Tim Moore is no stranger to perverse, if not to say downright masochistic, journeys.
Previous books have seen him trudging across Iceland in emulation of a Victorian adventurer, diligently cycling the whole route of the Tour De France and winging his way around London in pursuit of all the sites on the Monopoly board. For a humorous travel writer often described as the natural heir to Bill Bryson, Moore perhaps suffers for his art more than most. And here he seems intent on causing himself as much unpleasantness as possible.
Having once accidently visited Leysdown-on-Sea, the Kent town voted ‘the second worst seaside resort in Britain’, Moore opts now to embark on a tour of the nation’s least admired places: ‘the unloved, the rundown, the half-arsed and the hideous.’ If that were not enough, this odyssey is to be conducted in an Austin Maestro - the last ever British-built, mass-produced family car and a vehicle so badly designed that its windscreen would pop out when jacked up to change the tires.
With in-car entertainment provided by the worst British records ever made (Babylon Zoo, Bucks Fizz etc.,), a sat nav voiced by one Ozzy Osbourne (on the grounds that a 2008 survey concluded that the Brummie accent was the ‘most disfavoured variety of British English’), and an itinerary that ranges from such faded watering holes as Rhyl and Great Yarmouth to Cumbernauld, the concrete new town that its own residents petitioned to have demolished, Moore can hardly be accused of shirking. Arguably, a bigger problem is an overlabouring of this comic conceit. Rather as in a science fiction novel where normality is arbitrarily suspended, so the opening twenty-odd pages can feel somewhat weighted with self-justifying exposition for what will follow. And there are certainly times, like the moment where he speeds away from the failed Humber ferry port New Holland to the strains of Jonathan King’s ‘Una Paloma Blanca’, where a rigid adherence to the concept starts to feel gratuitous.
In clumsier hands, all of this could slip too readily into the snide or tasteless. But aside from an alarming penchant for rendering regional speech phonetically, Moore is alive to those dangers. His sharp wit, and the quips come quick and fast, is underscored by compassion. He has nice things to say about Billy Butlin. He apologizes to Wolverhampton for not fitting their city in here. In Hull, recounting a tale of civic woe that combines industrial decline with local government mismanagement of catastrophic propositions, his dismay is palpable. And surveying a new Tesco superstore on the site of Gateshead’s Trinity Square car park, the multi-storey Brutalist monster that appeared in Get Carter, he becomes positively, nostalgic for its ‘provocative ghastliness’.
Time and again, he is simply left wondering (not unreasonably) what some communities are supposed to do after the economic imperatives that nourished them have long gone. In place of fishing, manufacturing and mining, or even municipal pigheadedness, he encounters shopping centre after shopping centre of ‘pawnbrokers, tanning salons and grimy, greasy takeaways’. Their constant recurrence become for him, a decidedly ominous indicator of corporate reach and Britain’s flaky fiscal situation. Though frequently wonderfully silly, Moore’s book proves an almost disarmingly thoughtful canter through so much of the unloved of our land.
Travis Elborough is the author of Wish You Were Here: England on Sea.