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“Silently we unlatch the door….” (Thoreau) @NottingHillEds @MinshullDuncan

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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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Recent Reads – The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris by John Baxter

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The lovely thing about time off work (in this case for the Christmas holidays) is that I get plenty of reading time – fairly essential when you think of the number of books I’ve amassed recently, and so maybe it’s a good thing this is another gift book (birthday this time).

beautifulwalk
It’s a little while since I’ve read any non-fiction and I was unsure what I wanted to read, so I picked up TMBWITW – and I wasn’t disappointed! John Baxter has written a number of books, but this is the first time I’ve come across his work. He hails originally from Australia but washed up in Paris via England and LA when he married a Frenchwoman and moved there. The book is the story of his walking experiences in the city, and an awful lot more!

Baxter begins by relating a driving experience gone wrong, when he was supposed to be travelling to in-laws for Christmas Day outside of Paris. He soon diverges into his history as a walker (you didn’t in Australia because of wild creatures, you did in UK to get to the pub, and if you walked in LA *you* were regarded as a wild creature!) However, he doesn’t stay directly on topic for long, and his book wanders off, in psychogeographical fashion, to cover the artistic past of Paris, his adventures taking walking guided tours round the city, food and drink, the building of modern Paris, visiting the catacombs, opium, cafes, clubs and much, much more! The US ex-pat community of Stein, Fitzgerald and very much of Hemingway are a regular current throughout the book, but it touches on indigenous French such as Colette and Cocteau; and Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Co is much in evidence.

“You can blame Hemingway for what happened next. Well, not personally. He had after all been dead since 1961. But his celebrations of hunting, shooting, fishing, bullfighting and war popularized the conviction that a writer should be a person of action as well as ideas. Numerous authors, inspired by his stories of safaris, boxing matches and battle, had been gored, shot, knocked insensible, or (not least) left with horrific hangovers trying to prove they were his equal.”

This is a pure gem of a book; Baxter obviously knows his stuff, but he doesn’t beat you over the head with his erudition. The book is incredibly well-written and readable, a beguiling mixture of fact and personal anecdote and also very, very funny. It actually tells you an awful lot about Paris, but in a fun, entertaining way and I just couldn’t put it down.

Baxter isn’t afraid to debunk myths along the way, and there are some nice little photos to illustrate the text. The book is surprisingly wide-ranging, and in a weird case of synchronicity, the place Baxter lived in England was East Bergholt (a village not that far from me) where he knew the guy who illustrated the covers for “Dance to the Music of Time”! How strange is that!

“On the way back [from the village shop] with a bag of groceries, I’d pause at one of its many pubs for a beer or cut across the fields to visit illustrator and novelist James Broom-Lynne, who never needed much excuse to be distracted. He’d designed all the covers for the twelve-volume series of novels by Anthony Powell called A Dance to the Music of Time and some of Powell’s amused weariness seemed to have rubbed off.”

rue maubert part - george hann

The book is categorised on the rear cover as “Travel/Memoir”, which in some way doesn’t do it justice. But it highlights one of the important factors of a volume such as this, and that’s the personal angle. Baxter is a funny and engaging companion on the journey through the physical and historical aspects of Paris, and lets into the book enough of the personal to make us involved, but not so much that it feels like an intrusion. Walking round the city of Paris, steeped in its history, is something of a dream for many readers (me, for one!) and this book comes as close as you can get in book form. Highly recommended!

“A walk is not a parade or a race. It’s a succession of instants, any of which can illuminate a lifetime. What about the glance, the scent, the glimpse, the way the light just falls… the ‘beautiful’ part? No tour guide or guidebook tells you that. Prepared itineraries remind me of those PHOTO POINT signs at Disneyland. Yes, that angle gives you an attractive picture. But why not just buy the postcard?”

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