Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Reviewed by Ben Handicott
Calling AA Gill a travel writer seems somehow inadequate. His pieces are a million miles from the standard roll-out of 'went there, did that' stuff that litters so much of the travel media.
Why? His writing brings two things together particularly well - vivid descriptions of place, and a sense of the deep affection he feels for people. His unique ability to combine these two elements provides a sharp and powerful insight into the destinations he writes about. Of course, there’s also the sheer pleasure of reading his words, which flow as if the writing was easy, no matter how much labour went into it. He is a writer. People who love to travel should read him; people who love critical writing should make it a priority.
The essays and observations in AA Gill Is Further Away are divided into two sections: Near and Far.
The Near pieces are, for the most part, less travel and more cultural and personal observation of his homeland and even his family life. But a couple of these do describe parts of the UK that might be worth a visit. If history is your thing, the piece on Towton and its role in the 15th century’s great lesser-known battle will have you firing up your metal detector and heading to the northern hills.
It’s not surprising that the Near pieces involve travel of a more self-reflective kind, the kind that involves personal journey and realisation. These more familiar places require a different kind of effort to experience them afresh. Gill’s way in is via the people. Through the reflections, you get a deep sense of his fascination and love for the lives people lead.
Far is where travel begins for most of us. It’s tempting to quote whole paragraphs of his contemplations of Madagascar to give you an idea of how much he can make you want to travel. But then I’d need to quote from the profiles of Stockholm and the Danube as well. He can write to make you go, and he can surely write to make you stay away. If you have an urge to visit Dubai, his critique of that desert city will remove it like a surgeon’s knife. It’s a sharp, angry piece of writing, a great example of the keen-eyed visitor’s powers of insight and merciless clarity:
They huddle around the current tallest building in the world – a stifled yawn of an accolade, a monument to small-nation penis envy ... Dubai has been built very fast. The plan was money. The architect was money. The designer was money. The builder was money. And if you ever wondered what money would look like if it were left to its own devices, it’s Dubai ... Dubai is the parable of what money makes when it has no purpose but its own multiplication and grandeur.
You’re never in doubt about what he thinks, and he has a way of making you feel like he’s telling you personally about it - probably over a drink in a bar.
If there’s a downside to this book, it’s that his prose is unquestionably rich: while a little of it can be a great thing, all at once it can be overwhelming. Collected from various publications over some time, these morsels are best consumed in moderation, dipped into between other reading.
So, richness aside, you have your mission. If you believe that travel is about insight into and understanding of the places you visit and people you meet, AA Gill is your man. And if you love great prose as well, then the satisfaction will be complete.
Ben Handicott is Lonely Planet’s Associate Publisher for Trade & Reference titles.
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