When you get bitten by the travel viper, it’s only a matter of time before the usual heavily-touristed destinations no longer satisfy. And so, with the narcotic venom of adventure coursing through your veins, you look for more and more remote destinations to visit, in the belief that the grass is always greener on the other side of the world.
For Australians there’s no place more remote than Iceland, and no place more different than our well-worn landscape. Yet here in Britain you’re tantalisingly close to its volcanoes, glaciers and powder-blue thermal pools.
When Jane and I moved to the UK we both fancied visiting Iceland, perhaps en route to the eastern US sometime; we even bought the LP. But things haven’t turned out that way. We haven’t been over to Boston, nicked off to New York, or rocked into Reykjavik. It looked like we would last year, with a friend of Jane’s; then, when we realised the prices quoted were out by a factor of two, it looked like only Jane would; then, thanks to various other complications, we went to Australia instead. Which was all well and beaut, but Melbourne and Tassie have no lava.
We had to settle for seeing another friend’s photos from her trip at around the same time, and figuring that we’d do it properly one day—three weeks of driving on dodgy roads around the whole island. Or maybe never do it, and just chalk it up to unexperience, like the flight to Zurich that never happened.
So it was with mixed feelings that I picked up Tim Moore’s travelogue about Iceland and other northern climes, Frost on My Moustache: The Arctic Exploits of a Lord and a Loafer. Would it be enjoyable, or would it just make me regret that we hadn’t got there?
Within a few dozen pages those concerns became irrelevant, as I realised that what I was holding in my increasingly eager hands may well be—and I don’t say this lightly, because I’ve read a hell of a lot of them in recent years—the funniest travel book I’ve ever read. It reminded me of the time I picked up a second-hand book about travelling around Europe by some American guy I’d never heard of, but who everyone soon had. Humorous travel writers must hate always getting compared to Bill Bryson (which hardly seems fair, since he practically invented the genre in its present form), but the comparison in this case is not so much between the individuals—they’re quite different in style, background, and approach—as in that sense of having found a true master: of knowing that this is the goods, and you want to read more, more, Moore.
So I did—all four of his books to date—but first things first. Frost on my Moustache is about Moore’s trip to Iceland, Norway, and beyond the Arctic Circle in the footsteps of a Victorian adventurer, whose forgotten book his wife had found in a second-hand shop (which makes me think that one day I should recreate Bryson’s journey in Neither Here Nor There). The Victorian in question, Lord Dufferin, turns out to have been a remarkable old duffer, blithely sailing past the pack ice to remote crags sticking out of the Arctic as if he were taking a quick spin around Windermere—giving Moore plenty of opportunity to play up the contrast between his lord’s courage and his own cravenness.
Still, he doesn’t do too badly himself. He starts by cycling across Iceland, which seems pretty brave when you consider the relative speeds of pedals versus fast-flowing lava. The Iceland passages are informed by previous visits (his wife’s from there), so he’s able to tell us a fair bit about the place. Then he latches onto a bunch of British sailors headed for Shetland; follows the tourist route up the fjords of Norway; catches an airforce plane to Dufferin’s remote crag (with mixed results); and ends up as far north in Europe as it’s possible to go, on the island of Spitzbergen.
Which is when reading the book really paid off. I may yet get to Iceland, but I don’t think I’ll ever reach that benighted rock; and after reading Moore’s brilliant final chapters on the place, I don’t feel the need to. They contain enough tales of crazy Norwegian biology students, empty hotels, abandoned Soviet bases and well-justified fears of polar bear attack to do me.
After finishing Frost I turned to his second book, determined not to repeat the mistake of reading an author’s complete works out of order. Continental Drifter: Taking the Low Road with the First Grand Tourist covered far more familiar ground than Frost, following as it did the path taken by the first person ever to travel around Europe for travel’s sake, not as part of a pilgrimage or crusade. Thomas Coryate was a very different man from Dufferin, and lived in a very different age; so even though the settings are more familiar, seeing them through his seventeenth-century eyes makes them strange again. In this book, Moore determines to do his own grand tour in flamboyant style, buying a used Roller and wearing a velvet suit for the duration; but we still end up admiring the staid Coryate for crossing France and Italy almost entirely on foot, on a shoestring (centuries before LP), and before anyone else did in quite the same way. I finished the book with renewed (perhaps even new) respect for the Alps, and a hankering to see Venice before it sinks beneath the waves with its last handfuls of Venetians on deck.
The cycling trip of Frost and the journey by foot of Coryate combine in Moore’s third book, French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France. Moore takes us through the history of this sporting institution as he rides the entire length of that year’s Tour a few months ahead of the real thing. Or most of the entire length—because, as others have done before him, he takes a few shortcuts (and a few performance enhancers) along the way.
I found this the slowest of his books to read, though I can’t entirely blame Moore for that: reading it three pages at a time on the top deck of a Lothian bus didn’t help. But a long cycling trip through (mostly) a single country does get pretty samey; there’s a limit to how many different ways you can say your legs were sore. That said, Moore performs his usual trick of always finding the funniest way to express things; and when I read the last third on the comfort of my own couch rather than en coach, it flew by like a drug-crazed Englishman on two wheels. French Revolutions also contains my single favourite passage of any of his books, which caused me to lose my composure and laugh out loud on a Scotrail train across the seat from two tight-lipped old ladies who were probably called Jean. I won’t spoil it by quoting it here, but will reveal that it’s on page 247 and involves leg-waxing.
I should quote something from his books, though, to give you a flavour of his style. This is from Frost on my Moustache:
Hot water [is] essentially free in Iceland. The land’s geological youth means an abundance of super-heated geothermal springs close to the surface. The near-boiling product is sent around Reykjavik in pipes, so that houses have hot running water, often routing it under the drive to melt the ice in winter. One of the municipal swimming pools gets through 1.3 million tons a day. ¶ But it has to be said that this water has a distinctive odour, which one may categorise as invigoratingly elemental if one works for the Icelandic tourist board, or as horrid eggy-smelly smell-smell if one doesn’t. ¶ One’s first Icelandic shower invites a terror that the sewers have blown back, and it takes some time to come to terms with bathing in a fluid that blackens your jewellery. On the other hand, I reflected as I flopped like an effigy on to my sleeping bag, it does mean that you can fart with impunity while doing the washing-up.
Moore was clearly left in a sporting mood after French Revolutions, because his fourth book is also about play: this time, a boardgame that almost all of us have. Do Not Pass Go: From the Old Kent Road to Mayfair visits every street on the UK Monopoly board, with stops at railways and the waterworks along the way. It’s an inspired way of writing about his home-town of London and childhood there, and fascinating to anyone who grew up with that board, even if it was on the other side of the world. (Not for much longer, though: an Australian Monopoly board appeared in the 1980s—with the streets I grew up in relegated to its cheapest properties—and for all I know, kids today are playing X-Box Monopoly set in the Star Wars multiverse and building hotels on Tatooine.)
Moore packs a wealth of detail about London’s changing face into Do Not Pass Go: the rise and fall of its major streets and districts; the shameful destruction of so many fine old buildings in the 1930s (not only, as you’d expect, during and after the Blitz); and the disappearance of the once-ubiquitous Lyons Corner Houses. He turns up dozens of quirky stories about the streets he visits, and adds a few of his own along the way; and he casts some Electric Company light on the quirkier choices of the Monopoly board’s designers (Why Marylebone Station and not Victoria? Where on earth is Vine Street?). It’s the work of a comic travel writer at the top of his game, and highly recommended if you have any interest in either of its main subjects.
His fifth book has just appeared in hardback, but I haven’t read it yet. Once again—like when I picked up his first—I’m not sure if I want to. Some friends of ours travelled through the north of Spain earlier this year, just after we were in the south, and San Sebastién and Santiago de Compostela sounded so beautiful that I’ve been thinking they could be a good excuse to revisit one of my favourite countries. Spain may not be as remote as Iceland (in fact it’s the country Britons now visit more than any other), but not all of it is heavily-touristed. But now Tim Moore has stolen what little thunder was left in my little black windbag by walking the pilgrim trail between those same cities. On a donkey.
Still, I don’t much doubt that I’ll soon be reading Spanish Steps: One Man and his Ass on the Pilgrim Way to Santiago. Moore’s just too good not to want more.