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Hither and yon

Our favourite critic-at-large, AA Gill, launches a new book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this month. He talks with Pat Nourse about travel, writing, and his urge to get to Timbuktu.

"I wanted to call it Aussie Tucker Walkabout," says Adrian Gill. He's referring to Here & There, his latest book, a collection of stories from the last seven years of columns he has written for Gourmet Traveller. Or Aussie Tucker Walkabout, as the case may be. Gill, the London-based restaurant critic and Sunday Times features writer, visits Australia this month for the Sydney Writers' Festival. He spoke to GT's Pat Nourse ahead of his trip about travel, writing and the fine art of doing both.

Pat Nourse: You've raised the ire of some of our readers over the years; do you feel you're now mellowing in your writing, or do you consider yourself as much of a firebrand as ever?
AA Gill: "Firm but fair" is the phrase I like to use.

I was talking about this the other day, about what it is I do that perhaps might be unusual, my unique selling point. I used to think that it was that I am able to be funny, but that's really a very slight thing because I'm not very funny. It's not terribly difficult to be funny. Funny is a series of tricks, like learning how to juggle. (I'm sorry to jugglers if they think that's actually a very difficult thing to do.) What I am and what I have is that I think I'm a natural critic. There aren't many people who are. The reason is perfectly obvious: there's no upside in being a critic. There's no point to it. Being able to deconstruct what it was about your pudding that did or didn't work isn't going to improve your digestion or the pudding. So most people don't do it. They're simply happy to like things more often than they dislike things. There are very few people who have to pull the wings off the experience, and that's what I do. And I've done it all my life and I do it sort of naturally. I think that people think that's vitriolic, and I just think that's what you do.

For one of your events, you're sharing a stage with Anthony Bourdain and MasterChef's Matt Preston. Are you aware of MasterChef's success in Australia?
It's also surprisingly big here, though I must say its allure passes me by. Television has a way of making food what it isn't, which is about speed. Can you cook something in 10 minutes? And then they make it competitive, and that's the one thing food really isn't. Real cooking is all about being hospitable and inclusive and it's about everybody sitting around a table. Everybody's equal at dinner. Everybody's the same height, everybody gets to eat from the same pot. The idea that you can take food and make it competitive and adversarial and about people losing and winning rather than being together is to really fundamentally, willfully misunderstand the purpose of food over human history.

How do you go about writing about countries?
I was very aware, when I was first asked to do it, of two things. One is that I'm a very bad traveller; I'm a very frightened and nervous traveller. The other is that you'll pass through this world only once, and not to see as much of it as possible is a terrible waste. I've said this to you before, but I know when I'm lying in the hospital and they say, do you have any regrets, it won't be "not enough sex", and I don't expect it'll even be "not enough foie gras", but it may well be that I never got to Timbuktu.

For a frightened and nervous traveller, you tend to go to frightening and nerve-wracking places - Haiti, Iraq, Sudan.
That's the pathetic thing of daring yourself to do it. I look back now at some of the stories I did when I was starting and I can give myself shudders. There are times, though, when the story is both the engine and the rail that you're on; it has an impetus of its own and drags you along. When there's somewhere that's unstable or that's rioting or running amok, as a journalist you have to go and see what's gone wrong, what made it go wrong and why.

What's on your bucket list? Is there anything left?
Every time I go somewhere it throws up another five places I want to go. And then of course there's all the places you want to go back to. I'd be very sorry if I never saw Vietnam again. I'd love to go back to Tasmania. If someone told me I'd never see Rome again I'd be mortified. I travel a lot with the same photographer, Tom Craig, and we joke about the place that's the top of my list, and every year we fail to get there, and that's Congo. I adore Africa, and any year that I don't travel there I feel is empty somehow. So much of Africa's story comes back to Congo. It's the heart of Africa. And it is terribly frightening. I'd also love to go to the Central African Republic. When was the last time you read something about the Central African Republic?

What about places you're not rushing to return to?
The Stans are a bit grim. Kaliningrad, the Russian outpost on the Baltic. That's probably the shittiest place in the world. And in that sense, of course, it has an allure. I could probably quite happily not go back to Ibiza. Toronto. Can't quite see the point of Toronto.

At the risk of pre-empting the anorak who always asks this at writers' festivals, what's your process?
The one you normally get asked is "how do you write?" and then the supplementary question is "do you use a pen or a typewriter?"

In fairness, though, because of your dyslexia, your journalism isn't conducted in an exactly standard way, so that particular question has some merit.
I really came to writing in a rush when I discovered a keyboard. I've never been able to write properly; a computer keyboard was an amazing advance for me. It still doesn't mean that anyone can read what's on the screen, but I can read it, and more than anything else it reminds me of what I've written and I then read it to you, and as I read it, I edit it. Because I write in the first-person, I think it's got to sound like the first person, that it has a voice. Ideally what should happen is when you read what I've written you should hear a voice talking it to you. All first-person writing should be desiccated talk - it should be a perfect, long discursive monologue, and when you read it you add the mental liquid that brings it back to being sound, and you should hear it. That's why it's important for me to read it out loud - so I know what it sounds like, and I can tell when it's clunky or needs another word. I also think that writing is all about rhythm. It's what makes you go on.

The supplementary question there, of course, is what advice do you give to aspiring writers?
I think attention to rhythm and reading out loud are essential to what I do, but I come to what I do through a disability. All of what I know about writing comes from listening. The most important thing you can do if you want to write is listen a lot. Talk a lot and listen a lot. When I do a big travel piece or a big foreign story, I like to do it very quickly. There's a point where you lose the oddness, you lose the sense of the smell a particular place has - it becomes just the smell. You don't notice that the light switches work the other way or that the taxi drivers all listen to the same sort of music. What I deal in is the surface of things. It's all about how things look, how they smell, how they feel. Working quickly, those impressions remain intense, but I don't write them immediately. I come back and I start talking about them. I start telling the stories and as I tell them, I can immediately see when people lose interest, when they've had enough of that bit and they want to know about the next thing. I'll usually leave it about a week, and then when the writing begins, it's essentially the putting down of the stuff I've already spoken about. I'm not making any qualitative comparisons here, but I think that's how the Odyssey and the Iliad might have been written. They were spoken a long time before they were written down.

What about coming home? You travel a lot, and you must come home a lot.
If you don't come home, you're not really travelling. You're running away. You have to go away to get the distance to understand where it is you live when you come back. The country you really explore most by being away is the one you live in.

More info

Here & There: Collected Travel Writing by AA Gill is published by Hardie Grant Books ($29.95, pbk). For information on the Sydney Writers' Festival, 16-22 May, visit www.swf.org.au.

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More info

Here & There: Collected Travel Writing by AA Gill is published by Hardie Grant Books ($29.95, pbk). For information on the Sydney Writers' Festival, 16-22 May, visit www.swf.org.au.

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