Sketches of Spain by Duncan Gough

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Sketches of Spain by Duncan Gough

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Category: Travel
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Lots of practical information if you’re heading to Spain on your motorbike, not one for the general reader though. Full of facts, but no enticement.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 200 Date: September 2016
Publisher: Matador
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1785899751

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I salute Duncan Gough for many things: for his spirit of adventure, his willingness to trail the backroads, his desire to document these and share them and encourage others to follow in his wheel-ruts. I love his willingness to engage with locals and fellow-travellers.

Unfortunately, I cannot add his skill as a travel writer to my list of admiration. As a traveller, a consumer of guide books and travel-literature, I found myself confused and, sad though I am to say it, bored by this book. I think the main problem is that it is not entirely clear what the book is setting out to be – and therefore not clear on how it should be used. It is gleaned from over 30 years of travelling in Spain and suggests that it is a personal experience but I found the personal somewhat lacking for all the detail of who he met and which hotel he stayed in.

Perhaps I approached it as a travelogue, which is what it seems to want to be, when really it is a tourist guide – albeit a niche one, aimed at back-road bikers.

If we take it in that guise it's not so bad. Most of the descriptions are about road routes, this road and then that and then that. This is easy riding, this is tricky, this is where I came a-cropper. That has a place and is useful for any biker wanting to head off in like vein.

For the general reader, that is the problem. Unless you are actually planning a trip, you will get little from this that you won't get from the general guide books that Gough claims to want to get you away from. Yes, there are a few personal recommendations (and the opposite) on hotels, and campsites, but mainly it is about how to get from A to E (albeit by roundabout, pleasurable, slow-journey routes) and what you might see along the way.

For me, there is no real sense of place. Nothing that really made me want to go and see it and feel it and smell it and hear it for myself. There is no emotion in his writing. I can almost hear the excitement, that I'm sure would be there if he was telling me this over a pie and a pint, or a tapas and vino tinto, but it is only 'almost'. The words are too bland. Roads are scenic. Hostels are good. There is even the dreaded word 'nice' too many times for comfort.

It feels like a work that hasn't quite made up its mind what it wants to be. The pity of that is that if it were deconstructed it could be reassembled into a number of different things, each of them smaller but more 'placeable'.

One of the joys of the book are the actual 'sketches' – of which there are far too few. It's well-illustrated with photographs but many of these are of the holiday-snapshot variety, which work in a well-crafted travelogue or as factual side-bar break-ups in a guide book. Here they felt much like padding. The sketches on the other hand have atmosphere and personality. A sketch-book, focussing on the drawings, supplemented by really personal, atmospheric descriptions of the when and where and why of them (and yes, maybe, with tit-bits of historical context) – that would work.

Another of the plus-points are the hand-drawn maps, with personal annotations. I can see these as route-cards in an loose-folder itinerary backroad biker's guide to… The factual nature of the current text could be reworked to fit this approach.

As it stands it's too much of a bit of this and bit of that. Even the language is inconsistent varying between I and you and one in the space of a couple of paragraphs. A definitive point of view would have helped… given its introductory notion of 'a personal view' it should have stuck to the direct experience and not tried to shoe-horn in other possibilities or missed opportunities of what 'one' or the reading 'you' might do instead.

The really useful stuff at the end is genuinely useful. The simple Spanish glossary is probably unnecessary – if we've picked up the scattering through the text, we'll either know enough or have a decent phrase book to hand.

I don't want to be too harsh on this, because there are splashes of wit, especially when talking about how to order a cup of English tea, or dissection of place names I don't want to think about what the Jew was doing in the dry river bed (Quite!) There are interesting snippets of history and tie-backs to popular culture and it is clear that Gough has a genuine respect and affection for the Spanish people. I just can't help feeling it would have been better, if it had been put together differently.

For another off-the-beaten track view of Spain Bookbag can recommend A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain by Paul Richardson.

Buy Sketches of Spain by Duncan Gough at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sketches of Spain by Duncan Gough at

Buy Sketches of Spain by Duncan Gough at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sketches of Spain by Duncan Gough at


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