NEW YORK — In the world of travel writing, A.A. Gill is an outlaw. When the British Sunday Times columnist hits the road, he refuses to take notes, won’t do research and hates to stay anywhere longer than a few days. While his contemporaries espouse cultural relativism and a polite “when in Rome” ethos, he is unapologetically opinionated, proselytizing his prejudices and passions with equal fervor. “I’m not like other journalists,” he acknowledges. “It’s just me, it’s just what I think.”
What Gill thinks, it turns out, makes for an insightful — and very funny — read. In “A.A. Gill Is Away” (Simon & Schuster), the journalist has compiled 21 of his travel pieces written over the past decade. The essays, geographically sub-grouped into East, South, North and West, range from the hilarious (a stint in Los Angeles directing a porn flick called “Hot House Tails”) to the heart-wrenching (the desolation and poverty caused by the shrinking of the Aral Sea).
Throughout, Gill stays true to his objective to “interview a place as if it’s a person.”
“When you go to places, you sort of instinctively like them or not, in much the same way that you do when you sit down and have tea with someone,” he explains. “It’s not necessarily because they’re particularly beautiful or welcoming or clever or smell nice, it’s just sort of a general feeling. And it was that sense that I wanted to capture in each place.”
Gill’s formula to stick to first impressions and “the surface of things” yields consistently penetrating and astute geographic portraits. He has an uncanny ability to tease out details from the cultural fabric that speak volumes about a place as a whole. To sum up the absurdity of Milan Fashion Week, he zeroes in on a girl in a wheelchair with Chanel earrings and a quilted bag dangling from the armrest. In the ex-Soviet town of Kaliningrad, women sporting miniskirts and garish “flesh-colored” dye jobs are emblems of the city’s desperate and misguided foray into capitalism.
Occasionally, Gill’s total disregard for the politically correct has landed the acid-tongued scribe in hot water. In 1999, a barrage of outraged readers — not to mention Britain’s Racial Equality and Press Complaints Commission — denounced his essay about German culture titled “Hunforgiven.”
“One journalist, who took umbrage with the piece, wrote how sad he was that someone who had written such unsubstantial prejudice had only spent nine days in Germany,” recalls Gill, “Yet if you only go for nine days, what you find weird is that they put a cafe in a concentration camp.”
If Gill has his distastes, however, he also has his devotions, and Africa, with its rich tribal heritages and magnificent landscape, ranks first among them. “I feel more moved there than most other places,” he says. “A life without seeing Africa would be awful. It would be like a life in black and white.”
Indeed, his essays about the continent, including one focusing on the devastation of famine in Sudan, are some of the most brilliantly descriptive and moving pieces in the book, a fact to which the writer readily concedes. “There are some essays,” he says, “which I hope are plainly more serious than others.”