In ‘Mythogeography’ we enter a never-land where nothing is quite as it seems.
This is a book about and a book NOT about walking. It is about looking and thinking. And theory, and practice. And it’s about a journey across the heart of the north Midlands countryside in the footsteps of Edwardian oak tree planter Charles Hurst.
This is a world where nothing is quite certain, where there’s smoke and mirrors and Puckish mischief. Almost immediately I was wondering if Hurst actually existed and whether the story of the ‘Charles H. oaks’ were just that a h-oax!
According to the oracle of Amazon, it would seem that Charles Hurst certainly existed and did indeed write of an Edwardian journey across England in search of stately oaks. And, that he did ritually plant numerous acorns – it’s the fruits of these ambulatory plantings that Phil Smith goes in search of in the first half of the book.
But Phil Smith is no ordinary walker, and this is certainly more than a quirky semi-autobiographical rendering of a journey. Phil Smith ‘The Crabman’ is a well-established, respected, exciting and innovative performance artist who’s made ‘walking sideways’ into an art.
He’s a generous performance artist as well, as the book in the second half goes on to offer a handbook/rattlebag/orrery of ideas on how to explore with an open mind, with open eyes, with humour and creativity, as a swimmer, a ghost, an explorer or pilgrim… As he says:
Mythogeography is a way of walking, thinking and organising on many levels at the same time. Anyone can do it. You can do it… By setting ourselves in motion through a world of images we make ourselves human movie cameras or camera phones – both interpreters and producers. By the particular focuses and the angles of trajectory we choose, we make an interpretation of our world, and from our impressions we begin to re-make its meanings. The productions that follow from these experiences – a conversation in a bar, a procession, a conspiracy, a plan, a map, an organisation, a gesture – are what mythogeography is.
Gently deceitful, mischievous, hopeful, tongue-in-cheek and highly serious, the Journal of Cultural Geography sum it up as: a handbook, a manifesto, and a parody of handbooks and manifestos.
It’s a slow burn ‘sneak-up book’, but once fully ignited it can burn bright in the imagination. Puzzling , irritating and at times downright bewildering – there are pages littered with postmodern academic jargon that come close to being unreadable beyond the doctorated few. However, it’s also a book that’s often riveting, entertaining and thought-provoking. You’ll never take a simple walk in quite the same way again!
Mythogeography is about keeping alive the many potential meanings of places in the face of creeping uniformity.
This is a book that wears it’s complexity on it’s sleeve, it even provides a series of symbols to try to guide you into understanding what the stream of consciousness, improvised and non-linear paragraphs might be on about. Then again, being about the journey and not necessarily the getting there, perhaps it’s not necessary to understand every academic reference to get a vicarious sense of the fun that Smith’s having, and his admirable commitment to his mythogeographical project.
It’s a compendium of walking stories, hoaxes and digressions, lists, literary jokes, observations and dense passages of prose poetry-cum-theory.
Pretentious at times perhaps, but you’d have a hard heart not to enjoy some of Smith’s involving, passionate and often very funny storytelling. Des de Moor
Further Reading (or Looking):
1. A film about Phil Smith
3. Phil Smith’s website