Saturday, November 17, 2007

On travel writers, comedians and Stuart Maconie

I'm a voracious reader of travel books. There are basically three categories of travel writing. On the one extreme there's the learned erudite works for the discerning reader which really get to grips with the culture and politics of a country, as exemplified by the likes of Dervla Murphy, Paul Theroux or Colin Thubron. On the other extreme there are the whimsical books usually written in tongue-in-cheek style by comedians or other media personalities who embark on a specific task of peculiar proportions such as Tony Hawkes lugging a fridge around Ireland or playing the Moldovans at tennis, or Tim Moore cycling the route of the Tour de France. There's also those who lie somewhere in between, such as Bill Bryson or Michael Palin who do the semi-intellectual stuff, but at the same time you get the impression that they're not taking themselves entirely seriously.

The Independent observes this trend in a brown-nosing and somewhat snooty piece as an additon to its regular Friday book charts round-up:

"For every Pies and Prejudice, in which comedian (sic) Stuart Maconie (above) hangs out in Blackpool and Yorkshire eating fish and chips and geting in touch with his Northern soul, there's a Tony Hawks, trekking around Europe with a fridge/piano/tennis racket; for every Good Pub Guide there's a Tribe. It's a relief when a writer like Michael Palin or Bill Bryson comes along to peer into the world and elucidate the journey with wit and wisdom and no gimmicks. Which is why they're always best-sellers, and why they are national treasures".

Stuart Maconie, a decent writer, despite what's written above may have a smart-arse style which is generally humorous and quite tongue-in-cheek, but to describe him as a "comedian" is stretching it a bit. He's a rock journo by trade, now enjoying the fruits of life as a DJ and prsenter who churns out the odd book, but I suppose he should take the comedian label as a compliment. Unless the Independent writer meant it in a contemptuous sense, as in someone not to be taken seriously. If that's the case then there is a hell of a lot of "comedians" around, including this anonymous Independent journalist.


Chekov said...

I'm a big fan of travel writing too. Have you ever read any Philip Marsden? The Crossing Place in particular is a wonderful book.

CW said...

I haven’t read any Marsden, Chekov, but am always willing to expand my horizons. What’s his speciality? I know from your blog that you’re a fan of Eastern Europe, so I presume you’ve read and travelled quite a bit on the region. I visited the Balkans last year and as a sort of preparation read Tony White’s “Another Fool in the Balkans” which is fascinating stuff. Been meaning to read Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” as a follow-up, but still haven’t got round to it. Anyway, I’m off to Budapest next weekend for a short break – been reading Palin’s New Europe as a briefing!

Chekov said...

Marsden has written mainly about Eastern Europe I must admit although his latest book is The Chains of Heaven, about Ethiopia. The Crossing Place is subtitled Among the Armenians which is a fair summation of its subject matter. He travels throughout the Armenian diaspora after taking a wee while to learn Armenian (don’t you just hate people who can do that!!). I have travelled a fair bit in Central / Eastern Europe, but I must confess I’ve never been to Budapest. I’m told it’s a must see destination though.