BOOK REVIEW / Mind-expanding packages for a misfit on the Costa: 'Here We Go' - Harry Ritchie; Hamish Hamilton - 10.99

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The Independent Online
WHILE Spain was showing itself off last year, hosting the Expo in Seville and the Olympic Games in Barcelona, and while Hispanophile authors were so sure of their market they were dispatching books with titles as simple as Spain and Spanish Journeys, Harry Ritchie headed, in disgust, for the coast.

Here We Go starts out as a hymn to the package holiday, the holiday that most people can afford, and sticks the middle finger up at the whimsies of travel writing snobs, who prefer to spend time with impoverished natives than bear the embarrassing sight of their benighted compatriots having a lark, en masse, on the costa.

Ritchie gives us a few examples of writers who have haughtily complained about tourism, and as literary editor of the Sunday Times, he has clearly had his fill of travel books. He likes to keep the offenders close at hand throughout the book and round on them from time to time, thus refreshing the aims he has set himself: not to sneer, not to leave the coast and not to be a pompous travel writer. His personal slogan might have been 'In your face, Edith Sitwell.'

What you get, he admits, is an extended version of what he did on his holidays. Or rather, on four holidays laid end to end. At first on his own, and later with friends or family, he goes from a sad, single misfit in a family hotel, to a drug-crazed nocturnal explorer in Torremolinos, a celebrity-spotter in Marbella and finally, touchingly, as a naughty uncle in the real-life Eldorado, which bears a striking resemblance to his home town of Kirkcaldy.

Leaving aside the odd swipe at the now battered representative of the travelling classes, he generally avoids getting serious. His mission is to go where no travel writer has gone before, and his style is a matey kind of banter just full enough of quips to keep you from wondering whether anything is going to happen. By the time he has settled into his first destination, Fuengirola, the package holiday is already looking pretty tatty: the other holiday-makers are morose, his single room is the size of broom cupboard and he is lonely.

Having successfully conveyed how dull the holiday routine can become - except when watching lithe Spanish teenagers on the beach - the pace picks up dramatically for two reasons: the arrival of his friend Paul and the liberal use of mind-expanding substances in Torremolinos. The self-deprecating, mildly funny chronicler of holiday angst becomes the intrepid regular of a street known as 'Combat Alley' - a locus of the sort of high-energy hedonism which owes a little to the Spanish indulgence towards any kind of fiesta and a lot to the single-mindedness of the tourists. Ritchie sounds like a British P J O'Rourke with his euphoric attitude to the recreational use of speed and dope, as part of his research, but he does nod in the direction of the dangers. He also develops a special interest in the prominent gay nightlife and describes it with a sharp observation which adds credibility to his offhand style.

Once Ritchie gets into his stride, the jokes come more easily and there are some hilarious vignettes, my favourite being the monologue of Maurice Boland, a self-made celebrity whose only claim to fame is that he 'discovered' Mandy Smith, the former Mrs Bill Wyman. His speech ends with a beef about bullshitters, 'But I'm different,' he says, 'I'm a product like a packet of cornflakes and I've begun to hype that product so I can make it back in Britain.'

Where the book flags is when Ritchie tries to justify the original theme, that the whole coastal development has been for the best. 'From Tenerife to Turkey to Tunisia the holiday industry has created cultural, economic, ecological and aesthetic problems but one of the places where you'd struggle to find convincing drawbacks is the Costa del Sol . . .' Unless that is, you're a snob. He says he tried but failed to find an Andalusian resentful of the tourists. But as we know he does not speak Spanish, this piece of data does not carry much weight.

Ritchie is better company when he just forgets about these bigger, complicated problems, and gets on with trying to have as good a holiday as possible, like normal holiday-makers do. Then it is just what he said it would be: an honest and very funny book about what he did on his holiday.