Oct/Nov 2015  •   Reviews & Interviews

Walking Away

Review by Ann Skea

Walking Away.
Simon Armitage.
Faber. 2015. 304 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 29835 8.

Simon Armitage makes a good walking companion. Especially if you are accompanying him from the comfort of your armchair.

In 2010, Armitage walked the 265 miles of the Pennine Way, taking no money with him but relying on voluntary contributions put into a (clean) sock at his poetry readings, and on the hospitality of strangers. In 2013, he determined to discover whether the people of Southern England were as helpful and poetry-loving as those in his native North. Choosing the South West Coast Path from Minehead to Land's End, which is almost the same distance as the Pennine Way but with more ups-and-downs, he planned to again be a modern troubadour, but this time in unfamiliar territory, where accent and dialects differed from his own Yorkshire vernacular.

So, he set off from home with an expensive hat (it came with an instruction manual, a lifetime guarantee against loss or damage, and it was "an environmentally sensitive autumnal browny-green color") and a holly stick he had trimmed himself and which was intended to be, amongst other things, a "cattle prod," "nettle-slayer," and a charm against witches.

Walking Away is a daily record of his journey, of the people who walked and talked with him, of his poetry readings, and of his overnight accommodations, which ranged from a four-poster bed in a stately home to a teenager's bedroom in a B&B where the landlady was absent and room's occupant didn't seem to know his bed was taken.

Far from noticing nothing and "approaching the walk as a task and measuring achievement by miles covered, time taken and kilograms carried," as one woman he met claimed many walkers do, Armitage sees everything around him. He confesses to times when the strenuous path almost saps his spirit, especially towards the end of his journey when he is in constant pain. But still he notices the blackbird on the gate, a walrus-shaped boulder, a red-starfish on the sea-bed, and the flux of land and water.

And one of the delights of this book is his unexpected but precise imagery. A peacock in the rain drags "its sodden robes behind it," a seal "bobs and rolls... like a black turd," winds and currents mark the ocean with "stretch marks and ceases," and startled pheasants flap away "as if their tails are on fire." I had to look up the word "crozzled" to find it is a Northern English word meaning "blackened" or "burned at the edges" (as bacon might be), but it perfectly describes the black, serrated ridges of rock that run into the sea from Hartland Point.

Volunteers ferry his squat green suitcase heavy with books and nicknamed "the Galapagos Turtle" to each destination. And he is as comfortable reading poetry to 39 people in the upstairs room of a cafe as to a pub-full in Penzance. Luckily, that pub was quieter than the Harbor Bar at Clovelly where he competed with the pub-hubbub, the meal service and "gale-force" laughter from the smaller bars next door. After about half-an-hour of that, he felt he had "not so much finished as faded into the background." Reading in a thatched, smoke-filled round-house to an audience seated "in ripple formation" around his enormous, high, canopied four-poster bed was equally challenging.

A day of rain leaves his boots "drowned" and spurting "geysers from holes where stitching gave way earlier in the walk." At Porlock, he pauses to examine the haunted church and to pick out on the harmonium "Oh Will You Wash My father's Shirt" (a short one-fingered sequence of notes which most schoolchildren could play when he was growing up). At Newquay, with sand artist Tony Plant, he tries his hand at dragging a garden rake behind him to create art and finds it is harder than it looks: "Like writing free verse—all that empty page and every word in the dictionary to choose from." And at St. Agnes his old friend, Slug, turns up, to beg, borrow, and blag his way alongside him for a while.

Armitage's photographs throughout the book needed better reproduction than they are given here, and some of them could have looked stunning in color but are disappointing in black-and-white. My real disappointment with this book, however, is the scarcity of actual poems, especially those like "Privet" and "Prometheus," which he talks about in some detail. "Adder," which is included, is separated from his description of its origins by 43 pages, so that I mistakenly thought it might have been prompted by the "writhing and wriggling tangle" of children's limbs on the page opposite it, or by Armitage's earlier contemplation of a dangerous short-cut across the Taw/Torridge estuary to Appledore, which the imagery does reflect.

Such quibbles about publishers decisions, however, are far outweighed by the pleasure of reading Armitage's poetic, funny, and sometimes crabby and painful descriptions of his odyssey.


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