‘We’re protected from their malice by their incompetence’ – Laurie, Brighton.
Strange times, these. Everyone seems to believe so much is wrong, but no-one’s offering a way forward. We’ve become uneasy about right answers, and fixated with locating wrongs. Hope has become a debased currency, one feels embarrassed at the exchanges about even taking it out one’s pocket. Clunky, greasy, funny spelling, weird symbols. Better traded for cynicism or snide complaining. Wandering around the marketplace of ideas, all one hears is the hullaballoo of people demanding refunds.
I’ve been travelling across a land-mass and nearby islands where not even the English language is a universal definer. There’s a vague sense of common-ness among the peoples I’ve met, but the regions, cultures and histories of these islands are so diverse that I can no longer imagine them as one country, say ‘the United Kingdom’, on a map. You can call it ‘UK’ if you like. But there is no king here, and little united about it. UnKnown might be more apt.
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‘I’ve never done this before’, says a female pensioner, ‘but I’m sitting out here watching the world go by. And there’s a lot of young people here…’
‘And they’ve all got mobile phones glued to their ears!’
– street talk outside the Swan Walk shopping centre, Horsham.
I awake at my old teacher Ariel’s house in Horsham, surrounded by collections of William Blake’s prophetic writings and intricate pen-drawn maps of mysterious scenes produced by his son. ‘If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character, the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ration of all things & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again’, I read in Blake. ‘Warning, this is a teenager’s room’, announces a sign next to that. I hope he doesn’t mind.
The wound on my knee is now definitely infected and has become painful to move. As I pack my belongings away, the lettering from my replacement pannier peels off in my hands, the Altura brand logo reduced to ‘RA’, whilst a sizeable hole has appeared in the other bag as its stitching unravels. Even the saddle is torn, spilling out foam. I’m wondering who’ll collapse first, me or this faithful bicycle.
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‘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.
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