The Manchester Literature Festival is coming to town on 8th October and, as well as doing a bit of volunteering like last year, I am planning to get to a reading by Simon Armitage. He is one of my most read writers with three other reviews on the blog, and while random browsing at the library the other day I came across 'Walking Home', the story of his trek down the Pennine Way. Having just read and enjoyed 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry', this was a little like a real life version, following Simon as traverses some of the country's roughest terrain, and the random real people he encounters along the way. It has a smattering of personal anecdotes mixed in with the story of his journey. Unlike Harold it is quite well planned in advance, but in common with Harold he makes the journey without financial resources, giving poetry readings along the way to fund his exploits and relies of the goodwill of supporters to provide him with bed and board.
So it all sounds a bit unpromising, man trudging in the rain for days at a time does not sound that fascinating but his writing style is so down to earth and amusing that you really warm to him, and the characters he meets are more engaging than the invented and occasionally clichéd ones in Harold's pilgrimage. He begins by explaining why he decided to take the trip:
"I wanted to write a book about the North, one that could observe and describe the land and its people , and one that could encompass elements of memoir as well as saying something about my life as a poet."
and why he chooses to do the walk from north to south:
"But as a poet, I'm naturally contrary. ... It is a dissenting and wilful art form, and most of its practitioners are signed-up members of the awkward squad. So against all the prevailing advice, against the prevailing weather, and against much of the prevailing signage, I undertook to walk the Pennine Way in the 'wrong' direction. Walking south also made sense because it meant I'd be walking home." (p.4-5)
"Nine people come to the reading. by which I mean the nine people sitting in the residents lounge attend a poetry reading whether they like it or not. This includes a father-and-son team from Wales doing the Pennine Way in three stages, a woman from Kelso who was (of course) born in Huddersfield and knows my mother, and a truly magnificent wiry old boy from County Durham who has walked 230 miles in seven days carrying not much more than a pac-a-mac and a packet of mints." (p.45)
Reminded of St Michael's Mount after reading a piece called 'Causeway':
"the island-castle reached via a stone causeway which disappears under the sea then re-emerges at low tide. Visitors can walk over to the island and get marooned there, and it's all very exciting, in an English sort of way." (p.85)
The strangeness of staying in stranger's homes:
"Stranger still for the hosts, I imagine, having a complete outsider disappear behind the door of the spare bedroom, rooms which are nearly always reliquaries or shrines, museums of past lives or mausoleums devoted to a particular absence, a place of mothballed clothes, stockpiled books, musical instruments locked in cases, photographs under cellophane, framed certificates, dusty trophies, threadbare soft toys, objects which have no function or place in the everyday world of the living room or the kitchen or the master bedroom but whose significance to family lore borders on the sacred. I am sleeping in the memory vault, and none of the memories are mine." (p.174-5)
A chat with the apprehensive Colin (Pennine Way Ranger) in a regulation green Land Rover:
" 'What did you think I'd be like?'
'I don't know to be honest.'
'Some kind of bespectacled, fragile intellectual in a velvet jacket and unsuitable shoes, right?'
'No,' he says, unconvincingly, then a moment later, 'OK, yes.' " (p.177)
Then a little something just to remind you he's a poet:
"I lie on the bed for a while longer, watching five starlings perched on a set of telephone wires outside the window, like notes on a page of sheet music, and try to hum the tune" (p.186)
Little anecdote about the small community that is poetry:
"The next time I looked up it's because there's a little old man standing in front of me, blocking the path, his arm extended, wanting to shake my hand.
'Are you Simon Armitage?'
'Ha! I don't believe it!' he says. 'That's two of you now. I met Seamus Heaney last week!'
'He's not doing the Pennine Way, is he?'
'He was in a pub,' he says then, 'Unbelievable!' Then he spins on his heels and disappears, leaving me with the thought of walking into the Old Nag's Head in Edale in a couple of days time only to find Heaney sitting at the bar having got there first, Amundsen to my Scott, the story already told, the book already written." (p.246-7)
There are a few poems but that's not really the purpose of the book. A surprising and wonderful read, made me laugh out loud and gave food for thought.