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Book review: <i>Continental Drifter</i> by Tim Moore

If this was a song, it would be Greensleeves, played on a humorously cheap synthesizer while you are distracted and hungover and yet find yourself becoming disproportionately emotional in response.


A Flash-style illustration of a reclining man in a Venetian gondola, meant to be a combination of the author and the subject. The colours (purple, aqua, and hints of orange) are decent but the illustration is lazy and the typefaces dull.

The plot

Once again, Tim follows in the footsteps of one of history’s lesser-known travellers, commenting as he travels on the differences between the places and people of another age. He also drives a Rolls Royce and just generally arses about.

This time around the original traveller was one Thomas Coryates, author of Coryates’ Crudities. This was T.C.’s record of the original 1605 “Grand Tour” (giant loop through Europe), which was to be undertaken for the next three centuries by innumerable insufferables from the youthful end of the British and American upper orders, supposedly as part of their cultural education (or “finishing”, as it later came to be known), but more typically as an excuse to indulge in the kind of overseas behaviour which has earnt the British and American traveller the respectful, intelligent and sensitive reputations which linger today.

The good

As before, the prose is what makes it. As before, Moore effectively carries us along with him on a journey of (if not cosmic, certainly mild) interest, involving an (if not cosmic, certainly mild) level of history. He is reasonably witty, bemusedly thoughtful, human, fair, and generally insightful about the people around him, both in our time and on the pages of the history books. Rather like Bill Bryson, yes, but that’s a good thing because they both have the knack of perching us right on their shoulder like a little third-person bluebird of happiness while events unfold around them.

Once again, in a large part, Moore is also successful both at giving us a look into the life of one of the world’s forgotten journeyman, in terms of his character and motivations for the trip, and also, probably as difficult a task: selecting such a person in the first place. Coryates is an ideal subject for a number of reasons; he was a strange man indeed—a sycophantic social climber and religious bigot of the first order, certainly. But this was 1605, after all, and the effort he went to in order to further his lot demonstrates a strength of will and self-belief which would definitely lead him to success in today’s world (especially when compared to his detractors—a group of largely untalented aristocrats and hangers-on whose scorn flows forth with the merciless ease of those who are never in danger of judgement themselves).

Coryates was also fastidious in some important areas—lengths, widths, miles and measures, detailed copying of texts and inscriptions, mastery of numerous languages and appreciation of arts, music and architecture (again unlike the majority of the pampered twats who were to follow his path, including, I should add, Moore himself) and also (perhaps accidentally) honest enough to portray himself in a frequently unflattering light.

The climax and epilogue—comprising the details of Coryates’ return to court, subsequent humiliation, character assassination and career sabotage, then his voyage to the Middle East, connections with the fledgling East India company, and final place in the court of the richest and mightiest king of all the globe (India), all the while composing records in order to write another work to surpass his first (bad form to paraphrase, I know, but it truly was a great story)—is at least the equal of all the chapters that precede it.

The bad

The pacing is a bit sporadic. The third quarter is basically one large flat spot (also literally, being Denmark and Holland, ha ha—I could have made that into a pun but I REFRAIN). The dull parts are when Coryates has little to say, and Moore little to do. (Likewise, in, say, Venice, the best parts are when they are both creating havoc—Moore careering around in a speedboat smashing into things while Coryate narrowly escapes a knifing after chastising a large group of Jews mixes perfectly with the seedy, sensual decay of the canal city to create a fantastic chapter.)

An observation I feel increasingly inclined to make (and did just recently, and even more so, with Moore’s book about London) is that sometimes this can begin to feel like really quite a shaky base for a book—there’s something threadbare about the slow-paced parts as mentioned above, for instance—which gives one the unpleasant sensation that one is not merely wasting one’s time on a dull-ish travel tale but would, in fact, be having more fun were one there oneself. This leads one, in turn, to the distressing conclusion that whatsisname was right, and nowadays people simply read about adventure instead of doing it—a hypothesis borne out by this ever-increasing paucity of premise. If one were being charitable (as one feels one should be with Moore, because, as I said, he’s just such a likable lad to spend time with), one could argue that in some ways this is the book’s conclusion—Coryates crossed half the known world, largely on foot, 400 years ago with no greater purpose than to get published and impress some right royal arseholes, but it wasn’t enough, so he WALKED to MEDIEVAL INDIA, still couldn’t get the time of day from Prince Whoever and died accidentally by drinking himself to death. THAT’S a TOURIST. Meanwhile, I have nothing better to do than read about some everychap in a second-hand Rolls booking into cheap hotels for a month in a book that probably sold tens of thousands of copies.

A rather bruising double-punch to end a light-hearted travel book on, no?

What I learnt

Where the word Ghetto comes from (man, them Jews are shit out of luck), that Venice has been falling apart and getting spoiled by tourists for about 250 years already, and it was pretty seedy before that, to be honest.

That the stereotypes about European cultures, while seemingly immutable, have in fact been morphing around throughout the centuries.

That young, drunk, male wankers in packs know no bounds of time, age or place in their obnoxiousness and total lack of value, at least until they get old and brittle and start complaining about themselves.

In short

Title: Continental Drifter
Author: Tim Moore
Publisher: Abacus; New Ed edition
ISBN: 0349114196
Year published: 2002
Pages: 384

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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