I was standing in a service station outside Bodmin in Cornwall, holding a sign that reads “John O’ Groats”, when Mr Leave incarnate approached. He was a white, working class, sixty-something, Cornish, overweight man. “Either you’re getting married,” he said, “Or this is about Brexit.”
In the days following the EU referendum, a friend and I decided to hitchhike from Land’s End to John O’ Groats. I voted to Leave. He voted to Remain. Marriage was clearly off the cards.
“All I will say,” continued my fellow Leaver, “Is don’t vilify my generation. They never listened to us.”
Blanket stereotyping is not only unhelpful, but, as I learnt on my journey, inaccurate. Opinion was nuanced, even among the gnarliest fishermen. “The trawler boys” were anaesthetising themselves in the Star Inn in the Cornish town of Newlyn where, a couple of months ago, one stabbed another in a fight over which way was north. These men rake the seafloor of everything from dolphin to mackerel. It’s a lucrative but dangerous game. They earn up to £3,000 a week, but lose skippers every year.
“I hate boats, I don’t want to talk about boats,” said a veteran wearing a turquoise t-shirt emblazoned with the word, “iDad”. He, like everyone else in the pub, hated the EU and its various regulations. Still, iDad voted to Remain because he believed fishing was the last thing on the British government’s list of priorities. He also recognised that regulations are sometimes necessary to prevent his boys from pulling everything out of the sea. iDad is proof that not all of the electorate are narrow-minded, ignorant or stubborn.
The crew were moving on to “the Swordy”. They insisted we join them. But we peeled off, and bumped into John, a Cornish-born handyman who gave us a bed for the night. He was devastated by the referendum result, and believed politicians and media moguls were pedalling lie after lie. “No one is listening or talking to the actual people facing the issues,” he said. “They are the ones who will always get screwed over.
“Still they’re happy. They work like dogs, sweat, eat proper food, come home, maybe shag the Mrs.”
Outside Manchester, Lee, a pro-Leave, ex-Labour voter in his mid-50s, postponed a conference call to drive us half an hour out of his way and buy us coffee. “They think us little people are stupid,” he said, “But we’re not; we want to be heard.” He picked up an empty cup and flipped it over. “That’s what needs to happen to British politics,” he said. I asked him what he wanted in a leader. “An honest person with integrity,” he replied. “Britain is a resilient country, but we’ve lost our identity.”
Identity is a word that cropped up in almost every car and conversation, whether pro-Leave or Remain. Jason, an ex-army wiry Scot who describes everything real and good as “brand new”, drove us to the remote Highland village of Strathcarron and put us up for the night. “Your country stopped being great a long time ago, you’ve got no f**kin’ identity!” he cried, as we flew 100 miles through astonishing scenery. “Scotland has identity, or at least we did. But what country when they’re offered independence f**kin’ turns it down?!”
It took us three days, twelve hitches and a few bottles of Scotch blend to go from one political and geographical extreme to the other. It was an adventure that made me understand my own conditioning. In London, where I live, I am busy, I am earning, and I am always going places. So much as a smile on the tube is met with suspicion. In just three days I felt that hard wiring begin to slacken. The only place we were trying to get to was John O’ Groats, and frankly, at the start neither of us had believed we would succeed.
Sitting in passenger seats for 800-odd miles, I was overwhelmed by how immeasurably interesting people really are. And how resilient they can be when they are dealing with real issues – terminal cancer, losing a job, alcoholism.
When we arrived in Wick, on the tip of the Scottish coast, it was around 6pm and ready to pour. We took refuge in a charity shop. Seeing our bedraggled state, the shop assistant, Lorna, took up our cause. Fag between sparkling pink nails, she drove us to John O’ Groats in her blue jaguar, telling us about the time she went to London for the national darts championships. We leapt out at the signpost, took a snap and felt victorious. That night, her friend put us up.
We never had to pay for a bed; people are kind. They are also extremely frustrated. Brexit is in part a cathartic screech after years of politicians blocking their ears to anyone with an inconvenient opinion. If they start to listen, perhaps finally we will see meaningful change.