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Authors: Paul Theroux

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BOOK: The Kingdom by the Sea
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"Yes, it's a mess," Jonathan said. "That's one of the things I like about it."

"I've never seen so many dubious-looking people," I said.

He said, "It's full of tramps," and he smiled again. Then he said that the most unexpected things happened in Brighton. He would be walking along and he would see someone dressed up as Cardinal Wolsey or Robin Hood, or musicians, or people singing and having a grand time.

I said I saw only bums and day-trippers and people trying to, um, extricate from the long day the grain of pleasure.

We decided to have lunch in the center of Brighton, and so took the little train that rattled from the Marina, past the nudist beach, to the Aquarium. The nudist beach was mostly naked men staring hard at each other. This created heavy traffic on that part of the Front. We were pestered by a man with a monkey when we got off the train. I kept wanting to say: See what I mean?

"I had my parents on the boat for a week," Jonathan said in the restaurant.

Odd sort of voyage, I thought—Mum and Dad on his thirty-foot boat, hardly enough room to swing a cat in the galley, no privacy, rough seas, typewriter skittering sideways, all of them sleeping in the same small area, "Are you sure you won't have another fish finger, son?" and "I'm going to use the toilet, if no one has any objection."

That was how I imagined it.

"Who was the captain?" I asked. I knew that Jonathan's father was a clergyman, and it seemed to me that a clergyman was apt to take command.

"I was in charge," Jonathan said. "After all, it's my boat."

He said his book would be about all the places he had known and lived in on the British coast—a dozen or more.

I said that I wanted to write a book about all the places I had never seen before, which was most of the British coast.

At last, I said I had to be moving on.

"Where to?"

"Bognor," I said.

"Good old Bognor," he said. "So you're headed down the Promenade."

"Right," I said. It was a lovely afternoon.

He said he would be sailing toward Rye in a day or so and then to Dover and up the east coast.

"Watch out for the Goodwin Sands," I said. I told him what I had heard in Broadstairs, how they swallowed ships.

We shook hands and went our separate ways—Jonathan to fight the gales, and I to go down the Prom toward Bognor. Some trip, I thought, as I sauntered along the Promenade. But I was learning things and getting fresh air, and someday I would be too old for this and would be taken for a tramp if I tried it. Even now people sniffed and tried not to stare. A man of forty with a knapsack could easily be a serious crank.

***

As I strolled, I could see that Hove was low spirits and lawns, and the monotonous frenzy of Brighton gave way to clean old houses and rather spent pensioners. The Front, which had been more or less continuous since Margate, was breezy, but now I knew—because I had left it and walked on—that Brighton's chief characteristic was the youthfulness of its visitors: the young had made it seem aimless and wasteful. Hove was not that way.

Hove, like many other places on the English coast, had chalets. The name was misleading. They were huts, and
chalet
was mispronounced to suit them: "shally," the English said, an appropriate word made out of shanty and alley. There were hundreds of them shoulder to shoulder along the Front. They had evolved from bathing machines, I guessed. The English were prudish about nakedness (and swimming for the Victorians had been regarded as the opposite of a sport—it was a sort of immersion cure, a cross between colonic irrigation and baptism). The bathing machine—a shed on a pair of wheels—had been turned into a stationary changing room, and then arranged in rows on the beachfront, and at last had become a miniature house—a shally.

Hove's shallys were the size of English garden sheds. I looked into them, fully expecting to see rusty lawnmowers and rakes and watering cans. Sometimes they held bicycles, but more often these one-room shallys were furnished like doll houses or toy bungalows. You could see what the English considered essential to their comfort for a day at the beach. They were painted, they had framed prints (cats, horses, sailboats) on the wall and plastic roses in jam-jar vases. All had folding deck chairs inside and a shelf at the rear on which there was a hotplate and a dented kettle and some china cups. They were fitted out for tea and naps—many had camp cots, plastic cushions, and blankets; some had fishing tackle; a few held toys. It was not unusual to see half a fruitcake, an umbrella, and an Agatha Christie inside; and most held an old person, looking flustered.

All the shallys had numbers, some very high numbers, testifying to their multitude. But the numbers did not distinguish them, for they all had names: Seaview, the Waves, Sunny Hours, Bide-a-Wee, picked out on their doors or else lettered on plaques. They had double doors; some looked more like horse boxes than cottages. They had curtains. They had folding panels to keep out the wind. Many had a transistor radio buzzing, but the shally people were old-fashioned—they actually were the inheritors of the bathing-machine mentality—and they called their radios "the wireless" or even "my steam radio."

They were rented by the year, or leased for several years, or owned outright—again, like bathing machines. But they were thoroughly colonized. They had small framed photographs of children and grandchildren. When it rained, their occupiers sat inside with their knees together, one person reading, the other knitting or snoozing, always bumping elbows. In better weather they did these things just outside, a foot or so from the front door. I never saw a can of beer or a bottle of whiskey in a shally. The shally people had lived through the war. They had no money but plenty of time. They read newspapers, and that day everyone looked as if he were boning up for an exam on the Falklands campaign. It was becoming a very popular war.

The shallys were very close together, but paradoxically they were very private. In England, proximity creates invisible barriers. Each shally seemed to stand alone, no one taking any notice of the activity next door. Seaview was having tea while the Waves pondered the
Daily Express;
Sunny Hours was taking a siesta, and the pair at Bide-a-Wee were brooding over their mail. All conversation was in whispers. The shallys were not a community. Each shally was separate and isolated, nothing neighborly about it. Each had its own English atmosphere of hectic calm. A by-law stipulated that no one was allowed to spend a night in a shally, so the shally was a daylight refuge, and it was used with the intense preoccupation and the sort of all-excluding privacy that the English bring to anything they own—not creating any disturbance nor encroaching on anyone else's shally and not sharing. Anyone who wished to know how the English lived would get a good idea by walking past the miles of these shallys, for while the average English home was closed to strangers—and was closed to friends, too: nothing personal, it just isn't done—the shally was completely open to the stranger's gaze, like the doll houses they somewhat resembled that had one wall missing. It was easy to look inside. That's why no one ever did.

I walked out of Hove and on to Portslade and Southwick, which had a handsome power station on a neck of land just offshore, so that with its two tall chimneys it looked like a steamship moored on the coast.

At Southwick I met Mrs. Ralph Stonier. She was standing in the sunshine in her old overcoat, waiting for a bus. She said the buses never came. She was a native of Southwick. She hated it: overbuilt, she said. It used to be very quiet here, but no more. Of course, it was much worse in Brighton. You couldn't live on the coast these days. She didn't know what was going to happen, except that things would surely get worse. She stood stiffly, facing the oncoming traffic. The English could look so tired and so determined at the same time! She was taking the bus because the train was too expensive, even though as a pensioner she traveled for half-fare. She had a country accent, as all the older natives seemed to on the south coast.

"I'm going to Bognor," I said to Mrs. Stonier, not that she had asked.

She said, "That's miles away!"

It was twenty miles. I took the train to Worthing.

Irby and Vitchitt, two schoolboys, were talking behind me in low serious voices on the train. They were each about fifteen years old.

Vitchitt said, "If you could change any feature of your body," and he paused, "what would you change?"

"Me fice," Irby said. He had not hesitated.

Vitchitt said, "Your
'ole
fice?"

"Yeah."

Vitchitt was silent.

Irby said, "Me 'ole fice."

"What about your oys?"

"Me oys," Irby said. "I dunno."

"What about your 'air?"

"Me 'air." Irby sounded stumped. "I dunno."

"What about ya rears?"

"Me years," Irby said. "Smaller anyway."

"What about teef?" Vitchitt said.

"Dunno. I have to fink about vat," Irby said.

And then, as they pushed through the door at Worthing, they began to talk about contraceptive devices.

Signs near Worthing said
PLEASURE PARK
and
LEISURE CENTRE
and
FUN PALACE
. In England, such signs spelled gloom. And yet Worthing, with its proud hotels and guest houses, did not look bad. It was a breezy, villagey place, with tree-lined streets, and like the folks who lived in it, Worthing was a little old and a little lame and a little stout, but it still had sparkle. It had the restful friendliness of a favorite uncle or aunt—lots of dignity but no airs, and a great deal of salty gentility and decent fatigue.

These south coast towns could look terribly
visited.
It gave them a hackneyed, worn-down appearance; then they were a bit frayed and exposed, and there were many more cars than people, and plenty of shows and always a sign saying
COACHES WELCOME
, and that too-loud heartiness and relentless querying to which the English were prone on holidays: Sleep all right? Enjoying yourself? Have a nice trip down? Find your friends from last year? Fancy a cup of tea? Like the show? and Hope the weather holds—isn't it glorious? The visited towns were stale with this chat, and at certain times of the day and every Sunday morning they looked very dusty and very empty.

Worthing was somewhat like that, but with an overlay of charm; Bognor Regis was this way to the core, and its look was that of a fairground—frenzied when it was busy and desolate when empty. I got there by walking to Goring-on-Sea, where the houses were bigger and smugger than Worthing's, and a pretty girl on the pier was selling a plump Dover sole to a man for a reasonable price. I walked another two miles to Ferring, then sat down on the village green because I had sore feet. Rather than turn the simple trip to Bognor into an ordeal, I took the train the rest of the way. Littlehampton was plain and semidetached and flinty, the sort of place in which the people did little but water their plants. Then across the River Arun (Arundel was upstream, but I had vowed: No castles) to Climping and pretty farms and a bright field deep with yellow mustard; and then Elmer and a Butlin's camp that served as a kind of warning that Bognor was around the bend.

Bognor was empty. Such places could look awful when they were empty. The wind came off the Channel, stirring the suds at the shore, and it blew through the town. Nothing moved, there were no trees, and anything loose had been blown away in the winter. There was just the sound of the wind sawing at the edges of houses and swelling under the eaves. And the emptiness was exaggerated by the presence of Butlin's Holiday Camp on the shore road into town. Butlin's was full and busy—shouts, the struggle of excitement, the sound of bugles—and so, in this empty town, it had the feel of a concentration camp. Everyone in Bognor was at Butlin's, but it was not easy to explain, because the camp was barracklike buildings fenced in like a prison, and the bright paint on its old-fashioned shapes served only to make it look more sinister. And this full camp in empty Bognor made Bognor seem lopsided.

I thought: One of these days I'll have a look inside a holiday camp when it's in full swing. Most of these places were on the coast, so I would be able to take my pick.

"Oh, yes, it's very quiet," Miriam Pottage said as she showed me to my room in the Camelot Guest House. Miss Pottage was in her sixties and had candy in a pocket of her apron, toffees and caramels, which she peeled—depositing the cellophane in another crinkling pocket—and ate continuously the way a chain-smoker smokes. "Mind you," she said, turning on the stairs and still sucking—the caramels gave her mouth a monkey jut—"it's always quiet this time of year."

It was what everyone said, but it never quite accounted for such great emptiness. I was the only person here at Camelot. It was a cold house, full of damp carpets. Miss Pottage explained that they turned the heating off at Easter, and then turned it on again, the downstairs rads, in October. It was a habit, like. And you could always put on a cardigan if you were feeling the cold—better that than running up an enormous bill at the electricity board. And even if it was uncomfortably cold, what was the point in heating a whole house in order to heat one person?

"But when the season's on," Miss Pottage said, "I'll be run off me feet."

She was one of those people who, when they speak, seem to be saying the thing for the third or fourth time, although I am sure that was not the case and it was only that she enunciated slowly. She made me seem clairvoyant, because whenever she opened her mouth I knew what was going to come out. She was a humorless soul, and she had infuriating patience. She was very kind to me and did not charge much for the room.

I liked the quiet here. It was the opposite of Brighton, and it was not elderly, like Worthing. Bognor was not at all bad—that was a pleasant discovery, like finding a virtue in a person no one liked. Bognor was restful; the Front was windswept and bare; the pier was shut; it had no pretensions; practically everyone was at Butlin's Holiday Camp, beyond the big fence.

BOOK: The Kingdom by the Sea
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