‘You never know what’s around the corner’ – Adam, Portsmouth.
I wake up on the edge of a recreation ground, outside a sleepy hamlet on the desolate coastline of the Isle of Wight. This is the last Monday of this journey, and my plans indicate I should reach London by Sunday night. That gives seven days to come up with something remotely conclusive about these islands, Albion…
Because I should come up with something conclusive, right? I’ve come all this way… would it not be disappointing if I were not entirely changed, or if I could not say: this is England, that is Britain, here is the truth? Perhaps pick up and discover in some discarded object, or exchange, or moment, a definitive instance of this experience which encapsulates everything, everywhere, on these islands? Sure, I’ll need to make some concession to passing fashions, and ensure whatever thing is might be is appropriately politically correct yet still attached to a sufficient number of recognisable clichés – perhaps a non-white child dunking a digestive biscuit into a cup of tea at a royalty-themed street party. Just don’t mention institutional racism, child abuse cover-ups, poverty, ritalin, or that his disabled mum hasn’t eaten for two days because her ESA was cut off. But now I’m falling into another cliché, that of anger. The task I set myself was impossible: find an essence of life and the living in this part of the world. It is too big, too big for anyone. That’s what so irked me about everything I’d read about the British or the English, usually drawing on a heap of clichés for both, of pigeon-fanciers, cucumber sandwiches, warm ale,Wayne Rooney and the Queen.
‘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!
‘And then I came back to Wrexham. And the streets were clean! And the buildings weren’t falling down. And there were no lepers on the street corners, taken out by organised criminals and left there all day without water.’ – Sandra, Chirk.
Fear makes us feel alive. Think about that little daily dose of terror provided by newspaper headlines. The terrorists, global epidemics, sex criminals and looming military invasions that each day are reported as immediate dangers to our comfortable lives. There’s a surge of adrenaline, a threatening figure on the horizon with malevolent intentions. Teeth start to bare, the mind races with tenuous analogies to ‘jungle warfare’ and ‘survival of the fittest’. Turns out social mobility, welfare or the right to a fair trial were luxuries that this nameless, faceless horror might steal from us: let’s remove them ourselves. It’s as if we’re supposed to enjoy this ‘pure’ or ‘natural’ state. Nature’s had such different meanings in different eras, and its status now makes me uncomfortable. I myself prefer the soppy and gushing lyrics of the Romantics. The Ancient Mariner, Ozymandias or Endymion didn’t harangue us with shrill terrors about benefits cheats, travellers or irresponsible single mothers.
‘Everybody’s called John at some point in their lives” – Towneley arms, Longridge.
By the law of averages alone, there ought to be at least one nice dry and sunny day in England. Just the odd one to balance out these rainy showers and moody clouds. A peek outside at the steep hills of Luddenden Foot suggests my number’s come up. Over porridge, Kirsty tells me about the histories and landscapes of this area where she’s lived for some twenty years after being priced out of her native Harrogate. There’s much here to explore in these former mill villages on the border of Lancashire and Yorkshire, in an area called Calderdale after the river that flows through it, and so together we venture out in her, off to explore.
At the ‘Foot’ is the Rochdale canal, where once two large mill buildings were situated. One made the velvet covers of bus seats and the like until it was recently demolished. The hills are airy, light, gentle, but at their time of operation this was a ‘dark and gloomy’ landscape. Such pretty properties like these were cheap for a reason, marked in soot, housing families of workers whose vision and hearing were progressively ground away by the nature of textile work.
‘Not everyone could do it. It’s his choice, he loves it.’ John on John, on the island of Johns, also known as Cape Wrath.
I could gaze at this view forever. Scatter my ashes here. This is a longer post, but the sights, stories and scenes ah, it’s worth following!
It’s 8.30am. At different times in my life, I’ve spent this time cattle-trucked on morning tubes and trains, fellow passengers arguing and fighting, stress and frustration sweating from people’s shirts and ties like a miasma of tolerated suffering. Or buses caught in interminable south London traffic, making me late for school, then university, some arsehole’s music blaring at the back from his phone. Or in the last year, dodging blind taxi drivers and the horsey wives of the rich in Chelsea tractors along the south circular to my current university on this very same bike besides my tent today.