‘I’ve got the skills to pay the bills’. – Pub talk, the Marquis, New Cross.
This is it, the last one. Reader, you too deserve praise for making it this far on our strange psychosafari through Britain’s wilderness. All the comments, likes, and emails of support have truly kept me going. I’d never expected the blog to take off in the way it has, and it’s strange to imagine a world reading about a mad night that ends in sleeping in a park near Sheerness. 1,400 subscribers and 50 unique hits each day testify to a peculiar global voyeurism. Well thanks for that. We’re almost done.
Mayflies collide and tussle among the spindly reeds where I’ve laid my head. Last night, I gazed up at the clouds hovering over this no man’s land between Minster and Sheerness. White points drifted over the violet skies, reflecting the lamps of Sheerness and the surrounding rusting hinterland, possibly stars, or satellites, or distant aircraft. Teenagers had hollered and laughed in the distance, perhaps a mile away, but the sound carrying over the flat marshland, and it took some time to drop off, too tired to move, too alert in case they drew closer and happened on this sleeping man.
As I’ve approached home, I’ve begun to take more risks, wild-camping in places I would’ve written off at the start of my journey. No longer am I replacing broken equipment. Front-brakes, panniers, gear-shifting, a lack of front light – each requires some kind of expert attention, but no, not now, not when I am so nearly home. Kent, Sussex and Hampshire are, each in their way, quite interesting, but I have spent more than enough time in each place, and in these final days there’s been just one concern, get home.
This final week has been uncharacteristically lunatic. I also wonder if it has some bearing to the landscape? Looking back on the ride, the journey to Edinburgh through the Midlands and then Yorkshire was friendly, pleasant, gentle, though the poverty of the north-east was eye-opening; the Highlands was dramatic and mostly solitary, perhaps the closest to a spiritual connection with the terrain. Lancashire and Wales have each been warm and friendly, though less adventuresome, whilst the south-west was marvellous in scenery but more ambiguous in its stories. The south-east also happens to be the political centre of the country now, and its landscape harsher, tougher, more dissociated. Its towns are uncentred, without beginning or end, and its sprawl seems to begin at Bournemouth and end at Peterborough.
By the standards of Scotland, these are not friendly places, though neither unfriendly either, just reserved and disinterested. There aren’t many places where there’s any kind of obvious community, if by that term one imagines a single group of people who regularly socialise with each other, based on geographic proximity. This is a feature of villages and the neighbourhoods of some small towns, though to a lesser degree in the south-west, which has been upset by second-home buying. But note this, that most people I talk to already feel a sense of belonging to the place they live, and to the ‘community’ around them, even if they don’t actually know many people more than immediate family and friends.
This belonging is interesting. Just who do people imagine when they talk of their community? There’s something a little mean about the expectation that community must meet their terms: neighbours being ‘friendly’ to each other, non-English natives ‘integrating’… Everything’s about other people conforming to forms of behaviour that please the individual talking about ‘community’, and not about their shared, collective interests. Even this idea of community seems pretty artificial, and I wonder if it too is not just another cliché assembled from others. Perhaps people need community much less than they believe they should, and so they attempt to compensate this with an imagined community. The ‘imagined community’ of nationality seems to be shifting, from British into Scottish, and English. The fluttering St. Georges, the semi-detached grey suburban houses with massive front gardens, paved over, four by four parked, Sky dish, ugly gnomes, over-pruned rose bush, ‘Ivy cottage’ type sign… there’s a community of something here. One last time, then, to cyclogeographically collect data and explain these patterns.
I’ve slept beside some kind of stream in the recesses of Barton Park. It’s early morning, but dog-walkers are roving around in the distance, and I have to keep low until I can guarantee desertion in order to make a respectable exit. (Believe me, no more wild-camping in anywhere remotely near human civilisation…) I’m close to the northern shore of Sheppey, whose road I’d followed last night leaving Sheerness. There are silvers and blues in that morning sky over the beach, the tide lapping gently against piles of pebbles and dark seaweed coughed up by the sea. There’s heat in the air, thankfully, accompanied by a pinching cool breeze. A white disc hangs heavily over the seas, and in the distance I see nothing.
Somewhere on the other side of the water that will become the Thames is Canvey Island, where I’d camped my first night. Battered by torrential rain, initiated into the drinking community of Canvey, giddy on my first night on my own for years, that felt like years ago. I saw ‘dark satanic mills’ in the distance, those oil refineries and industrial buildings now around me, on Sheppey’s south-western edge and on the nearby Isle of Grain. Somewhere in this sea is the wreckage of the SS Richard Montgomery, a sunken WW2 vessel still packed with thousands of tons of undetonated explosives. One day something will explode, and much of Sheerness could disappear under a tsunami. Events wait, frozen in time.
Broken-up plastics and small bones have been washed up here with the shingle. A great mist hangs over the park, and over the sea around me. I ride along the promenade, confused that this dull and tatty town was once a desirable holiday destination. The town is surprisingly large in daylight, filled with amenities, and there aren’t obvious signs of decline, like boarded-up businesses, excessive charity shops, or random acts of vandalism or damage. There’s a good number of independent shops, and a fairly chipper feeling in the air. The Rio caff lures me in with an olfactory onslaught of fried finery.
Who knows the origin of the English breakfast? It’s a mishmash of different things, once hastily and carelessly assembled together then habitually reproduced according to a set formula. One egg, one slice of bacon, two sausages, half a tomato sliced, a large spoonful of beans, a few mushrooms tossed in for good measure. Everything fried. In some places, black pudding. Purists will scoff at the yankee hash brown and claim that chips are more English, as if New York were closer than Antwerp. But the fried breakfast plays by its own rules.
‘When I vote next time, I’m gonna vote UKIP.’
‘He’s all mouth, no action.’
‘I’m Conservative, always voted Conservative.’
One imitates in order to ridicule a stereotypically Middle Eastern Arab accent. ‘I’ll find you and get my gun.’
‘The Polish they’re all over here.’
‘But they work hard.’
They (an elderly man and a young woman, probably related) fall back on a social value of contribution, something documented yesterday. It doesn’t matter what you do, or are, so long as you pay your way. It’s associated with values of individual liberalism and a belief in the moral improvement of work (‘they work hard’, so that gives them the right to live freely). Yet quantity of payments aren’t important, as neither the Polish ‘all over here’ or the ‘honest hard-working families’ that politicians preach to, and many believe themselves to belong to, actually earn much money.
The last government used tax credits to subsidise poverty wages paid by large employers, and in the last few years there has been a new phenomenon of the working poor, of individuals or families living in poverty whilst in work. Wages have not risen with rent and goods inflation. Many are hanging on through debt, and have been protected by policies of cash-printing (‘quantitative easing’) and artificially-low interest rates. These will disappear in the coming years, and the hidden poverty in many British households will become more horribly visible I expect. But still, they’re paying their way.
Unclaimed benefits in the UK amounts to around £12 billion. Benefits fraud stands at around £2 billion, whilst money lost through tax evasion is sixteen times this, indicate DWP stats for 11/12. I expect the latter figure is now far higher. But this is theoretical… In order to provide ideological counterfire against their programme of privatisation and this peculiarly-malicious attack on the poor, the government and its media allies have demonised a) those on benefits and b) EU migrants. The latter has been more prominently demonised in recent months, but in all, I’ve found little that suggests this campaign is succeeding. Clearly certain media institutions, like the BBC, wish to see UKIP partly succeed at election, so as to restore popular support for a neoliberal programme of free market capitalism. Voting for UKIP, or Green, gives a belief that one’s vote could ‘count’, if only to spite the ‘political class’. It suggests the current first-past-the-post constitutional monarchy we have is capable of easy reform. They’ll listen… They’ll do as we wish… Neither party is capable or interested in the kind of necessary constitutional and economic projects that would restore political agency to citizens or ensure the country can make independent decisions about its energy or infrastructure in the future. They are wasted votes, and they will be wasted votes.
But the Polish ‘work hard’, and there are too many cultural beliefs around Britain’s place in Europe, and the pleasures of holidaying there, for the Brits (well, this message is addressed actually to the English) to pull up the drawbridge. And there are our values of toleration, fair play, and equality. People sometimes describe immigration as a problem, but not often, and this is usually founded on ignorance (for instance, not knowing a specific individual who has caused X problem, or just incorrect sources of information. I think people are more tolerant and open-minded than politicians and journalists would suggest, and this gladdens me, but message a) about benefits has succeeded.
‘Anyone who wants a better life, fine, so long as they work for it.’
Some still talk about class, and ‘working class’, as if it were a cultural fact that has become only momentarily blurred. I used to believe in the term to before I rode out, but I would not use it now. There is nothing culturally or socially unified about workers across these islands. Forms of work did vary across these islands, though today have become more homogeneous. Hardship alone is not the basis of belonging. There are not ‘workers’ and ‘non-workers’, almost all adults must now work, though many would aspirationally see themselves as being ‘middle class’, perhaps either citing a university education or property ownership as reason. (This term is also incorrect). But the terms are divisive, and feels ill-suited to contemporary work. Marxists used the term to give historical agency to industrial workers, a minority of the actual workforce but those who, working in the means of production, could with the gift of consciousness appropriate these means and make decisions in common. Deindustrialisation and automation have disappeared many skilled workers, whilst progressive social reforms during the mid-late 20th century have, until recently, met the needs of hunger, shelter and destitution which brought earlier popular movements together. The neat separations between agriculture, blue-collar and white-collar aren’t possible.
So long as they work for it… is it really so surprising that any advanced developed society would make a morality out of work?
The issue rather is that this all there is. There is such political frustration everywhere. They’re all the same is a common rejoinder to asking people about voting choices. As voters are finding across Europe and the United States, one may well have something called, in name, ‘democracy’, but the choices has become meaningless. One’s elected representative will either be unable or unwilling to champion the needs of constituents in political assemblies, local and national, divested of the power of making decisions about the economy that impede the accumulation of capital. Our major news sources are inaccurate and incorrect, and disserve the public like a shop that only sells children’s garments to adults. It’s all there is, but it doesn’t fit. Why, in a relatively advanced society, should so many feel disgust and weariness at all politics? It comes from their disempowerment, that they see things worsening in years to come, for themselves and for their children, and there’s nothing they feel that can be done. This fear then expresses itself in different forms, left and right.
‘In twenty years’ time, I won’t be alive then, there’ll be a civil war.’
‘What’s a civil war?’
‘When you get brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, all fighting each other.’
It’s a strange thing to hear in a café in Sheerness, eh? I wonder if this pessimism has an economic origin: during the apparent boom years across Europe and the US, marked not so much by wage increases but a mass proliferation of cheap consumer goods, many voters were content to elect their habitual major parties. Now that economic growth in the west has plateaued, there are new political moods: green guilt, angst about ageing in a society without welfare or sufficient-paying work to collect a pension, neo-Malthusian worries about global overpopulation and migration, and a strangely-enduring commitment to the accumulation of capital (‘growth’) continuing. The future is additionally unthinkable because in the way it’s commonly presented, it looks terrifying. In this respect neither right nor left are helping the imagination of other possibilities.
Of course, even within the current framework, a left-leaning Labour party would already improve much if they shed themselves of unpopular Blairites and followed a platform of economic restructuring, infrastructure and house construction, though this is very unlikely. The people I meet feel cheated of a future, cheated of hope. I don’t hate or pity the bigotry that this disappointment is sometimes expressed in, but I think I understand it. The atomisation, dissociation and political disorientation of these islanders is a fact evidenced by my experiences, with a political cause. What power do the people of Sheerness, or Lydd, or Newhaven, or Vassall ward, have to participate in the decisions that affect their lives?
But this isn’t a new thing, just something that’s there, and has been. Had a 27 year old postgraduate researcher got on his bike in 1994 or 1974 and cycled the breadth and circumference of the UK, what would s/he have found otherwise? Heavy drinking, deprived shopping precincts, retail parks, the immersion in family and the weight put on romantic relationships…. Religion’s relevance receding, sleepy churches abandoning even evensong. Sports and military training now seem to take place through video games. Can the generally frustrating and boring nature of (most of) our adult lives have a political foundation?
Haha, I doubt that, but I think the people I’ve met would be happier with some options in front of them. Those that I’ve met possessed by an untimely hope and political optimism – and there’s been some, like Jamie, Chris, Dermot, Colin – place themselves in a position of action within an image of a possible future. They believe, ultimately, that there is potential for change, otherwise there would be no purpose or satisfaction in holding those beliefs… would there?
Sheerness is friendly, certainly, but in a strange and misguided way, like a dotty distant relation detaining you in awkward conversation about neighbourhood conspiracies in a tatty house full of hoarded memories, forcing plate after plate of custard creams and milky tea on you. It feels hard to leave, though you really should. Listen to their accents, which are not Kentish but cockney, suspended in time, the former residents of Deptford, Peckham, Bermondsey, Woolwich, who moved out from the early 80s in search of larger houses, racially homogeneous neighbourhoods, traffic-free roads, and at least twelve feet of space from wankers, be they neighbours, mice, students, paedophiles, Romany travellers, social workers, patronising middle classes with opinions about art or rearing children, the Africans with the noisy kid upstairs, and so on.
You think I’m being harsh? I am, but I’ve lived in the suburbs where London meets Kent, and attitudes harden in isolation. I might be talking about what Michael Collins and hand-wringing ex-liberals call the ‘white working class’, a vague social grouping which has never known itself by that name, but I suspect that the same insular and xenophobic views would be expressed in other communities that have isolated themselves in the safety of the suburbs, be they Orthodox Jewish, Indian, Korean, whatever. I’ve heard uglier things before.
The typical suburban drift pushes out from the centre, and Kent’s the catchment of south-east Londoners. Fish and chips, bingo, tatty pub with Fosters insignia and Carlsberg picnic tables, 70s décor Chinese takeaway, Imperial Raj tandoori, greasy caffs. I wonder how the Turk Cypriots who serve me up a fried breakfast (extra mushrooms and hash browns instead of sausages and bacon) think to this place, or to this country. They’re busy frying the beans, serving milky tea. The glass eye of horus hangs under an illuminated plastic screen of jacket potato fillings and set breakfasts.
So I found Albion here in the name of a lively boozer suspended in time, in the names of backstreets beside tatty chippies where drunk men stagger, unsure of their purpose, as their wives shout to strangers for some kind of relief. Where there’s not much to do except slowly lose your mind, preferably as quietly and politely as possible…
The country feels like it’s sleepwalking. Albion’s dreaming. Has much changed in last twenty, thirty years? Beyond gadgets, no, not in terms of built environment, perhaps a little more tolerant in personal attitudes, leisure is more domestic. What of the next thirty, will it just be more of the same? Quite possibly. The right to being adequately paid and housed is a long way off (in free market capitalism, such things indicate one’s failure). I think that political demands need to become more fundamental, and more future-facing: the right to be housed, the right to be paid well, the right for one’s child to attend a safe and progressive school, the right for one to receive care when one is disabled or elderly, all requires a responsible agent to provide these. The ‘market’ can, though the service will be far inferior to a publicly-owned, not-for-profit service.
Demanding these rights means calling ‘the state’ into being. It does not mean calling for some spurious third way between state and markets: the ‘market’ has only led to profit-making monopolies that’ve proven incompetent at running energy and infrastructure services. No, instead, such a social democracy – a society that is socialist in nature, based on democratic support – needs a state, needs government, just not anything that we’d recognisably call ‘government’ right now. It would need to be public, a republic, proportionally representative, where decisions would be debated by representatives picked from the population, compelled to serve only their electorates, where major votes would be directly based through secure online or text votes.
Perhaps… this is my vision, my hope. Some on the Left and Right think that such social democracy is impossible. ‘We can’t go back to the postwar period’, they say, but that very period saw the development of industries almost from nothing, from converted arms factories, by a country that was bankrupted by six years of fighting. It also ignores the economic base of established social democracies like those of Scandinavia which are not directly industrial. It’d require shifting the economy from finance, information, and property. Wealth could be produced by capture and export of renewable energies and high-technology goods and services, which would be produced through investment by a publicly-owned and accountable bank for infrastructural projects, with money gathered from taxes.
The UK is a winner from globalisation, and it has surprised me how unnostalgic and scathing many I’ve met have been about the industrial past: people seem glad to have either gotten out of mining or heavy industries, or to not have to do those jobs now. Fair enough, I guess. But in order to continue importing specific goods, there’d need to be a new basis of collective wealth production that is not finance, insurance or information, and that, possibly, could come through renewable energy harvesting and trading, and through the production of highly skilled goods and services.
This is why I talk about constitutions, and mean not a single final word historical document with forefathers and amendments, but a written yet continually evolving platform (OK, a document, but one continually monitored and amended every X amount of years) for civil rights and responsibilities. A constitution is an agreement among the people who would fall under its geographic jurisdiction about how they are to be governed. It would be the expression of public rights placed on common ground. Alone, I agree, it’s insufficient: just imagine ten thousand people taking to the streets with placards saying ‘My kids deserve the right to affordable housing’, ‘good pay for good jobs’. They’d be ignored. Dream on, clear off, get back to work…
It would take something else to force these economic and political forces to the negotiating table, or better still, to crouch by the heel of the public. Had this been achieved in any form since the Miners Strike, we’d know. The only thing remotely approaching a ‘win’ for the public good was the election of the Labour party in 1997, which for all its very many flaws did invest in infrastructure, public transport, healthcare, and attempt to devolve power. But this was not a win, and New Labour enabled the privatisation of public utilities, launched several unpopular wars, and presided over a period when the poor became poorer and the rich much richer. A major political change can’t be achieved in ways so far attempted, like the one-day strike, or the ballot box. It won’t be through an opt-in people’s assembly or peaceful occupation of a square. In some ways, it’ll involve all of these, but it will require a much longer refusal to work, to obey the authority of policemen, or to believe in the cunning offers of politicians. Anger will overcome fear, and then, perhaps, hope.
As I’m already on my soapbox, let me survey the scene from my height. Revolution is unthinkable in this country at this historical stage. It disappoints me to say this, as in my younger years I believed it presented the only possibility of political change. This view changed in my early 20s when I left the university and countercultural orbits that reinforce those views, socially insular orbits, and spent time working with disabled people across London. My social groups extended, and I realised how unpopular such views were. What is this capitalism that exploits everyone, and who will care for the vulnerable or protect us from violent people if it is not the State? Any revolution at this moment would be undemocratic, and would therefore fail, lacking popular support.
So what is popular? The way we live and are governed is unpopular, but it is not despised, and there is no common imaginary for a collectivist grassroots movement either. This is a second thing which disappoints me, as until just before I left, I believed this presented the only possibility of political change. That democratic change was only possible through communities of neighbours, workers, or service-users, or whoever, to come together and participate as equals in local assemblies, making decisions by majority about their common interests. I believe this still to be a sound way of making decisions, but it cannot be the source of an initial political change, because such assemblies are not popular, and because in themselves would make no difference to the bigger political and economic forces that shape people’s lives. It’s this not making a difference which is, I think, one of the greatest sources of a popular contempt for politics. This doesn’t make a difference is self-interested, because interest is premised on what affects oneself or those one has an interest in. Self-interest is the prime motivation in political decisions, though I do not see this being incompatible with democracy. I do not think this popular contempt is founded on ignorance, though this has become one of its symptoms.
People are disinterested and so ignorant of local politics, it largely does not interest them. Local council elections return abysmal turnout rates, and the plenty of spaces provided by political ‘activists’, be it Peoples Assemblies, occupied spaces or town-hall single-issue summits, have not been popular, not used by a wide range of people from across communities. There has been instead a professionalization of politics, as much as in Westminster as among ‘activists’ for socialist change (this term I keep using deliberately). Academics with little to no social communication with non-academics or non-activists use vaguely-understood jargon like ‘the dialectic’, ‘multitude’, or ‘crisis of capitalism’, with few in the room even capable of agreeing on these terms. But this is not a cause but a symptom, just as the rise of a socially and culturally homogeneous class of Oxbridge-educated, professional politicians is a symptom, and not a cause.
Michel Foucault says somewhere that there’s no such thing as the state, only processes of statification. I’m going to apply that to the white elephant in the room. There’s no such thing as capitalism, only processes of capitalisation. What do I mean by that? So long as capital can be made from the society and economy of the United Kingdom, sufficient material forces will actively maintain and protect the political arrangements that manage this. Those that make this capital invest it in academic institutions, political parties and commercial newspapers which ensure that sympathetic messages are conveyed to different parts of the public. At best, public protest might alter the behaviour of the majority of the public, which would temporarily render it impossible to produce further capital, but without an alternative political programme for the state, this protesting public would eventually either choose to return to work, or find the rifles of the army pointing them back in line. But I continue falling into this habit of talking about protest and political change as if they are inevitable, just temporarily thwarted. I continue repeating the mistaken belief that if one diagnoses a political problem, like ‘the establishment’, ‘the rise of the political class’, or ‘capitalist realism’, it will immediately prompt a resolution or settlement. There is no reason to suppose this.
Some form of change is likely though. It does not make good business sense to have workers losing their homes or dying of preventable illnesses. Obese children will become adults with many a sick day. Renewable energies are more commercially viable than nuclear fission or shale gas. Though in the UK, the next parliament or two will oversee rising interest rates, decreasing wages and unemployment, and a continued austerity programme that all but kills off anything still publicly-owned by the state, there may possibly be a counteractive programme of affordable house-building, a slither of free ‘NHS’ healthcare still available to those who cannot afford health insurance, and a return to a more progressive education system. The mistake will be to view these events as signs of a public victory.
‘All my friends are in relationships, and they’re all boring.’
‘You can’t go out by yourself?’
Men address other men as ‘mate’, women address men and other women as ‘darling’, and the sky would split in two if a man called a woman ‘mate’. Those in authority are called ‘boss’. It’s convivial but reserved. People look and dress the same, codes gendered only to a degree, blue jeans, white trainers or Ugg boots, tracksuit top or puffer jacket. The tattoos are the same. Tribal designs in those in their late 30s and 40s, a calligraphic scribble on the side of the neck for young men, and usually one or two word scribbles on the arms, shoulders, backs, etc., of both genders, often a child’s name. Sometimes these are more elaborate, the scribble may be within a scroll-box, and may be accompanied by an image of a butterfly, a star, a celtic cross, or flowers (the rose now out of fashion, but visible on older women). The St. George’s flag is common, usually on men, and often accompanied by football-related tattoos. Many young men have usually half-completed sleeve tattoos, a mishmash of the above themes (handwriting, tribal swirls, celtic cross), and then there are isolated images, angel wings, a person’s face, a symbolic creature like a snake, bird, a dragon, or a female pin-up, or an anchor, barbed wire, whatever.
Everyone seems to have one. Someone could object, ‘what’s the point of getting one, if everyone else’s got it?’ The mistake with tattoos, or clothing, is to assume that individualism is the desired end. Individualism has never really took off here, it just doesn’t fit the humour of these islands, of not taking oneself seriously, of defrocking the jumped-up and powerful. Hyacinth Bucket… It’s about looking the same as everyone else, being a part of one’s tribe. You see this when you observe how new residents to this country attempt to ‘fit’ in. In west African communities, it’s common to take on an entirely different anglicised name, though this also relates to discriminatory employment practices. We share in common names, jokes and clichés, weather-talk, football banter, complaints about politicians, and scare-tales about child molesters or high-profile murderers.
Sat here in this caff, watching a music video channel, drinking the dregs of a milky tea, scribbling like a madman. I probably stand out here for my dirty clothes and overgrown hair, code: student. It’s rare one ever strays beyond the habits and traditions one’s socialised into, following a well-trodden path of our parents and their parents, their values and ideas, news headlines, the opinions of our friends, even our genes to a degree, the allergies, disabilities and predispositions that sullen or soup-up our outlooks. Somewhere like here, liberalism seems risible. What choices, exactly, are there? Do I have a choice? Liberalism was always based on the choice of the individual, to do the right thing, to remain resolute in one’s goodness where others are bad. Stop smoking, recycle, eat less meat, learn to think for yourself. Liberals like me challenge the somnambulant public: wake up, stand up for your rights.
Well, I’ve got a choice. My bike’s outside, I’ve got just enough money in my account to pay for this breakfast and get some snacks on the road. I have a home waiting for me, fifty or so miles away. I’m feeling far from those contexts and beliefs now. It’s the television, and not the man in front of it, that should be re-programmed. Citizens are made, not born: I see opportunity in transforming the institutions that make citizens instead of masses. The ‘choice’ has already been made in way we’ve been made. I see life, and myself, already determined by these habits, traditions and customs I’ve been mapping across these islands. Rare is the person who has chosen to break with their roots. A choice is too much to think about, and in climates of fear, seems either too socially costly (loss of friends, disapproval of family) or just plain impossible. A mixture of laziness and/or intuitive wisdom has many living exactly like their parents, often in the same neighbourhoods, recognising the convenience and material security it affords (I’m not being harsh, both my folks live half a mile from me…). Expecting the people I’ve met or overheard in pubs, caffs or supermarkets to willingly participate in people’s assemblies feels naïve. Come off it, a waste of tax-payers’ money!
Who says the English are not pragmatic?
So, re-programming the TV, changing the curriculum, demanding the rights of a new constitution, or grouping together some vague values like democracy, toleration, fair play, and calling them, against the evidence of history, English…
‘[T]he necessity for new popular beliefs, that is to say a new common sense and with it a new culture and a new philosophy which will be rooted in the popular consciousness with the same solidity and imperative quality as traditional beliefs.’
Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks evoke an optimism against the grain of his own circumstances, and that of the early 1930s, a time analogous to our own. Some clichés are useful, and given that identities always conflict, there’s nothing lost in asserting a progressive politics of community. When I speak of the English, I talk of its residents, not its natives, and of those that would participate in a shared set of values. ‘Strategic essentialism’, Gayatri Spivak calls it. Using a collective label to mobilise a group, knowing it to be artificial.
Looking after the old, protecting the young, giving everyone an equal chance, having a say in what decisions affect your community, all require positive welfare reform, progressive taxation, closing loopholes, increased spending on education and healthcare, enabling direct democracy through online voting and monitored non-anonymous forums. All that’s common sense, and because common sense isn’t individualised, it begins from what is already shared. When we speak it, we speak on behalf of what’s around us. To quote Alvaro Garcia Linera, we become an ‘aggregate of collective individuals – that is, an association of associations in which each person present does not speak for themselves, but for a local collective entity before which they must account for their actions, decisions and words’. Being an association of associations interests me greatly, of taking responsibility for what ourselves in the context of what’s around us. That’s worth arguing for. Change is rarely sought, but all the time things are changing, we’re changing, and we’re changing things around us in turn. Imagine it…
Stay with life, said Father Michael; for as long as there is feeling in our limbs, change is possible, of self-renewal, or renewing what’s around you. There has never been a golden age, but one thing all of us can share in is the possibility of a happier future. The people deserve better, are sick of being lied to, and are wearied of living in such ugly and boring places. And now, I’m coming back to the beginning again, to the conversation we need to have together about the kind of society we want to be living in, what it contains and looks like, how it works, and from that, its values.
Whilst there’s no mending our pasts and the ways we’ve been socialised, the future remains unwritten, yet. And for a generation with more opportunities, freedoms and resources than probably any before, this could be pretty exciting. Let’s see.
As I’m leaving Sheerness, I hear blaring from a car overtaking me, ‘take… these broken wings’. It’s Tupac’s cover, a sad and bitter song, yearning for lost wholeness whilst feeling irrevocably detached from its possibility (‘when my momma asks me will I change I tell her yeah, but it’s clear I’ll always be the same, until the end of time’). I wonder how long one can think within the inner chaos of the ‘dark side’, of the facts and realities of human life. Angel wings are another common tattoo round here, exterminating in the moment of their inscription the innocence ‘lost’ akin to an angel, those teenage romantic relationships that our adult emotional lives are scaffolded on. I’m ready to get out of this place.
It’s a sunny morning. I ride back over Sheppey Way, this time cycling around Sittingbourne and sticking to quieter country roads. Dragonflies manoeuvre with remarkable agility over the narrow hedgerowed lanes I cycle down, one managing to land on another so as to undertake nature’s imperative. It’s the end of summer, and the fields have largely been harvested and scraped clean now, those great wheels of hay not to be seen in Kent. The soils await new seed.
I have the sun behind me as I ride through Iwade and its fake heritage houses, past the power stations of Sheppey and the Isle of Grain to my right, then along Route 1. Yes, why not? It’s been confusingly laid out everywhere I’ve gone, and this is true of this stint of Kent, but it’s my last day of it, and I’m happy to guess which unlikely path might lead home. I find myself lost in a large orchard, where ripe red apples are falling from the trees. Pulling from the bush, they are delicious, juicy and crisp.
The wisest of all sages agree on the dark-humoured perversity of the universe. Some call it Murphy’s Law, or on these islands, the Law of Sod: if something bad can happen, it will. So it’s of no surprise then that as I ride into Rainham, my tyre gets a puncture. At first I can’t fix it, and it takes around an hour to take the wheel off and put on a new inner tube. Vindicated at least in carrying with me a spare all these days! On the other side of the road, a hairdresser’s sign captures the daft irony of the moment: ‘are you haviin one of them bad hair days’.
Rainham’s the frontier-town of a vast suburban sprawl that doesn’t end hereafter. I’m sticking with the ancient London-Dover road, Watling Street, and I push on, riding west, past the betting shops, carvery pubs and retail parks of northern Kent. Rainham gloops to several other urban settlements in a way that together, it, Gillingham, Chatham, Rochester and Strood should be better conceived as a single city, Medway, complete with an old town (Rochester), rusty naval docks (Chatham), services (Gillingham) and terraced housing (Strood/Gillingham). Gillingham’s pretty flattish in feeling, grey, dull, takeaways and pharmacies. The road plunges down next as it passes Chatham. If I were being responsible I’d come off here, explore the crap shopping precinct, ask people wandering around what life is like here, but I’ll level with you, reader, I’m tired, I want to get home, and there’s not much suggestive of a good quality of life. It’s Billy Childish country, sharp, fast and abrasive, staccatoed, obviously derivative but not giving two shits about anyone’s opinion of it. Fack off…
So I push on, reaching Rochester, a far more obviously affluent and historic-looking town than its Medway neighbours. Its 12th century white keep looms over the early modern market town around it, and its nearby cathedral, combining Norman and Gothic, is remarkable. Both are built from local ragstone by Gundolf, bishop during the late 11th century. Somewhere in this town, I’m told, is the world’s second-oldest continuously operating school, The King’s School – the oldest is a few miles down the road in Canterbury. There’s a pleasant and genteel air to the town, and given its long history, I’m surprised that the place hasn’t attracted more tourists over time.
A lounge singer croons Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to a busy beer-garden, where knives chink against plates as roast dinners soak up Saturday night hangovers. Come fly with me… The interior of the cathedral is relatively spare and sober – there are no malevolent beasts I find, or vandalised statues, little ornamentation, and no gothic depictions of the cosmos on its ceiling. In such a sleepy and easy-going little town, it doesn’t feel surprising that a party like UKIP expect electoral success. Fear is the operator here, as in Margate, though incomes here are probably much higher on average. Nothing seems to trouble here, rather, trouble is at its door. Delicatessens, second hand bookstores, Albion’s dreaming, and someone’s whispered into its sleeping ear a story of distant monsters and bogeymen.
After Strood, the general condition of poverty and unemployment that seems to define the Medway area becomes apparent again. I have the Thames at my right, and as I ride along its course I glimpse peeps of gargantuan docks, refineries and industrial units towards the shoreline by tatty Northfleet and Greenhithe. The streets seem given over to trucks and heavy traffic, and life in these ugly and ill-coordinated terraced streets must be noisy and utterly boring. There’s just so little here. I ride into Gravesend, which in many ways feels indistinguishable from Gillingham. Only the additional signs for London convince me this is the correct way, and not the repetition of a looping nightmare. Large suburban terraces face a bevy of dingy off-licences and takeaways. The shopping precinct in its centre is fairly large but distinctly average, and everyone here looks bored.
I drift around, and stumble on a statue in a churchyard to Pocahontas, the Powhatan American princess who was brought over to England in the early 17th century. Though an occasional visitor to the fledgling English colony at Jamestown, she was kidnapped and imprisoned by the English, and then later married John Rolfe, the farmer who produced the world’s first export tobacco. Pocahontas took the name ‘Rebecca’, converted to Christianity, and was taken to London on a tour to drum up investment for the English colony, a good example of the noble savage. On their way home, she contracts a mysterious illness and then dies on the shores of Gravesend.
It’s tempting to see Pocahontas and the Powhatan as victims of the English, but casual violence, brutality and massacres occurred on both sides, and some Native American tribes happily sided with the colonists in order to secure advantages over their neighbours, much like the Spanish invasions of what is now Latin America, or the Europeans’ slave-trading missions in west Africa. By the statue, a group of noisy teenagers chat and conspicuously smoke cigarettes. Around the corner, whilst talking to one lady at a bus-stop about road directions, I find out a little more about Gravesend.
‘They all used to work on the river, but now that’s gone. There’s been a lot of people that’ve come in, especially from London.’ She’s unspecific about the incomers, but without a hint of malice. I ask her if the newer port at Tilbury, on the other side of the Thames, absorbed up some of this unemployment, but not in her experience. Work has since become more varied without being more interesting. I get the impression of a town where most are struggling, a world away from the nearby metropolis with its glory parade of skyscrapers.
Disenfranchised, dispossessed, they’re the lorry drivers, supermarket cashiers, fast-food machine operators, call-centre advisers, online sales administrators, debt collectors, household appliance repairers, train ticket collectors, the cleaners and care workers, the fruit and vegetable pickers, the teaching assistants, nurses and paramedics, security guards, casual labourers, warehouse assistants, and above all, the unemployed, as the casual nature of all their work now will render them unemployed at one point or another. No, they run everything, though are granted the dignity and responsibility of nothing And it’s less common they’ll be found in council houses or the communities they were raised in. Instead, everything’s now that bit more insecure, deregulated, no red tape or big benefits bills, a world of shit private landlords, shit agency bosses, shit jobs, shit food, shit TV, shit education, shit care etc.
Yes, our living standards and opportunities are greater than probably any generation before us, and I stick with that. But the rapid rise in malnutrition, in the food bank collections in virtually every large supermarket I’ve passed everywhere , surprisingly irrespective of region, in mental and physical disease as an effect of unhealthy lifestyles, are things that trouble me, and trouble these places. This remains a remarkably wealthy country, much of whose built environment and communities are in appallingly neglected or otherwise dilapidated states. This observation could have been made forty-five, thirty-five or twenty-five years ago, the last periods of austerity. It remains true now.
Ballard wrote that the suburbs dream of violence. I wonder if it’s the reverse. The suburbs still dream of the prospect of success and of relief, of making a good life for oneself, of paying your way, working your way. The all-inclusive Mediterranean holiday. I’ve been on them when I’ve been working, and they’re lovely, the pleasure you deserved. And then it’s Monday morning…
Residual depression, residual boredom, residual rage turned inward. Opinions come across like a kind of script, but it’s not one taken entirely verbatim from the right-wing press. There’s something too unthinkingly blind, perhaps depressed, perhaps willingly stultified about it, that I can’t picture people here sincerely and avowedly consulting an outside source for their news. The consensus is defeat in everything but name; nothing is possible, but to concede defeat and the impossibility of success would be to concede and recognise the existence of a decades-long struggle in which one side had been defeated, and another victorious. The wealthiest have managed to seize back into private hands publicly-owned institutions like healthcare, energy, local government services, even prisons and probation, but only so much profit can be made.
With the production of goods no longer being profitable in the west, industries were allowed to collapse and move overseas whilst labour was moved into services. Profit have been made there since, in the city-centre malls and then the retail parks, the mega-malls and Ikeas, now the Amazon warehouses and online sales, at the expense of wages and government spending-power. The Olympics and the Commonwealth games keep up the illusion of wealth being shared and shown off ‘nationally’. But the rising national deficit and high public debt that remains will become the pretext for far more ‘real’ and serious cuts in the next decade. People turn to governments again with blame and anger.
But does Cameron or Blair have any meaning in this landscape of closed-up petrol stations turned car-washes, semi-detacheds, nationalist boozers, electric pylons, and barren fields where travellers’ horses roam? They are the administrators of wealth elsewhere, the reception desk of a family business taken over by asset-stripping venture capitalists. They might look and sound local or friendly, but… that’s the point. No-one across the country seems to know what’s happening, though most have a theory. Most are familiar. Residual paranoia, sometimes xenophobic, sometimes anti-capitalist. Uncertain future, but certainly not prosperous. But the way ahead…? It’s as bleakly assured as this road back into the suburban sprawl, into the heart of the country, eerie in its heartlessness, in its small-scale and repetitive suburbia which is far more iconic and definitive than any of its surprisingly rare attempts at civic symbolism or architecture. My thoughts and worries are repeating themselves like the retail barns, supermarkets and terraced housing here.
‘Cyclist’s got big legs!’
Two kids shout amiably at me on the road to Stone. The terrain’s become entirely built-up now, and the number of brownfield sites is disappearing, replaced with acres of suburban housing. Somewhere along Watling Street, I’ve entered London, but god knows where – there is no welcome sign, no obvious point of entry. The M25 is still some miles ahead, but there’s a continuity of urban settlement that suggests city. Instead of the rural privatised bus services I’d seen through the Medway towns and Gravesend, I spy my first London bus, route 96 to Bluewater, somewhere near Stone. I stop by a small supermarket and gorge on a calorific lunch of chocolate cookies and fruit smoothie, as young teenagers race around on dirt bikes, confusing the car drivers.
The terrain has started to dip down, and I cycle past a wide chalk quarry which now houses the massive Bluewater shopping centre. It’s a place associated with many evils. In Paul Kingsforth’s Real England, it’s the symbolic arch-nemesis of the colourful, disobedient, diverse and authentic communities that he seeks out on his travels. A totalitarian totem of consumer crap, a gaudy manifestation of a soulless, sanitised, profiteering blight killing off the town-centres of the country. ‘The worse things get, the more it will thrive’, writes Owen Hatherley of the place. They’re both right, though the place feels far less futuristic than either they or Bluewater’s marketing officers would suggest. It’s wiped out the trade of nearby towns, sure, and the place feels colossally boring, and disconnected from what’s around it. It’s a symptom, not a cause, of a wider social malaise, but unlike Kingsforth and Hatherley, it’s the suburban sprawl around it which is more indicative.
By Bluewater and Stone is the town of Ebbsfleet, a new town built over former quarries and industrial sites, and known only for its international train station. Like much of the south-east, it’s an uncentred and disorientating environment built around the car, and there’s nothing here except houses and shops. A ‘garden city’ is being built here right now, but the only amenities seem to be in the retail parks and new leisure complexes of the area which also provide the only employment. It’s a strange form of state-produced and maintained capitalism which seems to advantage only property developers, executives and shareholders. It’d be interesting to spend a couple of days to explore this vast subtopia and interview people here, but I’m tired of places like this, and judging by the expressions of people I pass, so is everyone else. I want my home.
I ride into Dartford, a large M25 perimeter town whose affluent suburban housing and large shopping precinct give it some distinctiveness against the more obviously deprived areas around it. I pass on, past its grammar school where Mick Jagger went to school (there’s a small hall that bears his name), and press on, past the vast shopping centre and modernist shapes of Bexley, turning down Albion Road, and riding through Welling, where the shops quickly become more random and run-down, familiar in their tatty amateurishness, indicating that I’m now properly back in south east London, almost home. The driving is a little more frenzied and careless here, and I have to take extra care to avoid drivers who seem to be avoiding looking at their mirrors. From Welling, I ride up Shooters Hill, along a road that cuts through a wooded common which, I must confess, my brain scans for suitable wild-camping spots. I’ll have to get out of this way of thinking! At the top of this hill, I glimpse the Shard, a Mordor-like beacon of the power of capital, bold and brazen, a statement of hatred for democracy, and begin the ride down towards Blackheath.
Traffic jams, kites, and the place where many rebellions meet an inconclusive ending: Blackheath, a wide expanse of common ground so close to the centre. Great crowds of English and Cornish people, led at different times by Wat Tyler in 1381, Jack Cade in 1450, or Michael an Gof in 1497. Though there’s a Wat Tyler road, a neat analogue to the Wat Tyler park I passed at the end of my first day, there’s typically no monument at all to the great struggles of working people that ended up camping on this heath, awaiting a response from the king. Each uprising was undermining by its confidence in the fair-dealing of leaders, and a lesson might be heeded that speaking the truth to power is fine, just don’t expect power to speak the truth.
‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free.’
John Ball was one of the leaders of the Peasant’s Revolt. He argued for the fundamental equality of all people before God, and his arguments for personal liberty inspired the English during a time of immense social and cultural dislocation. Systematically misinformed by the Church with its Latin services, and underpaid by feudal lords, Ball and Tyler were among a campaign for social justice whose core demands have been heard many times since, again and again. I think back to the Powhatan, to the Kentish peasants, to the Bluewater sprawl, and wonder if there is anything compelling in human history that suggests the future possibility of equal, direct democracy. Without lords or monarchs, without malnutrition or working poverty, without houses unfit for human habitation, without all this boredom and frustration, without foul resentment of migrants, the unemployed and disabled. With transparency and accountability, with local and national governments whose decisions one participates in, with all the things I keep harping on about. I wonder if ambition, aggression, fear and greed always take the operative share in human nature. Nothing around me gives me the impression it might be one way or the other.
I ride beside Greenwich Park, its observatory somewhere in the distance. South London is a place that’s special to me, and I’ll take a final trip out on my bike again in the coming months to explore it in relation to Searching for Albion. Right now I’m just passing through, now in home territory, speeding down towards the regenerated council blocks and wide-open Berlin-alike bombsite of Deptford. Its high street is still mostly run-down, poundshops, butchers, a large community space, a few unconvincing attempts at gentrifying the place with barista coffee and craft beers.
I reach New Cross now, close to home. Since the glaring wealth of Blackheath village, south London has been incongruously confused about itself. Deptford, New Cross and, further ahead, Elephant and Castle, are obviously deprived areas where large injections of capital are being made at specific points in the built environment. These add to the topsy-turvy inequality of the place, where those on low-incomes can only afford to live here if they’re housing association tenants, and in which the remainder pay exorbitant rents to live in cramped houseshares in Victorian terraces.
I went to university at Goldsmiths, based here. The area hasn’t changed greatly, though now certain new pubs like the Paradise or New Cross House stand out for their obviously white and well-off social composition compared to what’s around them. I park my bike opposite Goldsmiths. I hear a group with expensively-educated accents passing me as I lock up, ‘it’s so ghetto’, they laugh, freshers in south London, roughing it, slumming it… Urban culture’s become a strange thing: a red-haired posh lad called Ed Sheeran wins a MOBO, whilst talking about class and its relation to race is still taboo, as the white upper middle-classes dominate the tops of the public and private sectors and keep away the few ladders still available to the ambitious poor. Despite the occasional noises, there’s never been any significant relation between the largely white, liberal university and the largely non-white, depoliticised surrounding area. What’s the connection between Del Boy, Chris Eubank, Damilola Taylor or Status Quo with the research of Richard Hoggart or Stuart Hall? An obvious but unexplored one, and it’s a shame, though some superb historical research, critical theory and cultural studies have been done here.
I look around at the Turkish kebab shops, Irish pubs, hip student coffee houses, print shops, afro-caribbean hair salons, the local Venue club, the old town hall, the Iceland in the distance where a V2 rocket once landed and wiped out 145 local shoppers, and the web of prominent university buildings belonging to Goldsmiths, and think of what Stuart Hall might make of it. He makes these pertinent remarks about difference and Englishness in an essay on black cinema. ‘[W]e all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular culture, without being contained by that position as ‘ethnic artists’ or film-makers. We are all, in that sense, ethnically located and our ethnic identities are crucial to our subjective sense of who we are. But this is also a recognition that this is not an ethnicity which is doomed to survive, as Englishness was, only by marginalizing, dispossessing, displacing and forgetting other ethnicities. This precisely is the politics of ethnicity predicated on difference and diversity.’
I gaze out at the busy traffic, and can see in my eyeline outside the Marquis the major sites of my political education: town hall and library occupations, pub conversations, the University for Strategic Optimism, the top floor of the university library, CCS and the local bath-house. The idea for taking this trip came upon me in the silent study area of the library: I’d given a paper at a conference about the crisis of capitalism. Many talking, few listening, the papers regurgitating old analyses with faddish theorists. Losing the will to live, I sneaked off to the library and, fingers browsing the spines, picked out George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. Reading that filled me with political questions that couldn’t be answered by other books. Its effect has been this, these journeys and words.
A young man slaps my hand outside the boozer. I feel like telling someone I’m home, and he’s the first one I see. ‘London’s where it’s at’, he tells me, and describes his excitement about starting a three year popular music degree. He’s well-spoken, but attempts to hide this with a clean-dirty garb curated from early 90s hip hop videos.
‘I’ve got the skills to pay the bills… Come on Carl!… They were big fuckers’. Talk’s incoherent inside the Marquis, whose walls are decked out with random images from Donegal. I stand at the bar and sup on some local Brockley red ale whilst the Eagles’ Hotel California plays on the jukie. ‘This could be heaven or this could be hell…’. I’ve always liked this pub, packed with local cockney and Irish middle-aged men, most freely talking balls, the atmosphere fun and convivial, and free of students. People buy each other drinks and offer out cigarettes. My feet and legs are aching, and so banish the temptation to stay and chat longer by pushing myself out.
I ride out of the New Cross triangle, back on the last stretch, past another retail park and supermarket, a dirty bus garage, taking the left fork away from the Old Kent Road, the arse of London, whose long intestinal tract I’ve been following all day. Through Peckham, past fenced-off piles of rubble-remains of Wood Dene. Like Liverpool, many of Peckham’s worse council estates have been demolished but replaced with something more homely and pleasant, low-rise houses and small blocks with ample parking and garden spaces. Cyclists weave in and out of the traffic with the sense of direction and safety as mayflies. Few have helmets or lights, and most I see skip the red lights, causing danger to pedestrians. In London, it’s something you get used to, but the arrogance and aggression of cyclists here is quite extraordinary. Getting closer to home.
Peckham, caffs, grocers, butchers, tatty chain shops, the Woolworths by the cheap multiplex… I grew up in Camberwell and have seen the area change a lot. Its car-park now has a hipster bar on its top floor, and though there’s been a multicultural market on Rye Lane for donkeys years, a group of ambitious cupcake-makers, artisan bakers and other devil’s dandruff have launched a new ‘Peckham market’. Take seriously what I’ve been arguing about class, race, and inherited wealth: Peckham’s another case in point. Well, Bellenden Road’s still worlds away from the nail parlours, hair shops, tenuous churches and butchers of Rye Lane. I push on, past the post-war housing estates along Camberwell Church Street, and then over Camberwell Green.
Home, where nearly building and space is steeped in stories and ghosts, too many to even fill this word-stew of a blog. The hospital where I was born, the school I went to, the reception office where relatives married, friend living here, pissing about there, vomiting as a drunk seventeen year old in this place, Camberwell, home. Past the swimming baths, the pubs and restaurants where birthdays have been spent, down Camberwell New Road, past more takeaways, pubs and near-derelict pubs. Home isn’t so far from everywhere else. I take a left down Vassall Road, nearly there, the red gothic tower of St. John the Divine just ahead of me, its bells ringing every quarter of an hour, imbuing this stretch of Victorian townhouses and early-70s council housing with the cheerful tranquillity of a rural village. I cross over the junction, taking a right on Holland Grove.
Home. Here’s my estate, a place I share with hot sauce entrepreneur Levi Roots and a plethora of west African and Latin American families and elderly Jamaican people. It’s deserted, as I remember it, uncollected rubbish piled up around the place. I press the buzzer, then pull the cycle up. My partner’s there, my love. As I shut the bicycle back in the store-cupboard from where I’d taken it, four months earlier, I’m filled with immense relief and happiness. Home.