Three and half weeks. Three hundred miles. Arterial roads and a thunder of lorries, silent lanes under canopies of tress, abandoned railway lines, quiet villages, market days, candlelit cathedrals, darkened tunnels, bustling pubs, the bright lights of the fairground, blue remembered hills, vast flat field fields haunted by rooks…
The last day was the strangest of all. For one thing, there was the weather. It was one of the driest October’s anyone could remember. On the outskirts of Darlington, I’d felt a fine spray of rain for half an hour and that was all. The rest was day after day of clear skies and warm, pale sun. Somewhere between Edgware and London I realized that I was actually sweating (too much information,possibly) and took off my thin waterproof coat. In every park I passed the temptation to put my feet up on a bench and snooze in the morning sun grew stronger. But I had a date at the mother of parliaments.
That last morning, browsing a second hand bookstore, in a passage from a writer I know and like –though hardly ever agree with – I came across this
I can cordially if not completely go along with some of this up until that last sentence. Then I find myself getting less cordial. ‘The politics of envy’ like ‘chippy’ is a cheap, empty sneer that the entitled resort to when their argument has failed. It excuses unfairness, ignores injustice and has all right thinking people polishing the hammer and sickle.
So while I’m feeling chippy, let me say that (scenically at least) the eight miles or so from Edgware to Marble Arch were the dreariest of the whole journey. A dull plod from the fringes of London’s grubby, crowded urban edges to its congested heart. But of course, it has its own pleasures, if only a certain ragged liveliness and colour. And London being London, all the passing names are familiar from decades of comedy, drama, news, jokes, songs and so on and so on.
Take Cricklewood for instance. I’ve never had any need to come here before, and I wouldn’t have though I’ll ever come here again. But I feel I know it from a hundred witty Alan Coren columns or joking references on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. From these I had picked up something of its character I guessed, or at least what was once its character. With the coming of Willesden Green tube and rail services, this small settlement became quintessential London suburbia; a busy broadway of shops and restaurants and a quiet hinterland of Edwardian villas and crowded streets that are now home to a hugely diverse population. There’s always been a strong Jewish presence here and I enjoy my breakfast hot salt beef bagel as I pace down the unseasonably hot stretch of the Edgware Road so different from the freezing downpour that accompanied the marchers in October 1936
Past The Beaten Docket pub, past The Cricklewood Lodge Hotel. Up (or down) the oddly named Shoot Up Hill. Cricklewood begets Kilburn in a contiguous urban sprawl. Busier, louder, more downmarket, the Irish Times in the newsagent and the hurling and Munster V Leinster on the sports channels in the pubs tells you that the old ethnic mix has shifted again. With a shock of pleasure, my attention is grabbed by a fabulous old white building that dominates a rather down at heel section of shopfronts and cafes. Janine, a passing Kilburnian lady, notices this
“Great isn’t it? Ian Dury and Kilburn And The High Roads played there” and she proceeds to give me a potted history of the borough before getting on with her shopping. Had I known at this point, I would have impressed her by telling her that you could add to Ian, Larry Adler, Gracie Fields and George Formby who all played at the Kilburn State on its opening night, 30th December 1937 in a concert broadcast by the BBC. When it opened it was one of the largest auditoriums in the world, a colossal piece of Italianate architecture whose art deco skyscraper frontage was designed to ape that of the Empire State Building. Ape. Geddit? Oh please yourself, as Frankie Howard might have said (He played here too). It’s now owned by an American religious group (“happy clappy” said Janine with some disdain) and is a Grade 2 listed building.
Through Maida Vale down the A5 and by St John’s Wood, a baton’s throw from EMI’s famous Abbey Rd studios. As the marchers passed, Pablo Casals was bound for London to record Bach’s Cello Suites here. Four years before, Elgar had conducted the young Yehudi Menuhin in a performance of his own violin concerto. Over the next few years, everyone from Fats Waller to Vaughan Williams would beat a path to this leafy corner of North London. I’ve had many an terrific experience here, not the least being finding the actual piano on which the Beatles recorded A Day In The Life and pounding down that sonorous final chord on the very instrument it was played on in 1967. No, it isn’t in a glass case. It’s still there being used in the corner of Studio Two.
And so on, in appropriate temperatures, to the bustle and sizzle and scents of the lower Edgware Rd, the Levant of North London, a casbah in Marylebone. Here you can sample every cuisine, fashion, literature and variety of shisha from the Dardanelles to the Khyber Pass and a traveller could linger here a while. But, to repeat, I have a date.
Technically Marble Arch is the end of my journey. The Marchers arrived here in the teeming rain to be met by large crowds and the assembled press whilst their harmonica band played some of the tunes that had kept them going over the last three and half weeks; ‘The Long, Long Trail’, ‘Tipperary’, ‘Annie Laurie.’ I arrived to the sound of a passing boy racer playing grime and some construction work, took a generic pic and headed for Westminster.
The Jarrow marchers carried a petition of 10,000 signatures in a wooden box the 300 miles from their home town to London. Each night it would placed under lock and key in the council offices and drill halls of Ripon or Mansfield, Darlington or Bedford. The petition asked, very politely, for a new steelworks to be built in their town, for anything to alleviate their dire workless situation. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin refused to see them. Later they trudged in their sodden capes to the Houses Of Parliament to see the king in a Royal Procession to Parliament. Because of the rain though, the procession was canceled and the marchers, standing four deep in the downpour, watched him swish by in his chauffeured car into the Houses Of Parliament. The mood of the capital’s elites is brilliantly captured in a painting by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale titled The Arrival Of The Jarrow Marchers In London where a young woman with a cigarette holder eyes the crusaders languidly from a salon window whilst her foppish male companion looks elsewhere.
I had no petition, no request, no axe to grind or whet on my ‘politics of envy’. But I had decided not long after setting off that I should try to do what the marchers failed to do. Get inside the House Of Parliament and speak to a Member Of Parliament. A week or so into the march I asked on social media whether one of the party leaders might like a cup of tea with me. They didn’t reply. But Tracy Brabin, the new Labour MP for Batley and Spen did, almost immediately. You may know her name, or the name of her constituency. You will certainly know the name of her predecessor; Jo Cox
I don’t know if the Chinese really do have a curse that goes ‘May you live in interesting times’. I think it maybe one of those fictitious ‘facts’ similar to the statement that their eponymous wall is the only man-made structure visible from space; a pub quiz myth, even a Chinese whisper.(It was China’s first astronaut himself who pointed to that you could see it) But I do know that the best you can say about 2016 is that it has been interesting. There are other words some would use to describe the events from David Bowie to Brexit. Baffling, enraging, depressing. At the top of 2016’s list of miseries would have to be the murder of Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen, killed on the streets of her constituency by a man shouting ‘England first’. This individual’s trial is ongoing as I write.
I can’t do all this justice in the few words I have left in this blog. I hope I can in the book that will be out next spring. For now I want to to say that Tracy met me in the Commons even though she had only been there a matter of days and was still finding her way around; “day five in the Big Brother house”. She was elected effectively as all the other mainstream parties didn’t field candidates. (Some far right groups did stand, lost their deposits and heckled and abused her at the count)
I’m going to stop writing now. There’s too much to say and I need to say it when th e time comes in the book. But thanks for reading. And I’ll keep this blog open for some time yet I think.I may post some more thoughts in the next few days now that I am back at my desk and the socks are twirling in the washing machine and I’d like to have this blog as scrapbook for my thoughts and ideas as the march settles into my memory and as 2016 fads into 2017. Also, I’d love you to get in touch with me with any thoughts, comments or even bits of info
For now though, for tonight, just this. I walked from the top to the bottom and into the heart of England. I looked it in the eye from morning till night and I never grew tired of it. Like the Marchers, I learned something from those long days, evenings and nights that no amount of TV news or opinion pieces or well-meant documentaries could have given me. I learned about England now, about England then, and about England’s long shadows of history and people.I hope I can do it justice. Sometimes it baffled me, sometimes it irritated sometimes, but l realised that, to quote that old saw, yes, it is my country right or wrong, and when it is right it is kind and hard-working, patient and dependable, rugged and gentle, mysterious and alluring, charming and funny.
That is the England we should put first
PS At this point it would be easy to rustle up some Vaughan Williams or Nick Drake or even that great Clash tune Something About England again to make the end credits swell with emotion. But as these aren’t the end credits, and this isn’t over yet, and I think we need to puncture this inflated mood a little, how about this?