I discovered this book via my Kindle and downloaded a sample to try. It was excellent so I decided to buy the book. But, ever the skinflint, I got it as a paperback from Amazon marketplace, since, even with postage, this was the cheapest option.
The book has a nice bright cover, but it’s insecure. You don’t often get quotes telling you what a great book it is on the front cover. Those usually come more discreetly on the back. But not here. The opinions of Michaels Billington and Palin, and unfortunately also of Stephen Fry, come plastered across the front, and that spoils the great graphic that’s there. Oh – and why do I say ‘unfortunately’ in relation to Mr Fry, one of Britain’s national treasures? Because he says the book is ‘trouser-wipingly funny’. I haven’t a clue what that’s meant to mean, but I presume it’s a compliment. Even national treasures can make dumb remarks.
So what’s the book about? Michael Simkins, a well-known actor, decides to spend a few months in France to broaden his horizons. However, he seems to have France pretty well sussed before he goes, since on page 3 he says: ‘The French see themselves as nature’s aristocrat.’ He’s hit the nail on the head! His prior experience of France was through the film ‘Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday’, which left a lasting impact on him. (My mum loved this film too!) Michael thinks it’s time he updated his view of the country.
Over the next three months he travels down the west coast, then along the south, before ending up in Paris via Vichy. He meets some fascinating people and witnesses some amazing spectacles. He stays in the sort of dubious hotels we’ve all stayed at in France, as well as at one of the most expensive ones, the Majestic in Cannes. This is a high budget trip! It all makes for a very interesting read. The author clearly enjoys France and respects the natives he bumps into. Too often travel memoirs go for cheap laughs from national stereotyping. Not so here.
There are a couple of dull moments in the book, it has to be said. Michael Simkins is an avid cricketer so I suppose a cricket match is inevitable. But it drags on, and this is one place in the book where I get annoyed. It’s a match between expats, and the ones he depicts, and their way of life, bear no resemblance to anyone or anything I’ve experienced living here as an expat for five years. The boules match with the Arabs goes on way too long as well, but those are minor gripes. The rest of the book is well paced and sweeps you along.
You get a good idea what the book is like from the list of contents. I love playing with words so his chapter titles are right up my street. Examples are ‘Wrack and Rouen’, ‘Lourdes a Merci’, ‘Hide and Chic’ and ‘Veni, Vidi, Vichy’ – brilliant!
Detour de France has everything a travel book needs – a sense of adventure, historical facts, descriptions of towns, cities and countryside, hands-on experiences and the traveller’s genuine reactions to what he sees. It also has the added bonuses of being humorous, yet still sensitively touching in places too, and very well written. Definitely one to read.
Published by Ebury Press 7.99 GBP