Tuesday, January 29, 2008

'Kingdom by the Sea', by Paul Theroux

Map: http://www.itraveluk.co.uk/maps/england.html

Mr Theroux has that way of describing bits of Britain that make you think : Gosh, that's just how it is .

MARGATE - "Skinheads and chip-shops and rain...."

Theroux walks round Britain's coast (just occasionally taking a train) and describes the places he visits and the people he meets.

The year was 1982, the summer of the Falklands War.

DEAL - "a girl and a boy stopped me...

"The girl said, 'Give me forty-five pence, will you?'"

"... I said no ...

"'He's a poof,'" the girl said, and they both laughed."

HASTINGS - "The town was too poor to be vulgar and it had enough friendly artists to avoid being philistine." Theroux liked Hastings.

BEXHILL - "tea shops; semi-detached houses; pebbledash facades; no fun-fair visible; a largely elderly population of shuffling Tories."

THE EAST SUSSEX COAST - "The English aristocracy had nearly always been recruited from the ranks of flatterers, cut-throats, boyfriends... So it was not so strange that this blue valley on the coast of East Sussex was populated by wine-bibbing lords who had formerly been Marxist union men..."

HOVE - "Hove was low spirits and lawns."

LITTLEHAMPTON - "The sort of place where people did little but water their plants..."

LYME REGIS - "a continuous line of traffic being squeezed between tea shops and coaching
inns..."

CORNWALL - "The loathing for tourists and outsiders was undisguised."

WALES - " ... seemed like an earlier version of England - upright and antique and dusty and church-going, with all the colour schemes wrong."

Theroux likes the Welsh. "Welsh politeness was soft-hearted and smiling. Even LLANELLI's Skinheads were well-behaved, and the youths with swastikas on their leather jackets, and bleached hair and earrings, or green hair and T-shirts saying Anarchy - even they seemed sweet-natured."

BELFAST - "I knew at once that Belfast was an awful city. It had a bad face - mouldering buildings, tough-looking people, a visible smell, too many fences..."



EDINBURGH- "a city of black crags and old solemn tenements... It was the most beautiful city in Britain and one of the most beautiful in Europe."

GLASGOW - Theroux finds Glasgow peaceful, even pretty.

"The city looked dignified."

But, Theroux does notice one less dignified aspect of people and trains in the Glasgow area:

"the men who sat six to a table with a bottle of vodka and twenty cans of Tartan Ale; the families sitting in a nest of newspapers and sandwich wrappers and plastic bags... the children screaming, 'How much farva!' and 'I can hear funda!'...an atmosphere of sour mayonnaise and stale cigarette smoke...."

Theroux likes the Scots!

"I was reluctant to leave Scotland; I had liked nearly everyone I had met."

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Theroux is at his best when describing the people he meets.

"'We do bed and breakfast,' Margaret Skeat said.

Vesta Skeat was thirteen and sneaked lipstick when her mother was not looking...

"'Is that all the clobber you have?" she said, standing in the doorway of my room...

"Her mother screamed her name. Vesta said softly, 'Shut up, you silly cow,' and then winked at me..."

Theroux stayed mainly in Bed and Breakfasts.

"I was often warmed by a small thrill in following the younger landladies up four flights to the tiny room at the top of the house."

Theroux stayed in a B&B in Southport.

"Trish likes getting down on all fours. A lot. To shampoo the carpet, or sweep the carpet, or pick up toys from the floor...

"Trish was frequently on her hands and knees when I was sitting in the room...It was as if, in ape terms, she was 'presenting' to me - the bum-show that matters so much in baboon society..."

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Theroux visits Butlins, in MINEHEAD -

"The more I saw of Butlin's the more it resembled English life; it was very close to reality in its narrowness, its privacies and its pleasures....

"electronic games were easier than sports and eating junk food had become another recreation. No one seemed to notice how plain the buildings were....

"I went to the talent show auditions in the Gaiety Revue Theatre. A girl of eight did a suggestive dance to a lewd pop song... Most of the parents were elsewhere- playing one-armed bandits and drinking beer."


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And what does Theroux (an American) really think about the English?

"Person to person, I had found them truthful and efficient and humane..."

"But anonymity made them lazy, dishonest and aggressive.... over the phone they were unhelpful and frequently rude..."

"If I had only one word to describe the expression of England's face I would have said: insulted."

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On occasions, Theroux was forced to stay in large hotels.

"It was hard to distinguish hotels in England from prisons or hospitals. Most of them were run with the same indifference or cruelty and were equally uncomfortable."

Actually, Theroux did like some of the small hotels he stayed in. "The English do small things well and big things badly."

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In Bristol he visits the St Pauls district, where race riots had left streets of gutted buildings.

"In the course of a generation or two the parents' authority had been weakened and the children had stopped submitting. In fact the children had become British," writes Theroux.

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British children?

"one mother (English), looking at the tormented face of her wet baby, grew very cold and sarcastic.

" 'Someone's going to have a warm bottom in a minute!' she said.

"The baby groaned like a starving monkey and tensed its fingers, indicating fear and frustration.
"The Welsh people on the train stared at this behaviour and thought: The English!"

~~~

In Southport, Theroux meets Jason.

"Even Jason, who was 12, was lacking in hope. he was a bright boy but he said he was in the 'B' class. 'All the posh woons are in the 'A' class. Teacher's pets and that. He said he was planning to leave school when he was 16.

" 'What would your mother say about that?'

" 'Me moom don't care.'

~~~

Theroux feels sorry for some of the children of Anglesey. "Anglesey...was all council flats and uncut grass, barking dogs and broken stone walls. I felt sorry for the children, kicking tin cans, their hands in their pockets and their hair blowing, dreaming of being plasterers."

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Theroux worries about the poor. He considers that in Britain "directors were treated absurdly well, and workers badly."

(How true. Not so long ago, The Sunday Times pointed out that the bosses of Britain's top 100 companies earn on average £1,700,000 per year. And are they doing a good job? In recent times BT shareholders saw their shares drop about 60%)

At one point in the book, Theroux makes a prediction about the future of Britain. He believes Britain would become a "a wilderness in which most people lived hand to mouth, and the rich would live like princes."

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Theroux worries about violence. "I no longer felt that place-names like Taunton or Exeter or Bristol were evocative of anything but graffiti-covered walls....

"The graffiti suggested that England was changing into a ....more violent place."

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'Who the heck does Theroux think he is?' you may ask, as your blood pressure rises. Well, he's American, and he admits that all is not well in America! He lived for five years in Africa, working, I think, for the peace Corps. He taught English in Singapore. He did a lot of travelling: China, South America..... He lived for some years in London. And he admits that when he's critical, the problem may be with him!

He writes: "Morcambe was wrapped around the edge of a dirty sea, scowling, its blackened terraces and hotels reminiscent of certain fierce churches - all spikes and shadows...

"I imagined day-trippers getting off the train and taking one look and bursting into tears. But of course most people at Morcambe were enjoying themselves in the drizzle, and the fault was mine, not theirs."

Well, normal people like drizzle, don't they?

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Theroux LOVED some parts of coastal Britain.

THE NORTH WEST COAST OF SCOTLAND - "This was the most spectacular coastline I had seen so far in Britain - huger than Cornwall, darker than Wales, wilder than Antrim...

"It was a splendid ride to Mallaig - one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world....

"That night I stared out of the window at the freakish mountains of Skye. They were sharp pointed , fantastic and high like peaks in dragon stories...

"Skye...it was a surprise and a pleasure to find a place I wished to return to....I wanted to come here again with someone I loved and say 'Look.'"

ST ANDREWS - "There was not a town its size in Britain to compare with St Andrews...the white stone ruins and the brown stone buildings perched on the rocky cliffs of a wide bay....like a lively cloister with the roof off..."

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