A A Gill is away

A A Gill <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 254pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0304362158

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, flagging up rather early on his preference for the extremely long cliche over the perfectly good short cliche. If, as he says, travel does lead him to question himself or any of his views, then he's far too much of a gentleman to mention it. This is a shame - when you come across a man who will travel to the far ends of the earth just to bitch about its crummy hotel fitments, you have to wonder what goes on in his interior life. Don't get me wrong, there's an awful lot of "I feel this" and "This makes me think that", but not for a second does he deviate from the British Encyclopaedia of Johnny Foreigner. (Of which the basics are: Africans are friendly, Indians are higgledy-piggledy, and Japs - ew! - they're mean! But more on that later.)

Unusually for a journalist, Gill is at his best when he's enthusiastic. The Africa section of the book is by far the most evocative, the most human and the least overwritten. A section on the drug crisis in Uganda is really exemplary reportage, like Orwell at his most passionate, with added wit. A tendency to tub-thump about Sudan (Gill appears to believe that he's the first man on earth to be saddened by famine) is mitigated by the overall grace and uncharacteristic humility. However, even here he has a baffling habit, of which the following is the first of many, many examples: "The smiling cook produces a knife that you couldn't cut atmosphere with, it is blunter than a headbutt." Both are perfectly adequate metaphors, but surely the whole point of a metaphor is that one's enough? Whether this is a mistake born of excessive pride in his bons mots, or simply that of a man getting paid by the word, I never deciphered.

On straightforward issues - Hunger: good or bad? Refusing drugs to dying Africans: right or wrong? - Gill writes well. On less obvious matters - such as Israel and Palestine, American consumerism, the collapse of Soviet Russia - his taste for the cutesy aphorism is grating. Palestine is "a Big Issue state" which "only exists on the philanthropy of strangers". On the nature of the US, he offers this: "In Europe freedom has always meant saying and thinking things. In America it means doing things and making stuff. Which is just as profound and a whole lot more useful." It's not wrong as such; it just doesn't appear to mean anything, and is never expanded or justified to a point where it might mean something. It's the kind of hogwash you can get away with in evanescent newsprint, but in the permanence of book form it looks coarse and facile.

Gill's core technique, it appears, is to take a hoary old saying - "I've got butterflies" or "It was like pulling teeth" - and "liven" it up with new vocabulary. "You feel like you're gestating catfish," he exclaims. "It's like amateur root canal treatment," he notes, taking care always to circulate the same old stale ideas. This also applies to his world-view. It is amazing that a man who clearly considers himself to be a linguistic innovator should stick so rigidly to the accepted views of his age and class. Communism is stupid and greedy. The Holocaust is the worst crime ever committed, ergo the Germans are the most evil people ever to have lived - although, since he makes it clear that the whole world has hated them since Bismarck, I wonder whether he isn't post-rationalising, and thereby using six million deaths somewhat opportunistically. He travels to Buchenwald, but "won't describe the sense of the place, not because there aren't words to describe this monstrosity, but because there have been others better qualified to utter them than me, and to add to them is to detract, to bury the sin again in language". It's an interesting point of view - that language obscures rather than clarifies (mind you, it's understandable, given the way Gill himself uses it).

Most laughably of all, the Japanese deserved Hiroshima because "it blew away . . . a thousand-year-old political and social system". (Well, Jesus, it's our very own 1,000-year-old social system that got this clumsy writer a job in the first place, and I still wouldn't advocate nuking us. Another 100 pages might have changed my mind on that.) Oh, and before we forget, those Nips like cameras a lot as well, and are all perverts. "Disturbingly, I'm told, there is no indigenous word for the female orgasm." Well, here's some news, old boy - there's no English word for it either, there's simply a word for "female" (the Japanese also have one of those) and a word for "orgasm" (ditto). No wonder the man's disturbed. He's an absolute dimwit.

If travelling the world seems to have reinforced Gill's prejudices, reading his travelogue has reinforced my own prejudices about travellers. They arrive, they get what they came for, they leave. Their observations are about as enlightening as their holiday snaps.

Zoe Williams is a columnist on the London Evening Standard