I was very much taken with Joe Bennett's 2005 book A Land of Two Halves, which was a hitchhiker's view of New Zealand. Not the view of the kind of hitchhiker who is young and eager, poor but fit: Bennett is a middle-aged balding former teacher who left England years ago to become a journalist in New Zealand, and decided one day to get to know his adopted country by putting his thumb to work, hitching around, meeting lots of people and writing it all down. He did, and it worked a dream, because he met lots of interesting people, reacted to them enthusiastically and wrote well about them.
Now Joe Bennett has done it again, but over here in Britain. In a book called Mustn't Grumble (Simon & Schuster) and subtitled An Accidental Return to England, he has chronicled a recent journey around England, and my heart goes out to him, because I don't think he enjoyed it as much as he had hoped to.
He set out to hitch his way around the country, but gave up because nobody stopped to pick him up, and borrowed a car. (Should have gone by train. That's where you meet people.)
He found himself in some very shabby B&Bs. He went into lots of pubs to meet and talk to people, and sometimes drew the short straw, met no-one and went back to the B&B to read.
He gravitated to places which were not, frankly, ever going to be terribly glamorous (Wigan, Morecambe, Fleetwood, Hull), and even when he gets to scenic towns, he views them with a slightly jaundiced eye, as in Durham, where he says:
"I head back into town via the Kingsgate Bridge, designed by Sir Ove Arup. There's a bust of him looking like either a cheerful Philip Larkin or a glum Eric Morecambe. He was, it says, 'a doyen of total architecture', whatever that may mean, and his bridge won a 'mature concrete structure' award in 1993. From it, I can see several older bridges, all of them more graceful, their designers anonymous ... The steep and narrow medieval streets of Durham are busy with students whose accents would fit nicely into Oxbridge but whose exams results didn't..."
One reason why Bennett's tone is slightly flinty is that, without any other obvious framework, he has set himself the task of following in the footsteps of HV Morton. Morton wrote In Search of England in 1926, and went off in search of thatch and village greens and old crafts. As Bennett notes drily, it's odd to write about England in 1926 and not mention the General Strike. Bennett had once been intoxicated with the book, and still finds enough charm in it to trace the old chap's path, but as Morton was determined only to find signs of pre-Great War England, Bennett finds the going 80 years later pretty tough. Back to Durham again:
"Morton dined each evening on standard English food and this evening I do the same. I have a curry. For according to a report I read in the paper, the average Brit has a curry twice a week. That's an annual total of more than six billion curries. Forget bacon and eggs. Forget roast beef. Curry is now the national dish of Old England. I've never liked it much. When I was a youth, the Indian restaurants were busy only when the pubs were closed. From 11 o'clock each night they did a brief fierce trade. Throughout that time, neither the lager tap nor the racial jokes stopped pouring, and the owner kept a cleaver under the till..."
Yet despite the sighing and tut-tutting, Bennett remains upbeat, as if disapproval also cheers him up. It's a very funny book, and there are some nice set pieces, such as the Boy Scouts parade in Tavistock, his efforts to witness an election night in Shrewsbury, his terror at having to look over the top of Wales's tallest waterfall, Pistyll Rhaeadr, and even - most unusual for a travel book - a sexual escapade after a disco in Hull, which is actually vaguely reminiscent of his visit to the Welsh waterfall.
Not that we get many details.
"Morton," writes Bennett, "never wrote explicitly about sex, and after giving the matter some thought, I'm not going to either." So old Morton did come in useful after all.Reuse content