For those unfamiliar with the journey and the resulting book, Island Story, it seems fitting to start by asking about the beginnings and motivations for this ‘unlikely cyclo-safari’…
The idea to just go and cycle the entirety of Britain isn't a particularly common or obvious one. The likelihood of bad weather is one reason, the mistaken sense that much of the island might be fairly similar and undramatic is another. I'd been working on questions of democracy, community and the common good during my PhD, and like many involved in charities, social justice and protest groups, I'd expected that the then-Coalition government's austerity cuts would be met with real resistance.
Instead, by 2014, it felt that moments like the August 2011 riots and tuition fees protests had been blips, and xenophobic right wing ideas were becoming increasingly normalised and acceptable. I felt that being from London and having not travelled anywhere much at all, I had to go out there and talk to people, find out what life was like around the island.
From the book and the recent discussions in Nottingham, it is clear that there are serious political questions animating this project. Could you say something about the ‘politics’ of your journey?
I'm a socialist. I believe that what is good for one should be good for all. That a strong democracy can only be realised through collectively organised, accountable institutions that provide a people with all the conditions for living well – be it through equal political representation, truthful media coverage, advanced health and social care, opportunities for learning and education, leisure, and a liveable income. Through this, the stresses and resentments that restrict critical thinking would be diminished.
My angle is that the United Kingdom is a malfunctioning state, in dire need of transformation, it being a monarchy with no written constitution, an unelected upper house and a barely democratic lower one. Throughout my journey, I saw a poor country with occasional pockets of extreme wealth. This has to change, yet it does not.
Part of my motivation was to understand why so many political oppositional movements had ground to a halt – be it against austerity, or tuition fees increases, or war in Iraq, going back to the miners strike and beyond.
Was it something within the common political imagination that was self-defeating, acquiescent? Or could something be located and used to prevent another thirty years of infrastructural collapse, worsening poverty, deindustrialisation and wide scale depression? I wanted to find out. And the results were positive, very positive indeed.
You speak here of positive results, however, themes of pessimism and disappointment are prevalent throughout the book. At one stage you write that many are ‘unhappy with the status quo… but cannot conceive it ever changing,’ pointing perhaps to a shrinking political imaginary. Could you say a little about this dynamic; did it have a certain geography, for example?
Pessimism about the possibility of real political change seemed prevalent in England. There was a common mood music that while people in their personal lives, with friends, family, work-colleagues, would be generous and honest and reliable, in the wider city or country such attitudes weren't shared. But pessimism is also politically expedient.
When you don't believe in the goodwill of others or that social change is realistic, then you fall back in line with the status quo and perhaps even begin to think it's the least of all possible evils. It's politically convenient, much easier to divide and rule. But that pessimistic narrative can easily change, and in the book I bring up a lot of exciting and startling stories and experiences which challenge the idea that nothing changes.
Another theme running through the book is that of historical pride, an idea contained in the lament: ‘we used to make things...’ Could you expand a little on this?
Pride in making was a commonly reported thing in the Midlands, but it often came attached to a sense of mourning. In Nottingham, conversations would often involve Raleigh, John Player cigarettes, Boots, lace. In other cities there'd be talk of a proud part of the 'workshop of the world' as Victorian industrial Britain was once described.
Many places haven't had the chance to grieve for this loss in making, through which a pride in working and in being working class, in contributing to the common good of the country, came out. There are unhealed wounds here, as many ex-industrial towns and cities have found themselves displaced and written out of any sense of future worth. That lost pride is something that can be rediscovered and channelled though, through new kinds of high-skill industries, through a reduction in working hours and an increase in wages. New stories can be told.
The recent Leave campaign’s slogan, ‘let’s take back control,’ seems to tap into this. Could you talk a little bit about what you found on your journey in relation to the Brexit vote?
Brexit has been a radical result, a rejection by many of being told what to think and do by a London-based political and economic establishment. But it was also (mis)led by stories about immigration and sovereignty that even a small amount of investigation would've unravelled. Anger about the effects of austerity has been effectively projected onto the EU and immigration. It's caused great divides in communities and in families.
For all that pain, there's a political opportunity ahead now. This unmet desire for communities to take back control of themselves and what affects them is radical, and in ways democratic. As the UK's contradictions are revealed, and things begin to possibly unravel, there's a new opportunity to meet together and discuss what kind of future we might want. Remembering we have a future, one in which we can collectively change the story of how we live, work, think and act together, could be liberating.
You write in the introduction that you were ‘seeking out something [you] couldn’t yet name.’ Have you named it now?
Yes. In every part of the island you can find it, something I honestly hadn't expected and thought was probably exaggerated by others. And that is generosity and courage in being committed to ideas of cooperation, equality, fairness and justice, and a prevailing hope that, despite hardships and hurt, these ideas should and could be realised.
We've been living through a disquieting period for the UK, and if we file just the agenda of the national news-setters then this country seems a demoralising place indeed. But going out there, talking to people in streets, shops, supermarkets, pubs, in their homes or in their workplaces, in community centres, I found a great deal of resilience and forward thinking.
Young people told me about the fairer futures they wanted to live to realise, and sometimes demanded sustainable energy, total social equality and an end to poverty as if it were a birth-right – a remarkable and possible thing. This was particularly so in Scotland, where political independence from England has galvanised creative energies into a progressive social movement.
Older people spoke with sadness and pride of strikes or the sacrifices of parents, or disappearing ways of life, or brilliantly batty old grannies who taught their children humour and kindness. I was inspired most by the possibilities inherent but as yet unrealised in the generous, cooperative and largely highly socially aware people I met around the island. There is great potential in every community.
JD Taylor’s first book, Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era was published by Zero Books in 2013. Both are currently available from Nottingham Contemporary.