Martin Hughes
slow / Slow Guides: A Conversation with Martin Hughes by Ron Mader

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Martin Hughes is the author of two books that extol the sensory wonders of slow travel. The first two titles from Affirm Press are Slow Guide Melbourne and Slow Guide Sydney.

Martin Hughes: I guess 'slow travel' for me is about exploring things on a micro level. I spent years as a travel writer and photographer for Lonely Planet, doing new city guides for Europe. What used interest me most was the texture and sense of a place, stuff I usually had to delete from the final text. Instead of providing lists of new things to see and do, I was drawn to the idea of describing new ways to feel and be, and really connecting with the soul of a place. Our Slow Guides are essentially a reaction against the popular media's obsession with 'now' and 'next'; we're trying to inspire people to step back and celebrate what's local, traditional, natural, sensory and most of all gratifying about their little patch of the world.

Ron Mader: One of the reasons I am a big fan of your books is the focus on sensorial experiences. Where I live -- Oaxaca, Mexico -- one finds a diversity of experiences, but most visitors are here for two nights and end up rushing around without getting the chance to be attentive. The result -- sensory overload. The more intrepid travelers treat their taste buds. Oaxaca has a great tradition for slow food. One example is an indigenous Chinanteco dish called Caldo de Piedra, literally 'stone soup'' from the town of San Felipe Usila. From your perspective, what is the connection between slow food and slow travel?

Martin Hughes: Well, it was Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food that first put a positive spin on slow for me. I created a series of books for Lonely Planet, called World Food. They celebrated the culture of eating and drinking in different countries and encouraged travellers to truly immerse themselves in a place rather than just skim across the surface. I was always excited by the potential of slow and the World Food series (which was critically acclaimed and commercially ignored) was a very early twist on the theme.

I read Carl Honore's book, In Praise of Slow. I really appreciated but thought it was all too theoretical. The idea for our books was to take the philosophy of slow food and apply it practically to lifestyle, help people discover their own slow groove.

I don't think there are any particularly slow dishes from Melbourne, although the slow food scene is very strong. In fact, a Taste of Slow festival starts this weekend. As creative as its chefs are, Melbourne for me is more about the raw materials; the best lunch I've had so far this year was on a lavender farm last weekend. We had bread straight from the oven, rocket picked that morning, tomatoes from the vine, cheese made just up the road, good company, an unhurried atmosphere and lovely surrounds. After lunch, we bought buckets of fresh fruit from a delightfully chatty elderly couple who'd spent the morning picking apples, pears and stone fruit from orchards and neighbours gardens around the area. We took the scenic route home and made a compote. Very simple, very special.

Ron Mader: Martin, I trust you have eaten well and sold some books at the festival! A follow-up -- How did the Taste of Slow Festival go?

Martin Hughes: The festival went pretty well although not as well as expected really. I might get into trouble with local slowies if they read this, but the festival was a little disappointing. It has been fabulous in recent years, when it was a joyful and organic event staged in the grounds of an old convent. This year the Taste of Slow festival was taken over by the much larger and much more commercial Melbourne Food and Wine Festival (because it was being funded by the state government, which is preoccupied with the bottom line). It lost a little of its soul for me, being more commercial, central, and theoretical. We gotta make it fun! Influence by delight, and infect people with our enthusiasm!

Ron Mader: I am walking down the street and talking up these ideas and a friend asks, is 'slow travel' something aimed at the over-40 crowd? Young whippersnapper! How would you respond?

Martin Hughes: Au contraire! Although, it must be said, the idea of slow travel does seem to get more traction among older folk. But that brings us to the point of celebrating slow: to inspire people to appreciate life more slowly on their own accord, rather than wait until it's foisted upon them by deteriorating health, retirement or whatever. Isn't that the decision we all have to make. Are we rushing frantically towards a time when we've set ourselves up to revel and relax (hoping we make it), or are we going to make the most out of life today?

Ron Mader: Do you have any tips for improving our respect for cultural and environmental diversity in tourism?

Martin Hughes: Use your guidebook to see which places to avoid, seek out authenticity, learn some local lingo, don't be afraid to take a risk, and rail against anything that panders to the lowest common denominator of tourism. But don't patronise others, don't be a travel snob. Be positive about your experiences, not negative about theirs. Make them want to travel like you, not run in the opposite direction. I'd suggest.

Ron Mader: Martin, are you aware of the growing popularity of the word 'slow' that is percolating around the world? My Melbournian friend Tom Walter alerted me to Slow TV and I am hooked. I love informative content-rich sites and clicking on the talk by Clive Hamilton about 'Consumerism, Self-Creation and Prospects for a New Ecological Consciousness' led me in turn to a lecture series called Rethinking Our Place in Nature.

There's more on Slow TV including Helen Garner on her influences and inspirations. We can't get Helen's books easily in the Americas, so this video is a great introduction to her thoughts and wisdom. Are things really this cool in Australia?

Martin Hughes: Well, no, I don't think things are really this cool in Australia. It's certainly dynamic and bursting with new ideas but it's not an idyll of slow by any means (as demonstrated by our new workaholic prime minister, who's burning out the civil service by making them work around the clock).

I am aware of the growing popularity of the word 'slow' that is, as you say, percolating but I'm not sure what kind of brew we're going to end up with. Slow, in the context we use it (the opposite to fast), is a loose term as it is, and difficult for many people to get their heads around. I'd be concerned about the overuse of the word merely for marketing purposes. Slow TV is a great site, a terrific forum for ideas a la the Ted Talks. But apart from a few individual themes, there's nothing particularly slow about it. And it obviously makes it harder for us to promote our idea of 'slow' (living more and fretting less) when a big local publisher applies the term to the audivisual component of its website. So these two elements of slow are working against each other in a sense, which will only make it more difficult for a sense of slow to permeate the mainstream. If this is happening in a city like Melbourne, imagine how many mixed messages will be produced globally?

Ron Mader: What is the future of the 'Slow Guides' series? Will there be more titles or second editions?

Martin Hughes: We're currently working on slow guides to London and Dublin, and plan on publishing two North American titles in late 2009.

Ron Mader: What I love about your blog is the way that introduces history lessons. Examples: In Hip, Hip Hooray you profiled Melbourne's August 30 birthday and you spotlight the ordinary in features on found photos. Travelers are often subjected to very long and tedious speeches about history by dull guides. You blog and your books are quite the opposite. What in your opinion are recommendations for good history writing and good history guiding?

Martin Hughes: When I used write travel guides, I loved the challenge of taking a dry subject and trying to bring it to life with lively writing and relevance to now. The greatest influence for me is probably being Irish (living in Australia). We're passionate about history in Ireland, particularly our own, and there's even a slight competitiveness among people to know the most. When we talk of belonging to a tribe, it's really about a shared history I believe. When I'm Ireland I love the fact that I can talk to a stranger in a pub and already know so much about them, already have such a deep and mutual understanding of who, why and what we are.

It's very different in Australia. Perhaps because white history is so short and indigenous history is so...fraught, knowing history is not a fundamental of this society. Sure, 'officially' they'll say it is. But the focus for this young nation seems to be on historical events that provide an often skewed sense of self and national identity, rather than an understanding of where we've come from and where we're going.

So, to address your question (which I suppose might help) I guess we have to be passionate about learning, understanding and sharing history. Present history where people don't expect it. Infect them with an enthusiasm for learning the stories behind everyday things. Focus more on compelling and colourful detail rather than getting hung up on dates. Edit yourself, make it palatable. Trust yourself to provide an accurate sense of the history rather than every detail you've learnt. I don't know. I'm afraid of sounding like an amateur academic. I guess you just need to feel it, not fake it.

Ron Mader: I was listening to an outstanding conversation about the future of the book -- -- which prompts this question. Are you thinking about making your books available in digital format, something I can take to Australia on my iPod? And then what's the future of the series in 5-10 years? Slow travel is here to stay, the published book I have my doubts about ... and I say that acknowledging that your series is the best of the best! Please let us know what the status is of your catalog, which books are coming out and when.

Martin Hughes: Funny you should mention that because I've got a meeting next week researching the options for digitising content. I've got some good ideas for slow in particular and am excited by the prospect of marrying soulful content with the latest technology (like an iPod app, for example). But, to be honest, as much as I know electronic publishing is coming and will probably be the future, I'm not across it as much as I could be. It feels a bit like the internet 10 years ago, with people scrambling to be at the forefront of the technology and hoping they'll be well-placed when someone works out how to make a buck out of it. But I think books will always have a place in the market and, mindful of the competition, we make sure we produce books that look and feel good, that appeal to the senses and feel like they've got soul. Speaking of which, we are publishing slow guides to Dublin and London in March and April respectively, at which time we will also be publishing the first two books in the series, Melbourne and Sydney, in the British and Irish markets. Fingers crossed!

The conversation continues with Martin Hughes.


Martin Hughes
Slow Guide Melbourne, Affirm Press, 2007
Slow Guide Melbourne

Martin Hughes
Slow Guide Sydney, Affirm Press, 2007
Slow Guide Sydney


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Welcome to a calmer world, a place to celebrate pleasure over pressure, quality of quantity and mindfulness over mindlessness - the online equivalent of a long, deep breath.
- Martin Hughes


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