Christopher Isherwood, Returning to England
Throughout history, creative people and intellectuals have often had problems in their relationships to their mother countries. They have suffered from, complained about, criticized and hated what they thought of as narrow-mindedness or arrogance in their fellow citizens; many have emigrated or even been banned from their native lands. Yet many never stopped thinking of returning "home". Christopher Isherwood is no exception.
On a boat, this time.
Late in August, 1938; a cross-channel steamer, just coming into Dover Harbour.
How tiny it always seems! No more than a cranny in the old cheese cliffs; a drab doll-town with the stubborn little castle standing guard above it, in a light summer drizzle. Oh, the staring, unblinking, uncompromising familiarity of it all! The loud rude squawking of the gulls! How compactly the English sit, confronting their visitors: here we are, take us or leave us - this is where you'll do things our way, not yours. Byron saw the last of them here. So did Wilde. You say Goodbye to them for ever and go away to fame and death among the dagoes, and they couldn't care less. Oh yes, when your name has been a household word everywhere else for the past two generations, they'll concede that they used to know you - slightly. But they'll never really admit that they were wrong about you or about anything. They are indomitable, incorrigible, and so utterly self-satisfied that they no longer have to raise their voices or wave their arms when they address the lesser breeds. If you have any criticisms, they have one unanswerable answer: you can stay off our island.
Well, it may come to that, I think to myself, as I stand at the steamer's rail, looking at them.
One day. But why did I come back here last month, from China, instead of stopping on in New York - as I could have, as I so badly wanted to? I can't explain. I was just passively spinning
back on the return arc, like a boomerang. Who throws me? I don't know, and I'm not really interested in finding out. Or am I afraid to? I refuse to answer that question. All I'll tell you is, I'm spinning.
cranny: small opening or hole
drab: colourless; boring
Byron = George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824): English romantic poet, left England permanently in 1816 after a moral scandal; Byron never lost contact with England
Wilde = Oscar Wilde (1854-1900):
8 dago (sing.), dagoes (pl.) (derog., sl.): southern European(s)
indomitable [-'----]: unnachgiebig
incorrigible : unverbesserlich
the lesser breeds (derog.): people considered to be of less value and therefore looked down upon
stop on: stay for a short time before moving on
Talking about the text
1. What does the author think of the country he is approaching and of its people?
2. Study the boomerang simile*. Describe the author's state of mind at the time of his arrival.
3. Consider the setting* of this excerpt. What events in this period in history may have influenced Isherwood's choice of words and way of thinking? Give examples.
4. In connection with his own feelings about Dover Harbour and England in general, why does Isherwood mention Byron and Wilde in particular?
5. Divide the text into its three main structural parts and explain your decision. What mode of presentation* is used in the second part of the text?
6. What text type* does the excerpt mainly represent? What stylistic devices does Isherwood use to achieve the intended effect?
7. What choices do critical writers and other artists have in dealing with their native lands? What rights do they have? What responsibilities? What differences are there in this respect between democracies and totalitarian regimes? Discuss.
8. In his sentimental song "Home, Sweet Home", J. Howard Payne (1791-1852) writes: "There's no place like home." Compare this view of "home" with that of Christopher Isherwood.