By Duncan Fallowell
Profile Books, NZ$35 | Reviewed by Amy Brown

GOOD TRAVEL writing includes both autobiography and review. Before properly judging observations, you have to know something about the observer. Having finished Going as far as I can, I feel like I know Duncan Fallowell quite well. He is an educated, wealthy, gay Londoner. He can talk about Henry James, Hutch, architecture, wine and religion. He will share his doggerel verse, his racial generalisations and details of his sexual encounters without inhibition. He is polite, but not prudish; louche, but not sleazy; an aesthete and a hedonist, but not exactly a snob. At least, this is how he came across, to me, in his account of his journey through our country.

Having been bequeathed money, Fallowell decides to go as far across the world as he can, so he need never travel again. One of his purposes in New Zealand is to dredge up some of the cultural highlights that we inherited from Britain. He searches, mostly unsuccessfully, for the theatres in which Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh played during their 1948 tour. Aghast that our pragmatic philistine councillors have demolished the majority of these beautiful buildings and replaced them with ugly, cheap structures, which have an air of impermanence, Fallowell turns to the people who met Leigh and Olivier. Disappointingly, most have died, but he talks to a nun who treated Olivier when he was in hospital in Wellington with an injured knee.

Fallowell’s repeated disappointment at New Zealand’s loss of decent architecture, slovenliness of dress (Christchurch inhabitants dress most smartly – they realise that shorts are only for the beach), ill appearance (bad skin, excess weight), lack of intellectual conversation, and, for the most part, lack of sex, is evident throughout his book. If it weren’t for his interludes of self-aware, if indulgent, musings on subjects inspired by, but other than, his surroundings, Fallowell might appear to be a colonialist’s assistant, sent back to inspect the progress of something prepared earlier. Are the buildings still standing? No. Are the people still attractive? Not overly. Are the paintings and novels celebrated? Not enough. Do the people engage in lively, passionate debate? Yes, but only in relation to a sports game, which isn’t cricket. Is the wine delicious? Not really. What about Received Pronunciation? I can’t understand a word some of them are saying. But the landscape must be all right? Some of it’s spectacular, but they keep building dams.

Fallowell doesn’t sample or critique any of New Zealand’s Maori culture. There is no trip to Rotorua, or description of witnessing a haka; this isn’t within Fallowell’s frame of reference or interest, so any description he’d attempt would be forced and embarrassing. He is searching for the dregs of Europe, England particularly, left in our country. Katherine Mansfield, Robin Hyde, William Hodge, Lauris Edmond and John Mulgan please Fallowell. Tall Poppy Syndrome, 10am check-out from hotels, and tasteless, expensive wine displease him. Our quiet Protestant stoicism, which appears to be on the brink of letting forth a flood of bottled up, disproportionate passion, disturbs him. Our direct, unblinking eye-contact disturbs him. The fact that Europeans travelled so far and so dangerously across the world to begin another civilisation seems to disturb him, as does the antipodean’s ambivalent response to globalisation. He tells an anecdote about an important European painting brought to Auckland for an exhibition, which was received with a quiet hostility that implied, ‘why do we need a European painting? What’s wrong with our New Zealand ones?’ When the same painting was taken to New York, the locals were delighted and welcoming.

There’s nothing cruel or thoughtless about Fallowell’s observations. They are direct, candid, inevitably subjective and often funny. He’s not insulting the New Zealand psyche, merely emphasising his foreignness in this setting. Written like a polished, edited diary, Going as far as I can ranges from cringingly casual (“crikey, I’ve fallen for the hotel barman”) to gushingly lyrical (in his description of Collingwood: “it was my personal version of breaking through to the silent steeples of Angkor Wat”) to sharp and clever. My favourite parts of this book are Fallowell’s portraits of people – those whom he meets, reads about or pursues. While his descriptions of landscapes and architecture are often vivid, Fallowell’s strength is dialogue.

This book has already caused misguided offence: how dare some foreigner say that Auckland isn’t his idea of a city and that Wellington’s even worse? What would he know anyway? These responses miss the flattering aspect of Fallowell’s book; a 300-page, honest and unbiased examination of contemporary New Zealand suggests that we are worth writing about. Whether or not we agree with Fallowell’s opinions, we should at least find them interesting.