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Life in London can be a bit daunting and a bit grim. This is the opinion I have as a Northerner who on occasion travels to the Capital on business. As a rule I try to avoid it as everyone seems a bit grumpy and they seem to have a sense of entitlement as if they travelled to London to become an Executive and are only working in this coffee stall until they get their big break. Up North most people are happy to have any sort of job so you are likely to be treated well no matter who you talk to (just avoid mini-London i.e. Manchester). If I worked in the big city the chances are that I would be just like Philip Ells and look for a way out as soon as I could. Perhaps I would move to a smaller city, but I certainly would not go to the extremes that he did - become the people's lawyer of the small island community of Tuvalu.
Philip Ells has somehow managed to grind out a successful career in the City of London, but despite his work going well he does not feel happy. He decides to set himself a challenge and become a volunteer. With his strong skill set he is given a surprisingly important role for his first excursion; he is to become the new People's Lawyer of Tuvalu, an island community. In this role he must act as impartial lawyer for people from the lowliest farmer to the President. What greets Ells on arrival is an impoverished society that is happy, but poor. He must tackle cases from as wide a range as pig rustling to murder. Can he hack the two year contract and will he grow as a person?
'Where the Hell is Tuvalu' is part travelogue, part lad non-fiction (similar to Danny Wallace). Ells has taken a real life experience and written it in a light hearted manner. As a narrator Ells shows a lot of himself and it is certainly warts and all. A perfectly nice man he comes to the islands a naive bloke and leaves wiser. His pleasant nature comes through in the writing and it is clear that he genuinely wanted to help the people under his care. As a volunteer he was never fully accepted into the culture and the book becomes as much about what it is to be a volunteer as it is island life, due to the fact that he spends so much time with his fellow volunteers.
At its strongest the book is genuinely funny and/or touching. The first half is a light look at life and chronicles a series of minor cases that came across Ells' desk. We get to know some of the locals and their ways. Ells is respectful throughout and never suggests for one moment that the Tuvalu lifestyle if worse than that of the West. His offbeat style of living really works in the book as he gives a very personal view of life with no sense of pretention. For 150 pages the book is a nice read, but here is where the problems begin.
The second half of the book takes on a far darker set of subjects, yet still keeps the same tone in most places. Ells' is given the opportunity to visit another larger set of islands and work as a defence lawyer for a few weeks. Suddenly he is defending murderers and rapists who seem incapable at times of realising what they have done wrong. In these moments of culture clash in which men can readily beat their wives, Ell's style no longer sits easy. He tries to convey his sense of distress and unease, but I feel that he is incapable. The entire book has Ells' being quite a solitary man and this comes across in his writing as if he is almost unable to express his inner self to others, either in life or through non-fiction.
The decidedly darker tone of the second half of the book did not work as part of the same experience as the jovial beginning. If Ells wanted to tackles these very serious issues I feel that a more serious book throughout would have been better suited. Your lasting image as a reader will not be of a peaceful island lifestyle, but one of easy violence and apparent ignorance. This is not the image that either Ells or the people of Tuvalu expected or wanted. I still think that the book is just about worth reading as Ells is a nice man who writes well. His innocent volunteer act is fun and learning with him as he makes mistakes does put you in the shoes of someone who feels way out of their comfort zone. These adventures alone would have made a good book, but together with the dark elements it leaves any exhilaration you had at the beginning long gone.
Author: Philip Ells
Year: 2006 (although this is an updated version of an earlier edition)
Price: amazon uk - £7.19
play.com - £7.99