The British Literary Review asked me to review two books, one by Simon Armitage, one by Iain Sinclair. Which I did, and it hasn't appeared yet so I guess it's been spiked. Not that they'd told me anything, nor mentioned a kill fee. So here it is anyway:
Simon Armitage, Walking Away
Iain Sinclair, London Overground:
A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line
Some of us find it remarkably difficult simply to go for a walk. We need an excuse, a project, a literary precedent. We don’t want our wanderings, or our accounts of them, to be simply strolls in the park. And so in these two volumes by Iain Sinclair and Simon Armitage, both great walkers, and writers of prose and poetry, they set about making life hard for themselves as they walk.
Sinclair, the Welsh-born, Dublin-educated Londoner, undertakes a one-day 35 mile walk around the territory now served by London’s Ginger Line – a circuit of overground railway that casts a loop of economic revival and (that dirtiest of words) gentrification around the capital. He walks with the filmmaker Andrew Kotting, a thoroughly Sinclairian character, “the darkness inside (him) is a form of tremendous energy; stray humans encountered on our walk are buffeted, pitched against fences, left breathless in his wake.”
Meanwhile, Simon Armitage - Yorkshireman, geographer, former probation officer - walks along a section of the South West Coast Path through Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, about 250 miles in three weeks. The book is a kind of sequel to Walking Home, his account of hiking the Pennine Way, for which he used the same modus operandi, playing the troubadour: a daily walk of up to 15 miles, then in the evening a poetry reading and a reliance on the kindness of strangers to give him a night in a borrowed bed.
Although Armitage sometimes walks alone, more generally he finds walking companions, most of them strangers he meets along the way, though one or two are friends and acquaintances, pop up from time to time, and an old mucker who rejoices in the name of Slug, “an exotic and unknowable creature whose actions I can never predict.” Personally I think there’d be some fine entertainment in seeing Kotting and Slug hit the road together. Whether Sinclair and Armitage would be sympathetic walking companions I’m not so sure.
In some ways Sinclair’s book feels like business as usual – another of his London-based walking expeditions - but it’s well worth remembering just how strange and unfamiliar Iain Sinclair’s London once seemed, the city described in a baroque literary style, with an unlikely range of references that began with Bunyan, Defoe and Blake, and ran through to Burroughs and Ballard. These iconic figures have now been incorporated into the mythology of anyone who walks the streets of London and calls himself a psychogeographer. On this latest outing Sinclair also focuses on, among others, Angela Carter, Freud and Bob Carlos Clarke. It’s easy enough to detect something alchemical in all this, the contestant working and reworking of similar ingredients in different quantities and combinations. Those of us who are Sinclair fans certainly think base materials are regularly transmuted into something more noble.
Armitage’s account is an easier read and he’s certainly a gentler, if no less acute, observer. His evocations of the spare bedrooms he stays in are no less telling than his descriptions of landscape. He also seems to be a man to whom amusing things happen. A woman in the audience at one of his readings announces that she once met a poet in Canada. Armitage says. “It might have been me – I’ve been to Canada.” The woman replies, "No, I slept with him, so I would have remembered." I can’t imagine this has ever happened at a Sinclair reading, though I may be wrong.
On the other hand Armitage sometimes mentions in passing a figure you’d like to know more about, say William Stukely, the eighteenth century author of Itinerarium Curiosum, a self-styled authority on Stonehenge, and a man who theorized that the centre of the earth was made of water (p125), and you know that Sinclair would have given a half a chapter to the guy.
Both writers have a story to tell, a journey to describe, but they’re also poets who make language strut and march to their own needs and purposes. Here’s Armitage encountering damp cobwebs in the woods, “they are delicate cats’ cradles strung between oak trunks, some precious and golden where sunlight breaches the canopy and falls across the fine threads and intricate dew-jewelled designs.” (p 107) Compare and contrast with Sinclair’s description of tropical fish “Zen blobs of non-being, barely materialized wafers of cosmic drift matter.” (p15) Armitage feels like your poetic best mate, Sinclair remains your weird, raffish, poetical uncle.
And of course both writers suffer for their art, which is exactly as we want it to be. One of the greatest pleasures of any kind of travel writing is that the authors suffer on our behalf. By the end Armitage who has suffered with bad hips and a bad back along the way declares, “I won’t be doing any more long walks.” Sinclair is evidently made of sterner stuff, by no means pain-free but enduring “as we puffed and panted up the tragic dunes of ages and alienation.” It may be worth noting that Sinclair is some twenty years older than Armitage.
There’s a tendency, when reading these two books in tandem, as I’ve just done, to become a champion for one style of walking and writing at the expense of the other, but it strikes me there’s no need to make such a choice. There are as many ways of walking and writing as there are walkers and writers. We should be content to go at least some distance down the road with all of them.