IT’S ALL IN THE MIND
THE Sydney Writers Festival kicks off on Monday, which seems a good time for DepartureLounge to look at the state of travel book writing. There has been, for example, a right kerfuffle over a recent book titled DoTravelWritersGotoHell:A SwashbucklingTaleofHighAdventures, QuestionableEthics&Professional Hedonism by Thomas Kohnstamm (Pier 9-Murdoch Books, $29.95).
The title is designed to shock and the cartoonish cover has a certain lurid horror to it. But that is not the point. Kohnstamm, a Seattle-based writer in his mid-30s, has admitted he was contracted to write the introduction to a Lonely Planet guide on Colombia but didn’t go there.
‘‘ The publisher didn’t pay me enough,’’ he has been quoted as saying. ‘‘ I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating, an intern in the Colombian consulate.’’
Which is sort of like saying: I’ve agreed to fix your plumbing but you aren’t giving me enough money, so I’ll just make a few calls to people who might know about plumbing, apply a Band-Aid to the leak and hope for the best. That is, instead of standing aside for someone who is willing to do the research and contracted work, and accept the rates.
Don’t get Lounge started on whether it is ethical to work for low rates; rant as much as we like, there will always be those who’ll work for less and companies that will take advantage of a buyers’ market.
Travel&Indulgence regularly receives contributions from would-be travel writers who say they’ll work for free or half rates just to see their names in print. We send them packing: all our contributors are paid fairly and promptly.
Lounge doesn’t know what Lonely Planet pays but it can’t be that dire, judging by the number of guidebook authors on its books. Not surprisingly, the publisher is furious and has posted its views about the affair. www.lonelyplanet.com/about/thomas— kohnstamm.cfm.
WHILE flying from Sydney to Singapore (for onward connections to Male), Lounge eschewed her usual movie marathon and read a fabulous novel with parallel narratives in 1920s Cairo and modern-day Normandy. TheCairoDiary by Maxim Chattam (Pan Macmillan, $22.99) is not out until July 1, so the publisher won’t thank Lounge for mentioning it so early, but it is such a terrific read and pertinent to the argument that the best travel writing isn’t just about the exploration of a destination but an intrinsic and penetrating sense of place that can often be packaged as fiction.
Chattam, a Frenchman, takes the reader through the dark, sinister streets of old Cairo and into a religious community on the rocky island of Mont Saint-Michel, skimmed by seagulls, adrift off the shore
KOHNSTAMM is a guest of the Sydney Writers Festival so all this hoopla is moneycan’t-buy publicity for his book. Lounge hasn’t read it but it looks like a rocketing tale judging by a cover blurb that promises sex in a Brazilian restaurant and a hot dose of writer’s fantasy. Lounge , who has just been in the Maldives and did nothing wilder than bunging her knee while boarding a boat, obviously goes on all the wrong media trips and could do with a course in self-promotion. www.swf.org.au.
IT has always been a mystery to Lounge why Tahir Shah, a British writer of Afghan descent who says the Shahs have been ‘‘ storytellers for more than 1000 years’’, is not better known here. He is Lounge ’ s favourite travel author and it was love at first paragraph when I discovered his of Normandy, ‘‘ a proud finger pointing towards the heavens . . . a leftover piece of Babel’’.
It is lovely writing, clear and descriptive, and Chattam maintains a cracking pace. TheCairoDiary takes a riveting seven hours (at Lounge speed), with a pause for lunch and two safety announcements. There are no raunchy waitresses in it. www.panmacmillan.com.au. hilarious Sorcerer’sApprentice . Shah comes across as a combination of Groucho Marx and Indiana Jones. When reading of his exploits across rural India or up the Amazon or in the impoverished wastes of Ethiopia, you would hardly believe such a chap could exist, let alone survive his preposterous missions.
But there are photos to prove it; in In SearchofKingSolomon’sMines , Shah is photographed in protective clothing and an unusual hat, ‘‘ straining under the weight of three newly made bars of pure Ethiopian gold’’.
His latest is InArabianNights , set in Morocco; Shah tells us how ‘‘ stories are used to pass on ideas, information and values in Morocco and across the Arab world . . . in a way that we have almost lost in the West’’.
His previous book, TheCaliph’sHouse , about settling in Casablanca with his family, is a galaxy removed from all those Tuscan-Provencal memoirs about fabulous food, twinkle-eyed tradesmen and generous neighbours that make Lounge want to drown herself in a vat of extravirgin olive oil. His Casablanca transplant involves a she-jinn named Qandisha who haunts the Shah household, strings up cats in trees and sucks raw meat through the toilet bowl. And Lounge wouldn’t give a guidebook’s toss if he made it all up. www.tahirshah.com.
FIND of the week: Orient-Express’s Hotel Cipriani in Venice turns 50 on May 28 and the first five guests to book direct through its website that day for a future stay will be charged for the first night at the 1958 rate of 8000 lire (about $6). Given that day dawns first in our part of the world, the promotion gives us a critical edge (don’t tell the New Zealanders). www.hotelcipriani.com; www.orient-express.com. ■ LOUNGE loves: The Cipriani management has gone for full half-century birthday glitter: new to its gloriously named Casanova Spa menu is a 24ct gold facial. ■ LOUNGE loathes: Slippery bare floors in airport terminals. Offenders should take note of the lavishly woven carpets in Changi’s new terminal three in Singapore (although they make those carpets in hectic swirls, which surely were never in fashion, in the other Changi terminals look rather sad).