Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Business at the front, party at the back

FROM politics to another first: a book review.

Through various connections online I know quite a few people. I've not necessarily met them all, but we have conversed and followed each other's online contributions, sometimes over a number of years. Simon Varwell is one such online acquaintance, a man who I know through a collective called Join Me but whom I have not met. Nonetheless, we read each other's blogs (his is here) and chat via Twitter. The Internet is strange that way, allowing social contact, without the contact, or a need to be sociable. So I thought I'd lend my support to Simon's burgeoning literary career and give his first book, Up The Creek Without A Mullet, a go. And here is a review, written somewhat nervously with the knowledge that Simon will undoubtedly read every word...

I must confess I approached the book with some hesitancy. I never used to enjoy reading, and it was silly travel stories that finally got me into it. It started with Danny Wallace's Join Me, the true story of a man who created a cult by accident. I lapped it up, following it up with the works of authors such as Dave Gorman and Tony Hawks. The premise was often a silly, sometimes drunken, bet, that led to an obsessive project turned into a travelogue. What set their works above pure frivolity, however, was that they always made it more than the silliness at hand. Either they pulled you personally into the challenge, such that you really cared that they achieved their goals, however ridiculous and pointless they might be, or in pursuing the project they discovered something much bigger, and used the platform to offer perspective worthy of the best proper travel writing. Such an example is Tony Hawks' Playing The Moldovans At Tennis, the story of the author's bizarre attempt to beat the entire Moldovan national football team at tennis, only to find himself ensnared by the poorest country in Europe, divided, forgotten and in desperate need of attention by the West.

(his other stuff looks more promising)
But the explosion of this kind of book went too far. There were only so many drunken bets that could be believed, or at least accepted, before things became too contrived and too pointless. My own breaking point was a book called UK On A G-String by Justin Brown, the story of the world's first door-to-door busker. It had no point, no reason to will the author along, and it was very badly written. I remained a big fan of travel literature, but moved away from the niche of 'stupid boy projects', as Danny Wallace's girlfriend in Join Me had described such ventures.

In Up The Creek Without A Mullet, Simon Varwell attempts to visit every place in the world with the word 'mullet' in it, in homage to the awful 80s haircut.

So you can see why I approached the book with hesitancy.

The book began well, making a trip to Albania - where he hijacked a friend's aid convoy for his own agenda to visit the village of Mullet - more than just that. He comments on the paranoia of former leader Enver Hoxha, the traditional law of the land called kanun, and paints a captivating picture of life in Bathore, a slum in Tirana where he and the convoy members stay. Simon's love of Albania, and his concern for it, is clear to see, and such love does not, reassuringly, take a back seat to the silliness of the search for the village of Mullet.

But, if I may be critical, this strong start takes a dive as Simon reaches Mullet #2 in Ireland. The lonely trip to a location of nothing of note reactivated my hesitancy. Indeed, had the chapter not ended with the words "So here's to you, Paddy Soft Arse", I might have suggested to omit it entirely. But there was something in the final paragraphs, his emotions as he questions the point of travelling so far, alone, for no reward, that suddenly struck a chord with me. He was explaining the loneliness of travelling, where nobody is friendly and you question the point of continuing. And I realised... I've been there too.

And, really, all travel is self-indulgence, so why not base it on a silly project?

I've had plenty of my own. I once declared that I would, in a year, visit all of the British Isles, not realising that the isles number over 6,000. I managed two. I also made it my aim to visit everywhere in the world with the same name as the town in which I grew up - Colyton in Devon. This project meant nothing to anybody else but a great deal to me, because my home means everything to me. Even the description of Colyton, New South Wales, as "full of boguns", did not put me off. It was only the impracticality of a visit that eventually scuppered me, though I looked eagerly at Colyton's Australian namesake from the train one day as we headed out to Penrith. It was transport, too, that stopped me from reaching the tiny township of Colyton in New Zealand. Remembering all of this, I took to Simon's adventure much more willingly. His reasons were bizarre, but who cares? I could now understand why he was determined to see such lesser-known corners of the world.

By coincidence, his next destination was Australia. I enjoyed references to certain places I knew well, others not so well but that, by chance, I had actually visited but not taken note of. He travelled to Mullet Creek in Dapto, New South Wales, a town we had passed through by train in 2009 on our way to the coastal town of Gerringong. Perhaps I had seen Mullet Creek then, too. My first mullet!

Bundaberg does rum
in a big way
Next he was off to Bundaberg, land of rum, another place I had merely passed through. But his observations placed me back there again; small details about rural Australia reigniting my own love affair.

His adventures sparked an unexpected media furore, with newspapers and national and regional radio stations queuing up to join in with his quest. I read with amazement as he was invited to speak on Triple J and the biggest of the lot - ABC Radio National Breakfast. RN Breakfast is the Australian equivalent of BBC Radio 4's Today programme, a programme that proved to be a lifeline to Rachel and I on our road trip up the Western Australia coast. It was the only thing we could pick up on the radio each morning, before leaving civilization for hundreds of miles at a time. Its news and analysis were just the right length to teach us a lot about the world we were only barely in yet not overwhelm us, and I became such a fan that I still listen to it today via the medium of podcasts. In fact I'm listening to one now, with Fran Kelly talking about Osama Bin Laden, trying to fight off unexpected studio lurgies that delayed this morning's transmission (apparently they had a "total freeze of the cluster router", if you're interested). Fran is one of the most respected and senior political journalists in Australia, and Simon got to be interviewed by her. About mullets.

I enjoyed, too, references to people I know or know of, through the same circles that unite Simon and I. We're all a big incestuous bunch, really, unable to escape one another because we're all interested in what each other are up to, even though in an Internet-less age we'd have never met. Kieran, subject of my post Friendship, is the leader of the convoy to Albania; and Simon meets up with a lady called Tigger in Brisbane, who once beat me at Star Wars Risk.

So does Up The Creek Without A Mullet join the disappointingly large pile of stupid-boy-projects that should never have been put to paper?

No. Because it's fun. And we should all embrace fun projects, no matter how pointless. Because we all do pointless things that we find fun, and who am I to judge such freedom?

(Apologies to Phil, who also reviewed the book. It was your review that persuaded me to read it, so I hope you don't mind me posting along the same lines.)

Image sources: Simon Varwell: Mullet Search // Justin Brown // Australian Big Things


PH said...

Fine by me. Quite a different style of review from mine anyway. :-)

PH said...

Also, I can't believe you've never actually *met*. How is this possible?

Simon said...

Inverness is FAR away!

I really should go there some time :)

PH said...

Yes it is, but if you go there by bus, you get to sit next to a Polish X Factor contestant for 12 hours.

I'm pretty sure that's how it works...