Sunday, 21 August 2011

Cream Teas Traffic Jams and Sunburn - a bit of a surprise

Cream Teas, Traffic Jams andSunburn, by Brian Viner (Simon & Schuster: 2011) Brian Viner blends his own experiences with those of his family, friends and acquaintances to explore the cultural phenomenon of the British on holiday. Using anecdotes, history, and his own keen observations, Viner shines a light on why we do what we do when we're at leisure, from Bognor Regis to Beunos Aries.

Choosing books to read is a minefield. One which, with a bit of time and the odd lost leg, most of us like to think we can navigate fairly well. As much as we’re urged not to judge a book by its cover, most of us do to some extent. Not literally, but we usually let a handful of initial signifiers dictate whether or not we pick a book up.

Genre. Author. Reviews. Recommendations. The title. The blurb on the back. Tick one or two of those boxes, and you’ll probably pick it up.

Which is why I was fairly sure I was going to hate this book. From all I could tell, I thought it’d essentially be the book version of one of those painful TV shows where they get a bunch of tv “celebs” to talk to camera about how mad the ‘80s were. I thought it’d be full of “aren’t we crazy” moments. I thought it’d rely heavily on having a reader who is prone to chuckling internally with a “that is so like my Aunt Ida” thought. In short, I thought it’d be pretty vacuous.

But it was free. And I try to keep an open mind. So I gave it a try.

And it proved me wrong.

The main thing it had going for it was the wit of Brian Viner. Wit can take you a long way, and Viner has it in spades. And he uses it to good effect, carefully avoiding too much of a “isn’t it funny when…” tone by telling his anecdotes with genuine good humour. That I did end up accidentally feeling an affinity for his experiences (and those of his seemingly hundreds of interesting friends) is testament to how well this is written. I opened the first page determined not to succumb to what I though would be a sickeningly chummy narrative, and I closed the last page wanting to go round his house for dinner.

And it’s not just his wit that turned me around. He brings some good history into the book as well, charting the course of the holiday as a phenomenon and introducing the pioneers who, through the centuries, have defined how we spend our leisure time (that is, once the world’s workers had some of it to spend).

There are some genuinely interesting facts and figures in here. Just ask my wife. She suffered through a week of me starting sentences with “did you know that…”. She smiled sweetly throughout, (she’s a trooper like that), but I know it’s annoying when someone keeps bugging you about stuff they’ve just read in their new book. Again, the fact I ended up feeling compelled to share what I was reading then and there goes some way to show just how much this book won me over.

But, to be fair, I had a long way to go. I started convinced that I was going to hate this book. Its wit and its history meant that I didn’t. But not hating it and actively liking it are two quite different things.

The wit can only take you so far. It took me to about two hundred pages before it started to wear thin. If he’d stopped the book there, I probably would have scored this pretty darn high. But he didn’t - Viner went on for another 100 or so pages. And (I’m sad to say) it just got a bit sameish after that. I’m not sure if the best anecdotes are packed in at the start of the book, or if I just got a bit bored. Either way, the book rather peaked and then declined fast.

And there were one or two aspects that I didn’t really notice at the start of the book, but that started to bug me by the end. One was the unfeasible amount of holidays Viner seems to take. I know this is a man who, through his job, has the opportunity to travel a fair amount, but he seems to pack in a dozen breaks a year to various destinations. True, they’re not all far flung and exotic, but they are numerous. By the end, all I could feel was slight depression that I don’t get away anywhere near the same amount.

The other slight annoying aspect was the sheer number of “close friends” Viner references. Every page details the story of another set of “close friends” and their experiences, more often than not whilst on holiday with Viner and/or his own family. The cumulative impression is of a man who spends all of his time on eventful holidays with hundreds of his closest friends. And that isn’t a man I can really identify with, which is important when it’s his voice you’re listening to throughout the book.

So, to the score. How does a…


…grab you?

A rollercoaster of emotions for the week. Hating it one second, loving it the next, then bottoming out at something just above indifference.

Next week, something a bit more established. The second young adult book of GBR history, though of a different era than the first. Intrigued? You should be.

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