Authors: Paul Theroux
No British journey could be original. Daniel Defoe had done the whole of Britain by road, William Daniell and Richard Ayton had sailed around it, William Cobbett had gone throughout the south of England on horseback, and more recently H. V. Morton and J. B. Priestley had gone in search of England, banging up and down in the thirties and forties. There were Britain-by-train books and Britain-by-bus books and books about cycling around. Some people had walked around Britain and written about it. The most impressive recent hike was that of a man who had walked every inch of the coastline. It was seven thousand miles, but he had been in a hurry. He had done it in ten months and practically walked his legs offâgave himself two severe pressure fractures in his leg bones. I had read his book. The trouble with travel stunts was that the trick was the thing; it was all a form of tightrope-walking, and the performer never took his eyes off his own feet.
I wanted to look around and see Britain for myself. I did not intend a stunt or a test of strength or a public display. In fact, quite the opposite; and later, tramping the coastal path or riding the slow trains, I sometimes felt like the prince in the old story, who, because he distrusts everything he has been told and everything he has read, disguises himself in old clothes and, with a bag slung over his back, hikes the muddy roads, talking to everyone and looking closely at things, to find out what his kingdom is really like.
And I wanted to see the future. Travel is so often an experiment with time. In third world countries I felt I had dropped into the past, and I had never accepted the notion of timelessness anywhere. Most countries had specific years. In Turkey it was always 1952, in Malaysia 1937, Afghanistan was 1910, and Bolivia 1949. It is twenty years ago in the Soviet Union, ten in Norway, five in France. It is always last year in Australia and next week in Japan. Britain and the United States were the presentâbut the present contains the future. A season of traveling with my eyes open in Great Britain, I thought, could not fail to show me what was to come. I was a little impatient with distant countries and past decades, but I was not necessarily looking for progress or invention. There was a deterioration and decay that seemed to me more futuristic than Utopian cities of steel and glass.
And then an English friend of mineâjust yappingâsaid, "The seaside belongs to everyone."
I knew this was exactly right and that I wanted to leave immediately.
I chose to travel on May Day. It was London's Labor Day, celebrated by marching union men and speeches in Trafalgar Square. But in some English villages a May Queen was chosen and crowned with a garland, and there was dancing around a Maypole while a watching know-it-all, Major Uprichard, leered at fifteen-year-old Tracey Rivett in her garland and said, "It's all phallic symbols, of course. Years ago, when we ran around painted with woad, these jollities turned into orgies. You see, the Maypole has a desperately obvious significance..."
Recently, May Day had been renamed and politically neutralized as Spring Bank Holiday. In the south of England it was associated with a day trip to a coastal resort. It was traditionally a time when people headed for the beach, and since the fifties it had been the day when gangs of youths fought each other with clubs and chains, in Southend and Margate. The English were creatures of habit. And that was the reason I chose Margate.
I left Waterloo East on the 11:33, and at Gravesend I put down my newspaper. PocahontasâMrs. John Rolfeâwas buried at St. George's Church. The town bore the name Gravesend because, east of it, the dead had to be buried at sea. We approached the River Medway, the joined towns of Rochester and Chatham. My carriage was less than a third full, perhaps because it was a late trainâor was it the low gray sky and the uncertain light? It was cool and damp; the weather forecast was "scattered showers"âit was the forecast for Britain nearly every day of the year. It was no day for the beach.
There were four elderly people in this carriage. One was reading a paper with the headline
MY BATTLE WITH DRUGS.
Another old person had been saying as I passed, "It was one of those merciful releasesâ" There were three families, parents and children, neatly dressed for their outing. A bang outside brought a young woman squinting to the window, and her expression said: It sounded like a car backfiringâbut that was what they always said about dangerous explosions these days. A little girl was laughing and gasping and holding a bottle of Tizer: "It went down the wrong way!"
An Englishman across the aisle did an extraordinary thing for an Englishman. He asked me a question.
He said, "Walking?"
I was dressed for itâknapsack, all-purpose leather jacket, oily hiking shoesâand (because we were approaching the coast) I had my map unfolded. I was obviously a foreigner, which made his question a safe one. Class-consciousness tended to keep the English rather watchful and buttoned-up. But this was a Bank Holiday train to Margate. Class was hardly an issue here.
Yes, I said, I was walking and also riding, depending on the weather.
"The weather's been letting us down," he said. The weather in England was not a neutral topic. It was full of personification; it involved struggle and conflict. It could be wayward or spiteful, and then people said, "It's been trying to rain all day." Or it could be toiling on your behalf: "The sun's been trying to come out." Or, as the man said, it could be lazy and selfish; it could let you down. People imagined British weather to be something like the British character: it was a British-like miasma up there, hovering and doing things to you.
We talked about the weather, this miasma. The man shared the English relief that spring had come. It had been a hard snowy winter; the country had seized up. So this was the annual gift, but it was unimaginable. It was impossible to anticipate the beauty of springtime in England. It was sudden, mild, fragrant, and full of colorâmagic rising out of the mud.
Then he said, "American?"
"Yes," I said, but did not elaborate. I said, "I've always wanted to go to Margate."
"You should go to Canterbury instead."
They always said that, the natives. They sent you to traipse around the sightsâthe ruins, the churches, the hot streetsâand they went to a simple lovely place and had a beer under a tree.
"Full of history," he was saying. "Lovely town, beautiful old cathedral. You could change at Sittingbourne."
No, I thought. No sightseeing; no cathedrals, no castles, no churches, no museums. I wanted to examine the particularities of the present.
I said, "Where are you going?"
I guessed that his name was Norman Mould. It was one of my small talents to be able to tell a person's name by looking at him. Those old people up frontâthey were the Touchmores. The little girl drinking the TizerâJudith Memery. The man behind the
âRoger Cockpole. And so forth.
Mr. Mould said, "Ramsgate," and that was the first indication I had hadâhis flicker of satisfaction and his willingness with the word and the way he said it, "Ramsgit"âthat Ramsgate was probably posher than Margate. But I also thought: That's another reason I don't want to go to Canterbury, Norman. I want to go where everyone else is going.
"It's like this Falklands business," Mr. Mould was saying, but now he was talking to the woman next to him, his wife, Nancy Mould, who was reading a newspaper.
In the next few weeks that was to be a common phrase. Politics would come up, or sometimes it was race or religion, and then someone would say,
It's like this Falklands business...
The war had not yet started. The Falklands had been overrun by Argentine troops, and British ships had encircled the islands and had declared an exclusion zone for a radius of two hundred miles. No shots had been fired, no men had been killed; there was little news. Most people assumed this was bluster and bluff and counter-bluff, and that after a period of time the Argentines would climb down. Two nights before this, the American President had smiled at a British journalist on a BBC telecast and said, "I don't see why there should be any fighting over that ice-cold bunch of rocks down there."
Mr. Mould, across the aisle, had turned away from me. Our conversation had ended, and now I saw why: he was eating. He had taken out a bag of sandwiches and a thermos jug, and he and his wife had covered their laps with the newspaper (
BRITISH CONVOY IN WAR READINESS OFF FALKLANDS
) and were sharing lunch. The English become intensely private and rather silent when they eat; their gestures are guarded and economical and precise. They are tidy and self-conscious. Suddenly, eating, they are alone.
It was then that the door at the end of the car banged open and I heard the tramp of heavy boots and laughter and shouts.
"I fucking will do 'im if he don't fank me next time!"
"You fucking won't, you wally!"
"Fuck offâI will!"
They were loudâearsplittingâbut the picnicking English people across the aisle, and the elderly people, and each young family in its own pew, did not hear a thing. The picnickers went on eating in their tidy way, and everyone else became silent and small.
"âbecause I fucking said I would!"
I had seen their heads at Chatham passing by the windows of this car. I hoped they would move on to another car, and they had. But they were loud and violent and could not sit still, and now that we were past Gillingham ("...the headquarters of the religious sect known as the Jezreelites, or the New and Latter House of Israel"), they had entered this car. There were seven of them. They called themselves Skinheads.
Their heads were egglikeâcompletely hairless. But it was not baldness, there was no shine; they were pale gray shaved domes, with the bright white snail tracks of scars tagged over them. It was the size of the heads that I found alarming. A head without any hair is a small thing. It can look like a knob with eyes and ears. A human being is changed remarkably by hairlessness: the appearance is hardened and the person looks insectile and dangerous. They had tattoos on their heads, small symbols and words, and tattoos on their earlobes, and earrings. They were dressed identically in short leather bomber jackets, with a T-shirt underneath. The backs of their hands were tattooed. The Union Jack was the commonest tattoo among them. They wore very tight dungarees that were a bit too short, the cuffs reaching the tops of vicious high-laced boots. The boots were shiny; these boys were oddly clean; their faces were very white.
"Look at that fucking bloke out thereâwhat a silly cuntâ"
"'ey, leave off, you fucking wally!"
They were frolicking on the seats, thumping each other and still shouting. Mr. and Mrs. Mould were drinking tea out of plastic mugs.
"The long-range forecast called for fine weather," one of the Touchmores whispered.
Then, behind me, I heard, "Daddyâ" It was a child's small voice:
"Please, darling, I'm reading."
"Daddy, why are those men saying 'fuck off'?"
"I don't know, darling. Now do please let me read my paper."
His voice was nervous, as if he had been holding his breath. I had certainly been holding mine. The seven Skinheads had disturbed the Sunday peace of this jogging train; they had brought uneasiness to the car. They were fooling, but their fooling was violent and their language was terrible and reckless. I am sure that everyone else in the car was paying close attention to our progress along the line. We had passed Sittingbourne and Faversham and were headed toward Whitstable.
"There, Daddy, they just said it again. 'Fucking hell.'"
"Hush, darling. There's a good girl."
"And that one said fuck, too."
"That's enough, darling." The man's voice was very subdued. He did not want anyone to hear. But he was just behind me, and his daughter was next to himâshe could not have been more than five or six. I caught a glimpse of her. I was sure her name was Sharon.
"âwhy don't they put them off the train?"
The man did not reply to this. He probably would not have been heard, in any case. The Skinheads were screaming and running in the aisleâone had the word
tattooed on his neckâand one little Skinhead, a boy of about thirteen, also tattooed and shaven and wearing an earring, was yelling, "You fucking cunt, I'll fucking kill you!" and kicking at another Skinhead, who was older and bigger and laughing at this little infuriated Skin.
Heme Bay had a reputation for riffraff, but the Skinheads did not get off at Heme Bay. They were still swearing and kicking the seats and pushing each other as we pulled out of Heme Bay. And at Birchington-on-Sea ("grave of D. G. Rossetti, d. 1882, memorial window in the church"), one Skinhead screamed, "
I'll fucking kill you right now for saying vat!
They had been an awful irruption, and they had brought a sense of terror to the car. Such language, such fighting! The day was damp-gray and peaceful, but these monkey-faced boys with their tattoos and their tiny heads had made it frightening. And all the while, the decent English people with lowered heads and mugs of tea were pretending that nothing was happening; and the Skinheads were behaving as if no one else existedâas if they were alone in the railway car. In that sense they were very English Skinheads.
We came to Margate. The Skinheads pushed to the door and fought their way out. Then we got out, politelyâno, you first, I insist. None of us was harmed, but I think most of us would have said it was unsettling, the way you feel with drunks on board, or crazy people. We had felt threatened. I had meant to describe our progress to the coast, and when I had seen the mist over the Cooling Marshes I had wanted to recall the opening chapters of
It was too late for that. It was so hard to remember Dickens or Merrie England or "this scepter'd isle" or the darling buds of May so near to seven roaring Skinheads. All I could think was: "We will fight them on the beaches..."