The Clarke’s Tale
A journey from London to Canterbury
On Saturday March 31st 2012 at 10am I set off from the site of The Tabard Inn in Southwark, London to walk to Canterbury in Kent. I intend to follow, as closely as possible, the route the Chaucerian pilgrims took on their journey to Canterbury cathedral at the end of the 14th century.
For me a Spring rebirth. Shedding of the old skins and waiting for the new skins to appear. The solitary traveller walking with my thoughts, emotions and old laptop bag down Jamaica Road. I’m carrying a copy of the Richard Wilhelm edition of the I Ching, ‘The Diceman’ by Luke Rhinehart, printed Google maps of the various stages of the journey, two T shirts, three sets of underwear and a field recorder. I ask the way and directions are given by bus numbers. I’m realising that walking doesn’t appear to be be what happens now. Is this based on not having to walk anymore? Or is it something deeper? Alone and unknown as I stride towards Greenwich I let my mind wander to all those who walked before me. Those alone with the rhythm of their own steps.
Suddenly peering from between two framing buildings is the Thames Barrier. An alien protector. Shiny silver guardian against the wild seas. He’s just dropped from the sky. A helmeted anomaly. He stares out down the Thames daring any invader to come close. I stand and look at his huge presence and he is aware of nothing but his purpose. His focus is immense. Blinkered down the river waiting for his moment to arrive. The destruction of tides at his beck and call.
Away through Woolwich and to the cosmopolitan bustle of Plumstead and then Bostall Hill. Up to the sky between Abbey and Bostall Woods. I feel sweet Isis move away from my left shoulder as the green takes hold. I talk to the hill as I slowly climb. The conversation is of tired limbs and the wonder of the sudden change to woodland. I ask her how long she’s been there and how the change from concrete to wood can be so sudden? Her answer is that it doesn’t really matter. And that’s something that I start to realise after not even one day of walking. It doesn’t matter. The hill is the hill. The Thames is the Thames. The sky is the sky and that’s that.
The climb is forever . On and on as Bostall Hill stretches to the heavens and then opens out to parks and I trudge away down towards Bexley Heath and my place for the night’s rest, Dartford. I book into the Royal Victoria and Bull and feast in a local Indian restaurant. Dartford welcomes the walker in, funnelled down to a high street that has little to do with the bridge and the tunnel. It feels old. Despite the modern chain stores I can image Chaucer and his pilgrims being here. The way the land lies and the River Darent cuts its way past The Holy Trinity Church at the end of the High Street. There is longevity here. Dartford’s not just a bridge and a tunnel.
Chaucer’s route to Canterbury followed the Roman road Watling Street. This ran almost as the crows flew. Now the thundering mass of cars that is the A2 traces this route and my way is barred. I take a route parallel north and cross over the M25 early on Sunday morning heading to Greenhithe and Swanscombe. The streets are deserted as sweet Isis appears over my left shoulder once again. Suddenly I’m in between the strangest of pairs. An army of pondreeds and Ebsfleet International. The craning reeds and the vast expanse of an International Rail terminal. I stand and watch them from a distance. Everything’s alright with Ebsfleet and the pondreeds . They’re really just the same. Two players in a very different game. An empathic union of opposites. Reeds and rail terminal. They sit with passing aether between them. Concrete and green. Organised and free. Together they create a sunchild. Me. I stand between them. A product of the union. They look over. Two discerning parents guiding me on my way.
Blistered and aching I move in towards Gravesend. How can a place not be anything like its name. A Sunday morning atmosphere of tranquillity over its High Street and environs. As I walk in for a fried breakfast and coffee, a huge container ship slides past in the distance like a forgotten dinosaur. Its motion out of sorts with the land. Its lazy,languid progress makes everything start to slow down. I eat the breakfast in a daze contemplating the movement of traffic up and down the river; the centuries of trade and invasions. I sense Gravesend as a willing spectator. A witness to whatever the river decides. The town nestles in tight to its side and watches.
Time to move inland and to my next night’s stop. Rochester. Cut by the River Medway it welcomes you with a view from a bridge. A Cold War Russian submarine lays on her side drinking in the views of the Cathedral and the town centre. Rochester submarine arrived there in the 1990’s from Folkestone ready for museum duty perhaps. But it was not to be. She lays alone and cold now with just memories and distant war cries echoing through her empty hull.
After a relaxed night of beer and sandwiches I prepare myself for The Day Of The Long Walk. Rochester to Faversham. 18 miles. One long straight push down Watling Street. There is a feeling of moving downhill towards Canterbury. An inevitability but also very tired legs and a mind that is wandering unfettered through space and time. I visit my dead mother. My daughter and girlfriend. I contemplate my working life and I allow clarity to appear. The rhythm of my walking and the toing and froing of the traffic creates an emptiness of peace. I vow to do this type of trip regularly. I need it.
I see a scarpering rabbit. Beekeepers in action. Signs for Watling Street. Canterbury 14 miles. I trudge on the long walk into distant Faversham. For only this one occasion, driven by the exhaustion I’m starting to feel, I’ve pre-booked accommodation. Gladstone House. Mary the hostess supreme. She knows about my walk from the phone call booking and a hot bath of Epsom salts and foam is awaiting me. Comforts galore with plants and Buddhas scattered around a magnificent Town House just outside the town centre.
A beer in a small pub next to the brewery. Steak and Kidney pie. Then early to my room and sleep. I dream in a huge crisp sheeted bed of Steppenwolf and Hermann Hesse. A prowling beast on the plains unable to connect with the world as it is. Unable to be with its kind.
In the morning a magnificent breakfast and conversation with Mary. Ten miles to Canterbury Cathedral. The last stretch passes easily on my legs. Its just the need to see the cathedral spire that sits heavily with me. Where are you? Why are you taking so long to appear? Suddenly on a dual carriageway falling in towards the city centre I see it. On the horizon pointing to the sky. I wind it towards it. I feel my heart singing out. I actually feel a rush to my face and fingers of warm. “You’ve done it! You’ve done it! You’ve done it!” My voice is manifest in Canterbury. Physically I shout. I am my father, my mother, my teacher all. I love myself for once. At the foot of the cathedral I blow the spire a kiss and head for home. The crowds all unaware of what the solitary traveller has done. The whole journey from London to Canterbury took me three days. The train ride back to my home takes me three hours.
In those three hours I sit and constantly smile. My plans are clear. My canvas is blank. The solitary traveller returns to his friends and family complete with a new skin and a fresh life. Chaucer would have been proud of me.
The Sexy Seahorse
(taken from 'Tales From The Seabed')
Illustration by Ralph Platt
One day on the seabed there was a sexy seahorse. Now when I say sexy, I mean sexy. Right from day one he had every woman he ever met running after him. He just had to look at them and they literally fell at his feet. They seemed bewitched by him. It wasn’t that he was particularly handsome or that he had a way with words or anything like that; there was just something about him that was able to stop every woman that met him in her tracks. They fawned over him. Young and old, short and tall, fat and thin, hard and soft. Every possible type of woman absolutely worshipped him. They just couldn’t leave him alone.
This did all however tend to make his life rather awkward. Everywhere he turned there was a lady’s face there. Everywhere he sat a woman would come and sit next to him. Whenever he went into a shop, by the time he had finished and come out, the word had got around and a group of staring women would be there trying to get glimpse, a touch or a word from him. He attracted them wherever he turned. A chat with a total stranger on the bus left her a quivering mass in her seat when he left. Just a glance across a crowded room made another turn into a red faced, gibbering mess. He could do it without thinking. And he did! He wasn’t really consciously trying it out. It was just happening. There was something about his body language, the way he spoke, how he just was, that simply drove women wild.
Now to the other male seahorses this seemed an ideal situation to be in. All the attention you ever wanted from women and you didn’t have to do anything to get it. But it wasn’t actually, in practice, as wonderful as it seemed. By the time he had reached the age of twenty he had had numerous girlfriends but not one of them had stuck for longer than a week at the most. Basically they couldn’t hack the pressure that was on them from the other women. The verbal insults in the streets, things thrown at them, nasty telephone calls; even death threats on some occasions. So that after a few days of this type of abuse most women realised that although they were going out with the most fanciable bloke on the seabed it just wasn’t worth it and they packed him in. Despite this there was always one waiting in the wings to take her place thinking she could take the pressure but they never could. One after the other they just came and went and the sexy seahorse was left in the middle of all this, a helpless victim of his own devastating charm.
And so this scenario continued, day in, day out, week in, week out, year in, year out until one Friday morning there was a knock on his back door. This was rather unusual for the sexy seahorse because his front door had the knocker on it and the back door didn’t, but he just shrugged his shoulders and answered it anyway. His visitor spoke without any hesitation.
“We have a job for you
Something that you were actually born to do
If I could just come in
I’ll explain it to you and then you can begin.”
The sexy seahorse was flabbergasted and just nodded and showed the visitor through into his living room. The stranger continued.
“You know your race is currently at war
And nobody really knows what for
It’s come about that it's down to you
To provide the solution of what to do.”
The sexy seahorse got the visitor a cup of tea.
"Your elders have discovered an ancient book
A volume into which you must look
And complete your task right to the core
And then we’ll see the end of war”
The sexy seahorse, becoming a little nervous, offered his guest a biscuit. It was declined.
“The responsibility is yours
To undertake this task because
You have the key to a woman’s heart
And that is where it all must start.”
The sexy seahorse, realising that the bloke was a complete nutter, opened the front door and asked the stranger to leave. It didn’t really do any good.
“If you do not take part in what I say
Your species will just fade away
It’s down to you and only you
So have a think of what to do.”
With that the visitor stood up, placed a package on the coffee table, walked back out through the kitchen without another word and trotted off down the garden and over the back fence and away.
The package didn’t look particularly unusual as the sexy seahorse picked it up and had a closer look at it. You know, just plain brown paper, tied with string in a cross, not very heavy, not very light. Nondescript really. He shook it. Nothing. He smelt it. Nothing. He pressed it. Nothing. He put it back on the table and walked over to the settee and sat down staring at it. There was no address on it. No name. No mark of any sort. It could have been anybody’s. There’s probably been some sort of mistake. It was easily done. Gone to 45 instead of 54. Gone to B-e-e-c-h Road instead of B-e-a-c-h Road. Yes! That’s what had happened he thought to himself. He’d just been the victim of yet another poor postal delivery. But he knew he was grasping at straws. First of all he’d never ever seen a postman like the one who had just been standing in his living room. Secondly there had been the mention of his having the key to a woman’s heart. And most importantly of all he just knew that inside that package was the ancient book from the rhyme and that it was meant for him.
The wrapping and the string came off in seconds and sure enough there in front of him was a book. Not very ancient in appearance but it was a book. It looked like one of those sticker books you get when a new film comes out or it's the start of the football season. The ones where you have to go to the newsagents to buy a packet and you never find the one you want inside so you have to go back and buy another ten just to get it. It had that type of glossy mass produced feel to it. But whereas the film or football or pop group ones obviously show what they are and what's going to be inside, this cover didn’t really give a lot away. There was just a shiny red silhouette of a sun and a moon, no words and a picture of a seahorses’ snout beckoning down to the front right-hand corner to a flap protruding out waiting to be pulled. So the sexy seahorse obviously did!
The inside of the book was not quite as mundane. After the sexy seahorse had pulled the flap, it sort of flipped itself open and started to move. It seemed almost four dimensional. “The Space For The Stickers Or Whatever You Had To Put In There” not only came up and into the page, it also changed what it was every second you looked at it. So for example one moment it would appear as a cuboid coated in black and white fur stretching up and out almost up to the point of touching the ceiling of the sexy seahorse’s living room and then it would change into a spiralling cone moving down into the page, seemingly miles off into the distance. Then it would move out to the side and become a flapping piece of seaweed with words and jumbled numbers trailing around the edges of it and then it maybe would lay still and just have a hint of mystery about it; giving you the impression that it wasn’t going to do anything. But it always did. Or perhaps it wouldn’t. It was an ever-changing thing. It almost seemed to be a book that was alive. Definitely not something you’d just pick up at the local library.
“The Space For The Stickers Or Whatever You Had To Put In There” smelt as well and they sounded and they felt. One second the smell of ice cream, the sound of a fart and the feel of cold hands on a radiator after you’ve been throwing snowballs. Next the sound of a horse galloping, the feel of your tongue licking a towel and the smell of fireworks and cheeseburgers. The sounds rose and fell and intertwined with the change in the shape of “The Space For The Stickers Or Whatever You Had To Put In There”. The smells sank almost to a disappearing level and then re-emerged more potent than ever. And the feel of “The Space For The Stickers Or Whatever You Had To Put In There” reached out and one moment cuddled the sexy seahorse, the next slapped him in the face, and then tickled him and then sandpapered his nose. A rhyme came flying out, held in a black gloved hand, dangling in front of the sexy seahorse’s face.
“You need a photo of a female
cod in a suit
You need her to be sitting on
one side of you
You must place it in this book in
the space that you see
And wait for some answers
to this whole mystery.”
The book slammed itself shut and just lay there completely still on the table.
As you can imagine the sexy seahorse didn’t really have any alternative did he? It’s not every day a book like that drops into your living room is it? And it wasn’t as if he could really just pick it up and drop it in the bin. Not after the stranger had told him what he could be responsible for in saving his race and all that other stuff. So the sexy seahorse did what any other self-respecting seahorse would have done. He had a cup of tea and thought it over. Then he had another one and thought a bit more. And then he went out, picked up a nice-looking cod in a pinstripe and had his picture taken with her in the photo booth in the station.
When he got home he put the picture straight in “The Space For The Stickers Or Whatever You Had To Put In There”, just like the rhyme had told him to. In a flash the book disappeared right in front of his eyes and was replaced by the oldest looking seahorse he had ever seen. He was just hovering there in mid water, as I suppose seahorses do, staring straight at the sexy seahorse, not a movement or expression on his face. He started to speak. Not in a rhyme this time but in a strangely clipped accent which reminded the sexy seahorse a little of some of the black and white films he had seen on the television when he had been a small child.
“You have a way with women. There is no doubt about that. In fact you were born with that gift for a purpose which will now become clear to you.”
The sexy seahorse just nodded his head and kept quiet.
“You will be asked by The Book to have a number of different photographs taken with a number of different women. Each time you get one you must place it in the next “The Space For The Stickers Or Whatever You Had To Put In There”. You will not be able to move on to the next one until you have done that. The Book will not allow it. The photographs will be of differing degrees of difficulty. Ranging from the easy ones, like the cod in the suit, to the more difficult and testing poses. As you move through The Book you will hopefully be moving towards its purpose. Nobody, including myself, knows what that is. All I can tell you is that what you are doing here could be instrumental in, as my friend explained to you earlier, saving our race from self-destruction. As you appreciate on the plains of CrustyBack at this very moment our people are involved in a terrible civil war that is, day by day, helping to wipe our species out. What you do with the aid of this book can help this pointless carnage to end. It is written in The Writings. I have seen them with my own eyes.”
“But how can having these photos taken do anything to stop what is happening? It doesn’t make sense.”
The ancient seahorse ignored the question and just carried on with what he was saying.
“You will know when you come to the end of it all because it will be obvious. That is all I can say because that is all I know.”
As soon as the word “know” left his mouth he vanished and The Book was back, sitting there on the coffee table in the middle of the lounge.
The sexy seahorse had another cup of tea and then pulled the flap to see what his next photo task would be. It was a little more awkward this time. He needed a snap of a lobster in a bikini pushing him along in a wheelbarrow. It was marginally more difficult than the cod in the suit but not something that was out of his league by any means; so he went out and did it. And so this continued over the next few weeks. Picture after picture, pose after pose, woman after woman. The sexy seahorse seemed to be spending every spare minute of his day chasing ladies and asking them to be photographed with him. None of them stretched his pulling power to breaking point; although the task of finding an electric eel who would dress in a rubber clown’s outfit and ride piggy-back with him did push him close on one occasion. However he never buckled. Every task that The Book gave him, he took to and completed.
And then one morning exactly a month after the stranger had first left The Book in the sexy seahorse’s lounge, he reached the last page. It just lay there. There was no movement. No smell. No feel. No 4D. Nothing other than a brown page with a written instruction in the centre of it in small, white, italic letters.
“Well done you’ve got here
There’s not a lot else to do
Just find a woman who doesn’t like you
And persuade her to have her photo taken with you.”
And what do you think happened after the sexy seahorse read that? It was the last of his quests. The challenge that could save his species. The final hurdle. One more step to the finishing line. Time for triumph. What could possibly happen other than the obvious? Well if you visit shops that sell aquariums and tropical fish and that sort of thing the answer is already on the edge of your lips. You can’t buy a seahorse nowadays for anything other than a fortune. There are hardly any of them left. They’ve all been wiped out. The environmentalists said it was pollution of the oceans. The scientists said it was natural selection. The politicians said it was a bit of one and a bit of the other. But the reality was that the sexy seahorse could not get that final photograph. Every woman who had or did or would walk the earth or swim the oceans idolised and desired him and however much he tried or however far he searched, he could not find that female who didn’t want him. And so the seahorse civil war continued and they basically wiped themselves out. And when you think about that, it is really a little bit odd isn't it?