In his book The Angry Island, travel writer and globetrotter A.A Gill stays much closer to home, discovering what makes the English tick
A.A Gill: I’ve always been an admirer of Rudyard Kipling and his line: ‘And what should they know of England who only England know?’ In other words, you only get a proper perspective when you’re not there.
I was in Cape Town and a taxi driver asked me: “Is England like this?” Now, you couldn’t pick a place less like England, so I had to say no. But when he then asked me: “What is England like?” I really had no answer, and that was the moment it began.
You describe the book as ‘a collection of prejudice’, and you do give the English a pretty rough ride in it.
A.A Gill: Yes, it’s an opinion. But you have to accept that a nation is defined by its national characteristics. Of all the peoples of Europe, the English are the most difficult to read. If the other nations are the cheeses, the English are the chalk.
I mean, the term ‘stiff upper lip’ would mean nothing anywhere else in the world, except maybe in Japan. Actually, the English have more in common with the Japanese than they realise.
You’re particularly fond of Africa. Why?
A.A Gill: The first time I went to sub-Saharan Africa, it wasn’t what I expected at all; it was sordid, unpleasant, and the place looked like God’s dustbin. There I met an old Afrikaaner, a bitter man who’d lost his farm and his family.
At the end of the day, I was sitting against a tree, feeling utterly miserable, and the guy came up to me, and said: “You’re falling in love.” Now, no emotion could have been further from my mind, but he went on: “You’re falling in love with this country; this is where we all came from, and you’ve come home.” That night I found myself feeling really excited, and I thought: the old bastard’s right.
Every collection of five Englishmen needs a foreigner to stop it becoming a social health hazard’. What do you mean by that?
A.A Gill: Americans abroad will cross a six-lane highway on the chance of meeting another American; English people will change hotels to avoid each other. It’s in their nature that they bring out the worst in each other.
You were born in Scotland, but people assume you’re English.
A.A Gill: Yes, and it’s a terrible cross to bear! I’ve always felt like an outsider here, and I always felt more Scottish than anything. Edinburgh is the one city that makes me sigh with longing whenever I go there.
Would you describe yourself as a born traveller?
A.A Gill: I’m actually a very bad traveller. I never went anywhere on my own until I was 40. But, in this country anyway, it’s in our nature to travel; we all need decent weather. In fact, I often wonder exactly what the Spanish are looking for when they go on holiday.
My father travelled quite a bit, and I got that sense of romance from his absence. His return was always a great event, and he’d bring back all sorts of artefacts, sculptures and pots. There is always that Odyssean aspect to it; in the end, one travels in order to come home.
Advice for budding travel writers?
A.A Gill: You should travel to see people, you should never imagine that you’re going to become a local, and you should go with as few preconceptions as possible; they’re the death of travel. Also, never underestimate the power of simply sitting and watching; that’s pretty much what I do.
What’s the worst place you’ve ever been to?
A.A Gill: Stow-on-the-Wold! Kaliningrad is quite possibly just as bad, but at least it knows it’s halfway round the U-bend. Stow, for some reason, thinks it’s fucking brilliant.
What’s your favourite stamp in your passport?
A.A Gill: I suppose that I should say something like “the one that I’m going to get next week”, but I’ve just been in Iraq and I was more than happy to get the exit stamp.