These Walks Saved Us

In my eighteen year old’s journal I once explained away the lack of entries during The Summer Months by reasoning that summer was the time for Doing Things whilst the rest of the year was for writing about them. This still feels like a reasonable excuse. Having said that, the specifics of Things Done in This Year Of The Virus, or indeed in that eighteen year old’s distant past, remain frustratingly hazy. Perhaps this is as it should be. Lazy Old Sun and/or Lockdown Memory Loss and all that. The long tail of The Virus.

One of the things I have not being doing much of is walking. Or even Walking with a capital W. I am not much of A Walker, although at times I look a little enviously at those who are. My old school friend Andrew, whom my eighteen year old journaling self would have perhaps met one last time at a brief party in a garden off of Troon’s South Beach before our paths once again criss-crossed some thirty years later at a school reunion, has certainly been walking (as opposed to Walking) during these summer months and I have been enjoying many of the photographs of Croydon and South Norwood environs he has posted on Friendface. He has not yet managed to capture a car splashed with pale green paint, but I know he lives in hope.

Ameena Rojee was lucky enough to photograph a car splashed with green paint in Croydon, but I am sure (hope) she would suggest that luck had very little to do with it. Her ‘A Love Letter To Croydon’ photozine was published by the always interesting Another Place Press earlier this year and is filled with shots that put me in mind of William Eggleston and his years of photographing in and around his beloved Memphis. Rojee has a similar sensitivity to the delights and vagaries of colour, and too to the warmest tones of sunlight, even in winter shots of snow-dappled hedgerows. Best of all is a shot of a red brick gable wall of a block of flats, burning in the setting sunlight and cast across with the shadow of a tree, stretching its giant branches across the luxurious expanse of russet. It is simultaneously reasurringly earthbound and magically otherworldly.

Al Brydon also has a photozine in the same ‘Field Notes’ series by Another Place. His ‘None Places’ collects photographs of landscapes that are frequently shrouded in mists and shadows, “Lost in the spaces between the places where no one ever was.” The conceit here being, of course, that someone always ever was, is and will be in these places, for these are landscapes where the ghosts of intervention linger in wait of the photographer’s eye. Here a tree growing up from a rural hedgerow, sculpted by the passing of laden tractor trailers; there a cleft in a rock face or a vaguely discernible pathway between trees. The photographer as walker, observer, recorder and illusionist.

Lisa Woollett’s ‘Rag and Bone’ does not really contain walking, other than around beaches and riverbeds at low tide in search of the detritus of ages. Mudlarking around. It is, however, very much in the spirit of so much contemporary non-fiction in that it engages the personal (in this case family history) in order to tell the story of something bigger (a cultural/geopolitical history of rubbish and consumption). This balancing act is a deceptively difficult one to pull off, and if Woollett occasionally dips the scales a fraction too far into the personal (okay, this may be Just Me, but honestly, I have not the slightest interest in any musings on parenthood) she always quickly resets it with more interesting asides about the histories of Victorian London and the Kent estuary. And whilst it could be tempting to cast a withering eye at what one might think of as an easy cash-in on contemporary infatuations with Climate Crisis and the nightmare visions of Plastic Pollution, Woollett is smart enough (and/or old enough) to recognise that these concerns are not uniquely 21st Century (like me she remembers similar Environmental Concerns of The Younger Generations in previous, 20th Century decades). She also quietly notes that whilst we ought, as individuals, to make personal choices about our own plastic usage, it will only be change on a global scale by corporations and governments that will have any meaningful impact. And in the meantime, we can always console ourselves by finding some kind of blighted beauty in the fragments our addiction to consumption continues to leave behind.

I am fairly certain that Jini Reddy would balk at being described as A Walker with a capital W, not least because she makes a deal about it in her excellent ‘Wanderland’. Having read this back in May (and therefore at the start of those Summer Months of Doing Things and/or the in midst of The Lost Lockdown Weeks) it has taken on something of the patina of a print left out in the sun, faded to ghostly burnt out fragments with a structure that lingers with suggestions which may or may not reflect reality. I recall (rightly or wrongly) that Reddy spends much of her time in the book (and in her ‘wanders’, or vice-vera) reflecting on her Otherness. It is heartening to hear her openly admit that whilst she is desperate to discover the sense of a mystical Otherness that, ahem, Other Walkers and nature writers so frequently tell us that they experience, she can never quite escape a limiting self-awareness. Instead it is another Otherness (AnOtherness?) that defines her: a reality of being A Woman Of Colour within the Cultural Landscape of Walking. There is an honest bravery in Reddy’s admittance of self-awareness that is at odds with much of what, in other contemporary nature/Walking writing often comes across as an unintentional yet nevertheless assumed middle class, white (and often male) privilege. It helps make ‘Wanderland’ a thoroughly engaging read, one in which I found myself laughing with innumerable ‘yes!’es as she finds herself both seduced by and rejected by the appeal of the Magic in (and of) Nature.

In contrast, ‘Anywhere’ is anything but honest. Ostensibly the writings of Leeds University PHD student Cecile Oak and making repeated reference to a guidebook written by one A.J. Salmon, this is in fact entirely penned by Dr Phil Smith. Now I have vague memories of what may have been some of the first wanderings of Smith some twenty or more years ago as part of the Wrights and Sites group and their first sketches for an Exeter mis-guide. This seemed at the time to be somewhat entertaining, tapping into the spirit of situationism (and who amongst us was not enamoured by the situationists in our twenties/early thirties?) and the emerging psychogeographical writings of Ian Sinclair. It all seemed rather a clever wheeze.

It’s evident that Smith has spent those intervening two decades fully committing himself to these areas of study and performance, certainly carving out an Important Niche in the, ahem, landscape of “walking, site-specificity, mythogeographies and counter-tourism”, and yet despite (or because of) hiding behind the persona of a young(er) woman, the prevailing feeling in ‘Anywhere’ is that of a curmudgeonly old man (yes, I wholly recognise the irony of that) taking a dig at Johnny Come Lately’s.

So the book reads like the frustrated ramblings of someone who feels their favourite cult band has been discovered by A New Generation who have both failed to recognise the Scratchy Early Singles and simultaneously (and/or consequently) Selling Out to become Popular and Famous with their own tenth rate reproductions. It’s like listening to someone desperate to impress us with their intelligence yet, with an awarenesses of how unfortunate such a desperation can be, attempting to subdue it behind a miserable cloak of self-deprecating humour. It’s the anxious pestering of the (falsely apologetic) academic, intent on making everything a performance where overpowering complexity all but obscures anything of interest and value with impenetrable layers of (imagined) meaning.

‘Anywhere’ is subtitled ‘A mythogeography of South Devon and how to walk it’ but could easily have been ‘I was A Walker before you was A Walker’ (thereby presenting book-store détourning miscreants with a perfect opportunity to hilariously substitute n’s for l’s. Oak (or is it Smith? Or Salmon? Or perhaps ‘Crabman’, who also crops up in the pages) would surely get the joke, though whether they would raise a smile is, reasonably enough, another matter).

If that feels universally critical of Oak (or Salmon, or ‘Crabman’, or Smith) then I should temper that with admitting that there IS something interesting (and potentially delightful) lurking at the core of ‘Anywhere’. There are many, many intriguing histories laid out and some of them may even be true, but I’m damned if I can be bothered wading through all the self-indulgent ‘cleverness’ to get to the treasure. Naturally, this probably says far more about me than it does about Smith (or Oak, or Salmon, or ‘Crabman’) and marks me down as someone who (sigh) wants things to be Too Easy and does not fully understand (deep sigh) the layered complexity of the world around me. All of which may well be true, but can’t we just go for a walk without making a song and dance about it? Can’t we just go for a walk without turning it into something that starts with a capital W?

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