The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain by Paul Theroux
|The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain by Paul Theroux|
|Reviewer: Magda Healey|
|Summary: Beautifully written, gloomy, depressive and funny at the same time, this exploration of coastal UK at the time of the Falkland War as a metaphor for a crumbling empire is now a travel classic. Highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 368||Date: February 1985|
|Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd|
Paul Theroux undertook his journey round the coast of the United Kingdom exactly 25 years ago, in 1982. Even more than normally, his book is very slight on information, strong on description and dominated by the author's perceptions, feelings and judgements. Being his usual miserable persona, Theroux doesn't spare the locations he visits and the people he meets just because they happen to be British. Wry, observant and always seeing the empty half of the glass (unless it's filled with sludge), he travels the length of the coast of the UK by train and on foot, avowedly skipping castles and cathedrals and under-sampling cities.
He is, of course, frightfully unfair. He's scathing, ironic, judgemental without spelling the judgements out and very, very choosy about the human creations too. As all who read Theroux know, he's not very fond of human beings. He likes his towns and villages grand or at least graceful, but barring very rare instances, his sense of wonder is reserved for the world of nature - and those fleeting instances when a scene of beauty is caught like an intense illumination, when a momentary arrangement of the world seen form a particular angle is captured with perfect clarity, vivid and unforgettable.
The Kingdom by the Sea is now, of course, a period piece, and Theroux natural talent for misery and depressiveness is ideally suited to depicting the Kingdom of 1982, the time of the Falklands War, the gloomy hardships of Thatcherite depression with huge unemployment, empty hotels and closed factories, the destruction of industry, the Northern Irish 'troubles' in full bloom, the looming end of the railway network. Oh, and the son of the heir to the throne was born then, too.
People who know, even very perfunctorily, the locations Theroux is visiting will enjoy The Kingdom by the Sea much more: half of the pleasure of reading it is stomping your feet and shouting bloody idiot, it's not like that AT ALL at the book. I was surprised how many parts of coast he described I actually did visit or even lived on at least for a short time myself. Another pleasure is to tick off things that are still very much a feature of life in these islands and those which are gone, probably forever. We still have those cars with old people in them, parked at the very edge of the sea, and the people in them, even on mild days, just looking at the sea, sometimes on camping chairs but still within touching distance of their ugly, smelly metal box. But so much of the world he's describing is now gone: from the powerful labour unions to the boring, sensible, brown clothes' shops of small-town high streets, United Kingdom now is indeed a different place.
This book provokes a lot of negative reactions: I can see why, though as a non-native I don't share the outrage. Also, and I hope, meaningfully and purposefully, the harshest criticisms and most bile is reserved for the English. Theroux rather likes the Welsh, has a lot of sympathy and understanding for the Northern Irish and can get on with at least some Scots. It's the English of all breeds that he can't understand and can't stand. He describes many a variety from the retired-to-the-seaside-to-die, hedge pruning and tea-drinking to tabloid-reading, Butlins visiting variety but he dislikes them all - and he damns them with their own words, pithily, wonderfully, right on target.
I found his account of Ulster fascinating, if marred by complete lack of historical background replaced by a bizarre theory about family roles, and the description of desolate grandeur of Sutherland made me want to go there immediately. He does get things wrong: from, famously now, claiming that there is no pier in Wigan to stating that crowdie is equivalent to porridge and a crofter is some old fashioned way of describing a tenant farmer. But in a way, it doesn't matter. Nobody in their right mind reads Theroux for factual information, historical background or statistics. However, he's amongst the best for idiosyncratic, personal, impressionistic relation, and the miserable old git persona very well suited indeed to the time and place he describes in The Kingdom by the Sea.
Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island is a rather more cheerful account, though nowhere near as well written. nterestingly, it refers The Kingdom by the Sea a lot.
And for those bored of travelling the most travelled and described bit of Europe, Daniel Kalder's Lost Cosmonaut provides a wonderful account of the bits you wouldn't even think were there.
The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain by Paul Theroux is in the Top Ten Books about Britain, Britishness, and the Brits.
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