“You been chucked out or summat mate?”
It’s a fair point. Appearing in the later hours in a pub on Canvey Island carrying two full panniers of stuff and all my sleeping gear, I’d clearly fallen on hard times.
Yet this is me chucking myself out into the world. For what yet, I’m still not sure. But after about six hours of riding, and plenty of getting lost around Noak Hill, Pitsea and Basildon, places I probably couldn’t even tell you what county they were in a few weeks ago, I was bloody glad to be there. Everything had gone well so far.
But the search for some singular meaning of ‘England’ was already over before it began. This is so if you hail from an area like mine, where so many identities are crammed into the Victorian terraces and 60s’ blocks that no one bothers to lay a claim to it. No one can guess where I’m from either. ‘Not London’, says one lady I meet, ‘Oxfordshire’ says another. Class permeates my voice, blurs my identity, as it blurs the identities of people I meet who might’ve been staunchly working-class, but for now owning their own businesses and properties. It’s a testy subject, not one that tends to bring people together.
‘We’re all different, but once you start bullshitting and lying, I don’t want to know’ – man in Basildon Wetherspoons.
So I started from my home near Oval, and off I went, passing the town planning mess of the Elephant, through Borough where the sun-baked bus fumes burn my throat, and over to Whitechapel, Mile End and Stratford. The randomness and ugliness of the new Olympics-speculation structures is lost on the people here, who are more interested in the Wilko and Wetherspoons. I was here not long before passing through the older shopping centre at night, full of rough sleepers and teenagers roller-skating. An intriguing place.
Manor House to Ilford makes the riddle even more perplexing. High street after high street full of poundshops, yet run by Indian families settles here for decades. I see less blossoming difference and instead a more real and banal assimilation into working class England. What do we want? A bargain, whatever it is. Perhaps some in-built psychological pleasure left over from our ancestors’ foraging days.
There is little tribalism or distinctive identity on show. Migrants groups to England have, to my mind, been pretty willing to adapt to our bad climate, language, architecture and infrastructure, and a glance through the island’s history demonstrates wave after wave of migrant groups arriving, settling or dominating others. It’s the English who have ironically been the worst guests, be it in the Spain or France, or throughout the Canary Islands, advertising English breakfasts, beer and football with total glee. Britain seized India and Jamaica, places so diverse, yet somehow we even managed to establish a colonial class ‘more English than the English’, as Jamaican-born Stuart Hall discusses in John Akomfrah’s brilliant record of recent cultural history, The Stuart Hall Project.
I mention all this because of what I encounter later in Harold Wood and Romford, where signs of a frustrated British tribalism appear. Out of the early 1930s’ semis competes two kinds of plastic flora: vote Conservative in blue, or vote UKIP in purple. The signs seem particularly aggressive just as I leave the largely non-white areas around Ilford, indicating some kind of invisible frontier.
What needs defending, and what ought not to be included? There’s a silent argument here about English identity, an uncomfortable subject for most, in which the loudest opinions seem to get heard most and few feel convinced to challenge any kind of view. Racism develops as a mistaken mindset through degrees, out of a mixture of cultural ignorance and cultural insecurity. But there is a failure of conversation here, built into the landscape and its facilities.
What went wrong? The vast social housing estates were built with noble intentions, to give space, light and modern conveniences to an East End working class. Families once lived together in overcrowded rooms in Shoreditch and Whitechapel. There were traditions here of radical socialism, suffragism and trade unionism, through figures like Annie Besant and George Lansbury. One hundred years ago, this would’ve been farmland, but as I pass from Harold Hill through Peterfield to Brentwood, I pass houses of a uniform single-style, Tudor-Walters semi-detached with garden, that repeat identically every mile like a bad 1990s video game.
There was an opportunity to build new communities, rather than new sets of houses, that was totally missed. That opportunity came again in the 1950s and 60s and was largely missed again, producing cheap and badly-built blocks that were blighted with damp and difficult to maintain. There is a conversation that needs to begin about the design not of houses, but of communities. Our identities are made, they are not things that we are born with. If these kinds of landscapes continue to produce a parochialism and anomie, then what kind of design do good communities have? This is the question for the future. Meanwhile, the landscape keeps confusing me.
I used to live briefly in a suburb like this when I first moved in with Sarah, my partner. It was in St. Paul’s Cray, south of Orpington and next to nowhere. Shops closed early, bored lads on the rampage, it was rubbish.
The layout and design of Harold Wood, or St. Paul’s Cray, like the bigger estates at Dagenham and Downham, each fails their residents in the boring nature of their appearance and the encouragement of separation and isolation. There are few churches or pubs, and any community centre or library is built to the meanest of proportions and design, relegating their usage. So different to the communities they left behind, where communal interactions were built into the fabric of terraces, where community was something determined by the communal facilities, from hygiene to entertainment, that brought people together. Where libraries and music halls and community centres were wonderful and inspiring buildings. Encoded in these 1930s estates, like the Barratt-home style cul-de-sacs that also seem to define a common and repeating image of England, are privacy and insecurity. These new suburbs are places to sleep, places to be like everyone else, an ‘everyone’ that is no one at all.
I’m being harsh. There’s a common code to these places that I notice too. I wonder what it reveals? Front garden of over-cultivated rose bushes, Tudorbethan window frames, four by four in the driveway, ‘beware the dog’ on window, loft conversion, satellite dish, evidence of continual DIY. These things are in their own way enjoyable, can make us feel happier or safer. But how to bring these together without also establishing these frontiers of identity and tribalism, frustration and anger?
London doesn’t seem to end. It continues on through endless sproutings of semis and 60s high-rises. You think you’re about to leave and a red bus or a McDonalds drive-through appears. It’s by Noak Hill that I think I’m free: no more red buses or UKIP signs, the mood different.
Essex is tart. It doesn’t hide its ugliness, be it its dirty A-roads or surprisingly massive industry. It’s by the light industrial estates surrounding Basildon that I sense the change: the accents are sourer, the outlook and forms of talk more tensile and impolite without being rude. I meet a man in good humour tells me roughly how to get to Basildon: ‘it’s MILES away!’
When musician Jack Barnett clouded the music of These New Puritans in references to the Occult, things most of us fans knew little about, we were gullible enough to take him on face value. But to my mind their music is a response to the Essex and Thames estuary landscape, with its humming pylons, ugly buildings, menacing floodplains and looming energy works with semi-erased folklore, like the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 which kicked off in Fobbing, just by what is now ‘Wat Tyler Park’ in Pitsea, or the three swords of Essex council, the swords of truth, and the continual haunting presence of war and invasion at Shoeburyness.
“I am – yet what I am, none cares or knows
… And yet I am, and live – like vapours tossed” – John Clare, Essex poet.
“I don’t give monkeys. Let’s hope I don’t get breathalysed!” – Basildon Wetherspoons pub talk.
People are off the cuff and I’m not used to it. I like it, I think. I get to Canvey Island in search of some sign of Dr. Feelgood. I get lost, predictably, and after failing to find a pub, buy a can of beans from Nisa and some chips from Nigel’s round the corner, which I eat with some pleasure up on the Eastern Esplanade, looking out on the dusky sea and the distant refineries.
I pop into Windjammers for a pint. Inside, Tucker the tattooist asks me about my bags after holding the door open – politeness hasn’t been lost here – and I tell him and his friends about my journey. They laugh (‘why would you want to see Canvey?’), and for my pains Tucker buys me a pint. Can’t ask for better hospitality. After talking tattoos I get directions to the Oysterfleet hotel, where Lee Brillaux and the band are most associated. I get a pint in there and finish writing this, and being drunk, take a photo of myself in a toilet mirror. It’s something that sometimes happens.
Pubs and poundshops, McDonalds and motorway after motorway, endless suburban semis, retail parks and cul-de-sacs with Cornish names. People in pubs who seek conversation, who are unsure of the future but weather it all indifferently. So do I, as I write this now, in between things.
It’s not over. I cycle up to Hadleigh Park at around 11 when it starts pouring with rain. I can’t find the road into the park and get drenched. I rapidly set up the tent in the dark but everything is soaked. I sleep cold and wet. Bring on day 2, from Southend to Mersea.
* My camera’s picked up a black spot that appears in each photo. If anyone has a suggestion about how to remove this, let me know. Otherwise consider it my hallmark…