John Gimlette

john gimletteReal research may not bear this out, but it would seem that the claustrophobic British Isles produce more than their fair share of inveterate travelers and adventurous writers. These days, Rory Stewart, Adam Nicolson and not least John Gimlette are the standard bearers. Gimlette’s pregrinations began as a teenager when he crossed the Soviet Union by train. Since then, he has visited over 60 countries. John’s first book, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, recounting his time in Paraguay, was accurately reviewed as a "vivid, riotous journey into the heart of South America." His next book, Theatre of Fish, motivated in part by his great grandfather’s travels there, is set in the bleak and amiably idiosyncratic Atlantic provinces of Canada—Newfoundland and Labrador—and was published late last year. Of that tome The Chicago Tribune reported, "One of the most eccentric places in the world. Gimlette describes the province’s often desolate landscape and its colorful history. But most of all he revels in the people themselves." And as he tells it below, he is presently working on a book that retraces a wartime journey through the heart of Europe: France, Germany and Austria, after which he plans a book on Cuba. John Gimlette regularly contributes to a number of British newspapers, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian as well as Conde Nast Traveller and Wanderlust. And he practices law in London, where he lives with his wife and infant daughter, Lucy.

The conversation that follows is as peripatetic as Gimlette’s journeys and as congenial and good natured as his books—and therein we get an acute sense of the characterological aspects of what is alleged to be a dying breed—the travel writer. We, by the way, don’t buy it—the dying breed stuff, that is.

Robert Birnbaum: What brings you to Boston?

John Gimlette: I’m over here researching book number three. This time I am back in Europe. I am traveling through France, Germany, and Austria, following the trail of a friend of mine.

RB: How traditional.

JG: [chuckles] A friend of mine in Boston, he is 87, and he fought his way along the same route that we are now taking. He and I have done the journey again.

RB: You are talking about World War II?

JG: Yeah, it’s his first return in sixty years. And he still imagines France is still burning and still full of dead people.

RB: It is still burning [referring to the riots taking place].

JG: But we went back, and it’s been a very cathartic experience for him—to actually enjoy it for the first time.

RB: Whose idea was this retracing?

JG: We met at a dinner party in London, and I said, “Have you been to Europe before?” He said, “Yeah” and explained [that] it was 60 years ago, and the penny dropped and I said, “Would you like to do it again?”

RB: How progressive of you, being in London and asking him if he had been to Europe before—actually suggesting the reality of Britain being part of Europe.

JG: Yes, I am of the generation that increasingly does [both laugh]. I am certainly very pro-Europe.

RB: Are you accepted by your friends?

JG: I think so. People my age and younger do think much more towards Europe. We have to fill the gap sometime—we can’t think we are an empire any longer [laughs] after all—

RB: At what point does the issue break—along what ages?

JG: My parents don’t think about Europe at all. The Continent is somewhere else. And they call it the Continent—to reflect, they are no real part of it.

RB: How do they refer to the United States?

JG: They probably feel closer to the U.S. They feel America came to our rescue in the war and all that sort of thing. And for their generation the war still goes on. We still save food and little bits get scraped off and boiled out the next day.

RB: [laughs]

JG: We call it “war spirit” in our family.

RB: I am of the generation that believes that England came to the aid of the U.S. in WW II. Anyway, have you been here before?

JG: Yeah, I came on a rugby tour here—to North Carolina—twenty years ago when I was at Cambridge, and it created a very false impression of the States in some ways.

RB: Because North Carolina is not representative?

JG: It was lovely, but we were in fairly out-of-the-way places it felt like. Our friends took us off in to the country to meet their parents, and we were left with the false impression that everyone ate grits. And that everywhere was dry.

RB: And that everyone was nice and courtly?

JG: [laughs] We were at Chapel Hill-land; we went out to farms to stay with people’s parents and stuff like that.

People my age and younger do think much more towards Europe. We have to fill the gap sometime—we can’t think we are an empire any longer after all.

RB: Why did you study law?

JG: Originally I wanted to be a diplomat, and by attrition I started giving up that idea. The idea of working for the British Foreign Service—it fell apart and—

RB: You considered being a diplomat for other countries?

JG: No, no. The United Nations was the thing I wanted to work for. Like the United Nations Commission for Refugees is what I was interested in. And then people said if you do that you’ll hit glass ceilings all the time, because you are not Ghanian or Nigerian and that’s the way to progress though a multinational organization like that. In any event, they said do five years’ legal experience and come back. And after five years I decided to stay where I was. So I am really an accidental lawyer.

RB: Any other career possibilities when you were young? Had you considered anything else?

JG: No, diplomacy was what I wanted to do. From really quite an early age and I think I had a false impression that diplomacy equals travel. Well, it doesn’t necessarily. I am sure you have met diplomats; they probably travel far less than you do. Okay, they get to know a place very intensely—sometimes only the capitol city.

RB: You don’t think it’s true over the length of their careers? But I guess not in the fun-loving way I am sure you are thinking.

JG: Exactly. Or they don’t travel to get close to the ground, you might say, mixing only in government circles and so on.

RB: Had you considered being a travel agent?

JG: [both laugh] I don’t want to sell other people trips! I want to be there!

RB: Do you call yourself a travel writer?

JG: For want of a better description, I suppose I do.

RB: There are some who are called travel writers who hate that category. I understand this, as in this country travel writers tend to be writers for periodicals who end up sounding like travel agents.

JG: Travel journalists. I would call them and travel writers—

RB: Who is in that category? Bruce Chatwin? He’s dead. Paul Theroux? He more writes fiction.

JG: Lawrence Millman is a favorite writer of mine. He did a travels on the trail of the Vikings. I am embarrassed because I can’t remember the title [among 11 books: Our Like Will Not Be There Again, Northern Latitudes, Last Places, An Evening Among Headhunters, and Lost in the Arctic] and I just read it recently. Amongst other places it took in Newfoundland. So that’s how I came across it. And it’s beautiful writing. I gather he is very popular, slightly less well known in Britain.

RB: Then there are people like Peter Mayles—

JG: That’s more about lifestyle, living abroad. It’s about buying a donkey and house in south France, and that’s a slightly different thing. A very popular genre but that’s not quite my thing.

RB: Who else? I guess I should mention Jonathan Raban, who hates being called a travel writer.

JG: Would he?

RB: Yes, he has said it to me.

JG: There is a whole genre of funny travel writers—that’s very popular. There’s Bill Bryson and people who follow that route and sell travel writing through making people laugh. It’s a very difficult group to take. The line between comedy and mockery is sometimes a bit thin.

RB: Adam Nicolson, who doesn’t mind being called a travel writer, and [who] thought the authentic and enjoyable posture was to act like a bumbling stumbler who knows nothing and is informed as he goes along.

JG: Benedict Allen does that. He gives you the impression that he hasn’t done any research at all, and I am sure he has. And when he is off doing his ice dogs and that sort of thing—and therefore its not only an exploration of the place but also his imagination in a sense. It’s very successful as technique.

RB: The publisher who puts out Best American Stories has in the last four years put out Best American Travel Writing, and the recent edition was guest edited by Jamaica Kincaid, a wonderful writer. She tried to define a travel writer and talked about two things: curiosity and a sense of displacement. I’m thinking, isn’t that necessary for all good writing?

JG: And why is this so often regarded as a dying genre. A lot of people say it’s dead, anyway.

RB: I have an answer. There is a misperception bordering on myth that the world—that the wild places—are gone. And that because we know the names of so many places and the cliché is always in the fore, that the world is small. That there is no reason for travel writing. Maybe we should make a list of obscure places to be written about [laughs].

JG: It’s funny that you should say that because I slightly feel, having written Paraguay and Newfoundland—and both of them have developed eccentricities through isolation—I am quite relieved to be back in France and Germany, and I want people to enjoy these books for the writing and not because they feel they can laugh—some will laugh—at these eccentric places, that’s not what I intend.

RB: Really?

JG: Yeah.

RB: The humor is accidental?

JG: I want people to laugh with me and Paraguay and Newfoundland, but I don’t want to laugh at them. I hope in both books at the end of the day you come across with the impression that I really admire both of these places. For very different reasons. In both places people rise despite everything—both are pretty tough environments.

RB: I have a bias—I enjoyed the Paraguay book more. I favor Latin culture. And I thought of Garcia Marquez as a journalist looking at Paraguay, these real and wacky people. And the history, that Irishwoman Eliza Lynch—

JG: It is a gift, and you realize as soon as you cross the border into Paraguay, as I did, the first time in ’82, that you are in a sort of wonderland. Nothing is quite right: the buildings, they’ve got their own architecture, their own language; and everything is just a little bit off key. And so are [chuckles] the people. Delightfully so. But they are.

john gimletteRB: Additionally, you mentioned that American ambassador was a weirdo of weirdos. He is at some costume party which appears to be the singular act of sanity he performed.

JG: Yes, that’s right. He was a printer from Illinois, and he was made into a diplomat ultimately. That tradition still carries on the in the U.S. Foreign Service.

RB: Yes, indeed.

JG: You are an appointee rather than a career diplomat. Paraguay has had a U.S. supermarket boss as its ambassador for a while. He did the job well. He was there because he wanted to be there. Rather than the British diplomat who didn’t want to be there.

RB: He no doubt thought it was the end of his career. He could have fomented a war as in Our Man In Havana.

JG: [laughs]

RB: In the Inflatable Pig there was a sense in which the edge was taken off treachery of the Stroessner dictatorship by humor. People were hurt and disappeared and the wars were terrible—another thing you mention that these were the worst wars in South America. You didn’t elaborate.

JG: Yeah, the first war, the 1865–1870, was the bloodiest war mankind has ever known. It is in the sense that 80% of the population was killed. Next, after that, was Poland in the Second World War, with 20% of the population killed. So Paraguay will probably hold that record for many, many years to come. Hopefully, forever. The next one, the war in 1932, the Chaco War, was the bloodiest war in the Western Hemisphere. With 80,000 killed.

RB: So two out of three of the worst wars ever fought—

JG: I mean, there haven’t been many wars in the Western Hemisphere in the twentieth century, but—

RB: Well, those that did take place were in the South, amongst what the U.S. looked upon as banana republics. When you have spent a certain amount of time in Paraguay, which you return to a number of times over the years, and then Newfoundland after the books are published—which are the result of these travels—what happens to your sense of those places? Are you done with them?

JG: I’ll always love Paraguay. It’s this most exotic place configured out of the imagination, the whole country. I’ll always love it. Similarly, Newfoundland. I have been back since publishing the book. Paraguay will always be a special place in my heart. I go back a long way. I first arrived as a refugee in 1982 from the Falklands War. So it was a safe haven then, and it has become something exotic since then. I feel like I’d like the dust to settle a little bit before going back.

RB: What dust?

JG: Well, because the Inflatable Pig has made its way to admittedly only to be read by a wafer-thin segment of society. But I’d rather go back at a time when my name is no longer known. There would be people from that wafer-thin segment of society who would perhaps know who I am.

RB: And they haven’t taken kindly to your book?

JG: Some would, and some have emailed me wanting to add stories of their own. Others, and there is a very strong element of Stroessneristas—people who support Stroessner or who think Lopez was a wonderful savior of the country and Americans and British have been getting at him ever since he died in 1970—and people will write me long emails describing me as a moron and an idiot because I have not understood Lopez. These are real green-ink letters with lots of underlining and capitals. And they are not loonies; these are people who represent a certain aspect of society.

RB: What an oddity—my understanding of Uruguay is that it’s a wonderful country that sadly suffered a brief period of derangement. Argentina is a cauldron of contradictions—

JG: Buenos Aires is my favorite city. I think it’s fantastic—but is a troubled, sort of psychologically troubled city.

RB: Because they haven’t gotten over their European roots and don’t really think they are Latin Americans?

JG: They are 40% Sicilian-Argentines, whereas Paraguayans have no Italian blood and are half Guarani [Indian] blood. And the Chileans call themselves “the English of South America,” which actually couldn’t be further from the truth.

RB: Aren’t there a lot of Germans there?

JG: Far more Germans; there are not many English at all. They call it that just to show they are not Sicilian? And Brazil is in a different category again. So you have these neighboring countries which are ethnically so different. Argentina is really in a different category because they butchered all their Indian or indigenous people in the war of the desert in 1850s. Which sets them aside from their neighbors in a macabre way.

RB: What is it you like about Buenos Aires?

JG: It’s like Havana with this sort of shambling, 1950s look to it all. It’s very grand and passionate about its music and it’s full of surprises. The whole place.

RB: You have been to Havana also?

JG: Oh yeah.

RB: And have you written about that?

JG: No. I’m planning on it at some stage in the future.

RB: Because?

JG: I have a nice little idea from some people I met there who are now in their seventies, and I want to tell their story about the revolution through the eyes of musicians, in fact. The ’59 Revolution. And what has happened to them since. It’s very much a Cuban story. They haven’t fared too well.

I want people to laugh with me and Paraguay and Newfoundland, but I don’t want to laugh at them. I hope in both books at the end of the day you come across with the impression that I really admire both of these places. For very different reasons.

RB: These guys are not of the rediscovered Buena Vista Social Club group?

JG: No, no, no—they’re just jazz musicians who play revolutionary Cuban jazz. And play beautifully.

RB: The musicians there are amazing. Literature and music seems to be genetically gifted to each generation. They have great trumpet players. Great writers—and the pianists are great.

JG: What I really like about Cuba is that you can go into a local bar in a provincial town and you’ll get jazz played at the highest standard—played often a cappella, or certainly with no amplification or whatever. Even if you are not knowledgeable about music, and I am not, you can find yourself really enjoying it. It’s amazing. Like me and perhaps many other Americans, we gave perhaps ambivalent feelings towards it. I am no apologist for Fidel’s regime. It is, after all, a totalitarian regime. So I would like to see that change. But I wouldn’t like to see Cuba change in other ways. And the trouble is when Fidel does go—I am sure he will at some stage. He will probably be replaced by some sort of Western capitalism, ultimately.

RB: I was an apologist for the triumphant revolution—through my immature years—as much as a contrarian reaction to the specious reactionaries who opposed him. I was impressed with the claims about literacy and medial care.

JG: Yeah, hopefully validly.

RB: Now, of course, I understand what the price has been for the Fidel’s stewardship and lack of freedom—

JG: It’s come at a terrible human cost, hasn’t it?

RB: One question that I would like answered is, “What if Cuba had continued to be controlled by Batista and his ilk?” It’s not like the U.S. supported progressive regimes that were good for the countries—the Dominican, Nicaragua, Guatemala—what would China have been like without Mao, or the Soviet Union without Lenin? The other thing is the urgency that people express about going to Cuba before Fidel’s death as if Cuba will go through a radical transformation—become a Western theme park. That so disrespects the Cuban ability to synthesize and create anew and to turn anything into something Cuban. If it becomes Disneyland, it will be a Cuban Disneyland.

JG: I have real fears for Cuba based on the South American experience. Where you have had such a stern regime, as Fidel’s, there is no culture of politics. There are no young people who know how to debate, who know how to vote, and who know how to persuade people to vote. And you have seen this in Paraguay and they are reaping the harvest now of fifty years of dictatorship.

RB: They had no tradition of democracy before. Their politics were as fractious and authoritarian as anyone’s, so they didn’t have that.

JG: Their introduction to politics may end up being like when McDonald’s opened up in Moscow—I happened to be there when it opened and wandered in. And the Russians were queuing three times around the block to get in. And when they got to the head of the queue, they’d go, “I’ll have a Big Mac please. Have you the cheese and the rolls? And do you have the meat and do you have the salad?” And everybody asks this because they are so used to things being awful that it took them a quarter of an hour to order a Big Mac.

RB: You do journalism for magazines as well. Do you pitch story ideas or—

JG: I’ll find something I like the sound of and I’ll go to the magazine or paper and ask them if they want it. And on the whole I tend to prefer traveling in the Third World countries. Like Ethiopia. Or Eritrea.

RB: Unless I have missed it, American newspapers don’t seem to have interesting travel coverage. Mostly the service-oriented stuff—where your type of writing finds people as the entry point into a new place.

JG: There is a very big difference between American and British travel journalism, and that’s this whole business of the assisted or freebie trip. In Britain we are unashamed about any travel company paying for you to go and then writing about it. That’s the only way we can do it. But I have tried the same in the States, and I can’t write for any sizeable American newspaper because they tell you to do it on this basis. And therefore you are tainted, and you are not going to provide the right sort of integrity, and so on. I find that very curious. It never stops me from saying what I want to say about Ethiopia, the fact that a tour company is paid for me to go there. Book reviewers don’t pay for the books they review.

RB: And movie reviewers go on junkets and are at the mercy of publicists to get interviews with stars, and they are not going to get them if they are known as hatchet men.

JG: I don’t therefore know how to write for the big papers. It must be kids—students—and retired people. And the reality is they are overwhelmed with people sending in their holiday stories and bits and pieces and so on.

RB: Have you a list of places that you would add to Paraguay and Newfoundland and Labrador?

JG: I have to be careful not to visit one place right after the other and write one book after the other. Because I fear writing the same book all over again. That’s why I am taking a break and doing something different this time. But other places that I would be very interested in writing about are Eritrea and the Horn of Africa, which is an extraordinary community. Orissa, which a state in India, on the east side of India, and it’s very tribal and mountainous—south of Calcutta. And the people there are of Polynesian origin, very different to mainstream India.

RB: What about Kerala?

JG: I’ve never been there. I’ve tried to get there, but it’s always been sort of wrong for one reason or another.

RB: Someone had told me it is an odd amalgam of Communism and Buddhism.

JG: India, to some extent, courses through my blood. My father was brought up there, and my grandfather served there, and so on. We have a very strong family affinity for the place.

RB: Is another aspect of British writing that inevitably all British authors will turn out at least one travel book? There seems to be a great respect and appreciation for the genre.

JG: I’m not sure about that.

RB: Even Graham Greene wrote one travel book. Orwell…

JG: Yeah, sure, but American travel writing is very healthy. I’m always flicking through the reviews and I see plenty of travel writing—and an impressive line up and continual demand. And the Banff Mountain [Book] Festival attracts this huge number of travel writers. Whereas when I go to literary festivals…

RB: Do you have any inclination to write anything other than the kind of books you have been writing?

JG: I’d like to write fiction. Perhaps at some stage.

RB: No!

JG: I haven’t quite got the courage to make that plunge at the moment. It takes a certain amount of courage. In the sense that I feel better off doing what I know how to do. I feel a strong element of fictional style in travel writing anyway. Some call it creative nonfiction.

RB: That notion is variously received in the States. A lot of the material comes from your interior—it’s not like you are giving an objective rendering of the facts. A lot of the characters in both books could be fictional. Which wouldn’t take away from them at all.

JG: I hope it’s a fifty-fifty mix of history and factual, and then me. But I think one should express opinions and these books are relatively opinionated. They would be a bit dry without it.

RB: Why do the British call fiction “the senior service”?

john gimletteJG: I don’t know that one at all.

RB: An American quoted it to me.

JG: It makes a lot of sense, the way publishing works. It does imply there is something superior about the way fiction works.

RB: What fiction do you read?

JG: Kate Atkinson. Bruce Chatwin as well. Scott Fitzgerald. I adore him.

RB: How about other contemporary Brits?

JG: I have dipped into Ian McEwan and so on. I tend not to stick with one writer. But I dip in here and there.

RB: Have you read Louis De Bernieres’ Birds Without Wings?

JG: Not yet.

RB: A wonderful and charming book. Talk about travel—

JG: I so enjoyed his South American books. He is an incredible writer. A very tough act to follow, from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

RB: Too bad it was so badly rendered in the movie version.

JG: It got so badly reviewed that I didn’t bother. He came out with that lovely quote after Corelli: “The pressure of trying to write a second bestseller [is like] standing in Trafalgar Square and being told to get an erection in the rush hour.”

RB: He’s a funny guy.

JG: He’s a delightful, down-to-earth individual.

RB: As opposed to other obsessed writers who just seem to punish themselves. Birds Without Wings is a kind of Anatolian travelogue. He, like Jim Crace, makes stuff up, but it’s all so plausible.

JG: Being a semi-traveler, or travel writer like all of us, you do that. One does have to learn to travel with a degree of humility and that reflected in writing and personality. Certainly he has that.

RB: How often are you out on travels?

JG: It varies. Next year will be a busy year, writing. This year I have done a lot of travel in Austria and walking through Germany and so on.

RB: Walking through Germany?

JG: As I mentioned, I like to travel quite close to the ground.

RB: That’s close

JG: So it’s all walking, and it’s all staying in very cheap hotels. I will go to Paris for a week and set myself a budget of $150.

RB: So you stay in the Arab hotels.

JG: Yeah, little Arab hotels. And eating in their restaurants. And it’s a great way of observing what’s going on.

RB: Middle Europe has a great tradition of walking tours.

JG: Yeah, they do. The walking I did—I didn’t have a guide book. I just had Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad.

RB: [laughs] No fears it was obsolete?

JG: I realize how much Twain fabricated things. I like it very much, but it’s only half true. And it shows what he was trying to do, which was just entertain. Which he does very successfully, though the humor is almost dated now.

RB: Do you feel obliged to pass on truthful information?

JG: Everything is true. Sometimes I will put things in a different order to the way it actually happened to me—to make it more coherent.

RB: Do you think your readers care if it’s true?

JG: They do, actually. I am always surprised when people do get upset. Perhaps its just the nutty people who write to newspapers who get upset. Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, which is a favorite travel book—I read in a paper that in fact he traveled with two Australians in a dormobile for a lot of this trip. And he doesn’t mention it. Well, so what? I doesn’t detract from my view of the book. I’m rather glad they are not there. It might seem rather prosaic.

RB: I don’t get, given the putative gullibility of the general public, why the knitpicking when it comes to literature?

JG: It’s bizarre isn’t? I find the public reaction to writing—it’s fascinating in this modern age. Of course people are able to interact with me and email me, and I get quite a few I suppose. And some often are people, like you say, who have unreasonable demand for total accuracy as they perceive it. And other people have interesting contributions of their own. What’s fascinating is where they come from in the world. People in Bangladesh, a chap in a fire-base in Tikrit in Iraq. Chap in an Irish pub in Dublin. And lovely to think this literary network—or rather network of readers—is well spread out.

RB: That’s much like my own Internet experience. A wonderful burgeoning of contact with the far reaches of the globe. Some of it odd, but charming nonetheless. People continue to come to me to put them in touch with writers I have talked to, as opposed to contacting the author’s publisher.

JG: You also realize it’s a very small fraternity of people. When I was writing the Paraguay book, a Paragauyan told me that only five thousand people in Paraguay read.

There is a very big difference between American and British travel journalism, and that’s this whole business of the assisted or freebie trip. In Britain we are unashamed about any travel company paying for you to go and then writing about it.

RB: How do they know?

JG: Its an estimate. I thought, “God, that sounds tiny.” And I was talking to my publisher in Britain and was told here we are—we are sixty million people and we reckon only four hundred thousand people in Britain really read. A lot of books are sold and given away as presents. But who actually reads and enjoy reading?

RB: What’s the threshold for reading? One a week?

JG: Yeah, having a regular book on the go and that sort of thing. And if you see our best seller list, most of them are books that are given as gifts. They are books you give to flatter somebody.

RB: [laughs] There is the absurdity of the unread best seller—Satanic Verses was a best seller. I dare someone to tell me they read that book, which was quite difficult, and, to me, impenetrable.

JG: And it was book you gave to flatter people, “Hey, you’re a clever chap, Happy birthday!”

RB: I’ve been watching a little television, and the overwhelming impression I get is that we have a culture seemingly averse to silence. And to protect against any silence creeping in we load up the screen and the soundtrack with an immense amount of noise.

JG: You are years ahead of us on this. I am always surprised to go into a bar in Boston and three televisions are playing different channels, all at once. We are constantly surprised by this noise and television. It means that’s what we are going to get, because we always get everything eventually. You’re right: the noise that we can expect in the future will only increase and we’ll be wishing for rural Portugal or something like that.

RB: Maybe it’s cheap psychology, but doesn’t this assault affect our consciousness, our sensibilities?

JG: I wonder if it affects our ability to converse properly, as well? We don’t really listen to what the other person is saying. We have gotten used to information being in such a concentrated form all the time, and so continuously, that conversation somehow seems inadequate for a lot of people, and therefore they can’t join in it. You notice how many people can’t argue anymore—without getting very upset.

RB: Maybe that explains the increasing polarization of politics. It seems easier to be insulting than to argue cogently.

JG: I notice this as a traveler to some extent. In Western Civilization—America and Britain—if you see people talking and it becomes an argument and voices are raised, you are not surprised if violence follows. Hopefully it won’t, but you are not surprised. Whereas if you travel in countries like Morocco, and I say that because I have just come from Morocco, if people are shouting at each other in an argument, violence is not going to follow. That would be just so far removed.

RB: Why do you think?

JG: They have this ability that perhaps we have lost to just follow things through and argue and are quite content to disagree without this terrible frustration that we so often feel in the West in not being able to articulate and express ourselves.

RB: That surprises me.

JG: I mean “we” in the general sense.

RB: The Brits, meaning you seem to be better at debating and enjoying a spirited verbal joust without resorting to violence

JG: I’d love to agree, but probably all you see is the wafer-thin layer of things—through the media.

RB: Like on Ask the Prime Minister?

JG: You need to consider the cup end of the football match, or whatever, and it’s different—probably no different than here.

RB: Is there talk radio in Britain?

JG: Yeah. It’s not quite so popular as here and Canada. I was very conscious of it in Newfoundland. What’s more popular—and I think and less popular here—is public service broadcasting with professional people talking. And so the conversations are very professional. And I am addicted to that, and as a result I can’t stand talk radio. I don’t want to pay good money to hear ordinary people’s lunatic views. Most of the people who phone in are [lunatics]—certainly in Britain.

RB: That’s true here, but it’s self-selecting. Camille Paglia is a great proponent of talk radio as a bellwether signal. I have things to say, but I would never call those programs.

JG: I wonder if this reason is partly geographical, that talk radio is so much more successful in North America than in Britain? People who are very remote—I’m thinking of Newfoundland—feel very connected though the radio.

RB: Sure, but that’s not true in Britain?

JG: Radio is very popular, but it doesn’t connect us in the same way. It seems to have this community function.

RB: There aren’t that may empty places and wide distances, and there seem to be communities in Britain.

JG: Quite, I know. There are 60 million of us crammed into an area the size of a state. So you don’t have that feeling of remoteness at all, ever. And that’s reflected in the way our media works, and so on.

RB: We never added to the list of odd places—Eritrea, India—any other place?

JG: You prompted me to think of something else. I often think I would like to come even closer to home and write about somewhere like Wales, for example—which we in England tend to be a little snooty about. That’s where the coal comes from and that sort of thing.

RB: Richard Burton, Tom Jones, Anthony Hopkins.

JG: Exactly. It’s culturally fascinating, and I would love to write a book that opens people’s eyes to the more interesting side.

RB: I was thinking if anyone had written a compelling book about Britain recently?

JG: Well, it’s probably best left to someone not British to do so. Bill Bryson did a great humorous book—

RB: Notes from a Small Island.

JG: It has observations that are quite fresh. And he managed to write a book that Britons enjoyed as well.

RB: Any interest in going deeper into the U.S., past North Carolina and Boston?

JG: Yes, but the priority is the Third World, and so on. We have slight view of the States, but we are saving it for the time we can’t trek through Ethiopia or whatever. That’s slightly perverse in a way, but when you have a choice, you have to have some criteria.

RB: Have you been subjected to the book tour?

JG: Not in the States. But in I did one in Canada. A short one for the Canada book.

RB: Maybe for your blockbuster breakout book.

JG: [both laugh] Maybe for the next book, because it’s about an American in Europe, in fact a theme that will reemerge throughout the book is the idea of an Americans in Europe and the interaction. Perhaps that will have more interest over here. And, from my point of view, if there is any sort of an agenda to it, it will be a very pro-American book. Which is how I feel. And that may sound surprising, but we live in a time when America is not popular in the world in a lot of places, including Britain. If you scratch the surface, Britain still feels very, very close to Americans, beneath the surface—there is a feeling that [it is] doing its own thing in terms of the environment and Iraq and so on. Its very superficial, any strong feelings against America, but they do surface from time to time. And our media will encourage them from time to time, if it sells copy.

RB: Are you beyond the next book—have you thought about it?

JG: After the European book it could be Cuba next. I have to get on with the Cuba book because the guys I’m writing about are in their seventies.

RB: People live a long time in the wonderful Caribbean light.

JG: I’m also thinking I might fictionalize it. Its very difficult in modern Cuba to get anybody to speak truthfully about their emotions and how it feels. It’s not like Paraguay or Newfoundland. This is a very emotionally closed country. I might be able to express it more clearly in fiction in a way.

RB: Do you know Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls?

JG: No.

RB: A splendid movie about the poet Reinaldo Arenas, [who] came to the U.S. during the Mariel Boatlift/adventure.

JG: No doubt when my reading begins on that it’ll show up. Funnily enough, because I am a member of a Latin American organization in London, we come across Cubans quite a bit there, and Cubans are on the charm offensive. Their diplomats are, because they are trying to persuade Europe not to go with America and the Helms-Burton Act. And they are working very hard at it. And it does put Europeans in a terrible quandary: on the one hand we want to stand shoulder to shoulder with the states; on the other hand we think the Helms-Burton Act is the most gross legislation.

RB: It’s just crazy and hypocritical. All one needs to do is look at our relations with the Chinese. Did you ever meet Guillermo Cabrera Infante?

JG: No. Somebody you met?

RB: Yes, he published an anthology, Mea Cuba.

JG: I’m surprised he came to London.

RB: Why?

JG: There is a big Cuban population in Paris and Barcelona and so on. Linguistic reasons would have made it easier.

RB: Apparently he worked with Caryl Phillips a bit. You travel with your wife?

JG: She doesn’t in the big books, but on the newspaper articles and so on. If I’m off in Paraguay or Newfoundland, the travels are not really her style because [I stay in] really cheap hotels, but also we agree I am going to meet more people traveling by myself. And that’s the way it works. We now have a thirteen-month-old baby, which complicates things somewhat, but we think in Cuba that will be an asset. Cubans are extremely child-friendly.

© 2006 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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