Friends sent me Simon Armitage’s Walking Home, saying they hoped this tale of walking the 256-mile Pennine Way would help ‘lift your spirits and fix your eyes on the far horizon’ during lockdown. By chance I had just read Crossing the Sands by Wilfred Thesiger, whose horizons were rather wider than Armitage’s.
Thesiger crossed the southern Arabian desert twice with Bedu companions just after the Second World War, before cars and oil riches, when Abu Dhabi was a town of about two thousand people. They had very limited food and depended on brackish wells whose water they once had to forcibly pour down the camels’ throats since the animals would not drink it.
He reflects afterwards: ‘I would not myself have wished to cross the Empty Quarter in a car. Luckily this was impossible when I did my journeys, for to have done the journey on a camel when I could have done it in the car would have turned the venture into a stunt.’
So does that make Armitage’s journey a ‘stunt’? What’s a poor poet to do on a well-waymarked path with Mars bars, welcoming committees, and his suitcase transported to the next B&B each day? Find dramatic historical episodes, or focus on his inner landscape, or write something funny and homely?
Of these, Armitage opts for the second two. The tone is often faux or real naïf, as when he walks with geologists: ‘Rocks, I’m happy to understand, are very old and very hard, and as long as they support my weight and don’t move around too much, like they do in Iceland and other untrustworthy portions of the planet’s crust, I’m quite content with that level of ignorance.’
Crossing the Cheviots makes him feel like Hannibal, and the stickiest moment is when he gets lost on Cross Fell: ‘Because when the clouds fold in and the horizon disappears, it’s not only the internal compass that goes haywire, it’s also the altimeter, the gyroscope, the chronometer, the sextant and the inclinometer.’ In the end they get out the GPS, which works fine. (I admit I sometimes found the dangers a bit talked up).
After the trip, he reflects that physically he was up to it, mentally not (the opposite of what he had predicted), and thanks everyone who has given him food, shelter and company, calling this a ‘validation.’
What I enjoyed most was Armitage’s ability to make ordinary things special, so his daughter’s camp bed alongside the double where he and his wife sleep is ‘like a lifeboat tethered to a yacht.’
And what about the poetry? Here’s the first stanza of 'Cotton Grass,' the final poem in the book:
Hand-maidens, humble courtiers
yes-men in silver wigs,
they stoop low at the path’s edge, bow
to the military parade
of boot and stick.
By contrast, Thesiger never wrote poetry. But common to both men, as they emerge from the journeys, is a love and deep appreciation for their companions, and pride in a challenge overcome.
About the reviewer
Rebecca Reynolds works as a teacher and editor and writes non-fiction. She published Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain’s Museums in 2017. She blogs here: http://objects-ofinterest.blogspot.com/