The manuscript

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The experiences and conversations on the road will become the material of a book, Searching for Albion. This won’t simply be putting the best of the blog into print. Instead, I plan to use all these posts as a kind of raw material to write a more ranging and cohesive analysis of culture and society on the British Isles. It follows this thematic order:

Great Britain: myths of a nation
London, Great Wen
At Sea: trade, adventure, and empire
On land: agriculture, nature, and naming
Invasion! Changing identities, traditions of toleration
From Hyperborea to the Hajj: Religions
Fair play: politeness, reserve and rules
The English Malady: weather and conversation
Outta yer face: alcohol and drugs
Bread and Tea: diet and culture
Jokes: irony, understatement, and self-deprecation
Football, and lesser sports
Common sense: empiricism, a collective philosophy
Mustn’t grumble: pessimism and self-restraint
Who owns it? Property and the blurring of class
Holidays and toil: labour and leisure, past and present
Liberty, equality and modesty: traditions of social fairness
From civic to urban design: changing cities, changing attitudes
Guilty of being English? Melancholia, myths of empire, and lost futures
Albion: innovation, experiments, and a new republic

protestThe manuscript offers a somewhat unique take on these matters. Whilst Bryson and Theroux have written some well-regarded travelogues of the British Isles, they lack any kind of political edge or informed historical or social knowledge. Just rich Yanks going to restaurants and making snarky comments about the locals they consistently fail to understand. I think the landscape and its peoples deserves something richer than that.

Similarly, Josie Dews, Ellie Bennett and Mike Carter have written cycling travelogues, going either coast to coast or along the popular Lands’ End to John O’Groats route. But again, these are usually collections of rambling and disconnected observations, without a wider arching narrative or understanding of the peoples they whiz past. There are far more stories in the landscape than just the quality of the ale and grub in each passing pub, though that’s important too.

viaductThen there are those politicised analyses of architecture, or social class, in Britain past and present. Whilst often interesting and useful, authors, particularly on the left, seem averse to actually talking to those people whose social conditions they loftily theorise and judge. There’s little awareness of the unlovely praxis of community work or contemporary working class cultures. Similarly, there are numerous attempts at ‘state of the nation’ novels by Zadie Smith, Martin Amis, J.G. Ballard and many others. Again, these superimpose a London-centric, metropolitan and middle-class perspective which ventriloquises the apparent cultural life of the vast majority. I find it all unsatisfying.

seaTravelogues tend to be written by journalists needing cash, and often derivatively imitating some past example. No problem with that, except where the imitation’s just a poor pastiche of assorted clichés. It’s a shame that the inspiring energies of earlier Beat travelogues like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road haven’t had some upstart imitator more recently. Young people are more likely to have travelled Latin America or central Europe than north-west England or the Scottish highlands. Perhaps that’s because no young voice has brought those landscapes to life, bringing to the reader the strange vistas and adventures that can be discovered with very little money.

It’s a tall order, but Searching for Albion attempts to bring together these threads. It’s an unapologetically politicised exploration of the histories, cultures and transformations on the British Isles. I write with affection, as one of ‘them’. But I’ve got a broader vision too, in the mood of William Cobbett and Daniel Defoe. As the journey develops, the raw matter of the book will take shape.

4 thoughts on “The manuscript

  1. If only all English people had moved to Australia after Word War 2, like my Uncle Leslie did, the land would be one vast forest by now, with ruins and brambles, and Poms would certainly have quit whingeing by the third generation, and English character would be remembered as… what? Blessed if I know.

    I was born in York 10 days before John Lennon and even I don’t know if we are boring, aka normal, as I figure, or interesting, aka weird, as many Hollywood movies find useful to portray, and as The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy suggests. Thank goodness domestic service (my Dad’s Mum’s side) is gone.

  2. Found your adventures a few weeks before I was scheduled to leave UK. I truly enjoyed reading your blog and was completely blown away by the familiarity and grasp of the peoples and places you went to. The British Isles are definitely composed of pockets of different ways of living – thank you for un-peeling decades of mediocrity to show us the varied history behind it. Good luck with the writing!

    • Thanks Taffny for the kind words! The MS has a publisher lined up now and there’ll be news on that soon. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog about Bristol life, it’s an amazing, impressive city, and I’m glad it had such a good effect on you. The hills are punishing though, especially by bike. Did you get much chance to explore the surrounding countryside too, particularly Wiltshire? I’m glad you saw Wells and Bath, and it seems like you really got a sense of English culture – the cultural preponderance of rain, tea, disappointment and the inertia of history. It is like nowhere else!

      • Hey! Yes I did with madmax tour to Lacock, Castle Combe and Avebury. (Dogging your steps!) unfortunately we didn’t get to hire a car and really go around. There are so many places I want to visit in even just South England – don’t even get me started on the Peak District, north England and north wales !

        Thanks for the update. Will keep my eyes peeled for a new book. Cheers.

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