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“…whatever it is that makes a man follow a beckoning star.” @VersoBooks #FrédéricGros

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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

“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!

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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