Day 27: Bamburgh Castle to Berwick-upon-Tweed

‘You’re beautiful!’ – a woman to a man, supermarket, Berwick.

So, I bet you’re wondering whether the local Laird had me escorted off his castle grounds in the night?

Well… everything went quite fine, and I had a good night’s rest. I sneakily packed up my tent and things and cheekily went on my way, and took the road back towards the small harbour at Seahouses, grabbing some coffee and cake in Coxon’s café.

Travelling by bicycle is wonderful, but there are instances where alternative means are called for.

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Day 26: Whitley Bay to Bamburgh Castle

‘Different man, different times, different days.’ – three men, comparing the potential consequences of a new hairstyle, Alnwick.

Imagine what perfect harmony would look like it. Sometimes it feels like one stumbles across it in nature, particularly in the wild countryside of the eastern coast I’ve been journeying through. The symmetry on the wings of a moth, the intricate yet always regular swirls on the shell of a snail, or the regularity of wildflowers and trees that wither and bloom each year, from life to death, and back. Even the ancient bricks of different shapes and sizes that each form an unlikely bond together into an old farm wall, marking field from field. Each of these is an odd but effective compromise of chance and opportunity.

I’m starting to wonder if all my politicking about improvements to the communities I pass through has been swayed by some deluded vision of perfect harmony. What makes the dark humour I come across so refreshing is that it assumes the worst and makes the most of it. It’s shit round ere, but … or British weather! or You avin a laff, goin round Britain on that thing?

It doesn’t assume that the given situation would get better, yet in laughing about it and mocking the vanities of oneself and one’s surroundings, it supplies one with a power to overcome adversity with a tough-headed laughter.

The movements of humans suggest a taste of perfection. The whirling Zikr dances of Chechen Sufis are one extraordinary example. Great numbers of men gather together and dance in varying speeds in a large circle. Quickly they become one as a group, following the speeds and movements of the person ahead, moving about in different rings. They chant the names of God as they move, spinning about uncontrollably. The self disappears in this mystical tradition.

‘Sell your cleverness, and buy bewilderment’.

So says Rumi, Sufi mystic and poet. I need to abandon myself more into the unknown before offering up any easy solutions. And possibly take up morris dancing…

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Day 25: Tyne and Wear

‘Where’s all the customers?’
‘They’ve just left’. – Paul, at Betty’s, Sunderland.

I awake late in Whitley Bay. Paul and I did our best to drink all the wine the previous night. I rub my eyes and manage to reconstruct thoughts from previous days to produce another travel post before rolling out of bed. It’s a Saturday morning, and as I gaze out at the sleepy Tyneside suburbs, I imagine children wailing at the parents to wake up and feed them their favourite cereals, of adults gazing lacklustrely into garages full of half-finished home decoration projects, and young adults jumping into their credit card cars to head out to the nearest malls to look at things that disinterest them.

After a while Paul surfaces, and over cups of strong coffee, Paul discourages me from my stated plan of visiting Sunderland.

‘It’s a shit hole.’

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Day 24: Durham to Whitley Bay

‘People don’t know how hard it is for them’ – Clarissa, Durham.

Ever heard of a council farm?

No, me neither. Today I find about these publicly-owned farms, and spend time with one farmer who introduces some of the difficulties facing farmers today.

I awake at the home of Clarissa, a leading academic at a nearby university. Her home is stuffed with intriguing books and scintillating Victoriana, and it’s a pleasure to spend time in this unique place filled with rich and hearty conversation.

Over breakfast we discuss the transformation of universities, and the type of work that happens in them. It’s a subject I have thought about in some depth, and it’s an opportunity to compare my own concerns, indicated below, with the observations of another.

The values of business management have infected great swathes of public life with devastating consequences. The values of public service, or research for the sake of knowledge, are under threat by the pusillanimous influx of overpaid managers determined to screw every last drop of productivity and impact out of their underlings. Though discussion within universities has focused on a unique experience of marketization, for instance by Andrew McGettigan or Martin McQuillan, I see a shared experience with primary and secondary teaching, local government, healthcare, and the civil service.

Governments of the last seventeen years have increasingly intervened in the basic operations of these social institutions. There has been a plethora of new laws, new priorities and new restructures that have each transformed, often in contrary ways, the daily running of hospitals, or schools, or local governments. This has been undertaken by individuals who largely have no practical experience and little knowledge of how these institutions work. Today we do not speak of MPs but politicians. It reflects a cultural and social homogeneity of elected representatives: largely white men, privately-educated, with a modicum of life experience as PR spinners, lawyers or hacks, before becoming professional politicians. Empathy, truth-telling and humility are early casualties in such occupations.

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Day 23: Middlesbrough to Durham

“You’re fuckin mad, you are.”
“Yeah mate, I know!” – me and Gary, Middlesbrough.

Along these journeys I’ve written about values and experiences I’ve come across as they’ve been reported to me. But it’s not hard to trace a line between what people believe about themselves or their social world (or what they want a stranger to believe), and what they go about doing themselves. For instance, presenting values like equality, toleration and upholding the law will rarely provoke disagreement. It all depends on what subtler positions they are pushed towards. Does it mean reinforcing the current establishment, or completely transforming it?

Allow me to pose a hypothesis: most people I encounter seem broadly unhappy with the current status quo but unwilling to change it; but were something to change that benefitted them, they would quietly if grumblingly adapt to it. From the removal of a hereditary monarchy to an increase on taxing large properties, businesses and income-earners, the arrival of new funds to build housing and schools would over time overcome any earlier resistance, with a similar effect to the introduction of compulsory schooling or free healthcare.

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Day 22: Filey to Middlesbrough

‘It’s the young ones I feel sorry for. There’s nothing for them.’- Jan, Middlesbrough.

The north east has been awash with treats and rare treasures. Pocked inside this rolling terrain are towns and vistas that’ll charm and disarm, that inspire one to pause and take a moment to breathe it in and absorb. I’ve come across people gifted with a cheery frankness and friendly conversation and dwellings and villages layered in stripes of historical struggle and counter-struggle. It’s been one of the best secret discoveries of the trip so far. The bad reputation some of these towns live with seems like a convenient subterfuge to avoid annoying Londoners buying second homes and poking about with nosy questions.

There’s no denying the hidden stories of low pay, unemployment and poverty though. These issues affect all ages, it’s true, but the impact is certainly bearing down on younger people, as I’ve already encountered on this trip. As I’ve been travelling mostly during the day, and through seaside towns, I’ve mostly met retired people during these last few days. Our conversations about community and society have been illuminating. But I worry that pensioners can’t necessarily understand just how difficult and dispiriting things are for the young, particularly given the large number of benefits and free services they receive. There’s a great difference between being on jobseekers’ allowance aged 17 and the state pension aged 67.

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