Days 72-73: Isle of Man

‘You go home, put on the TV, put your feet up, make some dinner, go to bed, wake up, and then you die!’ – Jeff, Douglas.

I awake on Sonya’s sofa in the west end of Morecambe. The morning sun bursts between and beneath the sitting room curtains, distributing a calm and cheery aura about the place. With Sonya’s early-teenage son Zack, a sharp-witted and funny companion in our conversations, we head out into Morecambe for a spot of breakfast. As we pass along the sea-front, Sonya points to where fairs, swimming pools and other proud mainstays of the Morecambe resort once stood. Unlike Scarborough, there’s no conspicuous absence of these glories. The strange thing about Morecambe is that after spending time here, it seems unlikely that there ever was an overextended and wildly ambitious resort here, for good, or for ill.

Bye bye happiness, hello loneliness, I think I’m gonna cry…

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The Everly brothers are playing in a promenade-facing café which we fall into after a drift along the seafront. It’s decked out in Elvis memorabilia, and the service is reverentially slow. Elvis, Cliff Richard and Buddy Hollie play from the kitchen as we sit and talk. The shops and forms of entertainment are as ill-fitting yet, for that reason, entirely suitable for this awkward, unseemingly and confused place. A knock-off DVD and video games store next to a Chinese takeaway, next to a shuttered down store.

The social and chronological in-betweenedness of Morecambe, and of the English seaside resort more broadly, has us talking about communities. Sonya describes a vision of people cooking meals in a shared hall and eating together, and how this might lead to people sharing things, sharing their lives, building a community of mutual support and care. Sonya raises the idea of having free public Wi-Fi, something that would be more convenient and cheaper than countless small individual boxes. Or social housing with in-built communal areas, like kitchens and recreational spaces alongside private flats.

‘The money people’d save, not heating all those separate ovens, and it’d be so much easier, the ingredients, having one meal. But then people would complain. “Oh, I don’t like this, I’m not having that…”’.
‘Would they? Perhaps they’d learn to get on with it, like they did in the past, that the benefit outweighed it.’

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But an indestructible kernel of doubt remains. Something good… but it can’t happen, realistically. This fine mess we call the modern world is the most realistic we should expect. How disappointed we are! We talk about practical forms of communal democratic decision-making, but both Zack and Sonya consider a possibility, something more hopeful yet pragmatic than I would’ve thought of myself, but then they rub against it a pessimistic belief about human nature that takes the weight of a fact.

‘People are too greedy. They just couldn’t manage it.’

It’s totally fair. Political change of any socially progressive kind seems unthinkable now, as unthinkable as old age pensions, trade unions or women having the vote were some century and a half before now too. Some tremors increase into a kind of seismic change. But then people laugh at me when I talk about what’s theoretically possible, against the grain of history, as they see it. ‘You’re an idealist!’ laughs Sonya. But then history is a story we tell ourselves, something that can be transformed, as it has been through the ways we perceive, the way our society is organised. The internet and social media has created another kind of social experience unknown to three generations back. So much remains possible.

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The morning rolls on, and we drift back along the promenade, peeking into a shop selling mostly broken sticks of rock. Lettered rock was apparently first sold here before it reached Blackpool, Brighton and beyond. Indeed I’ve even heard rumours that the helter-skelter and the modern game of bingo were also unleashed from this Lancashire seaside resort, but can’t find anything to substantiate them. Still, I like the myth. We part ways, Sonya to work, and Zack and I along the promenade, where there’s a statue to Eric Morecambe on the promenade, perhaps the town’s most famous son, before heading back home. Bike in hand, sun in eyes, I’m ready to leave Morecambe, heck, even leave the United Kingdom altogether. A ferry is waiting at nearby Heysham port.

I’m travelling to the Isle of Man, a self-governing state that is also a British Crown Dependency. It’s around forty miles apart from the British mainland, and the Irish mainland. Mann cuts a unique space between these. It has its own currency, the Manx pound; its own legislature, the Tynwald, with a sitting parliament called the House of Keys; its own language, albeit mostly died out, Manx Gaelic; and its own cultural suffusion, historically, of Viking and Gael. And that extraordinary flag with the three armoured legs… yet, were it not for this visit, I’d know so little about this place, so little is it spoken of.

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The ferry to Douglas is a little expensive, and takes around three and a half hours each way. It’s crammed, and I’m squashed next to two middle-aged couples. One is fixated with railways, and has come with his wife for their anniversary (mainly, it seems, to check out trains). He reads from a railway magazine then disappears up the deck, grateful for the reprieve from the threat of socialising. Another northern couple yatter on about their property in Cyprus and its many rooms, their place in the Lake District, droning on about the things they own. We do not arrive into Douglas too soon.

Douglas is a surprisingly large and very pretty seaside town. Its promenade architecture is a rendezvous of Rothesay or Scarborough with Nice. There are very grand, high-reaching and ornamentally-featured Victorian hotels with imposing steps up facing a sweeping seafront, adorned with small lawns, benches and shelters. There are no fish and chips or amusements of the kind that cost a quid a pop.

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Nothing’s in danger of being closed down here, and there’s an overriding degree of affluence in the air. The Gaeity Theatre is still putting on shows, whilst I pass the Villa Marina Gardens. Further up along the northern edge of the seafront is the start of an electric railway that once took Victorian holidaymakers up to Ramsey along the pretty coast. Horse-drawn trams stand nearby, still plying this traditional transportation. I’m later told that one horse died of a heart attack whilst pulling a tram a few weeks ago. But it all harks back to another era. Douglas was once one of the most popular seaside resorts in the British Empire, with 600 000 visiting Mann in 1913. It might’ve become even more well-established today were it not for the outbreak of the First World War. From thereon, Mann became a prison-island for POWs and rounded-up ‘aliens’ of dubious national extraction.

I’m quickly charmed by the place, though perhaps any well-kept seafront on a sunny afternoon can have that effect. The triskellion flag of Mann flutters everywhere, and there are even distinctive numberplates. I’m told later that there are no speed cameras on the island, and no MOTs, just a trust that people will maintain their cars. It feels very different from Lancashire, mostly in a good way. There are occasional signs in Gaelic, but the place feels very English. Even the local accent, which I eventually pin down through conversations, is a blend of a mild Liverpool Scouse with a dull north-western Lancs.

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I talk to a middle-aged man named Lindsey by the edge of the promenade. Like others I’ve passed, he’s simply strolling along for the exercise and fresh air. He originally came from the suburbs of north London and planned to stay only for a year, but ending up never leaving. .

‘A lot of women come here. They say it’s safe, no crime, no hassle in the street. Europeans have come here more recently.’
‘And Manx people?’
‘They’re the minority. You can probably tell them straight away.’

I am curious how such an isolated island manages economically. The place seems to be a tax haven: there is no capital gains tax, wealth tax, stamp duty or inheritance tax. The top rate of income tax is twenty percent: here is a fine place to live if you’ve a lot of money. The average rate of corporation tax is zero percent on most incomes, unless these are the profits of banks, which are taxed at ten percent. Finance contributes hugely to the island’s prosperity. Whilst there is something important and commendable about regional autonomy – something I want to come back to with Mann – this kind of situation is to the detriment of the citizens of the UK, and allows banks and businesses to evade paying taxes.

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But farming also plays a part on the island, as I’ll discover the following day. There’s also a significant amount of high-tech engineering and manufacturing going on, be it ejector seats or plate diamond for US military equipment. The island has had to specialise in producing goods that are easily transportable, rare and well-regarded, and which can be produced on Mann with relative ease.

I head behind the promenade, where there is a main avenue with fairly standard high-street shops. The town itself feels large, though I expect by English standards it is not. Either way, I get the impression of a pleasant if quiet place, one well worth a week’s relaxation in. I spot a man with an Isle of Mann baseball cap, and start up conversation. His name’s Jeff and he works as a gardener. His accent is distinctly Manx, though the conversation becomes quickly confusing, and I later realise he’s hard of hearing. He tells me about Peel, Ramsey and Castletown, the other towns on this small island.

‘No, I don’t like Peel. I mean… I went to school there. I could’ve gone to Ramsey, but it was easier to get to. But I don’t go there now.’
‘What about Castletown, or Ramsey?’
‘No, I’m a Douglas man.’

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And that’s that! Like with Shetland, in smaller spaces geographic distances can vastly increase in size. He gives me the impression that he’s rarely been to these settlements, little over ten miles from where we stand. As the conversation draws to an end, he asks me eerily ‘You the one that’s come from Scotland?’ But I have, and who else might it be? I say yes though am unsure why, or what saying yes might even mean. With that, I leave Douglas and head to the opposite side of the island, Peel, a fishing town on the west coast of Mann, facing the Irish Sea.

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The ride across the island is really enjoyable. It’s mostly flat countryside that passes through very small villages and mostly cultivated fields. Despite being an isolated landmass, there’s an abundance of trees and shrubs, and despite the lack of speed cameras the roads are safe. It seems that road-users can be trusted enough to actually think about how to drive, without infantilising signs. On the way I pass many red and white crash barriers and soft pads, and the route is lined with placards explaining the name of the stretch of road. TT Motorbike racing is well-known and popular here, and motorcyclists and professional cyclists pass me as I cycle by, quietly absorbing the scenery.

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The road passes St. John’s, a small village that stands out from others for the large church and, nearby, a tall mound with a flagpole on a wide expanse of green. Each year, the new laws enacted by Mann’s Tynwald are announced in English and Manx on this hill, which contains soil from the island’s seventeen parishes. There’s a Manx Gaelic school nearby and a couple of pubs which interrupt this pleasant tour. The road continues, passing a small football ground and entering Peel on the edge of the coast.

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Where can you order kippers by post? Or where can a Viking longboat arrive in 2014 and not turn the heads of locals? It’s Peel, a small town built into a sloping hill that descends into the Irish sea. It has the appearance of a fishing village, with narrow streets sloping down into a more modern harbour and Victorian seaside promenade. The ruins of Peel Castle stand in the distance on a separate islet, St. Patrick’s Isle, and the harbour follows close by.

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I follow the jetty down to a café on the edge of the sea, where bikers and locals are eating fish and chips and talking cheerily. The chips and brown sauce, once it arrives, are superb, as are the views of the sunset over the Irish Sea. ‘This is where the life is’, one local fisherman, John, tells me. ‘Hello Bobo!’, says one group of bikers to a dog-owner and its walker. I feel in the minority as a holidaymaker, such a rare and pleasant thing in such a relaxing and pleasant place like this.

I wander to the edge of the jetty where John is pretending to fish. ‘It’s called fishing, not catching’, he says, laughing. ‘What’s this place like?’

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‘There’s characters, and then there’s Peel characters.’ He’s been here since the age of three. His eyes dart about charismatically, giving the impression of a mind easily distracted and just about tamed with some kind of meditational thought. ‘They call it an island, but really it’s a world,’ he says, in describing its hold over people. Not many leave, mainly because the quality of life and feeling of community holds them together. And it’s relatively easy to find work – of course, being a tight-knit community can help with that too, but there are no signs of poverty everywhere. Nor are there signs of excessive wealth (at least that I see), no gated driveways with CCTV, or flash cars, or mansions with swimming pools.

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‘There’s a lot of racism here, some people would call it ignorance. I don’t know.’ That’s another downside to its insular introspection. John and his wife went to a local church recently ‘to get a sense of the community, but what is the community? It’s a bunch of elderly people, only a small amount of the people there, calling themselves the community!’ They felt neither part of it, nor excluded, but on the threshold. Time spent living away from Mann has diluted his accent, he tells me, but it sounds just like others I’ve met. As the sun sets, and the mackerel and pollock continue their embargo of these waters, John shares his views on human nature.

‘I’ve got a mate who says all people are evil. We’re all greedy, every one. And I say, look around. People looking out for each other, helping each other out. If the world were like that, it’d collapse.’

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I head back towards Peel’s promenade facing the beach and harbour, and find the Creek Inn. A recreated Viking longboat is sitting in the harbour, staffed by a group of cheerful and shouty young Danish men and women in green jerseys. Some are playing volleyball with the locals on the beach. It’s a nice evening, and I pop inside this old pub to try the local beer, Okells. The Olaf dark beer is fine stuff, but the bitter is unremarkable. I sit back and write for a while, then later some locals are joined by the Vikings in a round of pub singing and music playing, violins fiddling and accordions heaving. Everyone’s singing along to the Irish Rover and the Leaving of Liverpool as beer and cider spills over the old carpets. I sip on some Tobermory, a light but overtly sharp tasting malt, and take part in the carry-on. A portly local business owner with a public school English accent lords it over some young people who seem to want shot of him: ‘I’ve put millions into this community’, but with strings attached. I get talking to Debbie, a local woman. ‘It’s always like this in here, people playing music, just being open. I love it.’ She tells me about the community, about the laid-back way of life. I feel I’ve stumbled across somewhere special.

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I leave the pub and dash up Peel Hill, which is more of a verdant mountain that overlooks both the castle and the harbour area. Along the edge of one cliff I spot a place that’s just out of view from the street, and boasts an awesome view of the castle and the night skies. I see Mars in the distance, with the chatter of gulls and the heavy exhalation of the waves gently lulling me to sleep.

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The next morning I notice that my bicycle’s luggage rack has snapped. The gears are no longer shifting and the pedals are making a strange rattling noise. Trouble afoot. Debbie had told me of a hardware shop that might do bicycle repairs, so after a dawn drift around Peel I find Simpsons, where the owner Stewart spots that the bearing has probably died. I leave it with them, and head to the House of Manannan, a well-reputed and expensively-built museum by the harbour.

It tells the story of the Isle of Man through a series of rooms with video displays of the character of Manannan, a shape-shifting god who once veiled the island in a thick mist to repel invaders. ‘Why else do we tell stories except to hand down the history of our time on this earth?’, the thespish Manannan booms.

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The Romans never landed here, but migrants from central Europe did, landing between 500BCE-500CE. Their tribes were well-organised and they lived in communal roundhouses, sharing a culture with other peoples of the same movement who would become Gauls, Britons and Galatians. They were atavistic, believing that every aspect of nature contained elements of divine power, and their abilities with metallurgy and crafts enabled them to represent their complex and sophisticated religious beliefs through elaborate and beautiful objects. Christians from Ireland began to land and convert the Celts from 500 on, then after 800 Vikings began to settle, intermarrying with Celts and forming a uniquely Manx identity.

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We have much to thank these Vikings, beyond simply place names and gory legends. Mann’s Tynwald is said to be oldest still-continuing parliament in the world. These meeting places to create law and ratify them, to air grievances and discuss affairs in a popular assembly. Similar tynwalds (remember the ‘tingwall’ on Shetland?) were established where Vikings settled. They even established trading communities in Kiev, Moscow, Dublin and Limerick, and travelled as far as Africa, Greenland, Byzantium and North America on these surprisingly small and vulnerable longboats, navigating by the stars. There is a recreation of one longboat in the museum. That men lived and sailed these vessels for weeks and weeks, through all kinds of weathers, then managed to land and wage war, make peace, or trade with other peoples with very different languages and cultures, is so extraordinary. It feels comparable to space travel.

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Peel had a boom towards the 18th century through the herring trade, which still has a presence here. There were hundreds of boats, and each carried odd little superstitions. Boats must never travel in groups of three, was one legend; another was never to throw herring bones onto the fire. The herrings would feel the pain of their kin!

Stewart and Josh at Simpsons have replaced the bearing with something new, and show me the crumpled remains. ‘It would’ve gone in days’, he says, and I’m grateful to have been spared a major breakdown on some distant country road, but the costs of maintaining this bike are starting to grate. There’s a new luggage rack, albeit a little too big to fit my panniers onto. Still, there’s a way round it. I thank them and head on my way.

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Outside Peel is the annual Royal Manx Agricultural Show. I’d been advised by one of the workers in the Manannan museum to check it out to get a sense of the real Manx identity (she’d also complained about the very high salaries of their House of Keys representatives…), and curious, I head down. It’s on for two days and seems to be popular. There’s dozens of marquees with craft stalls, farming insurance, timber, feed and other supplies, as well as long rows of sparkling new tractors. Fancy breed dogs are walked around in one square field, whilst in another sheepdogs chase about as a local man issues sarcastic and hilarious commentary. A smell of frying hot dogs and burgers is in the air, and children run about shrieking and laughing.

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I pop into various stalls and find out odd bits of information here and there. In one plant nursery I’m told about the kinds of plants that thrive on this rocky coastal place, and introduced to flowers and fruit trees whose names I quickly forget. A bee-keeper from northern Ireland takes me through every honey made on Mann before digging out his own personal produce. ‘I don’t like honey with too much heather, it tastes… insipid’, he says, a veritable connoisseur of the stuff. Mann hasn’t been hit by the viruses that have plagued other bee colonies across the world, but this friendly fellow makes a sharp distinction between ‘bee-keepers’ (good, responsible, professional) and ‘keepers of bees’ (dilettantes, afraid of being stung, ?hipsters?).

There’s a tent full of memorabilia from the Northern Young Farmers club, a social group that’s existed for decades. People inside spot relatives in photos from the Seventies, and I get the impression that today young people are being trained to farm their parents’ land in a way absent from England. Perhaps in these smaller and more insular communities, where alternative careers are socially and economically more difficult, this is more possible – it was true also of Orkney.

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Elsewhere, I meet two workers from the island’s adult social care team, whose names I lose in the fog of encounters. They laugh as they tell me that their health minister was stood where I am now standing – ‘you should’ve asked him!’ when I ask about the challenges facing their work. What about budget cuts, austerity, has Mann had a similar experience to UK local authorities?

‘Oh, it’s not like London. There’s some problems here, but… there’s some things that we do really well.’
‘What like?’
‘Respite care… for the elderly. Care for young people with learning disabilities. We’ve got twenty community homes for around hundred adults. We’ve got a supported living service, residential respite, a day service. We’ve not been hit in the same way with cuts.’

They tell me about the workshops and supported employment services they run for young people with learning disabilities. Their stall is full of well-made crafts, and a couple of large bird-houses catch my eye. Crafts, gardening and other services are on offer. ‘But what about homelessness?’, I ask. Poverty in the UK is a largely hidden affair. Behind every well-kept town centre are suburbs of decaying council estates, near-derelict Victorian terraces, discount supermarkets and McDonalds drive-thrus. ‘There’s not much. It tends to overlap with mental health issues. We’ve got some places, largely in Douglas. But it’s not like London!’

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We talk a while, trading experiences of service innovations and problems on the frontline. Without really inviting it, they keep comparing Mann to London, and it becomes quickly apparent that Mann heavily relies on ties of friendship and kinship in its care. Neighbours look out for each other more readily, not simply because in London people are ‘less friendly’ or whatever unfortunate cliché is bandied about my lovelorn home town, but because people are already bound by ties of relation or work. Your neighbour might be the cousin of your colleague; the butcher might be a friend of your uncle’s who you see in the pub.

In London or other large urban centres traditional forms of employment in the industries have disappeared. Successive waves of migration have changed and refashioned communities, dispersing as much as suffusing individuals. The city is a cultural hub, and its reliance on property speculation, finance and services has seen rents risen and attracted overqualified young people from across the world flood in for work. It’s a different story, but I’m wary and a little annoyed by the frequency with which London is criticised.

I know I called the place a cancer – ha! Come on, let a man criticise his own home, there’s a certain gritty pride in doing it. But London is neither as socially atomised as is often made out, nor are its social problems unique to it. Mann is a wonderful exception. Everywhere at this fair people know each other, start conversations with old acquaintances. It’s like a huge family wedding where every guest is comfortable with some kind of very loose prior acquaintance with each other, enough to put hostilities to bed.

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Before leaving, I spend time talking to Sarah, a lady who works for the National Farmers Union on the island. I ask her what kinds of problems affect farmers here. The previous winter there was a long period of heavy snowfall. Thousands of livestock died out in the fields, and farmers had a good portion of their livelihoods wiped out in our increasingly unpredictable weather.

‘But what about succession?’

Travelling through farming communities a while now, it’s becoming apparent that most farmers are pretty old. The average age of farmers is somewhere in the late fifties. Farmers’ incomes have been steadily shrunken into subsistence by their dependence on supermarket suppliers, demanding more produce for a lesser price in order to supply the supermarkets’ demands for low price food. This is the inverse of the problem about growing living costs: food prices are rising, but actually not enough – farmers need to be paid more for their produce, but then could the average shopper afford it? Probably not – people are already living at their limits.

Consider how the social arrangements of households have changed: who could be a housewife or househusband today? How many young people can afford to rent their own home? Both parents in a family will today work, and still bring home just about enough to stay afloat. Young people live in houseshares. Wealth is inherited – families with some money will buy and pass on property to their children. And if your family could not financially assist you (mine can, fortunately, but that’s not the common experience), then life’s a struggle of debts, multiple jobs and making ends meet. And this in an era where wealth divides are growing, becoming extreme. Farmers become old and sell their lands to large agricultural corporations, who then employ underpaid overseas labourers to work them. Profits are made this way. A way of life is disappearing.

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Sarah tells me about the problems of succession on the island, though Mann is a little less blighted. It’s more difficult for young people to leave the communities, and there are more structures in place (like the farmers clubs) to socialise and train young people to farm from an early age. The costs of producing livestock, particularly in growing feeds, makes farming more difficult here, and costs of meat are more expensive than that even imported from Ireland or England, but farmers are just about making it by.

Nearby are signs for a support service for rural farmers. Social isolation and traditional notions of masculinity (‘man up’, stiff upper lip, stay strong and the rest) can aggravate the private economic difficulties facing farmers. Access to firearms doesn’t help. Mental health issues and poverty do overlap, though not exclusively. I leave the fair with a positive but nuanced impression of the place.

I’m cycling back to Douglas, enjoying the pleasant Sunday evening. I reach ‘the city’ as John calls it, jokingly, and pop into the town’s museum, where there’s some interesting exhibits about the history of the Tynwald, and Mann’s role as a prison-camp for enemy POWs. There were riots here during the First World War amongst the German soldiers, and several were shot. No monument to them, no monument in France or Belgium for their fallen. In war everyone loses.

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There’s time left for a couple of beers in the Prospect pub, situated in the island’s small financial district and close to the Tynwald building. Locals nickname it the ‘wedding cake’ for its stacked and white appearance. Sat beside me are a group of workers around my age, complaining loudly about their jobs. One’s just thrown in the towel. A stream of blue insults pass the table about their manager. The remainder feel trapped, bound to remain, but trapped also by a lack of motivation to venture into something different. Displeasure’s begrudgingly accepted. It’s not just ‘work’ when one’s leisure time is taken up with recovering from it. It’s ‘life’, a life of work, boring, stressful and depressing.

Mann, an intriguing place. Its regional autonomy is a reproducible model for Scotland, Wales, Cornwall – indeed any region that desires self-government. It works well here, and I leave with a good impression of the place. I stay a little too late and have to dash for the ferry, making it just in time. On the way I drop my new heart-shaped bicycle light somewhere on the road. I’ve left my heart on the Isle of Man. Groans indeed, but fortune has a preference for equilibrium.

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The ferry’s a gentle ride back to Heysham. I’ve nowhere lined up to stay, so I cycle up along the coast towards the ruins of St. Patrick’s chapel, but I spy a dark figure dashing into the water and out on the nearby beach. Its way of moving is disquieting and not quite human, and certainly weird. I check my eyes, but it’s a figure all the same. There’s no-one else around, and no human settlement nearby, so I rapidly turn around and cycle back towards the harbour in fear, laughing at my foolishness.

It’s midnight, and exhausted, I cycle towards a caravan park. There’s a scrubby wasteland next to the nuclear power station at Heysham with loud pylons buzzing away. I climb over a fence. It’s clear, and not haunted by shape-shifting ghouls, so it’s good enough. I pitch up right beneath one very noisy pylon, its hum like the sound of torrential rain. It’s a weird place all the same, and sleep doesn’t come too soon.

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