Walking is such a basic human function that it’s something we never think about as a rule, completely taking it for granted. Yet a strong case can be made for walking being much more than just a case of putting one foot in front of another until we get to our destination; and a recent purchase from Verso Books, which I’ve been lauding online, does just that. The book is “A Philosophy of Walking” by Frédéric Gros, translated by John Howe; as I’ve previously mentioned, I picked up a copy when Verso were having one of their regular sales (this time a 50% off one) – and it was definitely money well spent!

The little biog on the Verso site states: “Frédéric Gros is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris XII and the Institute of Political Studies, Paris. He was the editor of the last lectures of Michel Foucault at the Collège de France. He has written books on psychiatry, law, and war as well as the best-selling Philosophy of Walking.” I can see why this book *would* be a best-seller, as it combines some beautiful writing with some accessible exploration of philosophy as well as some very moving tales of famous walkers. It’s also enhanced with some lovely illustrations at the start of each chapter by Clifford Harper. For me, it was compelling reading and a real winner!

An author who composes while walking, on the other hand, is free from such bonds; his thought is not the slave of other volumes, not swollen with verifications, nor weighted with the thought of others. It contains no explanation owed to anyone: just thought, judgement, decision. It is thought born of a movement, an impulse. In it we can feel the body’s elasticity, the rhythm of a dance. It retains and expresses the energy, the springiness of the body. Here is thought about the thing itself, without the scrambling, the fogginess, the barriers, the customs clearances of culture and tradition.

Starting with a chapter entitled “Walking Is Not A Sport”, Gros goes on to explore why we walk, what we get out of it, its effects on our physical and mental wellbeing, as well as touching upon a number of intriguing and tragic lives. Of course, in the past walking was the only option for most people; until we took possession of horses or other animals, learned to build wheeled structures to be pulled and then eventually invented methods of travel independent of organic creatures. But as Gros reflects, that speedy mode of transport not only removes much of the pleasure of travel, it also disconnects us from the world around us – we can’t truly appreciate a place unless we move through it at a natural pace.

When you really walk, farewell follows farewell all day long. You can never be quite sure of ever setting foot in a place again. This condition of departure adds intensity to the gaze. That backward look when you cross a ridge, just before the landscape tilts. Or the final glance at last night’s lodging as you leave in the morning (its grey mass, the trees behind). You turn round again, one more time … but that restless gaze doesn’t aim to grasp, possess or keep: rather it aims to give, to leave a little of its light in the stubborn presence of the rocks and flowers.

Lest you get the impression this is simply a book wanting us to reconnect with nature, let me assure you it’s much more! Gros considers famous walkers and thinkers from Nietzsche to Gandhi: their place in the world, their individual beliefs and philosophies, and the way they used the process of walking. Many authors and thinkers have claimed to get their greatest ideas in motion; and although I’m not one of them, I do find that all sorts of ideas pop into my head when I’m walking!

Nerval’s is a landscape of castles and battlemented towers, red swaying masses of thicket on the green of valleys, orange gilding of sunsets. Trees, and more trees. Landscapes flat as slumber. Bluish morning mists making ghosts rise everywhere. October evenings made of old gold. You walk there as if in a dream, slowly, without effort (little steep or broken terrain). The rustle of dead leaves.

Then there are those whose constant walking is more of a flight; often from what they don’t actually know, but his pen portrait of Rimbaud, always on the go as if trying to escape from the world, is evocative and moving. And the chapter on the dark and troubled Gerard de Nerval, stalking Paris in a state of melancholy until he could finally take no more, is still haunting me (and sending me off in search of the lost streets and alleys of the city). Rousseau and Thoreau also stride through these pages, both contemplating the world in their own ways. There are chapters on pilgrimage, strolling, the flaneur; psychogeographers and the situationists pass through, and Wordsworth popularises walking for pleasure – really, it’s a wonderfully varied and involving book. The part on Ghandi was something of an eye-opener too: I had little knowledge of him beforehand and was stunned to read of the cruelty of the Imperialist British (though I guess I shouldn’t have been). The story of the salt tax was just awful, and Gandhi’s marches inspirational. And we still do march in search of change or peace or to save the world; but I doubt in this modern world we will ever be as successful as he was.

Well, this was a marvellous read; it reminded me that walking is a pure kind of travel, when you can really appreciate the world around you rather than whizzing through in a vehicle of some kind; and it also drew me back towards authors I’ve not read for a while or who I’ve intended to explore more fully. In fact, this is one of those very dangerous books which creates its own list of further reading – there *is* a section with that title in the back, and any number of enticing mentions in the text. I’ve already sent away for one book, dragged another load off the shelves and created a list – gulp…

A Gros-inspired pile…

Anyway, this was another case of a particular book shouting loudly from the shelves to get my attention and turning out to be the perfect read for now; and as the only walking I’m doing at the moment is the ten minutes to work and back, escaping in the company of Frédéric Gros was a joyous, often moving, and thought-provoking experience. And rather dangerously, Verso also publish another couple of his books…. ;D