Tim Moore (Barney Jones)
Interview Words : Peter Moore | 15 March

You Are Awful: The funny side of unloved Britain

Tim Moore sought out unloved Britain and was called a clown by the Mayor of Goole in the process. He tells Peter Moore why it was worth the effort

Hailed as 'the new Bill Bryson', Tim Moore has written some of the most popular travel books of recent years. In French Revolutions, he cycled the route of the 2000 Tour de France. In Spanish Steps, he coaxed a reluctant donkey to accompany him along the Pilgrim Way to Santiago. And in Nul Points, he sought out Eurovision contestants who had suffered the ignominy of receiving zero points.

In his latest book, You Are Awful (But I Like You), he turns his sharp wit on Britain, and in particular, it's least loved corners. He talks to Peter Moore (no relation!) about the highlights of his journey and why the Goole Courier called him a clown and never wants to hear of him again.

You set out to visit the places nobody wants to go to. How did you decide where to go?

We’ve made a national sport out of feel-bad stories – every time I open the paper there’s some new study or poll revealing Britain’s ugliest park or most boring museum or least appealing regional accent. I started out with Location, Location, Location’s chart of ‘worst places to live’ and it snowballed from there. TripAdvisor’s upside-down search facility – worst first – was a boon.

As a pathetic coward I’m keen to emphasise to the people of Hull, Middlesbrough, Cumbernauld and so on that my itinerary was dictated by other people’s opinions, and in no way influenced by personal prejudice. Though I can’t make that claim on behalf of Skegness, which I went to just because it sounded so awful.

What did you hope to achieve by visiting all the worst places?

My primary challenge was to have a good time in places that everyone had said I wouldn’t. More grandly, it felt like a last-chance-to-see tour of the last strongholds of ugly, crap but defiantly British culture. Grotty pubs, guesthouses run by madmen, 1960s new towns made out of death-coloured, reinforced porridge: all this stuff is being swept away by soul-strippingly bland and stateless Tesco Extras and Travelodges, and we’ll miss it when it’s gone.

Did anywhere surprise you?

The Ordnance Survey decreed map reference SE830220 as the most boring square kilometre in Britain – a pancake-flat beet field near the River Humber, unadorned with even a single geographical or man-made feature. I went there at sunset and fell in love with the abstract enormity of the landscape. Sadly I then proceeded to Goole, which was right off the dumpometer.

Barrow-in-Furness was pretty extraordinary – a timewarp town where head-scarved wives sit in laundrettes and husbands walk from the factory gate to the pub, then sit there sipping pints in manly silence. It was the only place where my Maestro felt at home – the streets are full of Sweeney-era motors embalmed by the ready availability of submarine paint from the local yards.

In fact I suppose the trip was all about trying to surprise myself – a quest for the local, the unpredictable, the thrill of the unknown that travel should always be about, even in your own country. I was trying to recapture that fear and excitement of never being quite sure you’d ever get to where you wanted to go, let alone what you’d find there when you did. The mysteries that once lay in wait behind every hotel-room door, inside every menu, under every bonnet.

Was anywhere worse than you'd imagined?

There’s nothing more poignant than a rundown seaside resort – a place that was purpose built for having fun, and now isn’t. Rhyl was the saddest, with its shonky guesthouses full of rehoused Liverpudlian smackheads. Going there in February probably didn’t help – that morning my wipers froze to the windscreen and snapped off when I tried to use them.

For decades it was the most popular holiday town in Wales – when the British seaside started to suffer, Rhyl was one of the few rich enough to try and move with the times. Sadly, this was in the 70s, so everything they did was horribly wrongheaded. The epic pier and an amazing five-domed Victorian pavilion were knocked down and replaced with a huge brown box with all the ritzy appeal of a supermarket distribution centre. Llandudno, just up the coast, couldn’t afford to do the same and is consequently now doing very well out of the current boom in genteel and nostalgic seaside mini-breaks.

Any 'so bad it was good' moments?

Several, daily. I think British Leyland could have profitably employed that phrase as the Austin Maestro’s promotional catchline.

The rotting corpse of a hotel I stayed in at Nottingham was probably deepest into that territory. The sink was smeared in what I can only hope was Marmite, and I could have made a snowman from the fluffy lint piled up around the skirting boards. The bedding was made out of old tights. You had to laugh.

"I stayed at this hotel on a stag do, so really there wasn't any standards we required," read the most recent review on TripAdvisor. "Nevertheless this place was absolutely terrible. DO NOT STAY here unless you are going on the beer." The dedication with which I embraced this thoughtful advice made for a rather wayward appreciation of Europe’s ugliest high street.

Anywhere you'd take your family back to?

Anglesey Sea Zoo gives our humblest marine species the chance to show what they can do, namely very little beyond blending in with the sea bed. At £7.25, a ticket gives you the right to go there every day for a week, and as the father of three teenagers I’m still happily picturing the back-seat expressions as Seamor the cartoon lobster welcomes us into the car park for the seventh morning running.

Was visiting the worst places just a cunning ploy for publicity? A quick Google search shows that the Southport Visitor, the Selby Times and the Rhyl Journal have taken offence over your portrayal of their respective towns.

Hats off to the Selby Times – I didn’t even go there! But I have stirred up a fair bit of outrage, particularly among the locals of Lochgelly and Forth in Scotland (‘Moore clearly missed the very well-subscribed bowling club in Manse Road and ignored the very active church in the village. Forth wins awards for Scotland in Bloom and has a community garden with large poly tunnel near the village school!’) You know you’re not in for an easy ride when a local radio interview begins: ‘And with us today is Tim Moore, who has decided that Hartlepool is the worst town in Britain.’

My wife’s been loving it. Her favourite so far is from the Goole Courier: ‘I agree with every word that the Mayor and Mr Howard Duckworth have said about Tim Moore. I say the man is a clown and I hope we never hear of him again.’

 

Mary Wadsworth, of Albert Road, Southport took you to task in a random street poll taken by the Southport Visitor. She said: “What a load of rubbish, for entertainment Southport is top class. We’ve got great theatres, cinemas, restaurants and hotels.” What do you say in response to that?

I say, ‘Dear Mrs Wadsworth: when was the last time you spent a night at the Pontins holiday camp in Southport?’ Seriously, it’s quite something – staying there felt less like a holiday than a punishment for doing something seriously bad. I had to sleep with my shoes on, and not just because it was freezing.

Southport itself though is rather lovely. It’s got an epic beach and one of the most splendid Victorian high streets in Britain. And a lawnmower museum!

Brits have a wide masochist streak and love to beat themselves up about how bad things are. Do you think these awful places are any worse than the equivalent in France or Spain?

I think they probably are, if only because we’re the daddies of decline: no-one else had as far to fall as us, and we’ve been falling for almost a century. Towns like Hull and Merthyr Tydfil have been in a downward spiral since the Victorian age – we do proper, hairy-chested urban decay better than anyone.

Plus, as you say, we’re happy to embrace failure and awfulness. Channel 5 successfully persuaded several native professionals to compete for the title of Britain’s Worst Hairdresser (I had a trim at the winner’s salon in St Helens). I spent evenings in many of the establishments who had volunteered to appear in Sky 3’s Britain’s Toughest Pubs. You just can’t imagine a continental TV station commissioning Belgium’s Ugliest Dentist or Italy’s Stupidest Greengrocer. Though I’d certainly watch it if they did.

Also, do you think the Brits are particularly touchy about being criticised?

I’ve discovered that people are more than happy to put their boot into their own hometowns, but don’t necessarily appreciate it when some poncy Londoner does it on their behalf. In fairness to Mrs Wadsworth and her many kindred spirits, I deserve everything I get.

Have any of your other books stirred up controversy?

Not on this invigorating scale, though as I’m supposed to be funny there’s always a bit of a Marmite vibe going on. There’s no such thing as the joke that everyone finds amusing, and if you don’t, you’ll just get annoyed. Particularly if you’re a humiliated Norwegian Eurovision entrant meeting some wise-arse Englishman who’s turned up expecting to share a laugh about the worst night of your life.

In Nul Points you seek out contestants who didn't get any points in the Eurovision Song Contest. In Spanish Steps, you are joined on your pilgrimage by a reluctant donkey. What draws you to the hopeless cases, the unloved?

It’s our native sympathy for the under-donkey. Plus, doing things the easy way doesn’t make for an adventure. The worst travel-journalism assignment I ever had was a week at an ultra-luxury spa hotel in Italy – nothing interesting happened until I knocked over the gigantic butter squirrel that stood guard over the breakfast buffet.

Speaking of unloved, your soundtrack for the trip was the 358 least-loved tracks in history of native popular music. How did you compile this list? And did any song in particular become the soundtrack of your trip?

The usual haul of polls and surveys (Channel 4’s Worst 100 series, Q Magazine’s quest to find the most terrible albums and singles, and many, many more). Obviously some songs cropped up in more than one chart – I must have listened to Agadoo about a dozen times.

Honest-to-badness novelty cheese generally came as a relief: decay and decline seems so much less tragic when you’re listening to Remember You’re A Womble or So Macho. But if anyone says the words ‘Mick Jagger’s solo output’ to me now I hunch up into the foetal position and shiver. Then I leap to my feet and punch them in the throat.

You had some pretty awful meals on the trip. Do you think the Brits accept crap food in a way that Italians and Spaniards, for example, never would? Could/would a Parmo exist outside of north-east England?

Funnily enough, the parmo is Italian – it began life as the escalope parmesan. However, it ended life as a spam fritter left outside for a year in a land where it rained fondue. I don’t think we accept crap food – we genuinely love it. Left to my own devices and given a bottomless supply of mustard, I would eat deep-fried rubbish for ever. I blame the climate, and our habit of going around in it wearing t-shirts – those Mediterranean types don’t need to put down a layer of high-calorific insulation.

On a more serious point, I got real sense of anger in the book. There was a time that Britain was great and led the world. Have those days gone for good? Or did you come across it signs of hope those days will come again, albeit in a different ways?

I think they’ve gone for good, but I also think we’re comfortable with that. Dominating the planet for the thick end of 200 years always seemed like some ill-gotten lottery win for such a tiny island. What angers me isn’t our national decline itself, but how it’s sapped our civic confidence: we’ve effectively privatised our town centres into the control of multinational superstores and shopping malls. Driving through careworn but Asda-free towns I felt I was looking back on a golden age when the British weren’t afraid of doing things our own way, even if that meant doing most of them really badly.

Finally, I know readers will want me to ask about Craig, the Austin Maestro who took you around unloved Britain. Is he still in your care? Do you take him out on weekends? I imagine he is like the automotive equivalent of an old guy in a wheelchair with a blanket over his legs.

Dear old Craig. How fondly I recall my next-door neighbour’s expression as I drove him up our road for the first time! I kept Craig for a year after I’d finished the book, by which time I’d fallen under the strange spell of awful vehicles from the British motor industry’s shambolic end-game. That’s to say I recently swapped him for a barge-like Rover 800 coupe – the kind of car a local golf-club secretary might have aspired to in 1993. When Rover were looking for a celebrity to endorse the car they had to make do with Max Bygraves, who should have made my playlist, but somehow didn’t.

You Are AwfulTim's book You Are Awful (But I Like You), Travels Through Unloved Britain, is published by Ebury and can be ordered on Amazon now.

 

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