On Walking, by Phil Smith

On Walking, Phil SmithThis is one of those books you either love or hate.

It’s full title, On Walking:…and Stalking Sebald implies you will be following Phil Smith as he follows in the footsteps of the German author, W.G. Sebald, on a walking tour in Suffolk.

But the book is much more than a travelogue of the author’s trip. It incorporates a mix of poetry, philosophy, and reflections on walking. It is an entertaining, frustrating and challenging read. And is illustrated with photographs that both illuminate and mirror the scatological (in the urban-dictionary sense) nature of the writing.

What I liked about the book:

  • The mix of poetry with prose, philosophy with practical experiences, the abstract and the concrete. This got me thinking about the possibilities available to a writer. You can mix forms, defy conventions, deliberately lead your reader down blind alleys, into mazes and through labyrinths.
  • The fact that the author retraced some of the route I followed during my own coastal walking. It is always interesting to read other people’s very different descriptions of the same walk.
  • The book is printed in a mixture of typefaces. Some sections (the ones on Sebald, for example) are printed in dense lines of smaller letters. Other parts (the poetry, for example) are of larger font with more comfortable white space between lines. I assume this variation was by deliberate choice, and it had the helpful effect of providing visual signposts, alerting me to the nature of a particular section.
  • This book introduced me to new words. It showed me new ways of walking and new ways of thinking about walking and, most importantly, led me into new ways of writing about walking.

What I didn’t like about the book:

The organised, slightly obsessional part of my psyche longed for a more organised structure to the book. I wanted to get on with the walk, and wanted the text to tie in more closely with the structure of the walking tour.

I was not familiar with Phil Smith’s previous work. Neither am I particularly familiar with the work of Sebald (although I have read his collection of stories, The Emigrants, and confess I found it hard going.) Many of the references flew over my head.

On Walking is published by a small, independent publishing house, Triarchy Press. This, and the fact the book contains colour photographs, means it is rather more expensive than most similar sized paper backs.

And I guess I have a fundamentally different attitude to walking than that espoused by Phil Smith. He is a playwright by background and considers his walks as physical (and metaphysical) performances. Whereas I don’t walk to make a statement, neither do I see walking as an act of creation. I view walking almost as a pilgrimage, a way of getting back in touch with the landscape, with the primeval part of my being, with the core of nature.

What I learnt from reading it:

I took the book with me when I returned to complete the final stages of my journey along the South West Coast Path. Since I am walking the route backwards (something Phil might approve of!) this meant I was reading On Walking as I walked the section between Lynmouth and Minehead, during which time I was staying on my own in an eccentric hotel in Porlock Weir.

The book certainly had a profound influence on me. In fact, the wooded part of the walk from Lynmouth to Porlock, during which I walked totally alone and in the rain, meeting nobody for 3-4 hours among ancient woods that oozed and dripped, surrounded by a cloud of flies, was one of the most unusual and mind-blowing experiences of my walking life. Phil Smith’s words seemed to have penetrated my subconscious, profoundly altering both my physical perceptions and emotional responses.

Never underestimate the powerful effect of words. This book has opened me up to new experiences when out on the trail and has changed the way in which I see, think and write about walking.

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