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Bookshelf: All together now?

A month before the 2016 EU referendum, journalist Mike Carter retraced his father’s 1981 unemployment march route. He found a country ‘lost’

Bookshelf: All together now?
Mike Carter

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‘The walk took me 340 miles from Liverpool to London. Walking is the pace most of us moved at until the Industrial Revolution, and it’s the best way to observe life. Long-distance walking feels like coming home, somehow.

‘Most of our daily lives are a series of journeys between one place and another. We plug into headphones and look at our phones. But when you’re walking through a landscape without walls you become more accessible. It’s easier to ask someone how they’re doing without looking like a freak. I was still careful about who I shared the specifics of my journey with — there was a lot of anger in the country at the time about jobs and immigration. I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be to my walking Britain’s post-industrial landscape in the footsteps of a political march that my late father had organised in 1981 against unemployment. But most were genuinely positive.

‘Visiting Walsall was particularly poignant for me; I went to college there in the 1980s. I was shocked at the changes — it felt so crushed, grey and despairing, full of boarded-up businesses, payday loan shops, pawn shops. And, of course, it’s none of those things in its entirety — it’s much more complicated than the architecture. But it’s absolutely desperate what austerity has done to this country.

‘Hemel Hempstead had a strong sense of local identity, but elsewhere I encountered a lot of anger that the South East gets all the investment. Post-industrialisation, there was no thought as to how former mining areas and places like the Potteries would function. There was great complacency in 2016 about how people would vote, because nobody had walked through our post-industrial heartland listening to how angry people were.

‘When I set off, I travelled the main roads, but this involved so many near-death experiences that I went cross-country, along lanes, golf courses and canals that were once superhighways linking our industrial towns. I’d leave the roads, my cortisol levels rocketing, for bird song and the wind in the trees, and my body would instantly relax. Humans aren’t designed for the amount of noise and stimulation we’re battered with every day.’

Interview: Sarah Barrell.

All Together Now?: One Man’s Walk in Search of His Father and a Lost England by Mike Carter. RRP: £14.99 (Guardian Faber Publishing)

Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)