The Forgotten Highway

Here’s what I call “a crazy caravan thought” as I continue to sit here in England, biding my time, waiting for the next opportunity to call:  Is Canterbury now really (and perhaps ironically) like Camelot? 

A place slowly ceasing to exist in our consciousness  as a place of any significance.  A place known only as a name on a postcard, often associated with a picture of a cathedral (like the one below), and not as a place where the concrete of this country’s identity was set through those who dared to take a journey to it along an old well-trodden road walked for centuries by saints, mystics and people known as pilgrims (and ironically stemming from the place which was perhaps once the true “Camelot”).

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Here’s the story on’t:

Canterbury was once a place where the people freely went to pay homage to a saint who’s only miracle was to stand up for his ideals and belief in a freer, better and more honest world.  To get there they would travel down what is known as “Old Watling Road”, which runs across the country from East to West, and is now more familiarly known as the A2.  It begins in South Wales and ends up at Dover, and the origins of the name of it are lost in the mists of time.  It could be Saxon for “Welsh people’s road”, “Foreigners’ Road” or something else.  In South East England that road is now more often known as “The Pilgrim’s Way”

Whatever the case may be, people walked down at least part of this road on their way to Canterbury from the 11th century onwards in coming to pay homage to a saint. That saint was Thomas a Becket.

In truth, Thomas a Beckett was just a man who believed in having spiritual space free of the “King’s jurisdiction” (i.e. sanctuary) where people are equal and free to associate, to speak openly with and about each other without fear of recourse, and where equality and justice combined means the little guy can have two boxes under his feet so he can see over the pew, the fence or others in front of him – and so see the performance as easily as the big guy who can see it simply by standing on his own two feet.

How many people know this, or indeed any of the stories told along the way, and the fact that the language they were told in began to be formalised from this?   Moreover, the formal use of this language seems to largely be due to how some of these travellers’ stories became popular because of how they generally summed up “truth”, or “life” at large, captured what the people of England of that time were like, and were able to be shared and enjoyed en masse (i.e. not with just the landed gentry and courtly folk).

What’s more, how many know that the simple retelling of this is what led to that language of the “common people” becoming English, and not one born of any King or Queen?

How many people know that this language was daringly used by one, who was close to 3 Kings of England in his day, in telling the stories of the people like us in “our own language” – and so helping lead it to becoming the language of the Kings and Queens of England?

How many people know this?  How many people care? Yet, now here we are, just bandying this language about on here (WordPress), Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere – seemingly without a care….

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‘Snow better Down Under

I also learned my lesson that Kiwis run their words together when I arrived in the UK a year after that excursion in the East Coast of Australia – however with rather amusing consequences which managed to lead me to some good places to travel.  

‘Twas on having a chat with a few Brits about the differences in language in Britain, and by comparison with that of the Aussie/Kiwi cultural as much as linguistic divide (and relating the story told in my previous post), that I realised that we Kiwis run our words together.

I was when I said:

“It’s no better Down Under”

My British compadres had thought I said:

“Snow better Down Under”

However I did, by accident of being misunderstood, learn from them some good places to go skiing on The Continent – which I subsequently did a year later, along with one them (who derived much amusement from not understanding what I was saying – but then I got my own back with my French being better than his, and apparently appealing to the single ladies because of my unusual accent). 

My issue, now, is trying to remember exactly how we got to that segue – coz I wonder, now, how many other places I could discover through being misunderstood. Or, for that matter, friends I could make purely because my accent or language amuses the locals….

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Accepting the Vegemite Sandwich

OK, fair enough in deference to my previous post on the good choice of Chaucer to buy into local lingo,  and even with accepting the so-so nature of the Mark Zuckerberg dialectic, there are some nuances with mis-use of the English language which have annoyed and confused me at times too.

Take my arrival in Australia way back in 1990, for instance, and my first travels up North from Sydney to the Gold Coast, and beyond the bright lights of Brisbane, to the rustic and quirky mix of the coal-mining and tourist town of MacKay, Queensland.

On my way there, I found it disconcerting how the locals “up North” would add a “but” to the end of their sentences. Finally, and perhaps almost stupidly, in a pub with my Kiwi speech therapist friend I had known from University daze back in New Zealand, I decided to challenge a guy on’t who she bemusedly decided to invite over to our table for that very reason.

What’s more, when I even said – rather obscurely, I admit – about how I had noted that Queenslanders and Northern New South Welsh people spoke differently to the Aussies down South and to the West, blow me down if he didn’t respond with:

“So, it’s good, but.” 

Scarcely able to contain myself, I responded:

“But bleedin’ what??”    

At that my speech therapist friend nearly fell off her stool, as she collapsed in stitches laughing. When she had sufficiently recovered, I asked her to explain what had, er, “tickled her so” (and please note the attempted poetic use of the word “so” here):

“You meant “but”, right?? But Aussies are used to Kiwis making the “i” sound, sound like a “u” – and so Big, Bad Bruce [ and, yes, that was his name - OK?! ] may have thought you meant “bit” when you said “but” as well as forgetting to use the word “obvious” after “bleedin'”, as Kiwis often do in not finishing sentences which they expect people to know the ends to”
 
“Sooooo….I think it actually may have come across to lovely, dear Bruce here as if you are agreeing with him!! Which may not be a bad thing…..”
 

I was about to protest otherwise, when I (perhaps fortunately) decided to take stock of the situation – as I noticed my friend had also indicated, as subtlely (for a Kiwi, like me) as she could (by emphasising the words “Big” and “Bad”) that this guy was not just called Bruce, but was also “Big” and “Bad”.  And potentially not all that lovely and dear…..

Plus her eyes were genuflecting, and her head twitching, in a way which drew my attention to the potential reality of the situation in disagreeing with Bruce.  Indeed, if I may take poetic license here, he was “6 foot 4, and full of muscle” – if you get my drift. If you don’t get my drift, then please take a look at the following clip and note the second verse:

So the moral of the story, I’d say, is that it probably sometimes pays to simply accept “the vegemite sandwich” – over the knuckle one, at least. 

Anyway, who says English is meant to be a common language??

Posted in Australia, MacKay, Northern NSW, Queensland, Travel | Tagged , | 1 Comment

So incommunicado Mr Zuckerberg!

My best British mate, Dave, dropped me an article on Saturday from The Telegraph in relation to the theme of social media following in Chaucer’s footsteps with evolving the English language.  Here’s the link to it:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/mark-zuckerberg/10833860/So-not-quite-the-useless-conjunction-we-like-to-believe.html

In my mind I can hear the response from friends in South London now:

“So, well, wot are ya bleedin’ well tryin’ ta say, guvnor?”
 

Followed shortly after by:

“Nah wot I mean??”

 

Meanwhile, somewhere either to the far West of England as well as up North, I can hear a more measured, clipped response something along the following lines of:

“T’ain’t obvious why “so”, but it’s there.”

 

While those of us not familiar with dialects might get bemused by them, witnessing the development of them is something as age old as Chaucer – like The Telegraph article rightly alludes to. 

However I think they may have overlooked (conveniently or otherwise) that it was in times of trouble, when “the peasants revolted” in 1381, that the multi-lingual Mr. Chaucer (or Sir Geoff, as I like to call him) would have heard and become most conscious of the language they used – both pleasant and unpleasant – as they marched below his very door in Aldgate, London.

This was because these people were not “peasants” (as The Crown and Cloth perhaps labelled them), but some of the first skilled workers of independent means – and they would have been in search of tax collectors (as Sir Geoff was then) to berate (and possibly hang or behead) them for the ignominy of the way that the king had allowed these public servants to collect taxes from them. On top of that, they were most likely also not happy that these taxes would have been for allowing the king to wage wars in France and elsewhere which they could most likely have felt were nothing to do with them – and while possibly the king let some of his more powerful and influential barons get off scot-free from any duty (fiscal or otherwise).

So – does this scenario also sound a little familiar to our times now? Yes, Gary Barlow could be considered a modern day baron of sorts – but fortunately The Crown has come to its senses (at this point in time, at least) in not choosing to punish the underdog at the expense of its lackeys….

However, there was another thing which Chaucer was very clever in doing, rather than berating the peasants for their bad language (as Norman French and Latin were the formal languages of the time).  That was in seeking to take a different tack to help amend the situation between The Crown and The Commoners. 

In fact, it was not so much a tack, as a track. Coz he chose to walk with some of them to Canterbury, along with a fellow (unnamed) knight of the realm and a few disparate members of the cloth.

Moreover, Chaucer also gave everyone an opportunity to have  their stories heard too. In their very own language, what’s more – being such the diplomat, he was (as Yoda would put it). This was through writing them up as a kind of journal, complete with the best of the travellers’ short stories, anecdotes, poems and prayers.  Which he simply named The Canterbury Tales – and as one might write a blog-site with such on it nowadays (mightn’t one?)

So (and note the “so”), it was probably to the chagrin of the court when these were (most likely) read out at that time – as the members of the court and the cloth present would have had to hear them in the language of the people. Namely,  “English” as this newish mottley language was called. Indeed, see the picture below for indications of their reaction:

Chaucer reciting his works at the court of Richard II

Chaucer reciting his works at the court of Richard II

So I question:  how different now is seeing further development of the English language on Facebook, and even through how it’s used by its creator himself – or on the street or through text messages, for that matter – to that which Chaucer would have noted and witnessed first-hand during The Peasant’s Revolt, as well as written up (albeit poetically) from his experiences on the road to Canterbury?

And sew, if you’ve had enough of “so” as Mr Zuckerberg might say, we will next move on to “la, tea, doe” – and back to the English of the English (or even “British”, as it were), which will bring us back to…..

P.S. Apologies to the original readers of this post, as I decided to split my experiences on this hemi-spherically – as I trust you will note my next post (which is slightly enhanced from what I had all lumped in this one anyway)

Posted in Australia, Chaucer, England, Language, London, MacKay, New Zealand, Northern NSW, Queensland | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Way of Life

If only writer’s block had been my only problem, as it was those weeks’ (sorry, months’) back when I wrote my last post. An even bigger challenge has been the absence of sufficient income coming through in time to justify me taking time off to take to the road like I had originally envisaged, as well as being able to afford it.

Too late in the day a good paying job has come through however, but it will not pay me sufficient cash in time to get back to the plan of taking the road to Canterbury at exactly the same time of year and dates as Geoffrey Chaucer did all those centuries ago.  It just seems like Life is saying “So much for those plans” to me – and some little imp somewhere is laughing its evil little head off at having disrupted my grand plans.

Ah, but there you perhaps have the essence of my downfall in those last 2 words:  grand plans.

What’s needed is something simpler, and more in tune with where I’m at.  Indeed, on looking back on where I took that fork in the road – to taking the one less travelled – maybe I need to remember my friend, the Film-maker, and her trials and tribulations in producing something true to the spirit of the believer, as well as the words of another friend (who has sadly fallen by the way in the course of me being too overly ambitious) in heeding what Robert Frost hinted at in his poem.  Namely that “way leads to way“.

What I mean to say is that there is nothing original in simply following the road, which many have travelled – and even down to enlisting people to recite the words from The Canterbury Tales along the way, as one guy has simply done without any rime or reason for doing it.  Apart from the art, that is. 

For me, by contrast, it is really about capturing the key or keys to why Geoffrey Chaucer did it – even down to departing from using the written language of his day, French or Latin, and instead choosing to write his tales in English which was then largely a hotch-potch language largely only spoken by those in the street.

Because, my dear friends, it is my view – nay, contention – that these tales were never ever purely about the art (despite Chaucer being declared a poet, and perhaps the first one to be fully recognised as writing in English).  Rather, Geoffrey Chaucer was ahead of his time in writing stories of the people, in their own language, and supporting his recognition of their struggle to be heard – and so ultimately giving them the basis for a voice.

Of course, there is another person who came along shortly thereafter to help take this voice to a new level – and perhaps much like we nowadays have Facebook or Twitter. His name was William Caxton, the inventor of the printing press.  Because it was Caxton who chose to select “The Canterbury Tales” as the first book to be printed in English.  This is what allowed Geoffrey Chaucer himself to be more widely heard, and read, (perhaps sadly) over 75 years after his death.

“So what does that mean about the change in my plans to take to the road?”, you might ask.  Well, let’s just say it is more about validating the road taken – which there is much confusion about historically – as well as seeing what truth can be found from following the one which is known to be most likely to be the true path, or “way” if you like.

If I had not had my plans disrupted then I probably would not have thought of doing this.  So Robert Frost is right:  “way leads to way” – and that’s really as much “the way of Life“, as it is anything it else.  It’s just a question of whether one is brave enough to recognise and accept that, as well as then follow where that new way leads, instead of being too dogmatic and possibly grandiose (like I was) in trying to stick too much to the original path – and one which seems to be well travelled, from the looks of it….

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Just write

So the book, for anyone who’s wondering, is still coming on. Although the means to bring some modern day realism to it – for helping close these chapters of modern day life in parallel with those of Geoffrey Chaucer’s day – has struck an unexpected obstacle.

Hence I find myself a little stuck on how or what to do, and where to go now or next, in making this parallel journey between two times. So hopefully this little blog post along the lines of this frustration alone may help….

When lacking inspiration to write, even if one is like me with a number of topics to write on for which the muse has been there before (but just isn’t around right now), one is advised to write.  So what and where to find the words to begin?

“Draw on your surroundings, and use your senses to describe things”, the wannabe writer is told.  Well, everything feels, looks, smells, sounds and tastes the same to me at home – even with this 30 day juice fast I am on which means I am not permitting myself to eat solid food until I achieve my target. There’s nothing there that spurs me on, aside from the latter – and I am not going to write about that now.  I say “now”, because I briefly thought about doing that – and the only thing I achieved was to feel hungry.  I may write about it if/when I achieve my goal of being the all-new slim, trim Matt.

So what next, Mr Writing Coach (him/her being a composite, in my mind, of all those writing coaches of the last 3 years)?  

“Go somewhere new – and preferably somewhere stimulating”, this writing course instructor advises, “such as your local cafe.”

OK, so I’ve gone down to the local cafe, as shown below. 

Image

Now what?

“Observe the characters at the cafe, and perhaps listen in to a conversation.” Oh, great, so become a noseyparker!  I can see the headlines now – but just not ones I’ve written!  “Man gets assaulted for listening into conversation at cafe”. (Hmmm, maybe that in itself is a good topic to write about?)

Nah, the conversation is as dry as hell here right now. There’s two not-particularly-interesting women who have now come in. They’re now chatting about the connection between weight loss and pregnancy – which is not exactly a topic I could see myself writing about (or wanting to).

“Take a photo, or use one you’ve recently taken” is the other advice. Well how about the following one?

Image

It was taken at the public fireworks display in Bishop’s Park, beside Fulham football ground. It was on a cold early winter’s night at the start of November, where the occasional light spots of drizzle meant that the fireworks left smoky trails as they rocketed their way heavenward – adding to the effect of an otherwise mildly good fireworks display, but still not the best one I’ve ever seen.  Nothing leaves a patch on the fireworks in Sydney, over the Harbour Bridge at New’s Year’s night along with the floats which parade past Cremorne Point. 

So where would I go from here with that photo and memory though?  Where’s that “stranger riding into town”, or other champion of change or conflict that will lead me as much as the reader on, as that experienced writer told me to include on that writing course in Bloomsbury (and whatsisname again?).  That course was a rather curious one however – but dare I right about the mix of published and wannabe writers at that?

So where to go next?  How would Geoffrey Chaucer have handled writer’s block, I wonder – and without all these advisors to tell him how to get by?  Especially given all the subject matter he had available to him at the time (but which he was perhaps not able to, given his position or state of being at the time?) 

Perhaps he just decided to take a walk….

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Beginning, Middle and End of The Road

The story that led to this blog, and possibly a book, began over 5 years ago, and on the day of the tube and bus bombings in London – the infamous 7/7/2005.

It was then that I met a man called Dave Longley at a conference in Canary Wharf.

Me mate Dave

We were both stuck there as a consequence of the disaster, unable to leave the Isle of Dogs until we had received news that it was safe to travel.  

In typical stoic London and British style, the conference continued.  

Dave and I met in the lunch break when he was looking for a table to share where he could put down his plate of cake (and was sad that there were those who had duly ignored him when he asked if that would be OK!).  I invited him to join me at my table, and this led to a chat about just how much can come from a few people being able to mutually understand and appreciate the simple but good things in life – such as the cake Dave had on his plate, as well as a good coffee and perhaps a good story to go with it.

Dave agreed about the coffee and having a good story as much as cake to go with it, and this somehow reminded me about a retelling of The Canterbury Tales for the modern day, as televised by the BBC. The crux of the idea of it being (for me, at least) that everyone has a good story, and that that story deserves to be heard.

We then got to talking more generally about that idea, and the fun of meeting people on the road – as well as how you can meet good people almost anywhere, and also how you can meet some of the best people in some of the least expected places (like it subsequently turned out that we had done just then! lol).

The thing is, as I told Dave, there was an element of this in the retelling of The Tales that has somehow been missed in how the BBC series has retold it for modern times, by excluding the travel/pilgrimage element – which is stated in the prologue and epilogue of each of the tales in the book, with the pilgrims stopping off at a different place along the road to Canterbury and there being a lead-in to each tale, with banter from each of the pilgrims, as well as thoughts mentioned either before or after each tale by the travellers before getting under way to their next pilgrimage pitstop.

Indeed, it was from my own experiences of storytelling, learned  from people I met in my very first British and Irish travels, that I know that that was the quintessential ingredient that had been missed in retelling The Canterbury Tales again for modern times – as I had very much enjoyed the camaraderie and friendliness of English as well as Irish pub culture when I first visited them as a newcomer to this part of the world in 1991.

I guess I am glad that Dave was interested in this too, as that is what led us to agree to be true to the original story in suggesting that we should see what we could glean about the atmosphere, and hopefully banter or stories, from revisiting some of the sites that Chaucer’s tales were set in. Of course, the thirst-quenching fact that they are ALL set in a pub somewhere between London and Canterbury did not go amiss from our conversation. ;-)

As it happened, Dave said he had worked in that part of London where the journey (supposedly) first began – which was at a pub that  once stood in Southwark, on the South Bank of London, called The Tabard.  By coincidence, I had also worked near there in 1992 too, and had walked by, nearly every day for a year, where that pub once would have stood.

Given the fateful circumstances of the day that Dave and I had met on, where no one had any real idea about what was going on around London with how fragmented the news reports were, we half-jokingly agreed that we would meet up to check out the area around Southwark to, er, “soak up the atmosphere” – that was assuming we could get off the Isle of Dogs that day, where we were now effectively trapped by what had happened.

After all, what we felt was lacking at that time was any concern whatsoever for others’ stories and wisdom – either at the conference we were at, on the streets that day with everyone just wanting to get home or know how or where their loved ones were (and no helpline available), or generally with how sad the world has become with how some people could be so senseless and ignorant of others that they would think it would help their cause to do harm to others, who are innocent, by blowing them up and causing general disruption and mayhem.

So, given similarities in the background of those Chaucerian times to those we are in now (as now written about in this blog), there seems to be a need to rediscover that mislaid truth in what lies between the stories then and now, and what binds them and us together. This includes mentioning about the purpose of the pilgrimage that the folks, telling the tales in Chaucer’s book, were supposedly on as much as highlighting the value of the interlude to the tales themselves.

Of course, in the telling, I have found and hope to share some new stories that resonate for our modern times from people you might find in the least expected places.  I have referred to some of them in here.

So five years’ on, after retaking my own first trip in search and research of “Camelot”, I have pretty much forced myself to take the road I did not take – that of the one to Canterbury – and have now written that up too over the last few months, largely through this blog.  

The truth learned from taking that road seems to be about finding the secret in each other that would help restore faith in who  and what surrounds us enough to share and to care, as well as provide the wisdom and support to inspire us.  I hope, when/if you get a chance to see the final product, that you will think the same too….

In any case, you now need to read BACKWARDS from this blog post, rewritten for the third time, in order to get an idea of the journey in trying to write the hard part of the story – about the road that I would perhaps rather have not taken, but perhaps was morally bound to (in some strange way).

About Me

I am from Sydney Australia, though originally born and raised in Wellington New Zealand. I am now living in West London, United Kingdom, with my wife who is Australian born and bred but with Irish and English heritage.

I first came to London in 1991, before I was married, on a two year working holiday visa. Without realising I’d ever be back after that two years, I endeavoured to make sure that I’d seen as much of the United Kingdom and Ireland as I possibly could, as well as then exploring parts of Europe with what time and money I could afford to spend, before travelling home over land in 1993 to Australia and New Zealand (my joint home countries).  

This blog retraces just some of my first steps from 20 years before, as well as discoveries I’ve made since my return in 2003 seeing the UK with more mature eyes.

Posted in Camelot, Canterbury, Canterbury, Chaucer, London, Pilgrimages, Southwark | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment