On the 21st May I left London with an old road bike, a tent, and two panniers full of useless stuff.
My plan was simple, naive, and way too ambitious: to travel all around and across the British islands, explore the landscape, talk to people about their lives, discover local stories and myths, and generally enjoy myself as much as possible. Being a 27 year old postgraduate student and Londoner with little money, this all depended on the kindness and goodwill of strangers I was yet to meet.
The result is this website here, chronicling my experiences in words and pictures for each day, as it happened.
Four months later I returned home, not particularly wiser or older. But as I travelled across the country, major events bubbled through communities from European elections to the vote for Scottish independence. There were sports events, cycle rides, international wars and terrorist attacks all kicking off in the background, to which my daily interviews with people captured. Whilst out on the road I encountered all manner of strangeness: I met washed-up actors, boozed with people from every conceivable social class and occupation, talked to worshippers of every major religion, lost my mind stargazing, got hit by a car, climbed a mountain, swam in seas, handled a nuclear missile, lost pretty much all of my belongings (and found them again), encountered the supernatural, camped on cliffsides and castles, and generally had an awesome time. And all that with very little money, and no lycra.
I can now give an authoritative opinion on where the best pastries, beer, whisky and conversation are to be found on the British islands. To find out more, dive in to one of the days.
I’ve made so many friends, had many a mad adventure, and I’ve talked to people in almost every city and region of the British isles. Each day was rich in stories and experiences. Compared to a lifetime of reading books and online news, my four months out in the world relying on my own devices and the generosity of strangers has taught me so much. I’ve tried to record that here in detail.
So what’s Searching for Albion about?
This website is like a large digital scrapbook of my experiences. Out of it, I’m producing a manuscript of my thoughts and experiences. Below, I explain in more depth about the title and the original aims of the trip.
It’s a naive attempt to broaden my understanding of the different cultures and stories on this island, to give voice to the many other ‘Britains’ left behind by the London-centred establishment. I have no fixed agenda. I don’t belong to any political party or ideological position. I’m simply curious. The United Kingdom is a ruse, a monarch’s mock-up of a political unity that only Johnny Foreigner could take seriously. Don’t worry, the title’s tongue in cheek (one must never be too earnest). Yet I don’t believe in some national essence of Britishness. For me, identity is not composed by where you’re from, but where you are. At the same time, the need for identity and cultural expression is a basic need we all have. And only wilful blindness could conceal the peculiar climate, landscape, humour, modesty, diets and history that together composes a quirky pattern of Englishness.
Whilst many Irish, Welsh and Scottish people have claimed a new pride in their cultural history and language, the English have been left behind. To be proud to be English is still frowned on. It is conflated with a jerky minority of paranoid racists. Football seems to be the one opportunity to celebrate, and it’s here more than most that the English are poorly served.
I believe that there’s much to celebrate about Englishness. I want to draw out our traditions of equality, liberal attitudes, and religious toleration. From the early organised forms of democracy and trial by jury, to the abolition of slavery, the English have been leaders in establishing political models of social fairness. There is a superb tradition of black humour, expressive artwork, philosophical speculation and scientific discovery that Michael Gove, Nigel Farage or the ‘English Defence League’ (anything but) cannot begin to understand. And yet this rich living culture is ours, we the people, we who live and work here, and contribute in different ways to this society. These freedoms have been won by uprisings, rebellions and active law-breaking, and the histories of republicanism, trade unions, Chartism, the Suffragettes, and organised workers movements each interrupt any cosy tale of national progress. Today, there is much to be proud of, from our fine booze to strange foods, and the peaceful and fair multicultural society we live together in today.
And yet there is much terribly wrong, and deeply unjust. Millennia on, we are still ruled by a hereditary caste of fools who deign to call us their subjects. People are going hungry and losing their homes because of the cruelty of this improperly elected government. Our ‘meritocracy’ enables the rich to thrive, and everyone to languish in jobs without rights or pay. Town-centres have been stripped of social functions and become sites of concentrated consumption. We are culturally and socially malnourished by it. We are the first generation of young people who will not outlive our parents, and who report greater levels of mental health and anxiety disorders than ever before. Reeking hypocrisy and ignorance about immigrants. Corruption has crippled the political establishment, media and police. I believe that such corruption is a necessary effect of their existence. Something new is desperately needed.
When I say ‘Albion’ I mean it in the way visionary poet William Blake does. In Jerusalem, the character of Albion embodies universal humanity, the land of Britain, yet also takes the form of a single man. It’s a bit confusing, but I think that Blake’s mystical pantheistic hymn is a convenient way in to explore what constitutes ‘Albion’ and Englishness. On the face of it, these are cultural features that could be found anywhere. But they compose a singular set of histories linked to this landmass, and the many different peoples that have lived here. Among friends from other countries, one realises that there are indeed stereotypical traits of Englishness, a stiffness and modesty matched by an intensive eccentricity and love of getting wrecked. So what is this Albion today?
For too long, opportunists and hacks have been scratching their heads over the meaning of Britain, of John Bull and the bulldog breed, of warm ale, spinsters on cycles and afternoon cricket on England’s village greens. In the process, they’ve only ever written about what they hoped to see, a validation of a nationality, a validation of themselves and their social class. Oxbridge-educated, hailing from the wealthy home counties, a culturally homogeneous and socially-interlinked minority now dominate popular culture across the political spectrum. Come off it mate.
It pains me to read books about English identity. None match what I’ve known. Born and grown up in Camberwell, south London, what Paxman or Bryson write of Englishness means nothing to me, and makes no sense to the landscapes and peoples I’ve known, the places I’ve worked. Shakespeare was an exercise in disciplinary coercion at our school. The Lake District is the palette from which the cheap estates of my area are named after.
I’ve been lucky to grow up with friends from the Caribbean, India, western Africa, China, Turkey and Greece, and Ireland, and England, like myself. I’ve worked in pubs, day-centres, community groups and mental health charities in London, getting to know an immense variety of people, from refugees to the idle rich. I’m fascinated by the human race, and living and working in London provides plenty of research material.
At the same time, these urban and working class traditions of toleration, cooperation, freedom-loving, and generosity have been erased by this Union Jack waving, immigrant-hating, rural claptrap. What some call ‘Englishness’ excludes my friends, who share the values I do, who contribute in diverse ways to our society. Do the Royals, or MPs, or bankers, contribute to our society, or share such values? Do they even pay taxes? I think it’s clear where the real problem lies.
That’s why I’m travelling across the island comprising England, Scotland and Wales, and countless identities between. I know London well, but I recognise it has become a very self-important city. Not only has it warped the country’s resources, jobs and wealth towards it, it is also home to those hacks who pronounce judgement on the rest of the land. Who has been left behind? What stories of farming, food banks, fishing or finding work are not being heard?
Who even knows the land? We’ve become more familiar with America or Southern Europe than the borders and terrains of the British isles. Only truckers and footie fans can claim otherwise, plodding across rainy towns with a devotional zeal that a medieval abbot would admire.
So these field observations reflect a couple of personal obsessions. About six months ago I started thinking about a new political and economic model for England. One that would ensure that no one went hungry or without shelter whilst ensuring that food and energy were sustainable and abundant. One that puts the interests of the people first, so therefore a republican model. A constitution for the working class, those who must work by hand or brain in order to live, which gives decision-making power to the majority, not a bunch of crooks in the City of London or Westminster.
I quickly realised that I was trying to speak for a land that I didn’t know, and millions of people I’d never met. So I decided: I’d produce a new democratic model by talking to people and visiting all the major British towns, running ideas by them, finding out common experiences, problems, and untried solutions. Yeah, the weather will fail me. And my initial opinions will be changed. But I believe that experience is the most reliable foundation of knowledge, not abstractions and aloof speculations. Let’s hope I don’t lose my initial optimism.
I’m not doing it for charity – this isn’t a time trial or a mid-life crisis, but a cultural and political journey – but any sympathy can be gratefully channeled into a donation to the Trussell Trust or Shelter.
Send comments and suggestions to Jdt@riseup.net
Read more of my writing at drownedandsaved.org.