I’ll let you in on a dark secret about book reviewers. They don’t read all the books they write about. When you think about it, it’s hardly surprising; if a hefty sack of tomes thuds onto your desk first thing Monday and you’re supposed to fashion some pithy dissection of them all for Friday, you’d probably not have time to eat, let alone breathe, between the chapters, writes Simon Hacker.
So like a restaurant reviewer who offers taste notes by driving by slowly and sniffing the air, or a car reviewer who’s road-tested a new model before it’s actually got an engine (tut, tut, one famous auto magazine) book reviewers, I’m afraid, can be known to skim.
My wife does this (she’s not a book reviewer; I mean about everything. She probably skimmed me or we’d not have married). But I can’t. I plod through a Netflix boxset with all the pace of a lobotomised goldfish, constantly backtracking and usually switching to subtitles because – blame it on DNA or spectrums – I need to digest every atom of something I’m consuming.
Given this curse, Clive Wilkinson’s Charging Around, an adventure by electric car, made my heart sink. I knew I couldn’t mime from the press release, you see, because a) EV driving and the promotion thereof is a subject close to my heart and b) the whole premise of the book strikes me as something disturbingly akin to an idea I’ve been gestating over the past year. I’ve even written the first chapter, though mine begins on the border of Wales, his at Berwick-upon-Tweed, gazing into Scotland. Call me Salieri if you like, but this paperback was definitely on the right desk.
As a proponent of slow travel, Wilkinson’s mission, or perhaps anti-mission, was to explore the edges of England and to offer a portrait of the country at a time of great change. In 2018, he set out to discover England’s forgotten economic borders and assess to what degree they’ve been bettered or battered by Brexit. And given that the joyful liberation of EU divorce coincided with a government declaration to break the bonds of combustion-engine dependance, liberating us to a new era of electrified mobility, Clive and his wife Joan set out, perhaps madly, to achieve this quest in Lettie, their battery-powered Nissan Leaf.
From page one, you just know this is to be a hard-fought race to ignominy: in the left lane, all those porkies written on a bus, in the right, all that rhetoric of an electric superhighway, bristling with easy-to-use charge points. As in the ones, I would gently remind readers from my own experience, that are either blocked by pig-ignorant non-EV drivers, require a Duke of Edinburgh gold medal to find, or charge so slowly you’ll be overnighting on your back seat.
Another reference by the publisher stokes the anticipation of Wilkinson’s work. The spiel refers to the author as an ‘Anti-Clarkson’. I guessed this means he’d adopt a strict research policy of not punching pub staff in the face if they’d run out of steak, or pulling over to urge locals to make wicker effigies of Meghan Markle. Judging by the prose though, I think it’s more about the author’s possession of a neat turn of phrase and a keen eye for comedy.
Among other writing, Wilkinson has previously written, in Reflections from the Monkey Deck, about the flight-free joy of travelling the world by container ship and he’s clearly a man in search of max elation on min emissions. But no travel writing without pain and misery is ever worth reading and, thankfully, from the first moment of confrontation with a self-satisfied 4×4 diesel driver who’s blocked a last-gasp charging point, Wilkinson serves it up liberally. As the journey progresses, you realise that, if good travel writing is all about things going horribly wrong, there’s no better way, short of a three-legged donkey, to set out than by electric car.
And it doesn’t take dexterity with a CHAdeMO plug connection in a dark rain-sodden car park to work out that any exposé of the tragic inadequacy of England’s EV charging network is going to make a handy introduction to a study of how communities are so often left behind. “The trouble with these people in London is that they don’t know we exist,” a tourist information officer in Broughton-in-Furness tells Wilkinson. “They haven’t got a clue. They’re very tall and go around with their heads in the clouds.”
And so it was that the deadline for reviewing this book came before I finished reading it. But as far I’ve got, it’s a hell of a ride. Or a ride into hell, come to think. Wilkinson’s meander into what makes post-Brexit England tick, suggests that any journey into the faded edges of the map has banality, at best, or social deprivation, at worst, priced in.
Since the author finished the work, we should note that the infrastructure to support those romantic and foolhardy enough to buy EVs and use them as any more than a local shopping/commuting shuttle, has incrementally improved. But EV sales have accelerated even faster, ensuring pressure on the rag-tag, multi-speed, patchwork system remains laughably and lamentably more than it can contain. Until the two match together, the warning that emerges from a work like this is clear: from behind the wheel of an EV, England is stuck on amber.
Subtitled Exploring the Edges of England By Electric Car, Charging Around, by Clive Wilkinson is published by Eye Books, at £9.99. www.eye-books.com