‘Ere Kel can I come in the toilet wiv ya?’ – courting rituals, Sheerness.
I awake with really bad fatigue. It aches to even stretch my legs, whilst elbows creak and crack. I haven’t had much sleep, finding it torturously difficult to even drop off, listening to the shouts and arguments of drunk teenagers somewhere nearby on Margate’s promenade. Everything hurts!
In most travelogues, one will notice that the ending is often hurried, inconclusive, even bad-tempered. Bill Bryson seems to lose it with everyone, Paul Theroux is increasingly impatient, whilst on their bicycles, Josie Dew and Mike Carter both tear through their final few days without seeming to even look up from their milometers. I used to wonder what malaise affects travellers on their tail-end of their journeys, but as I’ve approached closer to home, a great physical and mental fatigue has taken me over. With the exhaustion of yesterday still aching through my bones, I’m feeling like I’m repeating the beginning of this trip, as if I’m mirroring my old movements, those first few days where every part of my body wailed out its pain in a slightly different pitch so that I was able to hear them all at the same time. I’m back to that. The prospect of cycling even ten miles today feels unlikely. Perhaps I should’ve had some more rest days. But with darkness kicking in now at 6.45, and the cold beginning to bite, this has to be it. Nearly there…
Slavo, Lucia and their daughter Ella are up, and together we eat breakfast and talk. Slavo tells me about how he settled into England, before meeting Lucia. Neither of them have been to many other English towns, and Slavo has only ever visited London and Edinburgh, aside from this part of Kent. ‘When I came to England I couldn’t speak a word of English’. His brother first came over to England to work as a farm labourer, and he then helped Slavo come over. ‘We were paid minimum wage, picking apples’. The weather was very hot, and the hours long. Carrying a heavy 15kg bag all day and being on one’s feet without breaks was exhausting, and there was no time to either learn English or to do much except sleep in between work. His co-workers were mostly Polish, and there were no English pickers. He doesn’t seem surprised by the low pay, and is unsure whether that would’ve put off English labourers from getting involved.
Economic migrants like Slavo are in a difficult position, coming from small central and eastern European towns or villages marked by high levels of unemployment and poverty, they arrive in England usually with a number of skills. But there are few legitimate opportunities to use these. A lack of language and a desperation to earn money quickly often drives them into taking on low-skilled labouring jobs like fruit-picking. Back in London, I recall a friend from Romania, a former policeman and skilled worker, who was forced to illegally work cleaning cars, his visa (or lack of) preventing him from legitimately working. A sizeable number of the country’s homeless are made up of such workers now too, unprotected by contracts, unable or unwilling to receive benefits, ashamed or just too broke to return home. These workers have become essential to the country’s farming, yet they have been socially marginalised and politically neglected.
Hostility to ‘EU immigration’ is racist in nature, I think, and it’s something I’ve kept arguing. The problem is low pay, and it’s one workers like Slavo also unwittingly perpetuate: in working for poverty wages, they in effect undercut local labourers who would value their labour at a fairer price. But this is never the fault of migrants, but primarily the fault of landowners, farmers or corporations who will exploit these labourers with poverty wages, and behind this, the difficulty of producing foods for profit when supermarkets continue to lower what they pay suppliers. Slavo was glad to eventually find something a little better-paid. He now works for a supermarket chain overseeing the washing of fruit and vegetables, checking their chemical and acidity levels. It requires some skill and a lot of concentration, and he finds the work very tiring. Hours are again long, and it still pays just enough to live on.
For others in his position, the job would be OK, sufficient, but Slavo is an accomplished wire artist. His passion is art, and his work has been exhibited. Yet his job leaves him with no energy to make art, and he’s only recently got back into it after around a year without any time for creation whatsoever. He plans to use some sick leave to ‘explore’ his craft. He offers to fix my broken bike pannier by creating three new wire hooks, sturdy and strong, which he bends into shape and fixes to the bag, making it possible for me to use the pannier again. He shows me some of his works, bowls and baskets, extraordinary creations that transform a simple and functional material into an expressive medium of motion and light.
On the shelves around us, Buddhist scriptures and science fiction novels. I wonder about this gentle, friendly man and these remarkable objects he makes. It seems that the secular world has no obvious commercial need for beautiful objects, unlike those used in religious rites of the past. But there remains within us a capacity to feel beauty, and an ability to recognise it. It is there when our breath softens and slows, and our eyes rove the scene as we observe the sea, a forest or a river, or the view from a hill of a surrounding valley. We recognise it in expressive artworks. If it is true that ‘in or around December 1910 human nature changed’, as Virginia Woolf writes of the Post-Impressionist exhibition in London, it is in the power of such new works to be expressive of beauty in their own right, be it of landscapes, domestic situations, or of other human beings. Yet in material objects, it is rare for our homes to contain beautiful works. Some possess ornaments made in China, or prints from Ikea or Argos, but it’s rare to find a unique object made with attention or care. Such things would to my mind indicate the wealth and cultural capital of an upper middle class home, but why? Such things could be beautiful to us all. I think of my grandma, an amateur potter who has filled our home and many others with superb crockery inspired by the colours of the earth, marine blues, peaty browns, cloudy greys, with patterns reminiscent of lichen formations and metamorphic rock. Slavo is now beginning to have some success exhibiting and selling his works in Margate. He just needs time to make more, which requires money to have time. Wage drudgery goes back full circle.
Lucia tells us about a nearby cave whose ceiling and walls consist of nearly five million seashells, arranged in ornate patterns charged with esoteric significance. It takes the form of a passageway built beneath a Margate backstreet that leads to a small chamber with an altar. I’m intrigued, and we venture out to take a look. The Shell Grotto was accidentally discovered by a workman back in 1835, and its age and origin remains veiled in uncertainty. Such an extraordinary feat would’ve required numerous people labouring for some time, as well as a lengthy and possibly expensive process of shell-collection, yet no individual, organisation or religious sect has been conclusively attributed to it. It may be thousands of years old, it may only be two hundred. Nothing can be said with surety.
I urge you, locals, Londoners, whoever, to come here and take a look at this wonderful and mysterious place. Climb down the staircase and enter the passage, which threads around a single arch in the shape of a circle, before tunnelling down into the small worship room. Stop, and focus your eyes on just a single wall, and let your mind attempt to comprehend and explain the arcane and mystical designs. Some are recognisably pagan, others natural like flowers, others romantic like lovehearts, others classic, such as the tetractys, ten points arranged into a triangle, a Pythagorean symbol that attests to a belief in the underlying mathematical harmony of the universe. The shells were once coloured too, though age and sooty Victorian gas lamps have discoloured the grotto. I cannot decide if it is a tribute to the ingenuity of nature or of humankind, or a marvellous collaboration of both. The atmosphere is delightfully strange.
There’s much to Margate, and Slavo and Lucia take pleasure in showing me round. It’s a Saturday, their day off, and together we cycle to one of their favourite spots, Botany Bay. We ride through the old town and I make a mental note to return to its intriguing cramped boozers, flea shops and derelict seaside ruins. We cycle along the promenade, passing the new Turner gallery, a helpful intervention into a decaying town, though the design is unoriginal and bleak, and reinforces the ugliness around it rather than providing an escape. Such is the effect of a pseudomodernist architecture that revels in the superficial and pays no heed to its environs, though the collections inside are, in large, excellent. Around it is a small harbour, a couple of just-about-trading pubs and the boarded up Thanet Matchroom social club. ‘The Old Kent Market coming soon’, announces an optimistic sign over it.
The town has had to dig deep and reinvent its heritage as the home of JMW Turner; the narrative is feasible though a little tenuous, and it relies on poking one’s fingers between the gallery and the train station in order to ignore the rotting seaside resort all around. But fortunately efforts are being made to add this into the equation. There are vague plans to reopen Dreamland, a huge Victorian pleasure complex, one replete with a ‘ruined abbey’, lake, ballroom, ferris wheel, scenic railway, rollercoaster and a zoo. It closed in the early 2000s, its fortunes tied to the success or failure of Margate. Now, thankfully, and in something other seaside resorts should heed, it is attempting to reopen by providing a heritage pastiche experience of its Victorian seaside past. One could scoff at this ‘fabrication’ of its history, but it actually offers an original and pleasurable experience, unlike the shit arcade machines, deserted Gala bingo halls and early-opening boozers that bring so little to English seaside towns. It is this kind of heritage experience that, along with public art, could actually rejuvenate Margate, and indicate new possibilities for these otherwise cheap and cheerful but totally declining towns spread across our coastline.
We ride along the old promenade. Margate is largely in a bad state, though Slavo and Lucia tell me how much the town has improved since the gallery was opened in 2011, bringing investment and new visitors to the town. Some houses look abandoned, and the seafront itself is lined with peculiar ruins of the early 20th century, bricked up booths and pleasure centres, some semi-demolished, a staircase beginning in the middle of a high wall and ending nowhere. The shelters are large and empty, reflecting the spatial and aural voids of the town. ‘The people dirty, poor-looking, but particularly dirty’ – William Cobbett’s harsh take on the people of the area two centuries ago remains true, at least, of its buildings. By my descriptions, one could envision bleakness. That’s there, but there’s something I actually love very much about Margate, something which has certainly surprised me. There is so much charm in its faded glamour, and residual hope in its new businesses and spaces.
Botany Bay is a delight, a secluded white-sand beach that feels cut off from all around it. The view is peculiar here, the light a little green, off-colour; in the distance, faintly fogged, looms a gargantuan offshore wind-farm, the turbines appearing like half-submerged robotic soldiers attempting to reach the beach. There are strange energies here. Margate, together with nearby Broadstairs and Ramsgate, stands on what was once the Isle of Thanet, a landmass separated from the rest of Britain until the mid-17th century. This easterly nub still seems to operate according to some its own esoteric rules and rhythms. The cliff-walls around the beach are entirely covered in weird scribbles, ‘I am free’, a circle button in a wall: ‘Push’, ‘Elvis’, ‘Jesus saves’, to the more anodyne, the names of ten thousand visitors, ‘Josh’, ‘LC + KO 97’, ‘Aaron @ Luton’.
In a child’s act of impulsive wonder and unthinking generosity, Ella hands me a white shell. I still have that on my bookshelf now, beside me as I write. Together, we sit on the sand and watch the people in chairs, the dogs, and families in wetsuits, sharing in a collective tranquillity.
A lovely afternoon, and I’m sorry to leave Margate. It’s my favourite seaside resort, with enough intrigue, mystery, decay and beauty overlooked to wet my whistle. We cycle back through Cliftonville, where Lucia points out a house façade that has slipped down and slid towards the floor. It’s actually a major public artwork created by Alex Chinneck, and wryly uses a long-abandoned house to produce a bizarre, attention-grabbing public spectacle truly in the style of an old seaside amusement. Just great. They’re almost sorry to leave me too, and together we ride down most of the way to Reculver, a small holiday-park with a ruined abbey. It’s somewhere along that seaside promenade that we say part. It’s been a pleasure to have met them. Finding couchsurfing hosts in the South-East has proven quite difficult, and generally in England we’re either not as aware or not as willing to offer up our homes to well-meaning travellers.
As I ride through the ruins and caravans of Reculver, then inland through ranges of verdant fields on the way to Canterbury, I think about this young family. On the one hand, these Slovakian-born workers might be excluded from the narrative of ‘one nation’ England that’s beginning to appear across the political parties. Migrants from the newly-admitted EU states of central and eastern Europe have been blamed by politicians for deliberately coming to exploit our welfare system or national health system. This is impossible under benefits laws, and research finds that EU migrants contribute far more in taxes than they consume in benefit payments. Nonetheless, they are blamed for ‘taking’ low-skilled and low-paid jobs in towns like Margate or Rotherham, or blamed for undercutting skilled workmen in larger cities like London, Peterborough, or Southampton. This isn’t impossible, and relates to the problem of low pay I’ve been raising across these posts. ‘The Polish plumber’… At the same time that middle-class English have been parroting these complaints, which usually originate from those living with low pay, struggling to find work, there’s this valorisation of their work ethic. ‘The hard-working Polish plumber, he never stops…’, ‘we would recruit local lads, but none want the job’, ‘I don’t mind them coming over here, so long as they pay their way’, things one can read in newspapers or mimicked unthinkingly later in pub conversations. The worth of Slavo, Lucia, or other EU migrants is measured in their ability to contribute and their adherence to our values of work.
But what is a ‘contribution’ exactly, and what makes it a ‘good’ one? What is it to pay one’s way? And why is it worthwhile to work? Why doesn’t it matter that work is worthwhile whether or not one is paid? (Consider workfare or internships, not so unlike the workhouse). Is there anything more to a person’s worth than what they ‘contribute’ in labour hours? If so, why should migrants, the disabled, or the unemployed be judged by different standards? These questions are not raised, because they’re values unconsciously reproduced in one’s education and in the media’s construction of public opinion. They are particularly loved by the current government, whose systematic programme of privatisation and cutting of public spending is underscored by a sincere ideological belief in the value of work, that some deserve success more than others, and that the disabled or unemployed are either too lazy, feckless or insufficiently motivated to get a job.
This reminds me of the Victorian liberal ideal of work. Calling this a ‘Protestant work ethic’ as Max Weber does seems to disserve the peculiarly English nature of this ideal, and of earlier 19th century institutions like the workhouse, whose commitment to religion, particularly among capitalists, was at best tepid. During a period of automation and de-skilling of labour after the Napoleonic wars which reminds me of changes to labour in the early 21st century, workhouses were built to put the poor to work, to improve their morals through the sanctifying soap of hard labour. (Green Anarchism and cupcakes our nearest equivalents to Luddites?) The conditions of the workhouse were atrocious, its labour stultifying and often unnecessary, and it forced millions of people into conditions of absolute degradation during a time of material abundance. Politicians and capitalists were largely pleased with this arrangement, and granting any kind of social welfare or organising labour provoked fierce opposition and unrest. Today’s leaders would feel no pain in abolishing the dole; they are already seeking to abolish much of what was once called ‘disability’.
Does work work? Today, the huge numbers of applicants reported for skilled and unskilled jobs, from supermarkets to university lecturers, would indicate that there are insufficient jobs. Declining wages and uncertainty about social and health care are causing many older workers to delay retirement and so continue to occupy professional posts. Opportunities for professional promotion are further undercut by the impossibility of financing postgraduate research except through bank loans or scholarships, whilst apprenticeships are disappearing in both quantity and quality, being today little more than an excuse to underpay young workers for a fixed-term before letting them go. It would seem that we ought to be doing less work, and not more. Yet not working is a punishable offence, enforced by hunger, cold and eviction by the DWP. I believe the government’s austerity is not based on economic sense, but moral values: housing benefit and tax credits are government subsidies of rip-off landlords and poverty wage-paying companies, and the costs of treating mental health and physical health problems caused by evictions, poverty, poor diets and chronic stress will already be high, and massive in the future. Austerity costs more, as any Keynesian would’ve told you. But this is a moral war against the poor. So how do Slavo and Lucia fit into this?
Well, they live in the constituency of Thanet, an area with surging UKIP support. As EU migrants, they might be considered part of ‘the problem’, of those ‘swamping’ or ‘taking over’ as some will say, but they pay taxes, do not claim benefits and have not used the NHS recently, so they can at least prove their worth in ‘paying their way’. Yet despite wages, they are living in what I suspect would be classed poverty. This is a general experience of many, and something which governments, which are still, theoretically at least, composed of representatives of the people, can do something about. Rents and mortgages could be capped, houses could be built, taxes on corporations, high-income earners and those who possess sufficient wealth increased with a corresponding reduction in VAT, and wages increased to the ‘living wage’ level. Can one really say that it is unaffordable for businesses, when executives are awarding themselves six figure salaries?
The experiences of this migrant family are the same as most others residing on these islands. In fact, it feels wrong to even keep up this language of immigrants. I do it because others do, but it is rather stupid, is it not? Like humming a tune that every radio station plays… For everyone on this island is descended from immigrants, and most can trace international origins within even three generations. These islands also share common values of equality, toleration, and fair play. Despite a few prominent but minuscule exceptions, migrants have always been welcomed here. The media, particularly the BBC, have produced a public opinion of Europhobia that is rarely to be found. More of us wish to remain part of Europe and celebrate our historic connections. So let’s abandon this stupidity. It’s my penultimate day, and it kills me to hear well-meaning people talk about ‘immigrants’. Are these genuine concerns? No. They usually appear in communities with relatively little inwards migration (I won’t comment on the frequency of second homes in France and Spain here), and are generally an amalgamation of whatever terrifying headlines this person or that has habitually drawn on.
Enough books drearily ask who are the English, and lament their passing. The investigation is by nature parochial, if not implicitly racist. The English have always been there, because belonging to a place is to reside in it, to participate in it, and has nothing to do with birth. Citizens are made, not born.
Slavo’s hours supervising a vegetable-washing machine against stolen weekend moments crafting wire remind me of William Morris, and his ideas about the value of work. ‘It is assumed by all people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable.’ For Morris, describing his fellow Victorians, ‘all labour is good in itself’; whether or not it is toilsome, useless or painful, so long as one is ‘employed’, all is fine. Just paying your way. A certain degree of work is necessary for human survival, but Morris’s challenge is: how much? Do we need to work 50 hour+ weeks in our particular jobs? Are our jobs even socially necessary? We can agree that much of advertising, media, public relations and finance is obviously harmful, but to what extent is our bureaucratic ‘admin’ even necessary?
In my old jobs, I used to wonder if it was just a kind of managerial weapon to police our time and rattle up our productivity, but I no longer hate my old bosses, and see them too subject to the same anxiety, though with no-one else to vent it onto. This is Morris’s point: much of our work might seem useless according to his criteria (neither pleasurable, productive, nor conducive to rest), but it serves the purpose of reproducing a system of labour and capital which disserves most within it. Worse, it is a waste of our energies and talents. The technology exists to automate many tasks, Morris writes in 1884, in words easily applicable 130 years on. ‘Our epoch has invested machines which would have appeared wild dreams to the men of past ages, and of those machines we have as yet made no use.’
Aaron Bastani has spoken of the possibility of ‘fully automated luxury communism’ (!), and the arguments of post-capitalist accelerationists like Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams repeat the possibilities of a socialist modernity based on technological automation. I believe it could be possible in a developed country like England, which through education and investment could produce a highly-skilled workforce developing high calibre technological goods and services, some of which could be exported, and the value of which would not require working excessively.
But all this feels unlikely at this stage in time. The kernel of the problem is inside most of us. Work works, and working hard will be rewarding: we may not openly express this precept, but our work speaks for itself. If it doesn’t pay off in this life, then we’ll certainly be rewarded in the next. Today’s afterlife now seems to be retirement, or for those a bit younger and still a little idealistic, a mythical liberation in one’s 40s or 50s where one finally gets to travel India or study something remotely interesting at university.
I laugh when I think of Gerald’s words in Corgarff, back in the Scottish Highlands, a delightful antidote to all this. ‘People ask me, “what do you do for a living?”, and I say, as little as possible’. Thinking on it again now, it reminds me too of Dostoevsky’s passionate, nihilistic narrator in Notes from Underground. ‘Last of all, gentlemen: it is best to do nothing! The best thing is conscious inertia! So long live the underground!’
I’ve enjoyed meeting friends old and new across these islands, but my accounts obscure the fact that between meeting me, they’ve often been very busy. This has been financially necessary, granted, such as second jobs to cover rent payments, or chronic late-night article writing and grant applications to demonstrate one’s research quality. But it’s been underlined by an obedience, if not outright belief in the validity of working, and of that work. ‘Honest and hard-working’ are the best that is often uttered of someone. But I think about Robert Tressell, and of how being committed to such honesty and hard-work disserves those whose labour is so wearily undertaken yet cheaply priced. How does it compare to the wealthiest 0.1% of the populace who pay little tax and work in a way recognisable to few, and whose wealth and power directly relies on the poverty of much of their tenants and/or employees? Long live the underground…
Perversely, this belief in being ‘honest and hard-working’ is reinforced and amplified by scepticism about one’s ‘betters’. People go about doing a ‘good job’ in order to demonstrate their virtuosity and moral worth against such corruption. But for whose benefit?
After many years of unflinching self-discipline and Spartan diligence, I remember how terrifying and yet so liberating it felt skiving off at college, skipping a double-lesson of Sociology to go hang out with girls. (Which, being self-sheltered and coming from a boy’s school, felt like an afternoon on Mount Olympus). I remember thinking that I’d wished I’d skived off earlier. Since that interlude, I’ve worked myself like a donkey until this summer, ripping out four pages of the calendar to cycle around these islands. Perhaps this summer has been a skive, though all this travelling and writing has been hard work. But it’s not felt like a grind, and each day has been a kind of pleasure. It has been work freely undertaken, independent, and for myself, work so rare it doesn’t merit the name. It may not seem like ‘conscious inertia’, but in the eyes of the world I have been busy doing nothing. Far cry from what Ivor Southwood called ‘non-stop inertia’, of a restless yet coerced activity in both body and gesture, always smiling, productive and pert, yet belying a deeper mental paralysis, an inability to resist. The spaces for non-productivity are disappearing, yet this work we reluctantly pursue and whose effort we valorise seems productive of not so much.
To quote a phrase of my Grandpa’s, ‘the graveyards of the world are filled with the indispensable’. Work may not be something we can escape (there’s little way Slavo, Lucia and Ella could’ve just kept cycling with me for weeks, or months), nor are there many opportunities to make it conducive to rest, pleasure or usefulness, as William Morris imagined. But I’m glad to have discovered that I have an identity, worth and source of pleasure far removed from it. Future taskmasters, be warned.
Riding out from Reculver, my path skirts by Herne Bay, but I push inland, following a southerly direction that cuts a line straight through quiet countryside. I’m finding Kent to be a uniquely weird and mysterious place. Called ‘the garden of England’ by the brochures, it feels more like its backyard, overlooked, underestimated, or relatively unknown, containing a surprising amount of junk. There are dirty marshes, striplets of woods, and abundant wildflowers, and here much has been allowed to go wild or to seed. Kent’s a country one could disappear into for a long time. The people I meet are tough, hard in manner and appearance, neither friendly nor rude, never arrogant, rarely sharp or witty. For such a large region with a remarkable history and distinctively austere landscape, it has none of the cultural self-awareness of most other regions.
Nor does it fit the relatively affluent and conservative social profile of the south-east. Take Sandwich and Deal out, and this is a largely run-down and impoverished county still reeling from the loss of its docks and industries. The Miner’s Strike is at times framed as a struggle between the Thatcher-voting Home Counties against the rest of England, but miners in Kent were among the most militant pickets. The Kent NUM was the only branch which voted to continue the strike in 1985, and the last to return to work. Its seaside resorts are more ruined than most, but more than anywhere else are truly bewitching, enchanting ruins. Margate’s Dreamland, shell grottos and the ruined, derelict structures across its miles-long promenade are just strange. There is no evidence of any serious religious observation either. Canterbury is the work of Roman missionaries, and casts a disapproving eye over the surrounding wilds, swamps and murky edgelands. There are few places of worship anywhere else, and no possibility of sentimentalism or romantic reverie. There is a feeling of mischievous assent to the steady decay of civilisation. Industry freely rusts. Buildings freely crumble. People freely become odd without contrivance. Nothing remains clean for long.
Hawthorn, Marshside, Chislet, Hoath, then Sturry… there are coal seams still under these villages, though nothing remains of the mines. Coal was discovered in Kent accidentally, as engineers made prospective dugs for a Victorian Channel Tunnel project, then stalled for over a century by English paranoia about marauding Frenchmen. Kent, like Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset, has historic reason to explain its antipathy for Europe, though Kent has been accommodating to migrant groups, and usually the first arrival-point of groups and ideas from the continent. Yet canons and fortifications still point at France accusingly, and one will lose count of the union jacks fluttering on poles outside suburban semis.
It was more than just incompetence that made the English so much slower in digging the Channel Tunnel than the French. I wonder what might’ve happened if, instead of the tunnel, the 1985 Franco-British working group had gone with the altogether more audacious ‘Eurobridge’. I see blockades and bonfires… Kent feels more like a separate country, than a county, and the air is a little headier. Its people are known to rise up for their democratic, freedom-loving beliefs, be it with Wat Tyler, or Jack Cade, or Thomas Wyatt. Kent bore much of the damage in the Battle of Britain, a struggle narrowly-won by the RAF which allowed the British Empire to remain in the war before the Soviet Union or United States had declared opposition to Nazi Germany. That bridge might be fine in Bournemouth or Weymouth, but here the water’s tangier.
To Canterbury, then.
“To ferne halwes, kouth in sundry londes:
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Canterbury they wende,
The holy blissful martyre for to seeke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seke.”
Canterbury has more claim than Walsingham to be the premier pilgrimage point for worshipful Christians. It is built around its cathedral, established by St. Augustine (or St. Austin, in Kentish) back in 597. Augustine had been sent by Pope Gregory to ‘the ends of the earth’ to convert Aethelbert, the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent, and the wild Kentish pagans. Canterbury and the wider area of Kent were contested places of power by various migrant groups. The town was a Saxon stronghold, but had belonged to the Jutes, and before that, Romans, Durovernum Cantiacorum, the stronghold of the Cantiaci, a Celt/Brythonic people who had settled in the area. Watered by the Stour river and within a valley, it’s been a prime place to settle. Under Augustine, Canterbury became a transmitter of Christianity across England. It has remained the centre of Christian worship since.
The cathedral is additionally significant for the murder of Thomas a Becket’s in 1170, killed for his opposition to king Henry II. From the early Middle Ages pilgrims would travel down to Thomas’s shrine ‘from every shires ende’ with ‘full devout courage’ as Chaucer puts it in Canterbury Tales, some to give penance, others for holiday distraction. Chaucer’s late 14th century “Middle English” is also rooted in Kentish dialect, where he lived at the end of his life. As I ride past a retail park and into the city centre sprawl of Canterbury, what I hear is a flattish estuary drawl that, like many accents, corresponds to the landscape. Written fifty years prior to Chaucer, the ‘Prick of Conscience’ or ‘Ayenbite of Inwyt’, by Michael of Northgate, attempted to translate a French confessional work on morality into the specifically Kentish dialect. This phrase near the end gives a sense of how physically visual yet symbolically loaded (and confusing for modern English readers) this language was:
‘Ymende. þet þis boc is uolueld ine þe eue of þe holy apostles Symon an Iudas / of ane broþer of þe cloystre of sanynt austin of Canterberi / Ine þe yeare of oure lhordes beringe. 1340.
Vader oure þet art ine heuenes / y-halȝed by þi name. cominde þi riche. y-worþe þi wil / ase ine heuene: and ine erþe. bread oure echedayes: yef ous to day. and uorlet ous oure yeldinges: ase and we uor- leteþ oure yelderes. and ne ous led naȝt: in-to uondinge: ac vri ous uram queade. zuo by hit.’
This is actually a Kentish version of the Lord’s prayer, with some curious renderings: lord’s bearing, or a brother of the cloister, rather than monk, or birth. The prayer ends ‘zuo by hit’ – so be it, instead of amen. Consider the title, ‘Ayenbite of Inwyt’, meaning Again-bite (remorse, prick) of In-wit (inward-knowledge, conscience). Both the language and the landscape have a distinctive history, albeit a secret one. There are few museums or sources of information about, and Kent, in all, scarcely seems aware of itself.
Zuo by hit then. The centre of Canterbury is laid out much like a circle, and the town is dominated by universities on its outer periphery, and a large bland shopping precinct at its centre. As I cycle off the busy a28 and ride into the centre, a man calls me a twat. I ask him to explain himself, but he shamefully shuffles into a clothes shop. It’s a Saturday afternoon, and the town is filled with dawdling tourists, somnambulant students and a great number of drunk young men. One is hassling passers-by for small change. Recognising trouble, I decline, and am told I have Downs syndrome. The town is overwhelmed with chain stores, tourist tat, and an air of mass lobotomy. ‘Just pretend I said nothing’, a man shouts at a woman outside Chicken Cottage, closing one argument by beginning another. ‘People don’t get it’s another reality’, describes one heavily inebriated man outside the Bishops Finger. Confused by the people here, I decide to find refuge in the cathedral.
I queue in the cobbled Old Butter Market for the cathedral, giving chance to observe just how far people have travelled to visit this place. I wonder what the emaciated Buddhist monk has made of our brand of worship. The cathedral doesn’t strike me as a place to come to love or worship a God, but rather to prostrate oneself in fear before it. Overlooking the entry-gate is a gargoylesque statue of Christ, a distressed weird who leers menacingly over the queue. This Cerberus seems to be protecting the walled space of the cathedral from the rest of the city. Entrance prices are equally eye-watering, though a worker later assures me that entrance is free to pilgrims setting off from here. But who sets off from Canterbury? The place attracts around a million visitors each year, and can easily afford to reduce its rates. But this is not a place of worship but a Cathedral, a beacon of power, ruling through fear.
Perhaps it’s an appropriate fear – the idea of loving a God, or a loving God, would’ve been an alien concept to pagan beliefs, rooted in nature spirits and masculine/feminine archetypes, and later to the God-appointed feudal order of the Middle Ages, where every act and idea was based on some authority. The cathedral is filled with images that provoke fear or terror, from the gargoyles lurking on the margins of the exterior to the strange diabolic monsters etched into the pillars of St Gabriel’s chapel or the Norman crypt. Built as a beacon of power, the cathedral revels in the established order of power, and its many private chapels were built as chantries, where wealthy individuals would pay for a priest perform X amount of prayers and masses for X days in order for that individual’s time in purgatory to be reduced. The Canterbury Tales capture some of the Church’s quotidian corruption, from the utterly corrupt Pardoner who would sell time off in purgatory to the living as indulgences, to the Summoner, another scoundrel who would blackmail Christians with fabricated sins that might lead to excommunication in exchange for money. In another private chapel one sees in stained glass, an image of domestic betrayal: Judas literally hides under the table of the Last Supper, indicating the paranoiac proximity of betrayal and destruction in our midst. Ours is not the first century wherein the venal rich rule the remainder through dangerous Others and bogeymen.
The Cathedral, now rebuilt several times, is fascinating enough, though not as impressive as Lichfield or Westminster Abbey, I think. Inside, I find a much-faded mural depicting the life and death of St. Eustace. The name Eustace suggests fecundity, abundant grain, and his story is ripe with pagan motifs. He was a Roman general, and whilst hunting one day he saw a miniature figure of Jesus crucified between the antlers of a stag. This strange vision inspired him to abandon his post and possessions in favour of Christianity. He made himself an outcast, and much alike the Book of Job, his life becomes an endurance trial of misfortunes for it.
‘Let the day perish wherein I was born…’ His money is stolen, his servants die of the plague, and his wife is kidnapped and enslaved by pirates. Hi two sons are captured by a wolf and lion, which take on a semi-human form in the Canterbury mural, which also contains a bestiary of medieval monsters – frogs, mutants, demons erupting out of the fertile landscape. Eustace laments, but the good Lord rewards. Fifteen years on, he is now a successful general under Emperor Hadrian, united again with his family when, alas, the family refuse to participate in a pagan sacrifice. Furious, Hadrian decides to burn the unlucky lot of them inside a brass bull. Curiously, Eustace would later become part of the Catholic Church’s ‘fourteen holy helpers’, minor deities who could be prayed to for specific assistance. Eustace was useful in times of ‘family discord’…
The caption and mural reassures us of their happy life thereafter in heaven after, but it comes at some cost. It’s curious how persecuted religions have relied on valorising the murders and/or suicides of their believers in order to bind together remaining worshippers. Death is not to be feared, but embraced… the greatest fear of all, death at the hands of an army or state, becomes an opportunity to jump the queue to paradise. It’s a mistake to think of religious suicide as a recent Islamist phenomenon. The vast majority of Christian saints were killed for their beliefs, and martyrdom was in effect a condition of early sainthood. Many died knowingly and electively.
Eustace is one of the main figures in Russell Hoban’s brilliant yet overlooked 1980 Kentish post-apocalypse novel Riddley Walker. This work, more than any other, captures the lairy energies and disquieting airs of Kent. (Hoban also deserves a royalty payment from sales of Will Self’s Book of Dave). Riddley Walker is written entirely in a Kentish vernacular, and is set two thousand years in the future after a nuclear apocalypse. Words, ideas and history have fragmented and then reformed in new formations. There is plomercy, a puter leat, fizzics and party cools, and where Canterbury becomes Cambry and Dungeness, Dunk Your Arse. It follows a young man, Riddley, who comes of age amongst one tribe. Predatory bands of wild dogs attack surviving bands of humans, fenced into small timber settlements, and the only relief from toilsome work comes either from smoking hash or the travelling Punch and Judy show. The book follows Riddley’s journey across Kent to find ‘Eusa’, a conflation of Eustace and the atomic power of the USA. Christ becomes the ‘little shining man’ between the antlers, broken by the nuclear attack or ‘1 Big 1’ which has sent society back to year zero. Riddley’s goal is to find the lost ‘clevverness’ of Eusa, in which a resolution of inner spirituality and material technology are freely intertwined.
‘Seeing that boars face in my mynd that morning in the aulders and seeing it in my mynd now I have the same thot I had then: If you cud even jus see 1 thing clear the woal of whats in it you cud see every thing clear. But you never wil get to see the woal of any thing youre all ways in the middl of it living it or moving thru it. Never mynd.’
Exiting Cambry, I cycle north-west to Fathers Ham, or Faversham, a nice little market town with a number of twee looking houses and buildings. It is home of Shepherd Neame, the country’s oldest brewery, and most of the country’s explosives were made here until 1934, another Kentish connection to Riddley’s search for the hidden ‘gready mint’ for the 1 Big 1. I cycle around its confusing traffic system, enjoying what I see of this little place, but there’s nothing that hooks me in. With sunlight fading, I decide that I will strive to reach Sheerness on the isle of Sheppey. It is some miles away, but something inexplicable draws me there, as if some hidden gready mint of its own will help me better understand Kent.
To make up time, I ride on the busy Dover Road, along an ancient route marked out by the Celts, and still called Watling Street further west. I pedal through Sittingbourne, an aggressively dull sprawl of suburban housing, retail parks, lank grasses and light industrial warehouses. Drivers heckle from their cars, and I begin to wonder if someone’s stuck an offensive sticker on my helmet. The mood is sour, stultified, and I press on, riding through the suburbs of Milton Regis, overlapping with Sittingbourne, then finally reaching Sheppey Way, a road that drives off the mainland and into the swamps of Sheppey.
Dusk is done, and it’s now pitch-black. I have no front light, and for safety cycle on deserted pavements through Iwade, and across a small bridge over the Swale. Underneath it, loud dance music is playing, but the sound seems to move around without any corresponding suggestion of human activity. It’s a fittingly strange welcome signal. Eventually the pavement disappears as the road extends into a busy two-lane A road. This is truly dangerous cycling, and to improve my odds of survival, I tie my phone to the front of the bike with some gaffer tape Slavo had given me. The phone’s pin entry screen becomes repurposed as a roadworthy torch.
As I cycle on through this flat, marshy land, my horizon is dominated by the bright lights of distant power stations and hypermarkets. A concrete flyover sculpts over my road, a feat of engineering-artistic expression or an aggressive act of colonisation over weird Sheppey? Unlike Thanet, Sheppey’s still an island, and its history distinctive. Sheep and scorpions thrive in its swamps but not humankind, and the only settlements here are either at Sheerness with its docks, or Leysdown further east, filled with the chalets and caravans of rest-seeking Londoners. The island was occupied for a few days by the Dutch army back in 1667. Whether out to spite the English or making an aesthetic judgement, they landed here without a fight and then burnt most of the island down. There are three prisons here, an unusually high number, and this, along with the rusting machinery, docks and warehouses that surround Sheerness all give an impression of brutality and ugliness, a kind of fungal chaos. Riddley Walker could well be a factual description of a young man’s experiences here.
Even by the low standards set by Sittingbourne, Sheppey is incredibly ugly. But it don’t care! The characteristics of Kent are amplified here, and I like it. I ride into Blue Town, the oldest part of Sheerness built besides the former naval dockyards. The town itself has no real beginning or end. Uncentred, ill-thought, constructed of materials and designs used everywhere else and never here, flanked by chain pubs and supermarkets, the hallmarks of a truly modern settlement. By chance, I ride into a street where the burble of banter bubbles outside a pub seemingly placed by here by a god: the Albion Inn. It’s a Saturday night, and the karaoke’s a little too loud. I’m intrigued.
People are having a great time inside. Almost all are in their late fifties or sixties, and many of the men are dressed in identifiably Mod or Rudeboy clobber. I am at least half the age of the youngest here, but after those hectic A-roads in the dark, I deserve a strong drink, and drink here is forthcoming and crisply cheap.
‘You and your dad were very close. And me and my son David, we’re like that. Like you.’ It’s too loud for banter in here, and not knowing anyone already makes table-talk very difficult either. Next to me, two blokes talk, one a softly-spoken Irish traveller, another a local man. The first talks of looking after his sick father during his final days. ‘You lived and hated each other but you needed each other. The best fella to teach you how to drive a lorry, that was my father.’ At the bar, most of the geezers – and they are most definitely geezers! – are too pished to concentrate on counting the small change required for another drink. On distant tables, disappointed wives and daughters look on, heavily dolled in makeup. Everyone’s singing along to the karaoke, be it the Carpenters or the Ethiopians. ‘We all knew each other on the island, it was friendly. I was a biker but I loved ska, Trojan’. The place is relatively friendly, but I can feel myself being looked out and I realise that I must stand out. People all know each other, and so do not know me. Why would visitors come by here?
Refreshed by the Guinness, I gamble on finding something else in Sheerness, so I ride out into the small built-up town centre. There’s far more pubs here than the average town, though most look of a kind that were forced out of business everywhere else in Britain: net curtained windows, neon-star price labels, where peanuts are the only food, and populated by catatonic lushes on both sides of the Carlsberg taps. In fact, everyone seems excessively drunk here, on the streets, in the boozers, spilling out the kebab shops. As I rest by one pub a lady asks me if I can take her drunken husband home.
I settle into the Napier, a little further out from the town, where there’s a place to charge my phone. The banter is pretty zany, and evidences several hours’ consumption of strong liquors. Two middle-aged couples dominate proceedings. One man talks of organising a threesome amongst them, which is then corrected by his wife to a foursome. Disputes over logistics cause his wife to lose her patience. ‘You couldn’t even have a one some. Every morning, I get up and it’s like that. And what about tonight?’ Drunk and awkward, what a combination… It’s a relief to have the topic changed to the purchase of range rovers. People buy and then forget their drinks, causing all manner of confusion.
It’s getting late, and this my last night out on the road. What a place to be in! I decide that I’ll treat myself to a takeaway over the habitual tortilla wraps, spinach leaves and kidney beans that have otherwise sustained me 123 days. I find a pizza takeaway joint and eat my supper on the screwed-down, plastic table. Typical for a small town, there is a clear ethnic division between those who work in service jobs (supermarkets, takeaways, care) and the locals themselves. On the other table, a young couple deliberate over toppings then finally settle beside me. His name is James, and her’s I now forget. Conversation begins about the town. They attempt to mount a defence. ‘People are quite down about Sheerness’, but their gestures and expressions suggest some justification about this, as harsh observations replay before their eyes. ‘There can be some trouble at the weekends, a lot of people come out’…’There’s not much in the way of work’. He does some tattooing, and she doesn’t say, suggesting unemployment. Theirs is another kind of inertia: stuck here, disliking the place, lacking the money or means to leave, yet not venturing to take a risk on something either.
They point me to the Ivy for a nightcap, but I’m tired, and I need to find somewhere to sleep. Sheppey’s built-up yet barren, and there’s few obvious places to wild-camp. As I cycled to Sheerness, I’d spied one expanse of wasteland where truckers were sleeping, beneath pylons; another patch of wasteland looked just as uncomfortable, beside a derelict warehouse. I ask for their advice. There’s the beach, but people will sometimes gather there after a nearby club has kicked out, suggesting disruption. They point me to Bartons Park, a large country park between Sheerness and Minster. It sounds vaguely promising.
Me and this bicycle, our last night together… I ride into the park, which has no fence and is exposed from the road. I hear teenagers shouting and laughing in the distance, somewhere inside the park, but I’m too tired to press on further. Discretion seems wise here, so instead of pitching up the tent, I find an area with very long grass beside some kind of stream or saturated bog, and bed down in my sleeping bag. The reeds are surprisingly soft and comfortable, and it’s dry at least. Sleeping in a bush in a public park on the isle of Sheppey, surrounded by drunk teenagers and the stars… I cannot see myself doing anything like this again. I feel a little sad, but relieved.