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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
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