Letters from England by Karel Capek

Having enjoyed “War with the Newts” so much, I remembered that I had lurking on the shelves somewhere Capek’s book “Letters from England”. If I recall correctly, I picked this up from the reduced shelf of the late lamented Claude Cox Books, because it sounded lovely and had pretty little pictures. It’s old and fragile and a bit foxed, but what a delight to read!

letters

Capek visited England in 1924 (and also Scotland and Wales, but not Ireland), and his book takes the form of impressions of his visit, the people, the country and the customs, along with some lovely little pen and ink sketches. There is a certain archness about some of it, as if he’s deliberately writing as a simple foreign visitor, but underneath this style are some pithy observations and some very sly humour.

So Capek copes with London streets and traffic, museums, famous people, the countryside, Oxford and Cambridge; he visits Scotland and seems to take to it; he passes through Wales and then heads back to the Lake District; and he observes the people of Britain with a curious, interested European eye.

A self portrait of the artist/author!

A self-portrait of the artist/author!

The drawings are a delight, and Capek’s comments funny and thoughtful. I think I can best give you a flavour of it with some quotes and a couple of the pictures!

On English Clubs:

Our tradition is not based upon such old and especially such comfortable arm-chairs. As it has nowhere to sit, it hangs in the air. I thought of that when I was taking my ease in one of these historical arm-chairs; I had a somewhat historical feeling, but was otherwise quite cosy, and I took a peep at the other historical personalities, who were partly hanging on the walls, partly sitting in the club chairs and reading Punch or Who’s Who. Nobody spoke, and this produced a truly dignified effect: we in our country ought to have such places where silence is preserved. An old gentleman shuffled along on two sticks across the room, and nobody maliciously told him he was looking first-rate. Another buried himself in a newspaper (I could not see his face) without feeling a passionate need to talk to somebody else about politics. A man from the Continent gives himself an air of importance by talking; an Englishman by holding his tongue.

club

An English Club

On Scotland:

If I were a poet…I would to-day write a short but beautiful poem. It would be about the Scottish lakes, the Scottish wind would be wafted through it, and the daily Scottish rain would bedew it; it would contain something about blue waves, gorse, bracken and wistful pathways; in it I should not mention that these wistful pathways are entirely begirt with a fence (perhaps to prevent enchantresses from going to dance there). I must say in crude prose how beautiful it is here; a blue and violet-coloured lake between bare hills…

Edinburgh roofs

Edinburgh roofs

On English cooking:

English cooking is of two kinds: good and average. Good English cooking is simply French cooking; the average cooking in the average hotel for the average Englishman explains to a large extent the English bleakness and taciturnity. Nobody can beam and warble while chewing pressed beef smeared with diabolical mustard. Nobody can exult aloud while ungluing from his teeth a quivering tapioca pudding. A man becomes terribly serious if he is given salmon bedaubed with pink dextrin; and if for breakfast, for lunch and for supper hs has something which, when alive, is a fish, and in the melancholy condition of edibility is called fried sole; if three times a day he has soaked his stomach with a black brew of tea, and if he has drunk his fill of bleak light beer, it he has partaken of universal sauces, preserved vegetables, custard and mutton – well, he has perhaps exhausted all the bodily enjoyments of the average Englishman and he begins to comprehend his reticence, solemnity and austere morals.

Kapek’s “Letters from England” were a joy to read – funny, profound and very engaging – and very highly recommended!

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