A few weeks back, Andy, Lloyd and I decided to emulate the late, great Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett, by walking out of London and heading for Cambridge - see previous post. We took three days, and covered 50 miles or so (only twice resorting to minicabs when our legs let us down).
If this video makes the trip look a bit like three middle-aged white blokes giggling and chuckling their way along public footpaths, through cornfields, up hill and down dale... then you’d be pretty much right.
In my mind’s eye, I was thinking we might be creating our own psychedelic version of 'Three Men on a Boat' (or the less well known 'Three Men on the Bummell' - you know what a bummell is, right?). Or perhaps it could be more of a spiritual pilgrimage with stories told along the way; i.e. as someone suggested on Twitter - "The Canterbury Tales on blotter". Even if what we ended up with was more like three shambolic Floyd/Barrett fans on an extended and ambitious pub+spliff crawl, I’m happy with that.
One of the things I grew to love about Syd as I read through the biographies and listened to his solo albums, was his clear, deep and abiding loyalty to the idea of creative spontaneity, artful formlessness in his guitar playing, stream of consciousness in his lyrics, quick and dirty collage or cut and paste of materials close to hand. In other words, this was a man who thought creative expression was basically ‘doing what you like’ - and we three definitely did what we liked on the Syd Barrett Way.
Quite why Syd Barrett chose to walk out of London in 1982 and live out the rest of his days at his mum’s house (and at the local pub, The Rock, drinking mainly Guinness), nobody knows. Nobody knows either which route he took to get to Cambridge, how long it took him - or what happened on the way.
Yes, Syd took a lot of drugs and clearly suffered from mental health problems. But I don't think he was completely off his rocker, as other members of Floyd seem to suggest in interviews about Syd. There was a certain method in his madness. And he definitely was NOT a 'crazy diamond'.
Listen to his songs enough and away goes the idea of the innocent child-like stoner accidentally using whimsical imagery stolen from half-remembered nursery rhymes, and in comes someone much more self-aware, much more sarcastic about what’s going on around him, much more arty and artful about the construction of his songs, much more intentional about his randomness, much more literary about his nonsense.
In his great book about Syd, Rob Chapman suggests that even the walk itself might have been an artistic statement – an attempt perhaps to emulate the ‘mad’ poet John Clare who walked away from the mental hospital where he was banged up in 1841, to spend four days and nights walking 80 miles back home.
It begs the question - why does anyone choose to walk out or run away? And the secondary question - why is walking out or running away so often portrayed as a negative, cowardly or 'mad' thing to do?
Definitely all of us Sydtrippers were struck by how odd it feels to walk out of the big city and disappear, seemingly abandoning all work, family, deadlines, responsibility.
There’s something quite eery about the basic physics of walking under the North Circular, then under the M25, then crossing the Outer London Defence Ring, following a web of pylons and public footpaths away from the city, the surroundings changing from hour to hour, first urban then suburban, then business parks, industrial estates piled with aggregate and finally hedgerows and cornfields as far as the eye can see...
You really do feel as if you’re doing something ‘wrong’ by walking and not working, that you’re electing to disappear and deliberately 'waste' time.
I’ve talked before about how reading used to be like this too – a transgressive, revolutionary act that doesn't have a specific point (apart from perhaps as a form of perceived self-improvement), isn’t earning you any money, takes you away from mainstream society as if you’ve gone on strike or decided that for a while you want to step away from everything you’d normally be expected to do.
Hell, us men didn't want women to read books at all for precisely the reason that it would mean they'd stop putting in the hours washing our clothes and making the tea.
I think this maybe is what Syd Barrett was about in his work and his walking – doing what you like and it not being 'work', or any kind of directed social behaviour. And it’s why a lot of people still hold a candle for him.
More explicitly, it’s why those same people often think of Pink Floyd becoming the epitome of the modern music ‘business’ after Syd left, doing exactly what was expected of them, becoming a corporate, money-making machine, shunting out globally branded product... and yet paradoxically doing it whilst writing several songs about Syd along the way – ‘the lunatic on the grass’, 'the crazy diamond', 'comfortably numb'...
The longer we walked and the more I contemplated Syd Barrett the more I became convinced that it would be a great thing to establish an official trail or path from London to Cambridge which people could use to explore their own ideas about walking away for a while.
It’s not as if it’s that hard to get a trail established as some kind of official pathway. Take the Harcamlow Way which we followed for quite a way during our trip. You might think this is some ancient trading route like The Ridgeway or the Icknield Way - but really not.
The Harcamlow Way is an invention of two blokes who mapped it out on behalf of their local Ramblers Association, cleared away a few brambles and nettles, bashed out a few stiles, fought a few battles with local landowners and then *self-published* the results.
Thirty years later the Harcamlow Way is now marked on official OS maps and sits alongside the ancient paths of Britain as if it had always been there.
Why couldn’t the Barrett Way become an offically approved and sign-posted route too? I’m going to investigate how these things become recognised by the powers-that-be and will report back soon. Or am I becoming too Roger Waters-like in my urge to bring Syd back onto a mainstream path, to pin him down and publish his footsteps on a map that you'd have to pay money for?
In the meantime, I encourage you to take your own #sydtrip soon. There are some good pubs out there, some great – if slightly eccentric – people to meet and talk to, and when the sun shines you will definitely get a strong - yeah I’m going to say it - ‘cosmic’ connection through the flowers and the butterflies, the berries and the corn, the wind and clouds, to that ancient pastoral England that so obviously inspired Syd and the writers he admired - Kenneth Grahame, Kate Greenaway, John Clare, William Shakespeare... Basically, he wasn't that madcap at all, was he? I mean, was he...?