Saturday, April 12, 2008

England All Over, by Joseph Gallivan (2000)

This is one of my more random acquisitions, and just goes to show that you can make some judgment of a book based upon its cover. I found it in the discard bin at the Whangarei Public Library; unlike many such bins, the contents of this one were entirely free, so I spent very little time on the selection process. For this one, I thought "English travel book, free, cool" and picked it up without even looking inside.

It is actually a novel, and quite an interesting one and surprisingly funny (although I don't think any of the jokes are family friendly). Clive Pointing was a geography teacher who had an affair with one of his pupils. As a result, he was fired and has been cast down a bit by the difficulty in finding a job. He's living in a horrible sounding flat (the last occupant killed himself, but not before amassing a bunch of debts to some unsavoury characters) in Streatham, South London which is far from being one of its more salubrious or interesting suburbs. As the novel opens, he is waiting in a pub to be interviewed for a job as tour guide:
The way Clive saw it from his seat in the Shakespeare just outside Victoria it looked like a bit of a row. Thirty people stumbled from a coach which was illegally parked and had its hazards going. They spread across the pavement with shocked looks or scowls on their faces, as though they were emerging from a fart-filled lift. Several made a beeline for the nearest fast food. Six well-dressed women hurried into the pub, brushing past Clive on their way to the Ladies. After everyone was off the coach, a fair-haired, slightly pudgy young man in a red parka emerged with a clipboard. One of the ladies, tall with silver hair, a belted raincoat and a silk scarf, moved into his path and began fiercely asking him questions. At first the man hung his head, then looked away, then wrote on his clipboard. As he went to the luggage compartment he said something to her over his soldier. The lady followed, still talking, still castigating hiom. After thirty seconds he slammed the door shut and turned on her, talking very close to her face, his head bobbing. She shrank back in surprise, but when he paused, she started back at him again. Definitely telling him off.
This is Barry, a fellow born and bred in East London, a man who lives to drink and pull, generally from the female customers off his buses, although he has a circuit of pubs where women tend to congregate. He and Clive are chalk and cheese, really; Clive is off drinking altogether, so he can prove to the court he can be a fit father to his daughter. We see their differences most plainly in the way they do their tour guiding: Barry makes stuff up, both because he doesn't know much but also because he wants to be liked. Clive is far more knowledgeable, but his lectures, at least at first, turn the customers off. It takes him a fair while to get into the swing of using his storehouse of knowledge in a way that makes him a good tour guide, but he gets there.

For me, this was the most fascinating part of the book, reading his lectures cum commentary, as they were very educational, and quite inspired. I can imagine some readers being put off, in the same way that his customers were, both by the level of detail and the oddness of the things Clive saw as important. But the novel is a love story to these odd charms, the kind of England that the normal tourist outfit does not show tourists - they get a whip round "Bath Stone'enge and Windsor Castle ... all in one fucking day". Brittannia Tours is one of these firms, but it goes broke.

Clive has a bit of a revelation: things have got so bad that he throws himself off Blackfriars bridge to put an end to it all. Before he hits the water, he has already changed his mind, and luckily he survives. He spends several days making his way home, walking through London, seeing so much to recommend it, and taking the reader with him on his walking tour. He sleeps rough in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Instead of being robbed, he finds that every hundredth person drops a few coins at his feet and he wakes up to find that someone had given him a sandwich. I think this is my favourite chapter in the whole book - there's a glorification of the humble things about living in London:
The Greek scooped me out a triple hopper of pale golden chips and threw on a huge curling cod. I don't remember what it cost, other than to say it seemed a lot more than it used to, but as soon as I tasted it I knew it was the best meal I had ever tasted. I bit the chips in half, and watched their floury insides steaming, and the cod oozed hot fumes from under its bronze batter coat and warmed my lips. I stood in the street devouring them transported back to Folkestone... By the time I tasted the sticky inside of the batter and felt the vinegar fumes tickle my nostrils, I was ready to kiss the tarmac.
Then he has a pint, the first in more than a year, and is well set up for a comeback. I think the turning point is when he thinks back to the girl with whom he'd had an affair and basically thinks, bugger it, I'm not going to defend myself, I did it, it was wrong, and stupid because I lost everything,but I enjoyed it. Now he has a new plan - tour guiding, but of the real England, places off the map, such as the Fleet River, power stations, shopping malls, housing estates, slaughterhouses, ruined seaside towns (Blackpool gets some stick, but I enjoyed the notion of meta-tourism, taking tourists to see tourists tour), race tracks, old markets, other prehistoric sights, not just Stonehenge...

He gets the old crew together, hires a bus (with the lovely Rose at the wheel) and it is all go, they do well. Sure, they had a bit of a fluke with their first tour, to Princess Diana's home - their tickets are forgeries, they break in the back way, the boss is arrested, the press is all over the story and Albion Tours is on the map - but the customers seem to love the novelty of being taken to the odd places Clive arranges for them, and Albion makes a fortune taking passengers on day trips to a surprisingly dry Glastonbury Festival.

Apart from the development of the business, there are all sorts of side stories going on - such as Barry's dad's attempts to star in a documentary about cab drivers, Clive's ongoing problems with his ex, his relationship with his own family (and his mother's love for traditional English poetry) - and various nights out, most amusing being the night our narrator gets so drunk he can't remember, so over the next few chapters, bits of the night are narrated back to him by his companions. Its just like real life. But the major sub-story is, of course, Clive and Rose - I love the way they ride off into the sunset at the end, just the two of them in a flaming big tour bus. Completely appropriate. She is only in the second half of the novel, and every so often Clive ticks off the things that are one more step towards them being in love. They seem to find joint nirvana in a spare parts catalogue:
Clive explained how he loved all the things people filtered out, things that were just too common to care about, or too confusing to worry about. 'It's like the unspoken language of the landscape.' He felt he had gone a bit too far, so he added: 'Some of the names in there - we used to think they were so funny. Things like vice-jaw tools, banana plugs, caged nut-insertion tools, deep-throated g-cramps..."
'I know! L-shaped ball driver sets, clinchnut riveters, oblique-cut cutting nippers, fire-resistant sheaths...'
Fantastic! I only have one quibble. There is a lot of poetry in this novel, Clive seems to have a certain knowledge of English poetic history (can quote Blake, for example) yet he apparently does not know who Alexander Pope is, despite the fact that at times the novel seems to channel his spirit.



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