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Tuesday, 24 July 2012
I'm part of a project called the Listserve, which gives one person each day (selected at random) the chance to email all the other people on the list. There are currently 20,000 people on the list, and the daily messages range from banal platitudes to personal stories to practical tips... and everything in between.
A couple of weeks back, one email really grabbed my imagination. Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist working on a book about big fish in small ponds, entitled The Best Water Skier in Luxembourg. From the The funding for this project is being handled through Unbound, a crowdsourcing website for the publishing industry. This means that you can help make it happen by pre-ordering a copy of the book (£20 hardback, £10 ebook).
I was sufficiently intrigued to get in touch with Keith, and we met up for coffee at the British Library cafe. And because I thought you might also be interested, I asked him a few questions about his work:
Why waterskiing? And why Luxembourg?
Well why not! The whole point of my project is to prove the point that people are interesting everywhere and if you take even the most random case studies you will find fascinating stories.
But to answer more directly, both Luxembourg and water skiing have a lot in common: everyone's heard of both but few people know much about either. Neither of them are completely obscure - there are thousands of water skiers and nearly half a million Luxembourgers - yet neither of them are big and powerful (as sports and as countries). I'm really drawn to things that are somewhere in the middle, neither the most obscure or the most famous. In fact, obscure, small worlds often have a certain noteriety which things in the middle don't have: so Andorra is probably better known than Latvia.
The actual concept of the best water skier in Luxembourg stems from something I used to say about myself. I'm a biggish fish in a couple of smallish worlds - the sociology of Anglo-Jewry and the sociology of heavy metal - so I used to say I was like the best water skier in Luxembourg. In spring 2011 I decided that I should actually try and meet my namesake - and the book was born!
So, you went to Luxembourg... did you try waterskiing while you were there?
No! Bizarrely enough I went in December when no one actually water skis!
What was the highlight of your visit?
I loved every minute of it. I'm never happier than when I'm discovering a world I know nothing about. But from a tourist point of view, the best thing was the spa I went to in Mondorf-Les-Bains, about 20 minutes east of Luxembourg City. I'm a big fan of saunas and they had a huge variety of them, as well as a gourgeous warm mineral spa pool. It's one of the best (and most reasonably priced) spas I've been to anywhere in the world.
Tell me a bit more about the other chapters you've planned.
At the moment the plan is to write chapters on the following:
– The most powerful politician in Alderney
– The Icelandic special forces
– Malta’s favourite soft drink
– The best-selling novelist in Suriname
– The most popular heavy metal band in Botswana
I've been to Iceland and Malta but not the other three places. I really hope I can raise enough funds to complete all the chapters!
How much travel had you done before embarking on this project? And what was your favourite trip / experience?
I've travelled a fair amount over the years. The absolute highlight for me was travelling round China in 1991. It was a perfect time to go - the country had opened up just enough to make backpacking viable, but it was not yet so developed as to have lost its soul. Outside the big cities foreigners were still a novelty so people were often incredibly friendly. Yangshou, near Guilin, is the most beautiful place I've ever seen and in 1991 it hadn't yet been completely touristified/backpackerified.
Your two academic niches are Judaism and heavy metal - so who's the best Jewish heavy metal group?
That would have to be Orphaned Land. They are an Israeli band who mix traditiona; Jewish/middle eastern music with metal. They are the only jewish-Israeli band to have a big following in the Muslim world. Here's a video:
As well as donating to your Unbound project, what are some of the other ways the travel community could help you succeed?
This is an expensive project to fund so I am looking for tourism authorities or travel companies to 'sponsor' my trips (in whole or in part). Any contacts in this area will be very welcome! Also, if any travel editors are reading this then I'd love to write a travel piece for you. I've already had one published on Luxembourg in the Guardian.
Other than that, if anyone knows any of the people and small worlds I am researching than I'd love to hear from you.
Thanks Keith. And good luck - I'm looking forwards to the finished book!