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
The 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.
Then 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.
Travelogues 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.