Book Review: Writers on Walking

Peter Bricklebank

Far From the Madding Crowd 

Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking
Edited by Duncan Minshull
Notting Hill Editions, 2018

Wouldn’t a meandering stroll perk up the heart and revivify the mind right now? Surely there’s nothing more salubrious than stirring the endorphins from their slumber and striding out, briskly purposive toward nowhere in particular? Along the way, perhaps in a handy ale house (were we in another century) or perched on a stile or with feet in a ditch like the tramps Dickens observes, we might stop to imbibe the fresh air and read a florilegium such as this, indulging ourselves in the heady observations and opinionated banter of writers throughout the centuries on this much underrated bodily glory of simply walking.

This delightful, pocket-sized companion for such a jaunt (walking companions of the human kind are a matter discussed with some firmness therein), complete with its own ribbon for marking one’s path through the book, came out in hardback in 2018, and in paperback last year. It is a compendium of writers you will know, such as Rebecca Solnit, Lauren Elkin, De Quincey, Petrarch, Rousseau, George Sand, Edward Hoagland, Woolf, Self, Stevenson, et al. It observes both their walks and, even more companionably, their intellectual landscapes and weather—and yes, there’s Hazlitt, grouching along wishing to be by himself (even so, one follows him happily; for lovers of the essay, intractability is always good company). But there are plenty of names you may not have encountered that are far from pedestrian even as they amble—wearing tennis shoes or hobnail boots or barefoot, flaneuring in the city even whilst unable to plunge into the traffic to cross the road or humping hilariously up the Alps and making a breathless hash of it. Some pieces are as short as one paragraph, most but extracts of a few pages, enough for thought to take a stride or two on, say, the “poetic capacity” or the “soothing—virtue” that comes from treading on living grass. The writers I didn’t or only partially recognized, I found myself more than happy to listen to, and if an occasional selection didn’t quite engage as one might at first have hoped, why then you are stoutly off on a different path with the words, thoughts, and experiences of another before you can—as one walker here does—chastise yourself for hurrying. Initially, I unfairly wished the book could have given me a smidgen of biographical detail along the way, but then in 168 pages that would have been a burden not worth the carrying. When I fling myself back on my sofa, I can traipse the internet for more on the authors who intrigued me to my heart’s invigorated content.

A walk is very much like the essay, of course. And these extracts meander off the road only to find a point, a vision, a revelation, however transient or airy—like N. Brooke, MD’s 1796 gruff reply to what he might have observed from his perambulations the length and breadth of Europe over several years: “I never look up.” Which is one way of doing it, I suppose. Usually walkers are a much more thoughtful, expansive, curious gaggle, though they’re ever somewhat marginal, twitchy, odd, go-their-own-way sort of folk. James Boswell is told he can be smelled in the dark; Richard Jefferies finds, much to his surprise, all footpaths around London inevitably end…in London, but even in the restlessness induced by large city malaise, he’s still upping and away once again. So like the classical personal essay, these so various writers in temperament and time, roam in foot and infatuation to no fixed intention, but in that motion they glean or seine the air and the effort for what it yields; whatever the verb is for whales slurping their krill through gritted baleen probably applies. Will Self walks alone at night addressing the moral panic he feels comes from the street lighting of big cities, a glimmer of the trepidation felt by Kamila Shamsie who as a woman finds she cannot inhabit the solitude of night walking in her native Karachi. For both, there’s a kind of self-consciousness from the inability to find a sense of solitude, the very darkness sucked inside, the self consciousness too bright. By contrast, Lauren Elkin finds self-recognition in realizing she’s an flaneur, or rather a flaneuse, and owns a freedom that she too can circumnavigate a city with the dawdling casualness and appraising gaze men enjoy. Virginia Woolf, of course, with her need for a pencil is thus armed with an excuse to wander her metropolis and tame its “long groves of darkness” by an observational ferocity as bright as any light.

“Walking,” as Rebecca Solnit has it, “ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together…. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.” Not lost, but like an essay, finding a way. Let us harken to Kierkegaard and his wish for health and salvation: “…every day I walk myself into a state of well being and walk away from every illness.” In times perhaps more sedentary or even prone than usual, a sweet miscellany like Beneath My Feet helps us start the journey of a thousand steps with a hearty and hale foot forward.