I wrote the first bit of this sat in the cab of a lorry on the Polish/Lithuanian border, waiting until 4am for the tachometer to reset itself. My Latvian driver- an aging, rotund and unshaven man with a cab to match, whose un-panted trousers sat halfway down his hips as he drove- played freecell and offered me coffee (it seems all european truck drivers carry gas cookers in their cabs). He was taking me on the final leg of a long hitchhike from Holland into Riga, capital of Lativa.
I was feeling good, having- until about 3o minutes earlier- been faced with the prospect of a second night behind a petrol station in a sleeping bag, except this time 150 miles further north (and therefore colder) and with a frost coming on. I had varied between hanging around outside the slightly surreal 'Swiss-themed' truck stop waiting a driver of one of the 10 or so lorries parked outside to appear, and hitching in the dusk- and then dark- on the main road between Poland and Lithuania, neither of which appeared to be working.
But then aha! the beautiful sound of a truck engine being revved, and the driver was surprised when I accepted his offer of "only go 20km?". Much like those abominable but somehow tragic charity street collectors (the ones with clipboards), once you are in the cab of the truck your benefactor can't just leave you in alone in a tight spot, so when we arrived at the border 20km later, this amazing gent asked around a few of the other waiting truckers, using what I can only imagine as some inherent Truckers Code to get me a ride with the first guy going north. Which was now the man grunting in satisfaction and passing me cigarettes by the nightlight of the cab.
I had been making good time from the off (except on the way to the ferry, where I missed a train connection after helping a huge and typically heavily luggaged Somali family through the underpass)- taking the ferry Harwich- Hook of Holland, failing to soften any truckers in the special Ferry Truckers Lounge with my 'Berlin Bitte!' sign, and then taking beautifully fast, efficient Dutch trains to the most easterly point of Holland (my amazing 50 pound ticket took me from london to ANY dutch station), 'Hengelo Oost'.
Hengelo Oost had a whole series of streets named after famous composers- 'Mozartstraade, josephhaaydenstraade- fucking awesome. I walked through them by streetlight and felt like i was finally On The Road. Since i left my job at SOAS at the end of July and went back to Scarborough things had felt a bit like one extended goodbye, with me repeating the same plan and timescale to friends in London, Scarborough etc. My ego wanted me to go quickly and everyone to miss me lots, but as it was i was only a couple of hundred miles of overpriced railway away, with the trip long planned (in my most stressed out days at SOAS this was the end point and light at the end of the tunnel) and the season quickly turning. London was promising a beautiful and musical future, my exquisite girlfriend lay by my side and there was plenty plenty of revolutionary fighting to be done (not to mention whole tracts of punk lyrics about the tories to be penned), and for maybe just a moment I asked myself whether this was the correct path to be taking.
But it was clear that it was. For a number of reasons. In my gap year (and even before) I discovered travelling in general and India in particular; the art and science of trusting the wind and impulse (and, er, a Lonely Planet guidebook) to fill the days with great people, beautiful things, surprise and hard won lessons. (my god that sounded cheesy... but you know what i mean). When I was 17 I went with sam, lauren and alex to La Gomera (an island near tenerife), and as a totally overwhelmed youngster learnt that hippie communes do still exist, and that it is possible to play music without knowing what key you are in. When I was 18 I sat in a trance in the golden temple in amiritsar and decided that music, not politics, was what i wanted to study at university. In Goa I got high with a crazy old Italian with one white eye, at dusk watched thousands of Fiddler Crabs wave at the sky in silt left by the tsunami and decided that this was the life for me (and that I would do university for my mum and because I knew at 18 i didn't know for sure exactly whether i had everything laid out in my head correctly).
But going to SOAS to do music was probably the best decision i have made in my life, and the subsequent short jaunts are detailed in this blog (i will get round to writing about zimbabwe one of these days). So reason one for going was so i could look my 18 year old self in the eye and say 'yeah man, you knew what you were on about... duties are discharged, lets go'.
The second one was almost the opposite- not to find but to seek. Of course I have changed loads since I moved to london (5 years ago), as everyone does between 19-24 (Jeff said that he had 'never met an 18 year old who knows who they are') but, straight after uni (the time when most take stock, have a moment of panic then strike out) I started the hugely rewarding but totally energy and spacious-thought sucking job as co-president of the union. So many of parts of my life- responsibilities, friends, campaigns, scenery, institution- were the same (and for the most part i couldn't have asked for better) but my own time and energy were so limited that i couldn't give them my all anymore, and the consequence was that i didn't know if i still wanted various bits of my life or whether i was just too tired to appreciate them.
When I come back I will be able to do things i want with people i still have loads in common with, find new musical modes without feeling inferior to my peers (and get over the whole black hole of competitive musical thought anyway) and, crucially, look freshly at the political scene and figure out how best i can support my communities without a)people demanding i take a certain line on things and b)feeling guilty when i don't want to go on a demo.
don't get me wrong, the revolution is going to happen, and i am going to give it my all so i can be part of it, the question is (and has always been in the groups i have been part of) how to mobilise and empower the people who are actually being fucked by the system to fight it. The trouble is that those who really need emancipation in our society- asylum seekers, migrant workers, working class kids who can't afford university, young and old who have generally been failed by this capitalist system- are in no position timewise, mentally, emotionally, to put in the massive effort of organisation to take on the huge, well funded, insipid state. They are given just enough to stop them from dying, but only if they work so hard all they want to do when they have freetime is to eat, call home and zone out. Or, for British working class people, they have had seeded in them such low morale and angry frustration, as well as an irrational hatred of that which is foreign (literally and metaphorically) that they pit themselves along racial and local, rather than oppressed/oppresser, lines and your average student activist or fuzzy liberal just does not have any vocabulary or common ground to engage them in the fight.
does that make sense? for a perfect example look at the EDL stuff. my lowest moment as an activist came when i stood outside parliament sometime in spring and watched hundreds of white, angry, working class, disenfranchised people (EDL) and, across the road, hundreds of predominantly white, pro-working class (even if not exactly working class themselves...), angry young people (anti-fascists) screaming 'fascist!' at each other, whilst the police guarded the BMWs and Mercedes driving in between the two groups and the drones in parliament peeped out of their windows, not doubt making snide comments about the lot of us. it was heartbreaking.
but i am tangenting badly. when i am discussing with my non-revolutionary friends (some of you are no doubt reading this) why I bother when the revolution is 'clearly not going to happen', I respond by explaining that
1. the capitalist system inherently needs an oppressed working class and that people and the environment are dying all over the place because of this system
2. if everybody who had figured this out did their best to change it (rather than saying they couldn't do anything about it so why bother) then it WOULD change
3. If I am not a hypocrite
4. Doing my best to change things- i.e. get rid of capitalism, is necessary for my happiness and peace of mind.
I have learnt that this can only be done on a local level and the secondary benefit of this (or is it the primary one?) is that even if we don't overthrow capitalism then we can sure as hell keep that playcentre open, or make sure the institutions we are part of don't invest in the arms trade, or at the very least make some suits go home and question whether their holidays and champagne lunches are worth the suffering we have told them about or the shit we have sprayed on their heads from modified kalashnikovs.
And so when I get back i will carry this on, but in what form i do no know yet. this is something i hope to find out.
(Reading a history of china (which got confiscated at the chinese border- more on that later), it turns out that Mao and his cohawks basically manipulated it to look like the 'peasants' rose up with communist principles- infact many were just pissed off at the local bullying militia, were starving to death anyway and got fed by Mao or, worse, were straight up pressganged into fighting for him.)
but anyway.... where was I?
Oh yes, in Holland, walking through the musical streets. I had seen a truckstop on google maps before i left at what i thought was about 5km out of the town, and started walking along the hard shoulder of the motorway. A good while later I came to what I thought was the stop, but the moody Polish trucker told me the one I was looking for was another hours walk on, and he was going to sleep...
I forgave his lie when he couldn't ignore my tactical hitchhiking position in the corner of his eye and woohoo! i was in his cab and on the way to Poznan, Poland!!! Here we go... he didn't speak much english, but enough to tell me how shit my tobacco was, and to show me how to use his rolling machine to make rollies that look exactly like cigaretters (the papers have an orange filter attached to them...). His tachometer was broken so he drove though the night listening to rock music whilst i dozed. At dawn we stopped and ate polish bratwurst and supernoodles with a radioactive maroon hue. His name was Kaieta and his most memorable (and repeated) words were 'fuck life, fuck my boss'.
He dropped me off at lunchtime on the road north and I ate soft cheese and apples under the polish sun and scratched my name into a bench. There followed a day and a half of small and medium length rides with the good people of north east poland. I saw tobacco drying in the sun like smoked kippers in scarborough fishmongers. I learnt that drink driving, and overtaking round blind corners, is not uncommon. I got a potted history of poland as good as i would find in any museum and from a wide range of (mostly despairing) drivers. It seems polish politics is extremely polemic, with one party seen as the 'traditionalists' and one as the 'modernisers' but both just old men arguing amongst themselves. Same record, different language.
Poland is really a very beautiful place, similar in landscape (i suppose obviously) to Germany, but more rural and with a 'tractor driver waving at old ladies as he drives through the village' and 'haymaking with a pitchfork' vibe that i think was lost in germany a long while ago.
Even the night I spent behind a petrol station was pleasant enough- i spent a few hours under the glare of the strip lights asking for rides and wrote the first poem of the trip
Snails on the fire extinguisher
liquid petroleum gas 2
trucks with curtains drawn
sawdust in the cracks
are you going to ostrada?
nej nej no
wagon refrigeration motor
tv news mumblings
smelling dry sharp autumn cold
i buy a beer
waiting for a ride in ...
I was meant to put the name of the village instead of '....' but i never did find out where i was. i might take that last line out. very satisfying, writing poetry. sometimes it just seems the best form in which to write down what i am trying to describe, and therefore doesn't matter if it is any good as Actual Poetry.
And in the morning i got away quickly, but ended up going to the wrong border. my map of 'europa', which i found back at wilkinson house and therefore is probably sam's, is circa 1989 and still has the soviet union, rather than individual countries, borders. I had drawn in the belarus borders as i knew i couldn't go there (50 quid transit visa!) but hadn't bargained on Russia needing a deep water port that didn't freeze over, and their subsequent retention of Kaliningrad after the collapse of the USSR, leading to a totally random outpost of russia on the baltic sea... my face must have looked quite the picture when i got there and realised i was about to enter the wrong country.
and then to fast forward on a few rides and here i was with with my man on the lithuanian border. from being a bit grumpy and incredulous as to my presence at the beginning, he ended up waking me at 2am and letting me sleep on his very own bed! what a nice man.
In the morning i woke to the first of many life-affirming dawns of the next few weeks. we were somewhere in northern lituania, a thick but low mist in visible patches on the hill-less landscape, frosty tufts of grass like sculptures by the side of the road. my driver sat leaning on his steering wheel going a steady 70 and overtaking other trucks with movements like gestures. I felt a bit like Lyra on the back of Iorek bryrinson but less like a babe.
The dawn slowly cleared and the roadsigns counted down the miles to Riga, where my trucker left me at a petrol station on the edge of town.