Beryl Bainbridge

Still Glowing?

My Foreign Country

By

John Murray 288pp £18 order from our bookshop

In the concluding chapter to his classic travel book, English Journal, written in 1933, J B Priestley wrote this sublime passage:

Ours is a country that has given the world something more than a million yards of calico and thousands of steam engines. If we are a nation of shopkeepers, then what a shop! There is Shakespeare in the window, to begin with … we stagger beneath our inheritance. But let us burn every book, tear down every memorial, turn every cathedral and college into an engineering shop, rather than grow cold and petrify, rather than forget that inner glowing tradition of the English spirit.

And this from a man who was branded as a left-wing upstart and whose novels were rubbished – not his plays – on account of their selling so well.

Trevor Fishlock, in the first chapter of My Foreign Country, echoes and equals Priestley, both in prose and vision:

The new generations in Britain are the first who are not shaped by war and the threat of conquest. Nor are they fashioned by the intimate industrial societies. They do not follow their fathers to the pit, the factory, the docks, the steelworks, the mill, the shipyard. They do not qualify for gold watches … they do not sing the old songs or tell the old jokes or make the old allusions. What was until recently the common experience of life and work for generations has for them al ready become hearsay, the distant clang of an anvil.

This is a book about contemporary Britain seen against the backcloth of history, which is as it should be. None of us can claim to be our own creation; we are shaped, whittled, let slip like arrows from the bows of the past. Fishlock, arriving by sea at his birthplace, Portsmouth, travels inland, north, south, east and west, to Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and always he illuminates places with stories of great and little men long since dead.

For instance, walking the beach at Carreg Wasted, near Fishguard, he recalls that the sand once bore the imprints of the boots of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. In Stifikey, Norfolk, he jerks to life the ghost of that splendid clergyman, Harold Davidson, who, defrocked for consorting with prostitutes, joined a circus and, in the middle of preaching a sermon from inside a lion’s cage, was killed and all but eaten by a king of the jungle called Freddie. Visiting Dulwich College he reminds us that two of its famous students were P G Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler. I could add a third name, that of teacher rather than pupil, science master Lawrence Beesley, who survived the sinking of the Titanic by holding his breath for four minutes. In Newlyn, Cornwall, he admires the pugnacity of an article in the local newspaper which begins, ‘Bugger objectivity … he’s an inept, inconsiderate, unintelligent and greedy bastard … shifty, crooked, amoral, not too bright but cunning.’ In Belfast, looking through an old newspaper of 1872, he finds the following comment: ‘ … the area around the Shankhill Road and Falls Road … [is] in a state of utter desolation … pavements torn up … barricades … shops boarded against attack’. At Lambeth, in the churchyard of St Mary’s, he comes upon the grave of Vice-Admiral William Bligh and imagines he hears above the distant thunder of naval guns, the old seadog damning Mr Christian to Hell.

This is a lovely book and an excellent work of reference.

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