Book review: ‘Charging Around’ by Clive Wilkinson

A refreshing change from many recent attempts at British travel writing sees an engaging narrator attempt a long-distance coastal trip by electric car.

In summer 2010, my old friend Kevin Dawson (then a BBC Radio 4 producer and now a public radio executive in the USA) was invited to take part in one of the first long-distance electric car journeys across Europe. In my capacity as E&T’s features editor at the time, I commissioned him to write an account of the pioneering rally for the magazine’s September issue. The article generated considerable interest, and Kevin, to his surprise, was repeatedly complimented on it.

No wonder; electric cars were then something of an exotic novelty and Kevin’s story was pretty much a chronicle of numerous problems with charging an unruly stallion whose 100-mile (160km) range was minuscule by modern standards, as well as maintaining it in good working order. “People looked at us as if we were crazy… and their eyes said: ‘Who is this deceived English fool?’,” he wrote.

I was reminded of that article from nearly 13 years ago while reading ‘Charging Around: Exploring the Edges of England by Electric Car’ (Eye Books, £9.99, ISBN 9781785633454).  Clive Wilkinson – a writer and a former religious studies teacher – describes the 1,900-mile (3,000km) electric car journey he made in 2018 along the rough (both literally and figuratively) edges of England’s North Sea coast, when the intrepid traveller was approaching his 80th birthday.

‘Charging Around’ (what a great double entendre of a title) is one of the best travel books I’ve read of late. I was introduced to it at a time when I was becoming increasingly disappointed in the whole genre of modern British travel writing (if such a genre exists at all, which is a different matter). Most of the recent titles released in large numbers by publishers have been nothing more than hastily put together collections of jokes and puns that see their peripatetic narrators bumble thoughtlessly about the globe taking the mickey out of everyone and everything they see. It’s a literary style that one critic has aptly branded ‘cheerful laddism’.

An optimist by nature, I nevertheless kept hoping that a ‘proper’ travel book – amusing and easy to read, yet insightful and revealing – would hit bookshops one day. At last, I am happy to say, one has appeared.

There’s nothing not to like about ‘Charging Around’. Clive Wilkinson is a genuinely comic writer, devoid of arrogance and self-pity. Friendly and slightly melancholy, he never plays a know-it-all, but laughs at his own boo-boos and carries (or rather drives) on. He is a genial travel companion, with a keen eye for detail and an immensely likeable tone of voice – confident, but never didactic. I was sorry when the journey ended, and wanted to start the ride all over again. So I immediately ordered one of Wilkinson’s previous books, about his travels onboard a container ship.

Engineers, of all people, are bound to enjoy ‘Charging Around’, a whistle-stop tour of England’s still hectic and unreliable charge-point infrastructure in a Nissan Leaf electric family car that Wilkinson and his wife (and travelling companion) Joan dubbed ‘Lettie’.

The technological challenge faced by Wilkinson, neither an engineer nor even a convinced technocrat, was substantial. In his own words: “In buying the Leaf, we had launched ourselves into a steep learning curve that involved signing up to a host of charge-point providers throughout the country, all requiring separate membership, all with apps or RFID cards or both. The Electric Highway, Charge Your Car, Polar Instant, Pod Point, Genie Point – we had to sign up to each of them if we wanted to use their charge points… in… different parts of the country…  We also have to know what connectors to use – CHAdeMO, 50 kW, CCS, AC, or DC. And to keep track of all the charge points throughout the country, we’d need to download Zap-Map.”

To me, the sheer hassle of all those apps, connectors and charge points was like a cold shower for my hitherto romantic notion of electric-car travel: sliding noiselessly along a smooth coastal highway to the accompaniment of a gently murmuring surf. Another revelation was the length of an average charging process – in case you are lucky enough to have found a suitable charge point and to have registered the appropriate app: from 40 minutes and longer! Not to mention the likely queues at a sole charge point in the area.

Apart from numerous – at times hilarious, at times annoying, but always instructive – charging-around and other driving-related adventures, the book is resplendent with masterly descriptions of the locations visited – cities, towns, villages, hotels and nature reserves, including Britain’s one and only desert in Dungeness, the very existence of which was a revelation to me.

Among other random, yet invariably fascinating, facts, with which the book is strewn, like a North Sea beach with pebbles, I could mention the following: that the last wolf in England was killed in the 14th century in Humphrey Head Point jutting into Morecambe Bay and is therefore known as Humphrey the Wolf; that in Sunderland 61.3 per cent voted to leave the EU, and for that it became known as ‘the city that erased the euro’; that Best Western has a policy of installing charge points at most of its hotels, which makes it the safest bet for an electric car driver; that Tesla has its own dedicated charge points, normally not compatible with CHAdeMO connectors.

And many, many more.

On the road, Wilkinson bumps into (this time only figuratively) a plethora of interesting characters: hoteliers and mechanics, MPs and refugees – with whom he always manages to strike up a conversation. ‘Charging Around’ abounds in well executed, razor-sharp dialogue – one of the trickiest literary devices, with which the author seems to be at ease. The book’s final encounter, which is representative of Wilkinson’s writing style in general, takes place in the North Downs.

‘Going far?’

‘Back home. North East, near the Scottish border. We’ve been driving down the east coast.,

‘Bit tough up there, isn’t it?’ said one of the men with a grin.’

‘Well, you know, we’ve got houses, and some even have television.’

‘How far’ve you done?’

‘Over a thousand miles.’

‘Blimey. You’re sorted then’

‘Yep, sorted.’

I am going to recommend ‘Charging Around’ to Kevin Dawson when he is back in the UK next time.

And another thing: I now do not exclude the possibility of my next car being an electric one. Despite all the hassle involved, it sounds like fun!

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