‘Things change when people start to talk to each other, positively, to the people around them, about what could happen’. – Colin, Christow.
This is not the first time I’ve woken up on a railway carriage. Usually exhaustion from work or plain drunkenness played a part. They were huge and sophisticated things, with plug sockets, automated announcements, passenger wi-fi and space age toilets. The Toad brake van by contrast is modest in proportion, built for the needs of a Fifties’ rail-guard, but comes with a comfortable bed, sink, cooking area, dining table and bookshelf filled with treasures. There are no automated announcements, only a sense of silent stillness, at times interrupted by the trill of birdsong outside.
No rush today. Sadly, I’m one of the very last guests to stay on this camping van run by the Teign Valley railway. The world’s changing, as Colin described it yesterday, and the effort and motivation to continue running an underused resource has waned. I wander around the goods yard, past an open freight shed, and the tiny Tadpole brake carriage, also converted into a camping van replete with children’s books and a ukulele. There’s a number of old freight stock carriages, and I wonder how the Teign valley railway might have become if Colin had realised his plans to buy up the land on which the line once ran, and reopened it again. It is such a huge undertaking for one lone individual, and Colin has made remarkable progress in the yard so far. With the help of a young environmentally-minded apprentice, perhaps looking for an interesting and rewarding one-year project, the Teign Rail could become far more widely-known, I think. The sheer breadth knowledge and skills that Colin has deserves to be shared and passed on.
‘It’s lovely, you forget how blue it can be.’
– Conversation by Porthmeor beach, St. Ives.
Who makes the English?
A common History story. Regular defeat in football, cricket and rugby. The earth beneath the feet, the place of one’s birth or the place that one works, or lives to work, or works to live, whichever’s first. The national curriculum. The tax man, the lawyer, the politician, figures most loathsome. A driving licence, or other government documentation. Milky tea and stiff conversation. Roast beef and fried bacon. A bit of ooh err, hanky-panky and how’s yer father. Getting knocked out on penalties, again, again! A national anthem that no-one can sing. Ancient buildings where no-one’s been. A dragon-slaying Palestinian patron who never stepped foot in the land. Michael Caine, Lenny Henry and Brian Blessed. Bowler hats and a spiffing good day old bean. Unseasonably seasonal weather. Going to the dogs. And going to the dogs. Inexhaustible yet tedious moratoriums in the broadsheets about the national character. Embarrassment about, well, umm…, everything.
My sketch is affectionately ridiculous, because I want to point to how a collective identity, like being English, Cornish, Welsh or Scottish is something imagined. I’m not the first to make that point, but there’s something useful in considering it as a label or ’empty signifier’, absorbing different values and meanings imposed on it. To me, it suggests that just as it can be associated with anything from pisspoor football performance to the atrocities of imperialism, so it can be used to group together some common values and a desire for a new kind of political settlement, for a better kind of society. One where fair play, equality and equal opportunity, toleration, democracy and due process rule the day.
‘You don’t buy and sell idiots. You don’t buy and sell chavs, like you do here.’
– conversation in a Trebetherick boozer.
The dawn light suffuses into the open cottage living room where I’ve slept. As it creeps across the ceiling wall, these dusty dressers and dining tables seem to shriek and recede, shrinking from incongruously large shapes to something more everyday. This cottage has been uninterrupted for many decades. The walls could crumble into nothing in your hands, but are strong and robust, like the hives of termites. It breathes an aged air, exhaustedly occupying the intelligence of its years like a hyperthymesic savant. The carpets and furniture have been preserved in tea and tapioca pudding, board games and bridge, and quiet disagreements, stiffly stewing the atmosphere as lips are chewed, from the christening of a child’s name to the executors of the selfsame will.
Cast open the curtains. Today, the sun has risen without an email alert. No alarm clock stirred the cattle from the warmth of their grassy-belly-beds. The songbirds flittering over those hedgerows had no automated reminders or morning emails to motivate them from their slumber. Tammy’s doggy, still coy from the kick of a malicious horse, has not been reassured of his existential importance by Facebook or Twitter notifications. This delightful late-summer morning is not trending. Such losses, theirs!
‘This might be a strange question, but tell me, what’s the one political change you would like to see in your lifetime?’
‘Get rid of all the Conservatives, all the corrupt politicians. Have a new lot. Ordinary people.’
‘Shoot the lot of em’.
– talking to two young people, Halifax.
I awake in Malham after a fine night’s sleep. All around me is peace. This is a quiet, teeny little village nestled in the south-west of the Yorkshire Dales. A stream trickles under an old stony bridge, pursuing the desire of its flow out into the tranquillity of wispy fields and cattle drunk on grass and rainwater. The St. George’s flag flutters on the outside of a pub, an unnecessary marker of a scene that could only be England: this village, this lawn, these dozy river verges, a newsagent who gazes out from his store at the morning rush, a postal van that struggles to navigate the gnarled and twisty roads. This is England, and nowhere is England like this. Here is the England of the chocolate boxes and packets of fudge, of the I heart London stores and the Jeremy Paxmans with their delusional national biographies. I rub my eyes to check the view, then prepare to depart the youth hostel.
‘That’s what I hate about the modern world. You see kids out on their mobile phones, and they’re not talking to each other. And their parents are doing the same. And we’re all guilty of it, together.’ – Lady in pub, Malham.
Hail the morning that arrived too soon. Farewell the night that never finished, misspent in writing, and thinking, and talking too late. Tiredness and fatigue, my companions. They decorate this stage-set called ‘reality’ in the tones of grey. Everything with a tired mind feels that little bit unhinged, as if someone’s whispered into one’s ear that tomorrow probably won’t roll around. Just look at these people, with their fancy hats and shoes, their long words and their urgent obligations. Why on earth are they all bothering, don’t they know that reality’s a joke at their expense?
‘Nothing is assured’ – Sonya, Morecambe.
Mid-morning, and the rain’s falling hard on my tent. Its light and rhythmic percussion wraps into my dozes like a thousand tiny mallets pattering against a vale of cotton wool. Droplets condense and form on the inside, and drip drop drip down onto my sleeping bag. In the course of the night, the lower half of the tent has flooded and most of my stuff is soaked through. My feet are freezing, but most of me’s unscathed. For around an hour I sit inside that tent, listening to the rain, wondering when it will take a pause.
At last, a break in the showers. I dash out into the nearby forest to find a discreet spot for my ablutions, then return to pack up. The rain’s still paused – great! I combine desperation with opportunity and attack my bike’s rear gears with a screwdriver. Eventually some combination of twists and fiddles has the vehicle moving as it should again. I celebrate with a few bowls of granola and just the most wonderful view of Lake Thirlmere. Mists hover above in thick tufts, their reflections on the water’s surface giving the impression of the imminent collapse of the heavens.
‘Once you’re wet, there’s nowt you can do.’
‘Yeah, you might as well just get wet.’
‘You might as well go out, get wet, stay out for the day, then go in.’
– Punters in The Bush, Cockermouth, dispensing Zen weather advice.
Perhaps sleeping in parks isn’t so bad after all. I’ve managed to get eight hours sleep for the first time in too long, and I’ve not been disturbed by any passing policeman or local dog-walker. Indeed the small green is quiet when I get up, and I pack up my tent and belongings before another soul strolls by this way.
The morning is dry and relatively warm for a change. Feeling enthusiastic, I drift back through Gretna and towards the border. There’s a huge ‘outlet village’ at a roundabout directing traffic to and from Scotland, boasting its slightly higher-end mass high street chains on offer. Golf shops, American clothing brands, Costa coffee, luxury kitchenware and the like. Despite almost everything being closed, the car park is relatively full, and the mock-high street inside has a surprisingly large number of people strolling aimlessly up and down, content to be just near the retail gods.
‘I think things are much more fragile than they seem. Poke at the right hole, and the whole thing could come falling down.’ – Ewan, Isle of Eigg.
I awake a little late in cheery Mallaig, a harbour town on the Scottish mainland. Disconcertingly, the sun is out already. Contrary to local wisdom, perhaps Scotland does have a summer?
It’s not long before I’m back in Mallaig harbour, boarding a small vessel with my bike that takes the twice-weekly journey to the isle of Eigg. This peculiar and remote island has a small community that was one of the first to buy back its own land. In the case of Eigg (pronounced egg), this was through a protracted struggle against an obnoxious and inconsiderate landowner Keith Schellenberg. The story of the island’s struggle has been shared with me in various pub conversations on the way, and I’ve found out more through Alastair McIntosh’s excellent book Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, a potent and inspiring book about community and the possibility of political change.
‘I’ve only been to England twice, I’ve been to Germany more often. London, that’s like a foreign country, but yet it makes all the decisions that affect our lives.’ – Kieran, Skye.
With a furtive thrill, last night I pitched camp in the arena of the Highland Games at Portree, Skye. The surrounding views of the harbour, verdant forests and Black Cuillin mountains in the distance are quite a spectacular and rousing image to start the day, and the Lump itself, as it’s known here, is totally deserted.
I could return in a few weeks’ time to watch, with thousands of others, brawny Highlanders toss the caber and fling various weights across the field. There would be bands of local pipe-players competing to perform the most stirring rendition of the Bonny Banks o’ Loch Lomond, with the descendents of the local clans of MacLeod and MacDonald showing off their tartans and symbols. There’d be sailing, and dancing, and… masses of tourists.
Escaping the crowds on Skye is pretty difficult, but that’s not to suggest that some kind of authenticity might be scraped out and saved beneath the superficialities. The Highland games happen across Scotland and are, like Shetland’s Up Helly Aa, a Victorian construction, taking some vague aspects of local traditions and transforming them into a sanitised tourist attraction. Queen Victoria’s move up to Balmoral in 1862 kicked off the Highlands craze, and what remains of the local clans is nothing compared to their customs, power and communal pride before the fall-out of Culloden. So this event is all about tourism. Gladly, this morning, I’ve got it all to myself.
‘I thought I’d gone deaf. There it was: nothing. Silence.’ – Nigel, Berneray.
Look upwards on a lonely evening’s sunset on the rugged Isle of Harris. You may see an albatross soaring aloft in the distance, its wide black and white wings outstretched. Hear, against the lapping of the tides, its hoarse cry into the distance. This albatross is seeking its lover, its lifelong mate, lost some years ago along the coastline of this rugged and bleak Outer Hebridean island. It continues its solitary search, clinging to life through the hope of finding again its other half.
Some of literature’s greatest epics are not journeys into the unknown, but journeys home, or to find a home. The Odyssey of Homer, or the Aeneid of Virgil, are each stories of men’s wanderings in search of the peace and warmth of the hearth. Berneray has given me just the sanctuary I needed. Being away from home has me cherishing it all the more.