Friday 15 December 2017

Two-wheeled adventure along the Iron Curtain

Travel: The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold, Tim Moore, Yellow Jersey Press, tbpk, 343 pages, €17.50

Freezing saddles: Tim Moore’s book recounts his arduous adventures from the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea
Freezing saddles: Tim Moore’s book recounts his arduous adventures from the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea
Tim Moore's The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold

There are few things more boring than other people's travel stories. By some weird and ironic anti-alchemy, the gold of what is (ostensibly anyway) among the most interesting experiences of someone else's life becomes transmuted into dull lead: the most tedious experience of yours.

Travel books can be equally as bad. Yes, I know Bill Bryson's an exception, but Bill Bryson is an unusually talented and funny writer - he could probably make something entertaining out of a day spent listening to other people's travel stories. And even his stuff gets boring after too much of it.

I think the problem is that the teller spends too much time talking about themselves, as opposed to the places they've been. You don't get enough insight on these distant and exotic climes, but you get way too many tedious "stories" on what the person did, where they stayed, the gas characters they met and - kill me now - what local foodstuffs they consumed.

In some ways, it doesn't even matter how entertainingly all this stuff is recounted; it seems an immutable law that anyone talking about themselves and/or their travels will eventually, and inevitably, become boring.

Which brings me to The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold, Tim Moore's account of an epic journey along the old Iron Curtain. He's a good, entertaining writer, laugh-out-loud funny in parts, with some lovely descriptions of scenery and so on. But for me, the book still contains too much on him, and not nearly enough on the places he visits.

The Englishman has a few other travelogues under his belt, to generally positive reviews. Moore takes a sort of skewed approach to the genre: for example, he walked across Spain "with a donkey for company", tracked down anyone who endured the shame of "nul points" in Eurovision and rode the Giro d'Italia route on a superannuated bike with wooden wheels. You can see the sort of - ahem - territory we're in here. "Wacky" would probably be the best description.

In this one, subtitled 'Adventures Along the Iron Curtain', Moore pedals his way from the Arctic Circle, down the frozen length of Finland and on through Russia, the Baltic states, Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria, finishing at the Black Sea.

That's the book's gimmick or USP, and it's a pretty good one, although Moore then complicates matters, a bit needlessly, by deciding to make this 9,000km odyssey on an old East German bike. The MIFA 900 was originally built as an urban runaround, has only two gears, is very small and - unsurprisingly given the standards of communist engineering - is fairly rubbish.

Even after reading why he chose this vehicle, I still didn't quite understand why he chose this vehicle. Something to do with nostalgia, I think, and a sort of retro-ironic love for old Red kitsch and junk.

Anyway, quite a lot of the early parts in The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold focus on the famous MIFA, and how it makes things harder for Moore. This, in my opinion, is redundant at best, really tiresome at worst.

And quite a lot of the whole book focuses on how cold he feels at different times, or tired, or bemused by the local language, or inspired by some beautiful vista, or what have you. The bad stuff is played for laughs, in fairness - this isn't a 300-page whinge or anything - but still, there's just too much Tim Moore, not enough Iron Curtain.

Reading this book isn't quite as horrific as sitting through someone's holiday snaps while they drone on about the "amazing" street-side café their tuk-tuk driver brought them to. Moore's turn of phrase and some (not enough!) interesting factoids and observations keep it above that level.But at the risk of repeating myself: there are few things more boring than other people's travel stories. Unless you're listening to Bill Bryson. And even then etc, etc, etc.

A Banter Conversation with Tim Moore takes place on Monday at Wigwam, Middle Abbey St, Dublin

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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