Combine ukuleles and books and there is one inevitable result: the punning title.
Clearly I’m not going to throw stones here, since in this respect I live in the glassiest of glass houses; and anyway, this sort of thing has a very long and noble tradition, going back at least as far as the great May Singhi Breen who liked to push her New Ukulele Method book with the slogan “Uke Can Play the Melody”. Putting out a book with even the most tangential ukulele connection and not rolling out the puns would seem like something of a betrayal.
In the case of this particular book the author has the added advantage of a surname already primed to pun. The result is The Uke of Wallington: One Man and His Ukulele Round Britain, the latest book from Mark Wallington and his first travel book since, I believe, 1996’s Pennine Walkies. Not that he has been idle since then, as Mr Wallington is also well known as a writer for television and of books which have been adapted for television, but I suspect that all of us who had read his travelling tales in the past had assumed that we were not likely to see another. And then Lo! not only does he write a book about a blissfully pointless journey across Britain but it’s got a bloody ukulele in it. Things were looking good.
My copy arrived yesterday afternoon; I finished it later that evening, an indication that I was rather enjoying it and also, perhaps, that I do not exactly pack my weekends with ambitious goals beyond doing a few chores and putting my feet up. A few weeks ago one of these chores was the painful process of deciding which books to send to the local charity shop (not too painful in the case of several Orson Scott Card novels, I might add), when I noticed that for some reason I not only had a copy each of Wallington’s 500 Mile Walkies and Boogie Up the River but also two copies of Pennine Walkies. They all went into the charity shop box: these were the paperbacks and I also have them in hardback copies, which I have kept along with a hardback of his Destination Lapland. At that point I decided to check if Mark Wallington had succumbed to the lure of Twitter, discovering that indeed he had and finding through his Tweets that a new book was on its way soon… and here we are.
The premise is simple: a man in his late fifties gets together with friends to form a rock and roll band they call The Elderly Brothers. Stardom fails to beckon. Stardom, indeed, gives an embarrassed cough and tries not to catch their gaze. The band splits and Our Hero realises, as he has always known, that lacking youth and novelty as well as real musical talent he has missed his chance to make any sort of splash in popular music, so he does what any sane person would do under such circumstances and starts playing the ukulele. This leads to the idea of touring Britain with the uke, playing at a venue and then moving on, in a vaguely northerly direction until reaching Cape Wrath, at which point geography does rather force one to turn around. Clearly an unknown player with a limited repertoire of Chuck Berry numbers at his disposal is never going to be in demand for bookings, so Mr Wallington hops aboard a bus – not a flash tour bus, just a bus – and sets off to find a string of “open mic” nights in pubs and clubs across the country. No pay, no guarantee of being able to play, no guarantee that the venue is even still there and still running an open mic.
Mark Wallington’s earlier travel books set a particular tone, where the writer places himself squarely as Everyman, someone we can relate to, someone who does not seem to outclass the rest of us in his talents and retains an admirable ability to either say the wrong thing to the wrong person or to have his cheerful pleasantries hopelessly misunderstood. In 500 Mile Walkies: One Man and a Dog Versus the South West Peninsular Path he was the woefully under-prepared hiker setting off to walk a coastal path with inadequate boots, borrowed equipment and somebody else’s dog. The sequel, Boogie Up the River: One Man and His Dog to the Source of the Thames, had him rowing an elderly skiff on his quest, despite exhibiting no relevant skills. And so on. It’s an understandable stance, particularly for humorous travel books where nobody is going to find a mother lode of belly laughs in tales of a well-equipped camper who uses all the right gear and his extensive skills to pass several very comfortable nights in the wild, thanks very much. These are also books where the supposed purpose of the journey – reaching Dorset, finding the source of the Thames, cycling to Lapland or whatever – is clearly not the point at all, merely an excuse. The Uke of Wallington continues in this vein, with the journey itself, the locations and people, being the real point.
As you might expect there are amusing encounters with bus-riding pensioners, cheerfully stoic or perpetually grumbling British holidaymakers, deluded performers, eccentric landladies and plenty of people who are perfectly happy that their regular turn at an open mic night is the closest they are ever going to get to celebrity. There are attractive seaside towns and crumbling industrial relics. What there isn’t is anything especially surprising to either a British reader or a reader of previous similar British travel books. As well as Mark Wallington’s own efforts this is quite familiar ground to fans of Bill Bryson and others. Familiarity certainly fails to breed contempt in this case, however, and if you’re after frequent chuckles rather than biting satire, genial observations rather than painful insights, then you’ll find page after page of them here. The book may not break new ground, but it does prove to be a very amiable companion along the way regardless. Less early P.J. O’Rourke and more PJs and an early night.
I used to read an awful lot of travel books, particularly the quirky and personal accounts proliferating throughout the eighties and nineties, and after a short time it became all too obvious that finding a fresh reason to take the trip, a hook for the book, was becoming difficult in a crowded publishing market. No longer could a book about merely walking across Europe hope to easily find an audience. Increasingly the shelves became overloaded with tales of people retracing historical journeys in period costume, riding unicycles across the arctic or crossing oceans in boats made from old copies of National Geographic. The novelty factor became so desperate that it inevitably obscured the reasons why people tended to enjoy such books in the first place. With his first travel book Mr Wallington hit upon an entirely brilliant and possibly wholly unintentional twist, undertaking the walk with a dog. Someone else’s dog. More than that, a thoroughly disreputable and rather unpleasant dog who nevertheless had an overabundance of star quality, the poster dog for dogs who were never likely to appear on posters. The dog was called Boogie and he was all that was needed to lift the story of a long walk up to a higher level of travel writing. It’s probably not a coincidence that the travel books featuring Boogie are still in print, whereas Destination Lapland, which is in many ways the same sort of book but features a journey by bicycle and does not include a dog, is not. The public do love a mutt.
The Uke of Wallington does not feature a dog either. I’m rather glad of that, to be honest. The original Boogie is long gone and his replacement in Pennine Walkies with a different dog smacked just a little of resting on one’s laurels, of trying to do more of the same even though it couldn’t happen, like a band reunion years after an acrimonious breakup followed by the death of several key original members. I wondered if the publisher was behind that decision; maybe they were, I’ve actually no idea. Unfortunately, I do feel that The Uke of Wallington misses a trick slightly, because while we did not need an actual dog here there’s definitely a sense that the role filled by Boogie is left glaringly vacant. The truth is, the ukulele ought to be a character. About all that we know of Mr Wallington’s travelling companion is that it was a gift and is carried in his rucksack with a mitten stuck over the end of it. That’s something at least; and I certainly wouldn’t want page after page devoted to exhaustive detail of the brand, the type of strings used or even the history of the instrument. The trouble is, it’s often almost as though the ukulele isn’t there at all, despite the fact that a lot of the book is about the performances. It has no character, there’s no mention of its particular quirks beyond those common to any ukulele. That does seem a shame and an opportunity missed to add a bit of colour here and there. This isn’t really a double act, but I rather wish it were.
So, after a long, long wait we have another Mark Wallington travel book. It’s a lot like the previous ones, which is no bad thing as far as I’m concerned even though I regret that it isn’t apparently available in hardback. The style hasn’t changed much over the years, although I’m pleased that the running gags, which became a little too contrived in the later Boogie books, are handled more easily and naturally here. Ukulele fans might hope for a bit more ukulele, whereas anyone looking for a good-natured wander across Britain will probably be very satisfied. It may not be Travels with Charley or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but it is a thoroughly enjoyable read with enough laughs to keep me going through to the end in a single sitting.
The Uke of Wallington: One Man and His Ukulele Round Britain is published in paperback by AA Publishing, priced £8.99.