Objects may be closer than they appear

A good travel writer understands context; a good travel editor strives to inform.

One of the pleasures of being on holiday is picking up random books off bookshelves. I stayed at a rental apartment in Spain, in the attractive little village of Gaucin in Andalucia last week. (Regular readers will know I spent much of this summer researching for the Frommer's guide to Andalucia and I am getting to know the region well and to love it.)

The book I picked up was News from No Man's Land: Reporting the World by venerable old BBC Foreign Affairs editor John Simpson. It’s a bit old now – written as it was in 2008, but I found it fascinating, if a little verbose at times.
One section really stood out:

“If we see graphic pictures of the aftermath of a bombing... we assume the whole country is in turmoil. How many people know that you can have a superb holiday very cheaply in Sri Lanka and never even hear the distant sound of gunfire? Who knows that Colombia has some of the most beautiful resorts in South America? Who appreciates the sensational qualities of Iran as a country to travel around? Fortunately, for those of us who know the reality about these countries, not many...

Whilst the news writer looks for the extremes and reports them as overtly as possible to grab attention and keep it, for a serious travel writer I’d argue that context is utterly crucial. For a travel feature to be proper and appropriate, the context of the destination in question needs to be properly understood by the writer.

There are many times I have chosen NOT to write about a particular incident because I felt it was unrepresentative of the place as a whole and would offer a totally incorrect perspective.

Here’s a really great example from one of the most bizarre and memorable trips I have ever done:
I did a backpacker bus trip in the middle of dark, freezing winter from St Petersburg to Moscow in 1999 and wrote it up for the Guardian. You’ll see if you click the link to the piece... there’s no mention of anyone being mugged at gunpoint. This happened to Kylie on the first night. Nor do I describe how Janelle one of the other girls got so obliterated on vodka that she fell over, gashed her cheek so badly we could see her teeth through the hole it left and had to be stitched up in a scary local hospital – complete with cats wandering around the corridors.

Should I have done?

I don’t think so. Not because the Guardian wouldn’t have published it (though they may well not have done), nor because the tour operator would have hated me forever (quite possible, though I do know him well and he and his company are excellent). But because I know Russia quite well. I’ve been there, plenty. And whilst it’s a crazy place at times, you are highly unlikely to get hospitalised or mugged. No more so than in New York or London in my opinion. And... I believe my opinion is pertinent because I know Russia: I can give the points I make context. The newswriter would quite possibly have pushed the gory details about mugging and injury right to the top of their piece. After all, it's just news... a snapshot.

Simpson continues a little later on the same theme - kind of echoing this:

“The real problem with journalism is its selectivity. We separate out the interesting from the dull until every column inch is filled with exceptional cases... yet this selectivity can produce serious distortion... we could of course insert regular warnings, along the lines of ‘objects may be closer than they appear’ disclaimers on rear-view mirrors; but the best policy, it seems to me, is to inform people better, more often and at greater length about the world they live in.”

In other words, if everyone was as familiar as I am with Russia, they'd know that what happened on that trip was freakish. Out of context. And if that was the case, then I could have written about it.

This second quote I think also offers insight for travel editors. For them the temptation and pressure from their ad teams to just keep the features focussed on the good old favourites that lots of people want to visit and lots of companies wnat to buy ad space around is increasingly intense in these difficult financial times. But if we take our regular readers seriously as editors we should be prepared to feature the less popular places specifically for this need for balance.

As Simpson puts it to inform people better, more often and at greater length about the world they live in.

That’s a wonderfully laudable aim.

Do you think that the net is killing off these hugely valuable basic principles?

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