‘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.
‘The world’s changing.’ – Colin, Christow.
I’ve stayed the night in Plymouth, with Imke, Andrew and their three teenage children. Their large family home is cluttered with the treasures of lives well-lived. Down at the breakfast table, I drink coffee slowly and talk with Andrew, a farm manager back in Cornwall.
He sees himself as one of the last of this dying way of life, and is pessimistic about the future. ‘Young people now, they don’t want to work hard’. Would more and better-paid apprenticeships make a difference? ‘No, no’ he chuckles, heavily. ‘People just don’t want to do hard work.’ As a child, there would be long days at school, and then ‘we used to go into the fields in the evenings, and the weekends, picking spuds’. He looks back on these scenes with disappointed nostalgia, like the veteran of a narrowly-defeated platoon. Like many experienced farmers, he describes his work not in terms of animals but of food, working with ‘beef, some corn, some lamb’. Despite his experience, he owns no farm himself, but manages one for a retired couple who have bought some land as a ‘hobby’. By contrast, he describes the farming culture he grew up in as ‘a way of life’, as others do.
This culture has been a blessing and a curse on farmers. Unable to take up any other employment, they’ve been ground down into accepting decreasing pay for their produce. The public have (mostly) wrongly associated them with CJD disease, bloodsports, GM foods and the needless slaughter of badgers, when instead responsibility lies with conflicting government directives or the toffs who own much of the countryside. Meat and veg have become unsavoury. Apples and potatoes must now conform to an ad-agency’s glossy image of roundness or greenness, or supermarkets will not sell them, claiming we will not buy them. The general public has become ignorant of its own food production. Fruit must be chopped into ‘five a day’ salad bags; meat must be de-boned, skinned and bread-crumbed. A niche has opened up among the urban middle classes for organic and ethically-nourished foods. Unaware of the necessary intensity of food production to feed a massive human population cheaply, the criminal antics of massive agricultural companies have been conflated with the everyday practices of farmers. Ask for immediate word associations with ‘farmer’ among your average town-dweller, and the results will not be positive.
‘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.
‘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.’
– 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.
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.