Travelling Companions: A Series looking at British Travel Writing
I read this when it was first released in paperback back in 1999. And I enjoyed it very much. The writer was new to me and quickly impressed me with his drive, his enthusiasm and his wide-ranging knowledge. I liked a challenge and it didn’t much matter to me how contrived that challenge was.
At about the same time I had become a fan of the BBC television series ‘Ready Steady Cook’ where chefs were given a bag of ingredients and 20 minutes to knock it into something tasty. Th first series was impressive, the second even more so. Chefs had twigged that the (£5 limit) shopping bags, provided by members of the public, invariably contained one or more of; a bag of rice, an onion, a pack of minced beef, some chicken breasts. For a couple of years we admired the end dishes and then realised that it was all a bit pointless. Why £5? Why 20 minutes?
On another channel Tony Robinson played the gormless idiot to a group of archeologists. We got a fascinating insight into how these people uncover the past. But again there was a contrivance that eventually palled with the public. These were serious academics uncovering a site of special interest and yet they were given a mere 3 days to do it. Why? Instead of careful work with a trowel and a small paintbrush, a large mechanical digger would rip open trenches. Robinson would dash across to report the discovery of a wall, or a fragment of pottery, and announce it in tones reminiscent of Kenneth Wolstenholme celebrating a goal in the world cup. The artificial nature of both programmes made them unlikely successes but eventually made watching them a dry and tedious affair. Viewers realised that the drama was contrived and they were being manipulated.Re-reading Two Degrees West was like watching a re-run of either of the programmes. He had set himself the task of walking a line on a map and I couldn’t help asking, Why? To what purpose?
A good travel book relies on three ingredients: the journey, the things we see and meet along the way, and the traveller. The journey has to serve a larger purpose than merely getting from A to B and enduring hardships (real or contrived). Leigh Fermor, Theroux and JB Priestley chose routes that told us an awful lot about the lands they travelled through and revealed important insights into human behaviour.. They were wiser men than Nicholas Crane, more widely read in terms of literature and understanding. A Jarrow terraced house in Priestley’s hands becomes an indictment of economic policy, a Welsh boarding house allows Theroux to expose the quiet rotting despair of the small business woman in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Their journeys are planned to encapsulate a greater whole. Crane’s choice is to make a journey no-one else has ever done before. The whole book is ultimately about him, and the 17 hours it takes to read, is a long time to spend in his company.First things first. It is an impressive walk. If someone from down your street had done it then I think you’d be fully justified in popping a tenner in their charity collection tin.
The device chooses the route and the route isn’t propitious. The first half of the journey is over moorland. It’s inspiring countryside. I know it well. Unfortunately there is only so much to say about walking over moorland. It has a habit of repeating itself. In the wrong hands fifty miles of heather and bog is one mile fifty times over. All travel writers rely on anecdote and chance meetings. Many of the meetings in this book are pre-arranged and Crane isn’t a natural storyteller. Neither is he a particularly perceptive observer, he lacks a good ear for dialogue and seems uncomfortable around anyone who isn’t from a public school background. On the positive side, he’s enthusiastic, loves numbers, and trains and is happiest when giving a great deal of information about locomotives or triangulation points. In short he is something of a nerd. The problem with a wide readership is that you either have to take your readers into the specialism and make them work, as Stephen Hawking did with A Brief History of Time or you water down your thesis. Crane goes for mass appeal (no doubt encouraged by the people at Penguin). Lacking true substance, it uses the exact same ingredients as Ready Steady Cook and Time Team. Manipulated tension and bonding to a central contrivance. We are asked accept that walking the 2nd meridian is important and difficult. In reality it is neither. He anticipates great problems and shares them. How can a man with a rucksack get across a large reservoir? How will he cross a motorway? The danger is fake and the outcome is almost bathos. He has pre-arranged with a boat club member to sail him across the Derwent Reservoir and there is a large farm tunnel under the M62. In terms of a recreational walk it is a tough old wander but in terms of serious geographical and physical challenge it is small potatoes.
He could do what many writers before him have done and make light of the journey and concentrate on the views of England that he passes through. He doesn’t. He continues to emphasise the rigours he has to endure which involve him sleeping outside without a tent (millions of British people are hikers and many of them have bivouacked regularly in comparable conditions), getting wet, getting a bit tired and being turned away from bed and breakfasts on the grounds that they are full.When he can’t find anything to write about we get little guide-book histories that romanticise the past. Smugglers are loveable rogues who rob from the rich, grouse moors preserve species and ancient ways of life and people learn to know their place. He makes occasional reference to other writers all from the distant past (Byng, Leland, Cobbett, Fiennes). We get snippets of what they had to say but little is revealed. It feels like someone with a reading list claiming to be well-read.We don’t learn very much about the history and geography of England and it certainly doesn’t capture a snapshot of the summer of 1997. The death of Diana gets a few mentions, he visits Longbridge and sees a production line at the, soon to be bought, robbed and shut down, Rover car plant. He gets a lot of help from his over-bearing father, various friends, including the runner Christopher Brasher (who gets introduced and largely ignored in the text), and especially the military.Crane went on to find a certain celebrity as one of the presenters of “Coast”, a series which made a slow journey around the British Isles revealing what was there. It was more thinned down specialist stuff for the wider market with each episode divided between several presenters. Enjoyable, attractive television that we watch and then forget. It owed as much to television planners as it did to academics. It has gone the way of Ready Steady Cook and Time Team. Remembered fondly until you come to watch it again. Two Degrees West is not a bad book if you like a little well-mannered escapism. If you want well told anecdotes and incisive historical document it probably isn’t for you. If, however, your need is for detailed information on the dates, costs, materials, and method of building the network of the little concrete towers called triangulation points, then this is the book you’ve been waiting for.