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Book Review - The Kingdom by the Sea, A Journey Around Great Britain
by Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux often refers to his oily shoes and knapsack, and his unshaven appearance which leads to some confusion in the minds of the folks he encounters, watchful as they are for a serial killer on the prowl. Published in 1982, The Kingdom by the Sea is Paul Theroux's third travel book (after The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express) and is as entertaining as every other travelogue he has written since. The author's humorously depressing portrait of Britain's coast and its system of railway lines reads like an affectionate obituary. His disdain for "railway buffs" is exhilarating in its sarcasm.

In The Last Train to Whitby, Mr. Theroux writes - "The priory ruins in shadow were sliver-black like charcoal, with the same frail sculpted look of burned wood, but where the daylight struck them they were as red and porous as cake. The surface color of the island was the yellow-gray of human skin and farther off there was a castle wrapped around a solitary high rock." Bright and optimistic passages like this one are few and far between. The only other place that the author aspired me to go visit, for its beauty and not for the desolation that is the coast of Britain, was Tenby. "But Tenby was more than pretty. It was so picturesque, it looked like a watercolor of itself" he says.

The author's darkest words are reserved for the town of Belfast. "It was a city of drunks, of lurkers, of later risers. It smelled of wet bricks and burning coal. It stank. It had a sort of nightmare charm. When the rain came down in Belfast, it splashed through the roof and splattered through the window glass and poured into your soul. It was the blackest city in Britain, and the most damaged." That sounds terrible, doesn't it?

I don't know if it is deliberate or unavoidable but Mr. Theroux' travels always seem to take place when significant historical events are afoot. In this case, it was the Falklands War and, towards the end, a national railway strike. 1982 was also the year of the Serpell Report (wiki ref - which, it was feared, would yield a death blow to British Railway. The Wiki page says the railways survived. All the better.

A few more quick observations - the author's travels through Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are instructive in understanding Britain's particular collection of nationalities. The names of the places are no less strange and foreign sounding than say in Dark Star Safari, Theroux's travelogue of Africa. Britain is a much traveled and written about country but Paul Theroux manages to make this book fresh and interesting. His description of a "typical" coastal town ("There was always a fun fair and it was never fun, and the video machines were always busier than the pinball machines or the one-armed bandits. There was always an Indian restaurant and it was always called the Taj Mahal and the owners were always from Bangladesh.") is truly inspired.
Highly recommended.

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