Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Travellin' Light

More inspired by "The Sunday Times". I was reminded of a recent email correspondence on Sunday morning. A.A. Gill was lauding a new television series by Jonathan Meades. In that correspondence, I had, by coincidence, lumped Gill and Meades together as the finest examples of travel writers with whom I am acquainted. That Gill sees fit to praise Meades suggests that there is at least one side of a possibly mutual admiration duality.

The point I had made about the two authors was that, when they are writing ostensibly travel pieces, it is not necessarily obvious that "travel" is their theme. Both have an eye for the surreal and bizarre, and in Meades' case the bizarre is heightened by a fascination with low-life. But they also bring together in their writing a range of the arts, humanities and science. Travel writing is literary polymer, a combination of language, culture, art, music, society, people, history, politics, food and drink, geography, geology, topography, agriculture, archaeology, architecture, town planning, engineering, natural history, botany and meteorology - to name but some. Above all, and Gill and Meades are masters of the art, it is a process of observation and of de- and then re-construction of the familiar with imagery composed of influences often far removed from the subject. (And just to explain, even when one is not directly familiar with, for instance, a particular landscape or building, one is nevertheless familiar with the notion of landscapes and buildings.) Gill's role as a TV critic can inform his descriptions with the everyday of soaps and reality shows. A background as an architectural journalist guides Meades in the performance of such re-buildings of images. Both also, naturally enough given their preferences for the bizarre, have a penchant for seeking out the odd, and it is the odd that can give rise to the richest of written picture-painting.

Travel writing, and it is obvious to say so, needs to paint pictures without the aid of pictures. But it is the superficiality or the depth of this painting that distinguishes the mundane from the lively. Much good travel writing also draws on the novel - the story telling of a Bryson or a Theroux, for example. And these authors share with Gill and Meades the essential quality of ferocious wit. There may be an apparent excess of cynicism, sarcasm and satire about the output, but these are all vital in presenting a view of a subject that runs contrary to the blandness of much travel writing. And it is wrong to assume that such styles do not at the same time embrace affection. It is often a very affection for the subject that enables the alternative "take", be it sarcastic or surrealistic.

Where am I going with all this? To Mallorca naturally enough. And that is because much of what one ever encounters about Mallorca in the written form is stripped of any depth, of any challenging imagery, of any alternativism. It is writing that suffers from prejudice in that the writer is too blinded by what he or she believes should be the accepted norm or by his or her own attachment in order to attempt to paint pictures that are more than just light, first touches of the brush on the canvas. To return to the notion of familiarity, one is familiar with mountains or with seascapes, even if one has no first-hand experience of the Tramuntana or the bay of Pollensa. To simply apply standard adjectives or metaphors to either is far from sufficient, but that is what one usually gets - the default setting of limited imagination, creativity and personal thesauri. There is a form of fascism when it comes to Mallorca which has it that if the words "beautiful" and "lovely" are not repeated in every paragraph, then the author is being unfairly critical. And such fascism occurs not just in travel writing but in pretty much any writing about the island.

Gill or Meades on Mallorca. Now that would be something.

Yesterday's title - The Beautiful South, "Song For Whoever", http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysM9cSR6YqM. Today's title - probably been loads, but for whom was this a number one in the '50s?


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