‘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.
‘If something went wrong we’d say “10% off crabs and lobster!” Then I’d call the boss up and say stick an extra fiver on the shellfish.’
– a guide to good business management, aboard the ferry to Sark.
My sister and I awake in a cramped one-person tent, that through parsimony and a preference for adventure, we’ve elected to sleep in as we explore the Channel Islands. We’re camped on the north-western edge of Jersey, a pleasant yet surprisingly small island off the coast of France. For some centuries it is has been the possession of the British Crown, and much of its French or Jerriais identity has disappeared over the last fifty years, as English and Scottish migrants have arrived to work in its burgeoning finance sector. The country is a tax haven, though do not expect to see gated mansions or humongous yachts, and those who benefit most from Jersey’s arrangements are also offshore.
‘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!
‘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.
‘He said, “we’ve got to call out the assessor”, and I said, “nae yous fucking won’t, that’s my horse!”’
– Ray, Dalmellington, on calling out the fire brigade to rescue a beloved 30-year old horse, neck-deep in a quagmire.
I awake after a reasonable enough rest in a youth hostel in Port Charlotte, on the north-western edge of isle of Islay. The island’s shaped like the three legs of the Isle of Man, a triskellion that points in three different directions. Port Charlotte sits on the left foot, Port Askaig on the right, and Port Ellen on the bottom. In the centre is Bowmore. The shape of the island corresponds surprisingly like the Celtic symbol for birth, beginning and nature, three swirls that connect. Perhaps Islay truly is a wild and magical isle.
The morning sun adds some evidence to the hypothesis. The bay is gorgeous, the golden light of the rising dawn skittering against its gentle flow inland. I’m also pretty sleep deprived, which adds its own intoxicated edge to perception. Writing up my notes takes me deep into the early morning hours. Lorna, the hostel manager, asked me how I can manage the cycling, drinking, conversations, and then writing it all up in the same day. I’m unsure either.
Either way, people are becoming increasingly perceptive of who I am, and more quickly grasping the reasons why I’m travelling, or the necessity of re-exploring and re-defining the cultural and social history of these islands. Maybe I’ve dropped my guard, or maybe it’s something about the random fortunes of who I’ve met, or something special about Scotland. I can’t decide.
‘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!
‘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.
‘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.