May 14, 2020

Thirteen years ago, on May 14 2007, I set off on a Sea France ferry from the port of Dover headed across La Manche for Calais, almost forty-four kilometres away in France. Four hundred and twelve years ago a man of Somerset named Thomas Coryat made the same journey, without the joys of a duty-free shop or expensive rubber croissants.

His aim on arrival was to walk a goodly part of Europe, the Protestant bit – or rather the non-Spanish – write a book about his trip; get rich and famous. My aim was to copy his walk, day by day, for the five months it took Tom Coryat to walk almost two thousand miles from Calais to Flushing on the coast of Holland – via Venice, the length of the Rhine, the Alps…Strasbourg, Heidelberg…

We know the route because he did write that book, publishing “Coryat’s Crudities” in 1611.

It detailed each day, each encounter. Each walk.

He was our first tourist.

It didn’t sell well. Few believed he’d made the trip.

They said it was Faketh Newse.

This morning in mask-wearing quarantined London I’m revisiting the first day of my recreation.

Which took three summers to complete, in the end.

Thirteen years on from that rainy Monday I can post a bunch more images on my Instagram story. @TomCoryat. Photographs that never uploaded to the original blog because of slow Wi-Fi. No smart phone.

These days I can find extraordinary library and journalistic resources online. Can learn and post from anywhere.

Anywhere on earth.

Except I’m following self-isolation at home. A virtual tourist with a terabyte of images from my travels 2003-2020.

Still trying to finish a historical novel about power that’s grown and shrunk and grows again.

Every morning I photograph the sunlight on our bedroom blinds. Pretend on sunny days I’m looking out onto the coastline of Cassis or the Sahara. Post the images to #Blinds on my Instagram.

I’ve even been back to some of my favourite places on the route, a few of them several times.

Dover, Paris, Worms, Lyons, Heidelberg, Venice, Bonn…Montreuil sur Mer.

And Calais too.

We took Portia’s son there to work in The Jungle.

But until this year, this terrible year that has made each of us a solitary desert island of memory and fear, and trapped longing, I hadn’t realized the radical beauty of my journey; of Tom’s. The utter luxury and privilege of the absolute freedom we were both afforded by our class, the times in which we travelled.

The temporary absence of war, or plague.

The borderless Europe of utopia.

Tom’s lingua franca was Latin. He held a pass port issued personally by the Prince of Wales. Who was fourteen.

My lingua franca was Microsoft English. VISA, Apple…Leica. Booking.com.

I realise today that #BetwixtEurope is a lifelong project, is dedicated to a Europe I can imagine, and already miss. And will always be engaged with.

Whether today’s experience mirrors 1938 I couldn’t say, or 1847, or any one of the five major outbreaks of bubonic plague in London during Shakespeare’s lifetime, when the well-to-do got out of town.

And Shakespeare took his players to Rochester and Dover.

Where he saw that cliff.

And wrote King Lear? Who really knows?

I do know that in this anxious age of populist walls and panoptical surveillance we need to remember from time to Netflix binge what is found outside, out of the window, across the sea.

Over the hillside.

Down the road.

And I’ve been lucky enough to be over the hillside a great deal. So, I’m going to travel back, breath it in.

I got ill almost as soon as I checked into my humble hotel in Calais on the afternoon of Monday May 14.

Sweated out the first day feeling stupid and searching fevered for a signal.

My Instagram handle is @TomCoryat, if you want to see what the rain looked like.

 

 

 

 

 

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On Brexit

There’s that bit at the beginning of the old Mission Impossible TV series when Jim, the one before Ethan, chooses his perfect team for the impossible mission from a cardboard folder of resting B-list actors while Lalo Schifrin’s theme plays lusty and moody in 5/4. So, given that we’ve set up an excellent Mission Impossible story arc, let’s call our season finale episode “The Hunt for a Good Brexit”, who would be Jim’s ideal centre ground team to abseil into the European Parliament to negotiate, bargain, and make logical nation-building decisions for us citizens? That’s all of us. A few of our more high profile business leaders have, ahem, business abroad which keeps them tied up in Monaco or off the coast of Sark, and our Financial sector’s Behemoths seem bruised and bemused and too busy buying property and influence in Germany, Luxembourg, Brussels etc. The lawyers rub their hands in disbelief and keep Liam Fox and the Attorney General on speed dial. Our politicians are driven largely by ideas so toxic and divisive they can only have originated in the fevered fantasy imaginations of either the Socialist Workers Party or the Daily Mail; Nick Clegg fails to hold the centre together even on Have I for News for You, and Jim that leaves us with Nicola Sturgeon, Caroline Lucas, those right-leaning Labour people who haven’t gone Immigration crazy, and those liberal Tories who wear Hush Puppies and like jazz, remind me who they are; Robert Peston who’s running a very fine one-person real time political/economic commentary on every known platform bar the railways; Marina Hyde, the UK’s very own Karl Kraus, satirist of the New British Weimar, and – scarily enough – the Riot Club’s wee beastie, George Osborne, suddenly a cross between Malthus and Keynes – who’s writing a fired-up pro Europe manifesto, yay, while HSBC says that Sterling is the best opposition party right now, good job Sterling btw. Nevertheless, our country is full of ridiculously smart people of all ages, places of birth, religious and political orientations. We have always been at our best in the centre, tolerant, amusing, creative, outspoken or reserved. Only connecting, as that old Bloomsberrie E. M Forster almost used to say. So, pretty clearly, we’re not at our best right now. Social media is not the nodal space to save Britain from entropy, because its walled city echo-chambers cancel each other in the mutually assured destruction that is online “debate”, trolling, and just sheer hate. But neither I suspect are the streets the place to originate a new sense of shared island identity. And so, Jim, who are you going to choose to help steer us through Article 50 and beyond? Who are the great Brits to get us out of this mess, and inspire? Because it seems that, as William Goldman is always saying of Hollywood, nobody knows anything. FFS I haven’t even heard a protest song yet. I think all of us who value cosmopolitan decency and the importance of fairness and tolerance, and who like to think we’ve experienced Britain in times of hope as well as times of strife, recognise we need to act, not tweet, to find common ground, and to regain a sense of the possible. It’s Mission Possible, Jim, should you choose to accept it. As always, should you or any of your colleagues be caught or killed, the Home Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape/disc/Spotify playlist will self-destruct five seconds after Article 50 is enforced. Good luck, Jim. And don’t ring Ethan.

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Photo by Portia Kamons, February 2016. Once a futurist…

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Must Do

Here’s a journey for 2019, and the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus.

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Encore

Nine years ago I started walking the Betwixt Project in Calais, having taken the boat from Dover on the Kent coast. A flu flattened me on that first day.

Today looking over some of the first posts I made I do feel like I’m reading from another century; my walk as psychologically distant as the one made by Thomas Coryat in 1608.

In my down time from everything else happening post Brexit I’m going to revisit what made the site, look at the notebooks of stuff that didn’t, and – above all – continue to celebrate what connects us in Europe.Coryats_Crudities

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Just

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This looks great

Following fiction: even better. Riddle of the Sands

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Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe by Norman Davies – review | Books | The Guardian

“A list selected from the 15 chapters of this book will give you an idea: Tolosa, Alt Clud, Burgundia, Aragon, Litva, Byzantion, Borussia … these are names that linger on the fringes of memory and consciousness.” Nicholas Lezard

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via Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe by Norman Davies – review | Books | The Guardian.

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