Bill Bryson and Stuart Maconie. So, when I was offered the chance to read a book described by the author as 'a travelogue adventure in a similar style to Bill Bryson' featuring a bicycle trip from Lands End to John O'Groats I plunged in, and I don't regret it.
Alistair McGuinness tells the story of a three-man trip over the 800+ mile trail that would sometimes test the individuals involved to the limit, but that also brought romance to one and a nightmare experience in a youth hostel to all. (The dog mentioned on the cover, incidentally, doesn't come into the story at all - it's just a postscript that somehow got into the subtitle.) The book is solidly written, and has been well edited. I never got bored or felt I wanted to give up on reading it. If I had to sum it up in one word I would say 'Pleasant.' Two words? 'Mildly pleasant.'
Unfortunately, it didn't really live up to the promise of being similar to Bryson's style. The key to good humorous travel writing is to skip the mundane and highlight (dare we even say exaggerate in some cases?) the unusual and extraordinary, injecting a sense of the absurd and delightful. There is too much writing in End to End along the lines of this extract: 'Breakfast was a quiet affair, broken by requests for water, juice, and more tea. Our cooked breakfast was served by a teenage waitress, who didn't hover at the table too long, except to collect orders for additional toast.' And I care about this because? It's a factual account, but it lacks any bite.
There is one well-flagged incident in the youth hostel visit, which had plenty of potential for humour, lacked pizzazz. We have a nice set-up with one of three cyclists saying he doesn't want to stay in a Youth Hostel, particularly with dormitories and organic muesli as breakfast. With a certain inevitability a hotel booking is missed, it's too late to book a family room in the hostel, and all the worst possibilities come together in a dormitory with plenty of comic opportunity in the problems of getting back into a dark dormitory when returning from a night out. But although the opportunities for hilarity are there, the telling lacks the sophistication it needs, falling a little flat. A comic narration like this needs to build relentlessly, and for whatever reason this never happens.
So, at risk of damning End to End with faint praise, it is fine as a simple description of a biking holiday that really stretched those involved. But it has no real narrative thrust, none of the comedy genius that is present even in Bill Bryson's lesser works. I am glad I read this book. I hope others will too. But think of it as a simple travel account, not travel humour.
End to End will be available on Amazon soon...