Mustn’t Grumble: In Search of England and the English – Joe Bennett (2006)

A travelogue of an ex-pat Brit who has spent most of his life living elsewhere, and decides to return to the land of his birth and see if he could loosely recreate the narrated journey of H.V. Morton’s “In Search of England” which was written in 1926 on a similar journey around the island.

As an ex-pat myself, I found this book to be relatively interesting for the most part. It’s an easy read, and my edition had a really clear font so it was especially easy to read on the elliptical at the gym. I would think that most ex-pats have a similar experience for the most part: you go home for short amounts of time, cram a lot into that time, and then walk around whilst you are there feeling a bit like Rip van Winkle (the guy who fell asleep for a long time and then woke up to a recognizable but changed environment).

Bennett seems to have a good sense of humor and doesn’t soak his writing with too much sincerity or sentimentalism. He had hoped to hitchhike his way around, but times have changed and so he ends up borrowing a friend’s car for however long his journey takes. His tale rather revolves around pubs and smoking, but not so much that it alienated me (as I rarely partake in either of those pursuits). As another reviewer pointed out, it seemed that the better Bennett thought a pub was, the better was his review of the town. (I am not criticizing him, as it’s his book and he can write about what he wants. I would have liked a narrative of each of the small towns and villages he visited without remembering the choking smell of old ciggies.)

An ongoing theme of the book was Bennett’s references to the earlier book of Morton’s who also took a similar journey. Bennett’s references start off positive and then move quite swiftly to more negative as Bennett takes the perspective that Morton was throwing too much of a charmed light over the places he went to and the people he met. But perhaps in 1926 (when Morton wrote the book), England was like that for the most part. Even in the 1950’s when Herriott wrote his Vet series, England gets sentimentalized a bit then, but couldn’t it have been based on truth? Perhaps the degree was exaggerated, but I think a lot of actually happened. Bennett seems to take the view that not only have things changed over the many years that have passed since Morton was writing, but it wasn’t even true at that time. A bit cynical, but that appears to be Bennett’s schtick a bit.

I may be griping, but I really did enjoy this book. I am always interested in people who just drive around places to explore and meet the locals, and this Bennett did very well, as there were some good descriptions of the countryside he drove through. He writes well – I just got a bit overloaded with his refs to smoking and drinking.

(Morton’s book was my mum’s favorite when she was growing up so looking forward to reading that at some point…)

And despite the very Englishness of the title, Bennett does spend a lot of time grumbling. Bennett has been compared with Bill Bryson, but he is more acerbic, more critical and not as funny. Still good, but good in a different way.

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One thought on “Mustn’t Grumble: In Search of England and the English – Joe Bennett (2006)

  1. I read this book about 2 years ago and did not manage to finish it, stopping somewhere along the halfway point in the book. I found it interesting at first (anything with England in it gets my interest) but maybe after awhile Bennett’s grumbling and smoking and drinking got to me too, and somehow I lost interest. BIll Bryson is definitely funnier (and nicer, I think).
    The one really good thing that came out of reading this book for me was the discovery of H.V Morton’s writings. I now have a mini collection of Morton’s books, having fallen in love with his style of travel narrative. In Search Of England is a much, much more enjoyable read by far, regardless of how acurate the narrative and facts are. Your mum certainly knew a good thing when she sees one. 😉

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