An English Journey by Richard West (Chatto and Windus. £8.50).
MY HEART sank when I saw the title of this book because, to my shame, I have to admit that the geography of England is an unfathomed and, still worse, unenticing mystery to me. , Once across the Channel, I devour maps with unfailing relish and even acquire a sense of direction and an interest in architecture but in this country I am a metropolitan mole, burrowing under the streets in the murky security of the London Underground system, unable to imagine a world beyond Ongar still less the bizarre tribal customs of thither Welwyn Garden City.
Fortunately Mr West is tolerant of such recalcitrant ignorance and makes no attempt to force feed geographical fact to the uneasy. He does not say "chalk escarpment" once. Instead he leads his readers on a strange mixture of a tour, part Thomas Cook. part Pied Piper, through the last 25 years of English social history.
Manchester of the past — ugly, smokey and bustling — lies at the heart of Mr West's England. He cannot bring himself to speak kindly of the cleaner but uglier cadaver which is now the modern city. He prefers the old problems of smog, poverty, Engels and Irish immigrants to the brave new world of football hooligans and high rise tower blocks.
Redevelopment in any part of the country is regarded with suspicion — only in Oldham is it hailed for having brought back the dawn chorus.
It contributes to the general air of bleak misery which lays Mr. West low in Liverpool. Even the cathedrals depress him — the Anglican one is beautiful and lifeless, the Catholic one, unbeautiful and rather creepy.
Mr West is not too cheered by ecumenism. which is sad, but he is to be commended for realising that the Dark Ages were really quite bright — not that obscurity is a reliable buffer against the twentieth century.
The tombstones left by the holy Irish men of the eighth century who attempted to tame the heathens in Heysham now sport the initials "JR" recently inscribed by a devotee of a new pagan ideology.
In any battle between David and Goliath, Mr West always volunteers to act as second for the shorter combatant — thus in Windermere he champions Wordsworth against Ken Russell, and James Gibson. blacksmith, against British Rail, a £3 million supermarket and the forces of hell.
He ventures into Geordieland and sniffs disapprovingly at its self-pitying inhabitantism, dissects local government corruption, NUJ politics and courageously admits to partial responsibility for Michael Parkinson.
At Ely, he defends the reputation of Queen Etheldreda, patriot and saint. He reveals that the learned Canon Bartlett, now parish priest of St Anselm and Cecilia's in Holborn is one of the very few men now living who have actually held her hand.
After raging against the speculators and bureaucrats of the great cities the fen country settles like balm on Mr West's Soul. Apparently it is a land of contentment where only the vegetables are afflicted by stress.
The cleanliness of Kings Lynn is disrupted by badly brought up pigeons. In the space of twelve months they contributed eight and a half tons of unwanted manure to the ailing West Tower of St Margaret's. Some of them added insult to injury by dying under the eaves thus wrecking the guttering.
London is skated over without affection and Winchester is darkened by rumblings about marijuana. Mr West observes that Salisbury, Zimbabwe, is drunker than Salisbury, Wiltshire — a piece of information which is bound to come in handy one day.
Before completing his circuit of the country Mr West pays a euphoric visit to Lichfield, one place at least which has withstood the rigours of time, planners and local government.
The bus drivers are polite and the children in the cathedral are picturesque. Fortified Mr West turns his face once more to Manchester and concludes with a quotation from Chesterton which is a very apt way of ending any book.
The main delight of this book is not what the reader learns about the subject but about the author. Mr West is marvellously irascible and sometimes sensible. He does not love the National Theatre, nor Spaghetti Junction, nor the closed shop, nor yet life peers.
Property speculators, quangoes, mixed colleges at Cambridge. test tube babies, town planners, the Sunday Times building, social workers, trendy clerics and Michael Foot clearly bring him out in spots.
He believes women of their nature enjoy sewing (not true). He seems to see himself as a lone warrior hemmed in by a screaming hedge of malevolent initials EEC, BPAS, BR, IRA and VAT are all sworn enemies.
He also holds the quaint but unassailably logical notion that a nation which approves of infanticide is not as far removed from Nazism as it would like to think.
Few fruits of the eighties make Mr West smile. The gloom of modern life is pierced only by the restoration of York Minster, the Campaign for Real Ale, the abolition of hanging and the scribblings of his chums on Private Eye and the Spectator he did not mention the Catholic Herald but then one takes that for granted.
An English Journey is an unashamed exercise in opinion and nostalgia. It is a quirky delight.