Review Essay: Peter Davis

Peter Davis

Most travel literature is concerned with both the ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ of the travel experience. The micro environment surrounding the traveller and their immediate physical surroundings is either contrasted to or paralleled with the macro of the meaning of travel and the meta travel experience. On an even smaller scale there is the microcosm that exists inside the traveller, the environment of his or her own thoughts and experiences confronting the macrocosm of the wider human experience, which is often magnified by the very process of travelling.

Journalist and travel writer Peter Davis explores and contrasts the micro and macro of the travel experience in his articles and photo essays. Davis’ skill is a journalistic one, regularly employing a feature writer and documentary photographer’s ability to report the facts of what is seen and experienced, and let those facts be the story. Rarely in the four articles explored 1 does Davis stray from simply recording the experience, allowing the beauty, strangeness or perceived peculiarity reported in plain terms be the story. This presentation of a perceived truth in a journalistic style gives the work a credible quality and allows the reader to believe that Davis did experience everything he presents, just as it was written. It also creates the space in which the reader can reflect on the meta experience in their own terms. By reading of Davis’ personal, micro experience confronting and interacting with a foreign and bewildering place, so too can the reader confront and interact with concepts of the wider human condition, the bewildering and foreign world we inhabit, and the vast, unexplored territories within each of us.

Davis generally employs a feature writing framework in his articles. His leading sentences are strong and immediately ‘hook’ the reader. The first paragraph clearly sets the scene and eruditely outlines the subject of the rest of the article, giving a balance of enough ambiguity to create intrigue, and sufficient detail that the reader can ascertain quickly what the article is about and if it is going to be of interest. Davis’ photographer’s eye is also clearly evidenced in his ability to create strong visual images through his writing, to render vivid portraits of individuals and to pose these individuals against backdrops that speak of a more philosophical framework.

Davis’ article ‘Bollywood blockbuster’, opens with the most arresting sentence. Coincidentally, of the four articles investigated, this article has the strongest representation of Davis as a character within his own narrative. This article also references the meta environment of travel writing. In the first paragraph Davis mentions that he is ‘on an assignment to write about the colossal film industry’, and the resultant story itself is both an article on the Bollywood film industry and his personal experience and interaction with it. He doesn’t mention his writing assignment again, which sets up the possibility that this is his more personal, reflective and direct response, and that elsewhere there exists his reportage on the subject.

‘Home stretch’ investigates the meta experience of travel in more depth than the other selected works. The article is mostly about an aspect of the experience of travel itself, rather than the particular incident of catching a bus to Bendigo from the airport. The opening par here is cleverly constructed in that it spells out the subject in the first statement, which is simply the two words ‘Going home.’ Davis very effectively lays out the subject matter and immediately creates interest. All readers, regardless of their level of travel experience have the experience of ‘going home’ and ‘going home’ itself doubles as a metaphor, a potential spiritual or emotional journey, and an immediately quirky contrast to other travel articles, which are usually about going from home to another destination.

‘Mexico city’ is written initially differently from the other articles, it is not until paragraph 7 that Davis directly references himself in the article. The opening par here is factual and descriptive, and the first seven paragraphs of the article are feature writing style reportage, describing the Mexico City zocalo and providing researched information to enhance the description. The use of the word ‘precisely’ in the first sentence is the hook, creating both a very narrow focus from which to expand outwards, and an interesting and immediate mental contrast with the reader’s possible preconceptions of Mexico City. It has the effect of an image taken by a close up lens expanding outwards into a panaromic view.

In ‘Windows 2002′, Davis again employs the format of writing about his experience of being on a writing assignment. His opening par has the quality of fiction writing, setting up an immediate tension between Davis watching from inside the vehicle and the Banjara salt seller on the side of the road. There is a definite cinematographic quality to the opening paragraph. This article is chronologically the last of the four to be written, leading to an inference that this approach is potentially an evolution in style for Davis.

Davis excels in the presentation of himself as character, a necessary element that elevates a travel article out of the realm of description and information (micro), into the arena of metaphoric narrative and the more macro commentary on the human condition. Davis counterbalances this with the introduction of vivid and memorable portraits of people he meets on his travels. These quick, often one paragraph vignettes serve multiple purposes in Davis’ approach to travel writing. They work as a foil for Davis’ own character and create either a tension or set up an opportunity for Davis to reveal more about either his personal experience in the location, or the location itself. The characters often raise or personify a moral or ethical issue that Davis later expands on, similar to how a photojournalist’s portrait can be interpreted as being loaded or politically nuanced.

57 year old Augustin in ‘Mexico City’ is a focus point for discussing globalisation, shifting generational attitudes and living conditions of Mexico’s working poor. Carlos the taxi driver from ‘Mexico City’ is a perfect ending to both the story and for rounding out Davis’ rendering of the effects of globalisation, modernity and tourism. Mr Arjun and Raja of ‘Bollywood blockbuster’ are almost too perfect and coincidental for a journalist looking to capture the magic and chaos of Bollywood and for reinforcing Davis’ own opinions on India. Sam of ‘Home stretch’ is interesting in his own right, but also allows Davis the room to showcase his humanitarianism when he invites someone who Davis claims carries the ‘smell of the streets’ to his lunch table and later furnishes this person with his mailing address. The uncooperative bus driver in ‘Home stretch’ is both comic and perfect for creating some dramatic tension for our hero, who must then embark upon a Homeric type quest to purchase a ticket, complete with the riddle of the phone call and the valiant challenge to keep the driver from leaving while Davis ran to procure local currency. The mother of the sari wearing daughters in ‘Windows 2002′ points to the disintegration of minorities in the face of modernity, and again allows Davis the opportunity to shine as a man of the people, exiting the confines and comforts of the chauffeur driven vehicle to ask the big questions.

As a journalist and feature writer Davis is successful in his aim to deliver factual information and entertain the reader. The depth of research is occassionally evidenced in peculiar ways, which gives Davis’ articles a special quality of imparting something new to the reader and highlighting Davis’ ability as a journalist to uncover hidden stories and find obscure information. Figures on truck hijackings in Mexico city appear to follow on from Davis’ observation of street hawkers, while an off hand comment from a modern day shaman leads Davis first to a McDonald’s restaurant, and then to locating the photographer responsible for the framed images decorating that McDonald’s. This sequence in itself is a triumph, not only is it unexpected, creates interest in the story and delivers new information, it paints Davis again as a kind of travel hero who goes on strange quests, has incredible good luck and manages to make meaningful personal connections.

While the four articles combined are not intended to be viewed as a sequential development and overview of Davis’ style and constitute only a small fraction of his total output, the articles none the less give an interesting snap shot into Davis’ approach and attitudes to the genre. His ability to hook the reader in the first sentences and provide detailed information while maintaining the reader’s interest are a craft honed as a feature writer. Using words to render vivid pictures and switching from a close up to a more wide angle view directly reference his skill as a photographer, but it is Davis’ presented identity as a traveller who takes risks, engages with the locals, asks big questions and follows whims and instincts to uncover hidden stories is what makes his travel writing so exceptional. This quality, alongside his contrasting of the micro and macro of the experience into something readers can relate to and learn from expand his articles from pure reportage to explorations of issues relating to modernity, morality and mutual experience.

Annotated Bibliography

1. Mexico City
Davis, P, 2002, Eureka Street, vol 12, no. 7, September, pp24-6.
Davis’ article reporting on his travels and experiences in Mexico City. This article is informative and entertaining, and highly descriptive. Written either before or at a similar time to ‘Windows 2002′ but after ‘Home stretch’ and ‘Bollywood blockbuster’, it evidences a stylistic development in Davis’ ability to describe, and a continuation of exploration of themes and issues relating to the pressures of globalisation and modernity on the working classes.

2. Home Stretch
Davis, P, 2001,The Sunday Age, 29 July
Davis discussing the aspects of the end of a journey. An initially more abstract article that provides background to Davis’ views on the transformative qualities of travel, of the impact of travel expereinces on the development of self and identity, and of the four articles reviewed, is chronologically the first example of Davis as a type of ‘hero’ character, an idea that recurrs in later writing.

3. Bollywood blockbuster
Davis, P, 1998, The Age, 6 June, p 130
Reflections on Davis’ experience investigating the Bollywood film industry. The most vividly painted and descriptive of the four articles, with the strongest example of Davis as a character within his own narrative. The character of Davis and his experiences are central to the story and to Davis’ aim to portray his views of the magic, chaos and peculiarity of India.

4. Windows 2002
Davis, P, 2003, Meanjin, vol. 62, no. 1, March, pp. 34-41
An article on travel, windows, framing and social theory. The most abstract of the four articles, with the most reference to Davis’ overall experience as a traveller and the theoretical frameworks surrounding travel. This article breaks away from the travel story mould and explorers windows as metaphor, device and counduit.

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