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On Chance Road – A thumb print of Britain

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Laurence Shelley

On Chance Road – A thumb print of Britain

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I really enjoyed this book, written by Subud author Laurence Shelley. I didn’t think I would, not being into travelogues per se, plus the fact I knew ‘travel’ is an overblown genre, with writers constantly upping the ante by swimming in every English river, or climbing every Himalayan peak, for example.

But the book is not what it seems, and it took me by complete surprise (perhaps I was misled by the, to my mind, redundant sub-title, ‘A Thumb Print of Britain’).

Laurence sets off to hitchhike the length of Britain, from Lizard Point in Cornwall to North Ronaldsay on the Orkneys, interviewing the people who give him lifts and those whom he meets en route, asking questions such as ‘What led you to do what you like?’, ‘What dream remains unfulfilled?’ and ‘What one thing will you never forget?’, constantly modifying his questions and approach as the journey unfolds.

 

Laurence writes well and engagingly, coming across as a warm hearted, open-minded, easy-going kind of guy, a philosopher with a wealth of life and work experience, cultured reading and spiritual seeking under his belt, and he’s pretty non-judgemental too. So it’s no surprise that he gets people to open up so easily. But I’m also aware of the fact that the kind of people who give hitchhikers lifts, or who are willing to help strangers, either have some of the same qualities, or have stories they need to tell, and tell often. As my wife, a retired Social Worker, used to remind me, everyone has a story; everyone has a saving grace, and the stories are uplifting, surprising, horrendous, as in Laurence’s book.

Beneath the fascinating, day-by-day account of his meetings and conversations – as well as his acute observations on place, history, geography and the weather – lies the sub-text and where the book really takes off for me.

Laurence begins to become more and more involved in, and intrigued by, chance and connections, coincidence and syn- chronicity – and the wealth of serendipitous experiences that he interprets en route as signs and guidance – often brought to life by his subtle word-play.

One example: Laurence finds a wounded blue-tit in the lay-by he is hitching from, describes its plumage in detail and then perches it in the fork of a branch before continuing on. Later, he comes across the site of a recent and obviously very serious road accident, and muses on how it could have happened, who was involved and so on. A while later, he is picked up by a young man who has had a tough and difficult life and now, at the age of 25, was needing to settle down, but having trouble choosing a career, not knowing if he should be a drugs counsellor, a plumber or a paramedic.

‘Where do I go from here?’ he asks Laurence plaintively. Laurence answers: “...And then words fizzed out of me... ‘Ask for what you need,.. Say out loud: please show me... what direc-

tion I should go in. Be alert, watch for a sign, an indication. It will come... There’s an agency out there, waiting to help. Call it.’ After being dropped off, Laurence feels dissatisfied with his answer. And writes: “...How could I be so blind? I see the after-

math of an accident, then Jezz picks me up and wonders about being a paramedic. Haven’t I got the message? He just has to be a paramedic. Then I remember the blue-tit episode. Who picked me up after that? Wild life rescuers!

“It’s what happens: the future’s foreshadowed. Signposts are here now, pointing to the next destination... I could have told Jez about the accident scene. He might have realised the connection and understood its rightness... ” (Luckily, Laurence has Jez’s mobile number, and calls him... Another aspect of Laurence’s character – he really cares about people.)

And then comes the paragraph that neatly sums up the tenor and essence of the whole book for me: “I’m stunned. This whole journey is slipping into one long conversation where each encounter is like a word, but only the connections between convey the message...”

One ‘event’ I particularly enjoyed, because of my own Subud connection, no doubt, was an account of visiting Ronald and Helen Leask at Fountain House, a year or two before Ronald died. Laurence’s explanation of Subud here is one of the best descriptions and summaries for enquirers I have ever read – and he does it in one paragraph:

“The benefits can be many: a release from old habits and hang-ups, a new look at oneself and fresh thoughts about one’s direction in life. As to the source of such benefits, that’s open to conjecture. Some believe... that it’s a reconnection with a life force all too easily masked by the demands and habits of everyday life. Belief in God or spiritual influences is not obligatory, though some followers maintain that it helps and that the exercise is a form of worship. There are times when it seems to go beyond previous experience.”

There is much to enjoy in this intriguing book as it wends its sequential route north, meandering through travelogue, social study and philosophical treatise, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Review by Marcus Bolt...