I was so struck when I read about Emily’s Walking Book Club in London (see the lovely EmilyBooks blog) that I immediately wanted to have something like that here in glorious Hadrian’s Wall country. So, while we start to get that – well, off the ground, how about limbering up with some books about walks and walking?
As a rather lonely child who spent most days playing by myself in the woods near our house (my, how times have changed), there was something about Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes that just spoke to me. I can’t say it has left me with a life-long love of recalcitrant donkeys – although the unforgettable Modestine is one of the great four-legged characters in literature – but it did fix in my young mind an indelible picture of freedom. Whether I was ever going to stride the length of one of the lesser-known ravishing areas of France might have been, and remains, a moot point, but Stevenson planted the idea that to get out there, into the countryside, is the thing (this week’s blog is probably not aimed at the Woody Allens among you – by which I only mean the convinced, bred-in-the-bone urbanite: although why should you not be your own Dr Livingstone in the concrete jungle?).
From Travels with a Donkey I moved on to Laurie Lee. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is of course, as you would hope from a poet, a lyrical description of his journey through the south of England and in Spain, but there is rather more to it than that. Lee, as I’m sure you know, walked into the Spanish Civil War, and his is as good an evocation of that perilous and terrible time as anything from Hemingway or Orwell. It is disturbingly easy, by the way, to get the impression that Spaniards – especially the non-literary ones – had quite a job of it getting a look-in in their own struggle against a monstrous dictator, being at least as much imposed upon by dewy-eyed writers following their own agenda. I like Jessica Mitford’s account in Hons and Rebels, not least because its sense of muddle and confusion sounds believable. But it is a strange phenomenon – and possibly one we should talk about some time – that some wars seem fated to become literary landmarks, whereas others get left to hack each other wearily and horribly to death without poets clustering round.
We’ve talked a little about Patrick Leigh-Fermor before, so here let me just remind you of your intention to read him if you haven’t and re-read him if you have: you won’t regret it. But there is a chance that you haven’t read John Hillaby, because I suspect he is out of fashion as well as out of print. Once the Zoological Correspondent for the Manchester Guardian (and I tell you that only because I rather yearn for a time when that sort of job existed), Hillaby popped on his walking boots to make the trek across Kenya to Lake Turkana, a trip of about a thousand miles which therefore puts the Proclaimers’ pledge to walk a measly five hundred miles somewhat in the shade. Journey to the Jade Sea was not specifically undertaken as an act of love, but in his later Journey Through Britain, Journey Through Europe and Journey Through Love Hillaby was increasingly able to interweave his sentimental education with his other observations as he walked.
The idea of walking with a philosophical purpose is of course not new. To walk to somewhere in order to experience the journey rather than simply to get to your destination might be as good a definition of pilgrimage as any other. O good; that’s Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress into the rucksack then. And we Umberto Eco fans can slip a copy of his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods in there as well. Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, would be a copy of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, which can be guaranteed to put any moaning about blisters to shame. Any sort of journey lends itself to being a metaphor, of course: we’re back with our old friend Dante as he finds himself in the middle of the journey of his life standing in a dark wood with no clear path forward. Sounds familiar?
Lee, Leigh-Fermor, Hillaby and Christian all walked alone, on the whole, but company is allowable: indeed, if you are going to join us in the NorthernReader Walking Book Club, company is mandatory. It doesn’t have to be human, I suppose: as a dog-owner, Miles Wallington’s 500 Mile Walkies painted an appallingly recognisable picture of the highs and lows of choosing as your companion in life a drooling fur-ball with serious personal hygiene issues. Better, perhaps, to set out for the day with compass, grog and pemmican and your siblings and friends like the Swallows and the Amazons, who seem to undertake forced route marches the length and breadth of the fells without turning a hair. They brought children up to be sturdier then, is all I can say. Today’s valedictory picture shows that increasingly rare sight, children released into the wild and enjoying themselves. They survived their up-bringing and even claim to have enjoyed it. One of them grew up to be KatePonders, so clearly all that fresh air and exercise did some good.
PS The NorthernReader Walking Book Club is going to stride out soon. Watch this space, as they say, and I’ll email, tweet (or, to be honest, get KatePonders to tweet for me) and put up nice old-fashioned posters in Cogito Books, Hexham Library and local village shops as well.