Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking
Introduced and edited by Duncan Minshull

I’m not sure if this is setting the tone for 2019, but I seem to be starting off the year with non-fiction; mind you, I’m always happy to have an excuse to read one of the lovely volumes produced by Notting Hill Editions. I’ve covered a number of their books on the Ramblings as well as for Shiny New Books, and they’re always a delight. What’s not to love about a beautiful little cloth-bound edition on quality paper with inspiring content? And when I saw that this volume was coming out I was particularly keen to read it; “Beneath My Feet” is an anthology of pieces by famous writers on the subject of walking, and as an inveterate walker I may well be the ideal reader!

Walking, as is well-known, does tend to stimulate the brain and so you would expect authors to want to walk whenever possible (and I confess that though I’m no author, I’ve certainly composed plenty of sentences for the blog while striding on my way to work – which does cause havoc when I have to stop halfway to write them down…) Many of the writers here are well-known for their peregrinations, particularly Thoreau, Dickens and Will Self. Others, like de Quincey and Rousseau, are perhaps not such obvious candidates for inclusion in this kind of book. Yet all are stimulating, thought-provoking and make fascinating reading.

Health and salvation can only be found in motion… (Kierkegaard)

Editor Minshull has chosen some really interesting writers and selections of their work on which to focus, and it was a pleasure for me to be introduced to ones new to me. John Muir’s descriptions of the heat of California were compelling, and reminded me that I have a chunky volume of his work on the shelves;  James Boswell‘s encounter with odoriferous Edinburgh was very funny; and William Hazlitt‘s desire for solitude very refreshing. Thoreau inevitably makes an appearance in his own right, but is also a recurring touchstone for many of the other writers. I empathised with George Sand and her need to move anonymously through the crowd, and cheered her choice of men’s clothing to enable this. The brilliance of Virginia Woolf goes without saying, and the extract from her “Street Haunting” reminded me that I have a number of VERY BIG volumes of her essays that I really should get round to…

Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march to dinner – and then to thinking! (William Hazlitt)

I was particularly taken, too, with the piece by Will Self; he takes a walk back to a hotel in night-time Glasgow and pins all manner of ponderings onto it, and it’s fascinating and thought-provoking. I had forgotten how much I enjoy Self’s non-fiction works; I have both of his “Psychogeography” collections and they’re endlessly entertaining. And the final extract, a beautiful piece of writing by Kafka, was most unexpected.

Interestingly, the book’s blurb reminded me that Duncan Minshull had previously edited an anthology of walking scenes from classic fiction, entitled “The Burning Leg”; and indeed I have a copy of this which I read pre-blog. I recall it as being just as interesting as this collection, and they’d make ideal companions.

It’s easy to take the act of perambulating and turn it into something mystical and significant – as Minshull says:

The thing is, you can take something simple like walking and imbue it with lots of conceits and rituals. Then it becomes an imaginative act, like questing for a pencil.

Nevertheless, we are a species which for much of our existence relied on our feet to get us around our world; it’s only in relatively modern times that we’ve had the means to speed around the world at a rate of knots, and up until the invention of mechanical aids we moved at whatever pace we could manage. There’s most definitely a number of arguments to be made in favour of going back to walking as much as we can: it’s better for our health, it’s infinitely better for our poor, battered planet, and by slowing our pace to a walk we’ll see that world properly again instead of speeding past it and losing our connection with nature. The writers featured here, old and new, were very much aware of the benefits and rewards of walking; and this wonderful anthology will go a long way towards reminding its readers just how important it is to get out-of-doors and use Shanks’s pony! 😀

Many thanks to Notting Hill Editions for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!

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