Four Points Fourteen Lines by Tony Chan is joint winner of the 2016 Melita Hume Poetry Prize with Psalmody by Maria Apichella.
‘You doing this for charity?’
‘No, it’s entirely selfish’, I reply, ‘A wish to live, before life passes by’.
Tony Chan – originally Australian, but now living and working in England – composes a poem a day as he treks between the four extreme cardinal points of the British mainland. His walk begins on 3 January, 2015, at the northernmost point, Dunnet Head, continuing on to Ardnamurchan Point and Lowestoft Ness, before ending at Lizard Point on 21 March.
There were times, at bedtime, when my daddy
Told the one lonely tale that he knew best,
The sino-story, Journey to the West,
With its magi heroes, Monk and Monkey.
Here I stand, having chased my father’s voice,
Rock under my feet, waves against the rock,
And waves all through the line of nine o’clock:
At journey’s end, there is only one choice.
Chan has good company: a seductive cast of freedom-loving, literary misfits precede him on the road, from Jack Kerouac and his Beat Generation friends on a trip from New York to Denver to San Francisco and Los Angeles; to Duncan Fallowell who, having sworn off his drug-taking, sets off from London in his Ford via St Tropez and Florence to Sicily. Bill Bryson journeyed across Britain writing entertaining notes from a small island as he goes; while Jonathan Raban journeyed 4,000-miles around Britain in a 32-foot ketch using a compass for navigation. Adventure is a state of mind. It can be found anywhere. Even in the back roads of rural England.
People are always so very polite
To judge my small adventure arduous.
They think mistakenly of extreme heights
And all manner of dark and dangerous
Threats that lurk within a fairy-tale grove.
The reality is quite different:
No wilderness, no tent, no camping stove,
No roughing it, no mountainous ascent,
No need for packaged, dehydrated food;
Nights are spent in bedrooms at bland hotels,
Where expended energies are renewed,
All with neatly set soaps and shower gels.
I’m happy to be honest and to say
That it’s all just a walking holiday.
In his concise, cleverly-crafted sonnets, Chan observes his environment and people going about the business of living. There is a desolate air to the towns he passes through, “The city is a prison built by man“. The countryside complete with real working farms offers a serene alternative. 4x4s are driven for their original purpose, not as status symbols by attitudinous urban WAGs.
What a strange beast, the regional high street:
Boarded-up, malnourished and neglected,
It’s a civic species much endangered.
Those vital organs matured incomplete:
No butcher, no baker, no blankmonger;
Merely thrift-aid shops and chains to lay bets
And a surfeit of signs, ‘For Sale or Let’.
The supermarket has proved the victor.
Yet glitz and size faces its own demise,
Threatened by more intelligent design
That barks, bites, brings the market primate down:
Online the merchants roar in evolved guise.
In coming time will there be welcome signs
At each ‘Historic Supermarket Town’?
Glancing desire in coffee shops, B&Bs, local fare, “haggis, neeps and tatties“, icy rain and wind, are all part of the adventure. On foot, by train, or by ferry, Tony Chan ruminates about past and present. There is something of the flâneur about him, with a bleak undertow. Welcome to post-industrial, Brexit Britain. In 1934, Laurie Lee left the cosy Cotswolds behind him to head to London and on to Spain, with a violin for company. He describes a country divided by inequality, the grind of poverty, and an out-of-touch ruling élite. Plus ça change.
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