‘We haven’t heard the full story’
– Conversation in the Dic Penderyn, Merthyr Tydfil.
I awake with slow and heavy movements in Uplands, Swansea, a residential suburb of the city largely populated with students at the nearby university. It’s the morning after the night before, and though my head’s not aching – I wisely bowed out of the drinking around 2am – I’m feeling a bit worn out.
Remarkably, Sarah and her housemates are all up before I am. Their relative youthfulness means they can manage a few hours’ kip and be up and spritely again! My age expresses itself as a headache, one slowly assuaged with coffee and Weetabix. We talk about drugs and their legalisation. I always feel slightly surprised when I hear people discussing drugs openly, call me sheltered, but across my trip, and I guess indeed before, it’s something that I notice younger people are more comfortable, and more sensible, talking about. Most are in favour of decriminalisation, of treating drug addiction as a social and health issue, something I agree with.
‘He said, “we’ve got to call out the assessor”, and I said, “nae yous fucking won’t, that’s my horse!”’
– Ray, Dalmellington, on calling out the fire brigade to rescue a beloved 30-year old horse, neck-deep in a quagmire.
I awake after a reasonable enough rest in a youth hostel in Port Charlotte, on the north-western edge of isle of Islay. The island’s shaped like the three legs of the Isle of Man, a triskellion that points in three different directions. Port Charlotte sits on the left foot, Port Askaig on the right, and Port Ellen on the bottom. In the centre is Bowmore. The shape of the island corresponds surprisingly like the Celtic symbol for birth, beginning and nature, three swirls that connect. Perhaps Islay truly is a wild and magical isle.
The morning sun adds some evidence to the hypothesis. The bay is gorgeous, the golden light of the rising dawn skittering against its gentle flow inland. I’m also pretty sleep deprived, which adds its own intoxicated edge to perception. Writing up my notes takes me deep into the early morning hours. Lorna, the hostel manager, asked me how I can manage the cycling, drinking, conversations, and then writing it all up in the same day. I’m unsure either.
Either way, people are becoming increasingly perceptive of who I am, and more quickly grasping the reasons why I’m travelling, or the necessity of re-exploring and re-defining the cultural and social history of these islands. Maybe I’ve dropped my guard, or maybe it’s something about the random fortunes of who I’ve met, or something special about Scotland. I can’t decide.
‘I think things are changing, where it won’t be normal for people to lock themselves in their little homes, with their TVs, all alone. People need each other.’ – Joe, Banchory.
For the first time in my life, this morning, I watched the dawn break out and filter through the trees. Its gentle golden light streaked across the fern leaves surrounding me, and permeated the tent with a rich and uncanny glow.
It’s also the first time I can remember going to sleep without setting an alarm. Since the age of 11 I’ve adhered to the harsh disciplinary regime of the all-too-early wake-up tocsin. Before that my mum would wake me up for school. The terror of 07:00 on the alarm, the anxiety of worrying you won’t drop off, and over-thinking the moment where consciousness becomes sleep. Or the misery of waking from a great dream half an hour before you must get up, sorely interrupted. How I hate the tyranny of these clocks!
At first I’m worried – will I sleep all day and get disturbed by a local farmer? No no. Instead I discover that I sleep in occasional bursts, as many of us do. It’s the dawn that wakes me at around 4am. I have another snooze and then rise as the sun gets warmer around 8, I think.
‘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…