9] His book, Shadow of the Silk Road (2007), describes a 7,000-mile journey from China to the Mediterranean encompassing cultures in which Thubron has been particularly interested: Islam, China, the former Soviet Union, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.[10][11] His latest work is The Amur River: Between Russia and China (2021).


Most of Thubron's novels are notably different from his travel books. Several describe settings of enforced immobility: a psychiatric hospital, a prison, an amnesiac's mind. Notable among them are Emperor (1978), a study of the conversion of Constantine, A Cruel Madness (winner of the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award),[12] and Falling (1989). Others, however, use travel or a fictional abroad: Turning Back the Sun (1991) and an imaginary journey to Vilcabamba, Peru in To the Last City (2002), long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It has been described as a "Heart of Darkness narrative" in a "Marquezian setting".[13] His most recent novel, Night of Fire, is his most ambitious: a multi-layered study of time and memory, which several reviewers named his masterpiece.[14]

Thubron says that he was influenced by Palgrave's Golden Treasury as a schoolboy, and was initially inspired by the travel writing of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Jan Morris and Freya Stark. He admires the English novelist William Golding[15] and chose Victor Gollancz's anthology A Year of Grace as his book for Desert Island Discs.[16]

Travel Writing[edit]


  • Views from Abroad: The Spectator Book of Travel Writing, edited by Philip Marsden-Smedley & Jeffrey Klinke – Grafton, 1988
  • The Lycian Shore by Freya Stark – John Murray, 2002
  • The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron – Penguin, 2007
  • Stalin's Nose – by Rory MacLean – Tauris Parke, 2008
  • The Travels of Marco Polo – Everyman, 2008


  • The God in the Mountain - Heinemann, 1977
  • Emperor – Heinemann, 1978
  • A Cruel Madness – Heinemann, 1984
  • Falling – Heinemann, 1989
  • Turning Back the Sun – Heinemann, 1991
  • Distance – Heinemann, 1996
  • To the Last City – Chatto & Windus, 2002
  • Night of Fire - Chatto & Windus, 2016

Radio adaptations, stage and television[edit]

  • Emperor - BBC Radio 4, September 1984, with Martin Jarvis as Constantine and Juliet Stevenson as Fausta.
  • Great Journeys: The Silk Road – BBC 2 Television, presenter, 1989
  • The Prince of the Pagodas - ballet scenario, the Royal Opera House, 1989, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan
  • A Cruel Madness – BBC Radio 4, May 1992, with Robert Glenister as Pashley and Harriet Walter as Sophia
  • The South Bank Show – Time seen as a Road, on Colin Thubron, ITV television, 1992

Prizes and awards[edit]


  1. ^ Wagner, Erica (24 July 2016). "Colin Thubron: 'Life is in the detail'". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  2. ^ "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945". The Times. 5 January 2008. Retrieved 12 February 2011.
  3. ^ [1], New York Review of Books,
  4. ^ "The Royal Society of Literature". The Royal Society of Literature. Archived from the original on 5 March 2010. Retrieved 8 August 2010.
  5. ^ Mirror to Damascus. WorldCat. 2010. OCLC 3876772.
  6. ^ Hawthornden Prize Hawthornden Prize
  7. ^ "Thomas Cook Publishing". Archived from the original on 31 August 2005. Retrieved 2015-01-04. Thomas Cook Travel Book Award
  8. ^ [2] In Siberia
  9. ^ "Bookclub – In Siberia". BBC Radio 4. 7 January 2018. Retrieved 6 July 2023.
    A podcast is also available for downloading within the United Kingdom, but not necessarily elsewhere, as in some cases the BBC blocks its podcasts from being downloaded outside the United Kingdom.
  10. ^ [3][dead link],(Prix Bouvier, France), Independent review: Shadow of the Silk Road.
  11. ^ Shadow of the Silk Road on YouTube.
  12. ^ [4] Silver Pen Award.
  13. ^ McCrum, Robert (28 July 2002). "Back to the heart of darkness". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 30 April 2010.
  14. ^ "Colin Thubron interview: 'Travel has always been an addiction for me'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  15. ^ Wroe, Nicholas (9 September 2006) "On the road again". The Guardian
  16. ^ Desert Island Discs archive BBC Radio – Desert Island Discs microsite
  17. ^ "RSGS - Royal Scottish Geographical Society". Archived from the original on 12 November 2010. Retrieved 21 February 2009., Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
  18. ^ [5], Royal Society for Asian Affairs.
  19. ^ [6], Warwick University
  20. ^ [7], Prix Nicholas Bouvier
  21. ^ "Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards 2018 winners". Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards. 28 February 2019. Retrieved 5 August 2019.

External links[edit]