Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country

I have long enjoyed good travel writing, especially when it is set someplace in the British Isles, because despite having lived in the U.K. for a while, I still wish that I had taken time to see some of the more remote parts of the kingdom. It seemed that no matter how many hours I spent behind the wheel of the car there was always more to see just down the road. I still find it frustrating to think that, despite having driven from Lands End to John O'Groats, and later having crossed the country from several other angles, I still read of out-of-the-way places that I managed to miss.

That is what first attracted me to Queenan Country. According to the dust jacket blurb, Joe Queenan has been going to the U.K. for decades but, because he is married to a Brit, he had seen little more than the various cities and villages that are called home by his wife's relatives. This time he decided to go to the U.K. on his own to drive around until he had seen most of the sites and sights that he had missed despite having spent a substantial portion of his life in U.K. pubs and homes.

This is my first experience reading Joe Queenan and Queenan Country is not the travel book that I expected. Rather, it is more of a general "love letter" from Queenan to a country for which he has some very strong mixed feelings. Living with a British wife for over 25 years gives him an insider's look at the country and its people and allows him to make some delicate observations that would otherwise probably come across as insulting to British readers (and still might come across that way for all I know). Queenan's use of humor to make his points does soften the blow to a degree, but only to a degree, but because he is an "equal opportunity" insulter, he certainly can't be said to be playing favorites. He insults both Americans and Brits to equal effect, I think, before ending the book with what reads like a heartfelt open letter to a people, the British, whom he sincerely admires.

What follows is a sample of the Queenan style:
"...it is clear that the inhabitants of the British Isles, and particularly the English, share certain common characteristics. They plan too much. They do not like to improvise...They are repelled by American businessmen, but wish they could be more like them...They are embarrassed that they lost their empire; even more embarrassed that they had it in the first place; but would secretly like to have it back, if only for the weekend, or for a few hours on Boxing Day. They are constantly apologizing, and do not seem terribly comfortable in their own skins. By contrast, even the most appalling Americans are comfortable with themselves. Americans do not mind being appalling."
"Many many years ago, the template for the royal family was established. The king or queen was either dull or insane; the children, some of whom dabbled in architecture or spoke a few words of Welsh, were invariably thick as two planks. It is hard to see how anything has changed over the centuries; the British people, for whatever the reason, seem to like having the royals around. But I don't tell people in other societies how to run their countries. That's George Bush's job."
But if anyone doubts that Queenan loves Britain and her people, he ends the book this way:
"The Brits were the very best mankind had to offer; if the planet was ever to host a more fascinating race, then the rest of us were in for a real treat. By taking my name, my wife had conferred on me perhaps the greatest gift an American can receive: the keys to the Kingdom by the Sea...there would always be an England.

The alternative was simply not acceptable."
I may not have agreed with everything that Joe Queenan has to say in Queenan's Country, but that's something that I never expected. The man made me laugh out loud a few times when his wit bit especially close to the bone in the way that the best travel books do for me sometimes, and this travel-book-that's-not-really-a-travel-book did that for me more often than I thought it would.

Rated at: 3.5


  1. That sounds like a great read, it something as a 'Brit' I sympathise with, so much of the country I have not seen. I will be adding this one to my list of books to look out for.

  2. Your comment reminds me of how surprised I always was when reminded that I had actually seen more of the U.K. than most of my London friends and co-workers. They found it hard to believe sometimes how much ground I could cover in a week end plus bank holiday. But now I wonder if I was going so fast that I ran right by some things I shouldn't have missed...probably so, I expect.

  3. I have just reserved it at my local library. Looking forward to this.
    My fave contemporary American travel writer is Bill Bryson. We must have something going for us as both men chose British wives :)

  4. Let me know what you think of the book, Nick. His humor actually did remind me quite a lot of Bryson's. This isn't the common travel book, in the sense that it includes very few travel details, but it was still fun. I'm curious to see if you find it at all offensive.

  5. ''I'm curious to see if you find it at all offensive.''
    I will let you know my opinion Sam; I very much doubt I will be offended by his book.
    I thought at first he was using a nom de plume...Queenan's Country=Queen and Country.

    PS as an aside my all time serious travel writer has to be Paul Theroux; he is in a league of his own.

  6. It is so true Sam, I have seen little of the country that is my home, something I hope to remedy.

  7. Nick, I really enjoy the work of Paul Theroux, too...not so much his novels, but his travel books are first rate.

    Speaking of being offended...I think that Prince Charles would be offended by Queenan's comments about him. The man has a sharp tongue. :-)

  8. Miss Book, I spent most weekends taking trains from London in one direction or another to add to the longer driving trips I could manage. I never grew bored. You have a lot of work ahead of you...but a lifetime to achieve it. Count your blessings. :-)

  9. ''I think that Prince Charles would be offended by Queenan's comments about him. ''

    Charles is a disaster waiting to happen; he richly deserves all the flak he attracts. The Queen is in good health for a lady in her eighties, with a bit of luck the Monarchy will skip a generation.

  10. Speaking strictly as an outsider, Nick, I have to say that Charles does seem to have lost his way. I'm beginning to hope that you are correct about the Monarchy skipping a generation. A few years ago I was very sympathetic toward Charles for his having to wait so long to assume the crown, but now I tend to think that may be a good thing.

  11. I picked up this book from the library yesterday; it's not a long read and I will finish it by the end of the weekend.Looking forward to this one :)

  12. Let me know what you thought about it, Nick. It will be interesting to hear from your point of view.

  13. Sorry Sam, but it's back at the library! Normally this book would have failed my '50 page rule' but I carried on to complete 100 pages before admitting defeat. I just could not get into it, I am sure you know the feeling.

    Talking of American Travel writers...Bill Bryson has just been appointed President of lobbying group
    Protection of Rural England
    Congrats to Bill, very unusual for this type of job to be filled by a non Brit. I am sure he will do a great job!

  14. Sorry to hear you didn't care for it, Nick, but I surely do know the feeling of a book just not "clicking" for me. Queenan's style did get a little tedious at times but just about the point I was running out of patience with him he said something that I found funny so I kept going.

    I agree, though, that Queenan is no Bill Bryson.

    BTW, isn't Bryson also a university chancellor, or something like that, at one of a U.K. university...Durham, maybe?

  15. The not 'clicking' feeling is even worse when the book has been recommended by an online friend :)

    Yep, it's Durham one of our most famous old universities. I am not sure what the Venerable Bede would have made of our Bill :) The Chancellorship is a purely honourary position and is voted for by the students. The Vice Chancellor is the main admin man in a Brit university.

  16. No need to feel bad about that, Nick...it happens to me often that I don't care for a book that some friend has loved and recommended. It's a matter of taste and circumstance that we don't all like the same things...and that's probably a very good thing for the artists who create books and music. :-)