Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson

The prospect of a planned, solitary walk can often become off-putting. At first the distance seems daunting, the landscape predictable and the destination uninspiring, so, sitting down, one thinks: what's the point? Better to stay indoors and do something productive, like, say, read a book. But then reading too seems like too much intellectual effort and one has to get out.

For a while I let Geoff Nicholson's The Lost Art of Walking wait because it looked like a solemn work of study; 264 pages on a mundane subject. Moreover, Lost and Art threaten a New Agey cris de coeur from beneath the rails and road of modernity – all very justified, yet depressingly futile. And then there's the subtitle: what does The History, Science, Philosophy, Literature, Theory and Practice of Pedestrianism suggest to you? But then one starts and the doubts fall away. Happy, necessary amnesia is the gift of both walking and reading, and this book is a pleasure to read.

It helps that Geoff Nicholson is almost the perfect walking companion: never boring, cheerfully opinionated but not self-obsessed, and full of engaging examples and personal anecdotes. I say 'almost' because Nicholson is not really a companion; he is the walk, its distance, its landscape and its destination, which is a little odd, so the comparison is not entirely appropriate. The full title is not entirely appropriate either because it suggests an academic procession across the subject rather than what it is: a ramble – an often moving ramble – through various landscapes. The cover design is a better guide to its contents. A review would normally summarise, share some favourite stories and dissent from one or two opinions, but this would miss the nature of the subject. One doesn't criticise cloying mud on a riverside path for not being asphalt, so I won't criticise the careless errors early on – Eliot's poem isn't "The Wasteland", "Oliver Sachs" is not the famous neurologist, it's Sacks; and "Stuart Home" is not the founder of the London Psychogeographic Society, it's Stewart – or gripe about how those with otherwise fine literary judgement inexplicably value JG Ballard's fiction (Ballard's house features in the book), or wish Nicholson had mentioned other novels in which walking is key to its style and content (Bernhard's Walking, Handke's Repetition and, in the London chapter, Josipovici's Moo Pak – the list, after all, may be endless). I want only to point the reader toward the path and recommend one just walks, listens and enjoys the words flying and dissolving in the fresh air.

What I will note is an interesting tension in the book, which may also relate to its apparent lack of interest in literary experiment. Nicholson is unfussy about where he walks and is interested in all ideas about it – he covers Guy Debord's inaugural definition of psychogeography, and then gives Iain Sinclair prolonged respectful attention, yet he is dismissive of the "jejeune philosophising" of the "walking in nature brigade", invariably American New Age mystics writing in Oprah-friendly clichés about "the wonder of creation", how nature "is full of surprises, always changing" and how "the soul is renewed and called to open and grow". "You want to be called upon to open and grow?" Nicholson asks, "Go take a walk through the Isle of Dogs on a Saturday afternoon when Millwall are playing, lady." He decides he lacks the "spiritual gene" because he does not limit his walking to floating through the local wildlife sanctuary. But his earlier impatience with Debord's attempt to unify and communalise what he agrees is unique and ambient experience confirms a love of surprise, a need for change, and a willingness to open himself to both. The New Agers he dynamites in a barrel are, like him, not a brigade but individuals striving to put into words what necessarily escapes them. And what the lady says holds for all landscapes.

How one defines renewal and growth then becomes the important question, a question both begged and resisted by writing. As Nietzsche and Marc Augé have argued, forgetting is as necessary to a healthy life as memory. Walking would then be forgetting and writing memory. Nicholson's fine company thereby has to betray the title's promise of unity in order to do justice to his subject, which he does. Any quibbling can take a hike.


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