Smith P. (2014) On walking… and stalking Sebald Triarchy Press ISBN 978 1 909470 30 9
‘I would like you to join me on a walk. It will take us along roads, through towns and villages, and across beaches and heaths that I have never visited before. We will be exploring as we go, heading off at tangents, and every now and then stopping for philosophical and tactical refreshments as we happen upon opportunities for them: techniques, stories and ideas. I’ll be trying out different ways of subverting heritage sites, repeating the route of a well-known literary walk and looking for a grandfather.’
pg. 9 On Walking
On one level the title says it all, this is a book about focused walking, and it does contain a walk tracing the journey supposedly undertaken by W. G. Sebald and recorded in his much eulogised ‘Rings of Saturn’. However, as ever with a Phil Smith book, the title actually only scratches the surface of what is a generous handbook of a book providing strategies for getting under the skin of a walk (regardless of the nature or extent of that walk).
The Triarchy Press promotional materials capture the range of the book well when they describe the book as:
On one level On Walking… describes an actual, lumbering walk from one incongruous B&B to the next, taking in Dunwich, Lowestoft, Southwold, Covehithe, Orford Ness, Sutton Hoo, Bungay, Halesworth and Rendlesham Forest – with their lost villages, Cold War testing sites, black dogs, white deer and alien trails.
On a second level it sets out a kind of walking that the author has been practising for many years and for which he is quietly famous. It’s a kind of walking that burrows beneath the guidebook and the map, looks beyond the shopfront and the Tudor facade and feels beneath the blisters and disgruntlement of the everyday. Those who try it report that their walking [and their whole way of seeing the world] is never quite the same again. And the Suffolk walk described in this book is an exemplary walk, a case study – this is exactly how to do it.
Finally, on a third level, On Walking… is an intellectual tour de force, encompassing Situationism, alchemy, jouissance, dancing, geology, psychogeography, 20th century cinema and old TV, performance, architecture, the nature of grief, pilgrimage, World War II, the Cold War, Uzumaki, pub conversations, synchronicity, somatics and the Underchalk.
The book’s an autobiography; a drawing together of a lifetime’s ‘performance practice’, thinking, theorising and walking.
The book’s a loom; interconnecting and seeking patterns from, strand after strand of experience, recollection, memory, idea and weaving those strands together into a logical structure, without necessarily coming to any limiting or constraining ‘big idea’ conclusion.
The book’s a walk; one of those rambling, zig-zagging, satisfying meanders across all manner of terrain – leaping streams and not quite making the other side, getting a ‘cob on’ during steep climbs; slowing down to a mindful dawdle and suddenly racing into head-long, breathless chase.
The book’s a cauldron; mission, mystery, mania, madness, myth, mischief, and just about any ‘M’ you might mention, including ‘mum’ are to be found between the covers.
The book’s a generator and perhaps a provocation; here’s a few of my highlightings:
‘A walk might be helped or provoked by a theme, a quest, a burden, less often a destination. But I try to always be ready to change tack if the terrain offers a new and better theme.’ pg.14
‘Everyone will walk in their own different ways: some extrovertly and eccentrically, others in variations on what they think is a right way to walk. But to partake of a ‘great walk’, pleasure – free from obligations or commercial exchanges – is the first binding and common component, the criterion and the medium of the walk; less guided by maps and more by the intuiting of atmospheres and ambiences. It is by that intensely enjoyable (to the point of painfulness, sometimes) sensitisation to the emotional charge and change of space that I make my way.’ pg.15
‘One of the great things about not knowing where you are going is that relatively unimpressive landscapes, structures or artifacts take on a new aura and wonder when stumbled across or encountered as part of a walking narrative. What, if planned, might be found with some minor self-satisfaction, can instead be encountered as a staggering discovery, a bone-stopping association, a punch in the heart accusation from the past, a precious mis-design; some rotted shed, some parts of a shattered wing mirror like self-fracturing selves, some stream in a suburban valley, a sodium lamp-lit beauty… these unfold one after the other, space unraveling rather than delivering.’ pg.116
Finally, this is a book that deserves re-reading. I found my first reading a little confusing, not least because books layout unnecessarily complicates the content which didn’t gain anything from the interplay of ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ on the same page or the discordance of differing type faces.
On my second reading pleasure in, and admiration for, Smith’s playful creativity, sensitivity and compassion emerged and I see this as joining a handful of wonderful books that are helping to develop my own ‘navigating’ practice.