The last two days of walking have been triangulated against some kind of literature. The next will be no exception, as I am heading for Leighton Buzzard where, back in about 1974, I bought a book that has retained great meaning for me over the years – Conan of Cimmeria. This paperback, which I have in my bag, was the first collection of Conan stories I read. Robert E. Howard’s sword-and-sorcery hero captivated my teenage imagination – stories about a marvellous world combining every kind of adventure story, full of scary monsters a bit like those of H.P. Lovecraft, but with a hero who prevailed over them rather than passively subsiding into insanity as HPL’s protagonists tended to do. For me, the Hyborian Age started in the WHSmith in Leighton Buzzard, LU7 7DN – accessing a rich seam of pulp literature, and a sense that one should (as the Quakers say) ‘live adventurously’. So revisiting the place is an essential milestone on this walk.
“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet” wrote Howard, describing what we might now call a ‘portfolio career’ – rather than specialising in, say, ‘reaving’ as a job-for-life, Conan use his transferable skills through many roles – buccaneer, mercenary, king etc. Similarly, I have multiple roles (albeit less colourful – ‘Hither came Mister Roy, a marketeer, a science fiction fan…’ doesn’t set the pulse racing). Whereas Conan tends to progress from one thing to another, my various aspects all seem to coexist, which can make me feel like the leader of a small unruly squadron, always threatening to deploy the wrong technique at the right time: doing a business presentation as a piece of performance art, turning a poem into a marketing matrix.
Life is complex like that and I guess we’re all mashups of diverse elements. As well as multiple identities, there are multiple realities to negotiate. In a great piece about London, Michael Moorcock suggest that creation of virtual identities and virtual living environments is a survival strategy, effective ‘as long as we’re fully conscious’, and talks about psychogeography as the recovery of lost London. Personally, I’m not from London, so I don’t have those particular ancient paths to rediscover. My quest is to stitch together the places and times where I’ve ended up, virtual or otherwise; an assemblage of cities, towns and villages and the unknown tracts of lands in between. Which is why I’m walking, trying to explore my own real/virtual worlds by physically slogging through them. Rather than psychogeography I’m calling what I’m doing autobiogeography – a conflation of ‘autobiography’ and ‘geography’, but also the ‘biogeography of myself’ – my own physical (blood sweat blisters and local real ale) interaction with places. As well as walking I’m creating this meandering document, like Conan in his throne-room, drawing a map of the semi-legendary places he had wandered through, because the official ones were ‘vague and faulty’ concerning his ‘northern countries’.
All of which brings me to be walking up Midsummer Boulevard in Milton Keynes, on a hot midsummer night. I haven’t discovered any evidence of Conan’s prehistoric Hyborian Age, but in a Wetherspoons I find unexpected evidence of an even more ancient world – a flyer for an art show called All Hail Atlantis, vortex of illumination.
Milton Keynes isn’t actually on the walk, but will be my base for two nights while I try a haul from Buckingham to Leighton Buzzard. This is the longest time I’ve spent in MK and the experience of visiting the centre is very enjoyable – I love the spacious walkways and unbroken modern-ness. Perhaps I’m appreciating what J.G. Ballard described as ‘the ambiguous but heady charms of alienation and anonymity’. The Encore hotel, a new sub-brand of simple-cheap-efficient sleeping machines launched by the Ramada chain, seems intent on counterbalancing any alienation with words: they are ‘exciting, passionate, fresh, stylish, vibrant, upbeat and refreshing’. By Crom, that’s a lot of adjectives – qualities I hope will infuse me during a long walk.