Book Review: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere – Graham Coster (Penguin-1996)

Sub-titled ‘Trucking Two Continents’, this is a travel book of sorts but not one that focuses on the culture, architecture, food and customs of foreign countries.  This is a book about long-distance lorry driving, or trucking, where covering the longest distance as quickly as possible is the aim.

In the November 2014 edition of the adult humour magazine Viz, there is a double-page picture entitled ‘What can you spot on the Motorway?’  The reader is invited to study the picture and tick off the things they can spot including ‘A footballer in a black Range Rover doing 130mph on his way to a charity event’ and ‘the start of a coned off section to protect one man using a strimmer 20 miles further up the road’.  One thing to spot is ‘An articulared lorry in the 60th mile of an overtaking manoeuvre past another articulated lorry.’  Funny because of the exaggeration  and because there is some truth in it.

My own attitudes to articulated lorries is coloured by my driving experiences where, quite often, trucks seem to act as a rolling roadblock.  I have rarely though about the benefits trucks bring or how much we all rely on them.  

Part one of the book is called ‘East’ and in it Graham Coster describes his experiences of hitching a ride from the UK to Russia, talking to drivers, listening to Country music and learning the lore of the road.  It’s a very interesting read but, by God, a trucker’s life sounds like absolute purgatory at times.  They can be held up for hours, days even, at border controls, robbed, stung for bribes and freezing their backsides off sleeping in their cabs in Northern Europe.  

The meals that truckers eat are described as gargantuan carbohydrate piles.  I wondered why the meals are so big when they are essentially sitting down all day.

The truckers don’t seem to get time to explore the countries and cities they visit and few seem to have any interest in doing so.  The main interest is to get to their destination, pick up another load before heading home again where the whole things starts again.

I found the thought of living this kind of life depressing, but lots of people like it and for that we should be thankful otherwise the country would grind to a halt.

In part two ‘West’, Coster hitches rides on trucks from the East to West coast of the USA.  Like most things, trucking in the US is bigger, more attractive and more comfortable.  Let’s be honest, American trucks like Kenworths, Peterbilts and Macks have more kudos.  They represent the idealized big-rig reeking of power,muscle and down-to-earth hardwork and honesty.

The journeys are much longer than the ones Coster took in Europe but are much easier to navigate.  Permits may be required for particular states but these are relatively easy to obtain and do not involve the soul-sapping, time chewing controls of Europe.  

The distances driven are just mind-bending; over 500 miles a day is standard and 1000 miles in a day is not uncommon.  I’ve usually had enough of driving after 3 or 4 hours, in which time I could cover 200 miles if I’m lucky.

Coster mentions the trucking moves that have given rise to trucking myths such as Convoy and Smokey and the Bandit.  Reality seems to mirror the fiction in some respects.  Truckers discuss how to avoid the police (Smokey Bears) over their CBs and listen to pathos laden Country tunes.

In the US, Coster conveys some of the meditative state of driving endles miles across vast areas (Texas takes 2 days at least!).

I learnt very little about Europe or the USA from this book but that isn’t the point.  I learnt a lot about truckers. 

Book Review – Two Hundred And Twenty-One Baker Streets : Edited by David Thomas Moore (Abaddon Books – 2014)

A book for fans of Sherlock Holmes, science-fiction and fantasy.  This collection consists of 14 tales of Holmes, Watson and other familiar characters in not-so-familiar settings or even bodies. 

It’s great fun and, unusually for short story collections, not one is a duffer.  All have their own appeal.

In A Scandal in Hobohemia by Jamie Wyman, Holmes is Sanford ‘Crash’ Haus, owner of a travelling circus.  Watson is black veteran soldier Jim Walker.  Members of the travelling show are being murdered and Jim Walker finds himself being drawn in by the weird genius of Haus. 

Black Alice by Kelly Hale sets Holmes in the 17th Century investigating accusations of withcraft.  There is a lovely piece of imagery in ths tale which sees Watson dreaming of dumplings.  At one stage, Holmes forthright and indelicate questioning leads to him retreating swiftly closely followed by a barrage of hurled crockery. 

In The Adventure of the Speckled Bandana, J.E. Cohen imagines Homes as a 1970’s New York consulting detective, investigating a bizarre crime on the West Coast.  The story is set in a waxworks and made me think of a Scooby-Doo cartoon, although there are no Scooby Snacks and the perpetrator is not just the janitor dressed up in a sheet. 

Emma Newman’s ‘A Woman’s Place’ puts the focus on Holmes’ landlady, Mrs Hudson, whose interest in Holmes’ pursuit of Moriarty may be caused by a little more than the wish to get a vicarious thrill.  Mrs Hudson certainly hides her light under a bushel. 

A Study in Scarborough by Guy Adams sees Holmes and Watson as a comedy double act.  The story is written from the perspective of a fan looking back on their careers with nostalgia.  Watson demonstrates the true feelings of the straightman.

Ian Edginton’s ‘The Small World of 221B’ is one of the more sci-fi stories and includes time-travel and Matrix like imagery.

One of my favourite stories was The Final Conjuration by  Adrian Tchaikovsky.  Holmes is still Holmes as we have always known him.  However, he is transported as a powerful demon into a world ruled by seven great wizards.  This is a great fantasy tale.  The wizard’s servant who summons Holmes is named Wu-Tsan. 

The Patchwork Killer by Kasey Lansdale is set in the future where Holmes can be cloned into existence when necessary.  It’s a very funny and includes lines like “The worlds has changed.  The technology has changed.  Holmes, however, is the same smug bastard as always.”

The final story is called Paralles and is by Jenni Hill.  This is a birilliant story in which Holmes and Watson are teenage girls Charlotte and Jane.  It’s written as fanc fiction about fan fiction and is extremely engaging.

it’s unusual for me not to skip over a story or two in such a collection but this very entertaining book kept me reading all the way through.  Recommended.