Lucky readers will already know Duncan Fallowell's travel books – though to call them such seems misguidedly familiar. His two to date (To Noto, 1989, and One Hot Summer in St Petersburg, 1994) need a genre to themselves. Now, after 14 years, there is a third.
Going as Far as I Can finds Fallowell on the longest, most gruelling journey he can imagine (within reason: he is both epicure and people-watcher, so the Antarctic was out). Why? "So that I need never travel again – and I could relax." In practice, this means touring both New Zealand's islands.
Fallowell pursues a dream of tasting the country's ultimate glass of rosé. A staunch believer in the Empire, tradition and protecting cultural inheritance, he pulls no punches, racking up town after town that has seen stylish Victorian buildings – even whole neighbourhoods – torn down, replaced by flimsy modern boxes. He describes a political culture that transcends even our embarrassment at colonial thinking – and of orientalist art, in particular. Excited at the prospect of finding a wealth of work by William Hodges – the painter who accompanied Cook – he instead finds Hodges's works squirreled away in storage.
He whimsically traces the theatrical tour of New Zealand by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in the year he was born. Few theatres survive; those he locates are invariably down-at-heel, or dedicated to anything other than dramatic art.
It can't be said that Fallowell falls for the locals. A degree of bodily and social androgyny worries rather than seduces him. He tries his hardest to engage – but he reveres all that the country is desperate to let go of, and this pragmatic people fails to understand why he is even among them.
Often this is very funny. But it's also poignant, and sad. Fallowell refuses to smooth over the traces, as many travel writers do. He reminds us, for instance, of the innate absurdity of an obsession with long-haul pursuits: "Quite apart from the physical disorientation of one's body and brain... it also takes time to get the practical hang of things... to learn what a letterbox looks like, for example."
Opinionated, unpredictable and quite fearless, Fallowell has penned a travel classic. What of the implication that he may not write another? Editors or friends must buy him a ticket.
Richard Canning's life of Oscar Wilde is published by Hesperus