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Unexpectedly Quite Brilliant
on 14 February 2012
I first picked this book up with a smug air of satisfaction: I was going to enjoy ripping this one apart. I had had enough of doing nice positive reviews, it was time for some good old fashioned vitriol and this tome- another road trip around the UK by some poncy metrophile southerner- would do the job perfectly.
And the first few pages appeared extremely promising in this regard; the prose came across as aloof and solidly within in the ageing, middle brow `Daily Mail' zone of humour. The sense that a precious, condescending take on the nether-regions of our battered Britain- dragged over the coals as they have been and left out to wither and die by the establishment elite for the last three decades- was in the offer only reinforced my sense of inverted glee. I was going to love tearing this one to pieces.
And then without any warning it all suddenly changed. Tim Moore started describing his purchase of an Austin Maestro and the history of the car with such affectionate pathos, coupled with a relentlessly funny narrative that literally had me in tears with laughter. And from thereonin, the book just got better, and better and better...
Now then, it has to be said that Moore's book unashamedly goes for laughs as its base point; but what's so good about his book, is that it isn't laughs at any cost and the humour isn't used as a shallow gloss to hide the experience he is really having. Nor, importantly, is his humour used to belittle the places and people he meets. It is in fact very cleverly, used to the opposite effect.
Moore's overall idea is wonderful in its simplicity- he decides to go to what are catalogued as the worst places in Britain, travelling in one of the worst cars we have produced, listening to the worst music we have ever knocked out, staying and eating in the worst places wherever possible.
This sets the scene for some wonderful but also extremely poignant set pieces throughout the book. Tim Moore never loses sight of his own pretensions and failings, and to my mind never loses sight of the humanity and grace- both past and present- in the places he visits either. This is a terrific accomplishment that the awful cover and title of the book doesn't do credit to, although I can understand the marketing executive demands for a book in this terrain.
Being from the North East originally myself, I found his journey through that region particularly good, although that is probably more personal bias than anything else, as all the areas he trundles through in his Maestro are treated with the same level of fascination and- dare I say it- more than a little bit of love. And I'm indebted to the author for explaining the origins of one of the NE's most peculiar fast food inventions- the parmesan or `parmo'- which was a complete education for me.
So without gushing on anymore, I would just say this is a great book well worth a read. His journey around the lost margins of the UK is affectionate, at times painfully acute and, by the end, actually quite moving. In fact behind the accomplished humour, there is a rich vein of some deeper issues to intellectually mine and mull over, and makes you realise that much of Britain these days is like the places described in this book, when you actually think about it. Beyond the hype and gloss of the London-bound media and it's luvvies, away from the Cotswolds and other gentrified pockets of provincial cities and shires, much of the British population are looking, numbed and a little shell-shocked, at the world around them and wondering... what the hell has happened to us, and why? Very much like, perhaps more than we'd like to admit, the seasoned citizens of Hull and Middlesbrough.
As an end note, I would just point out that this is an analysis of the UK that Jeremy Paxman would not be able to write. On that consideration alone, I think you should immediately get hold of, and read, this book.