Magazine article The Spectator

Knowing the Place for the First Time

Magazine article The Spectator

Knowing the Place for the First Time

Article excerpt

MY FOREIGN COUNTRY by Trevor Fishlock John Murray, L18, pp. 276

'Mulligrubs' is a rare word dating from the 16th century. In Britain in 1997, however, especially during a General Election campaign, they are endemic. The OED defines mulligrubs as 'a state of depression of spirits; a fit of megrims or spleen'.

When I came across the word in the same paragraph as 'gudgeon' (a metal socket in which the pintle of a rudder turns) in the very first chapter of My Foreign Country, Trevor Fishlock seemed to promise a verbal feast. In the following pages, the promise was richly fulfilled.

Fishlock is a cosmopolitan patriot. As a newspaper correspondent, he has visited 60 countries, with residential stays in Russia, India and the United States of America. While he was away, he was disturbed by reports from home that `the national rudder hung out of its gudgeon,' `that Britain was in discontented middle age, morose, fearing ambush, easily alarmed, severely afflicted by mulligrubs'.

In the tradition established by many other worldly correspondents, on returning to his native land Fishlock appraised it as if through fresh eyes and described what he saw as if writing dispatches from abroad. Unlike all those journalists who became jaded and cynical on their travels, Fishlock remained an enthusiastic observer and researcher, able to perceive valuable and endearing assets and virtues in this country, in the past and present. His book should serve as a bracing tonic for all sorts of readers, particularly those suffering from the modern British malaise of ennui and angst (imported words, too, can be useful).

His father was an exalted and glamorous figure, a regimental sergeant-major of the Royal Marines. Trevor's boyhood home was Portsmouth. He recognises the historic validity of an 18th-century visitor's assessment of the place: `Portsmouth may be called the key of England. This wonderful rendezvous of the Royal Navy is a striking proof of the opulence and industry of Englishmen.' The English Channel's `changing temper and the traffic of warships and merchant vessels,' Fishlock writes, `shaped my ideas of England.'

The warships' `awesome names,' he recalls,

Indomitable, Indefatigable, Implacable, Illustrious and Formidable, were the first magnificent and difficult words I knew; so I like to fancy that the Royal Navy taught me to spell. The names of the warships in which my father served, Centaur, Courageous and Revenge, rolled from his tongue in splendour. …

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