One train an hour.
The small train station in Beccles has one train an hour. We want to run down the plump buttock of Britain, down the East Anglian coast through to south Suffolk. The trains aren’t helping us though. Giristroula and I pad about this small station, strong sunshine beating over the old fashioned platform, coloured pedants strung round the brickwork as if they’re celebrating some old King’s coronation. A Sunday fete in the fields next door with the sound of children’s laughter and a PA system playing chart hits out of date by a good 20 years – the most popular stall there seems to be a ‘Hold A Giant Rabbit’ and the kids of Beccles are all delighted by the offer to ‘Turn On The Police Car Siren’. Eventually a white two carriage train emerges down the line, coming through the thick heavy sun. The Michael Palin. Palin’s face, dotted in portrait picture form, smiles blandly next to the doors as the train draws up. It takes us back. All the way back. Back to London before we left on this tour round the country where we had walked past Palin’s house near Hampstead Heath as we trudged the city one last time and Palin himself had come out of his door and waved a blessing on Giristroula. Has he been our patron saint this whole time? Following us on the journey round Britain? Well, if he has, he’s taken his eye off the ball now, right near the end. The Greater Anglia Train ‘Michael Palin’ takes us one stop, to Halesworth before we hear the dreaded words coming weakly through the tannoy, like the voice of a drowned man from the bottom of a river.
“…rail replacement bus…”
We’re piled off the train, onto the bus – irritable driver in rail company waistcoat looking fixedly out the window, grinding his teeth – and rattle through Suffolk Sunday countryside. Narrow roads, sleepy villages, dry overhanging branches smacking the windows of the top deck. Our bikes are packed down in the hold.
“If anyone wants Saxmundham they’ll have to shout…” says the driver.
Nobody says anything. Great.
“We do…” I say.
He doesn’t hear.
“We do!” I shout louder.
We are the only two. I feel a frosty atmosphere build. Making everyone on the bus stop just for us, we’ve become the most unpopular people on board. Nobody says anything though, of course.
“Sorry,” I mumble to the bus of bald heads and stiff-faced women clutching their Bags for Life.
At Saxmundham we untangle our dirty old fashioned sit-up-and-beg bicycles – clanking machines have taken us all the way down the east side of England – from someone else’s expensive lightweight titanium bike. The lycra and helmeted nervous stick-figure owner watching us intently from the bus’s window. We peddle off towards Knodishall, where we’ve booked a room above a pub: the Butcher’s Arms. We cycle in great curves round huge fields of grape seed. A thin trail of white clouds layered on a sliced blue sky, which itself is layered over thick yellow and green bands of fields, and finally a strip of dusty grey road at the bottom. Knodishall seems further than I thought.
“Do you know where the Butcher’s Arms is?” I ask a group of farm workers gathered round a stalled tractor.
“Round the butcher’s wife’s arse I would guess…” says the farmer, looking very pleased with himself. His red face – looking like an over-polished apple – twists this way and that to view his mates and get his great roar of laughter in approval. We cycle on.
Behind the scallop on Aldeburgh beach, the sea collects all the colours from the sky, as the sun sets and glows orange and gold. The scallop is a great piece of sculpture. Maggi Hambling’s 4 meter high, open, curved steel cast. Watching, listening to the huge North Sea laid out here, rippling like a vast piece of cloth. Just imagine this sculpture in a grey gale… Imagine the sounds coming through the sliced steel as the wind howls…However, in a pretty, conservative, straight town like Aldeburgh the sculpture has caused controversy: “It is going to be toppled one day, Sadam–like” said one resident. Though, in good British fashion, in the end all that was meted out to the piece was someone painting over it in bedroom pink Dulux emulsion “Move This!” in neat letters. Giristroula and I walk over the shingle, kicking and tripping on the stones, past the fishing shacks, into the town. The Borough’s moot hall – red and timbered and where the burgess and clerks have been conducting village life since 1550. The market place in front, the setting of many a Sunday morning scene. The harbour behind, sheltering peace away from the storms, for hundreds of years. Aldeburgh is full of holidaying Londoners now though.
Earlier we had walked over the Alde marshes. Tidal mud flats and tall reeds and birches. A huge empty space. Quiet. Just the sound of the unfolding wing of a heron or a bittern. In the town, the East Anglian leaden gulls jostle and crowd: waddling down the roads together laughing as if one of them is telling dirty jokes, in the winter though these marshes will have the geese, wild ducks and water birds that will have moved here from the north and the frozen land of the east. Birds sitting in these Suffolk trees that would have summered with Russian wolves. The sky was moody.
We visited Benjamin Britten’s grave in the parish church and then on to the house where Britten composed his music. The music that makes so much sense now, when you’re here on the Suffolk coast, with the sounds coming off the sea, blowing through the reeds, circling trapped under the low skies. In Britten’s music loft, left as it was – peaceful, his desk, his papers, the view of the gardens and the work-distracting blackbirds on their nests, I reach over the rope laid-out to stop people reaching over, to play a chord on Britten’s Steinway piano left open a tantalising distance away. An alarm rings through the whole house, a red light flashes in the room as the bells clang unrelentingly. I am walked down Britten’s stairs by a man in a red polo shirt. Politely thrown off the premises. The moon has risen and is strong enough to cast shadows as we leave Aldeburgh and head back for our night back snuggled in the Butcher’s Arms.
Tired of the bikes, we thumb a ride next morning. We get a lift through the Suffolk countryside with a father and his teenage, bobbed-haired, son – who I’d initially mistaken for his daughter. They tell us they take a holiday together in these lands, east of Ipswich, every year. The mother doesn’t like to come. She goes with her friends to Spain.“We love Suffolk though!” says the eager faced boy.
They drive us far out of their way, taking us all the way to the entrance of Southwold town. “I hope you have a really lovely day!” says the son, leaning out the window, as we get out of the car and start the short walk into the main town.
Southwold’s white, lattice-glassed, lighthouse looms above the whole place: the pretty tiny cottages; the forbidding tall-fronted old bed and breakfasts; the drays and cloth capped workers – or so it seems there should be – in the Adnams beer brewery. And the Boden catalogue holiday makers, The ‘Oscar and Rose’ children’s clothes shop. The know-your-place, respect and deference, locals. The uninvitingly upmarket Crown and Swan pubs sit on the high street. The second homer’s Chelsea tractors packed at the back with Waitrose fare are up for the weekend. This is not the rough and cheerful England-by-the-sea that Giristroula has previously seen and liked. We feel we are being suffered in silence by the residents here. Blinding themselves with their disapproving glances.
Giristroula, not knowing anything of Southwold before, says straightaway that the place feels like it’s been ruined by the rich outsiders buying up the homes. Where can the workers stocking-up these chi-chi little shops live now? The men humping the barrels in the brewery? How do schools and communities cope with these holiday homes empty for so many months a year? Who pays tax here? What does the council run on? These beautifully old-fashioned seaside towns draw in the moneyed crowd, of course they do, but they change these places completely – these once everlasting animals of Britain. And complete indifference from those in charge in Westminster as to what happens to communities here, just like we’d seen in their different way in Hull, in Lincoln. Everyone is queuing in Southwold, apart from those who don’t need to as they jumped the queues long ago.
Of course some Southwold residents seem very happy with how their town has turned out. I ask one lady walking swiftly down the street if she’s knows the town? Is she from Southwold? “Yes, yes. I live here,” she replies testily.
“Oh great,” I say “Can I ask, do you know the house that George Orwell once lived in?
“Oh, I wouldn’t know anything about that,” she says with mild distaste, as if I was trying to get her to share some smutty story with me, and walks off.
A man stands outside his upmarket gift shop, arms folded, watching with vague contempt as the tourist crowds pass, breathing haughtily through his long nose. We find Orwell’s parent’s house, where he wrote A Clergyman’s Daughter up the High Street. Orwell, so I read, was seen as “a rather dishevelled, unshaven figure, dressed in suits handmade by a local tailor that needed a good iron, a long scarf, and no hat … People felt rather sorry for his parents.” Southwold snobbery obviously lasting longer in the bones than I thought…
We walk down the High Street again, to the seafront, and past the long, long lines of painted beach huts. We watch men with wispy hair rising in the wind, balancing precariously on one leg on the sand, struggling to get the other leg through a pair of underpants under a towel held rigidly tight. “I think I’ll take a walk to the toilets,” says one father. “Anyone coming?” Giristroula stops all along the way along the front and reads, very closely, all the dedications on the brass plates on the benches, as she has all over the country. It’s not something you get in Greece and I always found it rather touching when, a little unsure, she paid such close attention to all the “For Grandma and Grandpa” “For Tony, who loved this view” “Bunty 1931-2009: she liked to sit down” as if they are compulsory memorial messages, each requiring due care and consideration. Old men and women sit at the end of the pier. As if at the end of life. Children run happily down the planks but slow and stop as they see the old timers sat at the end, as if they suddenly feel a great chill past this point.
Back on the bikes the next day, we peddle through Suffolk yellow fields. The dull drone of a combine harvester that can be seen far away on the horizon flicking wheat dust in the air. Flint churches, half-timbered farmhouses, deep-hedges. Along the side of the road are bizarre collections of dead animals, seemingly each getting larger as we progress – like the woman who swallowed a fly – a dead hedgehog, then a few meters further on a rabbit hit by a car, later a badger, then a colossal stiff seagull tenanting the verge. Similarly, as we get closer to a village, stalls and signs advertising wares come out: ‘Potatoes Here’, ‘Pick Your Own Strawberries’, ‘Fresh Bantham Cock’, ‘Pig For Sale’. As we enter the village one man outside his house has assembled all his old DVDs, junk, a pair of old Chelsea boots. His sits next to his blanket in front of his gate with all this piled up for sale. He is fast asleep in the midday sun. A church bell rings in the centre of the village. I stand and listen to it. Take it as an omen. A bell for us, ringing like time was running out, there won’t be much longer left for us back in Britain.
We had been recommended a good beach to go to. “Sizewell beach… You know…” the woman had said, a little bashfully “…by the reactor thingy.” Sizewell B nuclear reactor can see seen from miles around. Brooding on the horizon as we stood on Aldeburgh beach. “We swim there all the time…” she said “And we haven’t turned green! We still have 2 arms and just the one head!” she twittered nervously. Her husband grunts a little uncomfortably. Everyone seems faintly embarrassed of the uninvited monster sat here on the Suffolk coast.
Freewheeling down past eccentric old stately Sizewell Hall – the rambling beams and lofty roofs of the old progressive school where the students were free from rules and could study whatever they liked – we arrive at Sizewell beach. Tying the bikes up outside ‘Sizewell Tea’ café, we crunch over the fat pebbles down to the sand and the sea lying under the hunkering reactor. Giristroula has never swum in British waters. In fact, she’d laughed wildly with her head thrown back at the very idea. But here on an abnormally hot day, on the practically deserted beach, she eyes me excitedly. “Shall we..? Shall we..?” I go first. Taking off my clothes, running nude, white bottomed, Perrin-like into the water. It’s remarkably warm. Tropical. Could almost be confused with the Ionian Sea I had left behind in Greece. “Come on!” I say “It’s great!” Gingerly – folded up, an arm across cradling her boobs – Giristroula wags a toe into the North Sea. She can’t believe the temperature either. Plunging into brown sea, she disappears with a plop, a ring left round where her foot was, before she emerges again laughing at how she can’t see an inch in front of her in the English sludgy water. We splash around in the sea. Under the great concrete walls and white ball perched on top of the nuclear factory. I eye the vast reactor as I backstroke and feel pretty confident in what has made these waters so warm round here. Giristroula however seems thrilled and regretting her previous prejudice against British seas.
We are naked and free. Greek-like. I wonder if there are British by-laws against this kind of thing. A dog walker passes. We try and keep our nude bodies hidden in the murk of water. I have a hand ready to hold up in friendly acknowledgment, she doesn’t want to turn to see us though.
“Come on Hercules,” says the woman crossly to her yellow Labrador splashing close to us on the water’s edge. “You don’t want to be sniffing round there Hercules…”
The train crossing through Essex is racing us back to London. Our circle of Britain is soon to be complete. We are getting there too fast. It’s all coming to an end far too quickly.
The edge of London begins to appear around us, blurring with Essex lands. Cafes pass outside the train window. I reconise these types of cafes – Polaroid pictures up on the walls inside of fat men who had managed to finish the ‘Gut Buster’ breakfasts. Signed framed headshot photo of a forgotten Eastenders stars who once used to come in, long ago. The east London streets then start to emerge. Lithuanian girls with their haired tied tight back, black leggings and big bright white trainers, walking with Lithuanian builders in dirty work t-shirts and huge biceps. Poundshops. Chicken shops. Hipster pubs. Liverpool Station. We’re back. We’ve made it all the way round the country.
Taking the escalator down to the tube, something seems wrong.
“Get back!” shouts the Underground worker down in the ticket hall. “Clear the station!”
“Please clear the station,” says a recorded message over the speakers.
People are running. Getting away from some danger. But we are already on the moving metal stairs though. There is nothing we can do but travel slowly down, two fool passengers being carried at leisurely pace closer and closer towards a discarded suitcase left at the bottom of the escalator.
“Clear the station!” shouts the stout white haired, red faced, man in his orange London Underground bib.
“I don’t want to die Daddy,” says a little girl stood with her father behind me, clutching his hand looking up fearfully.
This is not the welcome home we had hoped for.
Liverpool Street Underground station is closed-up behind us. We walk out on dark drizzily streets of the City, lights reflected on the wet pavements. We pass the City boys drinking in lit-up chain pubs. We look for another tube station to duck down into… On the Central Line the scene seems as familiar as I ever remember. It’s good to be back. Two Polish men opposite drink cans of Zywiec lager, a black man with a grey beard further down the carriage sings out sections from a Koran. Office workers don’t catch eyes, deep in their phones or looking up at the roof of the tube train, concentrating, as if working out a hugely difficult maths sum. A West Indian kid drops chicken bones between his feet on the floor. “Bruv…bruv…” he says as people depart past him out the door. Kissing his teeth as he gets ignored. A Nigerian grandmother, colourful in her dress and turban, looks over at the boy with disdain.
Giristroula and I are going to part. After these hundreds and hundreds of miles travelling round the whole of Britain together she is going to return to Greece now, but without me. I was due to go, but I’d received a strange message, so I am going to stay for a few days longer to sort something out.
“Kalo dromo,” I say to Giristroula as we part – good road. “Kalo taxithi,” – good travel. She is now going to Heathrow. Aegean Airlines will carry her up into the dark London sky and away again. “l’ll see you soon,” I tell her. “When this is done. I’ll be there soon.” We hug tight. Giristroula takes a last look around her at Britain. Who knows when she’ll be back. Who knows if she can come back. Brexit talk all seems full of stopping the free movement of Europeans into Britain. Although nobody in power ever really says anything. Better just to leave all the European nationals dancing in limbo, using people’s lives as bargaining chips, shredding nerves, dangling the threat of splitting up families. Keeping everyone scared and holding out wretched hands. “You can have your rights when and if we say so…”
Giristroula looks round Tottenham Court Road’s station concourses. As if it were a representation of the country.
“I’m going to miss it so much,” she says.
Two women meet up next to us. It is clear they are strangers.
“Hello there, how are you?” says one.
“Oh fine thank you. You?”
Instantly, Giristroula’s chin wobbles and she darts her head into my shoulder. Just this stupid little sweet fumbling politeness – so alien back home in Greece – has her sobbing. “I’m going to miss it SO MUCH!”
The B&B sits on its own on the dark Kent marshland. The evening mists are gathering round its step and porch. Its one lit window seemingly the only light around for miles. The owner plods about his castle. He has great gammy legs, like two giant hams hanging down from his shorts. There is a malodorous hum about him: old pound notes and vegetable soup.
“I was in the Special Service,” he tells me for the umpteenth time. He straightens his glasses under his mop of ginger hair with his fat sausagey fingers. “They don’t try and break in round here. They wouldn’t dare. I would kill first, think later…”
His wife fiddles with the porcelain dogs on the mantelpiece behind him. There is a painted portrait of Princess Diana as some sort of angel with wings, smiling down benignly on the wall. All British experiences are here in the B&B: the draughty house, the 70s bathroom and cold tub, the old carpet and strange smell on the stairs, the immersion water heater only on in very rare circumstances. The couple have been talking to me obsessionally, for an hour now, since I first arrived, about paedophiles. They seem utterly convinced everyone in the country is a paedophile. Desperate to root out anyone new. Hound the suspected.
“Well, we’re off to bed now,” says the wife cheerfully, turning off the lights. The husband hauls his colossal legs up the stairs.
I sit in the dark. The wind haunts round the outside of the tall house, whistling and moaning. It’s black and deserted. A real night for ghosts. As I sit, a figure looms up at the door. A bald head. A lugubrious face peering through the long, narrow window. It is my father.
I had travelled over towards Kent on the Woolwich Ferry. West London got toll-free bridges over the River Thames, East Londoners have had a free boat taking them across the Thames since the 1880s. I was on the ‘Ernest Bevin’ boat. Patched up hull, wooden panelling below, a closed ‘Smoker’s Room’ written in flaky letters on old glass. Wooden benches for the foot passengers – of which I was pretty much the only one, the other passengers all men in white vans or silver saloon cars. We slapped over the water. Up river, London’s iconic buildings all stood there with their backs turned to us, facing the sunset. The Woolwich Ferry could be the greatest institution in London.
On the other side, the 96 bus took me through Dartford, past its brooding Victorian gothic asylum for London’s lunatics for 150 years. Past the old hospital for cholera and infectious diseases. Past Dartford station where on platform 2 teenage rebels Mick and Keith first met. Earlier the bus had taken us past the new Sir Mick Jagger Centre for Performing Arts. I carried on through Gravesend. Through Cliffe. These towns sitting here in orbit, feeling the heavy weight of a London just out of view. Then onto the North Kent Marshes. I’m not sure why I’m here – here where there’s river and land and sea, and it’s hard to see the join. I had received a message from my father. I hadn’t seen my father for many years, but an email arrived for me from him as he had heard I was in the country and wondered if I wanted to meet up. Mystified, intrigued, a little bemused, I’d agreed. And so now I found I myself alone, walking round the marsh edges, by the leaden line of the river, waiting to keep an appointment with a father I really didn’t know at the B&B he had booked me in at. I stared at the wide waters of the Kent marshes with the beached broken barges. Some boats stuck like resting hippopotamuses in cold, shining, farting, mud. The masts of other boats ghosting along on the horizon. A raw wind blowing in from the sea. I made my way back to the B&B in the growing dark and the drizzle.
“I have a small apartment in France. But I’ve now bought an ever smaller flat in Rochester…”
My father is explaining to me why we are here.
“I was going to buy a flat in Dalston, but when we looked round there was this man next door who was wearing a vest and…well, anyway, it doesn’t matter…”
He tells me he spends his time when he’s here in Kent taking the bus – on his free bus pass – to London, over the Woolwich Ferry. “It’s probably the greatest institution in London…” He also likes to drive – in his expensive looking car – around Kent. The Hoo Peninsular. The Isle of Grain. “I thought, you know, you might like to come? Your sister tells me you like to travel…”
The next day we are driving out on a grey A228 road, out along the desolate spur of Kent sticking out like a very sore thumb into where the North Sea and the Thames Estuary meet. It is as bleak as can be, depression sits over everything. My father is wearing driving gloves. We are heading to All Hallows-on-sea. In the 1930s, the Southern railway company believed they could build a holiday resort here. The largest in Europe, they thought. They built a branch line, a handsome railway station. Now all abandoned. No one ever came. The large, 30s, British Pilot pub sits here now, with nothing around, just a solitary plumber’s van in the car park. Further down a few squat unloved bungalows, stone cladding, gnomes outside on the spare, ratty, flower-less grass. A thinly populated caravan holiday park with a kid walking through, carrying a black bin bag and an air rifle. An empty can of Carling bobs in a puddle in the middle of the closed crazy golf course. My father stalks round, scowling at this scene in his long raincoat, looking peevish and perfectly bald. Like Larkin doing the rounds of his library shelves. He turns to me with a sickly, toothy, grin. “Great isn’t it? Edgelands..!” he says, with an almost manic evangelical glee.
We carry on driving through the Isle of Grain. An empty land. A good place for a murder. We pass industrial zones, locked down with tight security details. Metal barriers, signs warning no photography allowed. Men watching closely from security huts. We park the car and trudge through boggy salt marshes to where the Thames sits, wide and open. We stand on these flood plains, where the London Stone, marks the end of any claim of London on the river, and the start of the sea. And we look out over to the lights of Southend coming over the water, from the other side, Essex, through the gloom.
“Do you like this?” says my father. “Is it boring you?” he seems nervous, suddenly doubtful about this journey he’s taking me on. “I mean, I love this sort of thing. But maybe it’s all boring for you?” I tell him it’s not, but I don’t think he believes me. We get back in the car, heading through the bleak, secretive lands. A good place for criminals to hide out. A land cut between the Thames and the Medway. A malnutritioned horse rests its head over a barbed wire fence. Fridges, mattresses, fly-tipping. We talk of family roots. My father doesn’t tell me why he left our family. I don’t ask. Two strangers voyaging through Kent, linked by blood.
“We’ve all headed south,” he tells me. “Your great-grandfather left Inverness to take up work in Culzean Castle. My father, your grandfather, was born in Liverpool and then travelled down to London for his job. I grew up in Sussex…”
Places. Places I now think back on from the tour Girstroula and I have taken as we rounded this country, as if somehow, unknowingly, I was visiting all these previous lives. Memories rise up, like milk being heated in a pan coming to the boil.
“And then I moved to France. And you, you I hear, have moved to Greece? You see: always heading south…”
Although my father – sensing his old age? Privately missing the old country? – has now made this move back to Britain. He shows me his tiny flat in Rochester, nothing more than a large refurbed storage hold for the armoury of Rochester’s medieval castle, but built right in the grounds of the keep and the cathedral. Over the way, prancing nitwits are dressed as Norman warriors and fair maidens and re-enact scenes of Olde English life in their tunics and girdles. I wish Giristroula was here… She would hate it. I walk down Rochester High Street, caught now in a splash of sun. It isn’t really a High Street, more a tribute to local resident Charles Dickens: ‘Sweet Expectations’ sweet shop, ‘Pips’, ‘Pickwicks’. Proudly pedestrian friendly. The Heritage Centre is all video projections and sensor pads. As I go further the cobbled cosiness peters out and Chatham starts to emerge. Boarded shops. The sun dims. Outside the Britannia pub two lads hammered on something obviously stronger than just lager can’t hold themselves up, sliding down either side of the door frame but refusing to completely buckle. Lunchtime punters pass through, unconcerned by the two reeling mascots. A pool of sick sits at the foot of a post box. Only last year I’m told there was a Dicken’s World theme park here in Chatham, by the old docks. A Great Expectation’s rollercoaster ride. Fagin’s kid’s play pen. Old Curiosity Shoppe gift shop. All closed down now.
We sit in Beanos café in Margate. I stare out the window at the Margate seaside front as my father attempts to order a black tea “with just a slice of lemon.” The woman serving stares at him. “Just a slice of lemon?” he repeats. She continues to stare. He is given a milky tea. Slops in the saucer. It is pelting with rain outside, there is no light in the sky. Not able to waste any more time in the café, we walk out in the squinting rain.
Margate sands. The stone pier – a perfectly dispiriting place for throwing a dead man’s ashes – reaches out into the water. Along the Golden Mile we go. Dreamlands pleasure park stands, looking anything but. Do people still come here? Ride the rollercoasters? They probably get all the pleasure they want now a few miles up the road at the huge Bluewater shopping park. The 1960s, rippling, 60 meter block of flats, Arlington House – it took some guts and nerve to put this brutalist monster here, right on the very front. But I like it. It has a beauty to it I think, and seems in perfect keeping with Margate on this day anyway – with the sky and sea the colour of old bathroom grouting.
The sea patters with rain. We hide under a wide Victorian sea shelter. On a wall by the toilets is a blue plaque telling us, quite improbably, that TS Elliot sat at this shelter and wrote some of The Waste Land here, recuperating in Margate after a nervous breakdown. Someone has graffited ‘I love Ritchie’ in red pen underneath. We drive out of Margate – past the humble people, expecting nothing. Past a bus shelter of huddled Middle Eastern men.. asylum seekers? What will happen to them in the next few years as Britain enters its new age? A new age where people seem to cling to the old ideas: warm beer and invincible green suburbs. Ideas that only 20 years ago seemed quite laughable.
We carry on out of Margate. And instantly the sun appears, throwing itself over sweet looking Botany Bay. The cliffs plunging down to the sea. Shipping Forecast area: North Foreland. The sun is golden over rolling grass. But there is a chill, Autumn is coming. I open the car window expecting the smell of wood being sawn by a man smoking a pipe. Our time back in Britain has seemed such a very short season; no sooner had it begun than the decay started to set in. Summer is going south. (Still baking hot in Greece, I imagine)
Broadstairs, rolling down to the harbour. Genteel retirees and pleasant holiday makers in a town of such dubious historic figures as Aleister Crowley, Ted Heath, Lord Haw-Haw… We pass through Ramsgate. My father eagerly keen to show me the deep tunnel that once came out at the harbour at a station. A station built right on the sands. As we meander through the suburban roads of rows of tall Victorian semis, he wonders if I remember a man he worked with in the civil service in London who I met when I was a boy and I used to visit my father at weekends.
“He was a transvestite. You got on rather well when he used to come round. This was back in the old days though, when the Civil Service was fun of course. The place for eccentrics. For people who were really writers, or actors. The place for people who couldn’t be employed anywhere else. All changed now, so I hear… Anyway he lived in an attic room in one of these houses. He was such a gentle person. But quite the most unconvincing transvestite. ‘What can I do?’ he used to ask me, his stubble showing through his caked make-up, his adam’s apple like a tennis ball, footballer’s legs. ‘What can I do?’ ‘Well…just…persevere,’ I said. What else could I say? He was found in his gas-filled attic room one Christmas Day. Hanged himself too, kicked the kitchen chair away, just to be sure…”
The rest of the car ride onwards to Deal is taken in silence.
I ask in the local library where Charles Hawtrey’s house is. The woman with her glasses on a cord, slung low on her purple roll-neck jumper, goes through a pretence of not knowing, Leafing through a ‘Historic Deal’ book, looking up Hawtrey in the index. Everyone knows though. Hawtrey was the menace of the town. Cottaging in the maritime pubs, insulting the locals, eyeing the military boys from the local barracks. When a fire broke out at his home in 1984, The Sun delighted in printing photos of Hawtrey being brought down from his bedroom window on a fireman’s shoulder, with a procession of rent boys carried down the ladder after him. We’re pointed the way the old librarian always knew, and we walk through Deal’s narrow streets. Past the smugglers cottages. 117 Middle Street. Another blue plaque. We stand, looking up at the house. The old broken, alcoholic actor’s house. Despite the sun-streaked sky above, the road is in shadows and cold. Father and son – trekked all the way here as if on some pilgrimage.
What are we doing here?
My father takes me to Canterbury to catch my train back to London. I’ll be joining Giristroula soon, and I think of how Canterbury was the very place where this journey round Britain started for us, all that time and all those miles ago.
Before we part my father wants to take me on a final detour to the university. The university here in Canterbury was where my father and my mother first met. And so we inch around the old common rooms, the residential blocks, the dining hall. My father sniffing inscrutably as we move around. Inspecting his old haunts. Outside the college library we come to a stop. “Here,” my father says, pointing at the step just outside the double doors. “This is where I first approached your mother. Where I stammered a few nervous words. Asked to take her for a coffee. She just smiled, quietly amused at the whole thing I think…”
I stare at the step, blinking. A concrete slap with a crack along it. So this is where it all began. Sometime 1963. A beehived girl inexpertly chatted up. Later a marriage in a London suburb church. A starter home. A first-born daughter. And all the while the million-pettalled flower of being here was coming down the line for me. And all started on this step outside the library, down the corridor from the cafeteria. And then of course arguments, divorce, unhappiness, lives lived apart. All started here.
“This was an tobacconist where I could buy individual cigarettes. Just one, when I couldn’t afford a packet,” says my father. A Superdrug now. He points out other places. Long gone from 60s Canterbury.
“Did you keep in touch with anyone from those days?” I ask my father.
“No…” He thinks for a while. “I wouldn’t mind meeting them,” he says. “But everything I remembered they wouldn’t remember at all. Everything I’d want to talk about, they wouldn’t want to think about those things.”
“They’re just an echo of a world you knew so long ago,” I say.
“Quite,” my father replies.
“I bet they’re fat and married and they’re always home in bed by half past eight.”
“Well, perhaps,” he says.
“And if you talked about the old times, they’d get bored and they’d have nothing more to say…”
“People often change,” I say. A pause for emphasis. “But memories of people can remain…”
My father stands for a moment. I wonder if I’ve touched him in some way. Maybe I’ve affected him too much?
“Well let’s see about getting you on that train back home…”
Back in South London. The old manor. Nothing has changed. Mr Patel, my old local newsagents, gives me a shrug and has a face full of benign indifference when I tell him I’ve been away, living in Greece.
“Been away, is it?” he says.
“Yes, Greece. For the last two years…”
“Back now though, is it?” he says.
This is as far as the conversation goes. But I think of Mr Patel often when I am in Greece. Just as I think of the other shops. The takeaways. The common. And this road, my street, leading to my old house. But I know Mr Patel doesn’t remember me at all. I make my way for a final drink in the local pub. Walking into the Streatham Wetherspoons, I look up at the tv screen fixed high on the wall. Nigel Farage’s face is on the BBC talking, the sound turned down. The purple subtitles beneath slow and out of time. Being in the Wetherspoons and seeing Nigel Farage certainly feels like being in St Pancras and seeing St Pancras. I take a seat. A kid is running around whacking at tables with a rattling stick toy thing. His grandfather watches with his glasses off resting on the table, he’s pinching the bridge of his nose and looks a mixture of utter fury and weary disappointment. He goes outside for a roll-up, heaving the smoke down ferociously. The boy is left to run his havoc on the tired pub carpet mottled with sticky black ovals. I sit at my pub table and think of this country. And the journey I’ve taken. And what’s happening now. And whether Giristroula will ever be allowed to come back.
“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
This was said by the Prime Minister of this country just a few months ago. I had seen it reported often as we’d travelled round. But it seems to me to go against everything we ever once believed. For once thing, it goes completely against the whole of Classical Greek thinking: the thinking that formed Athens, formed the civilised world. No, they said if you’re not a citizen of the world, you’re not a citizen of anywhere. In fact you’re not even a citizen – you’re just a subject. The Greeks, over 2000 years ago, believed you had to balance the interests of yourself, your family, your town, your country, your world. This was civilisation. The basis of freedom and justice. Current-day Britain seems to have moved from this. And I don’t know why. I think of the Britain I’ve just travelled. We’re told the people have spoken, but how can the country have one voice? The City of London money trader and the zero-hours road haulier in Hull. How can there just be one voice?
I think of how I saw the cathedral spires and the Islamic minarets that make up the country. Cricket whites in Devon, saris in Peterborough. Polish beer, Turkish kebabs, Dutch courage, all in our personal Indian summer. This little world, this earth, this realm. I suddenly feel panicked as I sit here. I’m not sure I’m ready. I’m not sure I want to leave it really. There’s more I still want to see. I want to shout out “I’m not ready to go…”
The barman walks over. He takes my half-finished pint away from me… The last bell was over 20 minutes ago.
The bright, gaudy fruit machine is turned off. I leave the pub. Trudge out on to the High Street, my hands in my pockets. I will leave Britain tomorrow. Who knows, I’ll probably be back again in another 2 years…
Of course I will. I’ll need to see my old country. It will be here.
But then as I walk down the dark street – a street I’d walked down so many times before – I catch myself. A thought that’s been there for a long time, nagging in my mind that I hadn’t really wanted to address… What is all this upping and running off anyway? Don’t we just carry who we are and where we’ve come from and what we’ve done everywhere we go? The patient in the hospital may want to change beds, believing he will recover his health beside the window, but he never will. This great long last tour of Britain that I’ve scratched down here in so many words, as if it will tell me something about myself – does anyone ever really get to leave? Can anyone ever really run away from themselves or their past or their home or what made them? And then a snatch of a Greek poem by Cavafy that I dimly remember comes into my mind.
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?”
There’s no new land, my friend,
No new sea; the city will follow you
In the same streets you’ll wander endlessly…
Ah don’t you see
Just as you’ve ruined your life in this one plot of ground
You’ve ruined its worth
Everywhere now-over the whole earth
It’s pure Greek realism and the defiant hopelessness that comes straight from the heart of Greece cheers me up for some reason. I know, as Larkin said about Hull, I’ll be no unhappier there than I would be anywhere else. And Britain will always be with me anyway. I know I’ll carry it around. And so I walk on, into the dark. And I’m smiling.