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Spanish Steps Hardcover – 26 Aug 2004
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If Tim Moore's Spanish Steps is a prime example of a new kind of travel writing--sardonically funny, quirkily observed and full of bizarre detail--that's good news for readers; if Bill Bryson has forged a whole new genre, who can complain if other writers plough similar fields? Particularly if they do it with as much gusto as Tim Moore. In fact, Moore is actually a rather more penetrating writer than the better-known Bryson, and this tale of a foolhardy pilgrimage with a recalcitrant donkey makes some salient points in between the healthy crop of stinging one-liners.
Moore had been fascinated by stories he'd heard of pilgrimages which many Europeans had taken through sultry and unwelcoming Spanish terrain to Santiago de Compostela. The sub-title says it all: "One Man and his Ass on the Pilgrim Way to Santiago"--and Moore's treacherous donkey is as much a character as the bizarre dramatis personae the author encounters. Everything is against him: weather that saps his resolve at every step of the way, impossible dormitories (some of the funniest sections of the book), eccentric fellow travellers, and an animal that, if it could speak, would be constantly asking "is this journey really necessary?"
Amid the acres of scary impediments that fall into Moore's path, a whole host of detail crowds in that makes Spain come to vivid life: we're given a seat-of-the-pants experience quite as memorable (and occasionally painful) as the author's. The descriptions are priceless:
Unexpected confrontation with full-frontal, Pilsner-bellied German nudity was an occupational hazard in any refugio bathroom (the man's) wrinkled pilgrim parts now rested on the rim of the sink I was waiting to clean my teeth inBut many serious points are made--always lightly--about a million subjects (not least the lessons of history) in the delightful pages of Spanish Steps. --Barry Forshaw
'Andrew Sachs's deadpan reading is a joy' -- The Guardian
'At last, a travel book that makes you think but also makes you laugh out loud.' -- Sue Arnold, The Guardian --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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We have a bit of an in-joke in our family about FLAN and it's nice to see someone else with the same sense of humour.
Of the two protagonists, it's difficult to work out which of them is the more photogenic, but I think the four legged one wins on points.
Santiago de Compostela is actually quite a lot nicer than poor Tim's experience but his descriptions of the wretched outskirts of the very nice cities there is totally accurate.
I'm just off to buy all his other books now. I'm so pleased I read this as it's introduced me to a really funny writer.
The reader gets used to the same daily pattern; making detours because the Donkey refuses to cross bridges, battling against heat/rain, getting to the next town, finding somewhere to tie-up the Donkey, sourcing Donkey food, trying to bag a bed in another stark hostel, enjoying food/beer/brandy, struggling to sleep because of snoring pilgrims, being awoken early by a braying Donkey, and then the same again & again.
Moore's fellow Pilgrims mostly have deeper or more fundamental reasons to be there; escaping daily life, dealing with divorce, to find themselves, to cope with grief or just to drink in a different bar, every night, for 6 weeks. We are introduced to a Motley crew of various characters, all making the same journey West, although none of them are painted so sympathetically or deeply that you really invest in their tales. Strikingly perhaps, against a backdrop of Saints, Churches, Sins and Miracles, Moore largely steers clear of examining the religious element of his fellow travellers modern-day pilgrimages. The author - for his own part - seems there purely for an unusual challenge that he can write a book about, and thankfully never wanders into too much soul-searching, he generally has plenty of earthly questions to contend with, like 'where can I leave my Donkey where it won't be attacked or stolen?'. The section when his family joins him for a few days is very welcome and you get a sense of the sacrifice he made to leave home for such a long time for 'work'.
This is my 3rd Tim Moore book (after starting with 'Cyclist who went out in the cold' and then trying 'French Revolutions').
I bought it as i'd enjoyed 'Cyclist WWOIT cold', love Spain and generally enjoy reading about these sort of journey/sporting/expedition adventures. Rather like 'French Revolutions' you could argue that with this book, Moore - though undeniably a funny and a talented writer - has again attempted 3 different things at once; doing them all pretty well but none of them brilliantly (Camino travel guide, Donkey droving handbook and Spain/Donkey/Pilgrimage comedy). It's interesting and gives a decent account of the varying geography, accommodation, weather, fellow pilgrims, locals etc. that the average 'Camino' could comprise, it also teaches us a fair bit about Donkeys (!) but overall I couldn't describe it as gripping or life-changing. It provides neither the fascinating history, sheer physical challenge or the contrasting cultural insights that made 'Cyclist WWOIT cold' so readable.
1 criticism that I have to make, which the writer thankfully reins-in in his later books is (and yes I dug around on google to find the terminology) his Grandiloquence, i.e. unnecessarily convoluted language, that means many of the pages give the impression of an arrogant English Undergrad trying to wind-up their Tutor. At best it is challenging (if mildly irritating) and at worse it simply means that entire paragraphs have to re-read as you realise you have no idea what he's saying!
I recognise that part of a writer's job is be to stretch & educate the reader, but i do wonder if he risks alienating 90% of his potential readership when every other page is stocked with words like Ululation, Stentorian, Denouement, Effusiveness, Comestible, Exhortation, Licentiousness, Peregrination, Fulminates, Elucidated, Bibulous, Soliloquy...
Feedback must have got back to him, because later works don't suffer the same.
Although not a thrilling ride, I was glad to struggle on to the end of the book, and perhaps, like the agreeable 'Pilgrim' who penned it, i ended up satisfied that i'd completed it, even if I didn't find exactly what I expected. The heroes of the story, perhaps inevitably, are the big-hearted locals, showing memorable kindness to travellers they will probably never see again their whole lives, and - for me - if there is an uplifting takeaway, its not the Pilgrims who've flown in trying to fix their lives with 6 weeks of bunk-rooms, blisters and Brandy, but the friendliness of the people in those beautiful parts of Iberia (Navarra, La Rioja, Castilla y Leon, Galicia) that Moore & Shinto trudge though on their journey.
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