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
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.