Displace

Travel

‘How do we even begin to have a conversation about the gargantuan problems of finite resources, personal ethics and social change in a framework that renders an individual life seemingly powerless?’

Laura Sillars raises this question in her foreword to A Sick Logic, a collection of writings, photos and field guides that raise questions and possibilities about self-sufficiency in modern life.

The book has been brought together by Anna Chrystal Stephens and Glen Stoker to accompany their exhibition of the same name in Sheffield last summer. I had the pleasure of collaborating in a site tour with them, and have written an essay for the collection called Displace. You can read that here if you like, but there’s much more of interest in the book itself, a thoughtful and inspiring gathering of thoughts about place, escape and immersion.

Thinking is most often a conversation along a journey, often without the certainty of reaching a judgement or change in ideas. Often a journey ends here, where you are now, and might be picked up again another time. Recently I’ve gone back to these questions of how the social and ecological overlap. I’ve also been thinking a lot about how the collective and communal can also be understood within one’s own inner space, and how creating and cultivating an inner mental space, an unseeable side of internal wonder, experimentation and reflection, might be of some good in resisting the boredom and anxiety of a continuously connected, distracted life.

Displace touches on some of that, but still wears an air of certainty too easily, which is not the mark of a traveller, who listens, observes, never judges, and may be somewhere else entirely.

Island Story Short-listed

Travel

Orwell shortlist

Remarkably, Island Story: Journeys Through Unfamiliar Britain has been shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for best political writing, 2017. There has obviously been some confusion or administrative error with my inclusion, but it is an honour to be in the company of some truly excellent titles. I am grateful for all the support of my friends, family, loved ones, and my publisher Repeater.

Island Story – out with Repeater Books next year

Travel

Searching for Albion

Day 23 094

Island Story: Journeying through unfamiliar Britain will be out next year with new imprint Repeater Books. Read an excerpt of my rides through the North-East here.

It’s a concise and fresh write-up of the journey meticulously detailed here. Readers will be familiar with what happens (all the beer, breakdowns and renegade tents…), but the analysis and reflection on those extraordinary conversations and adventures is new. I hope it’s a fitting tribute to the generosity and friendship I encountered out on the road.

Further news on publication date and launch will appear here soon. Special thanks to the readers of this blog, and those kind and thoughtful comments and messages of support that kept me riding through.

Dan – August 2015.

View original post

Manchester, impressions

Travel

DSC01791

Dawn, Albert Square

Golden light streaks down Mount Street, casting shadows over William Gladstone, cast in metal and stone. Pigeons are stirring, the occasional swooshing of a passing taxi’s interrupted by the gentle swishing of a sweeper-truck. I’ve landed here without a ticket or an alibi, into a city with no clear exit or entry. Cottoned in thick rings of terraced suburbia, brown brick and cramped, remnants of the dwellings where the working class built this city, roads snake in and out to a centre with no obvious centre. Lost, it might be 6am. Pause here.

There’s no statues to the textile workers, the dockers, the railway workers, the blood of this city. Who made this place might be a frustrating question to ask. Look up at the buildings. Money did, free trade, each shrieks. The Town Hall in its neo-gothic splendour, statuettes of knights and kings and queens. The extension next, Art Deco in style, a second wave, you felt sure of yourself. The Central Library with its classic pretensions, your belief that you had citizens, not subjects, that the working class would thrive through access to learning and culture, and your strange paternalistic assumptions about what that might mean. No pubs, regulated football. Then the Midland Hotel, red-brick and self-important, next to Bridgwater Hall, brassy glass façade of the modern age. I peer around each corner at these weird interruptions, the expressions of money filtered through different cultural presumptions: civic pride, crafts, a return to classic values, the adoration of property and free markets, each side by side. Was it always about the flow of money?

The bodies and stories must be hidden somewhere. You’ve knocked down the chimneys and rebuilt your city centre in the colours and forms of the future according to Corbusier, Richard Seifert and Tony Blair. Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong places. I might be better off heading out south to Moss Side and Hulme, where you once ghettoised your workers, or west to Salford, or out north to Cheetham, and north-east to Harpurhey. Friedrich Engels says you were made this way.

‘The town itself is peculiarly built, so that a person may live in it for years, and go in and out daily without coming into contact with a working-people’s quarter or even with workers, that is, so long as he confides himself to his business or to pleasure walks. This arises chiefly from the fact, that by unconscious tacit agreement, as well as with out-spoken conscious determination, the working-people’s quarters are sharply separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle-class; or, if this does not succeed, they are concealed with the cloak of charity.’

Neat trick. But no matter how well you bred your children, the south-east clings onto its cultural hegemony. Anything with an accent is deemed to display its inferior class. It still plays out today, when prime ministers, business figures and journalists share the same school tie. Mothers on the back-to-back terraces with a little money on the side sending their sons and daughters for elocution lessons. ‘The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making’, that was E. P Thompson, writing about Halifax but writing about you too, about Peterloo, nearby. The bosses and merchants of the Free Trade Hall and Town Corporation didn’t want their workers thinking or discussing. Trade Unions began in Glasgow and they began in you, among workers in skilled trades like textiles, dreaming up something so scandalous as the right to vote. Labour, co-operatives, a working class that knew its own name, that had read Thomas Paine, William Morris, Keir Hardie and Karl Marx.

‘Down with class rule.
Down with the rule of brute force!
Down with war!
Up with the peaceful rule of the people!’

The rule of the ‘people’? That was Keir Hardie, 1914, making an appeal to the working class, and to you, on the eve of a coordinated European slaughter of the revolting industrial working class. But you had a people, you had a working class. They built this city, but you won’t let the people here remember it. A rough-sleeper shuffles through this square I’m in, the first person I’ve seen, face pale like a ghoul, eyes sleepless, city hobgoblins. Send him to a foodbank, he has no money for the gas to warm the food. It’s his own fault, attitudes to welfare hardening. God damn this in between moment in political history, in the age between the working class and the dead exhausted class. Late, skint, indebted, depressed. Anger brewing but frustrated, lashing out against nearby objects. Conversations in the night, falling out with your lover. Disappearing again, back in mental and spatial time-zones, thoughts of the past, thoughts of memories, a paralysing melancholia gripping the dreamers of revolution.

Your museum pays lip-service to their struggles. Class codes have been scrambled. Property speculators, credit cards, the still continuing divide and rule of race played out through the cipher of religion, Islam, Judaism. Education lifts you out of one class and puts you in no class. Skint, indebted, angry. Post your anger on a blog, on a placard, slap bang into the data stream that reaches oblivion a nano-second later.

‘The working class has been shafted, so what the fuck are you sneering at?’ MES, your son, his fifth pint in the Forresters, or the Woodthorpe, or wherever’s open in Prestwich, making no sense these days. Morrissey’s in America attempting to be relevant. Where’s your voice?

Now the textiles that you have made unmade you, an empire in decline. The soot and the fogs. Hard livers with hard livers. City hobgoblins, spectres, a ghost in my house til the slum-clearers pulled it down and sent us to Hulme Crescents, cities in the sky. Dreams of a socialist future that were pulled down and replaced with low-rise, low-intellect, low vision architecture. We’re in between again. A pigeon sits on the head of Gladstone and opens its bowels. Who is Gladstone, who is anyone. Morning’s further along, and people are rushing to work. Headphones in, checking their emails, their smart attire collides against my shoulders, their fragrances collide against the odours acquired through travel, through sleeping in a tent underneath electricity pylons across England and Scotland, and long unfamiliarity with a washing machine. Do they see what you saw, do they think what you thought? We’re in between moments, in between times.

 

DSC01653

Afternoon, Piccadilly Gardens

Football, kick a ball, score a goal. ‘This is what we live for’, a cheery son of yours tells me. We’re watching the milling crowds shopping with their eyes for some pleasant distraction. A new jacket, booze, chocolate, little treats, toys for adults who no longer look or live like adults. City or United pal?

I wish I knew. I’m been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand. If only these sensations would make me feel the pleasures of a normal man. University students from China and west Africa, learning here, finding knowledge here. I’m hungry, so I head into one of ten trillion local supermarkets that have erupted all over this land like Japanese knotweed. The supermarket veg is better travelled than most of your sons and daughters will ever be. Everywhere sells the same things. Under the pavements, the beach, said your children, now parents, out in Paris, out conspiring in squats and social movements forty years back. North and south becoming indistinguishable. Knock down your Albert Square, knock down your back-to-backs, and welcome into a dream age of cultural indiscernibility. A Ballard land of shopping malls where nothing matters.

‘All my people are lonely. Crowds are the most lonely thing of all. Everyone is a stranger to everyone else.’ Lowry’s wandering round here, cane in hand, trilby hat, feeling awkward amongst these crowds but compelled to record them. He’s sketching with a pencil on the back of That private misery that was once your average white male early Modernist’s, over-stimulated, under-socialised, now stretched out to these young folk here, headphones in ears, debts up to their eyeballs, political change beyond the horizon.

‘I was sorry for them, and at the same time realising that there was really no need to be sorry for them because they were quite in a world of their own’. Lowry’s cripples are today’s cripples, in a world of our own, adjusting the music and the scene, retreating into reproducible images of what are presented as our desires. Desire’s become a lack, dream’s become a need.

‘We like prosperity filtered through car and appliance sales. We like roads that lead past airports, we like airfreight offices and rent-a-van forecourts, we like impulse-­buy holidays to anywhere that takes our fancy. We’re the citizens of the shopping mall and the marina, the Internet and cable TV. We like it here, and we’re in no hurry for you to join us.”

That’s J.G. Ballard, driving through you in his mind from distant Shepperton. Your semi-detacheds and your malls could be in Staines or Twickenham, or Ickenham or Ipswich, or Preston or Prestwich, anywhere at all. Sending up these dreams that were not dreamt, desires that were not desired. Your sons and daughters hurrying hither and thither, late again. When do we turn actions into dreams, dramatise ideas into change, I ask to an empty crowd. Your suburbs are being regenerated, scrubbed clean, but there’s no hiding the grit and grime that is people’s lives. These malls, these glassy shite office blocks. They’re not enough, and I think you know it too.

DSC01808

Night, Salford

What lives beyond after a life well lived is spent? There is a light that never goes out, but drifting out by Salford Quays, one could be forgiven for thinking anything existed here before 2003. They’ll sweep you away too if you lose these dreams of civic pride, of the people that built you and made you. There’s these quays that mean nothing, avenues all lines with trees that lead to a half-full office block. No soul stalks here except the passing office worker, a tough day today.

‘I think that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent, to put himself under that government.’ That’s Thomas Rainsborough talking, addressing a large crowd of curious passers-by who are today flicking through Sky Plus, searching fruitlessly for some lost pleasure which won’t be found here, like trying to find a pearl in the sand. The decisions are made elsewhere, delegate and demarcate, lost in the post. Perhaps it’s too much struggle striving. I’m passing here just watching the lights flicker through the glass, wondering how dates these Norman Rogers’ dreams will look in thirty years time, and what will replace them. I see cleaners hovering between the windows.

‘They are ghostly figures … They are symbols of my mood, they are myself.’ I can’t help quoting Lowry, because sometimes only voices of the past make sense, like a parent, or singer, or the sound of the wind, the air that was elsewhere ten seconds ago, or the light of the stars, barely filtered through your ever thick clouds, transmissions from millions of light years. Escape’s always been on the tip of the tongue, ‘they keep calling me’, those dead souls stalking Ian Curtis, escapism into drugs, or travel, or dreams of revenge, the north will rise again. But it will turn out wrong. Perhaps it need not. The neoliberals put the torch to the docks, as they’ll put the torch to your civic pride, unless you stop them. Stop looking to London with fingers covering your eyes! Manchester, so much to answer for. But they will, because struggles are widening, fissures are deepening. There’s only so much money to be made, land to be speculated, energies to be burnt. You’re asleep, but you haven’t had a dream in a long time. The luck you’ve had could turn a good town bad.

Still, something’s unanswered. I’ve felt it in the conversations here, in the moods here, the disputes here. There’s promise without need for excessive pride. I’m lost again somewhere by MediaCity, lost as I started the day by Albert Square. Nothing points left or right, only up and down. Look up to the secret splendours of these buildings, to the joys and dreams in the minds of the people I’ve spoken to, it’s there. Let me finish with Lowry, talking about somewhere else, but let’s attribute it to Manchester, this proud city’s cocky enough to pull it off.

‘The battle of life is there. And fate. And the inevitability of it all. And the purpose.’

Written as writer in residence for Manchester Left Writers.

New writing

Travel

british isles route
I’ve been unexpectedly blessed with hundreds of new followers following a recent share of my poem ‘1914 and all that’. Hello to you people! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the writing.

This blog will be a little quiet for the next few months, so please visit www.searchingforalbion.com, where I publish new writing by the day. Scroll down to the bottom to follow new posts and find out what mishaps and strange stories I come across as I bike across Britain.

I also have a book out, Negative Capitalism, which comes with overgenerous praise and is available here.

That’s the sale pitch over! Thanks again, and peace to you all.

Departing

Political, Travel

england

Last night has now eaten into this morning, and here I am with my empty bottles and missing time, making a half-hearted attempt at an audit. Let’s spare the scribbles and agree that there’s a certain pleasure in always being busy and late for things. But it’s not always that delightful. J.G. Ballard’s right: in the heat of beating some deadline, there’s a certain masochism at the source of our pleasure. Masochism, mania and melancholia are at the root of most endeavours so insane that, without rational explication, they have to be done. Beyond an extraordinary detail to dramatic scenes, there is no greater quality in the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky than a reflection on the masochistic promises of romance,  a romance that fails to deliver, and by its failure, delivers so much more.

In two months time by my reckoning I will be in Glasgow, having cycled anticlockwise around the British mainland, with lengthy digressions into the Midlands and Peak District. Sleeping in parks, pedaling up lung-bursting heights and keeping up with the heavy-drinkers of England and Scotland will no doubt reduce my capacity for wireless fidelity internet, but I will record what I can at http://www.searchingforalbion.com. The site will be a cabinet of curiosities as I pass through places, a record of what I see and hear. It will get a smaller readership than the kind of top 10 lists that represents the best of online journalism. The goal is to indicate how simple and interesting it is to travel.

I often reach for the strong stuff when I write – rousing invective, political polemic, some worthy social goal. Zzz. I’m bored with the thoughts in my own head, and with those of others. I’ve studied history and political philosophy and had prizes for my essays, yet I’m advancing little beyond the predictable views that constitute a mainstream in universities and an aloof left media out of touch with popular cultures. Most people I meet talking about the working-class and the need for revolution come across as middle-class and conservative, righteous reformers of a Methodist hue. Good intentions and reforms reflect the vanities of those that seek to justify them.

Many prefer not being told what to do. How long it has taken me to accept this.

It’s not just a London problem, granted. But I’m throwing myself out of my sphere in the aim of discovering, for once, what I don’t know. No research plan or campaign message attached. The university isn’t the best place to think about new formations of equal, just and secure democracies. Instead of churning out more elitist articles or adding more words to a thesis destined for a recycle bin, let’s see where being out in the world goes. Probably nowhere. Looks like I’ve already managed to type around 500 words of the usual self-righteous balls I go for. I leave tomorrow morning.

http://www.searchingforalbion.com

1914 and all that

Poems, Travel

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I travelled with a friend around northern France a couple of weeks back, cycling around Boulogne, Amiens and Lille. The Ch’tis were very friendly and accommodating with my Franglais. We met a lot of very good people and had a few adventures.

We also visited Albert, headquarters of the British during the Somme offensive. ‘Somme’ is actually the name of the whole region, with the battle itself being ‘fought’ in the fields and villages between Albert and Péronne. A little before the trip I started writing something on the looming legacy disputes. I share the finished doggerel here, ‘1914 and all that’.

It’s no succour to blind or limbless men
When historians crown the victor of a luckless war.
Trade machine gun rattle for imperial prattle.

Cabinet rooms become playing fields,
Bomb factory man smarts ‘never again’,
Great men too proud to call off the hounds.

War misery now makes the mock GCSE
Centenaries continue on over-the-hill TV
Patriotic pastorals without syphilis or gin.

This accursed heritage gloom and doom
Leaves no room for the wounds of living men,
Basra or Belfast, that lost DLA appeal.

Commemorations led by horsey royals
Whose subjects still die in today’s poppy-fields.
Victory’s paper flowers and penny change.

*

What’s left of Wipers or the Somme?
Lads swallowed whole by Flanders mud,
Devoured by the moods of distant guns.

Never forget the rats or the lice,
Nine in ten soldiers actually survived,
Unclassifiable degrees of disintegration.

Strictly adhering to deference and duty
Today still blinds any attempt at explaining
The necessity of perpetual and unwinnable war.

One side loses more slowly.
A game of blood-potlatch
Played out by history’s great men.

Sweet and proper it must be then
To die for abstractions, like fatherland
Or liberty, or the fallacy of democracy.

The long queues outside the labour exchange,
Memories that no will can possibly erase,
Medals of a man who once shared your name.

*

Strange hells left in Gurney’s head,
Demented choirs of wailing shells
Like Owen saw, a banal picaresque of death.

A century now since that “never again”,
One hundred busy years of the destruction of men.
Nothing we learn, nothing we forget.

Never before, so never again?
Larkin laments lost innocence then,
Innocence and obedience, time tends to bend.

By bike

Maps, Travel

 

Yes, I have gone mad… but I’m starting to plan something along these lines over next summer, followed by more travelling overseas. There’s a couple of projects in mind I want to develop on the road. When they become clearer in my mind, I’ll share them here. They’ll be pretty exciting, these coming months. Anywhere out of this world!
part1

 

part2

Belgium

Travel

See more of my journeys in Gent, Antwerp and Bruges here.

Is it not unfair to curse the man or woman who wastes or misuses words needlessly? Or who obstructs our path in order to take a photograph of an image recorded ten trillion times before? They weren’t the first to introduce the custom: they merely faithfully echo what appeared a moment ago. Those similar ideas and photos are like our lives, often so faithfully similar to past examples despite the individual’s hopes to be the first, the original, the transformer, the exceptional case. No, never quite so much, and usually something more. It was in the eye of something beautiful that I discovered tonight that we are all a kind of connective matter. It attaches itself to some other vaguely possible matching out of necessity and its desire. That connection will often last for only a moment, but the intensity of its impression lasts far longer, sometimes a lifetime. It is a connection that might emerge in the fleeting chance of a fragmentary encounter. Long-lovers may know that connection’s appearance twice, three times, maybe even more. What else is painfully not-so-new yet inspires hope all the same?

Towards conscious inertia – Canterbury – St. Eustace

Travel

Note: this is a long travel photo-essay. Enjoy, when you have time...

Do you remember that Dostoevsky quote from last time? If not, it’s from Notes from Underground, in a version translated by Jessie Coulson for Penguin and reprinted in 2003. On page 43 our unknown anti-hero announces: ‘Last of all, gentlemen: it is best to do nothing! The best thing is conscious inertia! So long live the underground!

On the prior page of Franco Bifo Berardi’s Precarious Rhapsody, we come across this startling claim:  ‘If you want to survive you have to be competitive and if you want to be competitive you must be connected, receive and process continuously an immense and growing mass of data. This provokes a constant attentive stress, a reduction of the time available for affectivity. These two tendencies, inseparably linked, provoke an effect of devastation on the individual psyche: depression, panic, anxiety, the sense of solitude and existential misery.’

The snag of this is how – how to slow down, how to do nothing? The underground anti-hero’s ultimate action, to debase himself and fall in love with an angelic prostitute is at least more attainable than Bifo’s hope for a spate of mass suicides! Perhaps a programme needs to be offered. <<<

Living is shifting too fast. Impressions register too quick, viscous and unfiltered – unfolding in dreams as maze-like riddles which ultimately become too banal and confusing to solve. Empty and unflattering early morning reflection, the narcissism of living with one’s own thoughts disrupted. Waiting for time to move so as to awake, to connect into heavy-duty coffee, to TV and media interactions, to the labour we come to love. Validated by service. Eerie futures, peeling skin. Inboxes empty of any thing, save the daily jetsam and tosh. Flat lager, offensive jokes. Head clamped tight, strong yeah, eyes looking ahead – a dozen dozens of lean, shaped faces to which, in the queues of infomatic existence, are given names – Tel, Effra, her, brother, me, you – ultimate disassociation. A life of totally vainglorious labours. The gesture of living in this empty endless experience of the present, at the expense of the past and future, is moving in a circle. The truck that drives around in circles in Herzog’s “Even Dwarves Started Small”, or of the moped carrying Stan and Paul around Harry Caul’s basement, shortly after confessing his loneliness, in “The Conversation” – this going around in circles is the dance of our times.

Bad rhythm. Broken shoes. Big debt. Eating honey from the jar. A long night. The intimacy of removing a dress, of being in someone’s company without reminding them to do some fundamentally unnecessary task, without complaining about some contemporary puppet or windsock. That list of things, who doubled its contents in the night? Of living with grace, with elegance. Conscious inertia – you can see the scale of the problem, no?

Day 1. Sittingbourne to Canterbury.

Two days cycling in the Kentish countryside in extreme conditions and extreme weathers may make your hands and other regions ache, no doubt, but for a spell outside the city it was much needed, much enjoyable. Hiring a good bicyle from Gabriel’s Wharf was easy,  and a short ride to Victoria began the start of our journey. Sittingbourne, like other Medway towns, doesn’t have so many virtues in itself – commuter dormitories, de-industrialised sprawls, boarded-up pubs,  ‘local’ as Wreckless Eric would put it. Billy Childish country. But in just over an hour one can escape the barely-repressed mania of London, provided someone doesn’t fall under one of the trains in front, a reminder if ever needed of the near-daily phenomena of urban travel.

‘Countryside’ and ‘Nature’ gets exoticised by urban dwellers very easily, however. Aside from a few rare natural spots, we forget how similar much of the landscape is – suburbanised, industrialised. A chorus of lank like-weeds. We quickly cycled out of Sittingbourne, soon realising our map was totally out of date and effectively useless, along hard industrial routes, past ranging factory units, quarries and small businesses. Very soon we were lost.

Certain places can wilfully disorientate you. Parts of the old City of London for instance. As a walker, this active disorientation on the part of the locale is enjoyable, strange, enchantingly mysterious. The suburbs and factory units between Sittingbourne and Faversham had this very disquieting effect too – empty warehouses, Wimpey and Barratt towns. We travelled round in circles, squeezing between high fencing and tangy blackberries. Signs (maliciously?) pointed in wrong directions in this strange, aggressive landscape.

We found our way for a short while, past orchards, quaint signs; past wild cherries one could pick and eat from the roadside, small and full of the sweetest juice. The horizon was free of high-rises, free of telephone wires and advertisement hoardings. Sparrows, butterflies, and small birds I will never learn the names of fluttered and courted ahead of our gentle path. The lazy cornfields marked the progress of the breeze with cheery indolence. It was lovely.

The lands were flat and easy, the roads relatively traffic free. The sun minded us as we gazed ahead, drifting along unknown roads towards Faversham vaguely, for once enjoying the means more than hoping to reach the end.

“To ferne halwes, kouth in sundry londes:
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Canterbury they wende,
The holy blissful martyre for to seeke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seke.”

We were following, inadvertently perhaps, the same route of the pilgrims from late 14th c Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s “Middle English” is also rooted in Kentish dialect, where he lived at the end of his life. The landscape retains an otherness, retains a need for its own dialect, now a more familiar estuary drawl. Written 50 years previously, the “Prick of Conscience” aka Ayenbite of Inwyt, by Dan Michel of Northgate, attempted to translate a French confessional work on morality into the specifically Kentish dialect. This phrase near the end gives a sense of how physically visual yet symbolically loaded (and confusing for modern English readers) this language was:

‘Ymende. þet þis boc is uolueld ine þe eue of þe holy apostles Symon an Iudas / of ane broþer of þe cloystre of sanynt austin of Canterberi / Ine þe yeare of oure lhordes beringe. 1340.

Vader oure þet art ine heuenes / y-halȝed by þi name. cominde þi riche. y-worþe þi wil / ase ine heuene: and ine erþe. bread oure echedayes: yef ous to day. and uorlet ous oure yeldinges: ase and we uor- leteþ oure yelderes. and ne ous led naȝt: in-to uondinge: ac vri ous uram queade. zuo by hit. ‘ You can find some of the meaning here, though the second half should perhaps be a little familiar – a Kentish version of the Catholic Lord’s prayer.

But phrases like our lord’s bearing, or a brother of the cloister, rather than monk, or birth, are curious. The prayer ends ‘zuo by hit’ – so be it, instead of amen. Consider too the title of the work, “Ayenbite of Inwyt”, meaning loosely Again-bite (meaning remorse I suppose, or Prick) of In-wit (inward-knowledge, conscience). A continuity appears between the earlier industrial estates, marked by lank grass and disorientation, and here the cornfields, roadkill and raspberries.

Part of conscious inertia isn’t just doing simply nothing – it means extracting your focus on empty, inexhaustible demands like work, study, places of some economic return but little existential return. It means spending more time (even some time…) with friends and loved ones on their own terms. There are two signs of good relationships I think, which the journey with my dad and brother reminded me of: 1. being able to do something together without feeling the need to constantly talk about it. Being in a state of quiet mutual peace.  2. being in a physically stressful situation (hunger, getting lost etc, the usual source of arguments) where you can joke and keep calm together.

What do I mean? Well after these idyllic images we got completely lost again, shortly after reaching the pleasant town of Faversham. Somehow we ended up parallel to the railway line, in an endless expanse of corn. At first a rough path seemed to lead in our direction towards Canterbury, but halfway through the corn began to get very high, up to one’s brow in fact, and the bicycles barely managed to ride through the thick, sharp and knotty crops. The entire field seemed abandoned, but we were lost. We cycled in this awful labyrinth (for which I was too tired to take photos) for nearly an hour perhaps, effectively doing laps of this place, before stumbling on a bizarre black swamp grotto – slag heap in the middle of nowhere, which my brother’s posing in front of below. We eventually had to give in and retrace our journey. Moving around in circles again, but on our own terms.

Very hard work, with the bicycles bearing the brunt of the damage – flat tyres on ancient nails, broken brakes – as we discovered the next day, I’d spent the last 5 miles of the first day with the front-brake partly on.  This included cycling up a great hill, turning the final descent into Canterbury into a painful experience of near-religious ecstasy. We eventually became completely lost, joining up with the old A2 for a short while, the pilgrim’s route into Canterbury, past lovely pubs full of dreadful golf aficiandos and boarded up schools. For a while we cycled along (and for short while, on) the motorway – aie! – but by the evening we’d made it to Canterbury.

“Befell that in that seson on a day,
In Southwark at the Tabard as I lay,
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Canterbury, with full devout corage”.

The pilgrimage from London to Canterbury would traditionally begin at Southwark at an Inn like the Tabard, where Chaucer begins his tales. From Borough High St, pilgrims would travel in large groups, often hosted by a master of ceremonies, where each might tell stories as they traveled along. Before our media, story-telling and spoken poetry were major sources of entertainment and cultural transmission during the European Middle Ages. Vernacular literature, where written down, was key to transforming European culture from religious Latinate domination towards ultimately local and national sovereignties, towards vernacular bibles and literatures. Medieval story-telling, be it in Canterbury Tales, or Boccaccio’s Decameron, or Cervantes’ Don Quixote, even to an extent Dante’s Divine Comedy, shares an earthy black-humoured, often stoic, sometimes sensual approach to the stories, both borrowed from local literatures and generated by their authors. These are always refreshing, mature works, unpretentious, often humourous, sobering in their awareness and familiarity with hardship and plague, inspiring in their exuberance and imagination through it.

Perhaps sharing in this heritage, by the time we got to Canterbury we were exhausted. We found somewhere to eat – family moments to me are are always lived through in slightly insignificant, usually disappointing chain restaurants – these are life – these shopping centres and supermarkets, these are really places, where so much happened… But what I meant to say, then after we had many beers at The Old Butternut in the square in front of Canterbury cathedral. The small town is nice, its town-centre a mix of genuine and kitsch heritage, lairy clubs, bad malls and fascinating small features everywhere, placed into the walls and into the floors. Locked into the shape of a wheel, perhaps even a zodiac – it’s a place recommended to visit. It’s shape and layout pull one in towards the Cathedral, almost built with this magnetic design in mind.

Day 2. Canterbury to Whitstable.

Canterbury Cathedral isn’t a place where one might come to love or worship a God, but ultimately to prostrate oneself in fear before it. The statue of Christ above is the focus of a huge gate that separates the Cathedral from the rest of the city. The face and figure are even more menacing and vile when standing before it, though the babble of international students loosens some of this humming fear.

But it’s an appropriate fear – the idea of loving a God, or a loving God, might’ve been an alien concept first to the pagan cultures, rooted in masculine/feminine archetypes, and later to the Christian Church-maintained feudalism of the Middle Ages, where every act and idea was based on an authority. The gargoyles that haunt the margins of the entrances remind us that Canterbury Cathedral retains this fear. Its private chapels make references throughout to diabolic monsters, etched into the pillars of St Gabriels chapel and elsewhere in its oldest part, the Norman crypt. At another private chapel one sees, in the stain glass, an image of betrayal – Judas literally hiding under the table of the Last Supper, betrayal and destruction always within our personal spaces, inside us. Such a Cathedral is more a monument to fear and awe than love.

The Cathedral and its city’s history is conflicted, a continuously contested site of power. The Cathedral was “established” as the guides make out by St. Augustine (or St. Austin, to the Kentish) back in 597. Augustine had been sent by Pope Gregory to ‘the ends of the earth’ to convert Aethelbert, the Anglo-Saxon King of Kent, and the wild Kentish pagans. Canterbury was then a Saxon stronghold, though had previously been a key Jute settlement; before that, the Roman settlement of Durovernum Cantiacorum, the stronghold of the Cantiaci – the original Celt/Brythonic peoples who settled in the area. Its rivers and circular settings would’ve established it as a site of religious worship well before Augustine, though given his success of converting the rest of the heathen Britons from Canterbury, followed by the murder of Thomas a Becket in 1170 imbued the site with especial Christian significance (and gold). A final historical note: well before the pilgrimage route traced by Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, what had fundamentally linked south London to Canterbury was the Watling Street, a major road built by the Romans.

The Cathedral, now rebuilt several times, was fascinating enough. In Russell Hoban’s overlooked 1980 Kentish apocalypse Riddley Walker, we get a true sense and homage to the alive, disquieting air of Kent, aside from its lairy pubs – in places like Romney Marshes, Dungenness, the woods and abandoned mushroom-sheds we discovered as kids around Tenterden in my grandad’s dilapidated cottage, full of junk (and 1970s porn…), a museum of British life 1930-74 until it burnt down. In Riddley Walker, written entirely in a Kentish vernacular though set ?2000 years in the future, we follow a young Riddley coming of age among one tribe, and his journey to Kent to find Eusa, and knowledge of the mysterious weapon which presumably annihilated civilisation and mutated many of its survivors long ago. In Riddley Walker religion is transmitted through hashish-induced visions and travelling Punch and Jude shows, but most is said about St. Eustace, to which Canterbury is one of the few places that records his legend.

Seeing that boars face in my mynd that morning in the aulders and seeing it in my mynd now I have the same thot I had then: If you cud even jus see 1 thing clear the woal of whats in it you cud see every thing clear. But you never wil get to see the woal of any thing youre all ways in the middl of it living it or moving thru it. Never mynd.‘  – Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker, (p. 186).

Saint Eustace’s story is a tragic one, though only in a Judao-Christian sense, like that of the Book of Job, one where bruised penitents are to learn from his example of pain and suffering for the Lord. The Greek name Eustace suggests fecundity, abundant in grain, and his story is ripe with pagan motifs – a Roman general, whilst hunting one day he saw a minitiure version of the suffering Christ in between the antlers of a stag he was hunting. This vision inspired him to abandon his post and possessions in favour of Christianity, becoming an outcast. Soon a series of cruel misfortunes strike him – his wife is captured and enslaved by pirates. Soon after, his two boys are captured by a wolf and a lion, curiously depicted in human form in the Canterbury mural, which also contains a bestiary of medieval monsters – frogs, mutants, demons erupting out of the fertile landscape. Eustace laments – of course, surely a sign no? But 15 years on he is now a successful general under Emperor Hadrian, united with his family when – lo! – the family refuse to participate in a sacrifice to the pagan gods. Enfuriated, Hadrian decided to burn the devouts alive in a brazen bull. The caption and mural ensure a happy life thereafter in heaven, but sheesh. A mural of profound submission, an awful but compelling monument to man’s misfortune.

After our journeys around the centre, it was time to move on, up and out of Canterbury towards Whitstable, and ultimately back to Sittingbourne. This time we bought an accurate map, giving us a sense at last of where we were going, and began pedalling up along the peaceful paths and vistas of the old Crab and Winkle railway. We had one problem: if the first day was marked by extreme cycling in good weather, the second day brought good cyling in extreme weather. The rain was incessant, washing away everything, blurring vision. Our bikes gave in quickly – we realised brakes were malfunctioning, tires deflating, hands aching – fortunately my Dad is a professional cyclist, one who still sticks to the Cyclists Code, still unwritten, but which I’d never come across… (examples of good etiquette include saying ‘hi’ to other cyclists when passing, and stopping to help any cyclists who have parked on the pathside).

The journey was beautiful, and in other weather would’ve been marvellous – but we were soaked to the skin. We found momentary refuge in the forgotten chapel along the route, right before the ancient Blean woods. The gravestones had been effaced by time, and aside from the mating rituals of the birds and all life, that 1ness that is in fact a 2ness as Riddley Walker might see, the place was totally peaceful. My brother casts a great pose. The idea of the trip had been a birthday present I’d asked for from my Dad, to spend time together, to go out on a trip. Despite the awful weather, it was really wonderful. I recommend time as a form of gift, really.

After the muddy journey through Blean woods we eventually made it to Whitstable, but it was too wet to continue – too rainy to even see ahead of us. We tried to get to Whitstable sea-front but we were too muddy and tired. Somehow, kicking a discarded baby’s dummy across a footpath throughout Whitstable’s residential backstreets, kicking it right up a flight of stairs, revived our spirits – ha! But we gave in, and a train took us back into another Roman shell, the capitol. A fantastic trip. Whilst no conscious inertia, time-drips appeared for a moment as what they are. In ancient places the temporary problems of the world, the absurdity of arrogant assumptions and desires, and the inability of individual agents to shape the course of things, appeared clear, before hiding again behind a dreary rain-cloud. What to say? ‘Anywhere out of this world’ – but give us time, any time…