There was a time when travel books were straightforward things. You roamed, then you wrote. These days, it often seems that getting a travel book into production is not unlike getting a Hollywood screenplay green-lighted: it's all in the pitch, the twist. No longer is it enough to traverse a famous mountain range; you must take a large musical instrument with you.
As someone who has toured Spain with a donkey, played real-life Monopoly, and retraced the steps of a Victorian-era Arctic explorer, Tim Moore knows more about the high-concept evolution of travel writing than most. Moore is now so seasoned in his neo-gonzo adventures that he can make hunting down all 14 contestants to score zero points in the Eurovision Song Contest since 1975 (when the current rules were imposed) seem like a near-organic endeavour.
The first few pages of Nul Points are simultaneously bewildering and over-familiar, as we're thrust into Moore's world. Here it's not unusual to set off impetuously for Norway in pursuit of an apparent nonentity best known for embarrassing himself in front of millions in a pair of braces. His assignment is similar to Andrew Smith's in the astronaut-tracing Moon Dust: tracking down a bunch of (mostly) ageing eccentrics. But Smith was meeting men who took a large step for mankind; Moore is meeting minor musical talents who couldn't scrape one point in the trashiest pop extravaganza on earth. But in the lives of those he meets, there is frequently more heartbreak and eccentricity than in the most hard-bitten serious rocker's.
Moore's subject matter makes this shooting-fish-in-a-barrel stuff, comedy-wise. But he couldn't have known the wonderfully odd nuggets he would get from his national pop villains - like Norway's Jahn Teigen, who once almost replaced Peter Gabriel in Genesis and celebrated his zero score by becoming arguably Europe's most prolific songwriter, and his countryman Finn Kalvik, a Hemingway obsessive who became the suicidal butt of a celebrated comic routine as a result of his miserable 1981 showing.
The overall result was perhaps always going to be throwaway fun, but there is something beautifully true to the Eurovision spirit about Nul Points. It's funny, unhinged, and you're not quite sure it needs to exist. But, in the end, you're glad it does.
Tom Cox's 'The Lost Tribes of Pop' is published by Piatkus
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