Britain as seen by Theroux: not a four-star itinerary
Boston — Paul Theroux says his travel books keep people home. ''There's an aspect of travel writing which ought to take the place of going to the place. So you read the book, and you think, 'Ah, good, I just read 'Kingdom by the Sea,' now I'll never have to go to England.''
Theroux's first travel book, ''The Great Railway Bazaar,'' became a best seller, and ''The Kingdom by the Sea,'' his third, has been controversial on both sides of the Atlantic, because he chose to write about Britain by traveling around its coast, not a four-star itinerary. But Theroux doesn't just write travel books to warn tourists away from the places he visits. ''No,'' he says, ''I do it to please myself. Actually, I can't see any other reason. To occupy yourself for a long period of time in travel, or writing, you have to really like what you're doing.''
His idea of a good trip is not everyone's. Britain's coast is not known for balmy beaches or quaint seaside villages. Even when there were castles, he stayed away from them. He wasn't sightseeing, he says in the book. He wanted to see the rest of Great Britain, after spending 11 years living in London with his English wife and children. The coast, to him, was the perfect place to look. ''A country tended to seep to its coast: it was concentrated there, deposited against its beaches like the tidewrack from the sea.''
This may sound bitter, but when he talks about it in person, he is still so excited about what he found, you'd think he was selling tickets. ''The coast has everything,'' he says with relish, ''it has unemployment, it has old people, it has retired people, it has nuclear power stations, it has sewage, it has fun fairs, it has long stretches where you can walk, it has marshlands, it has sand dunes, golf courses, cities, prosperity, and the oil thing. It has mountains. You name it about Britain, and it's got it.''
Theroux talks fast and amends himself, fixing up his sentences in small ways, as though he were typing and penciling in more apt words. He likes words. ''Litigious'' and ''bumptious'' come out in a normal tone of voice. In ''Kingdom by the Sea'' he confesses he likes to travel alone so he can try out words on himself. As he talks, you imagine him rushing along the footpaths of Britain, muttering.
In the book, he remarks that someone coming on Cooden Beach or Bexhill-on-Sea , two small towns near Brighton, would find ''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.'' This is the England he was stalking. In his book, he doesn't so much look at Great Britain, he peers at it. He watches people through their car windows as they munch sandwiches and gaze at the sea. He peeks behind a hedge at a man whacking his concrete garden with a broom. He looks in on a lady in a pub who makes rook pies, to the outrage of rook-lovers, who write her angry letters.
He sees the shady side of the street, the other side of the tracks, the part of the country people don't visit but make fun of. He traveled during the Falklands war, and he quotes headlines in sensationalist newspapers gloating over the ''Argies' '' casualties. He sees in Belfast the city of the future, not modern steel and glass but walled, suspicious, and violent, with security checks constantly going on, a return to the middle ages. He stays in bed-and-breakfast establishments where the food is ''slimy and salty,'' he is sometimes the only guest, and he doesn't believe what the owners say about the crowds that will be there soon or who just left.
Surprisingly, ''The Kingdom by the Sea'' isn't a depressing book to read. It's invigorating, and not just because he does to overcast skies what Turner did to sunsets and describes rain the way Julia Child talks about butter. It's full of the energy of Theroux's curiosity. He gets in conversations with his innkeepers, the people on trains, people in pubs, and he eavesdrops. He records their many accents as minutely as he does the landscape. Their voices are idle, complaining, or determinedly cheerful. They sound as if they are looking into the future, seeing a chasm, and chatting about it.
''All travellers are optimists,'' he writes in ''The Kingdom by the Sea.'' ''Travel itself was sort of optimism in action. I always went along thinking: I'll be all right, I'll be interested, I'll discover something, I won't break a leg or get robbed, and at the end of the day I'll find a nice old place to sleep. Everything is going to be fine, and if it isn't, it will be worthy of note - worth leaving home for.''
I asked him how he could claim to be an optimist and come back and tell us that even the white cliffs of Dover are falling apart because rabbits are burrowing in them.
''If you weren't optimistic, if you weren't hoping something good would happen, you wouldn't go on traveling, you wouldn't go on writing. . . . If you were a cynic, you wouldn't write. You'd say, 'People are the way they are, they've always been this way, and they're not going to improve, therefore the books that have been written to describe it, I have nothing to add to this.' You have to feel that you have something to contribute . . . Otherwise, really, there's no point in going on.''
The reaction in Britain to this book ranged, he said, ''from apoplexy - 'How dare he do this? He's abusing our hospitality' - to the sort of sadder but wiser tone, saying, . . . 'this is a salutary book.' (They think) it's like medicine.''
He has been criticized for writing about the coast as if it represented all of Britain. He replies that no part of the country is more than 65 miles from the ocean, and most of the counties border the coast. ''That's definitely where it all is. People don't want to believe that it's true because the book I've written is not particularly flattering, and I think it describes a Britain that actually exists, rather than the one that people want to exist. A lot of people have what I would think of as Anglomania. They have a particular view of Britain . . . where everyone is wearing a Burberry and drinking Earl Grey tea in front of the fire while the Queen is on her throne. It's not like that. . . . The complexities of English life resemble the complexities of American life, and I think that it's much more interesting than the popular image leads you to believe.''
He doesn't find his sort of travel depressing. But it's not that he has a stiff upper lip. He simply works at cheering himself up.
''If I found it really dreary, I went back to London,'' he says. ''Sat around , read the paper. I'm not a great person for putting up with suffering.'' He is an old hand at not suffering. ''I was in India and I was getting terribly depressed. I thought, 'This is terrible,' and I went swimming. . . . I went swimming in Vietnam, I remember. For the same reason. In Da Nang. It just sort of cheered me up to be doing something, and then I went back to work and faced things.''
Readers may prefer not to face the part of Britain Theroux strides around in ''The Kingdom by the Sea.'' But he is adamant. ''What I want to do is say, it's a big country. I want people to avoid saying, 'Ah, well, that's very British,' or 'He's got a British accent,' or 'He is British.' No. I want people to say, 'What, exactly, is it?' Not just 'British' but what sort? It's complicated.''
In ''The Kingdom by the Sea,'' the people are the landscape, and Theroux doesn't show you a sunny, post-card-perfect view. It's a darker picture, intricate and memorable. If Theroux's travel books make you feel you don't need to go where he has been, it's not because he's discouraged you; it's because you feel you've been there, too.