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Authors: Paul Theroux

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BOOK: The Kingdom by the Sea
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Night fell on Bognor and turned the town into a village. The wind was still strong, but there was no sound of the sea and nothing salty in the air. I had dinner at the only chip shop in Bognor that was open—I was becoming knowledgeable about fish and chips and English breakfasts, and was starting to dislike them.

"I wrote a book about women because I am a woman and I understand them," a woman said on a radio that was playing behind a bar in a public house. There was more. "We have different bodies and different options. We are completely different from men. I actually quite like being a woman, and I think—"

" Mr. Love, the barman, said and switched it off and made a face at me. "Makes me want to spew." He was washing glasses, angrily polishing them with a cloth wrapped around his wrist. "Load of bloody cobblers." I thought he was going to smash a glass. "Ever hear such rubbish?"

I agreed with him. I was always reassured when someone felt that his intelligence had been insulted by a radio or television program.

In another public house there was a television set. I drank and waited until the news came on. It was Falklands news but nothing specific.

At the bar, Mrs. Hykeham, with an old scarf yanked on her head, and puffy, smoker's eyes, said, "It's stupid for Britain to be killing fourteen-year-old boys in the Falklands. That's how old they are. There was this letter smuggled out, see. It was in the paper. It told how the little Argies were cold and scared and homesick."

She went on in this vein, and soon everyone in the bar was shouting at her. But it made her more contrary and she wouldn't budge. She seemed secretly pleased to be disagreeing with everyone, and she repeated the letter she had read and looked at the rest of them with contempt.

There was another woman in the bar. This was Mrs. Wackerfield. She had dog teeth and a way of staring. She said flatly that she was planning to go to the United States with her husband and children. She wanted to find work. Her husband knew everything about motors, and she knew about catering. Mrs. Wackerfield was not more than forty. Her husband, Richard, just sat there. He seemed to be thinking: Should Birdie be telling this bloke all these things?

"We'll go and stay for about five or six years," she said.

Her voice was London stuffy. She was drinking Pimm's.

"We'll make some money and then come home," she said.

She was very certain about everything.

"I want to go to California," she said. "It's lovely there, we've been twice. I don't want anything to do with New York, and Florida's getting spoiled. We'll sell up here and go, and start a business of some kind. We're not going to work for anyone else. We never do that. We'll save our money and then come home. I'd never think of staying there. We don't want that."

Mrs. Wackerfield continued to describe how she and Richard were going to settle in California for a while, because England was useless as far as work went, but it was her home, she said; she would come back. Richard said nothing. Now he was looking at me, perhaps wondering whether I objected to their presuming in this way. "We'll use your country for a few years and then ditch it when we've made our pile"—that was what they were saying. I did object to their presumption, but I kept my mouth shut.

I stayed in Bognor longer than I had planned. I grew to like Miss Pottage at Camelot. The beach was fine in the sunshine, and there was always an old man selling huge horrible whelks out of a wooden box on the Front. He said he caught them himself. It was sunny, but the shops were closed and the Front was deserted. The season hadn't started, people said.

I began to think that Bognor had been misrepresented. The oral tradition of travel in Britain was a shared experience of received opinion. Britain seemed small enough and discussed enough to be known at second hand. Dickens was known that way: it was an English trait to know about Dickens and Dickens' characters without ever having read him. Places were known in this same way. That was why Brighton had a great reputation and why Margate was avoided. Dover, people said, the white cliffs of Dover. And Eastbourne's lovely. And the Sink Ports, they're lovely, too. It was Dickens all over again, and with the same sort of distortions, the same prejudices, and some places they had all wrong.

"I don't know as much as I should about Dungeness," a man said to me, who didn't know anything about it at all. I went away laughing.

Broadstairs was serious, but Bognor was a joke. I was told, "It's like Edward the Seventh said"—it was George the Fifth—"his last words before he died. 'Bugger Bognor!' That's what I say." Bognor had an unfortunate name. Any English place name with
in it was doomed. ("The bowdlerization of English place-names has been a steady development since the late eighteenth century. In Northamptonshire alone, Buttocks Booth became Booth-ville, Pisford became Pitsford, and Shitlanger was turned into Shut-langer.") Camber Sands had a nice rhythmical lilt and was seen as idyllic—but it wasn't; Bognor contained a lavatorial echo, so it was seen as scruffy—but it wasn't. All English people had opinions on which seaside places in England were pleasant and which were a waste of time. This was in the oral tradition. The English seldom traveled at random. They took well-organized vacations and held very strong views on places to which they had never been.

5. A Morning Train to the Isle of Wight

for the fifty miles west of Bognor was full of pleats and tucks—harbors, channels, inlets, and Southampton Water, and the bays of Spithead. The coastal footpath around Selsey Bill gave out at one of the two Witterings. Beyond it were inconvenient islands and not enough causeways and a path made impossible by the scoops and cuts of all this water. There were no walkers here. This territory was for sailors—full of fine bays, friendly harbors, and the waterlogged geography of the Solent; all the blowing boats.

Just under the irregular coast was the Isle of Wight, shaped like the loose puzzle piece that most offshore islands resemble. I could reach it by train, taking the ferry from Portsmouth, and there was another train that went down the right-hand side of the island, from Ryde to Shanklin. I wanted to see what Henry James had called "that detestable little railway." This was the best way of skipping across the crumbs of land that made that part of the English coast from Bognor to Bournemouth so hard for the walker. I would simply take the morning train to the Isle of Wight.

I thought I might be the only passenger to Portsmouth, and was still convinced of it as we crossed the green fields to Chichester ("...a handsome Market Cross, erected in 1500, but much damaged by the Puritans") and Fishbourne, which was full of new mauve lilacs and booing children; but at Bosham, a middle-aged couple—the Lucketts—got on and seemed eager to tell me, but without appearing to boast, that they were going to Southampton to see the
Queen Elizabeth II
set sail for the Falklands.

"And of course we'll pop in and see my sister at the same time," Mrs. Luckett said, embarrassed by my lack of response. The Lucketts were off to wave plastic Union Jacks at a departing troopship—what was I supposed to do? Sing a chorus of "There'll Always Be an England"? "She's out at Hedge End in a maisonette. Her husband's in the transport business."

"By 'transport business' she means he's a lorry driver," Mr. Luckett said maliciously. He was not close to his brother-in-law. "Mad about CB radios," Mr. Luckett went on. "'A big ten-four to that rig, Rubber Duck.' It's the most awful cobblers."

"He travels all over the country," Mrs. Luckett said.

I said, "And you live in Bosham?"

"Bozzam," Mr. Luckett said, and I believed at the time that it was a different place.

I said, "I hope nothing happens to the
Q.E. II.
" The Lucketts looked up, a little startled. "I mean, in the war." They looked even more alarmed. "This Falklands business."

They seemed a little calmer when I said that. You weren't supposed to say
the war,
but rather
this Falklands business.

"She'll be fine," Mr. Luckett said.

"Oh, yes," Mrs. Luckett said.

They were very proud, but it also occurred to me that they were going all the way to Southampton mainly because it was a beautiful sunny day and because Mrs. Luckett's sister was nearby. They told themselves they were going to cheer the
Q.E. II,
but I had the impression that if it had been raining, they would not have gone.

There were apple blossoms all along this pretty line, and they looked like a brilliant form of knitting—bright blown-open stitches of white yarn fastened to rain-blackened boughs. I thought at Emsworth: What a nice old-fashioned station platform, freshly painted wood and a small fireplace in the waiting room.

Warblington was no more than a short platform—a halt behind a town, no station—and there was a man in a little narrow box selling tickets, and another man with a flag. Whenever I saw too many railwaymen and not many passengers, I thought: They're going to axe this train. The car was soon empty. The Lucketts changed at Havant for Southampton. I could have gotten off at Havant, too, and waited ten minutes and been back in Clapham Junction in time for lunch. That was another hard thing about traveling in England—the short distances, the fast trains, the easy access—always a clear shot to London—and the sad gravitational pull of home.

But I stuck to the train and went in search of some more Lucketts. Anyone else planning a send-off for British troops? I did not find anyone, but scratched on the train door was a recent message:
The Argentines are Wankers—Bomb the Barstards.


After spending two hours in the city in 1879, Henry James concluded, "Portsmouth is dirty, but it is also dull." He had been there trying to confirm the "familiar theory that seaport towns abound in local color, in curious types, in the quaint and the strange." He found Portsmouth "sordid," and he did not soften toward the town until he saw the harbor.

History had not altered Portsmouth, much less enhanced it. Passing from Portsmouth and Southsea Station to Portsmouth Harbour Station, the train crossed Commercial Road. Charles Dickens was born on this road in 1812. But Dickens' birthplace was just a torrent of traffic on a thoroughfare that looked like the Balls Pond Road. This was the coast on which you saw a plaque saying, "In a House on This Spot, the Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote 'Grant, O Darkling Woods, My Sweet Repose,'" and you looked up and saw a gas station.

Portsmouth was associated with
Nicholas Nickleby,
H. G. Wells, and Captain Marryat. Charles II was married here, Conan Doyle invented Sherlock Holmes here, and Rudyard Kipling was so unhappy here that, at the age of five, he told the hag who was looking after him that he wanted to strangle her, and for the rest of his life referred to that woman's residence as "the House of Desolation." But none of this made the town of Portsmouth visibly interesting, because nothing could. Like most British seaport towns, Portsmouth was its harbor. It was wrong to look behind the harbor for anything better.

This harbor was choppy with the crisscrossed wakes of gunboats coming and going, their flags flying and their sailors scrambling over their decks. I identified this activity with the Falklands news, and I assumed these boats were setting out that day for the South Atlantic. Portsmouth Harbour contained a flotilla of Royal Navy ships, giving solemn hoots on their horns. Looking north toward the Royal Dockyard I could see the topmost sections of the masts of H.M.S.
but it was the gunboats in the harbor that were bucking the waves. These days, many harbors I saw looked self-important and purposeful and overcautious: they were battle-ready. The Falklands War depended almost entirely on the strength of the British fleet, and it had brought the cold excitement of patriotism to these harbors.

South of the harbor mouth, the Isle of Wight was a long flat shadow in the morning mist. I bought a ticket to Shanklin and boarded the ferry
It was a windy crossing of Spithead, the waves were blue-black and the sea froth was being whipped from their peaks. We sailed toward Ryde, which even at this distance I could tell was an old-fashioned place, for its skyline was church spires. And that was always a good sign, the steeples and spires; the most heartening aspect of any of these coastal towns was a skyline in which spires predominated. I liked walking into these places; I was always happier seeing church spires, even though I did not regard myself as religious and seldom entered a church. I was sometimes betrayed by this impression. In some towns the church had been sold and was now a craft center or a movie theater. What to do with a defunct church was always a problem in England. Muslims occasionally petitioned for the church to be sold to them so that they could turn it into a mosque, but the request was always turned down. It seemed too much like defilement to worship Allah at St. Cuthbert's. Instead, the church was made into a bingo hall, or else torn down and a gas station built in its place.

The Isle of Wight was too far from the mainland to be commercially useful. It was picturesque, it received visitors, old folks went there to retire. It was to be stared at and admired. Before I went there I imagined that it was like a tabletop, with a simple beauty—flat, and plenty of grass; a park planted in the ocean. I was surprised to see that Ryde was fairly large. It was Victorian brown brick, redder where it was more recent, stacked against the hillside—I had been wrong in imagining it flat—and Ryde had the coiled streets that were peculiar to the coastal towns on the Isle of Wight.

Henry James loathed the train here, calling it "a gross impertinence ... an objectionable conveyance." The railway was so ugly and the island so pretty that the sight of this "obtrusive" thing was "as painful as it would be to see a pedlar's pack on the shoulders of a lovely woman."

It is an odd image, especially as there were many lovely women on the Isle of Wight when I was there, and as they were members of the Ramblers Association, they were wearing the sort of knapsacks that James found so painfully inappropriate. In fact, it singled them out as hearty and independent and easygoing. As for the detestable train, it was a great deal more comfortable and cheaper and less noisy than the numerous clumsy buses that crowded the island's roads. A hundred years ago the train looked like a foolish novelty, but now the narrow unimproved carriage roads were no more than dangerous chutes down which tourist buses and swaying double-deckers and plump long-distance coaches went much too fast, and on many roads only one vehicle could pass at a time. One of the most popular topics of conversation on the Isle of Wight was the dreadful traffic and the slow progress on the bad roads. People had come here intending to escape these terrors.

BOOK: The Kingdom by the Sea
7.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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