In Footnotes, Peter Fiennes emerges as a literary Bill Bryson, in a very engaging, yet challenging, "journey round Britain in the company of (12) great writers".
Fiennes writes that in Footnotes, "I followed a series of writers around Britain, partly to try and understand the accelerating changes that have unfolded over the past 800 years. The earliest writer was Gerald of Wales, author of the first travel guide to Wales in 1188; the most recent was Beryl Bainbridge, who smoked her way round England in 1983. I steeped myself in their books, journals and letters, and followed their journeys as closely as I could, and then I looked up to see what was there today. It was like stepping off a train in a strange land, or coming home after a long time away. Everything was more vivid".
Fiennes's authors comprise Enid Blyton; Wilkie Collins; Ithell Colquhoun; Celia Fiennes; Gerald of Wales; Edith Somerville and Martin Ross; J.B. Priestley and Beryl Bainbridge; Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.
He brings his authors together at dinner towards the end of the book with Charles Dickens at one head of the table and Wilkie Collins at the other. Fiennes wonders whether Dr Johnson "will demonstrate his celebrated impersonation of a kangaroo by bundling up his tailcoat the front to resemble a pouch and bounding around the room with great floorboard shattering leaps".
Fiennes juxtaposes his authorial surveys with accounts of his lodging, travel, eating and drinking and social observation, hoping he will be able "to bring modern Britain into focus". Here, the insightful and self-deprecating Bill Bryson formula comes to the fore on contemporary mores.
The book starts in Dorset with Enid Blyton, who actually didn't go far from her beloved Swanage. Blyton, who was rejected as an inappropriate face for the British 50-pence coin, is now a somewhat controversial figure, but her books are still read avidly, sometimes in expurgated versions, by each new generation of children. Fiennes tries to judge Blyton within the norms of her times rather than indulging in retrospective condemnation.
In his chapter on Blyton, a bitter rain-swept day on a deserted Swanage Esplanade drives him into the public bar of the Ship Inn. Here, he reflects on the restrained morals of Blyton's time exemplified in the famous 1945 movie Brief Encounter and the entries in Enid Blyton's daughter's diary for 1946.
He takes Gerald of Wales as his imaginary companion to Cardiff City centre on a sunny June day, where he covers a variety of topics, including "thumping music", buskers and vaping . His journey to the ruins of Tintagel Castle along the steep cliff face path leaves him with vertigo and "hanging on to the fence with sweaty hands". He eventually retires to a Tintagel B&B where he watches Mission Impossible.
Fiennes revisits the towns documented in the English journeys of J. B. Priestley in 1933 and by Beryl Bainbridge in 1983. He compares the unemployment and political conflicts in both the 1930s Depression and Thatcher's England with the contemporary turmoil of Brexit Britain.
Viewing Birmingham from the 15th floor of the Holiday Inn in Birmingham while following their journeys, leads Fiennes to take up smoking after 27 years abstinence, "to be clear, I blame Jack and Beryl for this bittersweet relapse - not Birmingham".
As an ardent conservationist, he laments the decline of the countryside across Britain. In Scotland with Boswell and Johnson, he describes the final destruction of Scotland's Great Caledonian Forest and the fall of the local Cornish fishing industry: "I am fighting and losing - a battle against a longing to return to another time, another place".
Fiennes realises that population growth and tourism has impacted many of the places he visits. He notes that when Wilkie Collins was in Kynance Cove, "he was alone, in August, apart from his friend Henry and his indefatigable guide; and now here we are in April, and there are 400 vehicles in the car park and cruise ships disgorging tourists into the bay. I'm not saying that's wrong: who are we to say who should or should not be enjoying this extraordinary cove with its rainbow waves and shimmering rocks?... There are an awful lot of us these days, on the move and keeping busy, scurrying up and down the land, nosing along the coast, looking for a lost lane or a lonely beach, and all the while buying and using and accumulating and shedding an unfeasible amount of stuff". Ultimately, Fiennes hopes that by taking the long view, as reflected through the works of his authors and their landscapes, we can confront the "shifting baseline syndrome" which blurs the perception of each generation as to the nature of change to the environment.
- Footnotes: A Journey Around Britain in the Company of Great Writers, by Peter Fiennes. Oneworld. $39.99.