About the Book

Title Page





Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

About the Author

Also by Bill Bryson



Bill Bryson



To Cynthia




I am deeply indebted to the following people for assisting me in various selfless ways during the preparation of this book: Peter and Joan Blacklock, Pam and Allen Kingsland, John and Nicky Price, David Cook and Alan Hume. To all of them, thank you.


MY FIRST SIGHT of England was on a foggy March night in 1973 when I arrived on the midnight ferry from Calais. For twenty minutes, the terminal area was aswarm with activity as cars and lorries poured forth, customs people did their duties, and everyone made for the London road. Then abruptly all was silence and I wandered through sleeping, low-lit streets threaded with fog, just like in a Bulldog Drummond movie. It was rather wonderful having an English town all to myself.

The only mildly dismaying thing was that all the hotels and guesthouses appeared to be shut up for the night. I walked as far as the rail station, thinking I’d catch a train to London, but the station, too, was dark and shuttered. I was standing wondering what to do when I noticed a grey light of television filling an upstairs window of a guesthouse across the road. Hooray, I thought, someone awake, and hastened across, planning humble apologies to the kindly owner for the lateness of my arrival and imagining a cheery conversation which included the line, ‘Oh, but I couldn’t possibly ask you to feed me at this hour. No, honestly – well, if you’re quite sure it’s no trouble, then perhaps just a roast beef sandwich and a large dill pickle with perhaps some potato salad and a bottle of beer.’ The front path was pitch dark and in my eagerness and unfamiliarity with British doorways, I tripped on a step, crashing face-first into the door and sending half a dozen empty milk bottles clattering. Almost immediately the upstairs window opened.

‘Who’s that?’ came a sharp voice.

I stepped back, rubbing my nose, and peered up at a silhouette with hair curlers. ‘Hello, I’m looking for a room,’ I said.

‘We’re shut.’

‘Oh.’ But what about my supper?

‘Try the Churchill. On the front.’

‘On the front of what?’ I asked, but the window was already banging closed.

The Churchill was sumptuous and well lit and appeared ready to receive visitors. Through a window I could see people in suits in a bar, looking elegant and suave, like characters from a Noel Coward play. I hesitated in the shadows, feeling like a street urchin. I was socially and sartorially ill-suited for such an establishment and anyway it was clearly beyond my meagre budget. Only the previous day, I had handed over an exceptionally plump wad of colourful francs to a beady-eyed Picardy hotelier in payment for one night in a lumpy bed and a plate of mysterious chasseur containing the bones of assorted small animals, much of which had to be secreted away in a large napkin in order not to appear impolite, and had determined thenceforth to be more cautious with expenditures. So I turned reluctantly from the Churchill’s beckoning warmth and trudged off into the darkness.

Further along Marine Parade stood a shelter, open to the elements but roofed, and I decided that this was as good as I was going to get. With my backpack for a pillow, I lay down and drew my jacket tight around me. The bench was slatted and hard and studded with big roundheaded bolts that made reclining in comfort an impossibility – doubtless their intention. I lay for a long time listening to the sea washing over the shingle below, and eventually dropped off to a long, cold night of mumbled dreams in which I found myself being pursued over Arctic ice floes by a beady-eyed Frenchman with a catapult, a bag of bolts, and an uncanny aim, who thwacked me repeatedly in the buttocks and legs for stealing a linen napkin full of seepy food and leaving it at the back of a dresser drawer of my hotel room. I awoke with a gasp about three, stiff all over and quivering from cold. The fog had gone. The air was now still and clear, and the sky was bright with stars. A beacon from the lighthouse at the far end of the breakwater swept endlessly over the sea. It was all most fetching, but I was far too cold to appreciate it. I dug shiveringly through my backpack and extracted every potentially warming item I could find – a flannel shirt, two sweaters, an extra pair of jeans. I used some woollen socks as mittens and put a pair of flannel boxer shorts on my head as a kind of desperate headwarmer, then sank heavily back onto the bench and waited patiently for death’s sweet kiss. Instead, I fell asleep.

I was awakened again by an abrupt bellow of foghorn, which nearly knocked me from my narrow perch, and sat up feeling wretched but fractionally less cold. The world was bathed in that milky pre-dawn light that seems to come from nowhere. Gulls wheeled and cried over the water. Beyond them, past the stone breakwater, a ferry, vast and well lit, slid regally out to sea. I sat there for some time, a young man with more on his mind than in it. Another booming moan from the ship’s foghorn passed over the water, re-exciting the irksome gulls. I took off my sock mittens and looked at my watch. It was 5.55 a.m. I looked at the receding ferry and wondered where anybody would be going at that hour. Where would I go at that hour? I picked up my backpack and shuffled off down the prom, to get some circulation going.

Near the Churchill, now itself peacefully sleeping, I came across an old guy walking a little dog. The dog was frantically trying to pee on every vertical surface and in consequence wasn’t so much walking as being dragged along on three legs.

The man nodded a good-morning as I drew level. ‘Might turn out nice,’ he announced, gazing hopefully at a sky that looked like a pile of wet towels. I asked him if there was a restaurant anywhere that might be open. He knew of a place not far away and directed me to it. ‘Best transport caff in Kent,’ he said.

‘Transport calf?’ I repeated uncertainly, and retreated a couple of paces as I’d noticed his dog was straining desperately to moisten my leg.

‘Very popular with the lorry drivers. They always know the best places, don’t they?’ He smiled amiably, then lowered his voice a fraction and leaned towards me as if about to share a confidence. ‘You might want to take them pants off your head before you go in.’

I clutched my head – ‘Oh!’ – and removed the forgotten boxer shorts with a blush. I tried to think of a succinct explanation, but the man was scanning the sky again.

‘Definitely brightening up,’ he decided, and dragged his dog off in search of new uprights. I watched them go, then turned and walked off down the promenade as it began to spit with rain.

* * *

The café was outstanding – lively and steamy and deliciously warm. I had a platter of eggs, beans, fried bread, bacon and sausage, with a side plate of bread and marge, and two cups of tea, all for 22p. Afterwards, feeling a new man, I emerged with a toothpick and a burp, and sauntered happily through the streets, watching Dover come to life. It must be said that Dover was not vastly improved by daylight, but I liked it. I liked its small scale and cosy air, and the way everyone said ‘Good-morning,’ and ‘Hello,’ and ‘Dreadful weather – but it might brighten up,’ to everyone else, and the sense that this was just one more in a very long series of fundamentally cheerful, well-ordered, pleasantly uneventful days. No-one in the whole of Dover would have any particular reason to remember 21 March 1973, except for me and a handful of children born that day and possibly one old guy with a dog who had encountered a young fellow with underpants on his head.

I didn’t know how early one could decently begin asking for a room in England, so I thought I would leave it till mid-morning. With time on my hands, I made a thorough search for a guesthouse that looked attractive and quiet, but friendly and not too expensive, and at the stroke of ten o’clock presented myself on the doorstep of the one I had carefully selected, taking care not to discompose the milk bottles. It was a small hotel that was really a guesthouse, indeed was really a boarding-house.

I don’t remember its name, but I well recall the proprietress, a formidable creature of late middle years called Mrs Smegma, who showed me to a room, then gave me a tour of the facilities and outlined the many complicated rules for residing there – when breakfast was served, how to turn on the heater for the bath, which hours of the day I would have to vacate the premises and during which brief period a bath was permitted (these seemed, oddly, to coincide), how much notice I should give if I intended to receive a phone call or remain out after 10 p.m., how to flush the loo and use the loo brush, which materials were permitted in the bedroom waste-basket and which had to be carefully conveyed to the outside dustbin, where and how to wipe my feet at each point of entry, how to operate the three-bar fire in my bedroom and when that would be permitted (essentially, during an Ice Age). This was all bewilderingly new to me. Where I came from, you got a room in a motel, spent ten hours making a lavish and possibly irredeemable mess of it, and left early the next morning. This was like joining the Army.

‘The minimum stay,’ Mrs Smegma went on, ‘is five nights at one pound a night, including full English breakfast.’

‘Five nights?’ I said in a small gasp. I’d only intended to stay the one. What on earth was I going to do with myself in Dover for five days?

Mrs Smegma arched an eyebrow. ‘Were you hoping to stay longer?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘No. As a matter of—’

‘Good, because we have a party of Scottish pensioners coming for the weekend and it would have been awkward. Actually, quite impossible.’ She surveyed me critically, as she might a carpet stain, and considered if there was anything else she could do to make my life wretched. There was. ‘I’m going out shortly, so may I ask that you vacate your room within quarter of an hour?’

I was confused again. ‘I’m sorry, you want me to leave? I’ve just got here.’

‘As per the house rules. You may return at four.’ She made to depart but then turned back. ‘Oh, and do be so good, would you, as to remove your counterpane each night. We’ve had some unfortunate occurrences with stains. If you do damage the counterpane, I will have to charge you. You do understand, of course?’

I nodded dumbly. And with that she was gone. I stood there, feeling lost and weary and far from home. I’d spent an hysterically uncomfortable night out of doors. My muscles ached, I was dented all over from sleeping on boltheads, and my skin was lightly oiled with the dirt and grit of two nations. I had sustained myself to this point with the thought that soon I would be immersed in a hot, soothing bath, followed by about fourteen hours of deep, peaceful, wallowing sleep, on plump pillows under a downy comforter.

As I stood there absorbing the realization that my nightmare, far from drawing to a close, was only just beginning, the door opened and Mrs Smegma was striding across the room to the strip light above the sink. She had shown me the correct method for turning it on – ‘There’s no need to yank it. A gentle tug is sufficient’ – and evidently remembered that she had left it burning. She turned it off now with what seemed to me a sharp yank, then gave me and the room a final suspicious once-over, and departed again.

When I was sure she was quite gone, I quietly locked the door, drew shut the curtains and had a pee in the sink. I dug a book from my backpack, then stood for a long minute by the door surveying the tidy, unfamiliar contents of my lonely room.

‘And just what the fuck is a counterpane?’ I wondered in a small, unhappy voice and quietly took my leave.

What a different place Britain was in the spring of 1973. The pound was worth $2.46. Average weekly take-home pay was £30.11. A packet of crisps was 5p, a soft drink 8p, lipstick 45p, chocolate biscuits 12p, an iron £4.50, an electric kettle £7, a black-and-white TV £60, a colour TV £300, a radio £16, the average meal out £1. A scheduled airline ticket from New York to London cost £87.45 in winter, £124.95 in summer. You could have eight days in Tenerife on a Cook’s Golden Wings Holiday for £65 or fifteen days from £93. I know all this because before this trip I looked up the issue of The Times for 20 March 1973, the day I arrived in Dover, and it contained a full-page advertisement from the Government outlining how much most of these things cost and how they would be affected by a zippy new tax called VAT, which was to be introduced a week or so later. The gist of the advert was that while some things would go up in price with VAT, some things would also go down. (Ha!) I also recollect from my own dwindling cerebral resources that it cost 4p to send a postcard to America by air, 13p for a pint of beer, and 30p for the first Penguin book I ever bought (Billy Liar). Decimalization had just passed its second anniversary, but people were still converting in their heads – ‘Good lord, that’s nearly six shillings!’ – and you had to know that a sixpence was really worth 2½p and that a guinea was £1.05.

A surprising number of headlines from that week could as easily appear today: ‘French air traffic controllers strike’, ‘White Paper calls for Ulster power sharing’, ‘Nuclear research laboratory to be closed’, ‘Storms disrupt rail services’ and that old standby of cricket reports, ‘England collapse’ (this time against Pakistan). But the most arresting thing about the headlines from that dimly remembered week in 1973 was how much industrial unrest there was about: ‘Strike threat at British Gas Corporation’, ‘2,000 Civil Servants strike’, ‘No London edition of Daily Mirror’, ‘10,000 laid off after Chrysler men walk out’, ‘Unions plan crippling action for May Day’, ‘12,000 pupils get day off as teachers strike’ – all this from a single week. This was to be the year of the Opec crisis and the effective toppling of the Heath Government (though there wouldn’t be a general election until the following February). Before the year was out, there would be petrol rationing and mile-long queues at garages all over the country. Inflation would spiral up to 28 per cent. There would be acute shortages of toilet paper, sugar, electricity and coal, among much else. Half the nation would be on strike and the rest would be on three-day weeks. People would shop for Christmas presents in department stores lit by candles and watch in dismay as their television screens went blank after News at Ten by order of the Government. It would be the year of the Sunningdale Agreement, the Summerland disaster on the Isle of Man, the controversy over Sikhs and motorcycle helmets, Martina Navratilova’s début at Wimbledon. It was the year that Britain entered the Common Market and – it scarcely seems credible now – went to war with Iceland over cod (albeit in a mercifully wimpy, put-down-those-whitefish-or-we-might-just-shoot-across-your-bow sort of way).

It would be, in short, one of the most extraordinary years in modern British history. Of course, I didn’t know this on that drizzly March morning in Dover. I didn’t know anything really, which is a strangely wonderful position to be in. Everything that lay before me was new and mysterious and exciting in a way you can’t imagine. England was full of words I’d never heard before – streaky bacon, short back and sides, Belisha beacon, serviettes, high tea, ice-cream cornet. I didn’t know how to pronounce ‘scone’ or ‘past’ or ‘Towcester’ or ‘Slough’. I had never heard of Tesco’s, Perthshire or Denbighshire, council houses, Morecambe and Wise, railway cuttings, Christmas crackers, bank holidays, seaside rock, milk floats, trunk calls, Scotch eggs, Morris Minors and Poppy Day. For all I knew, when a car had an L-plate on the back of it, it indicated that it was being driven by a leper. I didn’t have the faintest idea what GPO, LBW, GLC or OAP stood for. I was positively radiant with ignorance. The simplest transactions were a mystery to me. I saw a man in a newsagent’s ask for ‘twenty Number Six’ and receive cigarettes, and presumed for a long time afterwards that everything was ordered by number in a newsagent’s, like in a Chinese takeaway. I sat for half an hour in a pub before I realized that you had to fetch your own order, then tried the same thing in a tea-room and was told to sit down.

The tea-room lady called me love. All the shop ladies called me love and most of the men called me mate. I hadn’t been here twelve hours and already they loved me. And everyone ate the way I did. This was truly exciting. For years I’d been the despair of my mother because as a left-hander I politely declined to eat the American way – grasping the fork in your left hand to steady the food while cutting, then transferring it to your right hand to lift the food to your mouth. It all seemed ridiculously cumbersome, and here suddenly was a whole country that ate the way I did. And they drove on the left! This was paradise. Before the day was half over, I knew that this was where I wanted to be.

I spent a long day wandering aimlessly and happily along residential streets and shopping streets, eavesdropping on conversations at bus stops and street corners, looking with interest in the windows of greengrocers and butchers and fishmongers, reading fly-posters and planning applications, quietly absorbing. I climbed up to the castle to admire the view and watch the shuttling ferries, had a respectful look at the white cliffs and Old Town Gaol, and in the late afternoon on an impulse went to a movie, attracted by the prospect of warmth and by a poster depicting an array of scantily clad young ladies in seductive mood.

‘Circle or stalls?’ said the ticket lady.

‘No, Suburban Wife-Swap,’ I answered in a confused and furtive voice.

Inside, another new world opened for me. I saw my first cinema adverts, my first trailers presented in a British accent, my first British Board of Film Censors certificate (‘This movie has been passed as suitable for Adults by Lord Harlech, who enjoyed it very much’), and discovered, to my small delight, that smoking was permitted in British cinemas and to hell with the fire risks. The film itself provided a rich fund of social and lexical information, as well as the welcome opportunity to rest my steaming feet and see a lot of attractive young women disporting in the altogether. Among the many terms new to me were ‘dirty weekend’, ‘loo’, ‘complete pillock’, ‘au pair’, ‘semi-detached house’, ‘shirt-lifter’ and ‘swift shag against the cooker’, all of which have proved variously useful since. During the interval – another exciting new development for me – I had my first Kia-Ora, purchased from a monumentally bored young lady who had the remarkable ability to pull selected items from her illuminated tray and make change without ever removing her gaze from an imaginary spot in the middle distance. Afterwards I dined at a small Italian restaurant recommended by Pearl and Dean and returned contentedly to the guesthouse as night stole over Dover. It was altogether a thoroughly satisfying and illuminating day.

I’d intended to turn in early, but on the way to my room I noticed a door marked RESIDENT’S LOUNGE and put my head in. It was a large parlour, with easy chairs and a settee, all with starched antimacassars; a bookcase with a modest selection of jigsaw puzzles and paperback books; an occasional table with some well-thumbed magazines; and a large colour television. I switched on the TV and looked through the magazines while I waited for it to warm up. They were all women’s magazines, but they weren’t like the magazines my mother and sister read. The articles in my mother’s and sister’s magazines were always about sex and personal gratification. They had titles like ‘Eat Your Way to Multiple Orgasms’, ‘Office Sex – How to Get it’, ‘Tahiti: The Hot New Place for Sex’ and ‘Those Shrinking Rainforests – Are They Any Good for Sex?’ The British magazines addressed more modest aspirations. They had titles like ‘Knit Your Own Twinset’, ‘Money-Saving Button Offer’, ‘Make This Super Knitted Soap-Saver’ and ‘Summer’s Here – It’s Time for Mayonnaise!’

The programme that unfolded on the television was called Jason King. If you’re of a certain age and lacked a social life on Friday evenings in the early Seventies, you may recall that it involved a ridiculous rake in a poofy kaftan whom women unaccountably appeared to find alluring. I couldn’t decide whether to take hope from this or be depressed by it. The most remarkable thing about the programme was that, though I saw it only once more than twenty years ago, I have never lost the desire to work the fellow over with a baseball bat studded with nails.

Towards the end of the programme another resident came in, carrying a bowl of steaming water and a towel. He said, ‘Oh!’ in surprise when he saw me and took a seat by the window. He was thin and red-faced and filled the room with a smell of liniment. He looked like someone with unhealthy sexual ambitions, the sort of person your PE teacher warned that you would turn into if you masturbated too extravagantly (someone, in short, like your PE teacher). I couldn’t be sure, but I would almost have sworn that I had seen him buying a packet of fruit gums at Suburban Wife-Swap that afternoon. He looked stealthily at me, possibly thinking something along the same lines, then covered his head with the towel and lowered his face to the bowl, where it remained for much of the rest of the evening.

A few minutes later a bald-headed, middle-aged guy – a shoe salesman, I would have guessed – came in, said ‘Hullo!’ to me and ‘Evening, Richard,’ to the towelled head and took a seat beside me. Shortly after that we were joined by an older man with a walking-stick, a dicky leg and a gruff manner. He looked darkly at us all, nodded the most tinily precise of acknowledgements, and fell heavily into his seat, where he spent the next twenty minutes manoeuvring his leg this way and that, as if positioning a heavy piece of furniture. I gathered that these people were all long-term residents.

A sitcom came on called My Neighbour is a Darkie. I suppose that wasn’t its actual title, but that was the gist of it – that there was something richly comic in the notion of having black people living next door. It was full of lines like ‘Good lord, Gran, there’s a coloured chappie in your cupboard!’ and ‘Well, I couldn’t see him in the dark, could I?’ It was hopelessly moronic. The bald-headed guy beside me laughed until he was wiping tears from his eyes, and from under the towel there came occasional snorts of amusement, but the colonel, I noticed, never laughed. He simply stared at me, as if trying to remember what dark event from his past I was associated with. Every time I looked over, his eyes were fixed on me. It was unnerving.

A starburst briefly filled the screen, indicating an interval of adverts, which the bald-headed man used to quiz me in a friendly but confusingly disconnected way as to who I was and how I had fallen into their lives. He was delighted to find that I was American. ‘I’ve always wanted to see America,’ he said. ‘Tell me, do you have Woolworth’s there?’

‘Well, actually, Woolworth’s is American.’

‘You don’t say!’ he said. ‘Did you hear that, Colonel? Woolworth’s is American.’ The colonel seemed unmoved by this intelligence. ‘And what about cornflakes?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Do you have cornflakes in America?’

‘Well, actually, they’re American, too.’


I smiled weakly, and begged my legs to stand me up and take me out of there, but my lower body seemed oddly inert.

‘Fancy! So what brings you to Britain then if you have cornflakes already?’

I looked at him to see if the question was serious, then embarked reluctantly and falteringly on a brief résumé of my life to that point, but after a moment I realized that the programme had restarted and he wasn’t even pretending to listen, so I tailed off, and instead spent the whole of part two absorbing the heat of the colonel’s glare.

When the programme finished, I was about to hoist myself from the chair and bid this happy trio a warm adieu when the door opened and Mrs Smegma came in with a tray of tea things and a plate of biscuits of the sort that I believe are called teatime variety, and everyone stirred friskily to life, rubbing their hands keenly and saying, ‘Ooh, lovely.’ To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.

‘And how was World of Birds tonight, Colonel?’ asked Mrs Smegma as she handed the colonel a cup of tea and a biscuit.

‘Couldn’t say,’ said the colonel archly. ‘The television –’ he smacked me in the side of the head with a meaningful look ‘– was tuned to the other side.’ Mrs Smegma gave me a sharp look, too, in sympathy. I think they were sleeping together.

World of Birds is the colonel’s favourite,’ she said to me in a tone that went some distance past hate, and handed me a cup of tea with a hard whitish biscuit.

I mewed some pitiful apology.

‘It was puffins tonight,’ blurted the red-faced fellow, looking very pleased with himself.

Mrs Smegma stared at him for a moment as if surprised to find that he had the power of speech. ‘Puffins!’ she said and gave me a still more withering expression that asked how anyone could be so lacking in fundamental human decency. ‘The colonel adores puffins. Don’t you, Arthur?’ She was definitely sleeping with him.

‘I do rather,’ said the colonel, biting unhappily into a chocolate bourbon.

In shame, I sipped my tea and nibbled at my biscuit. I had never had tea with milk in it before or a biscuit of such rocklike cheerlessness. It tasted like something you would give a budgie to strengthen its beak. After a minute the bald-headed guy leaned close to me and in a confiding whisper said, ‘You mustn’t mind the colonel. He hasn’t been the same since he lost his leg.’

‘Well, I hope for his sake he soon finds it,’ I replied, hazarding a little sarcasm. The bald-headed guy guffawed at this and for one terrifying moment I thought he was going to share my little quip with the colonel and Mrs Smegma, but instead he thrust a meaty hand at me and introduced himself. I don’t remember his name now, but it was one of those names that only English people have – Colin Crapspray or Bertram Pantyshield or something similarly improbable. I gave a crooked smile, thinking he must be pulling my leg, and said, ‘You’re kidding.’

‘Not at all,’ he replied coldly. ‘Why, do you find it amusing?’

‘It’s just that it’s kind of … unusual.’

‘Well, you may think so,’ he said and turned his attention to the colonel and Mrs Smegma, and I realized that I was now, and would doubtless forever remain, friendless in Dover.

* * *

Over the next two days, Mrs Smegma persecuted me mercilessly, while the others, I suspected, scouted evidence for her. She reproached me for not turning the light off in my room when I went out, for not putting the lid down in the toilet when I’d finished, for taking the colonel’s hot water – I’d no idea he had his own until he started rattling the doorknob and making aggrieved noises in the corridor – for ordering the full English breakfast two days running and then leaving the fried tomato both times. ‘I see you’ve left the fried tomato again,’ she said on the second occasion. I didn’t know quite what to say to this as it was incontestably true, so I simply furrowed my brow and joined her in staring at the offending item. I had actually been wondering for two days what it was. ‘May I request,’ she said in a voice heavy with pain and years of irritation, ‘that in future if you don’t require a fried tomato with your breakfast that you would be good enough to tell me.’

Abashed, I watched her go. ‘I thought it was a blood clot!’ I wanted to yell after her, but of course I said nothing and merely skulked from the room to the triumphant beams of my fellow residents.

After that, I stayed out of the house as much as I could. I went to the library and looked up ‘counterpane’ in a dictionary so that I might at least escape censure on that score. (I was astonished to find out what it was; for three days I’d been fiddling with the window.) Within the house, I tried to remain silent and inconspicuous. I even turned over quietly in my creaking bed. But no matter how hard I tried, I seemed fated to annoy. On the third afternoon as I crept in Mrs Smegma confronted me in the hallway with an empty cigarette packet, and demanded to know if it was I who had thrust it in the privet hedge. I began to understand why innocent people sign extravagant confessions in police stations. That evening, I forgot to turn off the water heater after a quick and stealthy bath and compounded the error by leaving strands of hair in the plughole. The next morning came the final humiliation. Mrs Smegma marched me wordlessly to the toilet and showed me a little turd that had not flushed away. We agreed that I should leave after breakfast.

I caught a fast train to London, and had not been back to Dover since.



Chapter one

THERE ARE CERTAIN idiosyncratic notions that you quietly come to accept when you live for a long time in Britain. One is that British summers used to be longer and sunnier. Another is that the England football team shouldn’t have any trouble with Norway. A third is the idea that Britain is a big place. This last is easily the most intractable.

If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, ‘Well, now that’s a bit of a tall order,’ and then they’ll launch into a lively and protracted discussion of whether it’s better to take the A30 to Stockbridge and then the A303 to Ilchester or the A361 to Glastonbury via Shepton Mallet. Within minutes the conversation will plunge off into a level of detail that leaves you, as a foreigner, swivelling your head in quiet wonderment.

‘You know that layby outside Warminster, the one with the grit box with the broken handle?’ one of them will say. ‘You know, just past the turnoff for Little Puking but before the B6029 mini-roundabout. By the dead sycamore.’

At this point, you find you are the only person in the group not nodding vigorously.

‘Well, about a quarter of a mile past there, not the first left turning, but the second one, there’s a lane between two hedgerows – they’re mostly hawthorn but with a little hazel mixed in. Well, if you follow that road past the reservoir and under the railway bridge, and take a sharp right at the Buggered Ploughman –’

‘Nice little pub,’ somebody will interject – usually, for some reason, a guy in a bulky cardigan. ‘They do a decent pint of Old Toejam.’

‘– and follow the dirt track through the army firing range and round the back of the cement works, it drops down on to the B3689 Ram’s Dropping bypass. It saves a good three or four minutes and cuts out the rail crossing at Great Shagging.’

‘Unless, of course, you’re coming from Crewkerne,’ someone else will add eagerly. ‘Now, if you’re coming from Crewkerne …’

Give two or more men in a pub the names of any two places in Britain and they can happily fill hours. Wherever it is you want to go, the consensus is generally that it’s just about possible as long as you scrupulously avoid Okehampton, the Hanger Lane gyratory system, central Oxford and the Severn Bridge westbound between the hours of 3 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. on Mondays, except bank holidays when you shouldn’t go anywhere at all. ‘Me, I don’t even walk to the corner shop on bank holidays,’ some little guy on the margins will chirp up proudly, as if by staying at home in Staines he has for years cannily avoided a notorious bottleneck at Scotch Corner.

Eventually, when the intricacies of B-roads, contraflow blackspots and good places to get a bacon sandwich have been discussed so thoroughly that your ears have begun to seep blood, one member of the party will turn to you and idly ask over a sip of beer when you were thinking of setting off. When this happens, you must never answer truthfully and say, in that kind of dopey way of yours, ‘Oh, I don’t know, about ten, I suppose,’ because they’ll all be off again.

‘Ten o’clock?’ one of them will say and try to back his head off his shoulders. ‘As in ten o’clock a.m.?’ He’ll make a face like someone who’s taken a cricket ball in the scrotum but doesn’t want to appear wimpy because his girlfriend is watching. ‘Well, it’s entirely up to you, of course, but personally if I was planning to be in Cornwall by three o’clock tomorrow, I’d have left yesterday.’

Yesterday?’ someone else will say, chortling softly at this misplaced optimism. ‘I think you’re forgetting, Colin, that it’s half-term in North Wiltshire and West Somerset this week. It’ll be murder between Swindon and Warminster. No, you want to have left a week last Tuesday.’

‘And there’s the Great West Steam Rally at Little Dribbling this weekend,’ somebody from across the room will add, strolling over to join you because it’s always pleasant to bring bad motoring news. ‘There’ll be 375,000 cars all converging on the Little Chef roundabout at Upton Dupton. We once spent eleven days in a tailback there, and that was just to get out of the car park. No, you want to have left when you were still in your mother’s womb, or preferably while you were spermatozoa, and even then you won’t find a parking space beyond Bodmin.’

Once, when I was younger, I took all these alarming warnings to heart. I went home, reset the alarm clock, roused the family at four, to protests and general consternation, and had everyone bundled into the car and on the road by five. As a result, we were in Newquay in time for breakfast and had to wait around for seven hours before the holiday park would let us have one of their wretched chalets. And the worst of it was that I’d only agreed to go there because I thought the town was called Nookie and I wanted to stock up on postcards.

The fact is that the British have a totally private sense of distance. This is most visibly seen in the shared pretence that Britain is a lonely island in the middle of an empty green sea. Oh, yes, I know you are all aware, in an abstract sort of way, that there is a substantial landmass called Europe near by and that from time to time it is necessary to go over there to give old Jerry a drubbing or have a holiday on the Med, but it’s not near by in any meaningful sense in the way that, say, Disney World is. If your concept of world geography was shaped entirely by what you read in the papers and saw on television, you would have no choice but to conclude that America must be about where Ireland is, that France and Germany lie roughly alongside the Azores, that Australia occupies a hot zone somewhere in the region of the Middle East, and that pretty much all the other sovereign states are either mythical (viz., Burundi, El Salvador, Mongolia and Bhutan) or can only be reached by spaceship. Consider how much news space in Britain is devoted to marginal American figures like Oliver North, Lorena Bobbitt, and O.J. Simpson – a man who played a sport that most Britons don’t understand and then made commercials for rental cars and that was it – and compare that with all the news reported in any year from Scandinavia, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, Portugal and Spain. It’s crazy really. If there’s a political crisis in Italy or a nuclear spill in Karlsruhe, it gets maybe eight inches on an inside page. But if some woman in Shitkicker, West Virginia, cuts off her husband’s dick and flings it out the window in a fit of pique, it’s second lead on the 9 O’clock News and The Sunday Times is mobilizing the ‘Insight’ team. You figure it.

I can remember, after I had been living about a year in Bournemouth and bought my first car, fiddling with the car radio and being astounded at how many of the stations it picked up were in French, then looking at a map and being even more astounded to realize that I was closer to Cherbourg than I was to London. I mentioned this at work the next day and most of my colleagues refused to believe it. Even when I showed them on a map, they frowned doubtfully and said things like, ‘Well, yes, it may be closer in a strict physical sense,’ as if I were splitting hairs and that really a whole new concept of distance was required once you waded into the English Channel – and of course to that extent they were right. Even now, I am frequently dumbfounded to realize that you can get on an airplane in London and in less time than it takes to get the foil lid off the little container of UHT milk and its contents distributed all over yourself and the man next to you (and it’s amazing, isn’t it, how much milk one of those little tubs holds?), you’re in Paris or Brussels and everyone looks like Yves Montand or Jeanne Moreau.

I mention this because I was experiencing much the same sort of sense of wonderment as I stood on a dirty beach at Calais, on an unusually bright, clear autumn afternoon, staring at an outcrop on the horizon that was clearly and sunnily the White Cliffs of Dover. I knew, in a theoretical sort of way, that England was only a spit over 20 miles off, but I couldn’t quite believe that I could stand on a foreign beach and actually see it. I was so astonished, in fact, that I sought confirmation from a man trudging past in reflective mood.

‘Excusez-moi, monsieur,’ I enquired in my best French. ‘C’est Angleterre over there?’

He looked up from his thoughts to where I was pointing, gave a deeply gloomy nod as if to say, ‘Alas, yes,’ and trudged on.

‘Well, fancy,’ I murmured and went to see the town.

Calais is an interesting place that exists solely for the purpose of giving English people in shell suits somewhere to go for the day. Because it was heavily bombed in the war, it fell into the hands of post-war town planners and in consequence looks like something left over from a 1957 Exposition du Cément. An alarming number of structures in the centre, particularly around the cheerless Place d’Armes, seem to have been modelled on supermarket packaging, primarily packets of Jacob’s Cream Crackers. A few structures are even built across roads – always a sign of 1950s planners smitten with the novel possibilities of concrete. One of the main buildings in the centre, it almost goes without saying, is a Holiday Inn/cornflakes box.

But I didn’t mind. The sun was shining in a kindly Indian summer way and this was France and I was in that happy frame of mind that always comes with the start of a long trip and the giddy prospect of spending weeks and weeks doing nothing much and calling it work. My wife and I had recently taken the decision to move back to the States for a bit, to give the kids the chance of experiencing life in another country and my wife the chance to shop until 10 p.m. seven nights a week. I had recently read that 3.7 million Americans, according to a Gallup poll, believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, so it was clear that my people needed me. But I had insisted on having one last look at Britain – a kind of valedictory tour round the green and kindly island that had so long been my home. I had come to Calais because I wanted to re-enter England as I’d first seen it, from the sea. Tomorrow I would catch an early ferry and begin the serious business of investigating Britain, examining the nation’s public face and private parts, as it were, but today I was carefree and unattached. I had nothing to do but please myself.

I was disappointed to note that nobody on the streets of Calais looked like Yves Montand or Jeanne Moreau or even the delightful Philippe Noiret. This was because they were all Britons dressed in sportswear. They all looked as if they should have whistles around their necks and be carrying footballs. Instead, they were lugging heavy carrier-bags of clinking bottles and noisome cheeses and wondering why they had bought the cheese and what they were going to do with themselves until it was time to catch the four o’clock ferry home. You could hear them bickering in small, unhappy voices as they passed. ‘Sixty francs for a packet of bloody goat’s cheese? Well, she won’t thank you for that.’ They all looked as if they ached for a nice cup of tea and some real food. It occurred to me that you could make a small fortune with a hamburger stand. You could call it Burgers of Calais.

It must be said that apart from shopping and bickering quietly there isn’t a great deal to do in Calais. There’s the famous Rodin statue outside the Hotel de Ville and a single museum, the Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle (‘The Museum of Beautiful Art and of the Teeth’, if my French hasn’t abandoned me), but the museum was closed and the Hotel de Ville was a long slog – and anyway the Rodin statue is on every postcard. I ended up, like everyone else, nosing around the souvenir shops, of which Calais has a certain amplitude.

For reasons that I have never understood, the French have a particular genius when it comes to tacky religious keepsakes, and in a gloomy shop on a corner of the Place d’Armes, I found one I liked: a plastic model of the Virgin Mary standing with beckoning arms in a kind of grotto fashioned from seashells, miniature starfish, lacy sprigs of dried seaweed and a polished lobster claw. Glued to the back of the Madonna’s head was a halo made from a plastic curtain ring, and on the lobster claw the model’s gifted creator had painted an oddly festive-looking ‘Calais!’ in neat script. I hesitated because it cost a lot of money, but when the lady of the shop showed me that it also plugged in and lit up like a funfair ride at Margate, the only question in my mind was whether one would be enough.

C’est très jolie,’ she said in a kind of astonished hush when she realized that I was prepared to pay real money for it, and bustled off to get it wrapped and paid for before I came to my senses and cried, ‘Say, where am I? And what, pray, is this tacky piece of Franco-merde I see before me?’

C’est très jolie,’ she kept repeating soothingly, as if afraid of disturbing my wakeful slumber. I think it may have been some time since she had sold a Virgin-Mary-with-Seashells Occasional Light. In any case, as the shop door shut behind me, I distinctly heard a whoop of joy.

Afterwards, to celebrate, I called in for a coffee at a popular café on the rue de Gaston Papin et Autres Dignitaires Obscure. Indoors, Calais seemed much more agreeably Gallic. People greeted each other with two-cheeked kisses and wreathed themselves in blue smoke from Gauloises and Gitanes. An elegant woman in black across the room looked uncannily like Jeanne Moreau having a quick fag and a Pernod before playing a funeral scene in a movie called La Vie Drearieuse. I wrote a postcard home and enjoyed my coffee, then passed the hours before dusk waving in a friendly but futile way at the bustling waiter in the hope of coaxing him back to my table to settle my modest account.

I dined cheaply and astonishingly well at a little place across the road – there is this to be said for the French: they can make chips – drank two bottles of Stella Artois in a café where I was served by a Philippe Noiret lookalike in a slaughterhouse apron, and retired early to my modest hotel room, where I played with my seashell Madonna for a bit, then got into bed and passed the night listening to cars crashing in the street below.

In the morning, I breakfasted early, settled my bill with Gerard Depardieu – now there was a surprise – and stepped out to another promising day. Clutching an inadequate little map that came with my ferry ticket, I set off in search of the ferry terminus. On the map it looked to be quite near by, practically in the town centre, but in reality it was a good 2 miles away at the far end of a bewildering wasteland of oil refineries, derelict factories, and acres of wasteground strewn with old girders and piles of jagged concrete. I found myself squeezing through holes in chainlink fences and picking my way between rusting railway carriages with broken windows. I don’t know how other people get to the ferry at Calais, but I had the distinct feeling that no one had ever done it this way before. And all the while I walked I was uncomfortably aware – actually in a whimpering panic – that departure time was drawing nigh and that the ferry terminus, though always visible, never actually seemed to get any closer.

Eventually, after dodging across a dual carriageway and clambering up an embankment, I arrived breathless and late and looking like someone who’d just survived a mining disaster, and was hustled aboard a shuttle bus by an officious woman with a serious case of dysmenorrhoea. On the way, I took stock of my possessions and discovered with quiet dismay that my beloved and costly Madonna had lost her halo and was shedding seashells.

I boarded the ship perspiring freely and with a certain disquiet. I’m not a good sailor, I freely admit. I get sick on pedalos. Nor was I helped by the fact that this was one of those Ro-Ro ferries (short for roll on, roll over) and that I was entrusting my life to a company that had a significantly less than flawless record when it came to remembering to shut the bow doors, the nautical equivalent of forgetting to take off your shoes before getting into the bath.

The boat was chock-a-block with people, all of them English. I spent the first quarter of an hour wandering around wondering how they had got there without getting filthy, inserted myself briefly into the shell-suited mayhem that was the duty-free shop and as quickly found my way out again, strolled around the cafeteria with a tray looking at the food and then put the tray back (there was a queue for this), searched for a seat among hordes of dementedly lively children, and finally found my way out onto the breezy deck where 274 people with blue lips and dancing hair were trying to convince themselves that because the sun was shining they couldn’t possibly be cold. The wind whipped our anoraks with a sound like gunshot, scooted small children along the deck and, to everyone’s private gratification, tipped a styrofoam cup of tea onto a fat lady’s lap.

Before long, the White Cliffs of Dover rose from the sea and began creeping towards us and in no time at all, it seemed, we were sailing into Dover Harbour and clumsily nuzzling up to the dock. As a disembodied voice instructed foot passengers to assemble at the starboard egress point on Deck ZX-2 by the Sunshine Lounge – as if that meant anything to anybody – we all embarked on long, befuddled, highly individual explorations of the ship: up and down stairways, through the cafeteria and club-class lounge, in and out of storerooms, through a kitchen full of toiling lascars, back through the cafeteria from another angle, and finally – without knowing quite how – out into the welcoming, watery sunshine of England.

I was eager to see Dover again after all these years. I strode into the centre along Marine Parade and with a small cry of pleasure spied the shelter I’d slept in those many years ago. It was covered in about eleven more layers of bile-green paint but otherwise unchanged. The view out to sea was likewise unchanged, though the water was bluer and more glittery than when I’d last seen it. But everything else looked different. Where I recalled there being a row of elegant Georgian terraces there was now a vast and unbecoming brick apartment block. Townwall Street, the main through road to the west, was wider and more menacing with traffic than I remembered, and there was now a subway to the town centre, which itself was unrecognizable.