Sunday, 12 July 2015

Heading Off

So tomorrow I am heading off to John o' Groats, in order to cycle thence to Land's End (or as my daughter put it, I'm going from John of Oats to Man's End). Why? Good question. It's not for the physical challenge really, but to experience what it means to travel the entire length of the (mainland of) the island on which I have lived for all but four years of my life. Travelling long distances has become so easy and so quick that we often fail to connect with its fundamental importance: people repeatedly tell us that it's a small world, and sometimes it takes travelling at moderate pace and under our own steam to make us realise that really it isn't. The world is just as large as it always was and we are just as small.

I shall attempt to post occasionally to this blog (at least if anything interesting occurs to me) but before starting I thought it worth reflecting on the language we use to describe what I am setting out to do. 'Travel' is of course from the old French 'travail', still in existence in modern French meaning work, and in English carrying even stronger connotations of hardship and extreme effort, reflecting what an onerous business any sort of travel used to be (and still is for commuters to and from London). 'Journey', oddly is from the French word 'journee', indicating a day's length, yet has come to carry connotations of much longer trips (or hops- which was the original meaning of that word).

So neither travel, journey nor trip seems the appropriate word for what I am undertaking. What about 'adventure'? Definitely getting closer. That is from the Latin advenire, meaning to come towards, or arrive, and it carries connotations of looking to the future (in French, l'avenir means the future)- connotations carried even more strongly in the related word Advent. A true adventure (whether in fiction or reality) has the adventurer arrive somewhere utterly different from their place of departure, whether physically or metaphysically, or both.

The word 'pilgrimage' is an interesting one, not that I am suggesting that that is what I am embarking on ('embarking' of course implying getting onto a boat). Its root is in the Latin word for a foreigner or stranger, 'peregrinus', and there is a strong sense for me in the notion of pilgrimage of someone lost in a strange land, seeking meaning through an arduous quest. So not a pilgrimage then, I hope.

What it will also not be is a challenge. 'Challenge' is from the Latin 'calumnia' (also giving root to the word 'calumny') and had originally all sorts of connotations of false accusation, confrontation and the need to prove one's worth. It is an aggressive and disputatious word and I want nothing to do with it on this adventure.

So how about odyssey? The Odyssey has come to be an archetype of the symbolic journey-narrative but its meaning is neither simplistic nor especially comforting. Odysseus' wanderings seem interminable and he is manifestly powerless in the hands of the Gods to whom he is no more than a pawn. Famously also, when he arrives home he finds it utterly changed. Yet maybe because of all that the poem has caught human imaginations for centuries, its central idea perhaps best summed up Tennyson in the lines "I am a part of all that I have met;/Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'/Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades/For ever and forever when I move."

This is a related notion to the ideas in the word 'adventure' and maybe that is partly why we all want to travel /go on a journey/trip/pilgrimage/ move from one place to another from time to time. Maybe we all get a sense sometimes of something just out there, a little beyond the horizon, that might be interesting to explore. As Browning wrote, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what's a heaven for?"

And oddly, just to finish, the word 'explore' is from Latin and originally meant to shout out. A suitable exuberant term I think for what exploration can and should be.

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