Why Every Motherland Needs Wandering Bards

Tenerife_ sea of clouds

Written by: Rosemary Kay

I am a better person for living alongside Syrians, Italians, Libyans, Spaniards, Egyptians, Germans, Afghans, Nigerians. And of course I am a better person for having helped other humans in need. Just as I am a richer person having visited Rome, California, Belgrade, Istanbul. My work is better, my health is better, my family is better, my brain is better … And our society is better when others come to our country and we go to theirs.

I am a writer who loves to travel. I am a reader who likes to read about travel, about other people, about other cultures. If you’re not interested in other people and their cultures, you can’t expect them to care about yours. And sometimes it’s by experiencing another culture that you can understand who you are and where you come from. How many times have you come back from a journey, time spent away from home, and realised when you opened your own front door, what it is that you missed? (I once spent four months in hospital and it was only when I came home that I realised how much colour there was in my house. And that it smelt of wood and lemons, rather than Dettol). Travel does that – it re-introduces you to your own life, allowing you to see it with fresh eyes.

Even if you’re not a fan of travel yourself, you’ve got to accept that a world without travel would be a poorer place. Even if you only walk a hundred yards down the road to get a bag of oranges, then you’ve travelled, and the journey will have been of use and probably some interest. And those oranges you bought, well they travelled too, they have a story to tell, a story from Seville, or maybe California. And if you hate oranges and only travel as far as your local newsagent’s to get a packet of fags – well where has the tobacco come from?

So no one can really say they don’t approve of travel, per se. What some seem to be saying, of late is that they don’t approve of other people travelling. They want the right to movement if it concerns themselves, but people moving towards them, into their own spaces, that scares them. I don’t know why it should. There are always bad, exploitative or scary people, in every demographic, but having travelled is not a condition for being bad, exploitative or scary. You’re as likely to be endangered by a native with a grudge or an agenda, as you are by people who’ve been on a journey. And travellers have great stories to tell, although it does help if they are interesting people, which travellers usually are. Of course, some people can make a trip to the Galápagos Islands sound tedious, and yet others, like my eighty-year-old uncle and aunt who visit the same place in Fuerteventura every year, are delightful raconteurs. Mind you, their Canary Island retreat is a nudist resort …

But isn’t telling stories about journeys part of our culture? Classical literature, upon which our own is built, was all about epic journeys. Look at the narratives of Homer, for example, The Iliad and The Odyssey. And then there are Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or Shakespeare, who set twenty-nine of his thirty-eight plays outside England (Venice, Athens, Lebanon, Alexandria, Navarre, Troy, Yugoslavia, Turkey…). And what about those seminal novels like Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Bottom of the Sea? You could argue that all literature is taking us on a journey from our own world, into another storyworld, and all the work celebrated in The Wandering Bard will do that, but it will also chart modern day odysseys, by contemporary Wandering Bards.

I want to read the work of any writers who have stories of travel to tell: the writers who got on a bike, or a boat or a plane, landed in an alien culture, and made their home among us, and who are now entertaining us, enriching us, nursing us, teaching us, or mending our boilers; or the travellers who have fled their homelands and who tell stories of that terrible flight, who look back with yearning and nostalgia to their lost motherland, and might recreate and explain their memories for us; or those travel writers who have the wandering bug, who can’t stay in one place for long, but crave to be moving, diving into experiences anew, with such an eye for the nuances of new places, that they can take us to transformative worlds just through the power of their words. Indeed, I embrace any writer who has stories about the places they have known, people they have met, the food, the music, the geography, the joys and agonies, the moments of humour and humanity.

And what such writing impresses upon me, is that no matter how exotic the journeys, how different another culture might be from our own understanding of who we are, there is always a deep connection between reader and writer, because these stories of foreign lands, or journeys from place to place, tell us what it means to be human. Every culture has its own idiosyncrasies, but some elements of humanity persist, wherever you live. The further away we travel, the more obvious it is that humanity, in essence, is the same, whether it’s in Rome, in Montana, or in Vladivostock.

So anyone who disagrees with travel, who thinks that everyone else should stay in the place they were born, is either not being honest, or not understanding how travel enhances their lives, or using a fear-of-things-new to corrupt democracy. Recently some agitators, intent on moulding public opinion to benefit their own agenda, claimed that the majority of British people don’t approve of travel, don’t want to be part of any community where there is movement of people. Which of course is nonsense, since the majority of people in Britain travel on a daily basis, from town to town, for work perhaps, or to visit the new out-of-town mall, and often, they might even go on holiday. And let me tell you, even if you take your holiday somewhere in Britain, you are still travelling into alien territory. Whether it’s from Devon to Cornwall, from Manchester to Liverpool, you are still crossing from one culture to another, to places where you will be treated as different. I lived in Cornwall once, and was of course a foreigner, because I came from the frozen north, somewhere near Buxton; and even though I was welcomed warmly as some exotic species of interloper, I was often made aware of their suspicions of anyone ‘from across the border’, by which they meant the border with Devon.
Indeed, to truly experience the implications of travel, you need to live in a place much smaller than Cornwall. I was born in a tiny Pennine village called Wincle (pronounced like the shell-fish, and yes it’s a real place) and it was so tiny it consisted of no more than twenty households. Despite its size, however, its sense of community was large. The inhabitants had deep-rooted suspicions and suppressed hostilities for the next village up the valley, the equally tiny, Wildboarclough, (yes another real place, idyllic part of the world). And the boundaries between the two villages were strong – we might as well have been separated by the English Channel. Yet, we all had to share the same school, the same river, and my best friend lived not in my village but in the next. So the enmity had to be jovial.

It really isn’t so very different from the jovial love-hate relationship between France and the UK, or Germany and France. We all feel pride for our own community, we all need to feel we belong to a ‘tribe’, a place we call home, but that shouldn’t stop us from travelling from one place to another. Because sometimes you need to nip over to the next village, because their village store is better stocked on a Friday than yours (better liquorice whirls). The journey itself will provide stories, especially in winter, when the roads fill with snow. And the clash of cultures could provide plenty of lively stories in one of the many pubs, (there were more pubs than houses in Wincle, whereas Wildboarclough only had three. Mind you, their Rose-Queen Pageant was always better than ours, although we had a vicar who rode an antique motorbike-with-sidecar, and they couldn’t top that!).
But in the end, when we all got on the coach to Big School, into the seething metropolis which was Macclesfield – well that was when my best friend from Wildboarclough was no longer the girl from the next village, but my sister-in-arms. Me and Liz against the world! Our eyes were opened and it was a new world to explore, things we didn’t even know existed. Like the taste of Chicken Madras.

But we were never really against the world, my childhood friends and I, because in truth, once we had escaped from our village-life, we realised, all the world is there to explore. And all the world wants us, and we want all the world to come and explore our neck of the woods. And as long as we respect each others’ lives and cultures, respect each village and town and country, each tree or canal, it is a positive experience for all. As long as, in the process, we don’t destroy that which we are journeying to find of course, which should be the travellers’s lore.

It isn’t possible to stop people travelling. And only an idiot or a despot would try. You can’t stop the cross-fertilisation movement creates either. From village to village. From village to town, from town to city, to neighbouring country, to nations across the globe. There are people who are trying to stop such movement and, to be honest, it’s getting tedious now to have to keep repeating something so obvious. You can’t stop the human desire, and sometimes the need, to travel. You can make it difficult for travellers, and watch them die trying. You can try the Eastern Bloc Stasi technique and build a wall around them, or the Trump-theory, and threaten to build a wall to keep them out, or you can try the Daily Mail, loud-mouthed, mind-washing tactic, and it will work up to a point, but in the end, it will fail. Human beings will move around, cross borders, immigrate, emigrate, and re-settle. And a good thing for the survival of humanity it is too.
And here’s why. Apart from the enjoyment, the desire, the curiosity, the cultural, educational, economic and personal benefit of any form of travel, human beings have a biological need to travel. If you’re one of these people who think immigration is a bad thing, think about this. If there had never been immigration into your village, way back in your ancestry, your head would be the shape of a rugby ball, or you’d have some other form of hideous inherited mutated deformity, and you’d be so inbred you wouldn’t be able to boil a potato (which came from a different land by the way, thanks to people who explored the world). The Egyptian rulers kept their gene pool small, and their heads became lumpen and their brains ineffective. Any community which insists on keeping its gene pool small dies out eventually. We need immigration, and we need emigration, and we need travel. The human drive to travel is biological, part of the instinct to survive. If every one of us stayed at home, in our own street, and only mated with the people next door, our DNA pool would become so small that we’d start to pass on each others’ ugliness and weaknesses.

That’s why there have always been wanderers, people who had the nerve, the guts, the need to move. And they would toddle off to the next village, find themselves a new partner who wasn’t quite as inbred, and bring home new blood, new DNA to enrich the community. And then if the community was lucky, they’d have quite a few wanderers (bards if they were really lucky, who would sing stories of great derring-do), coming to their village from really far away, with a whole plethora of new and healthy DNA to donate to the village.

So when people tell me they hate travel, and that’s their excuse for why they voted to ban movement of people, I’m sceptical. Of course it’s their choice if they choose to stay locked inside narrow parameters they themselves have drawn, like the woman who said she’d never left Yorkshire and had no intention of leaving Yorkshire, especially if it meant crossing over to Lancaster even if she did need a new hip. We live in a free country (just about). But if you want to stay indoors, which is your right, don’t ban everyone else from moving about. We all need others to cross-fertilise our communities, culturally, economically and biologically. The argument against movement of people is so bogus it is hardly worth discussing. The biological need for travel is not in doubt. We need wanderers. And we need Wandering Bards to tell us all about their journeys.

We need them to enrich our culture. And we need them to tell us why they’re here, and how they came to be here. We need to welcome strangers into our motherland, especially those who have been displaced from their own motherlands. It’s obviously the moral thing to do, which is what drove the Kinder Transport of WW2, by which we in Britain welcomed those fleeing Hitler. But it isn’t just the moral thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do (to paraphrase the mayors of New York and London). I am a better person for living alongside Syrians, Italians, Libyans, Spaniards, Egyptians, Germans, Afghans, Nigerians. And of course I am a better person for having helped other humans in need. Just as I am a richer person having visited Rome, California, Belgrade, Istanbul. My work is better, my health is better, my family is better, my brain is better … And our society is better when others come to our country and we go to theirs.

Long may it be possible to embrace the cultures of others through travel, either by moving around ourselves, or by encouraging others to come to us – people like the powerful Turkish writer Elif Shafak, who should have the last word when it comes to talking about movement and Motherlands:

Motherlands are beloved, no doubt; sometimes they can also be exasperating and maddening. Yet, I have also come to learn that for writers and poets for whom national borders and cultural barriers are there to be questioned, again and again, there is, in truth, only one motherland, perpetual and portable.

Three Daughters of Eve (Penguin 2017)


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