Monday, 1 April 2013

Walking Home by Simon Armitage

This is Simon Armitage's account of his attempt to walk the Pennine Way, travelling against the wind and with the sun in his face from North to South, towards his home village of Marsden in Yorkshire.  Kindly strangers offer him a bed for the night, transport his luggage (a vast suitcase nicknamed the Tombstone) between stops, or simply walk with him along this most demanding of paths.  Every evening, he gives a poetry reading, in venues that range from pubs to village halls to people's sitting rooms, and the trip is funded by the donations people leave in a (clean) hiking sock.  Armitage has written and spoken a lot about walking, and recently was part of the Stanza Stones project, writing  poems to be carved into rocks in the hills between Marsden and Ilkley.

The links between writing and walking are well-explored, not least in Rebecca Solnit's marvellous Wanderlust, but this book adds a great deal more to our understanding of the connection between these two fundamental activities, and of the importance of walking to an individual writer.  It's also a compelling account of what it's like to walk a difficult, arbitrary long-distance path, of the fears and doubts that pull at the sense of achievement.  At the outset of his walk, Simon Armitage realises that he is "the weakest link" in the chain of strangers and friends who are making his walk happen: "Failure seems unavoidable, with humiliation and shame the inevitable consequence".  Lost in the mist on Cross Fell, "a truly terrible place" pitted with shafts from old iron workings, he experiences "the dismal misery of not knowing where I am, or perhaps losing any sense of who I am, as if the mist is bringing about an evaporation of identity, all the certainties of the self leaching away into the cloud".  Near the end, however, he contemplates the possibility of not finishing the Way, a deliberate act that transforms apparent failure into "the triumph of personal accomplishment over public affirmation".

A lot of books about long walks are not terribly well-written and can't avoid the obvious label of pedestrian.  This is not one of those books.  It is beautifully written with an attention to the details of the walks, the readings, the spare rooms of strangers, and especially to the textures of the places Simon goes.  Here is a typically precise and evocative description of walking through a forest:

Stumps of old trees are footstools upholstered in velvety green moss.  Pine resin is the first thing I've smelt for hours.  Except at the very top where their tips bend and flex like fishing rods in some mad struggle, the evergreens absorb the bruising gusts and deafening surges of wind, so there's nothing but static and stable air at ground level where I walk.  And somewhere above me, where their coats are thickest and fullest, the trees have absorbed all suggestion of rain, so down here it's dry and cushioned, every footfall received and relaunched by a thick mattress of spongy,brown needles.  A form of twilight gathers under the canopy, a cloistered stillness.

As well as being beautiful, it is also very funny, attentive to the bathetic moments that inevitably follow feelings of achievement; Armitage is comically self-deprecating about his performance at the readings, something he describes as "little more than a man in a creased shirt holding a book in his hand for three-quarters of an hour".  Every turning-out of the sock after the evening's reading is a source of humour.  I love walking, and have dabbled with shorter long-distance paths, but even if you never want to walk further than the corner shop, this is a really rewarding book, absorbing, funny and moving.

Simon Armitage is undertaking a similar walk on the South West Coast Path in August and September this year, so there will be another book to look forward to soon.

The Twenty-Third Man by Gladys Mitchell

Dame Beatrice Bradley has taken a refreshing sea voyage to the island of Hombres Muertos where she plans to take a little holiday and watch the lizards sunning themselves in the garden of her hotel.  The island gets its ominous name from a cave which houses the mummified bodies of twenty-three men, all seated upright around a table and arrayed in masks and robes.  Dame Beatrice's fellow guests at her hotel are an odd lot: Caroline Lockerby, whose husband has recently found that pub crawls and Teddy-boy gangs are a fatal combination, and her highly nervous brother Telham; Mr Clun, just released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter; Karl Emden, an energetic lothario; and the occasionally resident Drashleighs, who are bringing up their adopted son Clement on a neighbouring island, using those free-thought educational methods soundly mocked in any number of twentieth century novels. 

Then there are the residents, the frankly bonkers Mr Peterhouse and sinister Mrs Angel, reputed to be a white slave trader with links to Buenos Aires; Senor Ruiz and his virtuous daughter Luisa, who own the hotel; and the rest of the islanders, including a group of villagers who live in cave houses and some curiously moral bandits.  Dame Beatrice's restful holiday is disrupted when Karl Emden is discovered in the cave of the Dead Men, taking a mummy's place at the table and wearing his robes and mask, and with a knife protruding from his back.  There are too many possible suspects, and Dame Beatrice has to return to London to find the roots of the murder in the earlier lives of Caroline, Telham and Clun.  Her perky assistant Laura takes her place on Hombres Muertos, bringing her small baby, who proves to be a useful means of getting people to talk to her.  Between them, the two women unravel the mysteries of the island and of Emden's death.

I've never read any Gladys Mitchell novels before and this was rather like a Golden Age murder mystery as written by Ivy Compton-Burnett.  There is lots of dialogue and little exposition; characters move from the hotel terrace to the beach in the turn of a paragraph, with no description of how they climbed down the steps or dawdled on the terrace. There is also a lot of rather arch humour; Dame Beatrice is witty and sharp, and Laura is permanently amused by the assumptions people make about her.   The mystery unfolds as Dame Beatrice thinks about the evidence she uncovers, but we are not party to all her thoughts and assumptions, so the mystery is sustained until the end.  This was pretty light but enjoyable and the style, which effaces clues rather than revealing them, kept me on my toes. 

This book is available, with several others, as a Vintage paperback; there are a few other reprints out there as well.  Gladys Mitchell wrote sixty-six books in her long career, so there is plenty of choice to sample from.  Incidentally if you enjoyed the highly frivolous Mrs Bradley Mysteries, made by the BBC a few years ago, Diana Rigg's incarnation of the character seems not to bear much resemblance to the Mrs Bradley on the page, although she is an equally enjoyable creation.