Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: On Walking . . . And Stalking Sebald

66. Linda Cracknell, Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains

I ran across Linda Cracknell’s name in Deirdre Heddon’s and Cathy Turner’s essay, “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” They described her as a woman doing epic walking—as well as smaller, more localized walks—and writing about them. In fact, she took more than a dozen walks while preparing for a writing project about walking that resulted in three or four books (229-30). Oh, I thought, I want to read those. Unfortunately, they were published by small presses in Scotland and now out-of-print. However, Abebooks found them for me, and this one, Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains, was the first one to arrive. I thought I would save it for my flight to Calgary, or else my flight to Dublin, but it’s not a long read, and so I decided to take it on this afternoon while the cats drowsed with me in the sunporch.

I need to make clear, at the outset, that I am not a mountain climber—I’d be pretty unhappy, living in Saskatchewan, if I were—and so I can’t tell from this book about walking in and climbing up mountains whether Cracknell’s practice might be a model for my own. I’m hopeful, though. In the book’s “Pre-amble” (get it?), she remembers the family walks she experienced in childhood (ix). They led to decades of climbing, mostly in Scotland:

My twenties and thirties were punctuated by mountaineering trips and some fairly cowardly rock-climbing, but I particularly started to enjoy long-distance walking in parts of north-west Scotland most remote from roads—Knoydart, and Fisherfield—wild-camping for five or six days with a sense of journey. I enjoyed the landscape unrolling, the rhythm and motion, the growing fitness, even the slight sense of hardship and rationed food. Only taking what you can carry generates the ultimate sense of independence. (ix-x)

(Note: what the English call “wild camping,” Canadians have to call “stealth camping,” because it’s not actually legal here.) “For me,” she continues, “those journeys were about climbing out of the trivia and pressure of everyday life, escaping the largely human world for a shift of scale” (x). In her 40s, though, she found herself walking less, and this book is a record, in part, of reversing that situation. 

Surprisingly, these two walks changed Cracknell’s view of walking. “The first walk I’ve written about here, following a friend’s father on a journey of life or death through Norwegian mountains, set my feet off in a new direction,” she notes. “I became less intent on ‘getting away from it all,’ and more interested in walking paths which beat with a human resonance” (x-xi). In fact, the two stories in this book “are part of an exploration, on foot and in writing, of this new preoccupation—following people, stories, ancient ways, human structures in the land. I now walk as a way of celebrating both landscape and humanity” (xi). That Norwegian journey made her realize the need for the second walk she talks about in this book, one that connects walking and memory—her memory of her father, who died of cancer when she was a baby (xi). “I found that the time had come to explore his mountains,” she writes (xi).

The first story, or narrative essay, in the book is “Losing my footing, finding my feet again” (1). She accompanies five friends to Norway to follow the path their father, who had been active in the Norwegian Resistance, took in 1944 after he escaped from the Germans and walked across the mountains to Sweden. As with her second story, this one begins in medias res: Cracknell is concerned that the focus of their trip so far has been “meeting people rather than the practical details of the journey. I have little idea of the daily distances planned, or the amount of food we need to carry before reaching the next shop. I try to bury my frustration, wait for the moment when I can breathe the mountain air and get my arms and legs swinging. I want to put my boots back on” (3-4). She recalls meeting her friend Yuli in 1982, in Devon; Yuli’s father, Sven, died when she was young; 60 years later, his family decided to trace his footsteps (4). They had the maps that Sven had drawn after his escape (4-5)—and the account he published after the war—as guides. Cracknell’s account of her journey is layered with Sven’s account of his escape; she shifts from one story to the other, as she does in the second story as well.

But they also had the testimony of people they met who had been involved with Sven’s escape, and they heard stories about Sven’s activity in the wartime resistance (6-7). He was arrested taking photographs of a torpedo station and on a ship ready to be taken for a summary trial when he slipped away from his guard (9). His plan was to escape through the mountains to Sweden; a young man, André, gave him his hiking boots to replace Sven’s worn shoes (9). That was quite an offer, given wartime leather rationing (12). André also helped guide Sven in the mountains, with two other climbers: “they “were the initial link in a generous chain that ushered Sven Sømme 200 kilometres through wild and isolated mountain country still snow-covered in 1944” (12). Sven travelled at night, without a map, adequate clothing, or food, sleeping out in the open or in deserted summer farms, hiding frequently for extended periods of time before it was safe to continue (12). “Valley and mountain, valley and mountain; helping hand to helping hand,” Cracknell writes. “This was the rhythm of his journey” (12).

For the first two days, the party has a volunteer guide, Oddmund Unhjem; he is 73 but the fittest of the group (14). As they walk, Sven’s story comes alive; “we take delight in finally using our bodies to retell it” (15). They cross a high plateau and head into the Eikesdal valley, where they meet Kristian Finset, who, as a boy, had kept quiet about the strange man hiding in the spare bedroom (20). Finset invites them to stay in his house: “The next morning we are tourists—showering under the tallest waterfall in Europe, swimming in the lake, discovering potatokake. Our biggest worry is how to keep the chocolate from melting”—then they walk to Finset’s son’s farm, where they stay the night and see the room where Finset’s father had hidden Sven (20-21). She thinks about Sven’s family, and her own; she has no memory of her own father, who died of cancer in 1961, as Sven did. She has been told that her father was a keen mountaineer but knows nothing about his adventures (22-23). 

Finset’s father gave Sven supplies and accompanied him to a narrow canyon, carrying three heavy planks which he used to make a temporary bridge for Sven; once Sven was across the canyon, the planks were taken away, and Sven was “alone with no retreat” (23). Two days later, Sven learns that the Germans are in the area looking for him (23); after that, he walks at night (26). He tries to swim across a swollen river but fails; he finds a bridge upstream and crosses there (26). He carries as little as possible in his borrowed rucksack; Cracknell, by comparison, has a new rucksack for the trip and she’s carrying too much, and her friends help her choose things that she doesn’t need and that can be sent back (26-27). The group looks for the point where Sven crossed the canyon; Cracknell writes, “I enjoy the sense of walking a storyline” (27).

They find themselves walking across a high moor; their guides have returned home and they are left to continue on their own (28). The party reads Sven’s book around their fire (29). They compare their experience to his: “Because in some senses we are walking for pleasure, it’s easy to forget how it would feel to be alone, and in danger. We have good boots and equipment, no Nazis in pursuit, no need to travel in the night” (30). They realize they have shared experiences with him already, though: “red squirrels trapezing through branches, golden plovers making their plaintive call, ‘tleee,’ and running fitfully towards us. Like him we’ve grazed on blueberries and wood sorrel in the forests. In marshy areas, we’ve picked cloudberries whose taste Sven characterised as ‘sunshine.’” (32). 

They walk all day; the next morning, food is running low, and they begin fantasizing about their favourite meals (32-33). They’re tired and dispirited; a couple in a camper offer them apples, and then a ride to Dombås, which they accept (33). One of their party, Oliver, decides he’s had enough and goes home; the others take a rest day and look at maps, planning their route (34). They take a taxi out of Dombås to pick up Sven’s route again, climbing onto a plateau that reminds Cracknell of the Cairngorms (38). Then, Cracknell falls on a hill and hits her head; she seems to have broken her nose, and her friends urge her to stop walking and find a doctor (39-40). She takes a taxi back to the nearest village to search for a doctor; she’s not sure she will return (40-41). The doctor sends her to a hospital in a larger town, where she is told that her nose is too swollen to treat and that she should go home (41-44). 

“Sven did better than I did,” Cracknell writes (45). He met friends at Nesset, and they helped him hide out for several weeks in a tent above Lake Atnsjøen while he waited for a safe moment to cross into Sweden (45). There, he made contact with his wife, saw his brother Knud, was provided with a false passport and ration cards and a message from his home town; people were overjoyed at his escape (45). Eventually he continued east, where he met a stranger who turned out to be the man charged with helping him to the river, where he crossed into Sweden (46). “He became one of over 48,000 Norwegians who walked or sailed to safety,” and travelled to Britain where he joined the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture before returning to liberated Norway in 1945 (46).

Cracknell’s friends carry on, following their father’s journey, and arrive at the Swedish border (48-49). “Sven’s story remains marked with its own memory-stones; a white-pebbled path visible in the dark,” Cracknell writes. “Like the best folk tale or legend it has been passed on, and then on again. Sven may have avoided leaving prints in the snow for his trackers to find, but he left lasting markers in people’s minds and in their concept of the landscape” (49-50). Cracknell realizes that although walk was intended as a holiday, it had become something more: “I discovered a richly peopled landscape. Even the strangeness of the days following my accident, with generous strangers playing their part, contributed to a sense of a living, resonant pathway” (50). She returns home thinking about this insight: “I wanted to follow more whispering ways; to seek out stories that still echo underfoot. And I began to wonder if that could include a faint path with a strong personal connection” (50). She starts asking questions about her father and a trip he made to the Swiss Alps, hoping to identify one of his journeys, or a route he had wanted to take, and walk a memorial to him (50). “But I had doubts,” she writes. “It might mean a climbing expedition in the Alps—something formidable that I had never done—and I no longer trusted my own feet” (50).

That’s where the second story, “Outlasting our Tracks,” begins (51). As with the first story, Cracknell starts in medias res: she is in a hut in the Alps; it is summer but it has snowed (53). Now, though, the sky is clear and the wind has dropped: “There’s a sense of a charmed day emerging” (53). As the sun rises, Cracknell and her climbing friends Colin and Rick put on their crampons and attach themselves to the rope (54-55): 

A line of shared responsibility now snakes between us, demanding to be watched so that our distances can be adjusted for different conditions—slack or taut, depending. The rope makes a team of us, pulling us out of individual reveries and slow waking with the need to communicate. Like riding a tandem, pauses will need negotiation. (56)

The snow that fell the day before, however, is a problem: 

By covering the footprints of climbers in the days before us, the new snow has made pioneers of us, erasing the accepted route, forcing us to be slow. It disguises crevasses and snow bridges, laying itself in soft piles that our first laborious steps sink into and compress. Those behind us will harden it into an easier-going trail. (56-57)

“We would prefer not to be leading,” she notes (57).

After her walk in Norway, Cracknell had asked questions about her father’s mountaineering: “I wanted to colour in the shaded outline in his photograph, to have some stories to walk or tell” (57). The only mountain anyone could name was the Finsteraarhorn, the one she is climbing now (57). “At half my age, in 1952, my father led his own expedition here,” she writes (58). Her friends Rick and Colin agreed to absorb her into their own trip to the Finsteraarhorn—“bravely, considering my inexperience in the Alps” (58-59). When she was getting ready for the climb, she would look at the map, imagining her father’s route (59). But maps aren’t the same as the actual thing, of course. Their path takes them onto a glacier, which was concealed in dense fog: “Disorientated, I felt I was walking on a sea that had been struck still and silent at a moment of monumental swell” (62). 

Walking and climbing are completely different activities, Cracknell realizes: 

This wasn’t a walk of rhythm and thought, but a strict regime of care and concentration—watching for the route; avoiding the catch of a crampon on an opposite gaiter. My head was bedevilled by the squint, gargoyled grins of stalactite teeth leering out of crevasses; by the image of Frankenstein and his monster wandering fog-drunk on the ice. I was in a faded black and white movie. (64)

Her inexperience is clear, and the fog a constant source of anxiety:

The surface was tamed in time under my crampon claws. I gained confidence, but I longed to see the dark rock-rise of the hills that defined our corridor on either side. How would we know, I wondered, in this labyrinth of fog and crevasse, wandering at the whim of the glacier’s faults and blockades, when we were level with the gothic high notch of rock to our right which held the Konkordia Hut where we would sleep that night? Might we not walk right past it? (65)

She thinks of a photo her father had taken in the Alps: three people, Jim Parry, Effie Pendleton, and David Lawton, “blurred in black and white, paused with backs to the camera”; they are standing on a glacier, heading towards the same alpine hut she and her friends are searching for (65). 

“The trail after my father has been slow,” Cracknell admits. “As a child, I remember searching for photographs, trying to find proof of his existence to fill the gap of memory. In the stiff second drawer of the dining room desk I stole glimpses framed and pasted into albums” (66). Before this trip, she wrote The Alpine Club in the belief that her father was a member; she talked to her mother, her uncle, an old girlfriend of her father’s; she looked at photographs; slowly she learned more (66). It turns out that, in the Alps, her father was with a party from the Oxford University Mountaineering Club (OUMC); she looks at photographs, reads a postcard her father sent home (68). The OUMC was able to provide some details of her father’s journey (68). “As I read the joyous words of joint adventure recorded in the OUMC Journal, Richard Cracknell, the summit-hunter, began to materialise,” she writes (69). Cracknell is able to trace their journey, at least part of the way (69-70).

“I imagined my father, in this three weeks or so of adventure before his ‘grown-up’ life began, feeling viscerally alive as he breathed in fine Alpine air,” she notes (70). He had just finished his chemistry degree at Oxford and had a job with a chemical firm (70). Her pride in her father comes through clearly: “He was an accomplished enough mountaineer to be leading his own party, and had been involved in the equipment tests for the first successful Everest expedition, which he and my mother would hear news of from the Lake District the following year” (70). She thinks about the differences between his equipment and that available to her (70-71). The job he was about to take involved working with epoxy resins, which probably brought him into contact with carcinogens that led to his terminal cancer (71).

Cracknell and her friends cross a dangerous snow bridge (72); the slopes of Finsteraarhorn are dangerous after a snowfall, and she is worried (73). She asks herself why she had “imposed this ordeal upon myself” (75). “I’m not sure I’m up to it,” she tells her friends (75). But, as the climb continues, hope comes to overwhelm her fear; “height beckons,” and she continues “the trudge” upwards (75). She’s still concerned she’s not fit enough, however (77). Climbing is a slow process: “I plant the ice axe; lift my left foot through; lift my right leg through. Plant ice axe, and repeat; and repeat. Every motion is deliberate, and moon-walk slow” (77). She’s surprised, again, that she’s climbing the Finsteraarhorn (78). At the Finsteraarhorn Hut, she learns that Gertrude Bell, “famous as an Arabist, had made the first attempt on the north-east ridge of Finsteraarhorn in 1902. She rarely makes an appearance amongst the lists of men in Alpine climbing histories but her account of the ordeal in a letter to her father is terrifying in its detail” (79). Bell’s party had failed to reach the top of the mountain because of weather, and they encountered a thunderstorm on their descent (79). Storm-stayed, they had to sleep outside, and when they arrived at Meiringen, Bell discovered that her toes were frostbitten, ending her climbing career (80). 

Like Heddon and Turner, perhaps, Cracknell is “puzzled by the lack of women participating in such adventures today”; only 1 in 10 of the people at the alpine huts are women (80). “Maybe it’s that women look for more meditative experiences in the mountains; suffer less summit fixation,” she suggests (80). She wonders if she doesn’t prefer the lower parts of the mountain, the meadows “effervescing with flowers,” the “passes where lives still linger, where green things grow; not these heights which above 3,000 metres seem equally to belong to any goretex-armoured warrior who gets there first” (81). Her self-doubt comes flooding back: “If this is Alpinism, am I really equipped to deal with its fearful implications? I began to think that the pull to the summits must be a young person’s thing, that my father never had the chance to outgrow” (81-82). Cracknell also wonders why Effie Pendleton accompanied her fiancé, David Lawton, and Cracknell’s father on their climb, and she recalls Pendleton’s image in the photograph she has seen: “She looks comfortable in this environment, ready for adventure” (82).

The next day Cracknell’s party continues upwards. The climb is difficult: “Each step is hard-earned” (84). “It’s steep and slow, but I can breathe, my moves feel strong, and we are undoubtedly heading for the summit,” Cracknell states (85). Then they reach the crest of the mountain: “a sudden shocking gulf of sky beyond it. Each step on the crest spreads a revelation of new geography: steep slopes rising in range after range below and beyond, should one dare look. We are walking in the air. Each further step is a bonus. I have no sense of time” (86). It’s late, though, and they are worried about the condition of the snow as the day warms up, and they decide to turn back without reaching the summit (87). The descent is difficult: 

Our feet touch down on the safe-seeming, smooth snow of the Hugisatell. When we look at watches, we see that the ridge has gripped our minds and bodies for four hours. This is what Rick calls “mental fasting,” the absolute focus of mountaineering that clears all else. Now it releases us to a group hug and photos. Words flow again. (88-89)

Despite not reaching the summit, they are happy: “We revel in a sense of achievement, but mostly just in the joy of being up here” (89). 

As with her walk in Norway, Cracknell realizes that sociability and conviviality is the point of this activity:

Colin and Rick name the peaks that years of familiarity with geography, shape, and distance have made theirs. In most areas of Scotland I can do this—know hills from different angles by their relation to each other and to lochs and valleys, despite their shape-shifting. Here I’m still lost, although the characteristic shapes of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc have followed us around enough now to be landmarks. (89)

“I’ve walked so much alone that it strikes me suddenly this sharing is what mountaineering is about,” she writes. “I feel incredibly lucky to have walked the last days fastened in trust to these two men, while following my father’s footsteps” (92).

Now, however, she reveals that the postcard her father sent his parents from Grindelwald “carries a wretched rather than a triumphant message” (93): Effie Pendleton was killed by a falling stone near the top of Finsteraarhorn (93-95). It was his last adventure; when the family took a trip to the Austrian Alps in 1959, his children kept him in the valleys (95-96). She imagines Effie’s death and its aftermath: 

I think of the slow digging of a platform in the snow, the necessary anchoring of the body, and the marking of the spot. A distraught fiancé to bring to safety. How quickly my father must have had to grow up. The youthful alpine-aired faces in the photos from Arolla just two weeks before, turn away from the camera towards serious responsibilities, jobs and death. (96-97)

And yet, her own descent must continue: “We descend the long, slushy slope to the hut, playfully when it allows—a glissading, rope-tugged bum slide—and seriously when sun-softened snow bridges have to be negotiated over crevasses” (97). Cracknell is starting to get sunburned “where the insistent running of my nose has allowed the sun to pierce Factor 40 cream” (97). Despite the sliding, Cracknell is tired and the work is hard: “I am unstable and lurching, rhythm-less, tugging taught the rope. Massive snow balls form on the base of my crampons and I jig along to my newly learnt tap dance with the ice axe dislodging them at each alternate step” (97). They finally reach solid rock, remove their crampons, and continue down the mountain (97-98). At the alpine hut, people in t-shirts are relaxing, drinking beer (98). “None of the three of us seems to feel that we failed to climb the mountain,” she states (98). Cracknell and her friends continue the descent to Konkordiaplatz the following day (99). She thinks about the glacier and its movement: “A little removed by the creep of the glacier lies my father’s way across here. I wonder how far downstream the imprints of his feet have drifted in 56 years, try to imagine their changed patina, perhaps transformed into something resembling a fossilized leaf” (99). “I know this experience will echo on,” she concludes.” A spell has been untied; a story retraced and given words out of silence” (100).

In the postscript, Cracknell returns to Pendleton’s death, and her father’s climb, and she reaches a new conclusion: “My father clearly admired Finsteraarhorn, but didn’t climb it. He chose instead a pleasing south-west to north-east traverse that probably took four or five days across the entire dramatic sweep of the Bernese Oberland, denying the enigmatic tug of its highest peak except as a sight along the way” (104). It’s a surprising discovery:

I’d been distracted by the spear of mountain and overlooked its lower foothills; saw my father as forever-youthful, striving for the highest summits. In this way, his memory beguiled me into a climb far more challenging than I would have chosen myself. After my initial dismay at ‘doing the wrong mountain,’ I’ve come to see it as his joke on me. 

I also see how unreliable memory is, and how buried it becomes. My detective trails were slow and mazed, but it makes sense now that it was on Konkordiaplatz, rather than on the high mountain, that I felt the deep pull of our affinity; our common journeys. Somewhere on the slow glacier the plates of ice we’ve each trodden ground against each other, and our paths coincided. (104)

I wonder, though, given climate change, whether her father’s footprints have melted out of the glacier. That’s churlish, of course; Cracknell’s belief that somewhere, her path coincided with her father’s is quite lovely and a fitting end to her story.

I liked Following Our Fathers: Two Journeys Across Mountains, and I’m happy Heddon and Turner wrote about her so that I was able to discover her work. It’s possible that Cracknell’s layering might provide me with a model for writing about my own walking (although I’m not going to be climbing anything, thank you very much). I also like her recognition that connecting with others while walking is important–even central–to what she is doing. That’s something I want to incorporate into my own walking, although because it’s so difficult and often unpleasant walking in Saskatchewan, I’m not sure how to go about it. I recall that Phil Smith doesn’t think much of Cracknell’s writing; he suggests that by interpreting her journey, “the mobility solidifies into a commodity that is reassuringly unique and recognisable” (Walking’s New Movement 54). I’m not sure that comment doesn’t apply to Smith’s own account of walking in the footsteps of W.G.Sebald, but in any case, a text is solidified; I know some texts are more open than others, and that Smith works hard to keep his own writing open, but at the same time, a text is a commodity, isn’t it? In any case, I do want to write about my walking, and I’m looking forward to Cracknell’s other books arriving in our mailbox, so I can determine whether her practice might be a model for my own. So be prepared to see more blog posts about Linda Cracknell’s walking and writing.

Postscript

I was thinking last night that I really like Cracknell’s idea of walking a story. That’s what happens on the group walks my friend Hugh Henry curates: we walk the story of the Battleford Trail, or the Frenchman Trail, or, coming up this summer, the Carlton Trail. That’s what I did in the Haldimand Tract three years ago: I walked the story of how settlers stole the Tract from the Haudenosaunee. That’s what I tried to do last summer; I set out to walk the story of Andrew Suknaski’s poems. That idea might be the most powerful thing I can take away from Cracknell’s book.

Works Cited

Cracknell, Linda. Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains, Best Foot Books, 2012.

Heddon, Deirdre, and Cathy Turner. “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 2012, pp. 224-36.

Smith, Phil. On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff, Triarchy, 2014.

———. Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Triarchy, 2015.

61. Phil Smith, On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff

smith on walking

As is appropriate for mythogeography, On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff, Phil Smith’s book about following in the footsteps of the late novelist W.G. Sebald’s walk in East Anglia, is made up of different layers—theoretical and tactical discussions of mythogeography, and an account of the walk Smith made—juxtaposed against each other. I found the theoretical and tactical layer to be more important for my purposes than the story of the walk, although that did have surprising resonances with some of my own walking; however, both are important, and while I will be separating the layers in this summary, the way they mesh (to use one of Smith’s favourite words) together is the point of the book.

Before I knew what this book was about, I suggested to a friend that I might like to walk Sebald’s route at some point, because I am a fan of his writing: I find his long sentences fascinating, and I like the juxtaposition of the text with the strange, enigmatic photographs Sebald always includes. I like The Rings of Saturn, the book about walking in  Suffolk, although it’s clear that Sebald’s primary concern in the book isn’t the territory through which he was walking, but the things he was thinking about as he walked. For that reason, I would think that as the “catapult” for a mythogeographical or psychogeographical walk, it might not be the best choice—not if one hoped to measure one’s own experiences against Sebald’s. Not surprisingly, that’s the conclusion Smith reaches as well. That wouldn’t bother me—I would be curious to see if there is any trace linking Sebald’s internal monologue to the terrain—but I think it does bother Smith, and eventually he abandons his walk. An unfinished walk is an interesting thing: there is an endless deferral involved in not reaching one’s destination, and several of the books about walking that I’ve read over the past few years, including Simon Armitage’s book about walking the Pennine Way and Bill Bryson’s story about walking the Appalachian Trail end that way. So does Smith’s On Walking . . . And Stalking Sebald. I make the suggestion cautiously, because I’m pretty sure that Smith can’t stand Armitage’s book–as I recall, he finds it too solid and literary and insufficiently performative–and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like Bryson’s book either. But the comparison–at least on that one perhaps superficial level–is there nonetheless.

Smith begins with a short memoir about his life and his relation to walking. “It may seem odd . . . that I see walking not as a retirement from political struggle or from the sensual pleasures of entertainment, but as a further intensifying of both,” he writes (12). That intensification involves an attention to the ways that power shapes cities and the land, and the way that resistances to that power can be created:

When I walk I draw upon layers of understanding that I have had to gather together in order to shape performances or to make political arguments; I am sensitive to the ways that the land and the cities are managed, owned, controlled and exploited. I am sensitive to the flows of power: information, energy, deference. I am also aware of contradictions in these places; I look out for those pressures that can, unplanned, open up temporarily free spaces, holey spaces, hubs where uncontained overlaps or the torque of bearing down in one place tears open a useful hold in another: these are places where, until we can at last all be free, we might for a while find space to act as we wish. (12)

It’s often easy to see the signs of power, but it’s harder to create or recognize those “temporarily free spaces,” at least for me, and much of Smith’s mythogeographical practice involves opening up such spaces.

Smith is interested primarily in what he calls “non-functional” walking. “I would not want to pretend that there is any one right way to walk,” he writes, and the walking he proposes in this book “strides along beside” other, functional forms of walking (12). In part, this book provides a set of ideas and tactics that can be used for non-functional walking:

You are free to use the ideas and experiences here and turn them into whatever kind of walking you wish: romantic, subversive, nosey, convivial, meditational, whatever. I like multiplicity and I think there may be some good in it—so, as long as your walking does not exclude the walking of others, I will be chuffed to think you are using any tactics or ideas here. (12)

“At the same time,” he continues, “I am giving myself the same privilege in the pages that follow: to walk the walk I want to walk and to evangelise about its qualities” (12). So we are invited to take what we can use and leave what we can’t, to borrow from his own practice if we want, or to refrain, if we don’t.

Smith is interested in “emblems and symbols,” their origins and “codes and secret languages,” their historical meanings (12-13). Those symbols are an important part of the terrain of the walk, which is more important than the walker: 

By walking I have not denied myself the physical pleasures of performance. However, there is a more humbling aspect to walking; for it is not the walker, but the terrain, natural and built, that mostly makes the walk. The walker takes a far more powerful and experienced lover than any audience. Sun, tropical storms, traffic, snow, mists; the terrain is not your backdrop, but seizes the action as its author and agonist. (13)

Thinking of the terrain as the author of the walk, as something that provokes a reaction in the walker, is an essential part of his practice. He finds “a joy in the textures of things,” for instance: he touches a sandstone sculpture of a horse and feels he is touching “a 300-million-year-old desert,” runs his hand over a rusting name plate and suddenly feels “the industry it once advertised” missing (13). That attention to detail is a critical part of his mythogeographical walking. 

Such walking, Smith argues, is not escapist. Quite the contrary, in fact: it is a complex form of resistance:

It feels like a fight inside the fabrics of society for access to all those things that overdeveloped economies circulate at speeds just beyond our grasp: inner life, the wild absurdities of our unique and subjective feelings, beautiful common treasures, uncostable pleasures, conviviality, an ethics of strangerhood and nomadic thinking. Walking is pedestrian. Its pace disrupts things and makes them strange. . . . Whatever flashes by, becomes readable, touchable, loveable, available. However, The Spectacle is not stupid; it has long been ready for such old-fashioned radicalisms, laying down huge and sugary sloughs of wholesomeness and holiness for us to founder in. (14)

The Spectacle, as I’ve noted before in relation to Smith’s work, is a term that comes from the writing of Guy Debord. Here Smith provides his own definition: the Spectacle is “the enemy of the sensitised walker,” “the growing Nothing in the lifeblood of society,” “the dominance of representations over what they represent” (14). It is, he continues, 

the dominance of the ideas of freedom, democracy, happiness over people actually being free, happy and democratically active; enforced by the global deregulation of finance, the giant algorithms of the surveillance states, a media that has gone beyond mass to be more pervasive than gods were ever imagined to be, anti-collectivity laws and the war machines with their enemy-pals in the AK47 theocracies. (15)

For Smith, “[e]mbodied and hypersensitised walking—with senses reaching inwards and outwards—is the antithesis of the Spectacle. The feeling body, alive with thoughts, is a resistance; theatre and insurgency combined. And what better and more unlikely cover than ‘pedestrian’?” (15). The important words here are “embodied” and “hypersensitised”: those are key parts of Smith’s walking practice.

That practice, of course, draws on what Smith calls “mythogeography.” The key principles of mythogeography, he writes, are

multiplicity and trajectory. Applied to walking that means resisting routines and boundaries and treasuring the many selves you may pass through or encounter on your journey. I would always try to protect the freedom of walkers to use guises and camouflage in acts of transformation. In this cause, I sometimes find it necessary to adapt or détourn ideas and rituals taken from sacred spaces. There is always a place for an abstract or inner walk. (16)

Such walking does not exclude what he calls “material interventions,” such as the “ambulant architectures” of Wrights & Sites, “which seeks to equip walkers not only with concepts and tactics, but also with plain damned things for subtle and extravagant transformations of actually existing postmodernity” (16). I’m not sure what the ambulant architecture project was, even though Smith describes one aspect of it in this book; that is an area for further research.

Later, Smith adds more to his definition of mythogeography. It is, he writes, 

an experimental approach to places as if they were sites for performances, crime scenes or amateur excavations (let’s say, grave robbing) of multiple layers of treasure. To get at these different aspects of place and space, mythogeography draws on all kinds of “low theory”; amateur and poetic assembling into manifestos of things I have learned (mostly from others) while out on the road. (59)

Mythogeography, he continues, “is a hybrid of ideas, tactics and strategies. It embraces both respectable (academic, scientific, culturally validated) and non-respectable (Fortean, antiquarian, mystical, fictional) knowledges. It judges these first against their own criteria and then sets the different knowledges in orbit about each other, seeking to intuit their gravitational pulls upon each other” (59). Fortean, Wikipedia tells me, refers to the work of the American writer Charles Fort, who was interested in something called “anomalous phenomena,” a category that includes ufology, cryptozoology, and parapsychology. This must be the “damned data” that Smith often refers to—data that doesn’t make sense according to current scientific knowledge. This is a direction in which I cannot follow Smith—I just can’t believe in UFOs or Bigfoot or ghosts, or feign an interest in such things. But it seems to be part of the way that mythogeography sets out to make the mundane magical. The interest in occult or esoteric phenomena is common to psychogeographers and mythogeographers, it seems. “Mythogeography,” Smith continues, “explores atmospheres and the effects of psychogeography,” and it “regards explorers, performers, activists and passers-by as sites; all as multiplicitous, unfinished and undefinable as the terrains they inhabit” (59). It is not a finished model; rather, it is “a general approach which emphasises hybridity and multiplicity, but does not attempt to limit this to any single combination of elements or homogenous model of diversity” (60). The origins of mythogeography are in the work of Wrights & Sites, which drew from the work of Fluxus, Mike Pearson, Tacita Dean, and Fiona Templeton (60). I know a little about Fluxus, and a little about Mike Pearson and Fiona Templeton, but I need to investigate them further, along with the work of Tacita Dean.

Embodiment is an essential aspect of Smith’s walking:

A functionless walk is about as embodied as you can get. Easing, waiting, responding, jerking, rolling, smoothing, tip-toeing the body across the environment. It would be a shame if, after all the erotic energy expended by people “getting in touch with nature,” no one really touched it. So handle the weft and weave, the detail, the spiny thorn and the nettle hair. Leave a little of your blood on things. Take stones home in bruises. Test clay between your fingertips. Put your head in rivers. Let tadpoles and tiny crabs scuttle across the back of your arm. 

Stand still to feel the different kinds of wind; let them push you, walk against them. 

Tread (with the right boots) on bottle fragments and tin cans. And then spend a few minutes enjoying the textures after the crunch. You don’t always have to be precious. (26-27)

He suggests that walkers experiment with shifting their focus into their ankles, wrists, knees, or hips: 

become a thing of joints and hinges and allow your thoughts and feelings to model them. Thinking with your feet is not about “groundedness,” but rather about rediscovering legs as feelers, tentacles, bio-instruments that complement the meshwork of senses that bathe and caress the surfaces about us with exploratory seeing and touching and smelling and hearing and tasting, all the time swinging the whole body of instruments through the hips. Conduct your senses like an orchestra, reconnecting the two parts of your body in a swaying walk, use your stride to disperse longings to the landscape. (27)

Smith’s comment about “groundedness” is a sign of his unease with notions of connection or rootedness, which would suggest that he would be less interested in Yi-Fu Tuan’s notion of place as the product of experience and stasis than in Doreen Massey’s notion of space as a simultaneity of stories and flows of power. Such connection cannot come, he continues, 

at the expense of disruption, of tripping up and over, stumbling and righting, of calling, of refusal, or risking the crossing, of not looking, of disrupting the flow, of not going to the destination . . . that it is also in these disconnections that the enigmatic meanings of the city and the landscape can be floated free from their immobile sites and engaged in a movement that may eventually lead them back to connections, but not to begin with, not quite yet. Don’t rush it. (27)

I wonder if the open spaces of freedom he suggests can be created or (perhaps) discovered by walking are connected to those moments of disruption and disconnection.

Along with embodiment goes being sensitized to the terrain, and Smith makes a number of suggestions for tactics that can lead to a greater sensitization. These are “mostly subtle devices, games and refrains for peeling away a layer of armour, extending a sympathetic organ or opening the eyes a little deeper” (29). Walkers can, for instance, “[c]arry, touch, inhale, sip, rub and lick things as you find them” (29). They can use repetition by walking the same route over and over again (29). They can “walk the street or the hill path or the beach into yourself. . . . a psycho-geographical act, raising and reforming memories, feelings, self-images and setting them at the mercies of far vistas, of the straightness of the path, of the massing of the flocks above” (29-30). I’m not sure, in practical terms, how to walk the terrain into myself, but it’s important to Smith: he later describes deep autotopographical walking, in which 

autobiography or psychological transformation and crisis are key strands in the weaves around the route. There is no therapeutic guarantee here; what a walk tends to do is to set things in motion, but their eventual trajectory will be determined by your own choices and interventions, by others, by terrains and by accidents. (137)

Walkers can think about how they look at the world and the people in it (30). They might wash or polish “a pavement slab, an empty plinth, or a doorstep for which there is no longer a house” regularly (30). They could experiment with where they place their attention, without limiting their responses to their experiences to the literal: “your feelings are as ambiguous and allusive a set of materials as imagist poetry, to interpret them appropriately,” he suggests (30). Walkers can also occasionally stand still and listen carefully, identifying as many different sounds as possible” (30-31). Later, he suggests that one might walk in disguise (152)—that strikes me as a way to get arrested, but I could be wrong. Perhaps that fear is related to Smith’s next point: walkers need to remember that most threats are not real, and that they shouldn’t allow their fear—of ridicule, for instance—to stand in their way (31). They might pretend to be someone else as they walk (31-32). They might walk the landscape as if it were a body (32) (again, I’m not sure how to do that in practice). They can consciously sensitize themselves to the presence of others in the busy spaces of cities, “making complex steps” and incorporate others “into your choreography” (32). “[S]ensitising yourself to the flows of the city will not redeem you from or inure you to its violent commerce,” Smith writes. “The very opposite: experience and subjectivity are exactly what are most fiercely traded now. Rather than releasing you from the clutches of overdevelopment, sensitising tactics are intended to bring you right into the belly of the Spectacle” (32-33).

Smith inverts Occam’s Razor, the heuristic that suggests that the simplest solutions to a problem are probably the best. Instead, he advises walkers to “adopt, no matter how fragmentary and partial your evidence, the most complex, sinister and portentous explanations possible until disproved by further evidence” (36). This is a psychogeographer’s credo, which helps to explain their baroque interpretations of phenomena. (I’m not sure I can follow Smith down this road; Occam’s Razor is too deeply imprinted on my way of looking at the world. All the more reason, I imagine him saying, to give it a try.) Don’t take your own food, he advises; instead, rely on what you discover along the road (37)—a practice that would lead to hunger in rural Saskatchewan. He advocates relying as well on chance in relation to destinations: “Coming unexpectedly upon an abandoned fairground or the skeleton of an industrial unit will always have far more thrill than a planned and guided trip around a stately home” (37). Later, he expands on this idea:

One of the great things about not knowing where you are going is that relatively unimpressive landscapes, structures or artefacts take on a new aura and wonder when stumbled across or encountered as part of a walking narrative. What, if planned, might be found with some minor self-satisfaction, can instead by encountered as a staggering discovery, a bone-stopping association, a punch in the heart accusation from the past, a precious mis-design; some rotted shed, some parts of a shattered wing mirror like self-fracturing selves, some stream in a suburban valley, a sodium lamplit beauty . . . these unfold one after the other, space unravelling rather than delivering. (116)

“Delivering” suggests something pre-planned, something expected, whereas “unravelling” suggests chance, accident, and a revelation.

Many of these ideas—and the term “psychogeography” itself—come from the Situationist International. Smith first encountered the Situationists in the 1970s, in Richard Gombin’s The Origins of Modern Leftism: “The idea that ours is a society of spectacle struck a powerful chord that is still ringing with me: a society in which the circulation and distribution of images defines social relationships subjugated to economic imperatives still seems to describe the one I ‘operate’ on” (49). For Smith, the Situationist dérives were not only a tactic for understanding the psychological or emotional effects of terrain on individuals; they were also a way to disrupt the spectacle: dérives, he writes, 

were un-planned drifts, in which the criteria for choosing a route were: which promised the most abundant ambience? which had the greatest resonance, the greatest capacity to be détourned, re-deployed for the purposes of disrupting everyone else’s economic trajectories? Most treasured were those places that seemed to manifest a meeting place of different ambiences. These were called “hubs.” (50)

Smith emphasizes that the dérives were not ends in themselves:

They were acts of research; experiences on the street were experimental materials for the creation of “situations”; combinations of site, performance and demonstration out of which might eventually spring new ways of living to transform cities. So, this is a walking that is not an end in itself, that does not test its own qualities in terms of how little its participants bother the public health service, but rather according to its coruscating engagements with the social relationships expressed in the images and ideas that circulate about sites and places. It is a walking of disruption, a walking of refusal, a walking of research and redeployment of old arts in smithereens. (50-51)

According to Smith, “[t]he conditions of these times are more restricted than those when the Situationists drifted Paris” (51)—a claim that might be true of the white dérivistes, but not of, for instance, Abdelhafid Khatib, the Algerian-born Situationist whose 1958 attempts at a drift in the soon-to-be demolished Les Halles market kept ending in his arrest for violating the curfew that was imposed on North Africans in Paris (Khatib). But that’s not Smith’s point, of course. Rather, he is talking about the changes in the Spectacle—its increased reach and power:

The Spectacle is now integrated, concentrated and diffuse: where once it operated through either dictatorship, free mobility, or the penetration of everything, now it deliriously switches, with alacrity, between all three states. In the overdeveloped world any resistance to the Spectacle has switched from the political realm to running battles across the plane of interiority. We are caught in a rearguard action to win back control of our own subjective multiplicities from identity-retailing and an avatar culture that proposes the arts as a tribute band and the streets as a lookalike condition. (51)

“Under these conditions, and in this game of war for interiority and subjectivity,” Smith continues, “the tactics and, more importantly, the strategy of the Situationists have never been more resonant” (51).

Smith provides a list of five steps towards the beginning of a great walk. First, know why you are walking: “disrupt yourself, set yourself going and apart,” and “shake things up for yourself” (53). Second, know where you are walking: head towards somewhere unfamiliar and go to places you would usually avoid. Third, walk with others but keep the focus on the spaces you are passing through. Fourth, free yourself from your everyday, your usual habits: “Find a way to get you off your beaten tracks, and then off your off-your-beaten-tracks” (54). Finally, know what to take—sensible shoes, a notebook and pen, a camera, water (54). Perhaps the most important tip Smith gives is to walk slowly: “An important quality of this walking is its anachronistic pace, decelerated even for walking. . . . Only in such slo-mo walking can she easily and regularly stop to stare obsessively at details, lichen, ironies” (58). That’s great advice, but hard for some of us to adopt, since everyone has their own comfortable stride length and speed. Nevertheless, he wonders what “marathon walkers,” who travel at more than four miles per hour, can see or engage with (103). Nothing, is the presumed response.

The important thing, Smith suggests about walking, is to be ready for what comes: 

Once walking, there is a mythical-ethical aspect: hold yourself in preparedness for whatever arises. A glove dropped or a toy thrown from a buggy. A stumbling fellow pedestrian. An assault. . . . Choose your role. Depending on the character you choose for yourself, and to what layers of mastery and compassion and anger you have ascended, hold yourself always in readiness to accept whatever affordances are given to you. (152)

The term “affordances” is one many psychogeographers use; again, using Wikipedia as a source (a very bad idea, I know, and I apologize), it refers to what the environment offers to the individual. It comes from the work of James Gibson—and if I’m serious about understanding what it means, I’m going to have to read Gibson’s The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Otherwise, I’m going to avoid the term entirely—except when I’m quoting someone who uses it.

Walking can bring about new connections, Smith argues,

through its aches, blisters, shivering and sweating, dehydration in intense heat, dizziness, pain, exhaustion, alienation, involuntary joy, inappropriate arousal, hearing what is usually unheard, bristling with fear, being desperate to piss and having nowhere to go, longing for a hiding place . . . there is little pleasure for most people in such discomforts in themselves (unless you are cultivating them as the status symbols of extreme walking; but what about:

The pain arrived at by pleasure?

The aching from the sheer enjoyment of the walk?

Soreness from the fierce rawness of the experiences?

Walking through the blister pain and out the other side into ease?

The rush when the fear subsides and relief floods in environmentally? (62)

Smith’s emphasis on pain, on blisters, might suggest that he’s thinking about epic walking—walking over long distances and periods of time. That would categorize his walk in Sebald’s footsteps, but it’s also a kind of walking that he tends to eschew in favour of walks that incorporate an approach derived from relational aesthetics.

In one chapter, Smith discusses walking pilgrimages—and that’s of interest to me, since I’ll be giving a paper at a conference on pilgrimage in a couple of weeks. (Would that I had read this chapter before I wrote the paper!) Smith doesn’t care for the notion of pilgrimage as changing oneself self-discovery and the downplaying destinations; that approach devalues the terrain of the walk and its destination: “Reducing sites and shrines to vague and mushy approximations; servicing a fluid commodity-thinking that passes for spirituality (65). Instead, he suggests that what he describes as “postmodern pilgrimage” might be a search for the possibility of sacred points:

Maybe postmodern pilgrimage has no end-point, but rather is a search, or a re-search, for the possibility of such points (or their manifestation in other geometrical forms—perhaps as planes, perhaps as patterns). The pilgrimage, without an end-point, has no space for belief in the efficacy of completion; rather the pilgrim steps into the hyper-flows of the world without map, staff, route, scallop . . . having to reconstruct “pilgrimage” while in the motion of it, consciously and openly going as a “pilgrim” partly to discover how the world, how people, how oneself (selves), how the landscape, how the divine might respond to that. 

I am left curious and attracted to this “pilgrimage” and wondering about its possibilities, where it might lead in terms of unexpected contacts and meetings, in a different kind of understanding of the relationship between place and meanings (everyday and metaphysical), of material space (symbol) and its relationship to “what cannot be represented.” I wonder if the “ghosts” of earlier pilgrim practices would rise up on such a walk. Would anachronisms be renewed, emptinesses filled? (65)

These are interesting questions, and I wonder if the kind of walking Robert Macfarlane describes as “improvised pilgrimages” (235) might be a way of beginning to answer them. In any case, Smith concludes, “[t]here is very little real ‘wrong walking’; there is some element of pilgrimage in it all” (65).

The kind of walking Smith is interested in is, he writes, “all about being flexible and ready”:

The walker can draw upon what among contemporary dancers and movement artists are almost banalities now: the prioritising, above technique, of flexibility and preparedness to accept affordances, to respond, to be open and raw to the moment. All the tactics and ideas here do not mean much without such readiness, such pre-expressivity, necessary for spontaneous reaction to what the road throws at you, which is mostly offers. 

There is a paradox here: preparing to be spontaneous. Unsurprisingly, this is mostly a via negativa; the removal of blocks and inhibitions. It is also creative in a negative way; those blocks and inhibitions sometimes produce useful delays and deferrals. So, simplistic readiness is not enough; what a chosen walking requires is a sophisticated readiness that is strategic, able to translate the immediacy and specificity of the offer from the road to a moving space on a sliding plane of generality: in other words, little things connecting to big things, every brush with the road part of a big picture; a body in flux in co-creation with spaces that are always under construction. (74)

Again, the terrain—the road—is the determining factor: the walker must respond to the road rather than to some predetermined notion or destination or idea. That, of course, is easier said than done, and the outcome may not always be serendipitous: my decision during Wood Mountain Walk to stay on Highway 2 instead of heading towards Willow Bunch may have been the biggest mistake I made on that walk, and it was a response to what I took to be the terrain.

Smith advocates walking with others, which he describes as “convivial drifting”: “the shifting space of disrupted walking is one through which we can negotiate with each other all sorts of differences, helped by that quality in drifting which seems to favour the margins. The best things always seem to come from those on the fringes of a walking group, rather than from its head.” (77). During a drift or dérive, “the group composes the drift together, sharing, assembling, collaging and collaging it” (78). During a drift, he suggests, walkers can try switching their attention between different foci, 

oscillating from a collective gaze upon one another to a romantic gaze to the horizon. Falling for nothing, then for everything. While there is a mental aspect to this rhythmical looking, it is also a de- and re-composition of landscape. As the drift progresses, the rhythm of these switches can begin to take a compositional form: patterns emerge that then operate across the different scales. (134)

As with some of Smith’s comments regarding drifting, it would be easier to experience this being put into practice than to try to do it after reading about it.

But despite his interest in drifting, Smith notes that there are other ways to walk as well. He suggests a number of tactics that involve objects: carrying ephemera in one’s pockets, or like the performance artist He Yun Chang carrying a rock all around the periphery of the UK and returning it, or like Simon Whitehead carrying a table, or like Lonnie van Brummelen dragging a sculpture of Hermes for three months along the sides of roads. In 1998, the duo known as Lone Twin, in a performance called Totem, carried a telephone pole in a straight line through the centre of Colchester, through shops, workplaces, homes, busy streets; the principle of the performance was “activating social events through personal trials” (132). “Choose something to drag,” Smith suggests: “something that will leave a mark, something that transfigures as it is pulled” (82-83). That suggestion reminds me of Leo Baskatawang’s epic walk across Canada, dragging a copy of the Indian Act chained to his leg (Benjoe). Such walking is an intentional ordeal: Smith recalls carrying a wooden plinth at the Sideways Walking Festival in Belgium, a performance that was part of Wrights & Sites “ambulant architecture” project. He carried the heavy plinth for 23 miles, walking too fast and exhausting himself; the experience became a form of  “walking in the architecture of a horror film” (155). Despite his lack of interest in epic walking, Smith clearly is a practitioner—although that’s not the only form of walking he does.

Smith is deeply concerned about walking and gender. He writes,

The question of women and their relation to public space—to the streets and squares, to the public spaces of power—sacred spaces, protest spaces, educational spaces, working spaces, dance floor spaces, political spaces—and their rights of access and agency in the overlapping spaces of public and private life, public and relationship space, personal and family space. . . . without a politics of walking of these, there is no hope at all in walking. (160)

Fears of assault (particularly sexual assault) are not irrational, he notes, even though the world is generous (he argues that’s what women discover when they “take up an offer to walk”), but “the reality of the threats and the reality of the fears they generate are part of the same oppression” (160). He provides a long list of women who walk—a list that is gold for anyone looking to begin studying walking and gender (163). “[W]e need to address the rights of the stranger on the street,” he writes: 

to allow meaningless encounters and trivial situations to multiply, to allow a lack of significance back into the everyday and to wrestle meaningless and trivial space from those who would flood it with theological, cultural and familial restrictions and mono-meanings, to make it free for all those groups who might suffer—or fear they might suffer—assault, violation or intimidation on the road. (164)

Such freedom is an important, even essential goal, although I’m not sure how that goal can be reached—except by more women walking.

Smith ends his book with an appendix entitled “Walking for a change: A manifesto for a new nomad.” In it, he suggests that “[a] walk is nothing until it is over and then it is too late; which may explain the rarity of really good books about walking” (190). There are so many modes of walking, he continues, “that it defies even its own capacities to express other things; trips up on its own multiplicity. Not armfuls of diversity, but sprawling, tumbling or spilling splashes, splinters and streams that evade anyone or anything trying to sweep them up” (191). He suggests that, for him, the most tedious modes are walking are the ones “most practised,” but even those “can be disrupted for a few moments by the myriad of other, non-functional modes: lyrical walking, art crawling, pilgrimage, and so on” (191). “Rather than seeking the mitigation of contradictions,” he continues, the walking he advocates “wants and needs gaps and fractures to make its way, tensions to serve as its capital and catapults, waste and ruins for its building materials” (192). It is in those gaps and fractures, I think, that moments of freedom and openness can be discovered.

As I suggested earlier, all of this theoretical material, and the practical suggestions Smith makes, are interleaved with his account of walking Sebald’s route through East Anglia. What strikes me the most about Smith’s account of his walk is the amount of detail he provides. He obviously stops constantly to take notes and/or photographs—something I didn’t do that much on last summer’s walk to Wood Mountain, but which I should try harder to do in future. When Smith announced his plans to follow Sebald’s path on Facebook, he received negative responses from psychogeographers who hate the book:

I perversely welcomed these adverse comments; though they stung at my purpose. So many of the commentators I had read, without comprehension, were reverential towards Sebald’s work. I had come to feel that I was misusing a sacred tome as pretext for a walk; now the book seemed more abject, ruined, something for me to salvage as I read it along my way. 

I was deluded in every respect. (21)

The Rings of Saturn was an absurd map to take,” he writes, and he “deployed it absurdly” (15). At the walk’s outset, he realized that he had misremembered the sequence of events in The Rings of Saturn: Sebald wasn’t walking to convalesce from “a state of almost total immobility,” but he walked himself into that state, something Smith experienced in his adolescence; so the walk would be “towards immobility,” not away from it (23). Moreover, Smith, writes, he was “painfully aware that what I am doing is a copy of a copy of a copy” (23-24). That’s not entirely a bad thing, he notes later on: while repeated walks “are not equivalent to their originals,” they can be seen as “interrogations of them and stepping off points for new walks. Like Heraclitus’s river (rather more mutable than it is generally understood) the path is never walked the same way twice, is never the same way twice” (71). Later he recommends enacting “in local, accessible forms” some of the “classic” walks (166). I wonder what that might be like—it might be an example of the psychogeographical tactic of walking somewhere with a map of somewhere completely different.

Sometimes, as he walks, Smith completely disagrees with Sebald’s description of a place. Take the seaside town of Lowestoft, for instance: “It is not the wasteland described by Sebald, the wasteland in which it would have been simpler to ‘spontaneously’ discover my provisional narrative of dread to liberation. Instead, that counts for nothing in a vibrant, working-class seaside town” (68). That difference in experience leads Smith to wonder if Sebald is blind to class: 

Is Sebald’s problem when confronting catastrophe—nuclear war, ecological devastation, depredation of species, Nazism—that he sees everything but the catastrophe of class? He is unaware of, or opposed to, the idea that there operates a system that always tends toward, and thrives upon, crisis. . . . Instead, Sebald is super-sensitised to the surprise of tragedy. (70)

I wonder if this is true; I would have to re-read The Rings of Saturn with this suggestion in mind. Clearly, for Smith, tragedy is not the appropriate response to a systemic crisis; tragedy suggests that the crisis was unique, individual, and local, rather than (as Smith contends) the truth: that the crisis is the outcome of a system, the Spectacle.

As he walks, Smith becomes “increasingly suspicious of Sebald’s exploration”: his assumption had been that The Rings of Saturn was supposed to be “a deep engagement with its landscape,” but it isn’t, or else there is “a mismatch between Sebald’s complex intellectualism and his idea of what an embodied engagement with a landscape is. He does not match up to Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘deep topography’”—Papadimitriou’s Scarp is the next book I’ll be blogging about—and, in fact ,he thinks The Rings of Saturn is based on “cursory desk-based research” (85).  Smith discusses Papadimitriou’s notion of deep topography: it is, he writes, is a “wandering and watching and logging and obsessing”; it is “the repeated walking of the same stretch of terrain, observing and re-observing, reading and researching, deep in information and feeling, the terrain and the body seeping into each other, the map into the mind, the mind into the map” (86). “Curling inside his looping journeys,” Smith contends, “Papadimitriou de-romanticises ruins and tweaks the erogenous zones of golf courses. Other narratives bend like tiny dimensions inside the bigger shell, while mythic figures step sure-footedly around his wanders”—mythic figures Papadimitriou invents (86).

At times Smith walks in the country, and at other times he finds himself in suburbs. There, he writes, 

the voids are tiny ones, but as I explore one the whole tin peels open and I find, sunk beneath the modern surface, a mesh of hollow ways and green lanes hidden behind the house backs, a murder narrative, badgers’ sets and kids’ dens, a surprise eighteenth-century mansion among bungalows and odd unofficial handwritten posters. (100)

The multiplicity he finds in suburban neighbourhoods reflects the key principle of mythography:

Multiplicity is the key mythogeographical principle, the principle of multiplicitous narratives and many histories, disrupting the established narratives not only to introduce subaltern ones, but to question the legitimacy of dreamed, felt, feared ones and to invent our own; but where to we go with all this multiplicity? Does it have to pass through a period of loss like this? That the assemblage of multiplicitous narratives, layers, trajectories and so on will almost inevitably lead to some kind of hiatus, a stasis as the mind responds to the multiplicity and its uncapturableness by attempting to reduce it all to some common trait, a universal bon mot, organic ambience. Does it need a shock to shake the multiple elements back to life? Or a sharp intake of breath and a step back, to make some space for the multiplicitous elements themselves? (102)

If he were to make space for the multiplicitous elements of his Sebald walk, he asks himself, what would he see?

The palimpsest of churches, hallucinatory and police-like, the marks and portals (and tones) of the ruling folk, the tiny space of the reading room. The broad friendliness of the popular founded on the remains of a welfare state (and its self-help hybrid), the mutability of buildings, mutation in general, the ghost of US power in the form of hallucinatory livery and absent airfields, a landscape in which things float, things have gone missing (herring are very slowly returning) like the sailors from the Sailors Reading Room, labour and resistance fixed by a pin to a card in a museum. (102)

At times, though, he finds such multiplicity difficult to discover, and in a description that is uncannily like a depiction of the Saskatchewan landscape, he explains why:

Now wandering the farm land beyond Harleston, I am beginning to wonder if this is a non-mythogeographical or even anti-mythogeographical territory. I seem to be at war with it. Yes, of course, each cabbage in each cabbage field is different. Each of the few people I meet has a unique life. But there has been homogenising here, large-scale industrialised agriculture on a predominantly flat landscape. There are very few hedges, very few insects, nothing of the multiplicity of detail from which to easily construct a weave; yet it would still be easy to mistake it for countryside. (159)

Like the Saskatchewan landscape, what he sees near Harleston is dominated by power and authority:

But what there also is here is a plane, a reminder of how what is striated and controlled runs through every feature of itself, not externally controlled but patterned form within its own texture and grain. Authority is unusually exposed out here; it runs through everything, right to the surfaces, a vivid anonymity, moving to the beat of a spectacular humdrum that until now I could not hear. (159)

The key to a mythographical approach to walking would be to find the resistance to that “spectacular humdrum,” or to create it, to invent it. But it is difficult in such a landscape: “This is a melancholy road,” he writes; “I am not concerned that it will immobilise me now, but that it itself is beginning to silt up and grind towards a halt” (159).

One way of creating that resistance is to look for coincidences, which Smith calls “wormholes” (suggesting that they are more than coincidences). For instance, on this walk, the he discovers a real-estate firm called “Jackson Stops”; on an earlier walk, he passed a pub named “Jackson Stops,” which had that name because the estate agents’ “for sale” sign had hung over it for so long (107). Another example: he stops in a bookshop and picks up a book by Charles Hurst, who was the impetus for his 2009 walk (described in Smith’s book Mythogeography) following the line of oak trees Hurst planted (113). Another way of creating that resistance is by (as he suggests elsewhere in the book) looking for complicated explanations of phenomena:

Although I was only dimly aware of its significance, a vein of colour symbolism had begun to run through my walk: firstly, the white of the deer I first heard about in Snape, and subsequently symbols of black, red and finally gold. 

Given the region of fire that my walk was soon to pass through, an area something akin to a crucible, it is hard not to see the parallels with a jumbled alchemy: the purification in the white albedo, the decomposition of the black nigredo, the burning in the yellow light and solar fire of citrinitras, and the end of it all in red rubedo. (119)

Only Smith, I think, would discover alchemical colour symbolism during a walk. It’s something that would never occur to me.

Another source of resistance is parody and irony. When he visits Sutton Hoo, a historic site with Anglo-Saxon burial mounds, he imagines the kind of heritage site he would create:

I wander around the burial mounds enjoying being the first visitor there. I am impressed by the extent of the framing of these humps. Chain fence. Spot lighting. Hand cleanser. Viewing platform. Information board. Finger posts. And I begin to plan a heritage site consisting only of chain fences, spot lighting, hand cleanser, viewing platforms, information boards and finger posts. (126)

Another source of resistance is through references to the occult or to esoteric knowledge (echoing Smith’s interest in Charles Fort). In a taxi to the edge of Rendelsham Forest, he discovers an example of the “disreputable knowledge” he is interested in: the driver talks about “fairy bridges” where one has to call out to the fairies while crossing; she also tells him that the white deer in the forest “signifies the coming of a new charismatic leader,” that it is magical (126). “She is my angel,” Smith writes: “I realise that everything up till new has been prelude. The great walk is about to begin”—and his walk shifts to one about UFOs (126-27).

Smith reports his grief at seeing roadkill, a grief that is connected to the recent death of his mother: “Death is not a mist, not a plane, but a dirty weave of bits, a broken thing requiring more and more broken things to make its gothic swirls. It is nothing in itself, and it is this nothing that is awful” (165). Those reflections remind him of his mother’s death, and her life, but that is territory he cannot write about yet, and that becomes one of the ways in which he has “not succeeded in re-enacting Sebald’s trajectory” (165). In the end, Smith abandons his project: “Now has come the moment to abandon the Sebald route. It has led me as far as it can. The road has melted and inundated the whole terrain. I must do the next part of the work alone; but not immobilised” (171). He catches a bus to Halesworth, and then takes the train home.

On Walking . . . And Stalking Sebald is an unusual book, with its layers of different kinds of text, but its structure gives readers both the theory of mythogeography and an example of its practice. After reading it, I’m getting the sense that I’m finally coming to an understanding of what mythogeography is and how borrowing from it might inform (or even improve) my own walking. And that’s what’s important about this whole project—learning what is useful to me and what isn’t, what I want to do and what I don’t. And there’s no way to discover those things except by reading widely, by learning what’s out there, what others are up to and how their practices relate (or don’t) to my own.

Works Cited

Benjoe, Kerry. “Marching for a Cause,” Leader-Post [Regina], 14 June 2012, p. A3.

Khatib, Abdelhafid. “Attempt at a Psychogeographical Description of Les Halles.” Translated by Paul Hammond. Situationist International Online. https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/leshalles.html.

Macfarlane, Robert. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. London: Penguin, 2012.

Smith, Phil. On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff, Triarchy, 2014.