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The Rough Guide to West Africa, written and researched by Jim Hudgens and Richard Trillo
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 elegiac works.

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 travellers.

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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