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Authors: Paul Theroux

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BOOK: The Kingdom by the Sea
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If Bexhill-on-Sea was a résumé of one English class, the De La Warr Pavilion—moored there on the seafront like an ocean liner—was a résumé of Bexhill-on-Sea. Its lounges smelled of sickness and liniment, it echoed with lilting organ music, its tea-drinkers looked anguished; and yet it was a good warm place where I could sit comfortably (I rented a deck chair) and write up the diary I had neglected since before Hastings. I bought a cup of tea, like the others, and a chocolate biscuit; I stared at the sea and, writing my diary, I felt eighty years old but very safe and dry. It seemed clear to me that once an English person had reached Bexhill-on-Sea, he had no intention of going any farther. This was, so to speak, the edge of the cliff. That was why the town was filled with dull comforts and warm rooms and large windows and busy churches. No one raised his voice here. There was no need. It was a monotonous drone of voices, an unvarying buzz of sibilant whispers. Nothing was urgent. People came here and admitted they were old and spent the rest of their lives looking after each other. On the English coast, the geriatric communities like Bexhill were almost Utopian in the way the oldies cooperated in the struggle against aging.

Far from making light of Bexhill, as Henry James feared Americans might be prone to do in a watering place of this kind, I felt I was taking it too seriously. I wandered around the Pavilion and saw that there was an entertainment every day—a show, a band concert, a ballet, or an exhibition. That day there was an Antiques Fair, and that night the East Sussex Keep Fit Rally, and the next day the Sussex Opera and Ballet Society Weekend. And I had just missed the Warbleton and Buxted Band on the De La Warr Terrace ("deckchairs 30 pence").

I struck up a conversation with one Albert Crapstone, a deaf retired gent who had come here from Tunbridge Wells to die. He had a
Daily Express
on his lap, full of Falklands action. We talked about this, and then he said, "You're a Yank," and stiffened.

"And you came in, late as usual," he said, meaning that the United States had just announced her support for Britain in the military action against Argentina. "Just like the Great War, and the Second World War. At the last possible moment! Typical!"

He leaned forward, crumpling his newspaper.

"You can go back and tell your President we don't need his bloody help," Mr. Crapstone said.

"Fine," I said, because a man with a hearing aid always has a tactical advantage in an argument—and what was the point? "I'll tell him the next time I see him. I think he's over at Cooden Beach having a swim."

"What's that?" Mr. Crapstone demanded, twisting his face at me.

Cooden Beach was a few miles west, but the rain had stopped and the walk took me through suburban streets rather than along the shore. The houses were large detached villas with privet hedges like fortress walls and densely planted flower beds, another Surbiton-on-Sea, the solidest London suburb grafted onto the solidest stretch of the south coast, the best—at least for the Crapstones in those villas—of both worlds. There were no youths at all in sight; every human I saw there was elderly, and most of them were attached to a leash and being pulled along by a dog, and even the dogs looked senile.

I walked toward Pevensey ("Pevensey Bay being the spot where William landed his army in 1066") and decided that anyone who came ashore at Cooden Beach or Bexhill-on-Sea would find himself face to face with the quintessential England—not just coastal, seaside-holiday, retirement England, but secretive, rose-growing, dog-loving, window-washing, churchgoing, law-abiding, grumpy, library-using, tea-drinking, fussy, and inflexible England.

The rain started again, then stopped, and then turned into a steady drizzle. I found it tiring to walk through rain. From time to time I sat on a memorial bench ("In Memory of B. D. H. Wallis-wood 1902–1978 Who Loved This View"). Each time I sat down, something odd happened: birds flocked in a friendly way and seemed to fuss near my feet, expecting to be fed. Then more would come and soon there were fifteen or twenty birds tweeting at me. It was another proof of the temperament of the English people here—they fed the birds, as many old people seemed to do, so the birds were not afraid of human beings.

The rain drove me back onto the railway. I took the train across the flat meadowy marsh called Pevensey Levels, past the temporary-looking cottage settlements at Norman's Bay. This was part of the holiday coast, the dwellings ugly and unpleasant, and only the place names were memorable, like Wartling and the Crumbles. The train swung several miles around the flat meadow, making a wide circle, and then turned on a long meadow as flat and green as a billiard table and approached Eastbourne from the back. There was no coastal line here, because the original line went from Lewes to Hastings, and Eastbourne hardly existed then. The Eastbourne spur was not added until later, but it was decades before Eastbourne came into its own. It was a village until the turn of the century.

Eastbourne was planned and zoned in a calculated way, designed to be elegant and deliberately unreachable by day-trippers. It was meant to be high class, and it succeeded because it was just a bit too far from London to attract cheese-paring tourists. It did not have a harbor, so it was spared the high spirits of sailors and the taint of trade. The streets were laid out, the hotels inserted, the parks, the golf links, the bandstands, the pier, and the Front—no shops were to be allowed on it—all of these were determined at the time of Eastbourne's building. And it worked. It had never been Cockneyfied. The town had a graspable size and a sense of civic pride and a modest grandeur. Folkestone's elegance was its geriatric propriety. But Eastbourne was a thriving place, and there was enough in it that was ordinary to give balance to its beauty.

I stayed in a village just outside Eastbourne, not far from Beachy Head. Mountain climbers often practiced climbing the sheer wall of Beachy Head, and it was also a favorite spot for suicides—thirty in the past two years. There was a valley just west of where I was staying in which ardent socialists had settled and become landowners and country squires. They were union men or politicians who, after a career of howling at the rich, had been awarded knighthoods and appointed to directorships and had become well-to-do themselves. They lived in manor houses or on large farms, and some, amazingly, still espoused views that were in contradiction to the way they lived. It was a curious combination of secrecy, hypocrisy, and the sort of muddle that enabled an Englishman to hold two opposing views in his head. And it demonstrated that the best way to become a baron or an earl or a knight of the Garter was to spend half a lifetime singing "The Red Flag" and becoming a conspicuous irritation to the Establishment. It was an easy transition from any smoke-filled room of whining conspirators to a seat in the House of Lords. The English aristocracy had nearly always been recruited from the ranks of flatterers, cutthroats, boyfriends, political pirates, and people of very conceited ambition. So it was not so strange that this blue valley on the coast of East Sussex was populated by wine-bibbing lords who had formerly been Marxist union men named Jones and Brown.

I set off for Brighton on foot, starting at Birling Gap. The tide was high, so I could not walk along the beach. I was not sorry about this. I was spared the possibility of being embayed or of having the cliffs fall down and brain me—they were very crumbly cliffs. I walked in bright sunshine across the Seven Sisters to Seaford. The turf on these seven bluffs was very spongy and green. There were sheep in the meadows that lay parallel to this high part of the coast. Their bells clunked as they jerked their heads up to look at me. And there were gulls on the cliffs. Gulls squawk, but they also bark, scream, shriek, yap, whimper, and crow. Sometimes, roosting, they whine. I also heard them mew like cats. They are stupid hungry birds, and there was a common species on the British coast that had heads so black and hooded that they looked like hangmen.

There were rabbits on the Seven Sisters. They were small cute creatures. They had burrowed into the seventh sister, eaten much of her grass, and in this way had loosened the whole bluff by allowing the rain and erosion to take hold. The little creatures hippity-hopped all over the bluff, and they were in the process of destroying one of the most beautiful cliffs on the coast—the bunnies had just about brought it down.

I came to the Cuckmere River. That was a problem. The South Downs Way detours around it; there was no way of getting across the wide wet estuary. I walked along the east bank of the Cuckmere River, past World War Two pillboxes and gun emplacements, and herons and swans. Then over the bridge and across Seaford Head to Seaford proper, which was a nice town, once full of prep schools. Most of the schools were now closed, and Seaford was regarded as something of a backwater, overshadowed by Newhaven on the green River Ouse. Virginia Woolf had drowned herself a few miles upstream in 1941.

I walked on, through Newhaven and up the bluff to Peacehaven, until it started to rain. Peacehaven was solid with bungalows on little plots with just room enough in front for a garden gnome and a square yard of crazy paving. I caught a bus here. It swayed on the high cliff road, past the open space that marks the Zero Meridian, past Telescombe Cliffs, where, under a sky of yapping gulls, all the sewage of Brighton and Hove empties into the English Channel. And then into Rottingdean.

In Rottingdean "in 1882 there had been but one daily bus from Brighton, which took forty minutes," Rudyard Kipling wrote in his autobiography,
Something of Myself.
"And when a stranger appeared on the village green the native young would stick out their tongues at him." It was, he said, an almost empty coast of green fields and isolated houses. But it had changed in Kipling's lifetime. Before he died, in 1936, he wrote, "Today, from Rottingdean to Newhaven is almost fully developed suburb, of great horror." It was much worse now, so I stayed on the bus and did not get off until we reached Brighton.

4. The 18:11 to Bognor Regis

were imagined to be perpetually on the razzle, their days spent prowling the Lanes or Marine Parade, and their nights full of ramping sexuality. Think I'll go down and have a dirty weekend, people said. Brighton had a great reputation. You were supposed to have fun in Brighton, but Brighton had the face of an old tart and a very brief appeal.

It was an hour from London. It was one of London's resorts. It was two hours from Dieppe by ferry. It was one of France's resorts. The scowling foreigners gave it a crassly cosmopolitan air, but no one knew what to make of it. Greeks and Indians opened restaurants and cheap shops, and then stood in front, hardly believing that business could be so bad. The English were shrewder. They opened casinos and public houses. There were more pubs in Brighton than in any other seaside town in Great Britain, because there was little else to do but drink. Serious fishermen went down to Newhaven, and swimmers up the coast a little to Hove. Like many places that have a great reputation, Brighton was full of disappointed and bad-tempered visitors.

Brighton Rock
contains the popular impression of Brighton: gangsters, hilarity, murder, and Mortal Sin—all in sight of Palace Pier. But Graham Greene subsequently wrote in an introduction to the novel that, while he had been fastidious about the detail in the novels set in Mexico and Indo-China, the setting of Brighton "may in part belong to an imaginary geographic region." He said he was writing about the past—already, in 1937, that Brighton had vanished—so, "I must plead guilty to manufacturing this Brighton of mine."

Even so, the novel is very good in describing Brighton disappointment and the progress of the day-trippers: "They had stood all the way from Victoria in crowded carriages, they would have to wait in queues for lunch, at midnight half asleep they would rock back in trains to the cramped streets and the closed pubs and the weary walks home. With immense labour and immense patience they extricated from the long day the grain of pleasure: this sun, this music, the rattle of the miniature cars, the ghost train diving between the grinning skeletons under the Aquarium promenade, the sticks of Brighton rock, the paper sailors' hats."

That was it, more or less. I had been to Brighton so many times, I had no desire to linger. Much better, I thought, to push on to Bognor, where I had never been. But I had someone to see in Brighton—Jonathan Raban was there on his boat, the
Gosfield Maid,
moored at Brighton Marina, just beyond Kemp Town and the nudist beach ("Bathing Costumes Are Not Required to Be Worn Past This Sign"). Jonathan had said that he was taking a trip around the British coast and was planning to write a book about it. This interested me. All trips are different, and even two people traveling together have vastly different versions of their journey. Jonathan was doing his coastal tour counterclockwise, stopping at likely ports in his boat.

He seemed contented on his boat. He had framed prints and engravings on the walls, and Kinglake's
was open on a table under a porthole. It was strange to see a typewriter and a TV set on board, but that was the sort of boat it was, very comfy and literary, with bookshelves and curios.

"This must be your log," I said, glancing down. The entries were sketchy ("...light rain, wind ESE...")—nothing very literary here, no dialogue, no exclamation marks.

He said, "I keep planning to make notes, but I never seem to get round to it. What about you?"

"I fiddle around," I said. It was a lie. I did nothing but make notes, scribbling from the moment I arrived in a hotel or a guest house and often missing my dinner. I hated doing it. It was a burden. But if I had been in Afghanistan, I would have kept a detailed diary. Why should I travel differently in Britain?

I said, "I hate Brighton. I think there's a kind of wisdom in that—the British person, or even the foreigner, who says simply, 'I hate Brighton.' What's there to like here? It's a mess."

BOOK: The Kingdom by the Sea
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