Strange ideas have hatched in my mind many times before, and yet nothing has gripped me like this.
It occurred to me about six months ago that I knew virtually nothing of Britain. A native of south London, I’d scarcely ventured beyond the M25 except for the occasional day visit to some town, or kids’ holidays to Butlins or the Cornish coast. Rarely had I the money or the motivation to go further. The popular media gave the impression that it didn’t even exist, beyond TV soap studios and bread adverts. And until recently, that ignorance didn’t bother me.
Maybe it was hearing an aspiring politician talk about poverty, or housing, or class, that first got to me, plum-voiced and brashly bellicose, private school fees spent well. No first-hand experience of it, I thought. Or maybe it was the continual dismissal of inner London, my home, my places of work, first by the chattering classes of the Home Counties, then by their children moving in, fretting about crime, drinking craft ale and then protesting against gentrification. I couldn’t bear it. So much lived experiences erased or denied.
I began to doubt my right to hold an informed perspective of the cultural and political features of Britain. If these people are so off the mark, what about me? Isn’t my own writing riddled with the same cocksure ignorance, just with a more anti-establishment tang? What good is writing for the converted, protesting with the persuaded, and debating with those who share the same views?
That’s why I decided I had to see for myself, talk to people with an open mind, and properly explore the land.
Being a doctoral student, I’m one of the few with the time to do it. I’ve got a scholarship from my university that keeps me fed and watered. With a bike, and a tent, I might just about manage it. It might take six months, I’m not sure. I’m leaving in less than a week, heading anti-clockwise, aided by a compass, inexplicable dreams, and a bottle of scotch.
What I see and encounter will be reported here, where possible. I want to uncover a pattern of Englishness out of the terrain, conversations, experiences and stories I encounter. There’s more details on the other pages about this. When I talk of ‘Albion’, it’s no nod to Pete Doherty, haughty jingoes or luckless football clubs. It’s a ruse and a question wrapped in one, ripped from William Blake. The England of UKIP or the English Democrats is not one I recognise. What of the England I know, open-minded, generous, cooperative, tolerant of others, with an indefatigable sense of humour and a love of fun?
I’d be glad of help along the road – a place to rest, a drink in your local boozer, a companion to share the path. Get in touch if that’s you, firstname.lastname@example.org.