Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Kingdom by the Sea. A review

It was 1982, the summer of the Falkland Islands War, and the birth of the royal heir, Prince William--and the ideal time, Theroux found, to surprise the British into talking about themselves. The result is a candid, funny, perceptive, and opinionated travelogue of his journey and his findings. Cultural snobbery? Perhaps, but it is always interesting to read about interesting times.

The Kingdom by the Sea The Kingdom by the Sea by Paul Theroux
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paul Theroux has insights here that are perhaps more interesting for the passing of so much time than they were when he wrote them. Always engaging and pithy, he brings some objectivity by describing Britain through the eyes of a traveling alien.

These are brutally wrought observations of an island in disrepair, even existential despair, and it is a bleak and pallid culture exposed by the failure of industry and the punishments delivered by globalisation, but it is not without warmth and empathy.

The book is written at the same time that his friend, an Englishman Jonathan Raban was circling Britain in a sailing boat, making observations of his own. Whereas Theroux is walking and riding trains around the coast observing the population sitting idle and looking outwards, Raban is looking landward from the perspective of the sea. Raban's account (Coasting: A Private Voyage) is far more concerned with the causes of economic failure, and is attuned to the suffering that comes from economic idleness, whereas Theroux focusses on his perceived flaccidity of the population in the face of these factors.

Both books focus on the year 1982, with thirteen per cent unemployment, huge failure of coal and fishing industries, the beginning of the end of ship building and automotive industries, the Falklands War and the unpopular unraveling of the complex and ancient British railway network.

Both books are limited of course by the personal views of the observers, but they benefit greatly from many quoted conversations with ordinary folk facing the future bravely. I enjoyed both books, but I would find this one tough going if I were a patriotic Brit.

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