No Man is Not an Island – written on the Isle of Man

To myself who have turned 27,

This is the first time going on a trip alone, albeit a short one. In Japanese, this is called hitoritabi (一人旅). And I’ve decided to do it across my birthday. 

John Donne wrote, ‘no man is an island’. People are connected to each other: ‘every man / is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’. We continue to share this view in the 20th and 21st centuries. Jürgen Habermas speaks of the principle of discourse and intersubjective morality, essentially pointing to the community aspect of human society. Feminism concerns the female community of solidarity, while Marxism stresses the significance of class struggle. Perhaps I’m more a postmodernist, but even the postmodernist concept of the plurality of truths underlines the community aspect – there’s no plurality without somebody else who thinks differently.

In our own familiar places – for me, Hong Kong and also Glasgow now – we are inevitably tied to people and institutions to whom/which we are inevitably connected: family, friends, colleagues, supervisors, neighbours, etc. There’s no way we can see ourselves as an island indeed.

But each of us is necessarily an island. However much tied to people around you, the only person who will walk the whole journey of life is yourself. People come and go, talking of Michaelangelo. Somebody uses the train analogy – people get on and off at different stations, they meet on the train, but nobody travels an identical journey. Our life, in other words, is a hitoritabi.


どれだけ旅しても、自分からだけ逃れられない。This is a line by Aragaki Yui from a recent commercial. It translates: however far you travel, the only thing from which you cannot run away is yourself.

It’s important to be a social being, but the most important lesson of life is coming to terms with oneself. Who am I, what do I want, and how am I going on this life journey when I’m all on my own, when I do not orient myself around others? Is it at all possible? Maybe not, but one has to try, at least to keep a distance from people in order to hear more clearly your own voice, if that voice exists at all (or in academic buzzwords, has an ontology of its own). Like writing a PhD thesis, finding or crafting your own voice which no one but yourself can completely understand, because no one treads an identical path.

Perhaps my hitoritabi, or may I say the realisation that life is a hitoritabi, actually began when I embarked on this PhD route, departing from people around physically, intellectually, emotionally. At this point of time, Glasgow has become familiar, and I’m getting away again, though just for a couple of days.

I’ve chosen the Isle of Man, an interesting choice in most people’s eyes. Even my BnB host (who happens to be a Cantonese and I didn’t know it beforehand!) asked why I would choose this place for travel, because it has nothing much to see. Well yeah, but I’m not trying to see something on the island. I want to see the island.

The Isle of Man has a very unique, and probably little-known history. It used to be part of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles. Most of the other parts are now within the Scottish territory, but the Isle of Man remains a politically independent country, with its own three-leg national emblem (not even the museum has an answer to what this symbolises) that has nothing to do with the UK. Coming from Scotland, now calling for a second independent referendum, and Hong Kong, trying hard not to get assimilated as just one of the Chinese cities, I find this nation especially interesting. Obviously it is not isolated from its neighbouring (dis)United Kingdom, but it is happily on its own at the same time.


I guess an important lesson of life is to accept that each of us is an island. We are all islands on this globe dipping into the same water body, but after all, we are all on our own.

If no man is not an island, then try to be an island like the Isle of Man.

There’s no elaborate birthday celebration this year. No more surprise from students who happily use this as an excuse to have a lesson off. Away from friends who buy you stuff and hang around noisily. No family cake cutting. I used to be excited because I would be expecting and looking forward all these things around, but not this year. I have it all to myself this year, valuable time with the important person.

Maybe it’s also a sign of getting old too.

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Glasgow Subway Poetry

I rarely take the subway in Glasgow because the university is within walking distance, and I go to the city centre usually by bus. Today I took it, and this is what I discovered in Kelvinhall station.

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I wonder how many passengers have noticed it. I obviously missed it for a few times, as this definitely wasn’t my first time in this station. A typical goal-oriented Hongkonger doesn’t usually notice anything in a train station except the electronic displays that I always suspect intentionally underestimate the number of minutes before the next train arrives, but maybe Glaswegians are more perceptive? I can’t speak for them.

Why isn’t there a poem in a train station in Hong Kong? Or is there, but I didn’t notice?

This lovely little poem is not by any well-known poet. In fact, the author is unknown and even Google God doesn’t give any relevant search results about this obscure poem in an obscure subway station. (Almost all Glasgow subway stations, perhaps with the exception of the two city centre stations, St. Enoch and Buchanan Street, are somewhat obscure. The subway here isn’t anything elaborate anyway – it’s just a small loop that takes only 24 minutes to travel back to the departure station.)

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From the official website of STP

 

This poem has a challenging title – For Pilgrims and Passengers. Am I an ordinary passenger, or am I a faithful pilgrim? It seems to suggest a new understanding of pilgrimage in late modernity, not only in the sense that we passengers can see ourselves as pilgrims by instilling meanings into our journeys, but also how we can understand pilgrimage not in the conventional sense of a somewhat linear journey, but a circular one. Look at the subway map. Besides being circular, the trains also go in two directions, and most logically, the majority of commuters would travel to and fro along the inner and outer circles in the morning and in the evening respectively (or the other way round), rather than sticking to one same direction every time. It might look more complicated if you travel on Hong Kong MTR or London underground, but it is the same idea of circularity, best graphically exemplified in Glasgow subway.

‘The Flowers of Time / the bags you carry / The Flags of Romance / the everyday signs’ – a juxtaposition of grandeur and the mundane. How do we understand this? Because of its simplicity, the Glasgow subway is able to operate rather accurately in terms of time. We can see the time required to travel to other stations on the signs, but can we see the Flowers during the passage of time? What do people do anyway when they travel on the subway? The poem seems to suggest that we passengers should give a little bit more thought to those 10 to 20 minutes during which we do little other than carrying our bags, and it confronts our numbness to the ordinary by erecting the Flags of Romance. Can a little bit of poetry add scents of romance to the old and uninteresting station?

‘Each other / Each other’ – the repetition sounds to me like the to-and-fro journeys commuters take, but what are they referring to? We passengers? The items in the previous stanza? The phrase evokes a sense of connection, perhaps a sense of reconnection of previously disconnected things that ought to be connected. Although individuals seem to be rather disconnected from each other in city life, all the passengers are actually connected by the fact of being in this city, the sharing of an urban routine. We don’t belong to the ancient age of individual heroic quests. What characterises our age is perhaps this collective circular pilgrimage that doesn’t have an end point. This subway poem seems to suggest that to seek a destination in this circularity is meaningless, and let’s appreciate the journey itself. We need faith, not to believe that we can reach the goal some day, but to believe that the journey is beautiful.

Anyhow, the fact that a poem is inscribed in a subway station means something. It’s not a commercial advertisement disguised as art (e.g. that controversial Hong Kong Palace Museum thingy in Hong Kong MTR Station), which is probably more indigenous to such a locale. This poem is an artistic expression and challenge, and the invisibility of the author inhibits the temptation of venerating any artistic authority. It simply belongs to every passenger, or pilgrim.

We don’t actually need a huge vacant space spared for displaying works of renowned artists. What we really need, and lack, is an atmosphere that encourages the permeation of art in our city – Everyart for Everyone.