CBTR HQ’s Andrew Walsh introduces an extract from new from Mike Carter book ‘All Together Now?’, published by Faber & Faber.
Back in 2011, Mike Carter first came to my attention as the author of One Man & His Bike. Trawling through our archives, it was awarded the accolade of joint best book of the year, shared with Roy Wilkinson’s Do It For Your Mum. Frankly a great call in retrospect because they’re equally brilliant reads. Two books that I can’t recommend highly enough.
In July of that year, Mike, along with Nick Hand, Rob Penn, Martin Noble and Luke Turner took part in one of our best CBTR Social Clubs ever. Mike, Nick and Rob talked exclusively about cycling – very much a curveball at the time for such a nature-focused site. But it worked and it feels like only yesterday that Mike ridiculed those cycling for charity, only to turn to Nick and realise that yep – he’d ridden for charity.
Mike’s new book All Together Now? is out now, published by Faber. In 1981, Mike’s dad Pete organised the People’s March for Jobs, which saw 300 people walk from Liverpool to London to protest unemployment. Just before the 2016 EU referendum, Mike set off to walk the same route in a quest to better understand his dad and his country.
I’ve just finished the book and it’s excellent — as is Mike’s piece in last week’s Guardian. It’s kind of in the vein of John Harris’ Anywhere but Westminster columns; basically spelling out to those of us in our London bubble why we’re in this Brexit mess. Here’s an extract…
I woke up after a good ten hours’ sleep, and had to stretch and bend to untangle the knots in my back and thighs after the previous day’s long walk from Birmingham.
I hobbled out of the B&B and walked into Nuneaton under a grey sky. My oldest friend, Jimmy, whom I’d met on our first day at secondary school, was coming on the train to Nuneaton to walk with me to Coventry. It was only a short walking day – eight miles or so – so we’d arranged to meet at lunchtime. While I was waiting, I planned to have a look around the town.
I went past the Ropewalk Shopping Centre, named after Nuneaton’s once-thriving rope-making industry. In the multi-storey car park next door, by the entrance, there was a little garage full of mobility scooters, which people could hire for the day after parking their cars. I walked into the town centre, along one entire street of charity shops, and then another of pound shops, and then another of closed-down shops festooned with ‘to let’ signs. In many of the doorways lay the homeless or the drunk, clutching cans of strong lager or cider.
Of all the benighted places I’d seen on my walk so far, Nuneaton seemed the most abject, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why exactly. People looked sallow and grey and worn out, fixing me with hard stares, with so many on walking frames or sticks, or driving mobility scooters, and by no means were they all elderly: so many of the men and women scooting along were hugely obese. Of all the changes I’d seen in my lifetime, our expanding girth was one of the most visible.
I walked past the statue of George Eliot – the pen name of Mary Ann Evans – in Newdegate Square, where she sat gazing down on the shoppers hurrying past. She was born in 1819 at South Farm on the Arbury Estate near Nuneaton, which was fictionalised as the town of Milby in her early works.
Nuneaton seems very proud of her. The hospital is named after her, as is a pub not far from the statue. The town’s library has one of the most extensive George Eliot collections in the country.
My phone rang. It was a Birmingham number I didn’t recognise. Maybe it was from a friend of one of my relatives who lived there, or a hospital, telling me some grave news. I sat on a bench and pressed the little green button to pick up the call.
‘Is that Michael?’ a woman’s voice said at the other end. She sounded quite young. Maybe she was a nurse, or a police officer. I braced myself. Being called Michael was always bad news.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Our records show you have recently been involved in a car accident that wasn’t your fault,’ said the woman.
I was relieved for a second, then relief turned to something else: not quite anger, but close to it.
I’d started to get these phone calls after a friend’s car was written off in an accident while her son was driving. I’d been on the policy as a named driver, and it was likely that the insurance company had sold on the details to solicitors.
I tried to be gentle with the young woman on the phone. If nothing else, I could become one of the people that day who didn’t tell her to fuck off. Maybe we could have a brief conver- sation, might even be able to make some human connection. I could say something like, ‘I bet your job is tough, eh, having to cold-call people’, and she might say, ‘Yes, yes it is. But I can work from home so the commute’s not bad!’ and I would laugh, and through that connection we might make both of our days a little more bearable.
‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘I don’t even have a car, but . . . hello. Hello?’ She’d hung up.
At home, the only calls I ever got on my landline these days were from people trying to sell me something, despite the fact that I had a block on cold calls. I didn’t answer my landline any more. It just sat there ringing, in the corner, predatorily. And I just sat there listening to it ring, feeling that even in my own home there was no escape.
At the other end of the bench was an older man, with a woolly hat pulled down over his ears.
‘Bloody cold callers,’ I said to him.
‘They’re always calling me,’ he said. ‘I tell ’em to fuck off.’ He looked at my backpack. ‘Passing through?’ he asked.
‘I am,’ I said, ‘walking to London.’
‘Bloody London,’ he said, ‘whatever they want, they get.
Wembley. They put tenders out, but you knew the national stadium would stay there. Heathrow. They’ll get the third runway. Won’t come to Birmingham or Manchester. Parliament. That could come out of London.’
‘Crossrail,’ I said.
‘Aye, Crossrail,’ he replied, and tutted.
He liked his railways, he said, especially steam trains.
I told him that so did I; that I had recently been on the Bluebell Railway in Sussex.
‘I was disappointed by the Bluebell,’ he said, but didn’t explain why. He reeled off a list of other heritage lines he’d visited.
He’d recently retired after working as a foreman in a ware- house. He was loving retirement. ‘I garden, play golf, a lot of walking, and of course the steam railways,’ he said.
Was he planning to vote in the referendum? I’d grown quite bold in asking that question. Nobody had been remotely reticent about answering it.
He said he would vote out. ‘But it’s not about foreigners or immigration,’ he said. ‘We need these people coming into the country. Most people seem to get on well. They bring a lot of experience. There’s one or two that won’t contribute, but then we get that with the natives.’
For him, the EU vote was about taking back control, making Britain great again. He reeled off a list of big factories that had closed down in Nuneaton, just like I would reel off the great West Brom side of the late seventies, and said the town was really suffering.
‘We need decent jobs that pay decent money. If I was a young man now, I would have to leave to find good work. Most of our young have to leave. I love this town. It would have broken my heart to have to leave it.’
How would leaving the EU help that, I asked him. I said that many people were forecasting economic catastrophe if we lost access to the single market; that many of those EU migrants that he said we needed might be forced to leave.
He sat there and thought for a moment. ‘You know what some people round here are saying?’ he said. ‘They don’t care if the economy collapses. Why should they? Nobody in London gives a shit about us. If the economy goes down the toilet, at least those bastards will finally know what it feels like to be us.’
All Together Now? is out now and available from the Caught by the River shop for the special price of £12.00. Get your copy here.