Spending time in a motorway service station, early on the morning of a clocks-back timeshift, without a car to return to or an urgent need to go anywhere, is a slightly disorientating, almost hallucinatory experience.
In the cafe, a face large than any human face has any right to be; in racks, oversized soft toys with distorted mad eyes. Bright colours and the emotional undertow of muzak. Without the usual crowds, the massed logos and brands form a meaningless exhibition: visual identities called into being by the distant qabalists of global marketing meme-labs, wielding their arcane numerologies of pigment and reproduction: CMYK, RGB, Pantone; hexachrome, stochastic matrix, a chain of precision processes deployed to smear these colours in our eyes, right here, right now, triggering tiny cascades of synaptic actions leading to recognition and desire. Put another way, some guys with Macs somewhere are designing things to try and make us see where to buy stuff, then want to buy it.
Mick Jones’ strafing guitar cuts through my sleep-deprived, caffeinated musings. ‘I Fought The Law (And The Law Won)’. What is this ‘Law’ and has it defeated everyone? ‘Global capitalism’? Or something more ancient, Philip K. Dick’s Black Iron Prison (‘The Empire Never Ended’)? Humanity itself, the self-destructive species, colluding with nature to constantly erase its own past, that I found in the pages of W. G. Sebald? The Anti-Life Equation I found in a comic book?
A recorded announcement in the bandit area says ‘If you are under 18 you must leave this area immediately’. I am older than that but decided to move on anyway. I got my stuff and said farewell to the dismal (but friendly) Travelodge.
Leaving Frankley Services by the only safe route for pedestrians, I walked through Bartley Green in a bright drizzle. Sudden parkland led me to a quiet lane, old fashioned lamp-posts in the chilly silence after the dripping rain bringing a Narnia-like, Mr Tumnus atmosphere.
Finally I was moving beyond the Wolverhampton and Dudley Explorer Map (219), now reduced to a few shreds of papier mache. I started the process of ruining Birmingham (220) and walked up to the B4121, a large road into town. I spent a few minutes deciding which way to go. A plan to walk up to the University won out: I could get home on the train, do a bit of walking from there after a meeting next month, walk past Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and have an excuse to mention the course we’ll be delivering there next year…
But, after a bit of walking, I began to feel gloomy at the prospect of more roads and retail parks. I turned around, abandoned meticulous and fragile plans, to head out towards countryside. I hiked down through Northfield, pausing to eat oat bars by this Tolkein-themed traffic-light control box
Down through West Heath, where a large church at the top of a hill appeared like a vision of a mighty temple, and where advertising hoardings for new houses showed candlelit table fellowship with carefully-chosen aspirational markers: not just wine, but olive oil, too.
On the A4040 a bearded man in a black fleece stopped to talk, enthusiastically, about the walks he had done in his time. ‘Keep walking!’ he shouted heartily as we parted. I crossed the road, went through a kissing gate into a field and realised: I had crossed the conurbation, from the northern reaches of Wolverhampton to here, where the houses gave out.
Feeling that the encounter with Liminal Bearded Guy was a good sign, I strode on, up a hillside into woods – actually shouting aloud, ‘Yes!’ as it appeared to me (perhaps incorrectly) that this was actual countryside – not a canal, motorway verge, country park or corporate planting scheme. OK, it was not a wilderness or tract of untrod climax forest – but it seemed more natural than the places I had been recently. I’m not sure why this seemed such a positive thing: humans, after all, are part of nature so isn’t a grassed-over slag heap or a shopping centre seem as natural as hills and woods? I don’t know. But somehow, there at the start of the North Worcestershire Long Distance Path, a creative spirit infusing the universe seemed like a possibility. It may be hard to fight vast impersonal forces of Anti-Life, and as I personally am not God (though I did sort of walk on water yesterday) I can’t fix everything, but it seemed to me then that it is possible to make small choices to move towards life, to attempt however clumsily to tune into the source through which, in some mysterious way, ‘all manner of things shall be well’.
Muddy paths led me to the Peacock Inn, where I had a pint of Hobsons. Although a very food-oriented pub I was comfortable enough sitting by the unlit fire in my muddy gear.
Afterwards I walked down Ryknild Street for about a mile, new sunshine gleaming on wet trees, and had another beer in the Coach and Horses, a fine beer-focused place. Normally I power through these days on oat bars, water and whimsical imaginings, but I realised I was hungry and had a ham sandwich, watching the CCTV camera tracking across cars and puddles resolved into white blaze trails.
A few more miles, including quite a lot of golf course, took me to Wythall where – miraculously appearing from motorway-land having driven from Othona in West Dorset (another place where we’ll be delivering a course next year) Jennie stopped in the car and we went home.