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Authors: Paul Theroux

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BOOK: The Kingdom by the Sea
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I took a tram to Fleetwood, but there was no footpath to Lancaster that way. I returned to Blackpool and realized that the tram system made this part of the coast bearable. I had enjoyed the ride, even if I had used it to list all the features of Blackpool I disliked. And when I asked local people to tell me Blackpool's virtues, I was confirmed in my dislike.

"But it's quaat naas soomtimes," Murine Mudditch said. "We've been living 'ere ever since Ian was made redoondant."

I asked her how she spent her time.

"Drinking and bingo," she said.

"Every day?"

"Most days."

"What if you don't like drinking and bingo?"

Mrs. Mudditch had a bubbling bronchitic laugh.

She said, "Then you've 'ad it!"

I wanted to leave Blackpool, and I was annoyed that it was not possible to walk away. I went to the bus station and bought a ticket to Morecambe. Five of us boarded the bus, and the bus went everywhere, stopping every quarter of a mile, at villages and at isolated public houses, where sad-faced women waited with string bags.

Mrs. Buglass was from Lancaster, but she hated the Lancashire type. She had lived too long in the south of England, she said—it had spoiled her.

"They're dead nosy up here," Mrs. Buglass said. "They want to know all your business—always talking, always asking questions. The people in the south are very polite. They don't go on and on, they don't ask you about your private affairs. That's the big problem up here—no privacy."

She smiled at me. We were on the top deck, front seat, Garstang up ahead.

"I like to keep meself to meself."

And she winked at me.

What was there about an English wink that made me so uncomfortable?

Mrs. Buglass said, "I'd give anything to go back to Southend!"

"I'm on my way to Southend," I said.

She winked again. "You're going in the wrong direction, darling."

No, I said, I would get there eventually: I was going clockwise.


Morecambe was wrapped around the edge of a dirty sea, scowling, its blackened terraces and hotels reminiscent of certain fierce churches—all spikes and shadows. Much of the foreshore was stony, but where there was sand, there were naked children kneeling and fat ladies holding their skirts against their thighs.

"Aye! This is good for you! Yer mightn't feel any benny fit for ages and ages. Boot—"

And there were ponies, too, and heaps of pony shit, and on the Front the joyless Pleasure Park and Fun City and Giftarama and a Gypsy fortuneteller named Annie Lee, who looked at my knapsack and announced in a voice full of dramatic clairvoyance that I was a traveler and that I had never been to Morecambe before—nor was I likely to come here again, she added, which was incontestable.

But I liked Morecambe for being sedate and dull and unapologetic. Its stateliness had been eroded by the blasts of wind, and it was the dampest place I had seen since Cornwall, but this lugubrious mood seemed to suit it. It astonished me that anyone would come here for a vacation and to have fun, since it seemed the sort of place that would fill even the cheeriest visitor—me, for example—with thoughts of woe. I imagined day-trippers getting off the train and taking one look and bursting into tears. But most people at Morecambe were enjoying themselves in the drizzle, and the fault was mine, not theirs. This was just another cultural barrier I was incapable of surmounting.

Nothing is more bewildering to a foreigner than a nation's pleasures, and I never felt more alien in Britain than when I was watching people enjoying their sort of seaside vacation.

On the branch-line train that traveled around Morecambe Bay in a wide swing to Barrow-in-Furness, I thought: This is the first part of the north coast that doesn't look blighted. Perhaps it was because we were leaving Lancashire and entering Cumbria, crossing from county to county in Silverdale, where there were daisies growing on the platform, and the ringing stench of cow manure—a smell that sang pleasantly like rotten ozone. It was hilly, green, misty, and the bay was so sandy, it was possible on a good day to walk the nine miles across to Grange-over-Sands. I remarked on the lovely bay, but a schoolgirl named Gina (straw boater, necktie, blazer) said that the water was so filthy, it was impossible to swim, and there was also quicksand out there that sucked you under.

There were more wide wet patches on Cartmel Sands, and small black islands just offshore. We came to Ulverston ("Here Stan Laurel the film comedian was born"). It was a day's walk to the Lake District, up the River Crake and through the Furness Fells to Grizedale Forest and the long lakes of Windermere and Coniston Water. But I had vowed to stick to the coast. I was not in search of natural wonders. And not far away there was A great branch line that went from Barrow to Carlisle, much of it along the coast: the West Cumbria Line.


This part of the English coast had everything. It had fishing villages and mountains and coal mines that went under the sea. It had footpaths and a good train and several industrial towns; it had a soft duney shore; and it had the scariest-looking nuclear reactor I had ever seen.

The Cumbrian Mountains rose up on the other side of Duddon Sands, the bare summit of Black Combe, and from Foxfield to Bootle the foothills of these mountains had forced the railway directly onto the coast. After Bootle the land became flatter; I was looking for a likely place to get off the train, and almost did at Ravenglass ("the junction of the Esk, the Mite, and the Irt"), but I was not quick enough.

To see Britain, I had had to think of ways of slowing myself down. It was a small kingdom, and even the great folds and rucks of its coast were not enough to make me feel as though I were traversing great tracts of land. I was always aware that I was only a matter of hours from London, though the differences in landscape and manners were so vast, it sometimes seemed a world away. But the coast of Britain was not always the past. Sometimes it had the face of the future. That was certainly the case on this line at Windscale—and Windscale was so much a part of the future that it was not yet on the Ordnance Survey Map.

But there was something there. It had the simplicity and proportions of an enormous tomb and was the more frightening for its absence of identifiable features. Something so new, so huge, so heavily fenced-in, on so distant a beach,
to be dangerous. On this old corrugated coast its size alone was disturbing, and its fresh red paint looked alarming against the gray landscape. Its cooling chimneys and its towers gave it the appearance of a Martian castle, but essentially this coastal monstrosity was no more than a tremendous box. There was nothing subtle about it. Its long flat planes made it grotesque. Even if you did not know what it was, it would still have been fearsome; it was not that it was unfamiliar, but rather that it looked dangerously explosive.

It was of course another nuclear power station—the nuclear pile at Windscale.

New track was being laid for a line going in and out of the plant. It would connect to this branch line. That was certainly another sign of the times. The only new railway track I saw being laid in Britain, this little spur to the nuclear power station, was for radioactive material, not passengers.

"They say they're not dangerous," a man next to me said. His name was Cutbill, but he pronounced it "Cootbill." "That's what they say—they're safe as houses."

"Do you think they're right?" I had no idea whom he meant by "they."

Mr. Cutbill said, "Know something? You can't insure them." And he grinned. "That's encouraging, isn't it? I mean to say, if they're so bloody safe, why can't you insure them?" Then he laughed: he knew the answer to that question.

It was low tide—great empty beaches of black rocks and black sand, and rock pools that looked greasy in the poor light. I had expected something different—greener, higher, fresher, perhaps Wordsworthian. That was the trouble with England—it was imaginary. "The West Cumbria Line" called up images of deserted woodland and steep fells and pikes, not a nuclear time bomb of incomparable ugliness on a black coast.

It was at that point that Cutbill told me about the coal mines. They had been running for hundreds of years. ("Whitehaven," Defoe wrote in 1725, "now the most eminent port in England for the shipping of coals.") One of the pits had been sunk in 1780, but it had closed in the 1940s, when an explosion killed a hundred and forty-seven men. Cutbill knew all the dates and all the casualty statistics. An explosion at Wellington Pit in 1910 had killed, he said, "a hundred and fifty men and boys." Haig Pit was still working.

"And the interesting thing," Cutbill said, "is that the mine shafts are under the sea—they go straight out, some of them for miles. But they're never flooded, and the water that leaks in is fresh, not salty."

A green headland loomed, and the train slowed down. This was St. Bees. I liked the look of it—villagey, with a handsome school on the right and cliffs on the left; I even liked its funny name. And this was a good time of day—the sun breaking beneath late-afternoon clouds for a long well-lighted evening.

"I think I'll get off here," I said.

"I've got things to do in Corkickle," Cutbill said. "I'm not like you blokes with your rooksacks," and he smiled. "I've got to fill the unforgiving minute."

Kipling, the great standby in the English oral tradition. The English often quoted with approval writers they hadn't read, just as they damned, as vulgar or dull, places they hadn't been.

I walked around St. Bees ("named from St. Bega, a 7th-century Irish maiden") and then, because Cutbill had aroused my curiosity with his talk of submarine coal mines, I walked on to Rottington and Whitehaven.

I could smell the coal and the potash before I saw the town. Whitehaven was old and moribund, and like many another bad place in England, its only hotel was dreary and expensive—the equivalent of $25 for a narrow room and a damp bathmat. Writing my diary that night, I generalized on this, concluding that every large hotel at which I had stayed in England was run-down or badly managed—overpriced, understaffed, and dirty, the staff overworked and slow; and all the smaller places were preferable, the smallest always the best. The English were great craftsmen but poor mass-producers of goods. They were brilliant at running a corner shop, but were failures when they tried their hand at supermarkets. Perhaps this had something to do with their sense of anonymity? Person to person, I had found them truthful and efficient and humane. But anonymity made them lazy, dishonest, and aggressive. Hidden in his car, the Englishman was often impatient to the point of being murderous; over the phone, he was unhelpful and frequently rude. They were not timid, but shy; shyness made them tolerant, but it also gave them a grudge against foreigners, whom they regarded as boomers and show-offs. 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. The larger an English industry was, the more likely it was to go bankrupt, because the English were not naturally corporate people—they disliked working for others and they seemed to resent taking orders. On the whole, directors were treated absurdly well, and workers badly, and most industries were weakened by class suspicion and false economies and cynicism. But the same qualities that made English people seem stubborn and secretive made them, face to face, reliable and true to their word. I thought: The English do small things well and big things badly.

I called the Haig Pit the next day and asked whether I could go down the mine. I thought it would make a good story, another Orwell footnote, and an underground railway as well, "The Railway Under the Sea," sweating Cumbrians toiling at the coal face by the light of flaring lamps, here in the bowels of the earth, the sewer of the Lake District; all of it strange news—and you thought you knew something about England!

"Because it's more than my job's worth," Jack Smale was saying in a discouraging way. "If I let you go down there and something happens, I'll be in dead trouble. How do I know you're not going to throw a fit or something?"

"I promise not to throw a fit," I said.

"You can bloody promise anything you like, but if you've never been down a mine before, how do you know what's going to happen? You might come all over queer."

"I suppose I can't promise that I won't come all over queer," I said.

"I don't make the rules," Mr. Smale said. "It's just that our insurance people are always on at us."

"I only wanted to have a look," I said.

Mr. Smale said, "I don't want to be rude, mate. But—"

It was one of the rudest expressions in English; it was certainly the tetchiest.

We were of course speaking on the phone. If I had asked Mr. Smale that question in the Colliers' Arms on Whitehaven harbor one evening while he was smiling into his pint of beer ("Aye, it's brain damage, but it's loovely stoof—"), he would probably have said, "I'm supposed to say no, but I don't see the harm in it"—the English workingman enjoyed a conspiratorial posture—"Pop round in the morning and I'll sort you out"—and would wink—"I'll see you right."

I decided to leave Whitehaven. It was partly because four different people told me that George Washington's grandmother was buried in the local churchyard. It was a disappointing town—hundreds of small dark houses pitched across a bare hillside, and an air of doom about it. Coal-mining towns always seemed to wear an expression of fatigue, and they had a scattered volcanic look, the itch of coal dust, the atmosphere of eruption.

The rest of the coast, from the window of the train, was low and disfigured. There were small bleak towns like Parton and Harrington, and huge horrible ones like Workington, with its steelworks—another insolvent industry. And Maryport was just sad; it had once been an important coal and iron port, and great sailing ships had been built there in Victorian times. Now it was forgotten. Today there was so little shipbuilding on the British coast, it could be said not to exist at all. But that was not so odd as the fact that I saw very few vessels in these harbors and ports—a rusty freighter, a battered trawler, some plastic sailboats—there was not much more, where once there had been hundreds of seagoing vessels.

BOOK: The Kingdom by the Sea
11.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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