Going As Far As I Can: The Ultimate Travel Book by Duncan Fallowell. Published by Profile Books, £12.99. To order, click here
Quite a few New Zealanders raged about Going As Far As I Can even before it came out, sight unseen. Premature newspaper hype about the book seemed to activate a national inferiority complex and grown men and women mutated into the green inky anony-mice. Now that it is out, can you find a copy to rage about? Amazon’s stock is currently running on empty – more to rage about - on account of high volume interest. But I’ve got a copy and I’ve read it, so here we go …
To begin with, is it a mystery tour? The front cover fails to tell you where this “ultimate travel book” wishes to take us. This is no accident, of course. Instead, a Hockney-ish sea painting - all vibrant, seductive, sunny colours - invites us to eye-stroll through a telescope suburban doorway towards an island vista. This is called glamour and NZ I’m afraid to say is one of the perceived blokes of nations. It certainly ain't London. So, can an exotic, quixotic, polysexual old-soul maverick (and a First World cultural chauvinist, by the way) like Fallowell make a fancy flash-lit red carpet of this beige-sounding land? Well, if anyone can do it, it’s fabulous Fallowell.
The death of a close friend of his gives life to the enterprise: she has left him some money in her will and, before she passes, he tells her that with it he will embark on a long-haul trip to end all long-haul trips. So off he flies - his eye alighting on the erotic tum pelt of a young male fellow passenger - and soon enough learns that in this new alien place he'll turn into a flambéd corpse without his "cancer hat".
The very novelty of new names and characters intrigues him. But, as if to jump-start his imaginative interest in NZ, he begins by perversely retracing the steps of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh on their antipodean tour of 1948 (the year of Fallowell's birth). This takes him to Auckland's hidden-away St James Theatre where they once played. His reaction to its abandonment, as his guide switches on the lights to reveal its unloved yesteryear grandeur, is like that of a bereaved mummy elephant standing forlornly over her dead calf. He trumpets his incomprehesion at the property development hell of NZ's cityscapes. This sets the mood for the entirety of the book: all in all, NZ is an architectural and cultural mess, at a loss with itself since it parted company with its parent First Worlds. (Pause to rage ... )
And for the reader, that's where the fun starts. Fallowell never writes better than when his emotions are immediately engaged - by rage, rapture, whatever. "I didn't speak for a while," he writes of his moments in the dead theatre. "It had been a long time since I was so affected by a decayed, forgotten palace ... " His capacity to feel intensely finds full expression in evocative prose that's best described as icily sulphurous: in his hands the St James Palace comes to life, full of reproach to the dull denizens outside in its baroque, unappreciated beauty; a sullen character of its own.
Thereafter he takes off in buses, trains and hire cars for a rich series of encounters and collisions with the natives. The key word here is collisions. Throw Fallowell into or against foreign situations and enjoy the resultant spectaculars! In this instance, the Maoris provoke his snobbish scorn. Advised by a pal to read some Maori writers, he samples the work of Patricia Grace but dismisses its "Plain Jane prose". Later, he dilates on the claim of racism against Maoris in NZ: the trouble with the Maoris, he writes, is that they want to have their cake and eat it: to "enjoy the fruits of prosperity while standing aloof from it." That, dangerously, leads him to forge a connection with the state of immigrant Muslims in Europe. "Prosperity is not an accident," he reminds. He writes as a man looking down, rather than as a man on an equal footing.
During one particularly bad bad hair day, he rages against New Zealanders in general: "I'm fed up with people being fat and ugly and covered in tattoos." It is this line that has infuriated the anony-mice. But the NZ media missed out the next line: "I'm fed up with my own company." Yep, it was one of those days. He was pissed off with everything.
He goes onto make even more trenchant and general observations, however: "Anyone successful appearing on radio or television repeatedly makes down-home cringes, honky-tonk obeisances to ordinariness, to prove that he or she has not got above themselves. No one is allowed to soar." Here is the cultural imperialist in full song, revelling in the joys of intellectual display and achievement. But, Duncan, you did go to Oxford. Do behave.
A journey with Duncan Fallowell - and do catch up with his brilliant To Noto and St Petersburg travel books - would not be the same without the endless discursion and distraction. His interest in New Zealander Katherine Mansfield prompts a memory of lunch with octogenarian novelist Francis King who told him he could still cock-cock without Viagra. Fallowell's search for gay stranger sex - "anything goes but no anal" - adds a primal layer to the trek: in his encounters he seeks both relief and fast-track intimacy of souls, so is forever left disappointed. He is, after all, a romantic. He half hints that the more salacious detail is being held back for another time, another book.
If you like your prose journeys literal and linear, rather than lateral and visceral, then Fallowell is not for you. Stick to the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide brands. Speaking for myself, I relished every moment of this book: it interested me in a land that had held no interest for me. Fallowell's route leaves its own flash-lit red carpet in its wake. It is the gaudiest of additions to the Thubron-Chatwin-Morris library. It left me panting for more.
To order, click here
My interview with Duncan Fallowell, click here