Day 121: Brighton to Dungeness

‘We’re protected from their malice by their incompetence’ – Laurie, Brighton.

Strange times, these. Everyone seems to believe so much is wrong, but no-one’s offering a way forward. We’ve become uneasy about right answers, and fixated with locating wrongs. Hope has become a debased currency, one feels embarrassed at the exchanges about even taking it out one’s pocket. Clunky, greasy, funny spelling, weird symbols. Better traded for cynicism or snide complaining. Wandering around the marketplace of ideas, all one hears is the hullaballoo of people demanding refunds.

I’ve been travelling across a land-mass and nearby islands where not even the English language is a universal definer. There’s a vague sense of common-ness among the peoples I’ve met, but the regions, cultures and histories of these islands are so diverse that I can no longer imagine them as one country, say ‘the United Kingdom’, on a map. You can call it ‘UK’ if you like. But there is no king here, and little united about it. UnKnown might be more apt.

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Day 75: Preston to Manchester

‘The gift of time’ – Jacqui, Trafford.

Ugh….

It’s a slow start this morning in Preston. I’m hungover after a night of dancing, drinking and clubbing in Preston. It was a good night, that much my memories gather, but stringing together a series of thoughts causes sheer agony. I have left behind my glasses somewhere, but where?

Luckily, I awake with two cats sleeping at the foot of my bed, and a number of cats and dogs nearby, licking my hand and cutely cuddling up for affection as I start to stir. There’s a warm and happy feel about Carl and Andrea’s place, and any worries are quickly dispelled.

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Day 66: Glasgow to Arran

‘The boss man’s here, watch out!’
‘Yeah, I’d better do some work.’
– Punter to a barmaid, Brodick.

Taking a week’s break from cycling has been a really good idea.

For one, I’ve been able to piece together notes with photos and get up to date with the writing. But homesickness can build up cumulatively. For some, there’s a need to express and experience tenderness and affection. Among strangers this is occasionally possible, but returning home, seeing my family and my partner, has been a rejuvenating tonic. And returning to London? Well in a funny way I love the place too, but that will require some explaining. I’ll save that for the end of this journey. Right now, I’m heading back up to Glasgow on a ridiculously cheap coach, returning to the city where I left my inspiration, along with a sleeping bag, tent, and bicycle.

The motorways are filled with delivery lorries bringing stuff hither and thither. One has skidded and slid over, the driver’s supply of caffeine from countless energy drinks perhaps failing him at some unlucky moment. The coach gets caught in one glut of traffic after another, and a mere ten hour journey stretches to around thirteen. To complete the misery, I have a hyperactive kid behind me tapping and kicking the chair. It’s the kind of testing exercise that would send a bodhisattva on a killing spree.

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Days 63-65: Glasgow

‘You know what the difference is? At the weekends, people in Finland go out to their homes in the countryside, they exercise, they enjoy the air. In Glasgow, they just go to the shops.’
‘And drink!’
– Tommi and Michelle, Glasgow.

Warning: Glasgow is a small universe. Capturing it in an economical amount of words has proven more difficult than any place I’ve visited. As my write-up’s turned out so long (and yet I’ve omitted so much), it’s been sub-headed into days which can be read separately. But I dare not separate them into chapters. Just like the city itself, one element necessarily informs another and interweaves with it. If reading this on a web browser, I advise for the sake of time not attempting to read in one sitting. Same goes to the around 600 email subscribers to this blog.

Day 63
Cherish those mornings where there’s no need to rush. When the alarm clock states the time factually rather than coercively. Get up now, or in half an hour? It doesn’t particularly matter. The pillow has taken on the texture and proportions of a heavenly cloud. Let the morning become afternoon without us dashing around, shoving on our shoes whilst hurrying out the door in a commuter’s cossack dance. The world will continue in its same majestic and ludicrous whirl without us bearing witness to it. Placing a quilt over one’s head is a perfectly respectable way of dispelling life’s demands for another day.

It’s a pleasure waking up slowly in Glasgow at Tommi and Michelle’s. Tommi I met previously in a pub in Dornoch: he invited me to stay with him when I arrived in Glasgow, and kindly lived up to his word. I met Michelle and Nico, his wife and son, the previous afternoon. Michelle’s a native of Dumbarton, but a career in business management brought her to Finland, Norway and back to Glasgow. She’s suffered from MS in more recent years, but has used her experience and skills to assist the MS Society with its campaigns and organisation. Nico is a nineteen year old tennis maestro. As can be the case with young men, he bounds away with more energy and life than life itself can keep up with, which can lead to a kind of post-teen/early twenties dislocation where what one should do isn’t clear, and indecision paralyses. Over cereal and tea – after camping, such luxury – we talk for some time about Glasgow and Scotland. There’s no need to rush, and each topic is treated carefully, without shortcutting to received wisdom or printed opinion as so often blights much discussion of current affairs.

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Day 58: Pitlochry to Ardnamurchan

‘It reminds me of home’ – Britt, Strontian.

Home… where is home? Home this morning is in this rental car, parked on the outskirts of the eastern Highlands tourist village of Pitlochry, sat next to my younger brother, listening to country music on BBC Gael. Home is a conversation the previous evening with my wife, the intimacy of shared phrases, experiences and concerns that lovers have and know. A weekly phone call from my folks opens up a front door in my mind with a familiar carpet, a cat capering in the kitchen and the love and laughter of my immediate family. Drinks, jokes and banter in a small boozer with a gang of wizened geezers feasts the spirit with the pleasure of friends known and yet to know.

Home has no fixed location and needs no set of keys. Its security is not in alarms, fences or boundaries but in openness, generosity and just chancing it that wayward hello to a passing stranger.

As we rub our faces awake and share our yawns, a couple of locals wander by our parked car and say hi. We’ve probably been rumbled but there’s no problem here. Christy needs to get back to Fort William to start his journey home, so with a little reluctance we leave behind Pitlochry and head back east, passing through pretty Aberfeldy. The road is full of marvels. After Aberfeldy we sweep along a narrow road that presses the spectacular Loch Tay to our left, and the almighty Ben Lawers and surrounding mountain range to our right.

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Day 48: Lochinver to Lewis

‘The most terrible creature on this planet? It’s the human. We destroy everything… closely followed by the midge, and the tick!’ – Greg, Lochinver.

I awake with a fierce hangover on a shrubby hillock in the heart of Culag woods, a small but dense forest overlooking the fishing village of Lochinver. The beer, whisky and good times made sleeping easy, but the surface around me is uneven and boggy. Some strange little insect has lodged itself in my arm and with some difficulty I manage to squeeze it out. I’ll quickly become accustomed to these nasty critters. My socks and much of the tent are soaked through, and a pair of damp and whiffy socks are unhappily thrown away as tribute to the rain gods.

It’s a Sunday morning and the overnight rain seems to have cleared. Being dependent on tourism and fishermen, Lochinver actually has a shop and tourist office open, with a little museum at the back. There’s nothing about the wretched people of Assynt that Pennant saw, but the collection completes the pieces of a familiar puzzle. After Culloden, the local MacLeod chiefs had their obligations to their clans removed. Like other highlanders, they took well to making money from their lands, and gradually adopted a London-based lifestyle of the rich, spending the income of their estates in coffee houses and card tables. Debts lost them the land to the enterprising Duke of Sutherland. Over the early 19th century local farmers were burnt out and cleared to make room for sheep farming. Economic profit continued to trump traditions and human lives.

Lochinver was built in 1812 as a fishing port for these evicted farmers, and over the following nine years the surrounding area – that Jurassic wilderness I passed through yesterday – saw burnings and evictions. There were riots in nearby Inchnadamph against the collusion of the local church with the lairds, but most people were forced by starvation to move to Canada, Australia and elsewhere. By the 1870s the price of wool collapsed, and greedy lairds faced financial ruin, until Queen Victoria turned the Highlands and hunting into an English aristocratic retreat. Whilst the rich came to holiday, those locals who managed to eke out a living through croft-farming or fishing struggled to survive. It was a bleak place. Some organised deer raids against the rich, driving away toffs and their game to preserve ‘the land of Assynt to the people of Assynt.’

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