‘Ere Kel can I come in the toilet wiv ya?’ – courting rituals, Sheerness.
I awake with really bad fatigue. It aches to even stretch my legs, whilst elbows creak and crack. I haven’t had much sleep, finding it torturously difficult to even drop off, listening to the shouts and arguments of drunk teenagers somewhere nearby on Margate’s promenade. Everything hurts!
In most travelogues, one will notice that the ending is often hurried, inconclusive, even bad-tempered. Bill Bryson seems to lose it with everyone, Paul Theroux is increasingly impatient, whilst on their bicycles, Josie Dew and Mike Carter both tear through their final few days without seeming to even look up from their milometers. I used to wonder what malaise affects travellers on their tail-end of their journeys, but as I’ve approached closer to home, a great physical and mental fatigue has taken me over. With the exhaustion of yesterday still aching through my bones, I’m feeling like I’m repeating the beginning of this trip, as if I’m mirroring my old movements, those first few days where every part of my body wailed out its pain in a slightly different pitch so that I was able to hear them all at the same time. I’m back to that. The prospect of cycling even ten miles today feels unlikely. Perhaps I should’ve had some more rest days. But with darkness kicking in now at 6.45, and the cold beginning to bite, this has to be it. Nearly there…
‘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.
‘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.