Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way
The pioneering guidebooks that gave us the world
Saturday 10 February 2007
Twenty-five years ago this week, Sir Freddie Laker was devastated when his airline collapsed. The no-frills transatlantic Laker Skytrain operation was brought down by a combination of safety worries over the DC10 (the aircraft type he flew, although Laker Airways never suffered a crash), and predatory pricing by other airlines.
That calamity haunted Sir Freddie until his death a year ago. Happily, the low-cost revolution in which he paid such a crucial role has survived.
Two other events in 1982 proved much more positive for everyone who celebrates the social, economic and, yes, hedonistic benefits of travel. Both were to do with guidebooks.
A quarter-century ago, Lonely Planet began rapidly to expand beyond its South East Asian heartland by publishing its first guide to a nation in the Americas - Mexico: a Travel Survival Kit. Tony and Maureen Wheeler, the founders, entered the computer age at their office in Melbourne; up to that point, Maureen Wheeler had personally typeset every guide.
In Britain, meanwhile, Mark Ellingham published his first Rough Guide; his mother typed out the Rough Guide to Greece on an electric typewriter.
Both Lonely Planet and Rough Guides have helped to change the way that travellers see the world, in more than one sense. The competition between them has been to the benefit of the reader. IN ITS first guide, Across Asia on the Cheap, Lonely Planet assigned a grand total of two-thirds of one page to the entire Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. If you were wondering what sort of weather you might expect, the "Climate" section crisply summed it up in just two words: "Like Nepal".
In the 21st century, Lonely Planet describes itself as "the world's most successful independent travel information company".
Rough Guides now forms part of Penguin, itself a component of the vast Pearson publishing empire. The series that Mark Ellingham created plans to celebrate its quarter-century this spring with Rough Guide 25s, detailing 25 ultimate experiences from sea-kayaking in New Zealand to whale-watching off Baja California.
HOW THE world has changed. In 1982, the best information that a visitor to Russia could hope for was contained in the Blue Guide: Moscow and Leningrad (£12.95 for under 400 pages, since you ask, reflecting its monopoly position). Even if you have no plans to visit the Russian capital and the city now known as St Petersburg, it is worth seeking out a secondhand copy for the preface alone. Just in case you can't track one down, a highlight:
"The editors first saw a need for such a guidebook in the early 1970s, when they realised that the best available work was still the 1914 Baedeker's Russia (reprinted in 1971)." I have read this sentence several times, and can still scarcely believe it. Since 1914, Russia witnessed the most significant revolution in the history of humanity, suffered the loss of tens of millions of people in two World Wars (including the Battle of Moscow and the Siege of Leningrad) and Stalinist pogroms. Yet the best information a 1970s traveller could hope for was a reprint of a guide published at the start of the First World War. The phrase "gap in the market" springs to mind.
Evan and Margaret Mawdsley, editors of the Blue Guide, have the generosity to describe their somewhat long-in-the-tooth competition as "excellent, accurate and still useful". They even go so far as to endorse the tenets of Baedeker: "To supply the traveller with such information as will render him as nearly as possible independent of hotel-keepers, commissionnaires and guides, and thus enable him the more thoroughly to enjoy and appreciate the objects of interest he meets on his tour."
That tour was unlikely to comprise unalloyed joy. Hotels: "Visitors have little choice about where to stay." Restaurants: "Waiter service tends to be slow and so the combination of an evening meal with a visit to the theatre is not feasible." Museums: "Opening hours are quite liable to change... Before making a long trip to a museum it is advisable to telephone for confirmation that it is open", which itself shows a touching faith in telecommunications under communism.
FANCY A DOWNGRADE, SIR?
Many frequent travellers have an upgrade story; Tony Wheeler, below, of Lonely Planet tells the tale of a downgrade.
One fine day at Frankfurt airport, he met Mark Ellingham of Rough Guides in a queue for the British Airways desk. Both were about to check in for the same flight to Heathrow.
"I had a business class ticket," recalls Tony, "and Mark only had an economy ticket. We got to the check-in desk and said, 'We really want to keep talking, but one ticket is business and one ticket is economy'."
The hapless British Airways representative was doubtless unaware that these were two of the most influential figures in travel. She could have upgraded the man who created Rough Guides, but instead chose to downgrade the boss of Lonely Planet.
You can listen online to, or download, The Independent Conversation with Tony and Maureen Wheeler by visiting www.travel.independent.co.uk. The size of the 22-minute podcast is 20MB
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