I hope to finish my posts on Iona this weekend. This is a book review of a book that I read on the plane ridge to and from the UK. It is a little dated but there were some good insights, too.
Paul Theroux, The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey around the Coast of Great Britain (1983: New York: Marina Books, 2003), 353 pages, no photos or maps.
In the spring of 1982, Paul Theroux decides that after living a decade in London, he should see the countryside. He sets out with a backpack and a pair of oiled boots to follow the coastline around Great Britain. Parts of the coast he travels on foot, other sections, when available, he takes trains. On a few occasions, he takes a bus. For three months, while the British are engaged in the “Falkland Business” (no one called it a war), Theroux travels. Although he’s curious about what the British people think of the war, he agrees with the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, who describes the Falkland War as two old bald men fighting over a comb (39). By the time he’s finished, Britain has retaken the Falklands from Argentina and the railroads have gone on strike. It seems to be a fitting end to a wet and miserable (but well described) journey across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
I picked up this book to read on my recent trip to Scotland, and read the first hundred or so pages on the flight over. Theroux, who was only forty at the time of his journey, bickers as if he was an old man. This is the seventh book I’ve read by Theroux and I have yet to become comfortable with his style. He’s not the type of author that makes you want to go out and follow his footsteps and I’m pretty sure that he would be a terrible travel partner. Yet, I keep reading him because I like how he uses dialogue and how he’s most often talking with common people he meets along the way. I also appreciate how all his journeys are packed with interesting facts and tidbits of information about the places he visits. Finally, Theroux is a master of metaphors and similes, using contrast and the ironic to point make his point. A collapsed castle stands like a set of broken dentures. (77). He finds the Isle of Wright so beautiful and it’s train so ugly, that was as painful as it would have been to see a peddlers’ pack on the shoulders of a lovely woman” (69) In Portsmouth, where the poet Shelly wrote “‘O Darkling Woods, My Sweet Repose,’ one looks up and sees a gas station.” (67)
Early in the book, Theroux describes Brighton as “having the face of an old tart and a very brief appeal.” (53). Having read this during my overnight flight, I was shocked later that day day when, while eating lunch by the Portobello Beach, my friend Ewan spoke fondly of the time he lived in Brighton. I laughed and told him what Theroux had written about his beloved city and discovered that Ewan and Theroux were there at the same time (during the Falkland War). Appearance is in the eye of the beholder.
While traveling, Theroux stays in a lot of old small and nearly empty hotels. He notices that the owners often say that as the summer comes, the hotels will fill up but he never finds that the case. He often makes fun of the British idea of a “holiday” as they travel to these gray beaches. This is at a time when Britain is cutting out rail lines. Surprisingly, as one who has made a good living writing about trains, he doesn’t have much sympathy with the train lovers who lament these cuts. “Their interest always seemed to me worse than indecent and their joy-riding a mild form of necrophilia” (121). He challenges another railroad buff who advocates for steam, noting how, like “many other railway bluffs, he detested our century” (175).
Theroux travels takes him out of London and along the southern coast visiting places like Dover (at this point the tunnel under the channel is still talk and Theroux insists a Brit by pointing out the Japanese built a longer tunnel under the sea connecting their mainland to Hokkaido. He follows the southern coast through Cornwall, then comes up to Wales. At Cardiff, he notes how he dislikes cities. “In Britain they were cavernous and intimidating, like the fortresses they had once been. They seemed to have heavy eyebrows” (141). In Wales he sees the poverty after the closing of the mines. He travels over to Northern Ireland where he learns about the troubles there, where they don’t worry as much about the Falklands as there is enough violence of their own. Then he travels by ferry to Glasgow and makes his way around the Scottish Coast, before coming back down to London. As he travels, he tells people that he’s in publishing (which only gets him in trouble once when an aspiring writing wants to show him a manuscript) instead of a writer. However, in St. Andrews, Scotland, a local bookstore owner discovers him!
In many ways, this book is out of date. Much has changed in the United Kingdom as well as in the world. It’s been a while since I read Theroux earlier books (The Great Railway Bazaar and Riding the Iron Rooster), and it was fun to be reminded that he was just as ornery in his early middle ages as he was in the last book I’ve read by him (Last Train to Zona Verde). That and for Theroux unique way of describing the countryside and the people, I am glad that I read it.
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