It’s easy to succumb to the holiday reading obsession. Choosing the most appropriate books for your summer break and making sure things won’t be tarnished by bad choices. Has a holiday ever been ruined by a bad book? I’m not sure, but I think I probably would have enjoyed the South of France more five years ago without a copy of The Line of Beauty. And I may have brought back better memories of Cyprus without Brick Lane. This year I holidayed in Turkey for the first time since 2004 where I enjoyed Birds Without Wings by Louis Louis de Bernières. Would this year’s choices be as good at that, or would I succumb to another dose of the Hollinghursts?
So perhaps best to get Turkey’s turkeys out of the way. After deciding to give Orhan Pamuk’s Snow another chance I confess to abandoning the book for a second time. I’d fancied an appropriate read for Turkey, but confess that this is a writer I cannot contend with. The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw looked like an intriguing read but rapidly turned into a tedious and far from involving novel.
As for the two books I picked up second hand before departing, I didn’t touch them at all. Don’t Tell Me the Truth About Love by Dan Rhodes was left in a villa somewhere near Fethiye whilst I donated David Nicholls’ The Understudy to family members. Two of them read it and enjoyed it thoroughly, so it was good to pass on a good read.
Falling into the middle category was The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene. I enjoy Greene, but somehow this didn’t suit poolside reading at all. This faintly depressing novel didn’t fit the air of frivolity, and Greene’s gloom would be far suited to the current wet climate as I peer through the office window.
There were only two winning books for this summer holiday.
C is Tom McCarthy’s follow up to Remainder, my holiday best for 2008. Remainder was a real literary treat, a book that managed to be refreshingly original, clever and compelling. C is also very good, although I found that McCarthy was moving into the David Mitchell territory of cleverness. It attempts to tackle very big issues; the nature of communication, real and artificial networks, Man’s misalignment with nature until it’s far too late. The book has some excellent passages that make it a must, the best being the chapters set during the First World War that portrays the conflict from the unusual angle of a plane. Highly recommended, although McCarthy appears to have lost the sense of humour that make Remainder so addictive.
My best holiday read is also likely to be my novel of the year and comes from an unusual source. Thomas Pynchon doesn’t usually suggest light summer reading. However his most recent book, Inherent Vice is possibly his most accessible novel to date. Set in California at the end of the 60s this is a mix of detective fiction, brilliant comedy and a wry observation of the era. It centres around a hippy private eye known as “Doc” and his investigation into a missing property magnate, although his movements take increasingly weird and wild twists and turns.
What’s so good about Inherent Vice is that the elements are all strong enough to work independently; remove the trademark Pynchon humour and there is still an intriguing and well executed crime story beneath. And whilst the book is full of crazy yet well observed characterisations (rarely for me I regularly laughed out loud when reading this) it is canny enough to hold California circa 1969 (let us not forget that this was the awful Manson era) at arm’s length. My book of the year. An absolute must.
Books in the family circle that I couldn’t get my hands on included Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd, Fool’s Alphabet by Sebastian Faulks and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, although my good lady informs me that this was a disappointing read. So I might save them for next year.
Australia Part Four
Saturday September 12, 2009
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To recap, the Australian adventure started in Sydney, followed by a detour to Cairns and a flight out to Dunk Island. Returning to Cairns, an hour’s bus ride to Port Douglas, then a short diversion to the Great Barrier Reef and Cape Tribulation. Cairns to Brisbane, and from there to Fraser Island.
Here’s a view of Brisbane taken from something they have that’s similar to London’s Millenium Wheel. In fact this part of Brisbane has many similarities to London, with its own South Bank, although there are some idiosyncratic riverside attractions including a man made beach. What spoils Brisbane is the cavalier approach to motorways and bridge building; you can see from the photograph the busy highway running along the opposite side of the river, a nightmare during a rush hour that never ceases.
Brisbane’s tourist attractions include water parks (looking very empty as we drove past – although remember that the kids are at school in Australia throughout August) and Movie World. This is a theme park similar to California’s Universal Studios, although much smaller and in this case masterminded by Warner Brothers. Like Universal Studios, Movie World tends to cling on to attractions celebrating long forgotten or unpopular films. In California I remember being treated to the Backdraft experience (a terrible film about firemen with Robert de Niro) and the Back to the Future Ride (more than a decade after the film’s release). While Warner Brothers are safe in their investment of Batman and Superman, there’s more of a blindingly obvious problem with the Wild West ride (dismal Will Smith vehicle from a decade ago).
My enjoyment of Movie World was dimmed by tiredness and the amount of Japanese visitors with their camcorders (I caught one of them enthusiastically filming the menu in the Bat Burger Bar). I was a little more geared up for the Australian Experience. This is an extravaganza where guests are compelled to wear straw stetsons and sit in either “red” or “yellow” opposing teams to cheer, whoop and do Mexican waves. Oddly, the majority of team members appeared to be locals. There is a photo of me, which I won’t share, where I resemble an extra from Deliverance.
The drive to take the ferry to Fraser Island is five hours from Brisbane. It’s worth it to see this extraordinary place, a rain forest on an island completely made up of sand. The three day visit was quite intense, including a full day tour of the island (it’s huge) and a morning spent whale watching (another activity spoilt by trigger happy camcorder users – it’s amazing that no small children were nudged off the boat in the making of their home movies).
Island tours are by four wheel drive, the only possible means of transport around Fraser Island. Our driver and guide was a highly informative Australian called Alan, doing the job for many years and a presence I imagine has always been on the island (on returning I was chatting to a colleague who’d visited several years ago. He asked “did you get Alan?” Fact). Unlike the majority of holiday tours, this one was interesting, amusing and I learnt a great deal. And despite the rather rocky rhythm of the tour bus (giving the more violent rides at Movie World a run for their money) I did not succumb to motion sickness.
Like mainland Australia, Fraser Island has gone a little crazy in Dingo awareness. I have a soft spot for the dingo, although alas I did not spot any outside of a zoo. There are warnings not to feed or encourage them (hey dingo, fancy a barbecue?), although they are quite scarce on Fraser. The history of this creature is quite fascinating. More wolf than dog (they howl but cannot bark – although the less pure variety are dog/dingo hybrids), they were originally brought to Australia thousands of years ago by migrant fisherman. The idea was to provide an easy supply of ready food should the fishing go belly up. The Aboriginals semi-domesticated the animals, using them to hunt, and were responsible for bringing them to Fraser Island. But the dominance of the white man brought trouble; dingos became reliant on man, feeding from rubbish tips, being fed, becoming scavengers, eventually becoming aggressive when the supplies of food were not forthcoming. In recent decades Fraser Island has attempted to rehabilitate the dingo, removing the opportunity for them to scavenge and slowly allowing them to become natural hunters again. Unfortunately this doesn’t appear to be an Australian-wide policy, and the animals continue to be a danger to the modern man that changed their behaviour in the first place.
The Aussie adventure ended with a brief return to Brisbane before flying back to Blighty. The returning jetlag is a killer, I have only just recovered, but it was still worth it. And it’s really only half a world away…
Australia Part Three
Monday September 7, 2009
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So onto Port Douglas, which is something of a return to reality after Dunk Island but still retaining a holiday sleepiness. And it’s hot. Really hot. The sand is so scorching at Port Douglas that it is unwise to walk across it with bare feet. Foolish as I am, I found myself running across it screaming a foolish remark about ‘hot coals’. Unfortunately I also became seriously menaced by mozzies for the first time during my visit to Australia.
Port Douglas is an interesting mix of retired couples sauntering around and young people in bars, who appear unable to resist the urge to pick up a guitar and sing. I have a particularly disturbing memory of a version of Dock of the Bay that must have had Otis Redding turning in his grave. Port D has a couple of interesting bookshops, and a few internet cafes that range from onstreet booths to ice cream stores who have the audacity to charge for the privilege of using their IE6.
During our I stay we hired a car and drove up to Port Tribulation, although were unwisely equipped for what I would call four wheel drive country. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the drive and we managed to take in a river trip (seeing some very sorry looking crocs) and some boardwalked rainforest. All quite brief as next stop was Brisbane.
Australia Part Two
Monday August 31, 2009
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Actually I forgot to mention the jetlag that comes with a visit to the other side of the world. If you are prepared to get up very early, say 3am, and go to bed at a modest hour, say 8pm, then the jetlag isn’t an issue. And I find that the timeshift allows for some good quality, dream free sleeps, with those early hours perfect for quiet reading or frequenting otherwise sleepy internet cafes. A trip to Australia shouldn’t be any less than two weeks, because it takes that long to get back to normal sleeping and waking.
After Sydney our destination was Dunk Island, named by Captain Cook after his friend the Earl of Sandwich (who, as we all know, invented the sandwich). It was also home to E.J. Banfield, who penned Confessions of a Beachcomber (although not, I must add, an Australian romp from the 1970s starring Robin Asquith but something far more sober). Dunk is situated just off the Cairns coast and is accessible by 10 seater plane, a type of transport exciting for children but memorably grim for timid adults such as myself who tend to hang on to their hats and convince themselves they are in a brief sequence from an Indiana Jones film. It’s a 30 minute flight, with breathtaking views if you can bear to open your eyes.
Guests are flown directly to Dunk Island’s holiday resort, where you are constantly fed until bursting point although it must be added that the service by young Australian twenty-somethings is a little haphazard. It’s almost as if a prolonged stay on the island dulls your senses. Activities are divided between doing nothing, following one of several island walks and water pursuits. For the very first time I went snorkelling and, garbed in a comforting lifejacket, did fairly well. I also surprised myself by taking command of a small motorboat (or “tinny” as the locals corrected me) for some light sailing.
In my opinion six days and nights on a tropical island is just about right (I don’t know how Robinson Crusoe lasted so long without going doolally). It’s a great break, but one longs for some return to civilisation. Which will be the subject of my next post…
Australia Part One
Sunday August 30, 2009
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Although I’d heard horror stories about the nineteen hour flight to Australia I can safely confirm that it was a breeze. Twelve hours from Heathrow to Singapore is dulled by video on demand, and a menu of Star Trek, Watchmen, The Boat That Rocked and In the Loop made it literally fly by. Less attractive was the amount of babies on our flight, who were less impressed with the in-flight entertainment.
Singapore is a brief changeover, allowing for smokers and those in need of a more quality toilet. The flight from Singapore to Sydney is a mere six hours, hardly anything for those now seasoned in long haul flights, although I made this part of the journey hard for myself by having a glass of wine and attempting to understand Scorsese’s The Departed. No matter. Before I knew it we had landed in Sydney.
Despite being ripped off by a taxi driver, my impression of Sydney was not blighted. It’s a beautiful city. Just emerging bleary eyed from the Australian winter, the mornings are cool and sunny with days of brilliant sunshine and clear blue sky. And no insects to annoy, this really is my idea of a perfect winter. Our hotel was well situated, within walking distance of the harbour and we took in the obvious Opera House and ferry tours, where the Aussie guides relished in their terrible tales of shark attacks. True, there hasn’t been a fatality from a shark attack since the early 60s, but there have been plenty of what I’d describe as near misses, such as the diver who lost a hand recently (or a foot, or both – depending on who you listen to).
As with all my visits to major cities, I seek out the highest buildings – in Sydney’s case a rather impressive sky tower that offers an amazing view of the rather attractive surrounding area. The aquarium is also worth a visit, and if you’re feeling adventurous I also recommend a trip out to the Blue Mountains (renewing its fame recently with the saga of the lost British backpacker).
Alas my time in Sydney was all too brief, but there are greater adventures to come…