BOOK REVIEW / No need to pack the flak jacket: The battle for room service: Journeys to All the Safe Places by Mark Lawson, Picador pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
A NEW KIND of travel writing is emerging which, far from instilling in readers a desire to visit remote places, makes them glad to stay at home. This high-spirited and entertaining book falls into that genre - anti-travel writing, you might call it, a sort of dabbling in uneventfulness. While his more intrepid colleagues are dispatched to Bosnia, Somalia or Beirut, Mark Lawson's itinerary takes him to very dull places in search of a quiet world where the jobs are plentiful, the housing is sound but inexpensive, the women are virtuous, the men bold, the taxes low and the dogs peaceable.

Wherever Lawson goes he experiences, not coups or riots, but touristic frustrations with hotel light switches and mini-bars. Confined to unimportant places, he tries to get to grips with the cultural Esperanto of McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Andrew Lloyd Webber and CNN. News is supposed to flash around the world at the speed of light nowadays, but from some places, it turns out, information comes slowly, as if still travelling by clipper ship or desert caravan. Those places, far from being crowded into the global village, sometimes seem to have dropped off the edge of the earth. For them, the planet, rather than shrinking, is expanding.

One such place is Dead Horse, Alaska, where there's nothing to do except badmouth the Eskimos and eat reindeer with your Egg McMuffin. In Normal, Illinois, the people are too listless to break out, and in Winnipeg, Canada, too obsessively methodical. Of all the journeys in Lawson's book, the most acutely observed is a trip to Euro-Disney as it appears in a brief sketch of the trompe l'oeil holiday. At Center Parcs the trumpery of a vast sealed dome delivers a Mediterranean climate to Nottingham. It's a beautiful image of how the Great British Holiday has evolved over two centuries from James Cook to Thomas Cook to static travel, and it's a perfect example of Abroad without the germs, museums or people.

The book is composed of small details and off-the-cuff conversations about mistakes and false starts. Timaru, for instance, is a joke town, 'the most boring place in New Zealand', the Mecca of the non-event. Here, at the end of the world, and of his tether, Lawson encounters a solid Anglophilia which bears the mark of defeat and which he writes of more in scorn than in pity, in the manner of Naipaul, say, or Theroux.

The idiom is one he seems to have fallen into awkwardly, like a pundit on a talk show who finds himself babbling about the decline of the West. The pundit might speculate more penetratingly about what's in store, but in its affable, offhand way this book, which ends with a tilt at Francis Fukuyama, really is about history, at least as New Zealanders live it. They are seen to be, in some sense, petty and peripheral: but peripheral to what? To Britain? Hardly. In recent years Britain, too, may be thought to have let Mark Lawson down by declining to the condition of Timaru, a mere backwater.

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