COMING towards a conclusion of his survey of Karel Capek’s travel books, Alan Riach reaches the best of all, Letters from England – except, of course, that our wandering Czech goes further afield than England and the contrasts he discovers reveal a vast discrepancy between what we’ve seen of his explorations of independent European nations and the former hub of a worldwide empire

‘THERE are two impressions which are completely fantastic: to discover something unexpected, and to discover something altogether familiar.”

We’ve travelled with Capek now through northern Europe, then to Spain, Italy and Holland but I think of all his travel books Letters from England is the best. Because it is not only about England. It’s about an island archipelago of nations whose different qualities show up contrasts between each other and prompt serious thought about the history and legacy of imperialism. It’s as if, writing in the 1920s, Capek is discovering the imperial past in a period of history which is about to repeat its worst mistakes.

As it is doing once again in 2020.

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He arrives in England, makes a journey to Scotland, visits north Wales, and writes “Letters About Ireland” because he can’t actually get there, then finally gets himself back to England, and leaves.

Even the itinerary has its meaning: arrival and departure: the white cliffs of Dover, London, dark heart of an aged empire, Scotland, with its inside-out double capitals (beautiful, airy, vacuous Edinburgh and oppressive, over-industrialised Glasgow), London’s alter ego, and its de-populated Highlands and Islands, north Wales, where the language itself invites an appreciation of difference and curiosity, and his sobering sense of all these countries in the context of a changing Europe.

We begin with a proverbial observation and its immediate application: “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.”

Those “two-metre bobbies” maintain an authority of entitlement recognisable to this day: when one “raises his hand in Piccadilly, Saturn comes to a standstill and Uranus stops on his celestial path waiting until Bobby lowers his hand again”.

I wonder how much that sense of entitlement both empowers and cripples English authority and assumptions about class superiority to this day. But to go back to the actual beginning, Capek says: “I will draw Folkestone, where I disembarked. In the sunset it looked like a castle with battlements; later it turned out that these were only chimneys.”

He manages to get a train and makes his way to the city: “As regards London itself, it smells of petrol, burnt grass, and tallow, thus differing from Paris, where unto these are added the odour of powder, coffee and cheese.”

As with his account of Italy, which we looked at a few weeks ago, first impressions are olfactory, aural and physical: “The voices of London are a more complicated matter; the inner districts, such as the Strand or Piccadilly, sound like a spinning-mill with thousands of spindles.

“It clatters, rattles, whirs, mutters, whizzes and rumbles with thousands of packed motor lorries, buses, cars, and steam tractors; and you sit on the top of a bus which cannot move forward and clatters to no purpose, you are shaken up by its rattling and leap about on your seat like some queer stuffed puppet. Then there are side-streets, gardens, squares, roads and groves and crescents up to the wretched street in Notting Hill, where I am writing this.”

And then we come to the visual, as the famous sights are visited: Hyde Park with its Speakers’ Corner, the Natural History Museum, other museums, more museums, London Zoo, Kew Gardens and Madam Tussaud’s waxworks museum.

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Capek meets various animals and famous people, stuffed and un-stuffed, goes to London clubs, and is overwhelmed and under impressed at the British Empire Exhibition, which includes innumerable items from Fiji, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Malaya, and so on.

THE “sole perfection” of whole show is “the mythic emblem of the metal age”: it is “mechanical”. And the “blind beggar” who sells him matches is a “corroded” and “impaired machine” – in fact, he is “only a man.” And there’s the point.

Capek notes: “There are 400 million coloured people in the British Empire, and the only trace of them in the British Empire Exhibition consists of a few advertisement supers, one or two yellow brown huxters and a few old relics which have been brought here for curiosity and amusement.”

It is full to overflowing, “including the stuffed lion and the extinct emu; only the spirit of the 400 million is missing.” He sums it up: “It is a cross-section through that feeble stratum of European interests which have enwrapped the whole world, without troubling too much about what there is underneath.”

Perhaps his most vivid impression is of “traffic”: the “serpentine subterranean passages” are “like a nightmare” and the “moving staircase, which clatters like a mill and hastens upwards with the people on it” is “like a fever”. After more stairs and staircases, we’re on the street, “where my heart sank.”

“Without end or interruption moves a fourfold girdle of vehicles; buses, panting mastodons dashing along in droves with flocks of tiny mortals on their backs; purring motor cars, lorries, steam engines, cyclists, buses, flying packs of motor cars, people rushing along, tractors, ambulances, people scrambling like squirrels on to the tops of buses, a new flock of motor elephants, that’s it, and now it all comes to a standstill, a grunting and rattling flood, and it cannot move forward; but I cannot move forward either, recalling the horror which was then aroused in me by the idea that I must get to the other side of the street. I managed it with a certain amount of success, and since then I have crossed the London streets on countless occasions, but as long as I live I shall never become reconciled to it.”

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He concludes: “for the first time in my life I experienced a blind and furious repugnance to modern civilisation”.

He visits the East End, where “the horrible thing is not what can be seen and smelt, but its unbounded and unredeemable extent” and its “poverty-stricken and downtrodden people”. So he goes to the country, where there is “nothing that might be a shrill reminder of human drudgery” and has it explained: the people who live here “get their wheat from Australia and sugar from India and potatoes from Africa or wherever it is; you see, Uncle, these people aren’t peasants; this is only a sort of garden”.

Beyond London, England is really just an extensive parkland for the rich. It leaves him perplexed: “The English countryside is not for work; it is for show.” So next we’re off to Cambridge and Oxford, and then to cathedrals in Ely, Lincoln, York, and Durham. After which, enough of England. Capek heads north.

Next week: Capek in Scotland