`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?

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