Authors: Paul Theroux
This walk seemed interminable and full of detours. I had walked sixteen miles and had four more to go. But it was an easy hike from here on, through a meadow full of cows and along Rye Harbour to the town itself on its pretty hill. Rye was the quaintest town in this corner of England, but so museumlike in its quaintness that I found myself walking along the cobblestone streets with my hands behind my back, treating the town in my monkish manner of subdued appreciation like a person in a gallery full of
DO NOT TOUCH
signs. Rye was not a restful place. It had the atmosphere of a china shop. It urged you to remark on the pretty houses and the well-kept gardens and the self-conscious sign-painting, and then it demanded that you move on. But it was not just the quaint places in England that looked both pretty and inhospitable. Most villages and towns wore a pout of rejectionâthe shades drawn in what seemed an averted gazeâand there were few places I went in England that did not seem, as I stared, to be whispering at me all the while,
Move on! Go home!
I took the train to Hastings. Hastings was eleven miles away. It was a branch-line train from Ashford with not many people on it. It drew out of Rye, heading toward Winchelsea and the valley of the River Brede, across meadows with poplars all around, making a stately progress through the green May countryside.
"Nice train," I said to the man across the aisle.
"And they want to scrap it," he said.
The British Railways Board had been trying to close down the line for nineteen years. That was usually the case with the branch lines. They were useful but unprofitable. (But, on the other hand, no more unprofitable than lampposts or motorways.) The only ones not threatened with closure were those ferrying radioactive trash to and from nuclear power stations. As for the others, it was possible to tell from the beauty of a line or the thrill of the ride that the line would soon close. With one or two exceptions, there was not a railway line in Britain that was making a profit. And so, in time, they would all go. The branch lines would go first. And one day when there was no more fuel for private cars, it would be too late to get the trains back and go anywhere, except, in a supervised Chinese way, from one big city to another in a brown bus. By then the great trains would all have been melted down and made into barbed-wire fences.
This was what we talked about, the man across the aisle, Geoffrey Crouch by name, and I, on the way to Hastings, through this green corner of East Sussex. It was a lovely train, and all the stations were small and green. There were sheep at Winchelsea, and a black windmill on a hill. It was the month of flowering cherry trees, and this week the best blossomsâDoleham was full of them, dropping petals on the children homeward bound from school with satchels of books. At Three Oaks and farther on at Ore there were pink wildflowers and more sheep browsing in the meadows and ivy growing so thickly on the oaks, it seemed to upholster them. And on much of the line there were lilies of the valley growing wild along the railway embankment.
"Oh, yes, they'll scrap it all right," Mr. Crouch said. He was a farm laborer up the line at Hamstreet. When I arrived in Britain in 1971, these workers were earning an average wage of Â£13 a week (about $30). Mr. Crouch was getting four times that now, but he was old and did not own his house and did not have a car.
At Hastings, he said, "I'm glad I won't be around to see it."
English people of a certain class often said things like this, taking a satisfaction in the certainty of death, because dying was a way of avoiding the indignity of what they imagined would be a grim future for them. They seemed to say: If you're vain enough to wish for a long life, you deserve to suffer!
A man in Hastings said to me, "Why did I come here to live? That's easy. Because it is one of the three cheapest places in England." He told me the other two, but in my enthusiasm to know more about Hastings I forgot to write the others down. This man was the painter John Bratby. He did the paintings for the movie
The Horse's Mouth,
and his own life somewhat resembled that of Gully Jimson, the painter-hero of the Joyce Cary novel on which the movie was based.
Mr. Bratby was speaking in a room full of paintings, some of them still wet. He said, "I could never buy a house this large in London or anywhere else. I'd have a poky flat if I didn't live in Hastings."
His house was called the Cupola and Tower of the Winds, and it matched its name. It was tall and crumbling, and it creaked when the wind blew, and there were stacks of paintings leaning against every wall. Mr. Bratby was thickset and had the listening expression of a forgetful man. He said he painted quickly. He sometimes referred to his famous riotous pastâso riotous, it had nearly killed him. He had been a so-called kitchen sink painter with a taste for drawing rooms. Now he lived in a quiet way. He said he believed that Western society was doomed, but he said this as he looked out of his Cupola window at the rooftops and the sea of Hastings, a pleasant view.
"Our society is changing from one based on the concept of the individual and freedom," Mr. Bratby said, "to one where the individual is nonexistentâlost in a collectivist state."
I said I didn't think it would be a collectivist state so much as a wilderness in which most people lived hand to mouth, and the rich would live like princesâbetter than the rich had ever lived, except that their lives would constantly be in danger from the hungry predatory poor. AH the technology would serve the rich, but they would need it for their own protection and to ensure their continued prosperity. The poor would live like dogs. They would be dangerous and pitiful, and the rich would probably hunt them for sport.
This vision of mine did not rouse Mr. Bratby, who was at that moment painting my portraitâ"There is no commercial consideration to this at all." He had said of my painting, "This is for posterity to see, when our society has completely changed." He did not reject my description of the future. He scratched his head and went on dreading a police state where everyone wore baggy blue suits and called each other "Comrade"âthe Orwell nightmare, which was a warning rather than a reasonable prediction. Anyway, it was almost 1984, and here was J. Bratby in a delightful wreck of a house, painting his heart out in Hastings, the bargain paradise of the south coast!
It seemed to me that his fear of the future was actually a hatred of the present, and yet he was an otherwise cheery soul and full of projects ("Guess what it isâthe long one. It's all the Canterbury pilgrims. Chaucer, you see.") He said he never traveled but that his wife was very keen on itâhad always wanted to go to New Orleans, for some reason. Now, his wife, Pam, was very attentive. She wore red leather trousers and made me a bacon sandwich. Bratby said that he had met her through a lonely hearts column, one of those classified ads that say
Lonely gent, 54, stout but not fat, a painter by profession, south coast, wishes to meet
... In this way they had met and had hit it off and gotten married.
Hastings was full of painters. "It's the cheapness and the big houses, and the light is super," Mick Rooney told me. He painted pictures of restaurant interiorsâwaiters, people having tea, enormous meals. He had started on Indian restaurants, all the ones called the Taj Mahal or Bengal Tandoori; black proprietors and orange meals. They were packed with people and dÃ©cor and bright colors. But I bought
a skinny old man eating a fried egg behind & greasy window, because it looked like Margate. Rooney was one of those rare artists whose work it was possible to praise without telling baldfaced lies about the pictures having motion and a sort of nervous eloquence and a quality of leaky objectivity and, oh shoot! a kind of brooding beauty.
Writers are painful friends, and they are seldom friendly with each other. They are insecure in the presence of other writers. Composers of certain kinds of music are the sameâtormented and intolerant. Yet some arts not only make the artist social but make him depend on sociability in order to succeed. Painting is one. Painters strike me as having warm uncomplicated friendships and probably more natural generosity than the practitioners of any other art. Perhaps this is because painting is such a portable, flexible thing. Painters paint outdoors, or in rooms full of people; they paint their lovers, alone, naked; they paint and eat; they paint and listen to the radio. It is a soothing way of doing your job.
It seemed to me that this was how the painters passed the time on the steep streets of Hastings. Mick was painting Indian restaurant scenes; Bratby was doing portraits of the living in anticipation of Armageddon; Gus Cummins was doing green skulls; his wife, Angie, was doing lovers reclining in front of mirrors; and others were doing the fishermen at Old Town and the sea monsters at nearby Fairlight. They were all good friends and boon companions, living cheaply in large decaying houses with lots of children and cats. They had plenty of talent and some success, but this was England, after all, where no oneâleast of all a good painterâwas really rewarded or punished; in England, whatever your profession, you made your own life.
The painters brightened Hastings, and it seemed to me full of energy and industry and good humor, just the sort of place to recommend to a sensitive friend or relation with an artistic bent. All this and salubrious air, from Cliff End to Bulverhythe!
I was eating two pigeons in a restaurant with Rooney and praising the town one night, when at the mention of a person I had found particularly good-natured, Rooney looked doubtful.
"You may be right," Rooney said, implying that I was completely mistaken.
"Sarah Milvertonâthat lady you introduced me toâshe seemed just the sort of secure fulfilled personâ"
"Don't," Rooney said. "Her husband died a week ago. Cancer. And he'd been manic for eight years."
"Doing his nutâthat's how manic. He heard voices for eight years. That's a lot of voices. Sarah's had a terrible time."
I said, "What about that guy telling the jokesâOrlock?"
He said, "You noticed no one laughed at the jokes?"
This was true, and now that I thought of it, Orlock had seemed a trifle frenzied in his joke-telling. But it had been a drunken meal, confirming my impression of Hastings as an artists' colony full of optimistic romance and spirited intimacy.
"You noticed his bandage?"
No, I had not seen Orlock's bandage.
"It was on his armâhis whole arm. Seventeen stitches," Rooney said. He looked at me as though at a child, pitying my innocence, smiling despairingly at what he had to tell me, regretting that the subject had come up. "Orlock tried to kill himself this morning with a razor."
But I still liked Hastings, and I would have stayed longer, except that I had as yet seen very little of the British coast. There was so much of it ahead of me that I sometimes had the urge to cut and runâsimply get on an express train and make a dash for Wales, or fly to Scotland and forget Ulster. But I had vowed to make my way slowly around the whole coast, and so one rainy morning Rooney walked east with me along the Promenade.
If Hastings had been richer, all these Victorian buildings would have been torn down. The town was too poor to be vulgar, and it had enough friendly artists to avoid being philistine. And was I right in thinking that painters liked being near the seaâsomething to do with the light? Rooney thought there might be something in this. Painters and fishermen seemed to go together. At the fish market in Hastings, Rooney said, you could find fish that you wouldn't see anywhere else in Britainâsquid, octopus, and cuttlefish. And the sole was the best in the country. At the tall Scandinavian-looking net sheds, made out of black planks, the fishermen sat with basins of fish, mending nets, saying very little. Rooney said they were impenetrable men and had their own customs. For example, if they saw a priest or nun in the early morning, they would not go out fishing that day.
"You can imagine what they'd do if they saw the Pope!" he said.
As a matter of fact, the Pope was expected in Britain within a month, the first papal visit ever.
At Queen Victoria's statue in Warrior Square, where Hastings flattened into St. Leonards-on-Sea, Rooney said, "This is as far as I go. It's all geriatrics from here to Land's End!"
St. Leonards was dull and colorless, full of low, forbidding houses in which plants with dusty leaves were arranged in waist-high windows. It began to rain hard, and though St. Leonards was slightly improved by the blur of the downpour, I did not linger there, but instead took the coastal train two stops to Bexhill-on-Sea. When I got to Bexhill I realized that St. Leonards had been seedy.
"Like all the larger English watering-places, it is simply a little London
" What Henry James wrote of Hastings and St. Leonards was truer now of Bexhill-on-Sea. "With their long, warm seafront and their multitude of small cheap comforts and conveniences, [they] offer a kind of rÃ©sumÃ© of middle-class English civilization and of advantages of which it would ill become an American to make light."
A rÃ©sumÃ© of middle-class English civilization was a High Street lined with shops selling sensible practical merchandiseâplain food and brown clothes; not many restaurants but plenty of tea shops; a busy bus route; semidetached houses, with hedges and pebbledash faÃ§ades; a park bench every twenty yards; a bowling green; a severe seafrontâno fun fair visible, and few public houses; and a large elderly population of shuffling Tories.
And there was the De La Warr Pavilion, where, on the various decks and verandas, the very old people sat in chairs with blankets in their laps staring out to sea, like people on a cruise, resting between meals. They drank tea, rattling their china cups on trembling saucers. They read the latest Falklands news without blinking: they had been through two world wars and may well have been in this very place when Adolf Hitler stood gloating at them through binoculars from the heights of the French coast.