BOOKS: At sea with a bleating hearty in weed's clothing

Frost on my Moustache by Tim Moore Abacus pounds 10.99
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The Independent Culture
Lord Dufferin, full name Frederick Temple Hamilton Temple Blackwood, followed by many titles chiefly prefaced by Baron, Earl and Marquis, Governor-General of Canada, Viceroy of India, Her Majesty's Ambassador in Rome and Paris, self-effacing hero and sometime Arctic adventurer, set sail from Scotland in 1856 - his own yacht, naturally - to Iceland, then Norway, and thence to the icy wastes of Spitzbergen and back to his liveried servants, his mama and their estate of Clandeboye.

Tim Moore undertakes to re-enact the journey and, although a self- confessed wimp, to experience adversity with the same detached jocularity of his predecessor. He aims valiantly to out-Dufferin Dufferin, whose own travelogue, Letters From High Latitudes, was published in five editions and translated into French and Dutch. But valour doesn't really come into it - wherein lies the joke. For Moore, or so he would have us believe, is more of a duffer than a Dufferin, combining the haplessness of Lucky Jim with the bathos of Pooter.

He shares Bill Bryson's fondness for the funny fact, with Iceland as his special subject. Thus Moore observes that Icelanders are deeply modern in some ways (their early discovery of step aerobics and plastic-sheathed hay bales) and lamentably retrograde in others (the platform trainer has just made its mark). On occasion, the odd faux-fact creeps in: Iceland has more public baths than public houses (not true, it just seems that way).

From the outset, via several exquisitely embarrassing encounters - first in London, then as a weekend guest at Clandeboye - with Dufferin's descendant- in-law, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, known as Lindy, who pronounces Moore's slim book proposal "wonderfully jazzy", one feels one is in hands of a writer who is confident of his comic talent, if not much else in his haphazard life.

Calming his nerves with a jug of Bloody Mary in the privacy of his room at Clandeboye, before the inevitable onslaught of champagne and fine wines at dinner, one feared that Moore might not distinguish himself by chucking up. He manages to avoid social disgrace (Lady Dufferin even provides a puff: "I love this book") but, alas, once at sea, the author seems unable to do anything but vomit. I could probably have done with rather less on this, particularly as Moore is obliged to participate in at least four separate nautical adventures in order to fulfil his brief.

Dufferin, of course, in true uber-hero form, does not appear to suffer from sea-sickness, and gloatingly eavesdrops on a conversation between his lugubrious valet, Wilson, and his surgeon chum Fitz who does. Fitz, seeking reassurance that the nausea will soon pass, is informed by Wilson that, "They sometimes dies, sir." From this point on, Moore's allegiances shift - at first subtly, then bordering on mutinously - from Dufferin, with his blithe upper-class insouciance, to Wilson and his "miserable bastard" take on life.

Moore's is a farting, puking and quite often mewling odyssey; a boys' own adventure. Raindrops "sperm" their way across windows; mountains have snow wedged in their "gravelly buttocks"; ships blast loud farts; zoom-lens cameras sprout erections, ejaculate and detumesce. You get the picture. The book's title and cover - a frosty-tached walrus in Elephant & Castle pink - refer to an abysmal bestiality joke which Moore tells when very drunk for bonding purposes and which, fortunately for him, none of his sea-faring chums seems to understand, or it might well have resulted in our man overboard.

With details like this it would be easy to dismiss Moore's book as a sort of Viz in the Arctic, but his travels and travails are a great deal more beguiling than that. The high-point of his journey, when he does manage to out-Dufferin his predecessor, even if it is a bit of a cheat, is his mountain-biking ordeal across Iceland with his brother-in-law, Dilli (Spotty), as chaperon and guide. On their last day they manage to clock a staggering 121 kilometres, and we catch a brief glimpse of what I suspect is the real Moore: a hearty in weed's clothing who bleateth too much.

During his rare chunder-free moments, Moore turns to Dufferin's account of his own journey in an attempt to understand his deeper motivations. Why did he build a memorial, Helen's Tower, to his mother six years before her death? Was he an unforgivable bully under his gentlemanly demeanour? What was he trying to prove to himself by undergoing such a rigorous expedition? Dufferin's life unfolds like a sort of detective story, enlivened by some handsome line drawings which have been reprinted from his High Latitudes. Anyone expecting a parallel strain of self-revelation on the part of the author will be disappointed; Moore is not interested in illuminating his own shadows. Indeed, at times he comes across as one of those slightly insufferable, bright young Englishmen who jerks into quipping mode whenever a conversation threatens to get serious. So it is something of a relief when he drops his jaunty guard and just occasionally allows himself - and us - to get bowled over by what he is seeing: the drifting sculpture gallery of an icy lagoon "whose silent grandeur shook away the miles of accumulated misanthropy"; the abandoned marble quarry, the whalers' graves, and an Austrian's corpse in Spitzbergen's Magdalenafjord, which prompts Moore to consider the futility of man's efforts to bring life to the region.

But what he is best at are the comic interludes, and these often made me laugh out loud. He is left in charge of navigating a 62-foot boat leading a convoy of Viking vessels across the North Sea from Iceland to Norway, with hilariously predictable results. In one instance, his emotional constipation and his running bottom gag come together; Moore, sitting on the loo, mid- evacuation, is horrified when his cabin-mate, Pal, a morose policeman haunted by the bodies of the dead he encounters in his work, insists on telling him more stories about his "sad work ... a boy kill his mother with hammer ... so much blood ... one more boy kill his father with axe".

The butt of Dufferin's jokes is Wilson; with the exception of the odd German tourist, the butt of Moore's jokes is himself. He makes much of the extreme frugality of his tastes. Now normally I can't stand the company of tight-wads, but after sharing 280 pages with Moore, I'd have to make an exception in his case.