Travelling Companions: A Short Series on Books About Britain

It was Jon who introduced me to travel books. He’d been further afield than me. I was rooted in England (with an occasional tendency to cross a Celtic border). He read of the Hindu Kush and southern archipelagoes. I didn’t think it likely I’d follow in his footsteps. Why not read about where you’ve been? he said and gave me Paul Theroux’s Kingdom By the Sea. Loved it. And I was off.

Up until then I’d found the planning of a trip as good as the travelling of it. I was invariably on foot, bicycle or a railway line. A railway journey around places I’d been, by someone who saw more than I did, made it a three stage thing. There was now the planning, the doing, and the reading about other people doing. To see the world through your own eyes is a very special thing to do. To see it through the eyes of others, especially the keener eyes of people like Theroux, Betjeman, Priestley, is almost better. Why stick to one life, to one journey, when a library allows you to have as many as you want?

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This was in 1987, still four years shy of Bill Bryson setting forth on his genre changing journey with Neither Here Nor There and eight years before his astonishing Notes From a Small Island put travel writing into the best sellers list. I tend to stay away from the crowds in all respects but blimey it was a good read.

From John Byng in the reign of the third George to Bryson the travel story developed three ingredients: the journey itself, the individual places visited and the huge presence of the storyteller. Byng may give you a passing glimpse of Bigleswade in the 1790s but he gives you a lingering insight to his thoughts on the journey. His reaction to a castle, a town, a mountain may take a sentence or two. His reaction to the sauce served with his chops is often a good deal longer. Bryson rarely fails to filter the factual through his own prejudices and ability to tell the real thing from the fake. (An ability that has waned considerably in the last ten years: the prejudice is still there – and often still amusing – but the judgement has diminished.)

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It seems (to me at least) time to pull the threads of my reading together. But where do you start and, more surprisingly, where do you stop? Starting is easier. Chronological is always a simple and safe plan. Either chronological in the order they were written or the order in which they were read. Either is fine. But where to stop? What constitutes travel writing? Where does it merge with local history or geography, national history or natural history? Is JB Priestley’s great book a travelogue or a capturing of place in time? And what about fiction? Doesn’t Middlemarch, or even Barry Hines’ Kes, capture the time and the place as well if not better than a man (it seems a strangely male dominated genre) on a horse/train/bicycle with a notebook? Who captures the essence of Nottinghamshire better than DH Lawrence or Dorset better than Thomas Hardy? Several of Dickens’ most popular novels (Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield) are disguised travel books. I’ve literally walked in the footsteps of Howard Spring and Ian McEwan and found it very familiar. And then there is poetry. Owen Sheers devoted an entire book to the way poets have produced their own portrait of Britain. Norman Nicholson captured the history of lakeland off the beaten track in his verses and then went back and captured it again in his prose. I could go on, and probably will.

This short series of posts is an act of filing, recording, cataloguing. It’s 32 years since Jon gave me the Paul Theroux. Since then I’ve been devoted to travel writing. I’d very much like to read an account of my own reading and I’m the only one who can write it. I’ve written a little of what I have seen of Britain. This is my English journey through  through other people’s eyes.

I’ll begin with the book that currently rests on my bedside table.

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Engel’s England: Thirty-nine counties, one capital and one man by Matthew Engel

You’ll find this on the convenient tables in Waterstones where they put the books that are already selling well; a process helped by ‘buy one get the next half price’ stickers. It deserves its prominence. He’s a writer whose judgement is still clear, whose wry observational style is worth a chuckle or two per chapter, who isn’t afraid to call a monstrosity a monstrosity, greed greed and still see the beauty shining through. It doesn’t take long to get the Engel angle on a place. This won’t please everyone. Plenty of people will buy it in expectation of a rose coloured pastoral idyl.They will be partly satisfied. I’m two thirds of the way through and the only county he’s visited so far that I could live in (if I were to use this book as my only guide) is Derbyshire. But this balances well with my own findings. He’s attracted by the same things as me; living history, tradition, good independent shops, pubs with good beer and no television screens. He’s put off by the same things: dullness, waste, snootiness, lack of generosity. And I’ve come to the same conclusion. The only county I could live (happily) in is Derbyshire. Apparently he gets excited about London. I do too, but can only cope for three days at the most after which time I’m clamouring for simple peace and quiet.

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He’s the same generation as me and, for that matter, Bill Bryson. We all share the same fault. We remember all of these places as being different, and usually much better than they are now. We don’t go to Ulverston (to choose an example I know well and love dearly) and see the perfectly fine Sun Inn on Market Street and describe it as it is. We see what was there. We see the mess an architect made of the corner, the few sad stalls where once a market bustled, we see the inevitable Tesco Metro where we once bought pick and mix. Maybe it is time for travel books to be written by someone in their early twenties who sees a town for what it is now, not for what is was back when ten bob was enough for a night out with enough change to pay the milkman.

Engel’s England is a fine book despite this. His sense of nostalgia is kept in check by his perceptiveness and his descriptions are fair and honest. I’ve lived in Devon and North Yorkshire. I love them  both but I wouldn’t want to live there again and this book pretty much captures why I feel this way. (Mind you, if the right house came up in Scarborough I might be tempted.)

The key to this book is that he travels to the counties as history and geography created them. This is done strictly to pre 1974 lines. (The 1972 Local Government Act redrew county boundaries for the purpose of rationalising provision. Out went historic counties like Rutland and Westmoreland and in came places that nobody can place on a map; Avon, Salop, Cleveland, and regions like Hyndburn and Kirklees (Accrington and Huddersfield in old money)). Happily local pressure has got rid of some of these changes – Rutland was abolished in 1974 but made a comeback in 1995 – but a great deal was lost and very little gained by the changes. Not all were bad. I myself am a proud Lancastrian who saw my home moved into Cumbria. I’ve never liked the idea of Cumbria and certainly never felt Cumbrian. But a great number, especially of those who continued to live there, like their new addresses very much.

DSC_0830This leads on to another point for which Lancashire is a very good example. What happens to an industrial county when the industry is removed and precious little is put back in its place? Engel deals with this eloquently, with affection but sadness. I can see why my old friends and neighbours are happy to turn away from the few surviving mills and shipyards and point their futures at the mountains and lakes.

It’s a first class read. It’s funny and sharply observed. But it’s painful too. Unless it falls away badly in the last hundred pages (which I don’t expect it to) I recommend it heartily. Is it as good as Notes From a Small Island? It gives it a good run for its money and is certainly vastly superior to The Road to Little Dribbling.