The Rough Guide to West Africa, written and researched by Jim Hudgens and
published by Rough Guides part of The Penguin Group, Ŗ19.99
First there was the guide book as dictionary usually divided between two
rivals the Red and the Blue. The red series began with the Mediterranean
Handbooks first published by John Murray at the beginning of the 19th
century. The idea was taken up and developed by Karl Baedeker who also kept
things red. The Blue Guides began in a burst of patriotic enthusiasm during
the First World War, when a pair of English editors working for Baedekeršs
set up independent shop and didnšt want to be mistaken for the German
series. They swopped translation rights with their French sibling,
Hachettešs Guide Blue series. Always dry, always scholarly, they always
listed the architects and date of construction but never a restaurant.
For information on hotels, restaurants and cheap travel by bus and ferry you
needed another volume. Something that was normally put together by a
committee of students from their summer break; up to date, informative,
packed full of tips and acidic commentaries but notoriously short on the
purpose rather than the practicalities- of travel. Like a telephone
dictionary they were useful but unloved.
A third voice was required, that of the literate traveller in love with
tangible art, leading the reader on a tour of architecture and art,
carefully exposing the defining roots of a civilization through its
monumental remains. Writers such as Robert Byron and Sacheverell Sitwell
eptimise this tradition, which leads inexorably back to Ruskin and his
Then along came the Rough Guide series in 1982 and started to combine all of
these three aspects under just one cover. It was a dazzlingly successful
idea and their pale blue covers, cheap paper, liberal wit, sketchy but
accurate street maps and careful scholarship soon won them a devoted
following. Nor did the series just expand geographically but worked to
create a wider horizon of travel by starting up a new series on world music.
All this was managed from a caotic but lively suite of offices off Covent
Garden usually furnished with a scattering of recently dumped back-packs and
where the editors looked even more dishevelled than the returning
I was not alone to feel concerned when I heard that the series has been
acquired by Penguin Books itself part of the monumental Pearson
mega-corporation. As a symbol of this loss of independence, they were moved
from the café-littered streets to the discreet quiet of one of Londonšs
great monumental fascist-period office buildings.
So when the fourth edition of their West Africa guide was recently re-issued
this November I anxiously looked out for any evidence of corporate-creep.
Colour photographs have fortunately been kept to a minimum, and form part of
a xiv page introduction. Although there are some splendidly illustrated
guidebooks out there I prefer guides to be written rather than to seem like
an artful collection of captions. The paper has even improved, the guide now
has a fine, thin, almost prayer-book quality to it, enhanced by the red inks
used for maps and chapter headings. They have also stained the country
headings, so that you can readily identify the one nation you are currently
obsessed-by from its other 14 neighbours. Then I gave it the random check.
Now what date do they give for the Great Mosque in Djenne? Where did we eat
that night at Timbuktuu? What is the name of that little hotel in
Ifferouane? Is there one still open in Kidal?
Having passed this personal inquisition, I felt myself warm to this new
edition. Guide-books may not win literary prizes, or rate so much as a
single broadsheet review, or even get read from cover to cover. However
they do when they are done well - offer a unique relationship with the
reader, based on a growing sense of trust. The new Rough Guide to West
Africa is one to trust.
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