The Portugal leg of my journey, as mentioned, will take a while I think - it is a 600+ stream-of-consciousness novel set in Lisbon - albeit one which I am very much enjoying... that said I will look forward to a more relaxing spell in Monaco after that!
Also, it does give me chance to recap on the first 2 stages of my journey, which I completed before starting this blog.
I started in London, England (for the purposes of this trip I am splitting the UK into its 4 constituent countries), my home country; with Tarquin Hall's "Salaam Brick Lane". This book should not be confused with the popular novel called "Brick Lane" by Monica Ali, although it is set in the same part of London, currently known for its large Bangladeshi population. The author of this work returned to the UK from abroad after 10 years and found himself spending a year in a tiny bedsit in the East End of London...
The reason I chose this is that - living near and working in London, I get a real sense of the city as a place of real diversity and cosmopolitanism - not only in the modern day but historically. At one stage the author meets an Indian anthropoligist who is searching for the 'true' English EastEnder and who is appalled to find that there are no residents who can trace their pure Englishness beyond a generation or two... and this I think, sums up a very key element of 'Englishness' (and why Englishness is so hard to define) - the English are a mongrol race that have always incorporated other cultures and will no doubt continue to do so. Tarquin Hall acknowledges this as a key strength of our culture, and also - being an upper-class public-school educated graduate who grew up in 'posh' West London - demonstrates how prejudice can just as easily be experienced across CLASS in England, as RACE. The fact that his girlfriend who joins him in his 'bijou' bedsit (mistakenly) expecting a city of glitz and glamour is an Indian-born American, adds to this wide perspective of class and culture.
The book itself is an enjoyable read, with a series of interesting - and often tragi-comic -characters such as his landlord Mr Ali - "an unlikely mixture of South Asian and Estuary", and his Albanian neighbours. This is narrative non-fiction in the vein of Bill Bryson(with aspirations to Paul Theroux), and I'd recommend it as a taste of how London is perceived and experienced by its own residents.
A particularly striking part of the book is the description of the author's many hours spent gazing out of his attic window at a bagel store across the street. In the space of 24 hours a whole cross section of London drifts into its doors without ever meeting... cleaners in the early hours, builders later on, commuters grabbing breakfast at rush hour, tramps & beggars during the day, clubbers in the evening and prostitutes & drug dealers throughout the night. A whole panorama of interlinked humanity that combine to make up London, yet move in very different worlds - all intersecting at a humble bagel store in Brick Lane.
It may seem unusual that I didn't pick a novel for this first leg, however I believe England has a culture of socio-realism in literature (such as George Orwell's travel writings) which this book reflects, and, to be honest, I am not convinced there are that many worthy novellists at the moment who are dealing with indigenous topics and settings. I plan to wrap up my journey (after another 214 countries) back in England, and am thinking that I will end it somewhere other than London to give a flavour of the wider country...London is such a unique city it really is a mini-city state on its own... I hope to be to find a suitable fiction writer my at trip at this time (which will no doubt be several years away!).
Next stop was France and a rather nice luxury apartment in Paris... I shall cover this in my next post.