‘Always go back to the source’ – Ariel, Horsham.
I awake in the cosy suburbs of Southampton. There are six days left now, sufficient time I doubt to ascertain the situation of these islands. Today I will push inland, off the coastal road, over the South Downs and into commuter belt territory. The South East, the ‘Home Counties’, lands of wealth and plenty, of twitchy curtains, casual hypocrisy and Daily Mail readers, those stiff-looking men and women in striped ties and floral blouses in the photos of Martin Carr, an area surrounded by as many clichés and ill-established assumptions as its mythic antithesis, the North. Let’s take a look at that.
My sleep’s been uneasy, and the fragments of some dreamt words lead to Percy Bysshe Shelley and the bees of England, a poem calling on the ‘Men of England’ to overthrow their exploitative overlords.
‘Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?
Wherefore feed and clothe and save,
From the cradle to the grave,
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat – nay, drink your blood?’
‘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.