Good Reading : March 2010
MARCH 2010 ı goodreading 29 categorical 2 lassic of travel erature (Travels th a Donkey in the évennes). Bruce Chatwin ater critiqued Stevenson in his Anatomy of Restlessness, deciding Stevenson was a tofafraudwho lacked the true spirit of a wanderer. Chatwin was personally fascinated by nomadic cultures and explored them in The Songlines, a passionate blend of travel experiences and the philosophy of walking. Brazilian author Paulo Coehlo also merged these genres in The Pilgrimage, based loosely on his experiences walking the Pilgrimage of St James (Camino de Santiago) in Spain; a friend once recommended this book strongly and, despite the fact that the plot involves walking, I found it numbingly unreadable. However, millions of fans around the world say otherwise. Much more my cup of tea sAWalkin the Woods, in which he inimitable Bill Bryson stumbles over the Appalachian Mountains. While managing to raise thoughtful issues along the way, Bryson can be relied upon not to take himself at all seriously and a good sense of humour is, I think, essential in a walker. Mark Twain certainly had one, well exercised in his tale of travel on foot, A Tramp Abroad. And Hilaire Belloc, making a Christian pilgrimage in The Path to Rome, found plenty to keep himself, and us, amused. The world's bookshelves, though, are bowed with recent memoirs of enthusiastic walkers (Colin Fletcher, Peter Jenkins, Alan Cook to name but a few) and there's an obvious reason for this. A long walk gives ample time for reflection. But it's not merely the fact that the walker is freed from chores or humdrum work: the very act of putting one foot in front of the other seems to stimulate thought. Just as Lamb claimed that he couldn't sit and think, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated the corollary, 'I can only meditate when I am walking.' I'm not suggesting the blanket rule that walking automatically produces brilliant and coherent thought -- Robert Louis Stevenson happily admitted that getting into a good stride can sometimes prevent you 'from thinking ear nestly of anything else' -- but it is clear that walking affords a space in which aspiring writers can cultivate their creativity. Charles Dickens wrote of long night walks through the city when unable to sleep; his encounters with the homeless of London along the way no doubt provided wonderful material for his darker tales. In contrast, all the Romantic poets -- William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and even Lord Byron with his club foot -- were avid walkers with a revolutionary appreciation of wild nature. Across the Atlantic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman were also renowned rambler-poets. The walking character makes varied appearances in the fictional world. The moral allegory of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress has a pedestrian plot, but admittedly travel by foot was more the norm in 1678. In 18th-century novels, peregrination served as a metaphor for the getting of wisdom. By the 19th century the propensity to walk (and forego the car riage) indicated strength of character. Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is portrayed as a young woman whose independence of spirit leads her to 'ramble about' at every opportunity. Her choppy relationship with Mr Darcy ar rives at its point of harmony while they are on -- you guessed it -- a walk: 'They walked on, without knowing in what direction. There was too much to be thought, and felt, and said, for attention to any other objects.' The fictional walk is not always so felicitous. Think of the disastrous excursion into the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India or of the ill-fated expedition in the Picnic at Hanging Rock. Recently we've been given what must be one of the most har rowing tales of a jour ney on foot, Cor mac McCarthy's The Road, in which father and son progress through a world stripped of all natural beauty and civilised custom. For gentle readers this may be a step too far. Walks in children's literature tend to be a bit shorter, but then all things are relative. Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury lead the very young on a wonderful adventure of sound and scene in We're Going on a Bear Hunt. And when A A Milne has Christopher Robin lead his friends on an 'Expotition' to the North Pole, it is a very serious affair, with a great deal of Danger and plenty of Provisions. En route, Winnie- the-Pooh composes quite a decent song and solves a few problems. And that brings me back to my earlier musings: walking and thinking are natural companions. A good ramble is an opportunity to open the mind's eye and consider the larger world and (as long as you have adequate Provisions) can prove highly pleasurable.You can even take a book with you! Gillian Souter is the author of Slow Jour neys: The pleasure of travelling by foot published by Allen & Unwin, rrp $27.99.