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Day 16: Farewell Britain, hello the Great Wen

1997 September 2
by Paul Vallely

They play classical music over the loudspeaker at the railway station at Cambridge. Elsewhere it might seem twee, but there it feels rather appropriate. That kind of thing can, however, lead to delusion. I boarded one of the sleek new diesels which take you straight from the university city to Kings Cross in only an hour. There was a high-pitched, shimmering hum, like the opening bars of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. It was a good few moments before I realised it was merely the sound of the train readying itself for departure. Flooded by a wave of foolishness, I reflected that I should have known better. I was heading back to London and what passes for the real world.

As the flat Cambridgeshire landscape gradually became more rolling, an indefinable feeling of sadness grew. I had covered a lot of ground since I had set out on my tour of the whole island of Great Britain, in a kind of sound-bite emulation of the journey of prototype tourists such as Daniel Defoe. Unlike Defoe, whose mission had included a brief to bribe Scottish parliamentarians to vote for union, my objective had been altogether more vague: to discover whether there was any longer any such thing as “community” in this nation, and if so, what nurtured it.

Yet I realised on this final leg that I had been doing something else, too. I had unconsciously set out to accentuate the positive, not merely to report what goes unreported but to celebrate what is good in modern Britain. It has been a salutary experience to remove my metropolitan spectacles and come nose to nose with other people’s realities. It has been droll, as when at Belfast Harbour airport, waiting for the prop-driven bucking bronco of a plane to Edinburgh, I sat and watched a seductive promotional video of castles, sunlit Victorian public buildings and river buses, only to discover that it ended with the words “Destination Birmingham”.

It has been melancholic, as when passing through Barnsley town centre to discover that all the life is being sucked out of the little place by the out-of-town mega-shopping-complex at Meadowhall near Sheffield. But above all it has been a journey of refreshment, which began the moment I stepped off the train in Cornwall to be greeted by a local man not simply with a “Good morning”, to which I replied, but with a follow-up inquiry: “You all right then?”. It may only have been a conversational formula. Yet that second phrase was my first reminder of a world in which people have a little more time for one another. It is there all around the country. Even in a blunt, brisk city like Leeds, I was struck by how, as I stood peering owlishly at the destination board, a railwayman approached and offered help, unsolicited. It has been a long journey. Even in a little country such as the UK, everywhere is further than at first you think. And travel writers never seem to carry luggage – or at least, they rarely mention it. It had loomed large in my decision-making, especially since, whatever Mo Mowlam may say, Railtrack at any rate was displaying little faith in the reliability of the IRA ceasefire: left luggage lockers remained out of service everywhere, even in Scotland and Wales, where Celtic communality has so far protected the population from any terrorist outrage.

The one journey which is always shorter than you expect is the final leg home. On the seat opposite was a newspaper. I picked it up: it was the first national paper I had looked at for weeks. On the journey out of London, the papers had been full of the shooting of Gianni Versace, yet when I disembarked in Cornwall the headline in the Western Morning News read “New water bills shock for West”. I had made it a particular rule not to read papers, or anything else, while travelling. Instead I looked either out of the window or at the people around. I followed the same rule in restaurants. It is not just that you stumble across some marvellous vignettes this way, such as the family of four who ate a three-course dinner in total silence save for the bleeping of the youngest’s Tamagotchi. It is not just that you realise that, regrettably, most of our fellow citizens live in a newsless world. No, if you read when travelling you constantly find that you look up and realise that you have missed something. Travelling in 1478, William of Worcestre recorded a plague of rabbits between Saffron Walden and Harlow; in 1997 I noted one, across the Galloway peninsula, which those with noses in books failed to see. Reading on a journey turns a seamless progress into a series of disjointed fragments. It feeds our modern sense of dislocation.

We do not live in the present, but always in the future or the past. Instead of rejoicing at where we are, we are ever on the way to somewhere else. It happened to me now. I put down the paper and looked out of the window to find that I had missed the transition from countryside to suburb to town. All at once we were on the edges of London, and the view was – as it is with so many places from our railway system – of the unprepossessing backsides of its buildings. It would not do to get too romantic about this. For the traveller there is the danger that you remain the perpetual spectator, never involved. Then you force your own agenda upon the place you have arrived in, rather like the Wild Bill Hickok character, a long-haired ex-hippy from Seattle, whom I met in The Crown in Belfast. He was obsessed with how to get hold of a gun. But there is one place where you find it harder to indulge your fantasies, and that is home. The Great Wen, that other traveller, William Cobbett, called London. A wen, according to the OED, is “a sebaceous cystic tumour under the skin, occurring chiefly on the head”. But as I arrived it seemed to me to be a great maw, a voracious gullet set on reclaiming me. As the familiar sights of the city appeared it felt as if they had chosen me, rather than me, them. “Contemplate yourself as in a glass,” said the 12th-century Benedictine monk William of Malmesbury, one of the earliest chroniclers of a journey round these isles. Perhaps, in the end, the journey tells you more about yourself than the places you see. I queued for a Tube ticket. At the machine in front a young woman dithered and became bothered. “What are you looking for? Can I help?” I heard myself saying. Behind me the rest of the queue began tutting and hissing with impatience. Welcome back to London, I thought. Welcome home.


Tomorrow Day 17: In search of the new Jerusalem- a few thoughts at the end of A Journey Around The Whole Island of Great Britain

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