AA Gill is Away
AA Gill can not write a bad sentence and to read this book is to experience travel writing at its most sublime. Unlike many other writers who aspire to be travel writers, AA Gill’s prose is free from the genre’s normal pretensions and is like a breath of fresh air. After reading this book its hard not to believe that AA Gill could write about the local telephone directory and make it sound relevant and interesting.
Gill begins his travelogue or, as he would have it, his “interviews with places” by explaining that travel broadens the mind. “Nothing alters your perception of who you are and where you belong to as fundamentally, radically and permanently as being somewhere else,” he says and Gill tests this hypothesis on places as diverse, and strange, as Iceland, Japan and rural England. His keen eye for detail and the absurdities of daily life never let him down.
The book is nominally split into four sections: north, south, east and west. The north focuses on Europe, the south focuses mainly on Africa (including an outstanding essay on Uganda), the east on Asia and the West on the Americas. However, it is the African essays which leave the greatest impression (as Gill muses at one point what kind of editor would send the Sunday restaurant critic to write about famine in the Sudan?) whether it be his description of the funeral of Selassie in Ethiopia, the rage-provoking expose of health-care in Uganda or the amusing description of a stormy night in the Kalahari. It is clear from these essays that Gill not only understands the events unfolding around him but is sufficiently empathetic to place them in a global context.
However, Gill isn’t always so forgiving of the places he interviews and takes great joy poking fun at the Japanese whom he classifies as, ‘ decidedly weird’ and declares that, ‘If Japan were a person, you wouldn’t laugh at it, you’d smile pityingly at its parents and whisper that you’re sure they can do wonderful things with medication these days. If Japan were a person, it wouldn’t be allowed metal cutlery’. A number of people who read the original article in The Times expressed feelings of anger and resentment about the racist and offensive manner in which Japan, Japanese people and Japanese culture were portrayed in the article. The Japanese Ambassador was even moved to write a letter of complaint but it remains as one of the most revealing and honest accounts of modern-day Japan I have ever read.
Conversely, Iceland, tickles Gill’s fancy: ‘The great thing about fur in Iceland is that it’s not some sort of dainty fashion detail, it’s work clothes, it’s a practical necessity. The man in the shop says there’s a problem with seals: “Just too damn many of them, by the way, please smoke. We can’t club them fast enough, do you fancy a sealskin donkey jacket with salmon-skin trim?” Do haddock shit in the fjord? I just want to bring all the rodent-hugging animal rights activists in their nylon windcheaters here, stand them on the tundra, and say: “look, just before your bodily functions cryogenicise, tell me, who’s the dumb animal now?”‘
Perhaps the acid test of any travel writing is does it make you want to travel? In the case of AA Gill the answer is yes. After reading his excellent essay on Iceland I called my travel agent and immediately booked a flight. I can not think of any other modern writer would could inspire so much as Gill does. Go out and buy it now!