While I was in England I read Simon Armitage’s book Walking Home subtitled “Travels with A Troubadour on the Pennine Way.” It’s a terrific account of walking the 250 plus miles of the Pennine Way in the “wrong” direction, north to south, the trip made a good deal more arduous (in my estimation) because each night our author gives a poetry reading. Blimey. I’d have been on my hands and knees by the end of that.
I do maybe half a dozen readings a year (not poetry admittedly), and although I enjoy them well enough, I do find them surprisingly knackering. The idea of doing one more or less every night for three weeks after a hard day’s walk, sounds like it would become absolute torture. Or maybe it works another way. Maybe you’d just go into a fugue state: walking, reading, sleeping; walking reading, sleeping, for as long as it takes. Although to be fair, Armitage keeps his wits about him throughout the book. Not so much in this picture, perhaps:
There were two things that really surprised me (in a good way) in Walking Home. One, that Simon Armitage used to have ambitions to be a cartographer. How often do you hear somebody say that? Although in his case he did have the benefit of a geography degree. I too, in idle moments, have thought it might be very cool to be cartographer, although without ever really knowing what that entails, and certainly without having a geography degree.
The second surprising thing is his description of getting lost while walking. He writes, “I have noticed a very alarming and rapid change in my psychology, as if the claustrophobia and disorientation brings about a particular condition, the symptoms of which include fear, panic, and loss of logical thought, but also less expected and harder-to-define sensations akin to melancholy, including something like hopelessness but also close to grief.”
What interests me about this description is the extent to which I recognize all these symptoms except the very last one. The fear, panic, and loss of logical thought are, I assume, what everybody feels when they’re lost, and that naturally enough leads to hopelessness. But I pretty much thought I was the only one who experienced melancholy, that sense of “I’m lost and alone in the world, and what else could you expect, and why does it even matter?” But I’ve never made that final leap to grief. Perhaps I haven’t been sufficiently lost.
I did, however, get thoroughly lost last month while I was in London, not in any life-threatening way, but because London is a place that I flatter myself I know pretty well, and because I even had a map, it was unusually humiliating. I’ve written elsewhere about being lost (mercifully, briefly) in the Australian desert, and that was certainly scary, but being lost in a place you think you know is actually even more disorienting.
My plan in London was to do a short walk to see two ruined city churches, St. Dunstan-in-the-East (above) and Christ Church Greyfriars (below) – both more or less destroyed by German bombs in the Blitz, but the ruins preserved as deconsecrated war memorials. The route from one to the other inevitably takes you past St Paul’s Cathedral which miraculously survived the Blitz, though it does have shrapnel scars.
I decided to start at St Dunstan’s, and Monument looked like the nearest tube, so off and I went, came up out of the station – which had the exits marked with street names - and I stepped into the city and I had absolutely no idea where I was. I couldn’t tell which street was which, which was north or south, east or west, and I set off along Gracechurch Street, and found myself approaching London Bridge which I knew was wrong. I stopped, turned back, walked for a bit, and felt more lost than ever.
I decided there’d be no shame in consulting the map, which I thought I’d have no need of, but I got it out, and you know as a sometime wannabe cartographer, I reckon I’m pretty good with a map, but this time I couldn’t make any sense of it whatsoever. I’d look at, think I’d worked it out, start walking in one direction, and a couple of minutes later realize I was obviously heading in the wrong direction again. This happened time after time. It became frustrating; it became absurd, though it never quite became comical.
It was infuriating but also, per Armitage, a deeply melancholy experience. I was lost in some deeper, non-geographical sense. It wasn’t simply that I didn’t know where I was, where I was going, or how I was going to get there to get, but rather that, after a while, I no longer understood why I wanted to go there at all, and in some odd way I felt like I didn’t even know exactly who I was. Was I losing my mind? Was the Alzheimer’s kicking in? It really didn’t seem to matter.
Well inevitably I got over it before very long, found my way, found the churches, had a good (modest) walk. And I know you could make too much of this, but there was something salutary in the experience of being lost. As a psychological, existential, maybe even cosmic dilemma, it's actually far more interesting than knowing exactly where you are all the time. But to appreciate it, it does have to come to an end. Being lost only makes sense if, in the end, you find yourself again.