The right type of travel writing?

May 3, 2011

Travel writer and newspaper columnist A.A. Gill told listeners of BBC Radio 4’s Excess Baggage programme last week that he doesn’t do research, doesn’t take notes and considers himself a rather superficial traveller, a tripper.

Whatever his methods, not many writers can so succinctly drill down into a destination simply using well-honed observational skills. Gill seems to know by osmosis who best to chat with while dashing around a destination – and somehow plans his visit at a particularly prescient moment in time.

Readers who seek politically correct armchair travels, where all the colours and customs of the far-flung world are greeted with wide-eyed awe may not enjoy Gill – he is acerbically provocative, occasionally chauvinistic, has kept the Press Complaints Commission consistently busy and caused a minor diplomatic incident with the Isle of Man in 2006 after deriding its citizens in a Sunday Times column.

While those on the receiving end of his compound-adjective-heavy wit might call it bigotry, his fans – and they are many – would not hold his writing in such high regard were his take-no-prisoners commentary not punctuated with thoughts and ideas pulsating with wisdom.

Gill’s just-released collection, AA Gill: Is Further Away is split between “Near” and “Far”. The former veers from War-of-the-Roses battleground Towton in Yorkshire, to a Nelson Mandela birthday function at a London InterContinental Hotel where Gill finds fault with “the napkinned trestles of inhospitable hospitality”.

There is also the metaphorically “Near”, where less caustic chapters deal with the author’s severe dyslexia and adventures in fatherhood. “Far” journeys from Bombay to Haiti via – in my view – the richest chapters, on Dubai, Madagascar, Albania and Iceland.

In a foreword, Gill disputes the idea of the world having reached its “found-by date”. He revels in the fact that though most of it has been excessively explored, the world is more accessible than it’s ever been. He scoffs at the snobbery that differentiates a ‘traveller’ and a tourist, and at travel journalism which leaves readers feeling envious and annoyed. Gill sees his journalism as an attempt to bring the reader along with him.

And, at his best, he certainly does (at his worst, he is in danger of alienating them). The day Gill spends with the morris dancers of Thaxted is memorable; a million miles from the “alco-doner vomit… effing and bling” of the Essex of stereotype, and 20 minutes from Stansted Airport, the author finds a village cloaked in folklore.

These male-only folk dancers are, Gill considers, “the most riotously risible and despised groups in Britain. Yet they caper on regardless.” And it’s as well that they do, the chapter concludes, as morris men offer a glimpse of our pre-industrial past that we’re dangerously close to forgetting.

Next it’s to the “great green daddy” of parks, where 35,000-plus revellers and picnickers gathered to watch the Royal Wedding last week. Gill wanders Hyde Park from dawn to dusk, following the Household Cavalry on their 6.15 am coffee-break trudge into West London; an hour later, he meets the Serpentine Swimming Club as they “dive into the turgid, scummy water and flap their arms with a wiry purpose.”

The Park’s superintendant tells Gill that the most common complaints concern cyclists, though the intermingling of cultures (it’s a “polyglot pan-national place”) brings its own mini-dramas: Middle-Eastern families don’t always see eye-to-eye with dog-walkers, for example. But mostly, harmony reigns – especially among those couples who can’t find privacy elsewhere.

This celebration of Britain-in-your-backyard, a homage to a homeland many of us never actually experience – or perhaps just take for granted —  made me want to grab the GPS and set off on a domestic-travel pilgrimage. But then the abroad chapters began.

In Bombay (“Only CNN weather forecasters call it Mumbai”), Gill decides that “If you want to know what nineteenth century London or New York felt like while they were still vital, before they got scared and wanted peace and quiet, it must have been a bit like this.” Read on for his damning portrayal of the debt-ridden Indian middle-class.

New York-bound, Gill surveys the new breed of executive accommodations (“investment opportunity with sleepover possibilities…. silent, screaming, locked-away loneliness”), and concludes that the lifestyle the glass-and-steel condos are selling isn’t one that most people would actually want (forget family or pets, these are places to “plug in your laptop, prop up your flat screen, suck Starbucks and surf soapy Asian babes.”)

Particular scorn is reserved for Dubai, a city Gill describes as “mugged by its own greed”. The Bedouin-to-riches tale is so lamentable to the writer not because of the hub’s seeming indifference to anything except a meaning-lite pursuit of wealth, but due to the Emiratis’ wish to sustain their lucrative lifestyle without lifting a finger. They “are born retired… they have imported and built a city, a fortress of extravagance that excludes themselves.”

Gill interviews an Indian hotel manager who tells of getting the dreaded call from a member of royalty whose nephew expects a job. An office, secretary and car must be provided… and an empty schedule. It is hard to read this chapter without reflecting that money may indeed be a curse for this desert city.

From a man who infamously shot a baboon to “get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone,” Gill’s visit to Madagascar with a group of British botanists is a moving account of extinction and the diligent souls trying to reverse it. Reading it, one longs to have met the long-gone gorilla-sized lemur; we share Gill’s bafflement with the mysterious baobab tree: “Nobody is sure how they are pollinated – perhaps it’s by bats… This is nature’s Angkor Wat.”

Gill isn’t too keen on beach resorts, where the “view… at the relaxing edges of the world’s midriff is sweatily predictable.” Instead he travels to Stockholm in winter, where “the absence of light leaves… an ethereal opalescence.” And Vienna, a “grown-up Europe, a city for adults. You don’t act your age here, you act a couple of decades older.”

Though Gill’s trip to the Arctic is the most dramatic, this collection’s must-read story for me is his visit to Iceland after the bank crisis but before the volcano. Here, Gill finds an enigmatic people waking from a very un-Icelandic consumerist dream. These are people who “have grown through a hard Calvinism to a moral atheism while maintaining an open mind about elves.”

If that doesn’t get you on a plane, I don’t know what will.

AA Gill: Is Further Away is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, priced at GBP20

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