British Travel Books : Number 8
Travelling around the United Kingdom is a recurring theme in Mark Wallington’s books. Some of them are out and out travel books; Five Hundred Mile Walkies deals with the South West peninsular coastal path, Boogie up the River follows the Thames from London to its source in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds, Pennine Walkies takes in the Pennine Way (all featuring an amiable and disreputable dog companion), Destination Lapland (a bicycle tour that never gets to Lapland; never leaves these islands in fact) all follow the formula: first person narration of a journey with lots of information, anecdote and companionable presence of the storyteller. The one novel of his that I have read – The Missing Postman – is plotted around delivering random letters in a postman’s sack. In other words it is essentially a tour of Britain. I’ve bought and read all of the above so Mark Wallington has done very nicely out of me. On the whole though, I think I’ve had rather the better of the deal. He’s gained a few pounds (sterling). I’ve gained many hours of pleasure and plenty of chuckles and belly laughs. If you’re reading this Mark. Thank you very much indeed.My friend Jon thinks this is the best of the bunch. I’m not so sure. But then Jon is teaching his wife how to play the ukulele and this may be the key. The dear old ukulele is going through a late flowering in Britain. Seen by young music teachers as an alternative to the descant recorder in the ‘get everyone playing a musical instrument’ stakes, seen by older people as a late opportunity to pick up the musical instrument they always promised themselves they’d one day learn. And one that you can sing along to within an hour yet which has infinite possibilities in terms of progression. (Check out Youtube for many examples of virtuoso uke playing). At one time George Formby and Tessy O’Shea seemed to be the alpha and the omega, then George Harrison declared himself a devotee (he went to Joe Brown for advice and lessons*) and the popularity slowly (very slowly) spread. In the last ten years it has gone crazy. Everybody seems to own a ukulele (I have two!) and everybody seems to have discovered that they sound great accompanying rock’n’roll songs.The book is first rate on the appeal of this much maligned instrument (Hawaii’s contribution to musical heritage). Wallington is a little older than me (63), has lived his life through the rock and roll years, has had several careers, has decided that lack of ability means his dreams of reaching musical stardom by the conventional means of joining a five piece band with guitars, bass, drums and a piano player have come to nothing. So he’s bought a uke and is now setting out on an unofficial tour of Britain, travelling from Brighton to Cape Wrath playing his ukulele in every Open-Mic he can find.
N.B. An ‘Open Mic’ is a semi-formal singing session, usually in a pub where people get up and sing a couple of songs to a (usually) apathetic audience under the guidance of a host (who often hogs the microphone and plays most of the songs himself (it’s invariably a he)). Actually these are hit and miss affairs. Many are a little bit dreary, a little bit, well, er, dead. But if you get a good one it is buzzing. A succession of high quality musicians supporting each other and simply enjoying having a public sing. A free concert. A bloody good night out. Wallington experiences both ends of the spectrum. Both ends of the plectrum perhaps!
“A concert?!” said my wife.
She didn’t want to tell me the truth. “In front of people you don’t know?”
“My plan is to improve as I go along.”
“You don’t think this is a young man’s activity?”
“Bob Dylan is 70.”
“Bob Dylan started playing when he was a teenager.”
“So did I.”
She could see she wasn’t going to get anywhere down this track. She said, “It’s hard when the children leave. You’re bound to feel at a loss.”
“I’m not at a loss. A rock ‘n’ roll tour is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
“How can you do a rock ‘n’ roll tour on a ukulele?”
“I’ll show you.”
“No it’s all right … I believe you.”
“You think it’s a mid-life crisis, don’t you?”
“No. You’re too old for a mid-life crisis.”
It’s a book I can relate to on more than one level.
And so he sets off, by public transport. We get a feel of the country, of the towns he passes through, of the nerves required to even enter a pub carrying a musical instrument, let alone get up in front of strangers and play a couple of tunes. He’s a good travelling companion (something that is absolutely essential in a travel book. He genuinely likes the England (and eventually parts of Wales and Scotland) he is showing us. A nice mixture of diligent observer, decent wordsmith and is always quite happy to portray himself as a comic character; a sketch that is based on self-deprecation, insight and the skills acquired by a lifetime of being a professional comedy writer.
This is a polite and kindly observer. Not the sort to write a place off as awful or send someone up as ludicrous. Nevertheless there is a subtle pen at work here and a skilful satirist.
“There were indeed some grand and designer houses by the beach, but no one looked more proud of their property than the beach hut owners. In Lancing a couple were sitting out in front of theirs. She was knitting what looked like a map of South America. He was listening to the tennis on the radio. On the table between them sat a fruitcake and a pot of tea with a cosy.”
The journey is a pleasant one. This isn’t a major physical or emotional challenge as some journeys are. This is a gentle stroll, minstrel style, though the summer acres of Britain with musical interludes. The book is never short of entertaining, enlightening and at times very funny. Very few of us will ever tour as a Bowie or a McCartney or an Ed Sheeran but there are literally thousands of us who know what it is like to go down like a lead balloon (zeppelin perhaps) or receive an unexpected ecstatic response to our couple of songs in an open mic. What we mostly receive is polite indifference and Wallington is excellent on how this feels too.
I’d recommend any of Mark Wallington’s books. I think it probably helps to have been born between 1955 and 1965 to really get the full impact but I’m all in favour of privileging the late baby boomers. He made a name for himself as a script writer on Not the Nine O’Clock News (one of several high quality satirical shows from the BBC in the line of succession from Beyond the Fringe, That Was the Week that Was (TW3) and The Frost report. And the programme that introduced us to Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Rowan Atkinson). His books now fill half a shelf in my study and are all well thumbed. This is reading for pleasure. And why not? It is also a book that does what good travel books should do, and that is to make us want to get up and do it all for ourselves.
Pass me my ukulele I’m off on a road trip!
*They had toured together in the days before The Beatles found fame and he rang Joe Brown up years later and introduced himself with the wonderful words “Hello, I don’t know if you remember me. My name is George Harrison.”