Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

When it comes to guidebooks, there's the good, the bad and the ugly
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The Independent Travel

"Charlotte thanks Chloe for her unrivalled initiative and intellect." In the next paragraph, "Chloe thanks Charlotte for her inspirational work ethic, inimitable intelligence, reassuring humour and for sharing her loves, Darcy, Aero bars and this baby".

"Charlotte thanks Chloe for her unrivalled initiative and intellect." In the next paragraph, "Chloe thanks Charlotte for her inspirational work ethic, inimitable intelligence, reassuring humour and for sharing her loves, Darcy, Aero bars and this baby". Which baby? None other than the new edition of Let's Go Britain and Ireland, whose editors are unstinting in their mutual admiration.

Guidebook writing is a labour of Sisyphus. From before dawn to beyond dusk, you trudge around a city or a region, checking out hotels and hostelries while filling notebooks with scribble that you suspect will be out of date about an hour after the book comes out.

Somehow, the Let's Go Britain and Ireland team turn this most thankless of tasks into a love-fest for the editors. But will the readers enjoy it? Let's Go contains some good stuff. I was previously unaware of the Association for Safe International Road Travel (001 301 983 5252; www.asirt.org), which evangelises for better risk management by travellers; and the splendid Indian YMCA at 41 Fitzroy Square in central London (020-7387 0411; www.indianymca.org) - a clean, comfortable and welcoming place to stay in the capital for those of any (or no) faith, for just £34 a night, single, including breakfast and dinner.

Let's Go also makes assertions that will surprise residents of the countries being described. The best source of train information is, apparently, Railtrack, even though it was closed down two years ago; the average sentence for possession of illegal drugs in the UK is two years' imprisonment; and to reach Aldergrove airport in Belfast from London, you should fly on an airline that ceased to exist three years ago (British Midland) to an airport to which its successor, BMI, no longer flies.

"We provide a snapshot of real life," the editors promise - but they also advise that you "check the facts presented in this book beforehand to avoid inconvenience and surprises." I was surprised to learn that "the information for this book was gathered by Let's Go researchers from May through August 2004".

A nation's inhabitants can cope with travel guides peddling factual inaccuracies. But guidebook authors' opinions on the places we live can sometimes sting. In the coming week, tourism officials and elected representatives in less celebrated towns and cities will no doubt get furious about what the new sixth edition of The Rough Guide to England says about their lovely localities.

For journalists unwilling actually to read the book, Rough Guides' publicists supply a helpful press release that lists the swipes the book takes at Portsmouth ("ugly"), Coventry ("unsightly") and Herne Bay in Kent ("drab").

The company also take the unusual step of comparing the verdicts in the Rough Guide with the slaggings-off administered in last year's Idler Book of Crap Towns. Hull, voted worst in Britain, can now boast: "We're not as bad as Crap Towns said ." That should bring the tourists flocking back to the Humber.

Lonely Planet, meanwhile, has its sights on Scotland. The authors of the new third edition on the country assert that "Scots are never happier than when they have something to moan about". The national character is further impugned by the claim that: "Just as the Eskimos have 40 different words for snow, it seems that the Scots have 40 different words for being drunk." In fact, listeners to the Fred MacAulay show on BBC Radio Scotland this week revealed this to be an understatement; they supplied 45, from "getting carnaged" to "muroculous". This view of the Scots as a nation of keen drinkers is supported by Richender Miers, in her Cadogan Guide to the Highlands and Islands: "The average canny Scot will go for the two bottles of blended whisky that he can get from the supermarket, for the price of one bottle of vintage malt."

Honesty is a good policy among guidebook writers. The most straightforward I have encountered is Fiona Danskin, who admits that the reviews in her Dundee Handbook are "90 per cent personal opinion, 10 per cent fact".

Cultural sensitivity, too, is a good thing. The Culture Smart! guides published by Kuperard help you avoid faux pas around the world, while the new Bradt Guide to Ukraine has an intriguing section on superstitions, which includes perhaps the best advice for travellers anywhere: "Sit down before leaving on a long journey. Rushing off brings bad luck on the road."

REWRITING GEOGRAPHY...

The assertions of Lonely Planet's new Scotland guide may upset the residents around John O'Groats (a "tourist trap") or East Kilbride (an "urban nightmare"), but they matter little for Scottish tourism as a whole. Anyone spending £10.99 on the guide has presumably already decided to visit the country. Much more significant is the advice given to backpackers who are weighing up whether a visit to Scotland is worthwhile. Plenty of purchasers of Lonely Planet's Europe on a Shoestring (motto: go further, stay longer, pay less) will be in that position. Judging by the view of Scotland in the book, few will bother to make the journey. The Outer Hebrides, those raw, beautiful conjunctions of land, sea and sky, merit just 22 lines in a book of over 1,300 pages. This is less than the space the travel guide devotes to eating out in the Albanian capital, Tirana, a less rewarding proposition.

Any traveller who nevertheless decides to visit Scotland is advised to get there by land or sea; flying there from England is not, apparently, an option. Instead, says Lonely Planet, you should catch the train to Glasgow from Paddington Station in London, though experience suggests that you are more likely to end up in Cardiff than in Scotland's largest city.

At least Scotland gets a mention in Europe on a Shoestring; Rough Guides' First-Time Around the World nominates seven great sights for travellers in Europe, but the closest to Scotland is the British Museum (the other six are Venice, the Sistine chapel in the Vatican City, the Louvre, Versailles, the Kremlin and Auschwitz).

The nation fares better in the hit US Christmas book 1000 Places to See Before You Die, which proclaims itself to be "a traveler's life list". The author, Patricia Schultz, devotes 1.6 per cent of the book to Scotland, 2.5 per cent to England and 1 per cent to Wales. I'm not saying her grasp of geography is dodgy, but I hope she is not piloting the next flight I take. The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew are, we learn, "in London's East End" rather than southwest of the capital. And the Royal Dornach golf course (more popularly spelled Dornoch) is described as six degrees south of the Arctic Circle.

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