‘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.
‘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.
‘We just sell things, we don’t make them.’ – Andy, Bridgwater.
I awake at Ellie’s after a good night’s sleep. I’m up early in fact, but the bright morning’s dedicated to the mundane business of emails arranging accommodation over these final weeks. By the time I’m up Ellie’s in the kitchen making tea and porridge. The sun is out, and she shows me more of the garden her and her mum have created from nothing in a mere nine months. There are few pleasures simples than the contemplation of life growing, thriving, in whatever form it takes.
It’s a perfect day for a bike ride – is every day not? But this September has been unusually hot, a fine relief after a rainy August, and today is especially sunny. So we cycle out to Glastonbury town. It’s bustling with an abundance of cafes, people leisurely sitting outside, and buskers in the background singing the counterculture hits of yesteryear. Middle-aged men and women share a unisex style of long-hair, tie-died clothes and leather waistcoats, and gently wander up the high street, past African art stores, esoteric bookstores, shops honouring the Goddess and the Green Man, and Glastonbury’s classic ‘Burns the bread’ bakers. We peer into the ruins of the abbey, sacked by the knights of Henry VIII, but don’t feel inspired to pay the charge. Then we head up to Glastonbury Tor, where many have come this sunny Sunday noon to watch the surrounding Somerset Levels.
‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.’
– Mary, reciting William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’, Carsaig.
Stillness… peace. The tide laps against the jetty of Carsaig pier on the southern tip of Mull. It’s an untroubled morning, and a gentle breeze carries the sighs of the seas into earshot. I’m camped just by an old Victorian boathouse with the words ‘virtue mine honour’, the motto of the local Clan MacLean.
In the distance, a smart little sailboat bobs about untended. I’ve allowed myself to sleep in, and the only other tent on this remote pier-side stretch of grass and rock has disappeared. I have this wondrous place all to myself.
I pack up with the luxury of slowness and start to cycle back up the steep and narrow track. It’s excruciating work, a near vertical ascent across the most rough and basic of roads, and my heart feels like it might burst under the strain. Eventually I reach halfway up the hill, catching my breath by a most improbably-placed telephone box beside a raging waterfall. Quite defeated, I decide to call in to a little cottage by the impressive-looking Carsaig House.
‘I’ve been skiving for like, the whole week!’ Young teen to older brother, Tollcross, Edinburgh.
Every part of me had started to ache: knees, legs, heart and head. I needed a few days rest with my partner in some cosy, lovely and friendly town, surrounded by wonderfully sunny weather and friends old and new. Edinburgh has therefore been a gentle delight.
It’s also a city of contrasts. Its historic Georgian town centre just about conceals large and troubling social problems cast out to the suburbs. Its confidence in displaying its own past is undermined by an uncertainty about its future. And for a town that some remark as being the ‘most English’ Scottish town – on account of its seeming gentility perhaps? I’m not sure – the built scenery often reminded me of a Scandinavian or German town, pleasant if somewhat sterile. I’ll try to relay what I’ve found, and I encounter visions of its past and future quite at odds with each other.