It is six years this week since I first set out on the journey that would become Island Story. I captured those long sunny days from a bike-seat on a blog, Searching for Albion. I’d update it each day while out on the road. Experiences, stories, observations, odd banter. Usually in the pub, while charging up my phone and drying out my jacket on a radiator. I did a lot of drinking that summer.
That blog now stands as a vast, rambling, multi-sensory primary source anthology of lives in 2014. Looking back, I set out to be like the eye in Virginia Woolf’s writing, that takes in the whole scene and ‘licks it all up instantaneously’. (Ok, enough pub references).
It was tough graft too. A bike that rode like it was set in concrete, two cheap panniers full of dirty laundry and whisky, and a camera that looked like it had a flying saucer trapped inside it. But it stands as my best work, even up til today.
(The picture above is a textbook example of the bad, near-death roadside photography on there, yet still carrying a disquieting air of a moment).
But. What would be different now?
Well, there’d be nowhere to drink.
But I picked up a suspicion of strangers, of my strangeness, of a much greater degree when I was doing some drifting last summer. I put that down to Brexit and the cultural/class markers that have risen around it. I was in the North-east then, around Gateshead and Sunderland. In that case, so my thinking went, there could be a wariness of being judged or labelled by a middle class liberal outsider. A justified wariness. But while I set out to question and to test, I couldn’t sense anything coherent responding. I was just drifting in and out of pubs, hospitals, supermarkets and residential areas, trying to restart or make new contacts, but …
Ahead to now. Three things stand out, where Searching for Albion was on the money, and where it was not.
Security and insecurity. The UN Rapporteur’s visit and the Marmot Review flag up rising real poverty, the kind the writing about gleaned, but usually indirectly. Insecurity around current or future employment, or around housing, was everywhere. This insecurity links the poorer and middle classes more than would at first seem – for the middle classes, it often relates to their children. It might seem more obviously generational – I met and spent more time talking to young people then, but I met plenty of middle-aged and near retirement people with the same real uncertainty about whether they could ensure their basic needs could be indefinitely provided for. A society that no longer offers a liveable life (being one, I would say, free of regular anxiety), and a Tory state that’s since given up a pretence of a social contract.
The journey caught some of that. But it takes deeper, much more embedded reporting. Making contacts and then developing conversations over a time, developing in slower and more responsive fashion a more substantial impression, like a painter’s brushstrokes on a canvas.
Collective life. Some used nationalism as a way of articulating a shared vision of a more progressive, democratic politics. That was in Scotland for the main. Others talked about Britishness as something multicultural, or about the working class, or about the English and their history, or a cosmopolitan human race. For me, they were webs of ideas that served a more important, human end – that we identify with others beyond just our immediate friends and family, and we draw strength from these identifications.
Where collective life is either in a neglected or derelict state, as it is in most places, then isolation and mental ill health prevails. ‘Mandatory individualism’, Mark Fisher called it later. Hannah Arendt writes about the political dangers of loneliness. Fatalism about human nature, or that others should be trusted, leads to a political conservatism and justification of a cruel, aggressive, status quo. For all his learning, the philosopher John Gray’s work always returns to this same over-familiar destination. The need for a collective life, and the need to participate and have some role in the lives of others, is something my earlier work listened to without fully understanding back then.
The environment – because what does not flood will burn. And most of us will live to reckon with the effects of inaction of the last forty years, it will slowly take hold our breath. Back then, it was a concern for some. The best work was taking place in Machynlleth, but I wonder how many of those young people (or their small energy firms) survived the years of swingeing cuts that came even after.
All are linked, particularly one and two. From that we could spin a web that takes in social class, the 2014 European Parliament results with Ukip’s strong showing, or Brexit… The last two elections have more to do with Corbyn than some now accept. But really, this is Westminster talk. The relatively non-party political tone of many back then said much more about a more decentred, untethered way of viewing the world.
But you tell me. What was left out back then, and through what would a more reliable narrator need to think (or drink) in nowadays? Send me a quick email. I’m thinking about this.