This is my captain, and this is how I see him.

This is my captain, and this is how I see him.

Tall. Traditional silhouette. Barrel-chested with tankard-ears, the crows took his hair long ago.

Wisht lads. Filling the room with a bar-room thunder of the Lambton Worm, swaying everyone through will. Cowing all in a stony, physical silence when the mood takes, as it often would.

Power grown from a lifetime at sea; a life of ports and cigarette cards, matchstick ships and ambassadors. The blue star flying on the red flag. Foreign at home, the rocking anchor sleeps with a two-finger measure and black cat sharing space on the stock.

Leaving with a crushing handshake – even to a child – as he slips out to sea, or to meet the other men with their briefcase, square and compass. Is that where you keep your drink?

This is my captain, and this is how I don’t want to see him.

No longer proud of the spare room in his waist band. Smaller now, quietened by a large day; winded and thin.

Away to sea.

About facts

About facts and opinions, forget about feelings; narrowed range of emotions,
privatised for — efficiency.
Crossing the road to cover from the shower, under a canopy long since chopped down.
Denuded and chipped.
Yellow ribbons strewn, only forms remain.

Gravel and steel.

Standing at the starting line with my right foot in a toe-clipped pedal. Bunting hangs over head. I am looking at the people around me, some lean athletic types, a novelty Dixon of Dock Green, a woman in high heels. Lots of merino wool and moustaches. I look back at my wife, she is looking at me with a strange mix of pride and fear; I realise I am feeling the same.

Quite unsure what I am about to do and how I got here. A tiny vertigo; this is not me, these are not my people, I hate crowds, I feel so unfit. Concerned that romance has got the better of me.

L'Eroica start

I bought my bike ten months ago – a fifty-pound racer from a disappointed man in Chesterfield – to see if I would enjoy riding again. A low cost trial. I had never ridden a racer before and not consistently been on a bike for a decade.

Since then I have cycled over twelve hundred miles, across the North Peak District, West Yorkshire and the city. I put my finger to a map and decide to ride there; there is water there, it is probably a good place for a rest. I imagine it is calm, as only a vast expanse of churning water can present to be.

Ladybower

Each weekend I find new favourite roads, blissful descents, exposed hills where bracken tussles with the knotted coats of fat sheep, hidden lakes, back paths that make me feel like an underperforming ibex. The occasional lay-by, purpose made for midnight frolics between masked people.

Always on my own. No music, no screens, no words. There is only me, my bicycle and the limitations of the two. Yet here I am, in this cabal of steel bikes, staring at a man in a top hat waving us off with a large flag. Fifty-five utterly bastard miles over hard hills and punishing gravel paths of Derbyshire lie ahead. Fifty-five isn’t a lot of miles, but these are hard ones.

Once we started moving out of Bakewell, cheered along with bells and tiny klaxons, I forget about all my anxieties. I always do when on my bike. It doesn’t take long to become part of the fluid group, ebbing and flowing, saving energy and pushing on. A new rhythm to work with, supported and encouraged by everyone around me. Strangers working together.

Descent to HartingtonTwenty miles fly by, through the tunnels of the Monsal Trail, a heavy climb, intimidatingly rugged gravel, downhills through Hobbit land. Arriving in Hartington with my rattling headset seems unreal: a mass of coloured shirts and hats, classic Bianchi frames nestling alongside JW Wilson and Holdsworths; beer guts and lean athletes. Importantly, half of bitter and a jammy scone. I hadn’t expected this side of things, even though the silent nod camaraderie with cyclists is a favourite thing when out on the hills.

HartingtonRefuelled, another twenty miles – off road down gruff land with chunky sleepers, across brooks, winding roads around The High Peak Trail, Cromford, through Lea next to John Smedley’s factory. A Derbyshire greatest hits set.

Ever onwards, mostly upwards.

It dawns that Chatsworth is only ten miles away. Five miles away. Two. Clapped along, I turn a bend and get ushered onto the estate’s drive. A long, smooth path to stretch out – an opportunity for a head-down sprint, to enjoy being on a flat road for a few minutes. A short refreshment break as I am handed a glass of English wine and another of Pimm’s. Neither last long against a blazing summer day’s thirst; exhausted and too eager to get to the finish line.

Those last three miles feel like forever. An unexpected and cruelly-positioned climb out of Chatsworth is unending. Pedalling against gravity with huge rocks for thighs until a sudden downhill that I know well as the entry to Bakewell revealed itself; I can see the festival site and finishing line beyond the trees.

I welled up a bit, suddenly overwhelmed by everything. Riding fifty-eight difficult miles became a symbol of fundamentally changing my life over the past year; of losing four stones, of challenging myself, putting myself in difficult situations. Getting to the end.

Mawkish, I know, but there are times when life completely fucking hits you and you should absolutely indulge in it – this was one of them.

A document is not enough.

I have just been to see 12 Years A Slave and – because I am of the internet – I have an opinion or two about it. They are brief thoughts, but you are welcome to read them.

I won’t look at some of the questions I have about it, partially because they are for a much wider discussion, partially because I don’t feel well placed enough to make judgments – and I can only talk about it from position as a comfortable white man. I won’t discuss whether it’s correct to tell the story of slavery from the position of a privileged man (albeit within a marginalised context) and I won’t discuss McQueen falling into the classic trope of rape and abuse of women to demonstrate the depths and immorality of (a) man.

Image

Here is what I will talk about: it is a document.

12 Years A Slave is an important, impeccable document of an horrific time/culture of Western civilisation. It is masterfully shot, directed, acted (Chiwetel Ejiofor is great, Fassbender is phenomenal). There are moments of absolute beauty, impressionistic images that blur and fade, to go along with the brutality. The constant, unflinching brutality. Only a few events are not shown graphically, which provides them with more power. It shows things the audience thinks they are aware of in a more grim and damning way than before.

It documents brilliantly the reduction of a man to a slave, from member of society to property, and the will that keeps the man from succumbing completely to devastated subordinance.

But, it is a document.

Only a document, and a document that chose exactly what to show.

The Realism of 12 Years A Slave serves only to move the (white) audience to sympathise; to express guilt and regret for historical complicity. If it makes them angry: great, but it doesn’t offer anything to do with that anger.

A document doesn’t give you anything to do. It doesn’t give you anything to advance or change. It shows what has happened. It barely touches on why it happened, how a culture of inhumanity is created or justified, or what can be done to avoid it being repeated. It shows what has happened, and puts a full stop at the end.

The footnotes that end the film – telling of Solomon’s failure to achieve justice against his slave master and kidnappers because of a racist, weighted system – point to what the film could have looked at instead. McQueen could have interrogated a system prejudiced against black people, a system that continues to stand within updated laws. McQueen could have investigated why it was still necessary for luck and white men to save his protagonist. McQueen could have drawn greater relationships between the plantations and contemporary slavery, of sweatshops and unfair trade.

12 Years A Slave is superb, but it doesn’t add anything.