Paul Theroux travels around the coast of Britain in 1982 and records his observations and meetings with local people. This includes a visit to Scotland and I was interested to see what my favourite travel writer had to say about Scotland.
It is very much a book of its time, perfectly capturing what Britain was like in the 1980s. Theroux travels at the time of the Falkland’s War and witnesses people’s reactions to it. He experiences yobs on trains, fights between mods and skinheads, grotty seaside guesthouses and a rail strike. He also finds beautiful coastal villages and dramatic scenery. It is a fascinating insight into how a visitor to the UK views the country. He noted that, although plenty of British writers produced books about travels in other countries, there were few outsiders who wrote travel books about Britain:
“…it was a mystery to me why no one had ever come to Britain and written about its discomforts and natives and entertainments and unintelligible dialets. The British, who had devised a kind of envious mockery of other cultures, and who had virtually invented the concept of funny foreigners, had never regarded themselves as fair game for the travel writer.”
Theroux shuns castles, stately homes and other traditional tourist attractions. He wants to discover the real Britain, so travels mostly by walking or using the train and talks to people he meets along the way. Cycling is discounted at a very early stage of his planning:
“A bicycle was out- too dangerous, too difficult…”
I hope that if he repeated his journey today he would find that things had changed since the 1980s and cycling would be considered viable. I think that cycling infrastructure has improved dramatically since the time of this book.
The way that Theroux travels results in a very honest and real account. He does not miss out the bad bits and tells it exactly as he experiences it. This has led to some people describing Theroux as grumpy, but he is simply recording what he sees and hears and does not sugar coat it. He is my favourite travel writer for this reason. I love that he uses the conversations he overhears in pubs, on the street and in public transport to tell the story of a place.
I was most interested in the author’s travels through Scotland, although this is a small part of the book (only 4 chapters). He takes the West Highland railway and recalls a passenger with a parcel of books that he held out the window of the train and a signalman took. The passenger explained that he heard about a signalman that liked to read, but his post was so remote that he had no access to books. Apparently it was common practice for people, on this train, to throw their finished newspapers out of the window as there would be somebody along the line to pick them up and read them.
Theroux beautifully describes getting off a train at a rural station in Scotland:
“There was something very disconcerting about leaving a train in the middle of nowhere. It was all activity and warm upholstery and then the clang of a carriage door and train pulled out and left me in a sort of pine-scented silence.”
This is something I have done many times and I love it. I have often tried to find the perfect couple of lines to sum up the mixture of joy and apprehension when you get off a train at a little used station and I think Paul Theroux has done it perfectly.
One of my favourite parts of the book was his journey on the post bus through Sutherland where he experiences rural life up close. He describes how the driver stops frequently to deliver items like milk and newspapers to isolated houses. I was pleased to read that Theroux loved Sutherland as it is also one of my favourite parts of Scotland:
“…its mountains streaming with pale scree, its black valleys of peat, its miles of moorland and bog, its narrow roads and surfy coast and its caves. It was like a world part, an unknown place in this the best-known country in the world. No sooner had I left it than I wanted to go back.”
I couldn't agree more.
I really enjoyed this book, particularly because you can compare the Britain that Theroux experienced in the 80s to what Britain is like today. Although the part about Scotland is quite small it was impossible for me to resist finding out what my favourite travel writer thought about my country.
You can buy the book from Amazon by clicking on the image below:
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.