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How to take "a crash course in grubby discomfort"
on 17 February 2012
Setting on impulse out for a day trip "in that faraway time before such whimsy was dashed away by parenthood", Tim Moore ends up by accident in Leysdown-on-Sea, and is amazed at "how a fog-smothered mudbank in the Thames Estuary had ever become a holiday resort in the first place", and, more importantly, how he had being living his life entirely ignorant of its existence. Memories of that visit had "matured over the years into our yardstick for seaside misery, a metaphor for any truly terrible place".
But could it have really been that bad? And what about all those other places which by reputation had become a byword for the truly awful?
So Tim set himself a challenge: the Road Trip From Hell. "If I was to visit the worst British towns, then it seemed only appropriate to stay in the worst hotels. To go to the worst restaurants and eat the worst food. Drink in the worst pubs, see the worst sights, drive the worst car while listening to the worst music."
His vehicle of choice was that design classic the Austin Maestro, a car with wheels that would randomly detach themselves, leaks everywhere (in bad weather some drivers had to resort to wearing a raincoat) and a permanent oil stain in your driveway. His in-car soundtrack was 358 of the very worst of British music, as voted for by us in innumerable polls, "The tuneless, the endless, the cloying, the Wurzels".
He assaults his digestive system with a succession of culinary challenges, including Grabits Original Chicken on a Stick, "75g of impaled poultry, reduced to clear at 90p ... the most tasteless substance I have ever willingly put into my mouth, and that included the many strips of the Guardian newspaper I chose to ingest during childhood"; spam fritters, "those battered roundels of mechanically recovered meat which absorbed whatever it was they were fried in with rapacious efficiency: you pressed one flat with the side of your knife and a shiny, viscous puddle seeped out across the plate"; a Middlesbrough Parmo, that regional fast-food phenomenon which is "a cheerfully dumbed down take on an Italian classic"; and Chinese Lemon Chicken, whose chief ingredients are lemon curd and chicken powder. And he soon realises that, in Scotland, the word 'supper' as in 'pizza supper' simply means 'and chips'.
A regular phenomenon in the places he visits is the proliferation of tanning salons, which "seem to echo an inter-war builder's attachment to pebble-dash: a cost-effective way to conceal exterior shoddy work, especially in weather-beaten places". In Middlesbrough in particular he soon becomes "well acquainted with the city's curious two-tone populace: half the young women hewn from waxy lard, and half from a solid block of microwaved bacon".
Tim's comic odyssey takes in Merseyside, where he warms to the buildings more than the people. "I find Liverpudlians a rather contrary bunch," he observes. "Their default civic mentality is a strange blend of chippiness and superiority ... Liverpudlians remain convinced that it is the secret and dearest wish of every world citizen to have been born a Scouser." But he is impressed to learn that Hamilton Square in Birkenhead is home to more Grade 1 listed structures than any address in England except Trafalgar Square. In Cumbernauld he is chased out of town by a 'ned' (defined as a "young man in a baseball hat who hangs about the streets drinking Buckfast") as a suspected paedophile, his protestations of innocence not helped by having a two pairs of damp underpants smeared in hand cream on the passenger seat of his Maestro. Hawick, "famous for knitted socks, being pronounced 'hoick' and ruining the Borders". And Merthyr Tydfil, which "stands alone as Britain's capital of blank-faced, empty-headed, chip-fed loitering" and where a pub visit was "like Last of the Summer Wine scripted by Irvine Welsh" -- but which is also the birthplace of Viagra.
But do not think that this book is simply a humourless, misanthropic rant at the poor and the disadvantaged. It is a celebration of finding the good in the bad.
Tim grows to admire the dedication of the ordinary man and women in the pursuit of pleasure, which seems to increase the further north he travels. In the North East his fears on a night out in Newcastle are soon allayed by the bacchanalian excesses around him ("Geordies aren't so much hard as incorrigibly debauched, to the point of derangement"). He reserves particular admiration for the Scotland, where the passion for tanning salons, fatty food, smoking and drinking are "Scotland's determined one-nation assault on global trends in human life expectancy", and he soon realises that "when it comes to exploring novel and dangerous means of inebriation, no one puts in the R&D hours like a Scotsman".
These ordinary folk, Tim realises, have just been doing their best in the face of a destructive tide of postwar decline, the town planners' love of concrete Brutalist architecture, and Thatcherism laying waste to traditional heavy industries. As his tour progresses, Tim comes to value their outlook on life. "I had taken a crash course in grubby discomfort, and relearnt the lost native skills of taking the rough with the smooth, looking on the bright side, making the best of a bad job."
"How glad I was to have celebrated, and in the nick of time," Tim concludes, "an age when this country of mine wasn't afraid of doing things its own way, even if it meant doing them really badly."
Homour writing is a rare skill to get right, and humour travelogues are particularly difficult, but Tim is a master of the genre.
A book to make you cry - with tears of laughter.