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Simon Armitage

Walking Home

Category: Miscellaneous | Published: 2012 | Review Added: 09-10-2012

Rating: 4 - A top read

In 2010, poet Simon Armitage walked the Pennine Way, the most famous long-distance footpath in England. The Pennines are a range of hills running for 250 miles down the middle of the north of the country, and are characterised by alternations of bleak, rain-soaked moorland and beautiful, tranquil valleys. Each night, Armitage gave a poetry reading at a pre-arranged venue, demanding no payment but asking for donations based on what each punter thought his performance was worth. Another of his rules was that he would offer no money for food or lodging, but rely on the goodwill of strangers for accommodation (pre-arranged, of course). His aim was to make his journey pay for itself - which it did.

The idea is an unusual one, but as Armitage writes, it was the perfect vehicle for several things he wanted to do. A loyal Northerner whose home village (where he still lives) lies on the Way, he characterises the purpose of the book as follows:

I wanted to write a book about the North, one that could observe and describe the land and its people, and one that could encompass elements of memoir as well as saying something about my life as a poet.

He also wanted to gain a fresh perspective on his home territory, which lies at the southern end of the path, and therefore walked it "backwards", from north to south. On this and other levels, the book's concept works well. Most parts of the Pennines are far from urban centres and large readerships of poetry, which makes for some odd audiences and some odd venues (a couple are living rooms). Armitage is intrigued to observe who turns up to hear him read in the middle of remote farming communities, and by the people he meets as he walks the Way. (He publicised his journey in advance, and encouraged members of the public to keep him company for as long or short a distance as they liked.)

Walking Home is a mixture of observations about the natural world, and the circumscribed social worlds into which Armitage comes into contact. Some of his fellow walkers, and the attendees of his readings, are locals; others are star-struck visitors from other parts of the country. Armitage captures these often odd people perfectly, his tone wry and witty but never unkind. Meanwhile, his descriptions of the landscape, the flora, the fauna, and, above all, the weather (terrible, on the whole), are those of a curious amateur, observant and sensuous, his interest in the world around him genuine but never overstated.

(His reported misery upon getting lost in the mist and rain, mind you, assumes an almost Lear-like existential significance, and its authenticity might be questioned by the sceptical reader. Well, undoubtedly there is an element of exaggeration for comic effect; but Armitage appears to be a sensitive, home-loving soul, and as someone who has been lost alone a couple of times I can vouch for the strange way that the thought, "What if I don't find my way again before nightfall?" can suddenly rise terrifyingly above all larger, longer-term anxieties.)

The book includes a few poems, all of them engaging, though they don't rank among Armitage's masterpieces. More appealing is the large amount of poetic description in the main narrative that is neither pretentious nor intrusive, but full of wit and charm (one example of many: "Cows lumber freely across the lower slopes and through high bracken, like big slow balloons, with no obvious sign of ownership or restriction.") Armitage has matured into a writer of excellent prose that is humorous and observant, and that, like his poetry, concentrates on the immediate, the personal, the quirky and the small-scale. This sense of sweet exclusion of the evils of the wider world is a large part of this book's appeal: it returned me to my own childhood holidays in the Pennines, at a time when landscape and locality could engage my imagination completely.

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