On Yer Bike!

JD Taylor – Island Story (Repeater)

It’s strange how ideas of distance change with context. I consider a train journey of three hours or more to be gruelling, a long slog – to travel from Manchester to, say, Plymouth, would be an exceptional undertaking, only to be done in the rarest of circumstances. Say that to an American, though, and they’ll marvel at how compact Britain is, how close together and well-connected its towns and cities are.

In the UK, however, this distance is reinforced by other boundaries, many of them going beyond the geographical to encompass the socioeconomic and political, the cultural and the imaginary – as well as the distance from London, whether physical or perceived. As a born, bred and educated resident of the South East – more specifically, the southern reaches of the capital – JD Taylor’s mission to explore ‘The Island’ by bike, documented in his recent book Island Story, comes across as both admirable and necessary, yet also sometimes naïve.

To start with, the obvious. Taylor’s journey ticks many of the boxes of the conventional heroic male travelogue: he’s a lonesome traveller, setting out on a slightly misguided trip on a wonky bike which he appears to barely know how to ride – let alone maintain, something in which he gradually becomes self-sufficient. He camps clandestinely underneath the stars, at the sides of roads, in fields and in woods, relatively free to pitch up wherever he chooses. Elsewhere, he relies on the kindness of friends, strangers and acquaintances, not just to offer a bed for the night, and perhaps a meal, but to share conversation and an insight into everyday lived perspectives.

He has a vague idea of learning more about the country of which he is a part, at the same time as seeking answers to some pretty big questions around the nature of political, cultural and class identity, Britishness and belonging. So far so Beatnik, and Taylor is adept at literary and poetic description of place.

Yet Taylor is also a philosopher and a thinker, and he challenges many of the conventional narratives of the island, going beyond the surface story to reveal the concealed and the hidden. Visiting the vast, low-rise redbrick council estates on the outskirts of cities, as well as market towns, sleepy villages and far-flung cottages, he suggests it’s the former that’s more typical of the way in which most of the islanders live: in touching distance of both city and country, but somehow removed from both of them.

In the eastern flatlands, he tries to go beyond the stories in the headlines, seeking out the often-exploited foreign vegetable pickers upon whose labour the country depends for cheap food. Taylor also disrupts certain narratives about the north-south divide: for example, he finds Plymouth more like a Yorkshire town than the gateway to Cornwall, and struggling seaside/estuary towns mean the counties of Kent and Essex fail to fit easily into the contented, comforting ‘pleasantness’ he encounters in well-heeled commuter towns in the home counties.

Kent too, he notes, seldom appears in accounts of the miners’ strikes of the 1980s, despite its collieries playing a major part. The North East, Taylor realises, is very different not just from the South East but from the North West; the South West is very different again from the concentrated wealth and commerce of the South East.

Taylor is clearly well-versed in the historical and cultural background of the island, telling its tales through key figures and moments from the past lives of places, as well as their literature and music. He brings out local particularity, difference and strangeness, from regional mutations of language to the continuation of old customs.

Yet he also highlights a lot of sameness in experience and the built landscape from place to place – the book contains a surprising number of visits to McDonalds, as well as written detours about vast, anonymous shopping centres. He captures the complexity and contradictions in the island’s history – not least in its long heritage of migration.

At times, the account becomes sheer wide-eyed wonder – Taylor’s eyes are open not just to urban experience, but to landscape, wildlife and nature – particularly in extended descriptions of Scotland and its islands. What’s significant about the book is that wherever he goes Taylor seeks out people and listens to them, to their concerns and experiences.

Many of them have understandable reasons for feeling disenfranchised and disempowered, economically, politically and culturally – they are what the mass media would term, in the acronym of the moment, ‘JAMs’, or the financially ‘just about managing’, feeling that the norms and values of their class are shifting and under threat from influences beyond their control.

The book can’t help but be critical of the political, social and economic factors that have led to and entrench poverty – one of its overriding messages, captured in a quote from film-maker Patrick Keiller, is that Britain is a rich country populated by poor people – many examples of which are encountered and relayed in Island Story.

Island Story is political without becoming polemical and philosophical without becoming inaccessible. There’s humour in it. There’s also lots of Taylor himself – not just opinion, but well-balanced aspects of autobiography, drawing on the migration across the Irish sea, intercity moves and life trajectories of his own family.

Most importantly, Taylor seeks, finds and highlights the occasional glimmer of hope and dares to suggest some collective solutions. This part of the book is sometimes challenging in its idealism. Some of the suggestions are already in place in pockets – Taylor advocates co-operatives for their model of worker ownership and democracy. Others are already being debated in certain political parties and think tanks, such as a universal basic income, collective ownership and the nationalisation of infrastructure. Other suggestions are more utopian or seem more far-fetched and are less likely to go down well with the populace, such as direct democracy and compulsory voting.

There’s a poignancy to reading Island Story. The book was written, and its journey undertaken, before the 2015 general election and when the EU referendum was merely a blot on the horizon, although in many ways its findings seem prescient and go some way towards explaining the result.

It was published and promoted (Taylor set out by bike once more for a book tour of the country in the summer of 2016) in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit result, when many were in shock yet before the cumulative upset of Donald Trump’s election as US President. Island Story is an important education, both for Taylor and for the reader. After Brexit, the media has sought to scapegoat certain sections of the population – the young/the old, the rural/the metropolitan, the northern/the southern, the working-class and the affluent.

There’s also been much written about so-called echo chambers, the gap between the worldview of the individual, reinforced by the perspectives by which they surround themselves, and the way in which people live and think beyond their own immediate little corner of the world.

What Island Story suggests to me is that we should all be doing what Taylor is doing – seeking out the places and people beyond our own little bubble, visiting them, talking to them and trying to understand them, rather than relying on secondhand accounts and false boundaries of distance, demographics and geography.

– Natalie Bradbury

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