I cannot believe it. It’s five years on since I accidentally sent that email on New Year’s Eve to over 50 friends and family (and so there was no hiding from it). I had started writing it following an argument about what I really wanted to do with my life – as several jobs I had applied for had not (yet) come through – and I had drunkenly argued that I knew at least 50 people who would support me in writing a story up.
That email shared a passion I had built up in the year before to tell the story of retracing my steps, from travels 15 years earlier when I was footloose and fancy free, back along the roads that join Ye Olde England of Chaucer’s Day with that of the ancient myths of King Arthur. I realise now that half of the truth of that for me was to see if I really could write about this, like I had once done in letters back home to my mother in 1991, and before she passed away in February 1992.
Fortunately for my continuing health and sanity in January 2006, I had replies back only a few days later from over half of the people I emailed with a general response of “go for it” – with some even (perhaps kindly) suggesting that I should have done it years ago. Even a few who thought I was mad said that they would support me…
The thing is, blogging had not really taken off in 2006, like it has now – and so now I feel it’s time to begin again with a blog on’t. This will replace some of those rather lengthy emails and bring everyone up-to-date with the latest on what is hopefully an easier and more participative read, travelling post by post through particular and (hopefully) more interesting chapters of the journey – and rather than subjecting y’all to the whole darned lot!
Of course, I do now also have the basis of a few manuscripts tucked away on this too – however I have found that there seems to be any one of a number of ways and levels to pass on the facts or the fiction about this. I am hoping that some good blogging will resolve which way to go on these for me, as well as comments from a few good old friends and a few new ones I have met along the way too.
Finding My Way
There were no signposts to many of the roads I took. Often I was just following leads from people who had been happy to recount their tales of how they came to be at a particular place at a particular time.
So ’twas the more interesting tales, and the tellers of them, that defined my journey in the beginning, back in ’91 (and, seeing as I began the journey here in April, I realise it is almost 20 years ago as I write this now!).
I had no itinerary of my own. Sometimes the more interesting leads to places, from those people I met along the way, would take me down dark alleyways that I realised that I ought not go – such as a particularly notorious bar in the backstreets of Dublin where I was advised to go if I wanted to “discover the real music and people of Ireland, and rather than the traditional stuff that they show to two wrists”. And, yes, that’s spelt exactly how it sounded like the guy said ‘tourists’.
Despite the risks of a lone traveller arriving in a place on his own without the comfort of a group, most of these carefree ventures forth ended with meeting locals happy to meet me and show me around – proving to me that there are no strangers anywhere, just friends I haven’t met.
That first journey, twenty years ago, was joyous and pleasant – and I had no cares nor foresaw anything to bother me.
On My Return to The Road however…
On my return, ten years later however, retracing my steps one evening with a mate to a few places in Southwark following a heated discussion about “so what’s the real truth – and without any spiritual palaver“, I was surprised to find that some of the signs and ways I had learned about people behind or key to particular places had disappeared.
Stories of intrigue that I had known to be set in dank alehouses, as written on plaques high up on the walls of gloomy ruins of castles or prisons, were no longer to be found where I had first seen them, nor did the places exist any longer where I had met people who had led me to those signs or places.
It was like someone had decided to wipe the slate clean.
Some of the structures themselves were still there, just the accounts I had been used to seeing back then, 15 years ago, were not.
Surprisingly, what had happened with the plaques and the people behind the stories were not to be found on the Web anywhere now like I thought they might be – especially as the Web had arisen since that time to being seen as the font of all knowledge.
Curious, I went back to a few more places I’d been to, such as Winchester, Bath and Salisbury. These places were ones that I had originally gone to on advice “of joining in on the great merriment at the coming of spring – or just any old excuse to celebrate some saint’s day or even more ethereal event” by my friends who had already been living in England for five years or more before I had the courage to join them.
Many of the Youth Hostels, festivals and the University japes were now gone or much more subdued than they had been. Things were a lot more civilised and it seems that, just ten years after my first visit, mysticism – however seriously (or not) it is taken – was all but dead in the now sad and serious old Blighty. After all, “the fun’s now all online or in films now“, as one young bohemian chap told me t’other day down at Portobello Market.
In 2006, I found at least one of the stories that still seemed to linger on from what I had noted in passing on my days working on South Bank in 1992. Interestingly, it seemed that the further I got away from London, the more I learned about it.
The first account of it was told to me in a whispered and brooding way by a tour guide in Winchester, just outside Winchester Cathedral. The story she told me then led me, with a bit of discussion over a few ales with a few others in Wykeham Arms, down to a few interesting pubs in the New Forest where I found characters, such as a tree surgeon and his daughter, who told me tales harking back to accounts still alive today from family stories passed down – generation by generation – about the kings and their courtiers in Norman times. It seems from those that Henry VIII was not the first to see the plight of having a Church independent of The State…
But what did it all matter or mean?
One of the stories that intrigued me most – that of a bishop, once denounced as a sinner, was now rewritten so that he was more like a saint. The evidence of his, er, “sanctification” (or should that be “redemption”?) was a plaque that had been removed from a wall in Southwark. That plaque had suggested he was not “a man of virtue” and that The Clink Prison, back then, went by another nickname. However why was that plaque removed and what did it matter?
Curiously, more by accident than design when I went down to Winchester, I found out more that seemed to vindicate how history about this bishop had changed – and perhaps why. I was told that one of the well-known nursery rhymes (“Goosey Goosey Gander”) was supposedly written about him – and it seems so obvious that it is when you know the full story. However there are now few traces of this on the Internet, and alternative meanings to this rhyme are now suggested.
However, again, what value is there in someone knowing and altering this fact – or fiction – several hundred years on from when it happened or the lie was perpetrated?
It was hard to make sense of changes in the story/history like this. I have since found many more like this – and will blog on some of them here for you to comment on and be the judge yourselves of whether ’tis fact or fiction, as well as whether it matters or not.
So Truth in Fiction, may be better than Fact?
Strangely (and I am still not sure why), I think answers started to dawn on me when I saw a BBC TV series based on The Canterbury Tales, and one which was geared to encouraging people to write. The stories were retold in a modern setting, and rather than medieval one. They were bawdy as well as funny – however the truth that underpins them has a beautiful simplicity that I think says it all, especially considering how old the stories are. I think the retelling did not lose anything from the original message that the original author may have been trying to pass on.
The Way and The Truth…
So, fifteen years on, I decided to find out more about who and what was behind these stories, including about the writer himself who had compiled them.
Lo and behold, I found out that the writer, Geoffrey Chaucer, had pretty much taken time out 600 years earlier, like I had 20 years before – and pretty much made the same sort of discoveries that I had about the value of facts over fiction. The truth is out there, on the road – but you do not have to go to a particular destination to discover it, nor perhaps need to tell things exactly like they are.
So what’s the truth – and whether to quest or not to quest?
The thing is, with me old mate Geoff, is that he had an itinerary when he took his holy days. He knew he was heading to Canterbury for a reason, as did those who he met along the way.
Yet his capturing of his fellow travellers’ stories all talked about some thing they had heard and learned from their lives – and were not in the least tied to why they were undertaking the journey. They were just like any travellers’ tales on any holiday – so did the destination (Canterbury) really matter at all to them?
I certainly did not have a destination in mind when I first started travelling around Britain and Ireland in 1991, nor any ideas or interest about discovering truth or making a spiritual journey. I think that is why I was open to meeting and discovering people and things that someone with set ideas would either not have noticed or most likely chosen to ignore. Maybe that’s exactly what Geoff noticed and why he chose to write the stories up.
It’s interesting to know that there is a debate about whether some of the stories from The Canterbury Tales are missing – and so whether it is complete or not. Fact is, perhaps Geoff realised that they would have not been safe to recount fully in his day – including the fact that the journey was more about holidays than holy days? Interestingly, indulgence then means something different to what it means now.
Certainly, when I finally came to (try and) read The Canterbury Tales themselves (and I say “try” – because they are all in what is known as “Middle English”), I realised that there was perhaps more to them than meets the eye – and not exactly what one might expect from some people on a Christian pilgrimage. Basically, the tales are tall and a good romp – even by today’s standards!
Yet these were all supposedly tales with a good message on how to live and love life (and are what’s known as “morality tales”), but they were not necessarily truth at all – just a good tale. So what value does “truth” or “the truth” have in these – and how or why does taking a pilgrimage to Canterbury matter at all? Yet people still make the journey, even nowadays.
Still, there’s a saying: “Never let truth get in the way of a good story“. Perhaps that’s all that we ever really seek – plus some good photos now too. Something to tell the grand-kids. Right?
So with that thought in mind, if you’ll bear with me, let’s see if I can remember anything from a return to where my tale began in 1991 – ignorant entirely of that man and his band of merry men and women back in 1391 (or perhaps much earlier) who had seen and been there. Moreover, let’s see whether there’s something more in all of this, or less. So, it’s more or less – and, at the very least – Matt’s Tale. Well, that’s the idea! 😉
Certainly I hope something may make sense now about what the truth is from what I saw, and the tales I was told back then, and how that stands or flies in the face of what the facts may be about the time of Chaucer, both earlier as well as later, combined with the tales told today by who I meet along the way now.
Yes, let’s get down to the evil (or not) of the medieval – and, at the very least, discover a good modern day tale or two that both entertains and is meaningful with the message it passes on…