Essay / 18 August 2019

Solitudinous Tourist

Or Just a Posh Kind of a Loner?

It is August 2018, during a heatwave. You leave your hot home in an anxious and dejected mood. At the airport, while waiting at an overcrowded gate with no air conditioning, you overhear an attractive young Canadian woman talking to an Austrian guy. She is so full of a North American confidence and optimism and speaks such wonderful (intelligent, educated, lively) English that you immediately man up.

The escalators at Gatwick are higher and steeper than they would ever be back home. They were built with that seafarer's spirit that created the British Empire and is now effectuating Brexit. You ride those escalators with an explorer's and an adventurer's intrepid resolve that would do any Drake or Cook or Scott proud.

The train takes you into brownish-greyish, run-down, majestic London. For about twenty seconds it stops at Blackfriars Station, on a bridge across the Thames. The view — of the river, the Millennium Bridge, Tower Bridge, Saint Paul's Cathedral, the skyscrapers — overwhelms you.

You are changing trains at King's Cross. At the Pret, Madalina — her bosom adorned by a name tag — is shockingly friendly. Is she just being professional, American style? Her name makes her Romanian, though, and the cabin crew on the Easyjet flight, representatives of the English servant class, had quite different, un-Americanized ways. Where you live, such excessive friendliness as Madalina's would send a personal message. You decide, however, that you are experiencing culture shock. Madalina is behaving in accordance with local customs, whereas you are used to the Larkinesque grumpiness that is the default mood back home.

The first class is at the beginning of the platform, but you are standard. Not having made a reservation, you are lucky to find an empty seat in the quiet coach. A blonde, about thirty and good-looking, types away on her laptop. From time to time she noisily notifies a young couple, about twenty and talking to each other under their voices, that this is the quiet coach.

“We will shortly be arriving into Doncaster,” comes the train driver's or guard's voice. Instead of at Doncaster, as the pre-recorded announcements go, he says into. And he pronounces the Don in Doncaster to rhyme with groan rather than the standard don as in don and doff. You think of Joseph Brodsky's Great Elegy to John Donne, in the Russian original of which Donne is pronounced don, rather than done; the whole poem hinges on the echoic on-on of John-Donne, with the on-on of Lon-don an echo of the echo.

The Doncaster-to-Scarborough train has only two coaches. A man is doing business on the phone. He sounds like a loan shark, explaining how they would have to take away his interlocutor's business and how they would really hate to do that, but is probably just a regular bank employee. Several other men are engaging in, by the standards of where you are from, aggressive and overly profit-oriented conversations, either with each other or on their phones. Is this the famous Protestant work ethic? Or is it because the North of England is an economically troubled region? Or did these men leave their offices early to get home to their families and have taken some work with them on the train?

Their words mingle in your mind with those of Philip Larkin. When you get to the Humber Bridge, you try to remember some verses from his poem about it. You can only come up with the last line, “Always it is by bridges that we live,”which you find unconvincing. Most of the time you think about Larkin's poem Here, the first stanza of which deals with a train ride to Hull. The second stanza introduces “the surprise of a large town”, but neither does the emergence of Hull outside your train window surprise you any more than that of any other human settlement ever has nor do you find the town particularly large. You do think you can feel the end-of-the-line sense of freedom which Larkin ascribed to Hull as you alight from the train, although it travels on, without you, to Scarborough.

On the concourse of Hull Paragon Interchange, a statue of Philip Larkin has been erected, right next to the entrance to the Royal Station Hotel, setting of his poem Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel. Only that it is not called the Royal Station Hotel anymore but the Royal Hotel. You know from the Larkin Trail website that “it began its life as the Station Hotel, but was allowed to change its name to the Royal Station Hotel following Queen Victoria's stay here”. The progression from Station Hotel to Royal Station Hotel to Royal Hotel seems propitious, like an ascent from the working class to the middle class to the upper class. You reflect on the three Rs of reactionary British politics: Racism, Religion, and Royalism. But that is another essay.

Even though the hotel burnt down in 1990 and has been refurbished, you immediately recognize Larkin's lounge as you carry your trolley through it towards the reception desk. When you ask for a plug adaptor, the receptionist thinks you are American. They have adaptors for shavers only and refer you to the nearby Tesco for a general one so you can charge your iPhone.

A tourist is a purposeless being, and now that you have an errand to run you do not feel like a tourist anymore. And when, after lengthy enquiries and negotiations, it turns out that the Tesco, which strikes you as quite early 1990s East European in its shabby vastness, has (a) sold out of Euro adaptors, does (b) not carry them anymore, and could (c) not care less about your need of one, you think you have a story that might nicely wrap up Brexit Britain's attitudes and atmosphere. But when you're buying some water and biscuits at a tiny Sainsbury's later in the evening, you find a plenitude of Euro adaptors there, prominently placed next to the cash desk in guilt lane. So you have no story.

You drink a pint of Tetley's in Larkin's royal lounge. The place would be perfect if it were not for the crowd of elderly Englishpeople in their cups. Once a gentleman even belches. While you have often bemoaned how civilization allows manners to usurp the place of reason, you find a lack of fundamental good manners even worse than the good manners that they so celebrate in England. You retire to your room, which despite being located in a railway station is perfectly quiet even with the window open, and make yourself a cup of Tetley's tea. You admit that this is not much of a story either.

You follow the Larkin Trail around Hull and check out some museums. A room in the Maritime Museum, housed in a splendid Christopher Wren building, fascinates you. It is devoted to the Hull ferry which was requisitioned as a troopship for the Falklands War. You were eleven when it happened but you have clear memories of siding with the British. You feel great admiration for the ferrymen who went to war against the Argentine aggressors to free the British-descended population of the islands. But that is another story.

You walk from Paragon Interchange to Pearson Park, 1.3 miles according to Google Maps, which shows you distances in miles rather than in kilometres. The British mind is divided between imperial, English measurements (associated with past glory and the monarchy, favoured by conservatives and the old) and metric, foreign measurements (associated with the French Revolution and the downfall of the British Empire, favoured by progressives and the young). In your opinion, nothing illustrates the history and the psychology behind Brexit better than this dichotomy of measurements. But that is another essay.

You hardly ever see any runners or joggers in Hull. Most people seem to be chubby. Has the body cult not reached the town yet? There are many obese people in the streets. Those too fat to walk drive around in electrically powered wheelchair-like vehicles, smoking cigarettes. The tough, beer-nourished, fat and muscular middle-aged Englishman is a common sight, but not as common as the thin young rough-sleeping drug-wrecked Englishman. You see many very young mothers, often with several children. Some mothers berate their offspring very aggressively. What really shocks you, just like it did more than thirty years ago when you first visited England, is that some parents walk their kids on a leash. You think that this is not just a feature of an alien civilization that you should shruggingly, chucklingly accept, but plain barbarianism. And you suspect that only the lower ranks of society practise this habit. The ruling classes hardly notice in their stately homes and fancy cars, just like you hardly ever see them.

You gaze up to the hautes fenêtre sat 32 Pearson Park, behind which Larkin lived from 1956 to 1974. He wrote practically all his best poetry there, including the two volumes The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows; it would be no more than a slight exaggeration to say that everything he wrote before this period were his juvenilia and everything produced after it were his senilia. He thought that a writer could only have one language and that his poems worked only in English; Hautes Fenêtres, that would be ridiculous, he once said, gesturing at the windows of his attic flat overlooking Pearson Park. You find the park nice and atmospheric but rather small. And you wonder whether it was already frequented by such a large number of young men who seem to be up to no good in Larkin's time.

Having checked out the university, where Larkin was a librarian for thirty years, and Newland Park, where he lived during the final decade of his life, you are done with Hull for the day. You catch a train to Beverley. The minster is beautiful and of almost Italian richesse. You get that Mediterranean feeling you had in the morning when you were sitting under the statue of Andrew Marvel in Trinity Square in Hull. There are traces of ongoing Christian life too: free tea and coffee (which you do not take of course), free wifi (which you do use for the online guide to the minster), paintings by parish children. Memorial plates for organists and the war dead have their latest entries from the immediate past. It is only when the vicar or sacristan (you are a foreigner and cannot be sure) locks the church that you understand that you were not supposed to be in here at this hour at all. You check out the pub where Larkin and Maeve Brennan, his on-and-off bit on the side to Monica Jones, became close on their bicycle trips. You walk to the Westwood but find it too windy to read the newspaper. When you walk back to the station just after six o'clock, all the shops have been closed and the centre of town is completely deserted, like in the good old days before 24/7 capitalism.

One of the highlights of your visit to Hull is going to be a bicycle trip to Spurn Head, the remote peninsular sandspit at the mouth of the Humber where Larkin used to pedal at weekends. His poem Church Going reflects this experience, and Here ends with “unfenced existence” found there.

The internet has shown you a number of places in Hull that hire out bicycles. There is a Cycle Hub in the station building, right next to your hotel. It is closed and you cannot see any bicycles. You ask an elderly gentleman, who is volunteering outside the tourist information booth, where you can hire a bike. He approves of your plan to go to Spurn (he makes it clear that he prefers to call it just and properly Spurn, not Spurn Point or Spurn Head, but that he can easily tolerate those usages) and you suspect that when you mention that the place is twenty-five miles away he approves of you as a person too. With the insistent linguistic precision of a retired English master he gives you directions to Hull's one specialist bicycle shop, whilst not neglecting to outline the history of that family business. They are probably the only ones who still rent out bikes.

When you get there, the young athletic guy who has just opened the shop tells you that they do not hire them out. You suggest you could buy one and sell it back to them in the evening, but he does not take your proposal seriously; the bikes are obviously too upmarket and mamilly for such a deal. He is, however, perfectly friendly and handwrites you detailed instructions for a place at the university which he is confident hires out bikes. He even checks their opening hours on the internet. You do not let on that you have done that yourself already.

There is another bike shop on the way to the university. You make sure you get there just after it has opened. A man who makes a somewhat unwashed and hungover impression is sweeping the pavement outside the shop. His bikes are humbler than those in the other shop but he does not even make an effort to be polite with you. And of course he does not hire out any bicycles.

Hours later, when the Hull University Bike Hub is supposed to open, you find a handwritten note on its door. It says that the hub is closed today. There is a telephone number too, but it is too late in the day for any negotiations or delays, so you do not call it. You decide to catch a train to Scarborough tomorrow, where you know there is a bike rental next to the railway station, and to cycle the twenty-five miles along the coast to Whitby.

You hang out in Pearson Park, then walk to the centre of town, where you check out the Waterstones. You have not noticed any so-called independent bookshops, which are in fact the bookshop precariat. Many of the items in the Waterstones, you concede, deserve to be called books, and there is a spacious and comfortable café. The almost complete absence of philosophy from the shelves of this shop goes without saying, philosophy having long been replaced by journalism and academic writing, not to speak of spirituality, divinity, and like bogus, throughout the Anglosphere.

An older guy is chatting up the girl at the cash desk, who is about a third his age. He confesses his love of books to her. She retorts that she does not like the posh ones. He admits that he is a little posh himself but is quick to add that he has a friend who is much posher than him and married to a working-class girl. You move out of earshot.

You buy James Booth's biography of Philip Larkin. The cashier (another shopgirl) gives you a disapproving look. Too posh? Too reactionary? Or just too old-fashioned? You imagine that Larkin and his disciples (if there are any) cannot be very popular with the corporate bookshop girls of Hull.

In your hotel, and on your way to Scarborough the next day, you read the first couple of chapters of Booth's biography. You gain some new insights into Larkin's social life in Hull. You find it ridiculous how the author stresses at her every mention that Maeve Brennan was a Catholic. Had she been a Martian or a mule, he could not have been more astounded.

Only a cat is present at the “bicycle hire” in Scarborough, a garage in a backyard off Victoria Road. After a while, a friendly young lad emerges from under a car and instructs you to wait for the boss. Then he gets word from the boss that there are no bikes. He gives you directions to Dexter's, on the beach, where he knows you can hire a bike.

When you get there, it is immediately obvious that Dexter's is a surf shop and as such does not hire out bicycles. Nevertheless, you inform the barefooted surf shop girl that you are looking for a bike rental, and does she know of one round here. Neither she nor her boss knows of one. So you thank them and walk on north on the Promenade.

At the edge of town you ascend the cliffs and follow the footpath. You rarely meet any people, and when you do (in the space of some hours a struggling old jogger, a lone hiker, a family of five, and a man walking a big dog who you suspect might be a member of the ruling classes) you exchange greetings with them. You have not brought any water with you because you had been planning to ride a bicycle and buy some on your way. How can it be that in, say, Copenhagen, every other shop is a bicycle rental to the point that one can only conclude they are really money laundering joints, whereas in the spitefully named East Riding of Yorkshire there seems to be not a single one? Denmark and Holland have so much in common with England (the mix of monarchy and democracy, Protestantism, post-imperialism), so why not the attitude towards cycling? Is it because Yorkshire is poorer? Or because its cycle routes do not attract enough tourists? Or because the English must demonstrate, to themselves and to each other, that they can afford a car? Or are they driving their cars like they wore those climatically inappropriate uniforms during their imperial wars?

Fields and hills and clouds to your left and the sounding sea below you to the right, you walk on. Not too far away from Ravenscar you climb down the cliffs, walk along the beach for a bit, and find some sheltered rocks to sit on. Who needs bicycles? Who needs Larkin? You listen to the sea, take in the air, read the newspaper. Your thoughts flow freely. You have found unfenced existence.

Is solitude a prerequisite of unfenced existence? In Ovid and elsewhere, the Golden Age knows no fences. But you do not believe in a Golden Age or a Fall of Man. You think that fences are not the worst way to manage the bellum omnium contra omnes. In solitude, on the fringes of civilization, one can unfence.

Or is solitude just a posh kind of loneliness? Larkin uses the two dactyls indiscriminately, his choice depending on the phonetic environment rather than on the two terms' semantics. The bookshop girl does not like the posh books because she cannot enjoy them. One must read a lot of mediocre, pretentious, and boring books to appreciate the really good ones. And in order to experience solitude, one must go through a good deal of loneliness.

And is a traveller just a posh kind of tourist? Or are the brave and the clever always travellers, while the unthinking herd will never rise above tourist status? You have not even been able to get yourself a bicycle, so you are clearly a tourist. But one needs to be a tourist most of the time if one wants to be a traveller sometimes.

Thirty years ago you read Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac. You thought it would be great to be a lonesome traveller yourself but have usually found it more pleasureful to travel with a girlfriend or even with a group of friends. Here on the beach between Scarborough and Ravenscar you are a solitudinous tourist. But it is time to go. You are thirsty and you need to catch the train back to Hull.


Kurt Leutgeb

was born in Upper Austria in 1970. He is the author of eight books, the latest of which, Humana fraus (2015), tells two versions of a story from Titus Livius. He lives in Vienna.