Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label Simon Armitage. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Simon Armitage. Show all posts

Monday, April 22, 2013


Herewith a book review I just did for the San Francisco Chronicle.  Depending on how you get to the website you'll be told you do, or don't, need a digital subscription in order to read it.  This link may work:


But just in case it doesn't, here's the review:

WALKING HOME: A Poet’s Journey
Simon Armitage

Reviewed by Geoff Nicholson

The walking poet and the poetical walker are fine and familiar literary figures, perhaps reaching a high point with William Wordsworth and his “Daffodils,” probably the best known and least understood poem in the English language (spoiler alert – it’s not really about daffodils). 

These days anyone visiting Wordsworth’s Lake District, in the northwest of England, is going to find it extremely hard to wander lonely as a cloud: the whole place is absolutely packed with walkers, if not necessarily poets, and the serious literary wanderer is forced to go elsewhere.  And so in his new book Simon Armitage, best known as a poet, but also a novelist, translator, and essayist, heads for the Pennine Way, a rugged 256 mile trail running along the spine of England. 

This is by no means untrodden territory, but Armitage has a special connection.  He grew up in the village of Marsden, in West Yorkshire, toward the southern end of the trail, a suitable first stop for walkers doing the route south to north, and he remembers as a boy seeing mud-splattered hikers emerging from the hills after completing a single day’s trek.  Some of them gave up at this point, but Armitage is made of sterner stuff, and as he walks the route the “wrong,” or at least less usual, way, north to south, he is literally and metaphorically walking home.

Just to make life more complicated for himself, and more interesting for the reader, his plan is to give a poetry reading at the end of each day’s walk, in a pub or school or village hall or anywhere else that will have him, passing the hat round at the end of his performance and also relying on the kindness of strangers to give him a bed for the night. “So, it’s basically 256 miles of begging,” he says.  This allows him to call himself minstrel (the British edition was subtitled “travels with a troubadour”), although I suspect the original minstrels and troubadours might think it was a bit of a cheat to use the Internet to arrange the trip.

In part then, this is a travel book, describing the environment through which the author walks.  Armitage is a serious writer but not a solemn one.  His descriptions of the bleak landscape is evocative but often very surprising, “we sit down in the middle of one of the meadows, with Melancholy Thistle and Yellow Rattle … and beyond that the open wounds of new quarries and the closed sockets and half-healed scars of old ones.”   The mud of the  Sleightholme Moor is “half a mile of sticky toffee pudding and black treacle”  He also has an eye for the things that many would not consider poetic at all, “a fairground teddy bear used for target practice spews stuffing from an exit wound” or “a farmer in his yard, power-washing a donkey with a high-pressure hose.”  He is too subtle a writer to pontificate about the “state of Britain” but his descriptions of dodgy pubs, shuttered post offices, theme park “heritage” sites, “brutalist, breeze-block barns”, is simultaneously droll, familiar, melancholy and sometimes downright depressing.

Armitage is interested in people as well as places.  Sometimes these are fellow walkers, and at one point he attempts a taxonomy of the those he encounters, with classifications that include “She’s Left Me/I’ll Show Him,” “Midlife Crisis” and “Away with the Fairies.”  His family also joins him for part of the walk.  His young daughter says,  “This is a funny holiday,” and who would argue with her?

         He also describes the people who take him in for the night, good hearted souls every one, although constantly sleeping in strangers’ spare rooms does start to wear thin after a while.  He describes these places as “rooms which are nearly always reliquaries or shrines, museums of past lives or mausoleums devoted to a particular absence,” then he consoles himself by reading the Odyssey. 
          There are also accounts of his poetry readings, the good gigs as well as the bad, and inevitably the latter are much more fun to read about; though in general he finds audiences who are remarkably (and surprisingly) receptive and generous.  There’s a “flashback” to a supremely uncomfortable and hilarious gig he once did in a city-center art gallery when a man in a doughnut costume appeared in the street and leaned against the glass front wall of the gallery.   As the house manager of the event tried to move the doughnut man along he protested, “’Doughnuts can like poetry.”

In the end, road fever sets in, and Armitage concludes that “choosing which poems to read has become like choosing from a set-menu options in a Chinese restaurant, tonight being menus C: ‘The Shout,’ Causeway,’ ‘Roadshow’ … followed by Sweet and Sour Chicken,” He’s being hard on himself, which is exactly what you want in a walker or writer.  He describes some of the different words for the kinds of walking he does: tramping, trudge, grind, slog; but it’s never that way for the reader.  There are certainly times, such as when he’s lost on the moors in the rain and fog, that you’re glad it’s him rather him than you, but there are plenty of other when you simply want to leap out of your chair, follow in his footsteps and start walking.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


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.

(Photo: Jonty Wilde)

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.