‘You can’t just change brain chemistry, we’ve been like this for hundreds of thousands of years, millions of years.’ – man in pub, Lichfield.
So far on my trip I’ve been quietly absorbing the landscape, conversing with strangers without much of a prior agenda. Though I’d set out to talk about Englishness and identity, I’ve found that the conversations can become tense and confused, as people struggle to articulate a position between what they first think I should hear and, a bit later, their own doubts and concerns about society at the moment.
There’s a pessimism in the people I meet, but I expected that. One cliché of Englishness is ‘mustn’t grumble’ – an outlook that suggests both that things will go wrong, but that there’s little achieved in complaining about it. That said, people do enjoy complaining too. I wonder if it’s really a pessimism at all. There’s a positivity underlying all these doubts: things are bad here, but let’s think for the best, let’s make a joke of it. Maybe there’s a happiness at work here, one that has the capacity of weathering all kinds of misfortunes from bad weather to scandalous mistreatment by Atos or the DWP with a series of bitter, sardonic jokes. I’m continually laughing on the road.
I awake early and find a Greggs to hide in and write up yesterday’s thoughts. ‘There’s no place I’d rather be’ by Clean Bandit trills bouncingly over the retired and unemployed sipping cheap coffee. Without the opportunity to listen to my usual tastes, I’ve become much more receptive to pop music. I hear it in cafes and pubs, wafting from the high carriages of freight drivers and transit vans. Being nomadic and placeless, without the surrounding objects that reinforce the identity you’ve been socialised into and become, travel changes you very quickly.
I head out north-east out from Wolverhampton, past Heath Town and Wednesfield, and towards the Walsall suburbs of Brownfields and Bloxhill. The landscape becomes much flatter, and I pass endless warehouses where things presumably are still made. The social composition of these areas is much different to Wolverhampton and certainly parts of Birmingham I’ve seen. They are largely white British, marked by the frequency of tatty fish and chip shops, Chinese takeaways and still-open pubs. I see the occasional flag fluttering as I cycle up the main road.
The road takes me close to a canal, whose gnarled and cramped tow-path is Google’s suggested route. As always, I throw out the recommendations: my road bike is bloody hopeless on anything other than tarmac. I follow the path for a little, passing retired couples steering canal boats with a meditational serenity rarely achieved by the most ecstatic of bodhisattvas. I find it charming and curious that many of us are attached to obsolete forms of transport. The number of steam railway museums and cafes I pass is absurd. It seems as if Dr Beeching’s 1963 gutting of obsolete British railways provided an enormous social good: it gave many people hobbies, running old lines that few ever used.
To my mind, canals seem like the quintessence of rural quaintness. Empty towpaths, a multi-coloured barge travelling at two miles per hour, the rigmarole of travelling up and down ‘levels’ of water at the locks. Some recent ancestor of mine was once a lockkeeper at Teddington. As my legs ache on the battered path, I summon up the hopeful image of being an old retired man, sat on a barge with my partner and an over-affectionate dog, smoking a full pipe of hash and wittering about Spinoza. Wonderful illusions.
But the canals also tell another kind of story.
They are one of the most ancient modes of transport, and are first thought to have been developed in Mesopotamia around 6000 years ago. The Romans brought them over to Britain, building a canal close by where I cycle by the River Trent, another superb foreign import which now is considered so natively ‘English’. That’s all well, but their modern usage is certainly connected to this island’s stories. I am in the heart of industrial Britain, where the processes and techniques of manufacture which have now been globalised were first developed. Potters in Staffordshire, the county I soon reach after leaving Wolverhampton, helped establish these to transport their fragile wares.
Over-laden mules on broken old paths were far slower than travel by transport, and over the course of the 18th to mid-19th centuries, canals were built across Britain as a quicker form of transporting industrial goods. These silent little towpaths were once crammed with horses which pulled the barges (no engines), in a countryside darkened with soot of collieries and tang of factories. They would have been noisy, cramped and malodorous places.
Again, what signs are there of these histories? Little, except these empty tow-paths that cause a bike so much trouble. Many canals have since disappeared, bought by railway companies which could transport goods faster, or covered up, becoming cycle paths or roads. There are canals in London which are fine places to walk, like Regents canal, linking Limehouse to Paddington. I used to work right near this canal, often visiting the Laburnum Boat Club with groups of people with acquired brain injury. Each Friday, volunteers there would teach us how to steer the boat and use the locks, giving disabled adults a confidence and feeling of independence that they’d rarely get anywhere else in life. Once again, volunteering is one of the finest things I’ve come across. Scratch beneath the surface – even in London – and there are levels of generosity and kindness no London newspaper editor could possibly fathom.
Just as mules became outmoded by horses, so horses became outmoded by trains and trucks. In the end the canal becomes too obsolete for me, and I join the freight trucks on a nearby A-road where at least there is no fear of my bags falling into the algaceous waters.
I follow signs into Lichfield, a town I’ve never heard of and hadn’t planned to stop in. I take a look, and do not regret it. Here is another hidden gem.
Lichfield is actually the home of Dr Samuel Johnson (and not Birmingham as I mistakenly put in my last post). He’s known for his dictionary, snappy quotes and love of London. Johnson has a good quote that should help indicate what makes Lichfield so intriguing:
‘There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.’
Lichfield is a very pretty 18th century market town with a long association with beer. There were once 80 innkeepers in this little place in 1732, catering for drinkers from the town and its surrounding villages. The town still appoints two ale tasters each year to ensure the local tipple is of ‘satisfactory standard’, a job opportunity I imagine with more competition than the opening of a city-centre supermarket. It also has a long association with the army. The First Staffordshire Regiment was raised in 1705 at the King’s Head pub, alcohol historically being the lubricator for all kinds of absurd, noble and suicidal decisions.
The beer here comes with a good rep too. George Farquhar wrote that Lichfield beers were as ‘smooth as oil, sweet as milk, clear as amber, as strong as brandy’. Beer is a bit like pizza, Bob Marley, and football, a thing with a specifically local history and background which has now been globally adopted. Lager remains the most popular beer in Britain, but the Campaign for Real Ale has succeeded in maintaining an appreciation of these flatter and more distinctly English ales which has now, thankfully, seen a resurgence. English ales are a little like the villages here, coming with absurd-sounding names that belie a fairly quiet and dull place. That said, I’m a secret ale drinker and love the drops on the trip.
In the interests of scientific and cultural rigor, I very reluctantly put Farquhar’s claim for the local beer to the test.
I pop into the King’s Head, a lovely old pub built in 1408, where I quickly getting talking to Julie, the barmaid. She tells me about the soldiers’ reunions that happen here. On tap is Sunbeam, a decent brew from Banks’s, and Lillington’s Regimental Ale, an okay beer made by the local Marstons brewery uniquely for this pub.
A conversation about gothic cathedrals quickly turns into a discussion of the Egyptian pyramids, structures as remarkable for their appearance and construction as they are works of wondrous vanity. A manic local chap pops in with a guitar and suddenly interrupts our conversation. He rapidly describes the make-up of the cosmos, of dimensions with universes within multiverses. ‘Everything is expanding, our brains, this room!’ It’s a dizzying prospect. The universe is expanding at 46.2 +/- 1.3 miles per second, per megaparsec (roughly 3 million light-years). Basically, everything is expanding very bloody fast. Nothing is fixed. He jokes about ‘our attachment to paper and gold, so stupid’. My brain is reeling!
As he leaves, he issues me with a warning:
‘If you ever meet your anti-self, whatever you do, don’t shake hands with him. Otherwise the entire universe will explode.’
With that, he vanishes out of the pub before I can find out any more about him. I’m unsure whether he is even a piece of my imagination.
I wander out towards the pretty market place and discover another chilling secret. Edward Wightman was the last person in England to be burnt at the stake for heresy on 11th April 1612 here. His crime was for publicly expressing that Jesus was a mortal man, and that the soul dies with the body. In a line that long anticipates Heinrich Heine, Wightman warned that
‘If, then, dead books may be committed to flames, how much more live books, that is to say, men?’
It was to little avail. Religion still has a grip on the town, and a great cathedral shadows over me, which I next visit. It is a large brown structure with some very impressive figures at its front. I spot gargoyles whose faces were eroded away when garrisoned soldiers during the English Civil War took turns to sharpen their swords against their stone noses. I love this antipathy to iconography and death. The cathedral itself is very grand inside, initially built in 700 and rebuilt mostly in the 13th century with some extraordinary gothic features. The people I talk to in the streets and by the cathedral are all very friendly, and each remarks on the friendliness of the town.
By the cathedral I spot gold ribbons, and nearby, a huge pyramid of flowers and dedicatory notes. Last week a huge funeral took place for Stephen Sutton, a young man who battled with cancer for several years. His response was deeply courageous. He fought to make the most of his life while he still had it. He wrote that ‘this is not a sob story’, and with friends and family, established a fundraising campaign for the Teenage Cancer Trust which has raised over £4 million. On a memorial card I read these words of his,
‘I don’t see the point in measuring the worthiness of your life in terms of time, but rather you should measure life in terms of what you achieve’.
I pass out of pretty Lichfield, drifting by the parts of the National Forest, and accidentally stumbling into Branston, a small town famous for its pickle, the perfect accompaniment to a slab of bland cheddar in a sandwich. I reach Burton-upon-Trent next, where I notice that the accents are becoming much flatter and less musical than the West Midlands.
Burton is a curious place. The town seems to have been built as a quick after-thought to the brewing industry, which remains huge here and a major employer. As well as Marston’s, Coors, Hobgoblin and countless other lagers are made in the towering vats of beer overlooking the city. Bovril and Marmite, two other staples of English cuisine, are side-products of the brewing process, though sadly there is no waft of the good stuff on the town’s dusty streets. The national brewing centre is here and, again in the interests of impartial scientific rigor, I pop into a local-looking boozer called the Anchor to test the brews.
I sip back on a Hobgoblin, followed by a Pedigree, both of which taste far lighter and fresher than in London. The pub is a cheery and lively place, beer is cheap, and I’m addressed as ‘duck’ for the first time on my trip. Middle-aged men sing along to the jukie, ‘If I lost you, would I cry?’ Pint glasses shatter and the jokes are loud and bawdy. It’s a fun place. As one man sings along in baritone notes to ‘rolling on a river’, a drunk cockney comes in and starts talking about Millwall, and asks another feller at the bar why people call each other ‘duck’ instead of ‘cunt’ here. He buys some knock-off cigarettes from a surprisingly respectable and taciturn man at the bar, and later I stagger out, onto my next destination, Derby.
The map on my phone has been of little help and I’ve taken to following road signs instead, which often leads to travelling up A-roads, which can be a bit of a hairy experience. I eventually make it to Derby and am impressed with the pretty market town I find. I wander round, sneaking around alley-ways and drifting about the cathedrals, but I feel I’m not quite getting the place. I decide to ask people in the street what they think of the place, taking a different approach to simply strolling into pubs. Fortunately, I get talking to one local man, Steve, who is a treasure-chest of information.
He left school here with a few O-levels and immediately found work at Courtaulds, a huge textile company which might be known to Londoners for its gallery by Somerset House. It once employed thousands of people when he arrived in 1971, but today it only has about 500. The Courtaulds initially arrived as Huguenot immigrants, and their British-based company developed the first artificial fibres that today define the way we look and the things we use, from acetate and raylon to acrylics. Higher energy and labour costs have meant such textile industries have now largely moved overseas, reflecting the major deindustrialisation that Britain as a whole has suffered since the 1970s. But this hasn’t quite affected the West Midlands or Staffordshire in the way it has London, or Humberside. Rolls Royce still employs a large workforce to build aero-engines and nuclear reactors for naval submarines, and a third of the UK’s power is made along the Trent river, I’m told.
Steve tells me something interesting. In 1970 Rolls Royce was about to go bust. With government support, it was kept afloat. Today it is one of most profitable British companies. Courtaulds and other local employers were similarly assisted with money from the government at various points, enabling them to remain in business, and to train and employ a huge skilled local workforce. Today, young people can look forward to a job in a pub, supermarket, or some other aspect of the service-sector. Steve is worried that wages are getting too low, and that people facing retirement now are being ripped off by private pensions. I ask him about what he things could be done, and a pessimism and uncertainty appears in his conversation.
Things are still made here to a degree though, from Bombardier trains to Toyota cars. Derby isn’t a particularly lively place, but I notice a lot of students in the area. In nearby Tutbury is a Nestle factory that apparently produces all of Europe’s instant coffee. The flat landscapes and accents are full of odd facts, from the manufacture of almost everything to the Scottish invasion by Bonnie Prince Charlie which made it as far south as Derby (the Glaswegians have since made it further to Corby).
‘Englishness to me is Britishness. Most of the positive things we’ve done have been as a nation. … We’re still in top ten of economies, it’s astonishing for a country this size.’
Pride comes back in, and the conversation is perhaps the most overtly political so far. He suggests mutualisation as the best solution for pensions, and a new building societies movement that doesn’t make the same mistakes into risky lending which caused the credit crisis here. We discuss wind and geothermal, and as he wryly puts it, ‘When it comes to energy, there’s no such thing as a free lunch’. Shale gas is likely, he thinks, ‘kicking and screaming’, but like others I meet, he doesn’t seem persuaded by the idea that green energies could be technologically enhanced in the future.
It’s time to leave. I cycle around the ring road, spotting a duck next to a tree and watching a man walk down a very long street backward. ‘I don’t have money on my mind, I do it for the love’ echoes in the distance from a passing transit van, Sam Smith’s words expressing the precarious poverty and placelessness which is increasingly becoming my world. I follow signs out towards Nottingham, my final destination.
I follow Brian Clough Way, a very busy thoroughfare named after the haunted and eccentric football manager who has since united rival towns Derby and Nottingham through managing both’s football clubs. The road is too dangerous, and I find a bridge over to Borrowash, in the charmingly named council of Erewash (!), and pedal along. I pass through Draycott, strangely full of union jack flags fluttering everywhere, a pocket of hyper-nationalism that jars with what I’ve come across. Pubs and chip shops recur on the landscape, as I weave through distinctly white British areas. I pass Long Eaton, full of derelict factories, looming chimneys and new retail parks with the usual brands, before making it to Beeston, and from there, into Nottingham town centre. I mark my arrival by rather ingloriously falling off the bike when my wheel gets stuck in a tramline.
I meet David in the large market square, a wise and perceptive man who has kindly offered to put me up for the night. With a final push up a hill, we make it to a good pub where we get chatting. David is a friend of a friend and is about to start a PhD in critical theory. Conversation turns back to ‘collective desire’ and my project, and David raises some superb questions and observations I can’t answer.
When is it that desire gets what it desires? It may sound strange, but it relates to this project. Overall, I want to use my travels to produce a series of political, social, economic and legal proposals that would re-establish our society on a more equal, just and democratic footing. A key problem is that most of us are daily bombarded with negative news, a ‘fear operation’ as one of David’s flatmates, Steve, later puts it, that discourages us from believing any good can come from helping others.
People I meet are pessimistic, but are also very unsure about what the alternative might be. ‘Capitalist realism’ is at work here, a term Mark Fisher cannily uses to describe how difficult it is to conceive of any alternative, and that this world we have now, ruled by a corrupt and incapable elite that forces the majority to live in poverty and anxiety, is the best we’ll ever get. I try to explain what I’m hoping for, and David gives a useful term for my ambition, borrowed from Simon Critcheley. In trying to create a new constitution that relates to a redefinition of Englishness, one that doesn’t yet exist but which could be brought into being, like mass literacy, publicly-owned industries or a free health service, I’m looking at a ‘supreme fiction’. Something that can normalise and justify the conditions for a fairer society that can be easily grasped, and supported, by most of us.
Again, my mind reels with these questions. It seems that the default assumption with protests has been that rationally, somebody ought to do something about it. We’re looking for a master here, David suggests. ‘We’ve found a problem, do something about it’. Amongst these deindustrialised landscapes and creeping poverty, I see no signs of any intention to terminate poverty or provide an equal quality of life for all. I don’t expect any present government to have any interest, or support, for the kinds of changes that I believe could greatly improve public life.
We talk about the riots in Nottingham, and the local Canning Circus police station that was firebombed. David wandered around town that night. ‘For one small moment, people who would have been stopped and searched, thrown in a van, they were allowed to express themselves’. He describes seeing young people not just smashing stuff up but talking in the street about politics, and about the future. He thinks that the organised Left missed an opportunity to support it, and I’m inclined to agree. But beyond a lot of activity in the media, and the very occasional tiny demo, the extent or influence of the Left in Britain is, to my mind, massively overstated. There is a void in popular politics that has been easily filled by the nationalist Right.
We have a fair bit to drink and the conversation is wonderful. David leaves me with a thought I want to share, and which relates to some of the unusual and strange experiences of this day. I hadn’t expected much of Staffordshire, but instead I’ve come across some extraordinary things.
‘Without fetishising rigor, it’s important to spend time thinking about things slowly, carefully’.
Spending time thinking carefully, living a little slower, and noticing the smaller details, is something one gets when travelling. There is no time to answer emails or read books, just see, absorb and become connected with different places. This deeper, slower thinking is raising far more questions than answers. Let’s see what Nottinghamshire indicates.