Queenan Country, by Joe Queenan

From Hadrian's Wall to Handel's harpsichord
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The Independent Culture

He went to the land of Macbeth and had his rucksack stolen in Cawdor Castle. He went on a six-week Welsh for Beginners course to interview a militant Welsh Nationalist, who then insisted on speaking in English. His "dead-and-breakfast style of tourism", as his wife put it, led him to become obsessed with Edward II's demise from a surfeit of red-hot poker up the fundament.

He went to the land of Macbeth and had his rucksack stolen in Cawdor Castle. He went on a six-week Welsh for Beginners course to interview a militant Welsh Nationalist, who then insisted on speaking in English. His "dead-and-breakfast style of tourism", as his wife put it, led him to become obsessed with Edward II's demise from a surfeit of red-hot poker up the fundament.

Joe Queenan, the American humourist best known here for his deadpan delivery on Radio 4's Postcard from Gotham City, is having a change from sending up his own country. He has been looking at this country through the magnifying glass, or distorting lens, of his own humour. Queenan County, a "reluctant anglophile's" journey, is clearly the book he had to write, given his surname. But do we really need another account of a quizzical Yank quizzing the British? We've already had Bill Brydon and Paul Theroux. Now, slipping into ill-fitting walking boots, comes this left-of-centre answer to P J O'Rourke, tramping all over the nation into which he has married.

His pilgrimage proves to him that the British are all barking mad, a few souvenir teaspoons short of the full gift shoppe, and that Alice in Wonderland is a realistic documentary work. The folk that he meets don't seem all that loopy to me, but then a Brit would say that, wouldn't he?

Certainly, there is no doubting Queenan's own sanity. Rod Stewart is the Antichrist. Bonnie Prince Charlie was an "idiot ... on a prat's benighted escapade that cost thousands of lives". Winston Churchill stayed to face danger in his country's capital; Bush and Cheney, on 11 September 2001, didn't.

There is no doubting his talent either, from the first sentence onwards: "While serving in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, my wife's uncle Gordon had occasion to bomb some of the most beautiful countries in Europe." The admiring italics are mine.

And there is no doubting his travel bill. In one day, he gets up in Edinburgh, gets cross in Carlisle, strides along a (very short) section of Hadrian's Wall, is locked out of (and then into) a Newcastle church, and goes to bed in Durham Castle. Another morning begins at 4.20am, when he catches the coach to Oxford and ends up in a musical museum where he hears Bach played on Handel's harpsichord. One afternoon in Liverpool, he is taken for a ride by a taxi driver who spins a yarn about John Lennon having been his best man.

Like its author's peregrinations, Queenan Country is all over the place. Memories of previous holidays in Britain intrude. His thoughts fly back, not always with pleasure, to the US. He digresses mentally as well as geographically: Bette Midler is clearly not Jewish but Welsh - you can tell by her buttocks. Yes, we need this book.

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