Where we live helps to frame our identity – it is not the only factor, but it is a significant influence on our language, our culture, our character. Two new books about the coastal culture of the British Isles look at place in distinctly divergent ways: one from the inside, and one from the outside. This echoes Raymond Carver’s dictum that there are only two kinds of story: ‘a man goes on a journey’; and ‘a stranger comes to town’. The former foregrounds the outsider’s perspective. Everything that is experienced is unfamiliar (The Odyssey is the classic example) and here in Coast of Teeth the ‘outsider’ perspective is provided by the American illustrator, but also by the ‘Martian’ approach of its narrator, who looks at his native Britain in a pseudo-anthropological way, with a certain wry estrangement. In the latter of Carver’s examples, the perspective is local – and in The Granite Kingdom the native narrator deconstructs the many stereotypes and clichés that have accreted around the Cornish peninsula. Both approaches have value, as these books exemplify.
Tim Hannigan is an experienced travel-writer who has, until his two most recent titles, specialised in South-East Asia. With The Granite Kingdom: A Cornish Journey (which takes its title from a Charles Causley poem) Hannigan focuses his gaze on the place of his birth and upbringing. As lockdown eases, he undertakes a journey on foot to explore his homeland, making his way northwards up the Tamar (the traditional demarcation of Cornwall), eschewing the common starting point for travel-writing about his homeland, writing that often succumbs to romanticisation, exoticisation, prejudice, and sometimes just plain fabulation. He then jinks his way down the narrowing peninsula, back towards his native Penwith. Along the way he interrogates every cliché, trope, and stereotype that has been perpetuated by purveyors of Cornishness, from the earliest travelogues to holiday brochures, big budget movies, and even by the Cornish themselves to generate income. His scrutiny is merciless, his scholarship impeccable, but his tone is always down-to-earth, self-aware, and infused with a dry Kernowan wit.
Hannigan’s progress is brought to life with vivid vignettes of his walk – arresting, embodied flashes of qualia, of sensory detail and lived experience that keep his travel-narrative grounded, situated and authentic. This book is indubitably the fruit of immersive, experiential research: Hannigan’s visit to the former home of ‘Cornish Poet’ Charles Causley, in Launceston, reveals that the house actually, tellingly, faces Devon. Hannigan’s ground-level, on-foot journey gives him the opportunity to have chance encounters with fellow itinerants including ‘a young man from Bristol’ who quit his job and decided to start walking around Britain until his money ran out. Another time, Hannigan has a knowing conversation with a fellow Cornishman about the ‘grockles’ (visitors) only to realise afterwards that he must have looked like one, dressed as a hiker. His chapter on ‘wrecking’ – the scavenging of the flotsam and jetsam from shipwrecks – punctiliously deconstructs the mythos that has built up around it and adds a unique personal anecdote about such an experience. Time and time again, Hannigan grounds the generic in the particular, in a bedrock of historical and contemporary actuality.
Hannigan also honestly exposes his own fallibility, fault-lines, and emergent process as the journey progresses, showing how his own positionality influences everything he perceives and how he records it; and how morphology informs methodology – how different sections of the walk coalesce into different chapters. Making notes as he goes, he comments: ‘I was making the walk into its own rough draft, and by the time I was back at my desk the plan had a very solid form. I knew exactly which subject I would place against which block of geography, and I knew just which sections of the journey would be recounted in which chapter.’
As others’ writing informs his walk – the historians, storytellers, travel-writers, and commentators – so too does Hannigan’s writing both shape and is shaped by the itinerary. The landscape and its palimpsest of narratives is evoked and added to in a continual reciprocal process. A formative childhood influence – a promotional video, The West Cornwall Experience, which portrayed the landscape on his doorstep in an alluring touristic way – helped frame Hannigan’s perception of his own corner of Penwith, but also sets the tone for his career as a travel-writer who both comments on a place, and the way it is framed by others.
Ultimately, Hannigan’s 21st century account of Cornwall both challenges and deepens the reader’s appreciation of the county, which sometimes feels like its own country. As Hannigan points out, it was for a long time effectively ‘the last kingdom’ before it became assimilated into the nation-building project of Alfred the Great.
While celebrating the remarkable history, landscape, language, and people of Cornwall, The Granite Kingdom, never becomes a nationalist narrative. And what makes it stand out from a run-of-the-mill account of Cornish psychogeography are the astonishing ‘deep dives’ into subjects often overlooked by lesser travel-writers, such as the thorough section on Cornwall’s geology. With Hannigan, someone who has intensively studied the travel writing tradition, it is never merely a ‘walk in the park’. Ever conscious of the various discourses of his endeavour, his status, and his chosen form, he deftly negotiates the tripwires. It leaves the reader with a sense of seeing Cornwall in a new light, however well one thinks one knows it. By writing about his country of birth from the inside, Hannigan brings a poignant, situated perspective that navigates the perilous pitshafts of the territory.
Coast of Teeth is a very different kind of travel book, both visually and in terms of its scope. In it, travel writer Tom Sykes and illustrator Louis Netter travel around a post-Brexit and post-pandemic Britain, visiting a cross-section of seaside towns. No more than seventy miles from the sea, England has 2,748 miles of coastline – the 30th longest in the world – and hundreds of towns and villages in the west, south, east, southeast, and north. The itinerary was ‘not entirely rational either’, being limited and influenced by time and budget. The choice is as idiosyncratic as the authors and their approach. Sykes and Netter adopt a rather gonzo-ish methodology, imbibing a sample of what the locals imbibe, which is usually bibulous, immersing themselves in the often gauche ambience and bonhomie of it all. Sykes’ hyper-kinetic, densely detailed prose and Netters riotous celebration of the grotesque evokes the aesthetic of Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman, creating an English equivalent – ‘Fear and Loathing in Lyme Regis’ perhaps.
And yet this is not just a picaresque account of men behaving badly. It offers an unflinching charting of the worst and best aspects of English culture, not shying away from the casual racism, sexism, alcoholism, poverty, thuggishness, and squalid decrepitude of a former Empire firmly in its geriatric dotage; while at the same time celebrating the salt of the earth people, moments of kindness, and community spirit. Sykes avoids what could have so easily become a poverty safari – ‘often the angle taken by metro media types who condescend to hazard this far up from the Watford Gap’ – by charting the lives of ordinary people in a warm-hearted way. During their visit to Blackpool, which proves to be something of a peak experience, and not because of the faux-Eiffel Blackpool Tower, but beneath in the glitzy ‘Strictly’ ballroom, Sykes observes: ‘We get a strong sense of a community caring about its vulnerable members, with the elderly, lonely and possibly dementia-troubled clearly stimulated by the music and the moving about.’ Alongside a refreshingly original celebration of predominantly white working-class culture and their habitats – an ‘ugly beauty’ often airbrushed out of the tourist brochures, middle class novels, and eye-candy TV shows and films promoting the nostalgism of ‘Heritage Britain’ – Coast of Teeth employs a redemptive correlative that avoids the whitewashing of England’s coastal communities.
In the account of the visit to Boscombe, which, on the social spectrum, stands at the antipodes to the ultra-affluent Sandbanks nearby, ‘The locally peculiar rubs shoulders with the multinational.’ The multicultural quality and tolerance of some seaside towns is acknowledged, while at the same time the ‘golly’ dolls and other unpleasant aspects of coastal culture are not airbrushed away. Like an episode of Inside No. 9 (Pemberton and Shearsmith’s dark anthology series), Coast of Teeth does not turn away from the shadow side of British life – indeed it revels in it, while not condoning it. Yet, this is no mere charting of political incorrectness and the hardships of post-austerity, post-EU, and post-Covid Broken Britain.
Sykes emphasises: ‘In addition to reporting on these gritty realities, we’ve tried to understand how the English littoral is perceived and imagined.’ In many ways it is like Georgina Boyes’ ‘imagined village’, a cultural construct, a meta-cliché perpetuating itself and its cast of stereotypes like a Carry On film on perpetual loop. Coast of Teeth interrogates and deconstructs this, to a certain extent, but more than that, it charts and celebrates what is often overlooked, becoming ‘a paean to the marginal and the marginalised, the obscure and outlandish, the lesser-known and the under-reported.’
In this regard, Sykes and Netter’s project transcends its gaudy trappings.
In summary, the above two books offer refreshing perspectives on the British Isles in styles and approaches that couldn’t be more different: one is scholarly, finely-wrought, nuanced, and informed by a deep knowledge of a homeland; the other is immersively gonzo, febrile and slapstick, written with the gusto of a gourmand relishing a (beggars’) banquet. Together they offer a vivid bifocal portrait of modern Britain.
The Granite Kingdom: A Cornish Journey by Tim Hannigan – published by Head of Zeus, 2023 www.headofzeus.com/home
Coast of Teeth: Travels to English Seaside Towns in an Age of Anxiety by Tom Sykes (writer) & Louis Netter (illustrator) – published by Signal, 2023 www.signalbooks.co.uk