Day 122: Dungeness to Margate

‘Money is still a big problem for us’ – Slavo, Margate.

My word, last night was probably the strangest experience of my life. As I awake, there’s nothing around me in the distance that would suggest red flashing signs or strange floating jackets or gently gliding samurai-like figures hovering over the shingle. Looking back, it’s actually a little terrifying, or certainly weird, the froth of a highly disordered brain. Like listening to Brian Eno’s ‘Lantern Marsh’ on repeat until one’s cerebral arteries collapsed. The sleep of reason… There’s something so eerie and empty about Dungeness. Wild-camping here sober would’ve been odd enough, but the added intoxicants seem to have momentarily torn through the veil of perception and hinted at a far more strange and inexplicable one.

The sound of feet padding through the shingle sends shivers down my spine. That night seemed to last forever, like a limbo without people or the possibilities of ever experiencing emotions again. It tapped into a taste for solitude and pointed out the isolating chaos at its core. In a bizarre way it reflects the myopia of seeking something that never actually existed except as a concept one already possessed. My eyesight impaired and my imagination running riot, I was compelled to wander all around this dark and empty beach in search of something that was already nearby me, that I should’ve seen because I’d placed it there. Does ‘Albion’ exist anywhere outside of a couple of poetry books and English literature surveys? My mind felt possessed in a way I imagine ants and other small insects are when the parasite cordyceps lodges itself inside their brains, forcing them to climb higher and higher so that its powerful urge can find a place to blossom and, in doing so, kill the ant. Some ideas can drive you mad.

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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 67: Arran to Islay

‘Look, I’m an otter! And now, I’m an eagle!’ – young boy, aboard the Lochranza-Claonaig ferry.

I awake in Bill’s house in the village of Sannox, on the Isle of Arran. It’s a palace of a home, displaying the riches of a life well lived: photographs, mementos, books and random treasures. I read the motivational verses on his fridge and have a cup of coffee with some Weetabix, whilst in another room, I hear Bill’s gentle and merry voice bubbling with laughter on a phone-call with an old friend.

We breakfast together and share our plans for the day. That Viking longboat in Corrie harbour will be burnt in an Up Hella Aa celebration later today, Bill tells me, and he shares some of the histories of Arran, an island colonised by Vikings, amongst others. The Hebrides, islands of the Firth of Clyde (like Arran), and the Isle of Man once comprised the ‘Kingdom of the Isles’, a separate political entity that existed from the 9th to the 13th century, when it was absorbed into the kingdom of Scotland. Irish, Pictish and later Viking settlers arrived and each claimed some or all of the islands, but the Viking influence was more lasting, Bill tells me. I sense it in the names of places, and in the probability of its historical veracity, but unlike Shetland or even, to a degree, Newcastle, I get little sense of it on Arran. But then more recent ‘colonisation’ by retiring Glaswegians brings its own flavour!

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Day 34: Edinburgh to Alva

‘Freedom isn’t free’ – Jamie, Stirling.

After a good night’s sleep in Edinburgh, I get up and potter about the high piles of intriguing books in Chris’s flat. In one, I find the words of George Borrow, that

‘There are no countries in the world less known by the British than these selfsame British Isles.’

Before I left, me and my partner spent a few hours trying to learn the counties of Wales and Scotland. Almost all of them I had never heard of. Can you locate Ceridigion, Angus, Clackmannanshire or Rhondda Cynon Taf? Whilst much of the towns and landscapes of England have been familiar to a degree, as I look out on the map of Scotland, I feel nervous and excited. Education and popular culture has woefully underprepared me.

I read in another excellent book, The Isles by Norman Davies, that confusion still remains over what we even call ‘British’ or the ‘UK’. In actuality, Britain is not an ‘island nation’, but made up of many. Unless it depends what we mean: is Britain a shorthand for the political state of the UK, or the geography of Great Britain (as I most often use it), or the ancient Britons, or some historical aspect of the British Empire? Most often, it’s not spelt out. Speaking of the British people as a historical entity is also confusing, particularly when the union has only been around for about 300 years. Popular history often takes the Tudors to be British, when in fact they were monarchs of England but not Scotland. Based on the lessons of the national curriculum, few if any of us could name or explain the life of a Scottish monarch.

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