‘You never know what’s around the corner’ – Adam, Portsmouth.
I wake up on the edge of a recreation ground, outside a sleepy hamlet on the desolate coastline of the Isle of Wight. This is the last Monday of this journey, and my plans indicate I should reach London by Sunday night. That gives seven days to come up with something remotely conclusive about these islands, Albion…
Because I should come up with something conclusive, right? I’ve come all this way… would it not be disappointing if I were not entirely changed, or if I could not say: this is England, that is Britain, here is the truth? Perhaps pick up and discover in some discarded object, or exchange, or moment, a definitive instance of this experience which encapsulates everything, everywhere, on these islands? Sure, I’ll need to make some concession to passing fashions, and ensure whatever thing is might be is appropriately politically correct yet still attached to a sufficient number of recognisable clichés – perhaps a non-white child dunking a digestive biscuit into a cup of tea at a royalty-themed street party. Just don’t mention institutional racism, child abuse cover-ups, poverty, ritalin, or that his disabled mum hasn’t eaten for two days because her ESA was cut off. But now I’m falling into another cliché, that of anger. The task I set myself was impossible: find an essence of life and the living in this part of the world. It is too big, too big for anyone. That’s what so irked me about everything I’d read about the British or the English, usually drawing on a heap of clichés for both, of pigeon-fanciers, cucumber sandwiches, warm ale,Wayne Rooney and the Queen.
So, as many a writer has done before me, I decided to begin with a cliché in order to explode it. ‘Albion’ it was, the mythic name for Britain, though more often than not referring to the English, occasionally appearing in the poetry of Blake, as I emphasised at the start of the project, though appearing in many other places too. Its fuzziness made it seem attractive too. I couldn’t imagine someone being attacked late at night by a gang of drunken men for not belonging to ‘Albion’: its mythical connotations suggested a land of plenty and opportunity. But cliché it is, and if all I can offer on returning is that what defines ‘Albion’ is its ‘hybridity’, ‘strategic uncertainty’, ‘radical indeterminacy’, or ‘postsubjectivist pluralism’, then that feels to me like itself another cliché, another too easy dead-end. (Am I making these terms up? Sadly, I’m probably not.) To end up with, ‘ah, well it’s a big melting-pot, but isn’t Scotland lovely?’, close my front-door and go back to my books would feel like I’ve cheated.
To be honest, which in a writer is always either to reveal weakness or use the masquerade of that reveal to express a spurious and unqualified opinion – what’ll it be? – I’ve found it harder and harder to hold onto my preconceived opinions and views. Yes at times I’ll make a strong argument here in my notes, usually carried up by something I’ve just read or heard, but in the moments in-between places, and in-between things, my mind drifts back to a kind of greyness. Not gloominess I mean. Grey as in ambivalent, vague, out of focus.
Just one thing, for instance. Colin and the trains. At the time, and after that encounter, I felt sure that a nationalised and publicly-owned railway system was not only the most desirable arrangement, but also the most logical, and ultimately, what would inevitably transpire. Such confidence in the reckoning of the future! But little since would support a view. Roads continue being built, trains are too expensive to sustain this kind of mass regular transport (consider their emptiness out of peak times). Perhaps a movement could rise and take on the private operators? But this feeling for collective action is so weak now. Even the most minimal of expressions, like an annual march one Saturday afternoon, or a petition, struggles in itself, and this through a format that is ineffective in instigating change. It’s starting to dawn on me that before presenting an answer, isn’t it most honest to give the question that prompted it: what if this arrangement continues in this fashion for the next twenty years, or longer?
Everything I’ve picked up and found has seemed like the fruit of chance. That’s how I’ve seen it, and I’ve smiled as I’ve looked back on the conversations, mishaps and adventures. It’s been a lot of fun, though not much has been easy. I’m physically hurting. But the people I’ve spoken to and met do represent, more often than not, a narrow selection of the population. Many are out of work, either unemployed, students, or retired, hence how I bump into them during the day. But they are also socially active. More often than not, they are either of my age group, or in their 50s+. People in their 30s and 40s I’ve spoken to less, as. Out of this, I have inevitably missed out a broad swathe of experience of people busy working, and who might otherwise be more invested in the political and economic state of the country as it currently stands. And I tend to record in detail the conversations I find most interesting, and either only briefly mention those I do not, or exclude them altogether. And who picks these people? I do. I’m drawn to ask some, inevitably over others.
Well, so what? I won’t give a tortuous and torturous auto-ethnography, I’ve more love for you than that. But my process of note-taking isn’t impartial, but written from memory, between an hour to half a day later. The mind reconstructs conversations, and no doubt embellishes them, though I’ve always strived to be as accurate and impartial. But something necessarily must creep into the reporting. I’m showing you these defects only because I’m feeling self-conscious of them today. I’ve been too proud, self-confident and sure in a lot of this writing, and it’s not a way I often feel. It’s easy to get carried away, the momentum of one assertion or argument can just pull you along.
It’s a little like cycling in a city. You begin cautious as you set off, then one risky situation comes up: say taking a right turn from a minor road out into a busy lane . You feel like you might end up waiting forever, so you take a risk, expose yourself, force yourself into whatever flow of traffic feels the quickest. Heartbeat’s racing! There’s faster vehicles all around you, each racing ahead, you follow your own course, reassured by the speed around you. Another situation comes up. This time your thinking short-circuits faster to the risk: say, the traffic lights are about to change, but you whizz through on a red that’s just gone from amber. Risk-taking is exciting, and so you start to take more risks, cutting down the side between two lanes of stationary traffic, getting careless, enjoying the adrenaline rush. This is how I understand my own thought around politics. Sometimes I ride so flippantly and surely that I think about a new democratic constitution for a confederation of self-autonomous regions in a British republic. And it is so far away, so distant.
I’d be lying if I claimed that the streets are brimming with something that could spill over into change. But there is so much unhappiness and frustration everywhere. It feels like people have lived with it for a very long time. If I were to have given a fair ‘average’ to life on these islands, I wouldn’t have traversed the entire region on bicycle, but would’ve spent a specific number of days in more populous cities, then skittered through the depopulated countryside. Instead at least half of my ride has been through mountains, forests, wilderness and heathland. What a joy it’s been. But it’s not an average experience. Instead, the average would be the retail parks and McDonalds drive-thrus that I later see on the outskirts of Ryde, or in the nonwhere ville of Fareham, between Southampton and Portsmouth this afternoon. In the suburban semis, on the busy A-road I ride on, in the very same stock variety of a local Tesco supermarket as one finds everywhere else. It is an architecture and way of life that isn’t specific to any region. It suggests cheapness and compromise, and no-one is particularly happy with it but, like any protracted compromise, whatever other alternatives that were once mooted are equally rejected, too complex, too much hassle.
But look. This ‘average’ I’m presenting is also a construct and a cliché. A postmodern ‘simulacra’, a society of the spectacle, full of one-dimensional men and women – we’ve been to this cliché before. It’s an easy way of separating myself from the surroundings, preparing myself back for life in the bustling multicultural city. That too seems like a shitty way of disengaging and reverting back to type. ‘If the facts don’t fit the theory, so much worse the facts’, is a line wrongly attributed to Einstein, Hegel, and others. It suits my purpose, to stick with the ‘facts’, however discombobulated and constructed they necessarily are. There’s something darkly ridiculous about a moralising social reformer and would-be Quixote travelling far and wide on an old bicycle, issuing prescriptions and curing souls. Some already perform this act, and I wish them well. But I’m far less certain of my own judgement now than at any point in my adult life.
At the same time, each of us thinks out of a set of ideas and experiences that enable us to understand and communicate with what’s around us. Call them ‘frames’, or ‘theory’, or ‘culture’ or what you will. There is more beneath the appearance of simply groups of individuals living and working in proximity to each other. ‘Identity is an ever-unfinished conversation’, said Stuart Hall. Out of my conversations there is a greater conversation occurring about the political and social identity that each of us thinks out of, that we use in measuring the state of our communities, or those of other places. There is no non-political, no ‘not doing’ politics. To step out is to step back in, reinforce current arrangements with one’s inertia. I’ll need to find a position, even if it’s greyer or of a different order to anything of the current moment.
Two things are still eluding me: depth, and slowness. The depth of not knowing but knowing that one does not know, the depth of mystery without falling into mystification, the depth that lacks a short and showy statement but can demonstrate the multifaceted workings of this world. The slowness that gives time to hear this, to taste this, and gives time to others, and for others, to say this, or not say this, without needing to press them for a pithy one-liner or a curt summary of life in this place. I’m interesting in the depth that, with its unusually stony and inscrutable soil, can allow strange things to flower that would normally languish elsewhere, like unmodish poetry, like agape, the love of others, like anything Romantic but without being about romance. I’m still getting nowhere. But I’m glad of that, now I’ve worked this out for myself.
The early village labrador hath twice done salutation to the dawn, reminding me that it might not be a good idea to be discovered sleeping in such a public spot. It’s been a dry night but the tent’s filled with condensation, indicating the lowering drop in temperature as October comes closer. I pack up and eat breakfast by the quiet military road threading along the southern coastline along the ‘Back of the Wight’ as they call this part, hearing the cries of seagulls occasionally interrupted by a passing tractor.
Wight once bragged of having no monks, lawyers, or foxes! It indicates something about its irreverent, hard-headed and agrarian character which is hard not to like, even if the foxes and lawyers have since crept onto the island… I cycle out of the quiet village of Chale and up to Blackgang Chine, a steep promontory that suddenly drops into the sea. Erosion is a serious threat to much of the coastline, but that doesn’t seem to have deterred the entrepreneurial family behind the quaint if pisspoor theme park situated here. It consists of no more than three or four rides, with some massive fibreglass pirate figures looming around the small car-park, their expressions ranging from the bizarre to the sinister. ‘The land of the imagination’ announces one sign, and some imagination is needed to be thrilled by the fake dinosaurs and haunted houses, but there’s something genuinely affable about this odd little place, punching above its weight, a kind of who’s it kidding?! but enjoying being in on the joke too. ‘It’s a very weird place’, I was told in the Wight Mouse Inn last night, and some of the young folk there had previously worked in the park, and shared a number of funny tales about the place. But it seems like innocent fun to me. It is apparently the first theme park on the British Isles, and is still owned by the same family.
I wonder if Blackgang’s the inspiration for England, England, a satirical novel about the myths and clichés of Englishness by Julian Barnes. An eccentric tycoon decides to build a heritage theme park on the Isle of Wight that contains everything stereotypically ‘English’: Big Ben, Stonehenge, the White Cliffs of Dover and the House of Commons, filled with real-life Robin Hoods, MPs, royalty, country peasants and Samuel Johnson lunching at the Old Cheshire Cheese. ‘England, England’ soon becomes hugely popular and lucrative, and eventually supersedes plain old ‘England’. The novel is a little haughty in asserting its core thesis, which isn’t that original or that interesting, namely that the replica is now preferred to the messy and muddled original, being more simple, or dumbed-down, politically correct, and good old-fashioned fun.
But money doesn’t motivate the project. Sir Jack Pitman thinks that old England is in serious decline, but that in its decline, it can offer the world an experience of its future. ‘What we do have, what we shall always have, is what others don’t: an accumulation of time’, says the advertising consultant to Jack, pitching the idea that becomes the park.
‘You – we – England – my client – is – are – a nation of great age, great history, great accumulated wisdom. Social and cultural history – stacks of it, reams of it – eminently marketable, never more so than in the current climate. Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, Industrial Revolution, gardening, that sort of thing. If I may coin, no, copyright, a phrase, We are already what others hope to become. This isn’t self-pity, this is the strength of our position, our glory, our product placement. We are the new pioneers. We must sell our past to other nations as their future!’
Heritage England is a huge money-spinner, and Pitman takes this a step further. It’s a funny and entertaining book, and in Pitman and co’s market survey lists of ‘Englishness’ (including everything from cream teas and the class system to homosexuality, robins in the snow and whingeing) Barnes reminds me of just how ingrained, and useless, our clichés about England and the English are. Modern writers since Orwell have been confident that there must be some essence of England, some quality that binds a lord from Keswick with a cockney from Kennington, though this post-imperial itching never extends to Scottishness, or Welshness, or northern Irishness…. Attempts are made to say what this is: ‘social dis-ease’ says Kate Fox in Watching the English‘; Christmas Eve at King’s College, Cambridge, drinking tea by the bucketload and having a hot water bottle instead of a sex life, says Jeremy Paxman (speak for yourself!); a shared gloom of a kind, this ‘vile antithesis of a nation’, says cretinous racist David Starkey. Such bollocks, methinks. All could be stated true of other countries, other peoples. But that’s not the point. In describing the state of the nation, one is stating the nation. Even if no-one has ever drunk cream tea, met the queen or played cricket on a village green, these idiotic clichés are commonly shared. Based on nothing except lazy thinking, they can be debunked, with something new put in their place.
From Blackgang, it’s only a short ride up to St. Catherine’s Oratory, a medieval stone lighthouse known locally as the ‘Pepper pot’. The structure is truly unusual, tall, octagon-shaped, like a vision of spaceship travel in the Middle Ages. Its story is just as curious. The local lord was forced to build it, after he was caught and punished for stealing wine from a shipwreck destined for monks in France. Stealing monks’ wine would’ve had him ejected from heaven and excommunicated from God. Luckily for the soul of Walter de Godeton, the Church charitably offered the chance of penance. Build a lighthouse along this treacherous stretch! It still stands here, at the top of a hill overlooking the bay. I walk to it, past fields of easy-going cattle, and trace the scratched graffiti on its grey walls, idleness centuries old. Beneath me, undulating sheets of greens and blues, this area still remote, secluded from the bungalowland to its east and west. Tramp half a mile further inland, you’d feel off the grid. Farming’s bringing some kind of income here, and tourism the other. A little more steady than smuggling, salvage and shipwrecks, once the bread and butter of this backdoor stretch.
I enjoy the ride up into Niton, a small village a little inland. The military road has started to fall into the sea, forcing a detour in – I’m told that you can walk down to the edge, gaze at the eerily empty, condemned houses, awaiting time to confirm their oblivion. I take a stop in its church, just on its outskirts. There seems to be some kind of unusual and impressive blue steeple, shimmering, as if a turquoise tile mosaic, but close-up, it’s plastic sheeting covering an exposed roof. Ah well! There’s a prominent memorial to Edward Edwards, responsible for helping establish the first public libraries in Britain during the mid 19th century. Edwards was a Londoner from an uneducated, working-class home, and worked as bricklayer until he gradually taught himself enough about libraries and museum collections to eventually write about them, and work in them. He campaigned tirelessly for the establishment of places that gave free and universal access to information and literature. He helped produce the 1950 Libraries Act and oversaw the first free public library in Manchester. Their expansion across the country was largely assisted by the charitable donations of wealthy capitalists, like Henry Tate, Andrew Carnegie, and John Passmore Edwards.
Public libraries are superb institutions, and are most often the first point I investigate in a town when sniffing out ‘community’. Yet their establishment was tied to paternalistic ideas about what kinds of moral, uplifting and temperate activities the great unwashed should be doing with their leisure, instead of losing their marbles in the local boozers and bookies. Fair enough! Why shy away from the benefits of such an ethos? Countless people have learned to read in these places, and learned to read well. Most family homes are too crowded and noisy for homework, making the library indispensable for getting good coursework done. When I sit in a town or suburb’s library and write, I’m surrounded by people of all ages and backgrounds, learning English, completing accountancy degree homework, analysing Gramsci’s prison notebooks, revising UK Citizenship exam questions, playing video games, applying for jobs, reading the papers, or just sleeping besides the radiator. Education is a social right, but in a very uneven society like this one, where economic class divisions are as real as Victorian times, access to this social right is also uneven, and compromised by local authority spending cuts. Fight for libraries, like Edwards did. Rights are not established facts. Cease demanding a right, and it’ll be politely observed, forgotten, then ignored. Citizenship needs continual participation.
Edwards died in dire poverty in Niton. Though he’d helped set up the libraries, there was no old age pension in his lifetime and welfare and social care informally rested on relatives or the local church. His life exhibits many of the contradictions of his time. There is a library in the village named after him, no larger than a public toilet. I ride through Niton’s centre, past the old White Lion pub and a local post office that sells absolutely everything, typically so for a rural setting. Countless times, the sea has attempted to swallow the land, making treachery of the coastal road out of Niton. I ride up through Whitewell, and later arrive in Ventnor.
It’s a steep drop down into a small seaside tourist town, mainly filled with retired people. There’s obviously a large number of elderly people here, and on the island more broadly. Beside Niton’s church, an elderly lady told me that several local schools were closing down (though this is also part of a general decline in village schools in favour of larger amalgamations). She was worried that there wasn’t enough for the young on the island. It’s another unwitting consequence of this immigration from the mainland. Ventnor’s small town centre loops on itself, and I pass mobility scooter stores, a small supermarket and a couple of modest-looking pubs. The botanical gardens to the west are worth a look, I’m told, but otherwise it’s a small, pleasant but faded seaside resort. Elgar took his honeymoon here. Eminent Victorians would live for times of the year in this area, like Dickens and Darwin. The air was famed for its therapeutic qualities, ‘worth sixpence a pint’ claimed Tennyson, and Ventnor’s gardens are built over the remains of a chest hospital. I wander by the winter gardens, a white art-deco thing, and look down at the view of the fisheries, of a large plastic model of the island, and pensioners, sitting meditatively, searching for some instance of their childhood like a pair of missing spectacles.
Back up a steep hill, I exit Ventnor with difficulty, past the ruins of a brewery and increasingly built-up suburbs, til I reach St. Boniface Downs just overlooking the town. I talk to one elderly man walking his dogs. He’s been on Wight for thirty years, having come to settle down, eventually retire. The scenery pleases him most, the beach below, the small town, the fields and forests cramped up on this hillside. He complains about the prohibitive cost of the ferries, something I also heard in Niton. It’s difficult for relatives to come and visit Wight, compounding the isolation of elderly people that settle here, particularly after a partner dies. I suggest, deliberately naively, whether they should build a bridge between Wight and the mainland.
‘Oh no, that wouldn’t work. It’d attract a criminal element over, they could come and go as they please’.
I want to ask more, but I’m also a little stunned, and I can see his leashed dogs tugging at his hands. I ask him to explain what he means, but he describes a scenario where gangs of troublemakers sneak over at night and quickly begin a wave of burglaries and scrap theft. It is completely baseless, which I try to demonstrate when I begin to tell him about the Isle of Skye, and its bridge, but his eyes are glazing over… Rare, rare is the situation where I encounter strangers willing to meaningfully consider an unfamiliar political or social proposal. Politics is largely an mutual broadcast of opinions, rarely an exchange. This is not a discovery on this journey, just a hypothesis formed from observations, from family living rooms to local council meetings, from People’s Assemblies to Very Serious revolutionary group gatherings. The blogs, comments and forums of the internet offer superb examples of it. Rare do people listen to one another!
Ok, enough! The fear of crime interests me, not least for a small island with two prisons. When faced with an opening, an opportunity, a desire, say to my question ‘what one change would you like to see in your lifetime?’, more times than not a fear checks the question. What change? It can’t change, they wouldn’t allow it, who would pay for it…? ‘But’, I reply, ‘just start with the question’. But conversation’s aground. It’s easier to talk about all the reasons why change cannot happen. Fear checks desire. Scotland’s referendum, a contest for many voters not between ideas but between two emotions, pride and fear. Fear is this man’s greatest problem, even in a sleepy idyll like Ventnor. Of course, in such an untroubled place, fear festers best, aided by national newspapers that communicate anxiety and fear about unfamiliar bogeymen. Afraid, one needs protection. Strong government, law and order. All this time I’ve been thinking about desire, what do you want, what do we want? Build this place from scratch, what would it be… but desire’s not the operative emotion in politics, but fear. Rarely, that question is answered. Anger, resentment, demands for revenge, no justice, no peace… It’s everywhere. I’ve been researching ‘desire’ in politics. I’m realise my oversight now. To desire, fear.
I ride through Shanklin, Lake and Sandown, large and dull bungalow expanses that lace into each other. The attractions get tackier, and the shops a little more desperate: a Christmas shop, places selling every kind of stick of rock, a Pavarotti restaurant. Underwhelmed by the east of the island, I ride up to Ryde, a large town that consists of slightly well-to-do suburbia, a large but plain church, and then a shabby Victorian town-centre that plunges down towards the sea. I cycle by a run down marine parade, following a railway track that runs over a pier. For the second time on this trip, I’m refused a water refill for my flasks, this time on health and safety grounds. Ha ha! Laugh at it, for what else is there… At the end of the pier I catch the catamaran back over to the mainland, my final ferry journey on this trip. A group of young people with learning difficulties are tripping over to the mainland, whilst the staff complain about how much they can’t wait to have a pint on the other side. England, England!
The boat reaches Portsmouth, a large and incoherent looking town from across the water. The high-rises of Gosport sit on the other side of a wide harbour, dominated by its extensive military docks. The new Gunwharf tower steals the skyline to my right, piercing white, vaguely conceptual, copied and pasted from a Shanghai scene. It’s an attempt at regenerating a part of the town centre through a new shopping centre. We all know how well this works, but so it goes! I pull the bike off and get my bearings beside the harbour. Close by, a man with crutches is asking for small change. I help him out, and hear his story.
His name is Adam. ‘You never know what’s around the corner’, he tells me. He was a roofer but an unlucky fall left him with a traumatic brain injury and severe physical impairments, and chronic pain. His parents cared for him until they were killed in a car accident four months ago. The local council evicted him from their three-bedroom family house without arranging a suitable alternative. He fell between the cracks. I run through types of support he could be getting, based on my work experiences, but through bad luck and typically sclerotic and mismanaged social services, he has no support worker, receives no support from Headway, and is awaiting some kind of news from his solicitor. Meanwhile he sits here. If he collects £25 today, he’ll have enough to stay in a friend’s B&B for two nights at a discounted rate. He seems quietly confident of this. But he’s very emaciated and thin, of a kind not only produced by drug or alcohol dependence. He’s struggling, he admits, ‘I’m starting to feel it’, talking about the cold. He has no jacket, and was caught out badly by rain yesterday. This man is long overdue some good luck, but his situation is not unusual.
I peer into the large historic dockyard here. Entrance costs a small fortune, and the tours of the Heritage reconstructed boats remind me a little too uncomfortably of ‘England, England’, so I give that a wide berth and wander round. I head past a string of pubs besides the waters edge. Two metal children mudlark next to a gaggle of Italian high-schoolers, same colour backpack, chatting loudly. They’d dive into the mud, fish out objects, goad passers-by for coins. HMS Warrior coolly anchored in the nearby water, varnished timbers and cannon heads glistening, Britannia ruled the waves. Portsmouth is an olderly and sober town, and its late 20th century layout and appearance suggests a tough drubbing from the Luftwaffe.
I ride up Queen Street and through a busy shopping precinct that could be anywhere. Further out there’s tons of empty shop premises, to-let, can’t let, besides massive retail parks, uncoordinated decline. Gifted over to the road car, Portsmouth is hard to cycle out, particularly with its very fast and thick major roads. On what appears to be a marooned preserve of ancient architecture, I find the house where Charles Dickens was born, on a small street of preservation order Victorian townhouses, surrounded by gaping roundabouts and massive supermarkets. As I stand outside and munch, a young lad called Jordan pulls up on his bike and starts talking to me. I am not seeking directions, but he insists on giving them whilst swatting greenflies and telling me about himself. Southampton? It’s not too far, but he’s unsure of my chances.
Out of Portsmouth, I cut through clusters of council estates around Sultan Road and then take a busy road out of town, eventually finding a turn-off for a cycle path round Hilsea. It weaves through old brownfield sites, with trolleys and trash spewed up out of the thick muds. These are ‘edgelands’, ‘[r]ough and ready in the naked functionalism of their edifices and in the lawlessness and vigour of their natural vegetation, as Marion Shoard puts it, ‘places of forgetting’, a true wilderness worthy of romance as Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts write it up. Ugly and indistinct, places where people dispose of murdered relations, I ride through and along, out over a busy road west, through Cosham, Portchester, Fareham, and Titchfield, a continuous stretch of suburban retail parks, light industry estates and semi-detached executive housing.
Most of the local factories have closed, and their sites replaced by corporations like IBM, or these ubiquitous retail parks with the same brands everywhere (Halfords, Pets at Home, Currys PC World, Matalan, McDonalds, KFC, ugh…). Look at a map and there doesn’t seem to be much between Portsmouth and Southampton. But as I follow the northern edge of the Solent, I’m riding through a continuous urban area, densely populated and built-up, though without a name, identity, or sense of cohesion. A strange ‘subtopia city’, as local Owen Hatherley puts it. Back in the 1960s, Colin Buchanan produced careful plans of a futuristic ‘Solent City’ to be developed between the two, plans which were largely shelved. The area continued to develop though without any planning oversight, and today is a confused and tedious sprawl.
Some of this area hit the news over a year ago during the Eastleigh by-election, where the Lib Dems retained their seat by a narrowed majority. The failure of the major political parties to appeal to the general public was underlined by a spike of support for UKIP, at a stage where their leader Nigel Farage was no longer simply talking about Europe, but voicing concerns about factory closures, unemployment, and the increasing financial uncertainty of many households. UKIP are often seen as a right-wing phenomenon, but polls suggest that their voters actually see themselves as more at the centre than Conservative voters. Their populism has combined left-wing and right-wing concerns. It’s curious to ride through the area, with its fake-old executive housing, the four by fours and sports cars on the road, the chain stores everywhere, a chained state of mind.
As I ride through Sholing and over into the south-east of Southampton, the areas are obviously far more deprived and decaying than their suburban neighbours, but even in the distance I see the skeletal outlines of luxury corporate housing being built. Rich and poor live near each other without a coherent idea of themselves or the place they live. Solent is uncentred and ugly, though not malign, just dull. It is a product of those protracted compromises, and I see eyes glazed over by that same fear of crime on Wight, intoxicated by Chardonnay, a Fosters Top, and a large carvery lunch. Fair play I suppose.
Southampton feels quite different to all this, and I ride over the Itchen Bridge into the area of St. Marys, where old gas reservoirs rust besides the footballing home of the Saints. I continue north, through the Sikh temples and low-rise council estates around Northam, cutting up Mount Pleasant Road. Compared to the white lower middle class homogeneity of Solent (and Wight), it’s a pleasant and homely thing to be around the food shops and takeaways catering to different Asian and European palates. I ride up the Avenue to Southampton Common, where I find my aunt Annie waiting for me outside the Cowherds pub.
My aunt and uncle have lived in Southampton for some time, though neither originally hails from here. We talk about what to make of the early evening, and decide on a cycle tour of the town centre by bike. A local’s guide is always best, and cycling remains the best way of seeing any place I think, town or country.
From the large common in the north of the city, we ride first through Bedford Place, a once-bohemian centre of student life which has incrementally seen the scions of high street predictability ensconce the shop parades. There’s a buzz about the place and droves of new students milling along, many Chinese, a markedly new phenomena in many universities, as I’ve mapped out. The sizeable increase in tuition fees for postgraduate courses, and the lack of any student loan for them, has in effect destroyed the possibility of postgraduate education for most young British students – except if they have a wealthy family, or a scholarship. Instead, universities have been forced to rapidly invest in improving the appearance of their facilities whilst filling their prospectuses with a fug of claims about employability and student satisfaction. Opening up international branches of the university and aggressively marketing in China, South Korea and elsewhere has been another thing. As I’m finding, international students pay far more in fees under our unfair system, making them lucrative game. Sadly, this aggressive and irresponsible selling is causing new problems: international students often lack adequate spoken English (their English exam results, by contrast, may be very good), and are in no way preparing for the different educational culture here. Isolation is a big problem, as is this major language/cultural barrier. I’ve found no university across the country with any adequate support in place.
Indeed, since I’ve returned to London and caught up with friends, I’ve heard a disturbing range of interlinking problems. I’ve heard of covered-up suicide attempts in halls of residence among isolated international students. I’ve been told of the conditions of poorly paid PhD students and ‘early career researchers’ who now do most of the teaching on university courses whilst the big-name professors who draw the students in instead commit time to churning out research grant applications and journal articles at an alarmingly thoughtless rate. Again, I’m grey, ambivalent, out of focus with it all.
Bedford Place and the university bring these thoughts to mind, and they’re given form, colour and depth later at the dinner table, when my aunt and uncle talk about their concerns based on working in the city’s two universities. But we’re still on our bikes! So, we carry on, crossing over Watts Park, where we stop to look for memorials to the musicians and engineers of the Titanic, which left here on 10 April 1912. I’m glad to see a memorial to the city’s volunteers to the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War. We head next to Guildhall Square, a new public space opened up after the demolition of a C&A, and a pleasant reminder of what’s always possible with a tired and dull shopping precinct. There were high hopes to turn the place into some kind of Athenian democratic forum – today it’s a great place to skateboard – but I like the feel. The civic centre is just by here – a series of large and grand white buildings, Classical and sober in style with a proud clock-tower besides, though feeling a little cut-off from everything around it, garotted by empty space.
Annie talks about it being ‘made inaccessible’, and tells me about Southampton’s relative decline, from a proud city that was home to the great Transatlantic liners and shipping that, through the growth of air travel, Luftwaffe bombing and a series of very poorly coordinated reconstructions of the city centre, is now a place that has ‘given up on itself’. The point becomes clearer as we ride towards the shopping district. There are far too many malls here, like the hideous concrete carbuncle of the East Street shopping centre, or the Bargate Centre, both now awaiting the sympathetic attention of the demolition ball. It’s a ‘symbol for Southampton itself’, says Annie. It was built sometime in the 1960s as the city’s first indoor shopping centre, built of then-futuristic looking concrete. The city had no pressing need for it, or its shops; worse, it blocked East Street and alongside the Kingsway dual carriageway, cut off the area of St. Marys from the rest of the centre. Its street market has since disappeared, another area left behind. Demolition started on East Street about a year ago. Millions of pounds are now being spent turning it into…. a supermarket and car-park.
Little learned, right? Meanwhile, Southampton has continued building more and more malls – the first, imaginatively titled ‘the Mall’, and more recently, West Quay. ‘It has a strange effect on people. Many really dislike it’, Annie says. We ride past it and take a look. Local teenagers use the place to congregate, and curiously I think, and telling of what really constitutes the ‘centre’ of the modern city, a recent pro-Palestine demo marched through the city and terminated here. Commerce is its heart, far too much of it. We ride through a pedestrianised shopping precinct which becomes more multicultural and interesting as we begin to approach the southern edge of the city. We pop into the Red Lion pub, a Medieval hostelry with swords on its walls and gruff geezers communicating in grunts and monosyllables around the bar. We ride out down Oxford Street towards the old docks. Annie points out the buildings that once housed the liners like the White Star company. Travellers for the Americas would take the train to Southampton Terminus station, now a seedy-looking casino, and stay in one of the nearby hotels, fine dining on Oxford Street, then taking their huge liner the next day. That expensive mode of travel became obsolete, and that culture gone.
Annie points out some surviving railtrack over Canute Road as we approach the old port. Once upon a time, a fun-loving Flapper and her female friend managed to run their car aground on this track, and required the assistance of a large gang of strapping sailors to rescue them and their vehicle back on terra firma. That was my great grandmother, and that time zone so distant now. Some attempt has been made to redevelop the Port into a luxury high-rise Ocean Village. In an area not far from Itchen Bridge and St. Mary’s, here there are luxury yachts, portfolio apartments bought by investors from the Far East, and a small independent cinema.
It’s a grim place to end our tour, but Annie makes the point well. ‘Thatcher realised that the poor don’t vote’. It was possible to allow some industries to collapse, others to be asset-stripped and closed, and for public utilities to be sold to unaccountable hedge fund investors or overseas national industries. Television shows and newspapers all talk of the ‘rising cost of living’ without a political explanation, and declining wages, infrastructure and housing stocks are all explained as some of regrettable but necessary cost of our once-extravagant living. Though whilst the credit crisis didn’t make any real dent to the already-declining incomes of most households, the explanation for austerity has largely been unquestionably heeded. ‘Politicians’ are as unpopular as ‘the bankers’, but their narrative hasn’t been rejected. In Southampton the rich and poor live ‘cheek by jowl’, Annie puts it. I ask her why this is so common in the United Kingdom, but rarely elsewhere? It’s something neither of us can answer.
We cycle back to their place, back through the parks and up the Common, to the suburb of Basset where they live. After a day of much talking and exploring, lasagne and then almond pie go down extremely well. We eat together as a four, with my uncle Tony and my cousin Seth. Tony left school in Tottenham with no qualifications and worked for years as a potter, until he gradually discovered a love for learning, took years of adult education, later returning to university to study. He’s now a retired Marxist lecturer in International Relations, and a remarkably bright and lucid figure. ‘No democratic movement can have a national basis’, he argues, talking about the rise of UKIP in the context of the Scottish referendum. ‘Whenever a popular movement with working-class support starts to grow in an economic crisis, then you should worry’.
I’m a little sceptical about the longevity of UKIP, or of the surge of support for the SNP for that matter, but the discussion it’s generated is itself very interesting. Nationalism, such an archaic and stupid source of pride, is near the top of the political agenda. It is largely premised on resentment, of who or what people don’t want their country to include, or be. They worry about how a charismatic, amoral and ideas-free figure like Nigel Farage may capitalise on our deep social divisions. A rejection of the political establishment could see a preference for the ‘rule-breaker’, for the exemption. All of the major political parties are expressing a somewhat xenophobic politics that would’ve been unthinkable even five years ago. In the comfy dinner tables of these suburbs, educated, liberal professionals discuss with some pessimism the parlous state of the nation. Pessimism is always, strangely, the mood here, no matter the decade.
Now back in Manchester, an afternoon at the Jewish Museum kindled an interest in finding out about my family’s Jewish roots. Annie knows a good deal, and after dinner she unfurls a series of six ancient scrolls – in this case, large sheets of brown wall-paper – on which my late grandpa made an attempt at his family tree with his uncle Edwin.
Their handwriting is often illegible, but the document is a fascinating record of life in late 19th and early 20th century Britain. Jewish identity is matrilineal, and from the tree we ascertain that my grandpa could’ve claimed Jewish identity, though never did. His grandfather was Max Cohen, and he moved to Manchester from Hamburg at the end of the 19th century after a wave of anti-Semitic pogroms struck that area. He was a trader, and his company we think was called Gottschalk, a cotton trading business which had some kind of connection to Nigeria. Max’s business thrived, though he never attended the synagogues and made little attempts at being a practising Jew. One of his best workers was a local lad named Harry Scott Taylor, who charmed the boss’s daughter, Helen, and eventually married her. They had three children, one of which is my grandfather, John. Not much is known about Harry, other than that his father wrote for the Manchester Evening News, and that when he was fifteen, he and his brother were sent to America, though no-one knows why. Harry, Helen and their children lived in Nigeria for a short time, but Manchester for the most part. Harry was apparently very charming though with a bad drink problem. He had an odd propensity for over-the-top acts of impulsive generosity, turning up to the school and buying all the boys ice-creams, or bringing a huge hamper of strawberries to a family gathering at a time when they were still very expensive. It explains the often random and great acts of generosity my grandpa would make when we were young.
All families are strange, I see no exceptions in mine. With a family tree, one can see its eccentricities that bit more clearly. There’s ‘Uncle Jumbo’, who marries his niece and consequently births ‘potty children’, as a note states. Another killed himself shortly before or after his wedding after having a relationship of some kind with the bride’s brother. There are many photos of one great-uncle, Alan, who dies mysteriously aged 26. Then there’s Uncle Edwin himself who helped produce the tree, a continual philander who used the sale of the family cotton business to buy a huge house in the New Forest. He had a strange vision that everyone in our family would live in the one place, Hazlehurst. God knows what has become of that house or anything else. Things are much more modest today!
It’s been a long day, leaving behind so much to think about and make sense of, I can scarce keep up with it. I’ll miss these physically and mentally gruelling days – of a kind I’ve never experienced before. You’ve got to travel for this.