Authors: Paul Theroux
The beach here was level, a continuation of the Sandwich Flats, but ahead were the white cliffs of Coney Point and Bockhill Farm, beyond the village of Kingsdown. As I approached the cliffs I saw a sign indicating that a Ministry of Defence Rifle Range lay under the cliff:
DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHINGâIT MAY KILL YOU
. Another sign warned walkers to "ascertain high water to prevent being cut off by the tide." Most beach paths were subjected to tides, so a walker might find himself unable to go forward or back. The term for such a predicament was
to be trapped and immobilized by the rising tide. "Walkers should be careful to consult a tide-table so as to avoid the risk of being embayed."
I heard gunfire and saw that a red flag had been raised to indicate danger, and the waves lapped near the base of the chalk cliffs. So I walked on the meadow above. The sun dissolved and then a heavy shower of rain swept toward me across the fields and drenched me. The sun came out a few minutes later and steamed me dry. I had not visited Deal Castle or Walmer Castle; I wasn't sightseeingâat least not that kind of sight. This was what I had come forârain and sun and green meadows along the coast. And I wanted to take trains. The clay-colored water rose and fell with a noise of bursting, and the gulls above it hung in the air like kites.
As soon as I had left Deal I saw a low flat cloud, iron-gray and then blue, across the Channel, like a stubborn fogbank. The closer I got to Dover, the more clearly it was defined, now like a long battleship and now like a flotilla and now like an offshore island. I walked on and saw it was a series of headlands. It was France, looking like Brewster across Cape Cod Bay.
Ahead on the path a person was coming toward me, down a hill four hundred yards away; but whether it was a man or a woman I could not tell. Some minutes later I saw her scarf and her skirt, and for more minutes on those long slopes we strode toward each other under the big sky. We were the only people visible in the landscapeâthere was no one behind either of us. She was a real walkerâarms swinging, flat shoes, no dog, no map. It was lovely, too: blue sky above, the sun in the southeast, and a cloudburst hanging like a broken bag in the west. I watched this woman, this fairly old woman, in her warm scarf and heavy coat, a bunch of flowers in her handâI watched her come on, and I thought: I am not going to say hello until she does.
She did not look at me. She drew level and didn't notice me. There was no other human being in sight on the coast; only a fishing boat out there like a black flatiron. Hetta PoumphreyâI could see that was the woman's nameâwas striding, lifting the hem of her coat with her knees. Now she was a fraction past me, and still stony-faced.
"Morning!" I said.
"Oh." She twisted her head at me. "Good morning!"
She gave me a good smile, because I had spoken first. But if I hadn't, we would have passed each other, Hetta and I, in that clifftop meadowânot another soul aroundâfive feet apart, in the vibrant silence that was taken for safety here, without a word.
The whiteness of the Dover cliffs, the soft blaze of bright chalk, was a bearable beautiful glareâwhite can seem immaculate in nature. Dover was a harbor town in a narrow valley, with bluffs on either side, and on those bluffs were a castle and a citadel. You looked up in Dover and saw battlements and fortifications. I walked along the east cliff just under the castle, and down Marine Parade to the Esplanade. It was a highly mechanized and busy harbor, cars and trucks lining up to take the ferry to France. A French flavor had crept into the town. Dover had something of a Continental tangâthe atmosphere in the streets, the faces of the strollers, the merchandise in the shops, the language on some signs. I had not known how unusual a thing this was, for the English made no concessions at all to other nationalities. They were neither hostile nor friendly. In any case, talk or chat was not in itself a friendly gesture in England, as it was in the United States. Speaking to strangers was regarded as challenging in England; it meant entering a minefield of verbal and social distinctions. Better to remain silent, even on
path through a meadow with no one else around. The English were tolerant in the sense that they were willing to turn a blind eye to almost anything that might embarrass them. They were humane, but they were also shy. After nine hundred years they still did not have strong views about the French, which surprised me, because after eleven years I thought of the French as the most unprincipled people in Europe. In Dover the English had adopted a different posture. They were courting the foreigners in Dover; the town had a slightly garlicky flavor, almost a hybrid feelâit was a small cultural muddle. But the Dover cliffs contained this aberration. It was like being at the bottom of a quarry. None of this cosmopolitan atmosphere would ever seep out.
It was only seven miles from Dover to Folkestone, but the railway line had the magnificence that all lines do when they run beside the sea. It was not just the sight of cliffs and the sea breezes; it was also the engineering, all the iron embedded in rock, and the inevitable tunnel, the roar of engines and the crashing of waves, the surf just below the tracks, the flecks of salt water on the train windows that faced the sea. The noise was greater because of the cliffs; and the light was strangerâland shadows on one side of the train, the luminous sea on the other; and the track was never straight, but always swinging around the bays and coves. It was man's best machine traversing earth's best featureâthe train tracking in the narrow angle between vertical rock and horizontal water.
Above the racing train was Shakespeare Cliff, named from a passage in
("There is a cliff, whose high and bending head / Looks fearfully in the confined deep"). We went past various futile holes that represented efforts to build a Channel tunnel to France. It was a very old scheme, and even at the turn of the century there was a long shaft and a tunnel excavated for seven thousand feet under the Channel. The latest attempt to tunnel to France was abandoned in the 1970s. I wanted to ask someone on the train about this Channel tunnel. I changed my seat and sat opposite a harmless-looking man who was reading the full page of Falklands news in the
Was it around here, I asked, that the Channel tunnel was started?
He said yesâhardly yes, just nodded.
I said it seemed such a good idea, I could not understand why it had been abandoned.
"No money," the man said, a little crossly. He was Wing Commander R. G. H. Wraggett (Ret'd). "This isn't a rich country. We can't do things like that anymore. The Japanese have all the money now, and the Germans and these Arabs."
I was going to say that the Japanese had just this year dug a thirty-six-mile tunnel under the Tsugaru Straits, from Honshu to Hokkaido. But if I had said, "Courage can make you prosperous," he would have replied, "Nips!" The English hated the Japanese for being rich overachievers, for being guiltless racists, for eating raw fish, for working like dogs, and for torturing their prisoners during the war. "They despised us for surrendering in Singapore. They thought we should have done the decent thingâcut our bowels out and committed mass suicide." So I didn't mention the Japanese tunnel and I didn't say that the Channel tunnel seemed to me one of the most important engineering works of our century. Britain's future might depend on it. But the effort had collapsed.
Wing Commander Wraggett said, "We've got to learn how to tighten our belts."
His "we" meant everyone else, of course.
He returned to his paper. I changed my seat again and saw that we were arriving in Folkestone. I thought: To talk to that man I had to go back to the person I was eleven years ago, when it seemed all right to ask a stranger here a serious question. But how could I take this trip with my mouth shut? On the days when I did not speak to anyone I felt I had lost thirty pounds, and if I did not talk for two days in a row I had the alarming impression that I was about to vanish. Silence made me feel invisible.
I had seen Folkestone only once before, on a cold September afternoon, from the window of the boat train to France. Now, in May sunshine, it looked elegant, with mansions and hotels like the most luxurious hospitals. There was a whisper of illness all over Folkestone, something about the white faces at the windows on this fine day, and you could not look at a flower bed without thinking of a sickroom. The old people there did not seem to walk so much as pace. But it was a stately town, with a Victorian face of red brick and a mile of grassy lawns, called the Leas, on the flat cliff above the seashore.
From here France was close and had the same kind of cliffs, like the far bank of a great river. I could see the fissures in the chalk cliffs of Pointe Cambertin and Audresselles above Boulogne; and Cap Gris-nez and Cap Blanc-nez. Calais was just around the corner. It was not an optical illusion, but there was not the slightest tincture of Frenchness here. Some people water-skied to France when the weather was pleasant.
In Folkestone I met old Walter Dudlow as I was crossing the Leas, heading west. He asked me the time, but I could tell he wanted to talk. He was trembling to tell me things. He had once been a gardener up here on the Leas. That's why he was here nowâhe still liked looking at them. Most places in England changed, but Folkestone hadn't changed a bit. His wife had died; his dog was gone. He had fallen down, slipped on a patch of ice last winter, and hurt his knees. That was very bad. It had affected his dancing. Now he was dancing only two or three nights a week.
"How many nights did you dance before that?"
"Five or six," Mr. Dudlow said. "There's never any dancing on a Sunday, and even if there was I wouldn't go in for it, as a practicing Christian."
I asked him what kind of dancing.
"Old Time and Modern Sequence," he said. "How old do you think I am? Go ahead and guess."
Old people were forever asking me thisâperhaps they asked everybody? I said about seventy.
"Seventy-nine, next birthday."
"I wouldn't have believed it," I said.
He said, "And I can touch my toes."
He tried. He couldn't touch them.
"It's my bally knees!" Mr. Dudlow said. "Usually I can touch my toes without any trouble. I didn't realize I couldn't until just then!"
I said, "You got pretty close."
"I always said I'm the fittest man in Folkestone." He was smiling, but he believed it. He said, "Are you married?"
"Yes," I said, smartly.
He winced a little and his face stayed stiff with surprise. If I was married, what was I doing on a weekday with a knapsack on my back, walking down the coast alone in these shoes?
"I mean to say if you weren't married, you'd make a lot of new friends by dancing," Mr. Dudlow said.
"Anyway, I am marriedâso dancing's probably not for me."
Mr. Dudlow shook his head and said, "You think walking down the coast is interesting, but I'll tell you dancing is much better."
I had told him I was walking down to Littlestone-on-Sea.
He said, "I go into a dance hall alone and come out with six or seven new friends."
"What kind of friends are we talking about, Mr. Dudlow? Men or women?"
"All kinds," he said. "It's my dancing, see."
Now I noticed that he had kept glancing at his feet. He had small feet and very smooth shoes, and his trouser cuffs were rolled up as if to draw attention to them. He was proud of his feet.
"I've always danced. You've got to be fit to dance. I've got a dance tonight here and another tomorrow in Dover. I'll go up on the afternoon coach."
He wanted me to exclaim about his effort so that he could smile and say that dancing kept him young. But I said I wasn't really much of a dancer.
"Even if you're a loner you'd like it," he said. So that was it: he thought I was a crazy loner. "I mean, it's better than being a loner." He looked from his tidy feet to my brown knapsack.
I said, "I never thought of dancing, except tap dancing."
"In that case you might like Modern Sequence," he said. "And what I like about it is there's no rough element. Know what I mean by rough element? Skinheads. Punks. These tough boys. Oh, you never find them in a ballroom."
We reached the last lawn in the Leas and there, at a stairway to the shoreâthe village of Sandgate at the bottom stepâhe said goodbye. But he kept on talking.
was a pretty, Irish-looking village squeezed between green cliffs and the narrow shore. It was full of antique shops and cottages, and it smelled of furniture wax and hot bread. But it straddled the main coastal road, and this curse meant that, although it was a tiny village, it was hard for any pedestrian to cross the street.
I walked along the beach. At the far end of the bay, to the southwest, on the tip of what looked like a great rusty sickle of seashore, was the nessâthe noseâof the Denge Marsh. The new landscape feature at Dungeness was easily visible from where I was walking, because it was a nuclear power station, with an ugliness and a size peculiar to such constructions. It was not the gigantism that was nastyâthe size alone could not be fearsome. But the unnatural look of nuclear power stations was daunting. They could not be prettified. Their horrific aspect, to someone staring at them across a calm bay, was their explosive shapelessness, the random swollen angles, and all those radiating power lines, like orbs of model shock waves. The nuclear power station at Dungeness from fifteen miles away was grotesqueâthere was nothing near it but the flat sea and the lip of Romney Marsh, which was a long green depression, below sea level.
There were eighteen nuclear power stations in Britain, and all of them stuck on the coast, perhaps for the same reason that they had shooting galleries and rocket ranges and minefields and dynamite factories on the same coast. If something went wrong, the surf and the sea would take the force of the blast. And it was easier to stand guard over such danger zones and prevent enemies from trespassing. But when one of these nuclear power stations blew up or melted downâand the chances were that one wouldâthe map would be wrenched and a contour punched out of the coast, and Britain would not look like a witch riding on a pig anymore, but probably like a dwarf sprawled on a pork chop.