Holed up over New Year in a cottage in the Cotswolds, warmed by a logburner, miles of hedgerows white with frost beneath a white sky outside: a good time to catch up on some reading.
The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson (‘The History, Science, Philosophy and Literature of Pedestrianism’) was a very welcome birthday present and I read it in a couple of days. It is a wide-ranging and accessible read, with a useful bibliography.
Nicholson covers many forms of walking, and is an amiable and knowledgeable companion throughout. He is refreshingly dismissive of the type of new age thinking that sees ‘nature’ as (just) a nice and cuddly source of people-friendly goodness, and amusingly disappointed by a psychogeography conference. He champions actual walking over excessively intellectualised approaches (‘…walking isn’t much good as a theoretical experience….you can add things to your walks – constraints, shapes, notions of the mapping of utopian spaces – but you don’t need to.’) He does however devise and undertake an ‘endlessly strange walking project’ of his own, involving multiple transits of Oxford Street He also rewalks some journeys of his childhood, as I am doing, so a tip of the pilgrim hat goes to him for that.
And I have found another kindred spirit in Nicholson’s pages – someone who made a long journey on foot culminating on his fiftieth birthday – none other than Albert Speer. Yes, the Nazi architect and Minister for Armaments once walked 620 kilometres, from Berlin to Heidelberg, arriving to celebrate his half-century in 1955. He was in Spandau prison at the time, actually walking in 270-metre circuits in a garden he had designed, with pal Rudolf Hess keeping count. I know little of Speer, apart from an odd fact that he was contemptuous of filing records and papers – another thing we have in common.
Another present, Wiffle Lever to Full! by Bob Fischer, is viewed by a couple of our friends with such white-hot disdain that my copy will probably wither to ash if their gaze ever falls upon it. This instinctive dislike for an unread book is probably inspired by the packaging and strapline, ‘Daleks, Death-Stars and Dreamy-Eyed Nostalgia at the Strangest Sci-Fi Conventions’, which could lead one to expect some anthropological mockery at the expense of people who attend such conventions, made by an outsider with an idea for a book to fill a slot in the ‘Humour’ section. However, from the point of view of someone who has attended such events, I found it warm and entertaining – the humour tending to the self-deprecating as Fischer unpacks his fannish escapades over the decades – very much a participants’ perspective. Really it’s a book about nostalgia, the whippersnapper author having had a late 70s/80s youth awash with Davison-era Doctor Who, Robin of Sherwood, Star Wars and The Prisoner on VHS. His venture into convention-land is partly an exercise in time travel:
…a vintage Millennium Falcon is calling to me once again, surrounded by equally pristine Star Wars antiques. I want to pull out that NatWest debit card and buy the whole lot, and somehow make it 1980 again, with my gran still alive, and my parents still young and fit, and the dogs stealing chocolate buttons from the Presto selection box on the coffee table that my uncle Trevor made in woodwork class.
Having made a few abortive attempts to conjure the past myself, and sharing many subcultural reference points from the communal storytellers’ fire of TV, film, comics and books, I found it an enjoyable read. One quibble though – I don’t know how it is in Teeside [spelled wrong know, see comments], but that’s ‘science fiction’ or ‘SF’ feller, not, I implore you, ‘Sci Fi’. And I’m still going to hide the book in a lead-lined casket whenever Pete and Jen come around.
Fischer doesn’t walk much unless you count several hungover exits from hotels leading to the grey strangeness of the mundane world, such as the retail streets of Stockton-on-Tees [or should that be ‘Teess’?]. The Gentlemen of the Road in Michael Chabon’s swashbuckling ‘Jews with swords’ novel travel on horseback. However, the afterword (read by the author on the audiobook version we listened to on the way here) includes a reflection on adventurous journeying that could apply to any form of travel:
Adventures are a logical and reliable result, and have been since at least the time of Odysseus, of the fatal act of leaving one’s home, or trying to return to it again. All adventure happens in that damned and magical space, wherever it may be found or chanced upon, which least resembles one’s home. As soon as you have crossed your doorstep, or the county line, into that place where the structures, laws and conventions of your upbringing no longer apply, where the support and approval (but also the disapproval and repression) of your family and neighbours are not to be had – then you have entered into adventure, a place of sorrow, marvels and regret.
With future adventures in mind, on New Year’s Eve I bought some books from the travel section of an Oxfam shop in Cirencester. In Along the Road, a slim volume of witty essays by Aldous Huxley, it appears that the doors of perception opened wide enough for him to get my number: ‘In my youth I used to try to pretend that I preferred walking to other forms of locomotion. But I soon found that it was not true. For a little time I was one of those hypocrites of country heartiness (and they are quite numerous) who tramp and drink ale in little inns, because it is the right thing to do.’
I found more of a kindred spirit in Arnold Fellows, whose Wayfarer’s Companion (1937) is ‘addressed to all holiday-makers whose interests lead them farther than the golf-links, the bandstand and the beach’ to seek the ‘past life of the country’ in its buildings and landscapes. As well as geology, history and placenames, the book describes some types of historic building: the parish church, monasteries, cathedrals, the English house, and castles; defining the past by categories rather than specific examples. (One could, archly, attempt a similar list of modern artefacts: ring roads, shopping centres, country parks…) He is good at explaining the links between language and history:
Suppose that you are off for a holiday, and that on a Wednesday in July you set out for Bassenthwaite, armed with some sandwiches of pressed beef and a flask of whisky [a delightful idea]; is so doing, though you know it not, you have in half a dozen ways entangled yourself with the varied threads that form the web of English History. The day that you chose commemorates the greatest of the Saxon gods; the month was called after the founder of the Roman Empire; your journey’s end will be a lake named by Vikings; your solid food was christened by the Normans; and your drink (unless you add soda, which is Italian and comparatively modern) will be the water of the ancient Gaels.
Language itself he sees as being influenced by the weather: ‘Clear skies and brilliant sunshine…make for clear-cut thought and a precise language like Latin or French. We are not precise, and some foreigners call us hypocrites, or at best say that we don’t know our own mind and prefer any compromise to any definite solution. [That could be my personal mission statement.] Perhaps we may reply, as our weather might in like case, that we are seldom so satisfied with our own conclusions as to forget that there may be something better beyond.’
Finally I acquired Arthur Mee’s Warwickshire, to help guide me through the next county I will be visiting. As with anything written by Mee and associates, it makes the county and its towns and villages sound like the most exciting places imaginable. Regarding Warwick, for instance, ‘Let him who would feel the thrill of England come here. Not in all England are more historic interest and beauty crowded into so small a space.’ I can’t wait…