Dream Guest Blogger #7

(posted by Alan)

Ben started out with DH Lawrence then followed with Alan Bennett, Morrissey, Will Self, Chris Morris and Mike’s dear Aunt Cyn. A theme to his guest bloggers was immediately obvious after the third day – all are commentators of various sorts on British life in general, and on English life in particular. Well, the first 5 fitted that bill, Aunt Cyn is a complete wild card that threw me off a bit. Not just a bit, a lot, actually. But, ignoring that mad, wonderful old duck, I’ll stick to the theme established by the first 5 dream guests.

A suitable, 7th blogger shot into my head on that third day as my obvious choice and he is still there as a very worthy contender. But, since then, several others have seemed just as worthy, all of them for different reasons. So, let me go through all of them, giving you my reasons why they are all worthy, then give you my choice as the most worthy contender. I’ll list them in the order in which they popped into my head:

Bill Bryson:
Bill Bryson, an American, first came to this country as a backpacker in 1973. He met his wife here and settled here, working as a travel writer. Although he and his family moved back to the States in 1995, they returned to England in 2003. Before becoming the wildly successful international author that he now is, he had had several best-sellers in the UK, one of which was the hugely popular, ‘Notes from a Small Island’ (1995), a book about the UK that was later made into a television production by ITV. Borrowing from this review will give you a good idea of why he makes a worthy 7th guest blogger:

Bill Bryson’s narrative of his travels on a “small island” will probably not be found in British chambers of commerce or travel agencies, for it is not a favourable advertisement. It is instead a Midwest American’s humorous account of disappointment and frustration as he tries to discover the beauty of Britain.

Bryson makes his way through the British countryside, towns and cities by way of bus, train, or on foot. He has a continual problem finding good places to eat during the day or to lodge at night. He quickly learned, “The trick to successful walking…is knowing when to stop.” At least once, he stopped too late and had to find a comfortable park bench to sleep on.

He quickly became fascinated with British nomenclature. “No where” he admitted, “are the British more gifted than with place names.” He classified as “endearingly insane” towns such as Chew Magna, Prittlewell, Little Rollright, Titsey, Woodstock Slop, and Nether Wallop. But often, it was the intriguing name of a town which inspired him to visit there.

Another thing that bothered Bryson was that too many British buildings offended the local landscape. He often found historical edifices being replaced by parking lots. He lamented, “You can’t tear down fine old structures and then pretend they are still there.” And Liverpool, which he was exceedingly fond of, seemed to him a “…place with more past than future.” Then, near the end of his trip, he audaciously names off “…the buildings I would love to blow up in Britain…”

Most of Bryson’s humor comes alive when he is disturbed by what he finds, or doesn’t find, or when he is mislead by travel maps and time schedules. But he does have some favourite places, such as Ludlow, Manchester, Morecambe, Inverness, Thurso, and Glasgow. Above all, he enjoyed his travel because, “…you’re seldom really alone out of doors in England.”

So, unlike those listed by Ben, Bryson is a foreigner who has lived here long enough to get an intimate outsider’s perspective on a country and people that inspire both great affection and infuriation.

Paul Theroux:
Thinking of Bill Bryson’s book on the UK immediately reminded me of a similar book written almost 20 year’s earlier, Paul Theroux’s, ‘Kingdom by the Sea’ (1983). Although Theroux is known for his travel writing, he has written an impressive number of novels, the most famous one being, perhaps, ‘The Mosquito Coast’. Like Bryson, Theroux was also born in the US and met his first wife in England where he lived for many years. Unlike Bryson, however, he has spent a lot of time living and working in other parts of the world besides the US and UK. Bryson, while referring to Theroux as ‘grumpy’ and ‘irascible’, mentions him as a great influence. From his official website, comes this description of ‘Kingdom by the Sea’:

After eleven years as an alien in London, Paul Theroux set out on a damp May day in 1982 to discover Britain by traveling round her entire coast. Being American was an advantage. He could write about the British as they could not write about themselves. He did not want to write about museums, castles and cathedrals. Nor did he want his journey to be a stunt; he would not set a time limit or restrict himself to one means of transport. He would simply take to the coast and keep to it. Mainly by train, but walking too, he would circumnavigate Britain. It was a natural itinerary. Britain’s coast defined her: ‘the coast belongs to everyone.’

Naturally talkative, Theroux discovered the candour as well as the secretiveness of the island’s people. Staying in bed and breakfasts and small hotels he found himself on the receiving end of confidences and strident opinions as well as British hospitality. He found unadulterated pleasures — sunlit strands, three-coach branch-line trains, an invitation to a crofter’s cottage for tea — and doubtful experiences — caravan-lined beaches, stony cities, a day at Butlins, and the terrors of Ulster which rule its hard-pressed people. ‘To be anonymous and traveling in an interesting place is an intoxication,’ he says, and from Weymouth, with its welcoming smell of fish and beer, to Cape Wrath, ‘a beautiful unknown place,’ he communicates that intoxication in a restless, vivid, opinionated series of eye-witness impressions.

So, here is another very talented American with a great love of Britain and who is able to comment on the place with an outsider’s perception that affords him a viewpoint that can be infuriatingly accurate and refreshingly different.

VS Naipaul:
In the early days, VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux were very great friends, Naipaul being constantly described as Theroux’s ‘mentor’. They met in Uganda and became the closest of friends, literary friends who were each other’s editors, confidants and teachers. The very acrimonious end to that friendship is covered in Theroux’s book, ‘Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ ( 1998).

VS Naipaul was born in Trinidad into a family of Indian Brahmin origin. His father, a newspaper correspondent and writer of published short stories and encouraged him to be a writer, telling him in a letter: “Don’t be scared of being an artist. D. H. Lawrence was an artist through and through; and, for the time being at any rate, you should think as Lawrence. Remember what he used to say, ‘Art for my sake.'” At the age of 18 he had written his first novel which was rejected by the publisher. He moved to England in 1950 to take up a scholarship at Oxford.

Naipaul’s writings deal with the cultural confusion of the Third World and the problems of an outsider, a feature of his own experience as an Indian in the West Indies, a West Indian in England, and a nomadic intellectual in a postcolonial world. Naipaul’s outspoken, unapologetic views on ‘half-made societies’ have led to much controversy for being so politically incorrect.

In his semi-autobiographical novel, ‘The Enigma of Arrival’ (1987), Naipaul depicts a writer of Caribbean origin, who finds joys of homecoming in England after wandering years – during which the world stopped being a colony for him. Central themes in Naipaul’s works are the damaging effects of colonialism upon the people of the Third World, and the feelings of exile and alienation experienced by immigrants in societies such as that in Britain.

Naipaul, a severe, arrogant figure with absolute mastery of the English language, is the sort of person who would make the perfect blogger to give an eloquent, intellectual portrayal of those British people that often feel excluded by their country and the majority of their countrymen.

He won the Nobel prize for Literature in 2001.

Julie Burchill:
Thinking of the acrimonious end to a great literary friendship reminded me of another great ‘literary battle’ albeit one of quite a different kind, the ‘fax wars’ between Julie Burchill and Camille Paglia in 1993. The first recorded fax war, dubbed by the press as ‘The Battle of the Bitches’, it still makes good reading.

But, long before that, Julie Burchill had shone strong and bright over British modern culture. Julie was born in Bristol in 1959, started out as a reporter on NME, married another hip young journalist and author, Tony Parsons, and, with Toby Young (someone she later fell out with), was a founding editor of The Modern Review. Along the way, she became a presence in British journalism that was impossible to ignore no matter whether you liked or despised her. Formerly the Queen of the Groucho Club, she now spends more time queening it over Brighton where she lives. More recently, she has been known for her weekly Guardian column (now sadly finished) and the play about her life, ‘Julie Burchill is Away’.

One of Britain’s most outspoken journalists, her bare-knuckle attitudes and reckless lifestyle have made her as reviled as she is successful. All very good reasons for her to make the perfect 7th guest blogger!

A few other names presented themselves too. For example, Ozzies long resident in Britain like Germaine Greer and Clive James would also probably make excellent guest bloggers again for their sharp intelligence and outsider’s perspective on Britain. But, I had to stop somewhere so have kept to the shortlist above.

Ok, so whom do we have to chose? Two male Americans who have spent a lot of time living in Britain and making a living out of observing Britons; a British Indian, originally from one of the ex-colonies who is now one of the greatest living masters of the English language, a man with an insider’s knowledge of exile and alienation within British society; and an Englishwoman who, over the past two decades, has become an acute observer of British society and culture.

I choose Julie Burchill!

And, I choose her because I think that she would be the perfect foil to Ben’s choices. She would be witty, clever, provocative and would leap in without hesitation. Also, being so much in tune with modern Britain, I think that her comments would, possibly, hit the mark more. It’s a pity that she isn’t one of the outsiders that made the other 3 so suitable but I still think she would be the best of the lot.

I wonder if she and Aunt Cyn are related?

Ben, I know that you asked for suggestions as a comment but you must know me by now – wordy, verbose and horribly convoluted. So, apologies for this diatribe but my fingers couldn’t resist it!

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