Given my love of travelogues, books about British identity, and humourous writing in general, it is no wonder that I loved Letters from England by Karel Čapek. During the 1920s and 1930s, Čapek wrote a series of “Letters from” books detailing his travels in Italy, Spain, Holland, Scandinavia, and, of course, the United Kingdom. Written to his fellow countrymen, Čapek tries to interpret what he sees on his journeys for his Czech readers and the results are truly delightful.
There are two impressions which are completely fantastic: to discover something unexpected, and to discover something altogether familiar. One is always taken aback to meet an old acquaintance unawares. Well, in the same way I was astonished when I discovered the Houses of Parliament by the Thames, gentlemen in grey top-hats in the streets, two-metre bobbies at the crossroads, and so on. It was astonishing to find that England is really so English.
Though an admirer of England and the English, Čapek is not immediately impressed by his surroundings when he arrives in London in 1924. In fact, he is (quite rightly) horrified by the monotonous architecture of London’s sprawling suburbs:
At last the train bores its way between houses of a curious sort; there are a hundred of them entirely alike; then a whole streetful alike; and again, and again. This produces the effect of a fashion craze. The train flies past a whole town which is beset by some terrible curse; inexorable Fate has decreed that each house shall have two pillars at the door. For another huge block she has decreed iron balconies. The following block she has perpetually condemned to grey bricks. On another mournful street she has relentlessly imposed blue verandahs. Then there is a whole quarter doing penance for some unknown wrong by placing five steps before every front door. I should be enormously relieved if even one house had only three; but for some reason that is not possible.
London proves a disappointment for Čapek. He finds the size and bustle of the city overwhelming, the people reserved and the public places cold and impersonal. He is duly impressed by the tall policemen but he finds the city impersonal and lacking in the warm communal spirit he is familiar with in continental Europe:
Only the people here are quieter than elsewhere; they talk to each other half-heartedly, and their aim is to get home with the least possible delay. And that is the strangest thing about the English streets: here you do not see respectable ladies telling each other on the kerb what happened at the Smiths or the Greens, nor courting couples strolling arm-in-arm like sleep-walkers, nor worthy citizens seated on their doorstep with their hands on their knees (by the way, here I have not yet seen a carpenter or a locksmith or a workshop or a journeyman or an apprentice; here are nothing but shops, nothing but shops, nothing but Westminster Bank and Midland Bank, Ltd.), nor men drinking in the street, nor benches in the market-square, nor idlers, nor tramps, nor servant-girls, nor pensioners – in short, nothing, nothing, nothing; the London streets are just a gulley through which life flows to get home. In the streets people do not live, stare, talk, stand or sit; they merely rush through the streets. ..In our country, in Italy, in France, the street is a sort of large tavern or public garden, a village green, a meeting-place, a playground and theatre, an extension of home and doorstep; here it is something which belongs to nobody, and which does not bring anyone closer to his fellows; here you do not meet with people, and things, but merely avoid them.
He does acknowledge that an Englishman’s silence has a certain sort of dignity and power – “A man from the Continent gives himself an air of importance by talking; an Englishman by holding his tongue” – but still it is not a silence that he could ever be comfortable with.
When Čapek finally leaves London though, he is delighted by what he sees: Where are you to pick words fine enough to portray the quiet and verdant charms of the English countryside? Green pastures dotted with contented sheep and majestic oaks scattered across the landscape leave Čapek with nothing but affection for pastoral England, though he is slightly confused by the lazy agricultural practices of the English, who leave so much good land unfarmed and seem to just leave their horses grazing in fields all day rather than putting them to work. After visiting a few, he becomes particularly enamoured of the English country home, which, in 1924, represents all that is comfortable and gracious: …tennis and warm water, the gong summoning you to lunch, books, meadows, comfort selected, stabilized and blessed by the centuries, freedom of children and patriarchal disposition of parents, hospitality and a formalism as comfortable as a dressing gown…
Čapek travels northward through England, up into Scotland (where he finds himself much more at ease among the Scots than he was with the English), down to Wales, and out to the South West, where, already a bit irritated by the piety of the English, he finds himself stranded in Exeter on a rainy Sunday:
An Exeter Sunday is so thorough and holy that the very churches are closed, and as regards creature comforts, the wayfarer who despises cold potatoes must go to bed with an empty stomach; I do not know what particular joy this causes to the Exeter God.
He leaves happy to have visited (the final section details some of the prominent literary figures with whom he spent time during his visit) but very happy to be going home. As much as he finds to admire in the English – they are courteous and absolutely trustworthy – he still finds them “hard as flint, incapable of adapting themselves, conservative, loyal, rather shallow, and always uncommunicative”. It is with relief that he heads for home:
The Continent is noisier, less disciplined, dirtier, madder, subtler, more passionate, more affable, more amorous, fond of enjoyment, wayward, harsh, talkative, more reckless, and somehow less perfect. Please give me a ticket straight away for the Continent.