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?

Tiny Moments #183

Strong, blustery westerlies push heavy clouds swiftly across the skies but somehow my jinx of recent days holds off and I enjoy 50km untroubled by rain. In Aylesbeare and Marsh Green the annual scarecrow festivals are in place and I cannot resist the temptation to stop and photograph one dressed in what appears to be an England soccer outfit. At first glance it appears to be grotesquely strung up on a makeshift gallows, like some morbidly apt metaphor for our times.

I christen the scarecrow Brexit Man and ride on.

Tiny Moments #182

As an attempt to find some space between rain clouds and heavy showers my ride is an unmitigated failure. The cloudburst sluices gravel across the tarmac and sure enough, at the top of the hill by Raddon Court, I feel the depressing rumble of a deflating rear tyre, punctured by a shard of quartz. More depressing still is the discovery that the inflator valve that accompanies my air canisters has broken its seal and so most of the gas escapes, freezing my fingers to the metal. Resigned to my fate I turn and ride gingerly home, the frustration broken only briefly by a burst of wind that sends yellow leaves tumbling around me like flakes of gold against the titanium sky.

Cool summer

Chris Jones reviews ’88’ by John Francis Cross.

In the spirit of ’88’, here are 8.8 reasons to treasure this book:

  1. Because these are mainly poems and that is also the title of a great song, probably the best thing Tricky has done. You can come at this book from any angle, in any order and it pays to re-read things. A nice change from a novel.
  2. There is a humour, sadness and contemplation. Your mood changes as you read. I love Larkin but he just makes you feel sad and as someone once said to me – ‘we all need lightness and shade’.
  3. ‘I love Tokyo’s winter sun’ is just one of the great lines here. If you want a title for a novel then it’s up there with ‘Strange weather in Tokyo’ or even ‘The scent of Seaton’.
  4. In dark times, I want to read of possibilities, and to think of things beyond the daily grind. This book has no conspiracy theories, irritating politicians, slogans, stupid little Englanders or ..you get the drift. There is no fantasy or sci-fi silliness – it is rooted in life but allows you to imagine another one.
  5. It reminds me, in places, of the philosophical side of Brech’t poetry. Think ‘Send me a leaf’.
  6. It’s hard to talk about death, hard to think about it and even harder to write about it. And yet, here it is, with no punches pulled or feelings left hidden.
  7. The author once produced a great fanzine called ‘The Human Body’, which is unlike any other fanzine I have ever read. Copies on e-bay for at least 10p, I am sure.
  8. I thought of Morgan Freeman’s great line – ‘Get busy living or get busy dying’.
    .8. The author grew up in Carlisle and that’s where Carr’s water biscuits are from. Reason enough to take a chance.

Tiny Moments #181

There’s been a fine misty moisture in the air all morning, not even enough to call a mizzle, and so I figure a ride is worth the threat of a light dowsing. By kilometre five at Poltimore the precipitation has risen to Mizzle Plus. By Dog Village at km 8 it has turned to steady rain. Another 2 km to Cranbrook and it is steady and heavy, the lack of wind meaning that the weather is going nowhere fast. As a result I halve my planned 60km route and plough back through Whimple on sodden farm roads, the torrential rains sluicing the discarded sludge of tractor tyres into the ditches. I refrain taking drinks from my bottle and instead inhale the rain.

Tiny Moments #180

To be in England in the summertime… It is a day of smells today. At the edge of Ashcylst forest, as I hunker down beneath an oak tree to escape the rain as thunder peals overhead, it is the stench of cow manure from the farm next door. My mum always said it was the healthy smell of the countryside, but this afternoon I beg to differ. At the Salcombe Regis Thorn it is the simultaneously sweet and bitter scent of freshly hewn wood drifting over from the enormous (and no doubt quite aged) tree that is in the process of being felled in the garden of ‘Sunnydale’. Finally there is the scent of Seaton: As I climb up out of town on the road to Beer there comes on the air the unmistakable aroma of Generic English Curry, wafting up gently on the south easterly breeze from the town below. 

Tiny Moments #178

It’s interesting how quickly things that would once have seemed unexpected become normalised. As I ride through Feniton a white haired lady pauses at the junction of Church Lane and waves me on my way with an ‘after you’ flourish. Perhaps she is on her way to visit the village Post Office, or the Feniton Hairstylists that shares the same end cottage. As I acknowledge her greeting with a smile and a wave of my own, I think to myself that her black and white polka dot face mask really does look marvellously elegant.

Tiny Moments #177

It’s the first time in many months that I have ridden this far north, up along the edge of Exmoor and across the Brendon Hills. The views out to the Bristol Channel and over to Wales are are delicious as ever, but the wind is whipping in from the north west and making the day feel colder than the sun suggests it might. Heading south and home again I drop through Morebath and note that the terraced ground next to St George’s church, once home to enormous barns filled with hay, are now occupied by a trio of plush looking newly built homes. ‘Sold’ signs suggest there is no shortage of idle money around (I’m fairly certain these will not be Primary Residences), and I wonder idly what Sir Christopher Trychay might have had to say about that…

Tiny Moments #176

It feels like my entire ride has been spent following in the wake of the innumerable showers that have peppered the morning. I rarely feel the spatter of drops on my skin, but the road surfaces are mostly slick and clouds glower darkly overhead. This changes as I climb out of Bradninch and look over past Killerton to where I see rain sweeping across the valley towards me like a cloud of locusts destroying everything in its path.