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Authors: Paul Theroux

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Frinton had its surprises. It was posh. Who would have guessed it from its name? There was a settlement of houses behind a fence with the sign
Frinton Gates
; no trees—always an indication in an English suburb of a preference for rose gardens and herbaceous borders; large smug villas and a grassy Esplanade and not a chip shop in sight. It was a Tory stronghold; that was clear: you could tell by the tone of the golf club—by its forbidding gates. And Frinton was also sealed off from the rest of Britain. To get into the town it was necessary to go through a sort of valve, which was a level crossing on the railway line. It was a maddening bottleneck, but it had kept Frinton unviolated—it was the only way in or out of the place.

I walked on to Clacton, which was brash and noisy—holiday people, a holiday camp, trippers, and picnickers. I met a man named Arthur who said that if he had lived right, saved his money instead of losing it on the dogs, used his loaf instead of trusting people who had said they'd see him right, he would have ended up in Frinton in a detached house instead of a semidetached in Clacton. That was characteristic of the English: they did not allude to distant places on the coast when they were making comparisons. They would play with a mile or two and compare their lot in Bournemouth with what it might have been in Poole; they compared Brighton with Hove, Whitby with Sandsend, Exmouth with Budleigh Salterton. They did not reach far when they tried to imagine how their lives might have been different. And, really, Clacton wasn't so bad, Arthur said, when you compared it to Jaywick Sands.

"Jaywick's a shantytown," Arthur said.

It was. There was sand in the streets. People slept in the shallys. Most houses were shacks the size of one-car garages. Jaywick was crowded and cheap. It looked as though it had taken a terrific thumping—war or weather—and was awfully battered, like a seaside slum in Argentina or Mexico. It had the same grubby geniality, the same broken fences. The beach was empty. This was a Sunday in late July. Two women stood facing the murky sea. They were holding hands. I was especially fascinated by their affection, because the smaller one was pregnant. They were Roberta and Mandy; they had been living together in a borrowed bungalow at Jaywick for five months as a couple. Roberta had left her husband in Dagenham after she had met Mandy and realized she was a lesbian. She had been two months pregnant then. Mandy had been a tower of strength, and tonight they were going to a prenatal class of the National Childbirth Trust up in Clacton—breathing exercises and general awareness. Mandy said, "I'm her labor support." They were planning to raise the child themselves.

At last I took a bus to Southend, an inland detour, because there was no direct way across the flats and sands of the Essex coast. There were no trains running. The bus went over the hills with a natural bounce, and to the east it was impossible to tell the brown land from the brown sea; one ran into the other. Here, the sea was the River Thames at its widest part. I met Brenda Priestley on the bus. She had worked at Harvey Nichols Department Store in London. She had served Mahatma Gandhi one day. Handkerchiefs—a box of three, Irish linen, lovely they were. He seemed an odd one, though—wearing a sort of a nappy. I looked out the window, trying to imagine it, and saw sliding gulls, and a boy behind me muttered, "Sowfen."

Even Southend had a respectable district—the higher, leafier ledge called Westcliff. The seedy part of Southend was down the hill, below the crumbling white wedding cake of the Palace Hotel, and the Kursaal amusement park. This was where the gangs fought at Easter—and not only then, but on every Bank Holiday. Just a few months ago two thousand Skinheads had battled two thousand Mods. But they had not destroyed buildings; they had not broken windows or set fires. They had not even made much noise, people said. They had broken each others' heads on the Promenade along the seafront. To slow them down, the police confiscated their bootlaces as soon as the boys had gotten off the train at Southend Central.

This was high summer, but Southend was as empty as it had been in March. It was the effect of the strike in this railway resort. Without trains, it was hard to get in or out. Traditionally, it was for day-trippers—Londoners; its atmosphere wasn't briney and coastal—it was riverbank sag, the greasy Thames, London toughness. In many senses Southend was a part of London. The river was its spiritual link, but the river was not put to any practical use. The physical link, the railway, had been severed by the strike, and now Southend was revealed in this empty condition as a mixture of river rawness and sleazy elegance. The few people here were not vacationers. They were between jobs, between lives, waiting for something to open up. Other places could do without the railway, but Southend was strangling, because this seaside place was not on the way to anywhere except Foulness, which was one of the very few aptly named places in the country.

"That little geezer with the piggy eyes," a toothless young man named Ron Woodbag said. The isolation made people irritable. He was amazingly tattooed—his neck, his face, the backs of his hands. So was the fellow he was now addressing—spider webs on his forearms, Britannia on his chest, skulls on his knuckles. "I'm going to kill that geezer."

But Ron Woodbag did not do anything. This was in the Foresters' Arms. The jukebox was deafening, playing the hits of Britain's most popular music groups—Raw Sewage ("Kick It to Death"), Nupkins ("Yellow Pain"), Slag ("What You Like to Eat"), Gender-Bender ("Getting It Behind You"); and then a live group, Spurm, got up on the little stage and howled. They looked like ferrets; they had spiky hair and claws. But they were harmless—pale skinny English faces and bad teeth. The bikers and punks in the bar were well behaved. Like many other places I had seen in Britain, it looked much worse than it was. It was not vicious; it just had that dirty desecrated look that I thought of as English. There was no vice that I had seen, no red-light district, nothing wicked, nothing stirring after midnight, on the whole of the British coast.

***

Southend's pier, the longest one in the world, stretched for a mile and a half. It showed on route maps as a distinct feature, like Portland Bill. The end of this pier was as far as I wished to go in Britain.

On my second morning I strolled through Southend, past the dog-walkers ("Come here, Princess! Leave the man alone, Princess! Stop, girl! Princess, don't—oh, I am so sorry—") and down to the Front and to the pier. It was muddy underneath for more than a mile. The gulls were rasping in annoyance—mewing, barking, yapping, shrieking. I kept walking. The pier was so long and the air so polluted that Southend dissolved in the heat haze yonder. It was a fitting end to my trip. I had walked into the sea. But the tide was out. It was a sea of the filthiest mud.

Once, the English shore had been fabulous, and parts of it so hidden that the rock pools had never been touched by man. The magic had lasted for a long time. The creatures at the tide line had floated and swayed for eons—"since the creation of the world," Edmund Gosse wrote in
Father and Son.
He had seen it perfect in the 1850s and he compared the coast to Keats's Grecian urn, "a still unravished bride of quietness."

"All this is over and done with," he went on. "The ring of living beauty drawn about our shores was a very thin and fragile one. It had existed all those centuries solely in consequence of the indifference, the blissful ignorance of man ... No one will see again on the shore of England what I saw in my early childhood."

Every British person who knew the coast said that, and every single one of them was right. The rock pools of Devon and Cornwall had been violated, and Dunwich had sunk into the sea, and Prestatyn was littered, and Sunderland was unemployed. Oddest of all, there were hardly any ships on a coast that had once been crammed with them—"Once a great port," the guidebook always said of the seaside towns. And shipbuilding was finished, too—places like Maryport and Nefyn, which had made great ships for the world, were nothing now, and perhaps Clydeside and Belfast would follow them into obscurity. So much had withered and gone, and reckless people had done damage with their schemes; and didn't the hungry ocean also perpetually gain advantage on the kingdom of the shore?

One of the few boasts the British risked was that their country was changeless. In some trivial ways it was, but to an alien it seemed entirely irregular and unpredictable, changing from day to day. It was not a question of seismic shocks, but rather a steadier kind of erosion—like the seemingly changeless and consoling tide, in which there was always, in its push and pull, slightly more loss than gain. The endless mutation of the British coast wonderfully symbolized the state of the nation. In a quiet way the British were hopeful, and because in the cycle of ruin and renewal there had been so much ruin, they were glad to be still holding on—that was the national mood—but they were hard put to explain their survival. The British seemed to me to be people forever standing on a crumbling coast and scanning the horizon. So I had done the right thing in traveling the coast, and instead of looking out to sea, I had looked inland.

And the paradox was that Britain was changing constantly in unalterable ways. Perhaps that was another way of saying it was aging—"the same, only older," as people said of themselves in Bexhill-on-Sea, where it was bad manners—un-English—to mention death. I knew that the things I had seen would be changed, like Gosse's pretty pools of corallines and silken anemones. For example, a pressurized water reactor, like the one that had cracked and leaked at Three Mile Island, was planned for the Suffolk coast at Sizewell. And yet it is every traveler's conceit that no one will see what he has seen: his trip displaces the landscape, and his version of events is all that matters. He is certainly kidding himself in this, but if he didn't kid himself a little, he would never go anywhere.

Today I was done—I had no plans. Over there, across the Thames estuary at Margate, I had set out almost three months ago. It was not far across the river mouth—less than thirty miles. So I had made a connection. I had found a way of joining one end of this kingdom to the other, giving it a beginning and an end. I would not have done it differently in Africa. I felt I knew the world much better for having seen Britain—and I knew Britain so well and had been in its pockets so long, I felt impatient to leave; I had my usual bad dream that I would be forced to stay longer.

The tide came in. I was still at the end of the pier. I had never seen a tide rise so fast, from so far away. I could see it flowing across the foreshore as if it were being poured. It became a rippling flood. Now, after a few minutes, it was a foot deep. It was moving the boats, buoying them, rocking them on their keels. I saw a shallow dinghy, just like the one I had rowed from Bellanaleck to Carrybridge, across Lough Erne, past people standing in wet fields who were living their lives there. I had rowed back and forth, and then had gone away. Every day on the coast I had gone away, leaving people staring out at the ocean's crowded chop: "Our end is Life—put out to sea."

The rising tide took the smell away. Then the gulls flew off—and that was another thing about travel: these flights, these disappearances. It was no different in Britain from any other foreign place, except that a country could sound sad if you spoke the language.

Fish were jumping where there had been coils of rope sinking in the mud and the bubble holes. The boats were straightening and creaking. Now the sea was splashing against the pier. I sat there until all the boats were upright, even those big peeling motor launches. One hulk had been holed and did not rise—the water lapped at the roof of its wheelhouse. I did not want to think of a name for it. The tide was high. I started down the long pier toward shore, trying to figure out a way of getting home.

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