`Aspicts' of Oz

Pete Davies treks through the outback; No Worries: a journey through Australia by Mark McCrum Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 9.99

I once asked a Kiwi if the Maoris ever went to Australia. She said she didn't know, but if they did they'd have thought, Nah. Big hot dry buggery place, this. Then they'd have gone back home - and there are times when Mark McCrum evidently felt the same. Halfway through his book, he sets off round Broome "pessimistically seeking adventure", and I had by then rather come to share his pessimism.

Euroteens drearily mating in backpacker hostels; people keeping him awake on the train; endless eucalyptuses - it may well get him down, and when his girl-friend comes to visit (did we really need to know about that?) it may well make him homesick. But I did wonder whether a travel writer who gets homesick is, just possibly, in the wrong line of trade.

These longueurs are a shame; in a bitty way, there's good material here. Tumbling out of English history towards its place on the Pacific Rim like an overweight gymnast uncertain how he'll land, Australia is certainly a subject crying out for better coverage. Between the bright froth of the cities and the harsh outback, McCrum suggests well enough how the country is a thin necklace of the modern world, tentatively slung round the parched vastness of its unfathomable interior.

But too often he struggles for focus. Australians keep asking, of his book about their home: "What aspict?" In the end, I wasn't too sure what aspect he was after myself. Backpackers aside, he meets a varied cast of characters, and he hears their voices well.

He makes a game stab at understanding the plight of the Aboriginals; he offers lively cameos of the gay scene; he captures the rich and baffling ethnic mix, and he gives intriguing glimpses of the country's green activists. Some are stoned bumbleheads, some (notably those in in Tasmania) impressively persuasive. But too rarely does he stop long enough with any one of these matters to get a thorough handle on it.

Some of McCrum's strongest material comes in set pieces in the outback: for instance, in the brutal business of cattle mustering by four-wheel drive and helicopter, or the tragically weird account of an ancient and internationally renowned Aboriginal painter knocking out masterpieces in half an hour. (She gets a few hundred dollars for them, but they then sell in galleries for a hundred times that much). But every time you feel that he's at last getting down into the red dirt of the place, he bounces back off it, as if Australia is just too strange - as if he can't leave his Englishness behind.

Perhaps the problem, after Bill Bryson's success, is that publishers now want every travel writer to be funny. McCrum, certainly, can be witty and engaging - but too many flip asides, too many subjects closed off with a quip and a shrug, make in the end for an incomplete read. They also sit oddly beside the book's extensive, insufficiently edited chunks of interviews with people who are sometimes extremely interesting, and sometimes quite the opposite.

The result is neither fish nor fowl. Early on, McCrum is advised by a Melbourne salesman that if he wants commercial success Down Under, his best approach is to "Tyke the piss" - and when he does so, it's often sharp. But to his credit, he's evidently not cruel or insensitive enough to go all the way down that road, and when he trips up over dark secrets, or gnaws away at troubling issues, humour fades into unresolved concern. Eventually you want to cry out: Could you make your mind up? Do you like it or don't you? Or, indeed, what aspict?

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In my grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service