Towards conscious inertia – Canterbury – St. Eustace

Note: this is a long travel photo-essay. Enjoy, when you have time...

Do you remember that Dostoevsky quote from last time? If not, it’s from Notes from Underground, in a version translated by Jessie Coulson for Penguin and reprinted in 2003. On page 43 our unknown anti-hero announces: ‘Last of all, gentlemen: it is best to do nothing! The best thing is conscious inertia! So long live the underground!

On the prior page of Franco Bifo Berardi’s Precarious Rhapsody, we come across this startling claim:  ‘If you want to survive you have to be competitive and if you want to be competitive you must be connected, receive and process continuously an immense and growing mass of data. This provokes a constant attentive stress, a reduction of the time available for affectivity. These two tendencies, inseparably linked, provoke an effect of devastation on the individual psyche: depression, panic, anxiety, the sense of solitude and existential misery.’

The snag of this is how – how to slow down, how to do nothing? The underground anti-hero’s ultimate action, to debase himself and fall in love with an angelic prostitute is at least more attainable than Bifo’s hope for a spate of mass suicides! Perhaps a programme needs to be offered. <<<

Living is shifting too fast. Impressions register too quick, viscous and unfiltered – unfolding in dreams as maze-like riddles which ultimately become too banal and confusing to solve. Empty and unflattering early morning reflection, the narcissism of living with one’s own thoughts disrupted. Waiting for time to move so as to awake, to connect into heavy-duty coffee, to TV and media interactions, to the labour we come to love. Validated by service. Eerie futures, peeling skin. Inboxes empty of any thing, save the daily jetsam and tosh. Flat lager, offensive jokes. Head clamped tight, strong yeah, eyes looking ahead – a dozen dozens of lean, shaped faces to which, in the queues of infomatic existence, are given names – Tel, Effra, her, brother, me, you – ultimate disassociation. A life of totally vainglorious labours. The gesture of living in this empty endless experience of the present, at the expense of the past and future, is moving in a circle. The truck that drives around in circles in Herzog’s “Even Dwarves Started Small”, or of the moped carrying Stan and Paul around Harry Caul’s basement, shortly after confessing his loneliness, in “The Conversation” – this going around in circles is the dance of our times.

Bad rhythm. Broken shoes. Big debt. Eating honey from the jar. A long night. The intimacy of removing a dress, of being in someone’s company without reminding them to do some fundamentally unnecessary task, without complaining about some contemporary puppet or windsock. That list of things, who doubled its contents in the night? Of living with grace, with elegance. Conscious inertia – you can see the scale of the problem, no?

Day 1. Sittingbourne to Canterbury.

Two days cycling in the Kentish countryside in extreme conditions and extreme weathers may make your hands and other regions ache, no doubt, but for a spell outside the city it was much needed, much enjoyable. Hiring a good bicyle from Gabriel’s Wharf was easy,  and a short ride to Victoria began the start of our journey. Sittingbourne, like other Medway towns, doesn’t have so many virtues in itself – commuter dormitories, de-industrialised sprawls, boarded-up pubs,  ‘local’ as Wreckless Eric would put it. Billy Childish country. But in just over an hour one can escape the barely-repressed mania of London, provided someone doesn’t fall under one of the trains in front, a reminder if ever needed of the near-daily phenomena of urban travel.

‘Countryside’ and ‘Nature’ gets exoticised by urban dwellers very easily, however. Aside from a few rare natural spots, we forget how similar much of the landscape is – suburbanised, industrialised. A chorus of lank like-weeds. We quickly cycled out of Sittingbourne, soon realising our map was totally out of date and effectively useless, along hard industrial routes, past ranging factory units, quarries and small businesses. Very soon we were lost.

Certain places can wilfully disorientate you. Parts of the old City of London for instance. As a walker, this active disorientation on the part of the locale is enjoyable, strange, enchantingly mysterious. The suburbs and factory units between Sittingbourne and Faversham had this very disquieting effect too – empty warehouses, Wimpey and Barratt towns. We travelled round in circles, squeezing between high fencing and tangy blackberries. Signs (maliciously?) pointed in wrong directions in this strange, aggressive landscape.

We found our way for a short while, past orchards, quaint signs; past wild cherries one could pick and eat from the roadside, small and full of the sweetest juice. The horizon was free of high-rises, free of telephone wires and advertisement hoardings. Sparrows, butterflies, and small birds I will never learn the names of fluttered and courted ahead of our gentle path. The lazy cornfields marked the progress of the breeze with cheery indolence. It was lovely.

The lands were flat and easy, the roads relatively traffic free. The sun minded us as we gazed ahead, drifting along unknown roads towards Faversham vaguely, for once enjoying the means more than hoping to reach the end.

“To ferne halwes, kouth in sundry londes:
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Canterbury they wende,
The holy blissful martyre for to seeke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seke.”

We were following, inadvertently perhaps, the same route of the pilgrims from late 14th c Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s “Middle English” is also rooted in Kentish dialect, where he lived at the end of his life. The landscape retains an otherness, retains a need for its own dialect, now a more familiar estuary drawl. Written 50 years previously, the “Prick of Conscience” aka Ayenbite of Inwyt, by Dan Michel of Northgate, attempted to translate a French confessional work on morality into the specifically Kentish dialect. This phrase near the end gives a sense of how physically visual yet symbolically loaded (and confusing for modern English readers) this language was:

‘Ymende. þet þis boc is uolueld ine þe eue of þe holy apostles Symon an Iudas / of ane broþer of þe cloystre of sanynt austin of Canterberi / Ine þe yeare of oure lhordes beringe. 1340.

Vader oure þet art ine heuenes / y-halȝed by þi name. cominde þi riche. y-worþe þi wil / ase ine heuene: and ine erþe. bread oure echedayes: yef ous to day. and uorlet ous oure yeldinges: ase and we uor- leteþ oure yelderes. and ne ous led naȝt: in-to uondinge: ac vri ous uram queade. zuo by hit. ‘ You can find some of the meaning here, though the second half should perhaps be a little familiar – a Kentish version of the Catholic Lord’s prayer.

But phrases like our lord’s bearing, or a brother of the cloister, rather than monk, or birth, are curious. The prayer ends ‘zuo by hit’ – so be it, instead of amen. Consider too the title of the work, “Ayenbite of Inwyt”, meaning loosely Again-bite (meaning remorse I suppose, or Prick) of In-wit (inward-knowledge, conscience). A continuity appears between the earlier industrial estates, marked by lank grass and disorientation, and here the cornfields, roadkill and raspberries.

Part of conscious inertia isn’t just doing simply nothing – it means extracting your focus on empty, inexhaustible demands like work, study, places of some economic return but little existential return. It means spending more time (even some time…) with friends and loved ones on their own terms. There are two signs of good relationships I think, which the journey with my dad and brother reminded me of: 1. being able to do something together without feeling the need to constantly talk about it. Being in a state of quiet mutual peace.  2. being in a physically stressful situation (hunger, getting lost etc, the usual source of arguments) where you can joke and keep calm together.

What do I mean? Well after these idyllic images we got completely lost again, shortly after reaching the pleasant town of Faversham. Somehow we ended up parallel to the railway line, in an endless expanse of corn. At first a rough path seemed to lead in our direction towards Canterbury, but halfway through the corn began to get very high, up to one’s brow in fact, and the bicycles barely managed to ride through the thick, sharp and knotty crops. The entire field seemed abandoned, but we were lost. We cycled in this awful labyrinth (for which I was too tired to take photos) for nearly an hour perhaps, effectively doing laps of this place, before stumbling on a bizarre black swamp grotto – slag heap in the middle of nowhere, which my brother’s posing in front of below. We eventually had to give in and retrace our journey. Moving around in circles again, but on our own terms.

Very hard work, with the bicycles bearing the brunt of the damage – flat tyres on ancient nails, broken brakes – as we discovered the next day, I’d spent the last 5 miles of the first day with the front-brake partly on.  This included cycling up a great hill, turning the final descent into Canterbury into a painful experience of near-religious ecstasy. We eventually became completely lost, joining up with the old A2 for a short while, the pilgrim’s route into Canterbury, past lovely pubs full of dreadful golf aficiandos and boarded up schools. For a while we cycled along (and for short while, on) the motorway – aie! – but by the evening we’d made it to Canterbury.

“Befell that in that seson on a day,
In Southwark at the Tabard as I lay,
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Canterbury, with full devout corage”.

The pilgrimage from London to Canterbury would traditionally begin at Southwark at an Inn like the Tabard, where Chaucer begins his tales. From Borough High St, pilgrims would travel in large groups, often hosted by a master of ceremonies, where each might tell stories as they traveled along. Before our media, story-telling and spoken poetry were major sources of entertainment and cultural transmission during the European Middle Ages. Vernacular literature, where written down, was key to transforming European culture from religious Latinate domination towards ultimately local and national sovereignties, towards vernacular bibles and literatures. Medieval story-telling, be it in Canterbury Tales, or Boccaccio’s Decameron, or Cervantes’ Don Quixote, even to an extent Dante’s Divine Comedy, shares an earthy black-humoured, often stoic, sometimes sensual approach to the stories, both borrowed from local literatures and generated by their authors. These are always refreshing, mature works, unpretentious, often humourous, sobering in their awareness and familiarity with hardship and plague, inspiring in their exuberance and imagination through it.

Perhaps sharing in this heritage, by the time we got to Canterbury we were exhausted. We found somewhere to eat – family moments to me are are always lived through in slightly insignificant, usually disappointing chain restaurants – these are life – these shopping centres and supermarkets, these are really places, where so much happened… But what I meant to say, then after we had many beers at The Old Butternut in the square in front of Canterbury cathedral. The small town is nice, its town-centre a mix of genuine and kitsch heritage, lairy clubs, bad malls and fascinating small features everywhere, placed into the walls and into the floors. Locked into the shape of a wheel, perhaps even a zodiac – it’s a place recommended to visit. It’s shape and layout pull one in towards the Cathedral, almost built with this magnetic design in mind.

Day 2. Canterbury to Whitstable.

Canterbury Cathedral isn’t a place where one might come to love or worship a God, but ultimately to prostrate oneself in fear before it. The statue of Christ above is the focus of a huge gate that separates the Cathedral from the rest of the city. The face and figure are even more menacing and vile when standing before it, though the babble of international students loosens some of this humming fear.

But it’s an appropriate fear – the idea of loving a God, or a loving God, might’ve been an alien concept first to the pagan cultures, rooted in masculine/feminine archetypes, and later to the Christian Church-maintained feudalism of the Middle Ages, where every act and idea was based on an authority. The gargoyles that haunt the margins of the entrances remind us that Canterbury Cathedral retains this fear. Its private chapels make references throughout to diabolic monsters, etched into the pillars of St Gabriels chapel and elsewhere in its oldest part, the Norman crypt. At another private chapel one sees, in the stain glass, an image of betrayal – Judas literally hiding under the table of the Last Supper, betrayal and destruction always within our personal spaces, inside us. Such a Cathedral is more a monument to fear and awe than love.

The Cathedral and its city’s history is conflicted, a continuously contested site of power. The Cathedral was “established” as the guides make out by St. Augustine (or St. Austin, to the Kentish) back in 597. Augustine had been sent by Pope Gregory to ‘the ends of the earth’ to convert Aethelbert, the Anglo-Saxon King of Kent, and the wild Kentish pagans. Canterbury was then a Saxon stronghold, though had previously been a key Jute settlement; before that, the Roman settlement of Durovernum Cantiacorum, the stronghold of the Cantiaci – the original Celt/Brythonic peoples who settled in the area. Its rivers and circular settings would’ve established it as a site of religious worship well before Augustine, though given his success of converting the rest of the heathen Britons from Canterbury, followed by the murder of Thomas a Becket in 1170 imbued the site with especial Christian significance (and gold). A final historical note: well before the pilgrimage route traced by Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, what had fundamentally linked south London to Canterbury was the Watling Street, a major road built by the Romans.

The Cathedral, now rebuilt several times, was fascinating enough. In Russell Hoban’s overlooked 1980 Kentish apocalypse Riddley Walker, we get a true sense and homage to the alive, disquieting air of Kent, aside from its lairy pubs – in places like Romney Marshes, Dungenness, the woods and abandoned mushroom-sheds we discovered as kids around Tenterden in my grandad’s dilapidated cottage, full of junk (and 1970s porn…), a museum of British life 1930-74 until it burnt down. In Riddley Walker, written entirely in a Kentish vernacular though set ?2000 years in the future, we follow a young Riddley coming of age among one tribe, and his journey to Kent to find Eusa, and knowledge of the mysterious weapon which presumably annihilated civilisation and mutated many of its survivors long ago. In Riddley Walker religion is transmitted through hashish-induced visions and travelling Punch and Jude shows, but most is said about St. Eustace, to which Canterbury is one of the few places that records his legend.

Seeing that boars face in my mynd that morning in the aulders and seeing it in my mynd now I have the same thot I had then: If you cud even jus see 1 thing clear the woal of whats in it you cud see every thing clear. But you never wil get to see the woal of any thing youre all ways in the middl of it living it or moving thru it. Never mynd.‘  – Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker, (p. 186).

Saint Eustace’s story is a tragic one, though only in a Judao-Christian sense, like that of the Book of Job, one where bruised penitents are to learn from his example of pain and suffering for the Lord. The Greek name Eustace suggests fecundity, abundant in grain, and his story is ripe with pagan motifs – a Roman general, whilst hunting one day he saw a minitiure version of the suffering Christ in between the antlers of a stag he was hunting. This vision inspired him to abandon his post and possessions in favour of Christianity, becoming an outcast. Soon a series of cruel misfortunes strike him – his wife is captured and enslaved by pirates. Soon after, his two boys are captured by a wolf and a lion, curiously depicted in human form in the Canterbury mural, which also contains a bestiary of medieval monsters – frogs, mutants, demons erupting out of the fertile landscape. Eustace laments – of course, surely a sign no? But 15 years on he is now a successful general under Emperor Hadrian, united with his family when – lo! – the family refuse to participate in a sacrifice to the pagan gods. Enfuriated, Hadrian decided to burn the devouts alive in a brazen bull. The caption and mural ensure a happy life thereafter in heaven, but sheesh. A mural of profound submission, an awful but compelling monument to man’s misfortune.

After our journeys around the centre, it was time to move on, up and out of Canterbury towards Whitstable, and ultimately back to Sittingbourne. This time we bought an accurate map, giving us a sense at last of where we were going, and began pedalling up along the peaceful paths and vistas of the old Crab and Winkle railway. We had one problem: if the first day was marked by extreme cycling in good weather, the second day brought good cyling in extreme weather. The rain was incessant, washing away everything, blurring vision. Our bikes gave in quickly – we realised brakes were malfunctioning, tires deflating, hands aching – fortunately my Dad is a professional cyclist, one who still sticks to the Cyclists Code, still unwritten, but which I’d never come across… (examples of good etiquette include saying ‘hi’ to other cyclists when passing, and stopping to help any cyclists who have parked on the pathside).

The journey was beautiful, and in other weather would’ve been marvellous – but we were soaked to the skin. We found momentary refuge in the forgotten chapel along the route, right before the ancient Blean woods. The gravestones had been effaced by time, and aside from the mating rituals of the birds and all life, that 1ness that is in fact a 2ness as Riddley Walker might see, the place was totally peaceful. My brother casts a great pose. The idea of the trip had been a birthday present I’d asked for from my Dad, to spend time together, to go out on a trip. Despite the awful weather, it was really wonderful. I recommend time as a form of gift, really.

After the muddy journey through Blean woods we eventually made it to Whitstable, but it was too wet to continue – too rainy to even see ahead of us. We tried to get to Whitstable sea-front but we were too muddy and tired. Somehow, kicking a discarded baby’s dummy across a footpath throughout Whitstable’s residential backstreets, kicking it right up a flight of stairs, revived our spirits – ha! But we gave in, and a train took us back into another Roman shell, the capitol. A fantastic trip. Whilst no conscious inertia, time-drips appeared for a moment as what they are. In ancient places the temporary problems of the world, the absurdity of arrogant assumptions and desires, and the inability of individual agents to shape the course of things, appeared clear, before hiding again behind a dreary rain-cloud. What to say? ‘Anywhere out of this world’ – but give us time, any time…

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