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The PJ O’Rourke principle

I’ve been thinking a lot about the American satirist PJ O’Rourke recently – in particular his funny, acerbic travel books, which I became fond of in the nineties.

I tend not to bother with travel articles, because (a) they’re usually aimed at well-off families and (b) you can almost guarantee that stories about the developing world will have a sickly, patronising tone, described to me once as “the people are poor but they are happy”. (In actual fact, I heard that phrase at a travel writing seminar – the speaker was saying that it crops up a lot in magazine submissions.)

O’Rourke – the no-nonsense author of Republican Party Reptile and Give War a Chance – was different. He’d visit a country, talk with the locals as equals and if he didn’t like certain aspects of the place, he’d be brutally honest about what he saw as its failings. And if you didn’t like it, you could say: “Well, that was an interesting take. I don’t agree with all of it, but he’s a witty guy and he’s entitled to his opinion. OK, I’m going to carry on with my day like a normal person with a sense of proportion.”

God, I miss those times.

If O’Rourke were a young man starting out today, I’ve no doubt he’d be labelled far-right, alt-right, a hatemonger and a white supremacist. Actually, he’s none of these things: he just enjoys poking fun at pomposity, hypocrisy and human foibles, like the smart sceptic he is. I especially like these lines from his 1988 masterpiece, Holidays in Hell:

“People are all exactly alike. There’s no such thing as a race and barely such a thing as an ethnic group. If we were dogs, we’d be the same breed… I wish I could say I found this out by spending arctic nights on ice floes with Inuit elders and by sitting with tribal medicine men over fires made of human bones in Madagascar. But, actually, I found it out by sleeping around.”

High jinks at Cape Le Grande, Australia in 2002

Backpacking book

Why am I saying all this? Because I’ve been to about 70 countries and I’ve a yearning to write some honest travel books. I’ll probably do this as an indie author on the Kindle Store, given that everyone I talk to in the literary world tells me how financially unrewarding traditional publishing is. Get the tone and marketing right and it’s a passive income for me. Get it wrong and I’ll be denounced, if I’m noticed at all.

In fairness to the ‘woke’, I realise that I have to be sensitive these days. I don’t want to be some middle-aged blowhard laughing at foreigners and ‘whitesplaining’. So I’ll more than likely poke fun at my own mistakes and inadequacies, and the strange, entitled, perversely privileged backpacking culture that used to swirl around me. And if foreigners do the funniest things? Well, that’s because they’re human, as O’Rourke said 31 years ago.

It’s by no means impossible. Karl Pilkington pulled off a similar trick in his TV show An Idiot Abroad. Then again, he had Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant behind him.

Right, I’m off to read my old journals…

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