Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Kingdom by the Sea


I hope to finish my posts on Iona this weekend.  This is a book review of a book that I read on the plane ridge to and from the UK.  It is a little dated but there were some good insights, too.  


Paul Theroux, The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey around the Coast of Great Britain (1983: New York: Marina Books, 2003), 353 pages, no photos or maps.

In the spring of 1982, Paul Theroux decides that after living a decade in London, he should see the countryside.  He sets out with a backpack and a pair of oiled boots to follow the coastline around Great Britain.  Parts of the coast he travels on foot, other sections, when available, he takes trains.  On a few occasions, he takes a bus.  For three months, while the British are engaged in the “Falkland Business” (no one called it a war), Theroux travels.  Although he’s curious about what the British people think of the war, he agrees with the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, who describes the Falkland War as two old bald men fighting over a comb (39).  By the time he’s finished, Britain has retaken the Falklands from Argentina and the railroads have gone on strike.  It seems to be a fitting end to a wet and miserable (but well described) journey across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

I picked up this book to read on my recent trip to Scotland, and read the first hundred or so pages on the flight over.  Theroux, who was only forty at the time of his journey, bickers as if he was an old man.  This is the seventh book I’ve read by Theroux and I have yet to become comfortable with his style.  He’s not the type of author that makes you want to go out and follow his footsteps and I’m pretty sure that he would be a terrible travel partner.  Yet, I keep reading him because I like how he uses dialogue and how he’s most often talking with common people he meets along the way.  I also appreciate how all his journeys are packed with interesting facts and tidbits of information about the places he visits.  Finally, Theroux is a master of metaphors and similes, using contrast and the ironic to point make his point.   A collapsed castle stands like a set of broken dentures.  (77).  He finds the Isle of Wright so beautiful and it’s train so ugly, that was as painful as it would have been to see a peddlers’ pack on the shoulders of a lovely woman” (69)  In Portsmouth, where the poet Shelly wrote “‘O Darkling Woods, My Sweet Repose,’ one looks up and sees a gas station.” (67)

Early in the book, Theroux describes Brighton as “having the face of an old tart and a very brief appeal.” (53).   Having read this during my overnight flight, I was shocked later that day day when, while eating lunch by the Portobello Beach, my friend Ewan spoke fondly of the time he lived in Brighton.  I laughed and told him what Theroux had written about his beloved city and discovered that Ewan and Theroux were there at the same time (during the Falkland War). Appearance is in the eye of the beholder.

While traveling, Theroux stays in a lot of old small and nearly empty hotels.  He notices that the owners often say that as the summer comes, the hotels will fill up but he never finds that the case.  He often makes fun of the British idea of a “holiday” as they travel to these gray beaches.  This is at a time when Britain is cutting out rail lines.  Surprisingly, as one who has made a good living writing about trains, he doesn’t have much sympathy with the train lovers who lament these cuts.  “Their interest always seemed to me worse than indecent and their joy-riding a mild form of necrophilia” (121).  He challenges another railroad buff who advocates for steam, noting how, like “many other railway bluffs, he detested our century” (175).

Theroux travels takes him out of London and along the southern coast visiting places like Dover (at this point the tunnel under the channel is still talk and Theroux insists a Brit by pointing out the Japanese built a longer tunnel under the sea connecting their mainland to Hokkaido.  He follows the southern coast through Cornwall, then comes up to Wales.  At Cardiff, he notes how he dislikes cities.  “In Britain they were cavernous and intimidating, like the fortresses they had once been.  They seemed to have heavy eyebrows” (141).  In Wales he sees the poverty after the closing of the mines.  He travels over to Northern Ireland where he learns about the troubles there, where they don’t worry as much about the Falklands as there is enough violence of their own.  Then he travels by ferry to Glasgow and makes his way around the Scottish Coast, before coming back down to London.  As he travels, he tells people that he’s in publishing (which only gets him in trouble once when an aspiring writing wants to show him a manuscript) instead of a writer.  However, in St. Andrews, Scotland, a local bookstore owner discovers him! 


In many ways, this book is out of date.  Much has changed in the United Kingdom as well as in the world.  It’s been a while since I read Theroux earlier books (The Great Railway Bazaar and Riding the Iron Rooster), and it was fun to be reminded that he was just as ornery in his early middle ages as he was in the last book I’ve read by him (Last Train to Zona Verde). That and for Theroux unique way of describing the countryside and the people, I am glad that I read it.  
North end of Iona

20 comments:

  1. I'm not sure this is a book for me, but I do love some of the quotes from it you've shared. (especially the one about the collapsed castle!)

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  2. Sounds like another compelling read. I do need to make more time in my life for reading.

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  3. What an amazing journey it must have been, in that spring of 1982. A wonderful review indeed, thank you for sharing!

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  4. Sounds like a book I would love to read.

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  5. I enjoy reading both fiction and nonfiction about places I'm visiting. Looking forward to more trip pics.

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  7. Back then Brighton was living on pensioners, imperial pensioners. Those that carried the white mans burden administrating the British empire and those that held shares bought in the 20s and 30s. It was at that point at it's nadir economically and demographically. Now is a very different story. Yet again it's one of the most expensive addresses in the globe. And while no longer filled with retired viceroys of minor colonies, it is filled with ex admirals, former top civil servants and partners of legal firms.
    On the rest, I expect he'd see little difference in South Wales. It's still a poverty filled area, without real investment. NI, while at peace is much like south Wales. Ditto Glasgow. In fact the only atmospheric difference would be the lack of coal smoke oozing between the buildings.

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  8. Hi Sage - I've never liked Theroux's style either ... but it's interesting to read your post here ... I still don't think I'd read him ... now of course we have way too many cars, and not enough railway lines, as they were closed by Beeching in his railway axe programme ..

    But am glad you've gained a flavour of life here in all four areas of the UK ... cheers Hilary

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  9. It is interesting how we can read the work of someone and in ways we don't enjoy it while in other ways we do. I guess it's like that with people in the real world sometimes too.

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  10. Good morning! I always enjoy reading your reviews, and I've gotten a few of them. Funny thing about your title, with the horrible state of affairs in Washington lately I saw Kingdom and of course Trumpster came to mind and I'm so happy this wasn't about his Kingdom. Can you feel my pain? Hehehe!

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  11. I can see why you like his use of metaphors and similes. I enjoyed the examples you shared. Sounds like a fascinating book.

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  12. There's nothing worse than a bickering traveler!

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  13. I'm not sure I'd like that book but thanks for letting us know about it.

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  14. From the books of his I have read, I'm pretty certain that I wouldn't want to travel with him either. But I love his adventures.

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  15. It's sometimes interesting tp specifically read books that are out of date in this way and remind yourself of how much has changed. And lots of us did call it the Falklands War.

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  16. I haven't read Theroux. I'm more of a Bill Bryson kind of travel writer. One day I'm going to plot out his trek in Notes from a Small Island and duplicate that journey.

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  17. I'm not sure this is a book for me but I did enjoy your review and insights, thanks.
    What a beautiful sky in your photograph of Iona,

    Happy August

    All the best Jan

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  18. Wet and miserable ~ That just about says it all. Give me sunshine and low humidity.

    I haven't read any of Paul Theroux's books, although I think I saw the movie "The Mosquito coast" years ago. The only travel writer I've read extensively is Richard Halliburton ~ and his books are definitely outdated. But I still enjoy them, because each one is like stumbling across a time capsule. Halliburton is the one who prompted me to go to visit the headhunters of Borneo and the Blue Grotto on Capri. Unfortunately, I have to try for the Blue Grotto again, because I got to within spitting distance of the entrance, but the seas were running too wildly to get into the grotto.

    I have been to Brighton, last year as a matter-of-fact. My husband's sister and brother-in-law own a flat in one of the Regency buildings around a square near the water. I found it to be an absolutely fascinating place, not a bit like the "face of an old tart" with "brief appeal." I did find it jarringly schizophrenic, the Royal Pavillion vs the remains of the West Pier, the beautiful Regency buildings vs the carnival-like restaurants, bars, and galleries along the water front, strange findings around every corner, the nearby downs and perfect English villages. I loved it!

    We were walking through the Princess Kaiulani Hotel in Waikiki last March and came across a plaque marking Princess Kapiolana's visit to Brighton and how much she enjoyed its beaches. "Yeah right!" was my comment ~ Brighton beaches after Hawaii's. I didn't get the British love for Brighton's gravelly beaches at all ~ and those cabanas??? People pay a fortune to have one, and I just don't get it.

    As always your posts are fascinating, Sage! thanks for sharing!

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  19. That was a great review and I think you totally pegged Theroux. I really like what he says, does, and the stories that he tells. I just don't really care for his delivery all that much.

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