The Kingdom by the Sea

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First edition (publ. Houghton Mifflin)

The Kingdom by the Sea (1983) is a written account of a three-month-long journey taken by novelist Paul Theroux round the United Kingdom in the summer of 1982. Starting his journey in London, he takes a train to Margate on the English coast. He then travels roughly clockwise round the British coastline, mainly by train, getting as far north as Cape Wrath. He ends his journey in Southend. 1982 was the summer of the Falklands War and the year when Prince William was born.

Theroux's 1982 walk around the perimeter of Britain shows Thatcher's Britain at its low ebb with unemployment and run-down guest houses.

As usual, he avoids sight-seeing in the form of castles and museums, preferring chance to provide him with insightful encounters. In his leather jacket and oily hiking boots, Theroux marches over scrub and weeds, attempting to use branch-lines and green buses, amazed to find many services curtailed by the prevailing economy. Hoping to stick to a semi-continuous footpath around the coastline, he encounters fully clothed sunbathers and a woman who unexpectedly appears nude in his room whilst he is sleeping. Staying at down-at-heel boarding houses (three-quarters empty) he smells the bacon and beer while being treated by proprietors with a mixture of shyness and suspicion.

There are some memorable passages with the English sitting in cars and staring out to sea and an amusing scene where a thoughtless resident puts his smelly foot on Theroux's arm in the TV room.

In the background is the Falklands War with gloating headlines from the Sun newspaper announcing the sinking of the Belgrano: the Lucketts are off to wave plastic Union Jacks at a departing troopship where everyone says 'this Falklands business' instead of 'the war'.

Theroux meets skinheads, broken cliff paths, army firing ranges, nuclear power stations, the painter John Bratby, 'shallies' (beach huts for bathers) and a schoolboy who wants to change his 'ole fice'. In Butlins which 'had the feel of a concentration camp' and had 'a Jonestown image that combines the security and equality of prison with the vulgarity of an amusement park', Theroux watches the unemployed on holiday. There is bingo in the Regency Building and he later eats rook pie.

The title of the book is taken from the opening lines of the poem Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe: 'It was many and many a year ago/ In a kingdom by the sea,/ That a maiden there lived whom you may know/ By the name of Annabel Lee.'