Simon armitage: walking home backwards
Wordsworth – poet–walker par excellence – had the best legs in the business. As his friend Thomas de Quincy noted: ‘Undoubtedly they had been serviceable legs beyond the average standard of requisition. For I calculate, upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 185,000 English miles.’ In contrast, Simon Armitage’s legs, by his own admission, generally ‘do very little other than dangle under a desk’ or propel him from the multi-storey car park to the railway ticket office. ‘Even if I’m writing about the Sahara or the Antarctic,’ he confesses, ‘I’m usually doing it in a chair, in a room, behind double glazing.’
In 1994 Armitage swapped social work for poetry and quickly became the most recognisable face in Britain’s so-called New Generation poets. Since then he has written fifteen collections of poetry, eleven radio documentaries and verse dramas, two novels, and several non-fiction titles. He has also edited five poetry anthologies – including a new selection of Ted Hughes’s poems – and published new translations of The Odyssey, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, and The Death of King Arthur. But by 2011 the stodginess of routine had set in; the sediment was building up. So Armitage decided to take a walk.
The Pennine Way, measuring 256 miles (410 kilometres, or roughly the distance from Coff’s Harbour to Brisbane) of adversarial terrain, is generally considered the most demanding long-distance walk in Britain. The route begins in the peat moorlands of Kinder Scout, Bleaklow, and Black Hill, stretches along England’s unbroken spine of bleak hill country, across Hadrian’s Wall and traversing half the Cheviot ridge before terminating in the Scottish border village of Kirk Yetholm.
At least that is the way it is supposed to go. But Armitage – sporting a bad back and the ‘small lungs’ he inherited from his mother – sets out from Scotland to walk the Pennine Way south toward his hometown of Marsden in West Yorkshire. Instead of the weather at his back, Armitage walks headlong into a wind so powerful he has to lift his knees high and cycle into it. Crossing Haughton Common, the wind is so adamant in its opposition that ‘any progress is progress upstream, against the flood, into the rapids, with boulders and logs of hard air’ piling into him and knocking him sideways. It is the medicine he has been looking for:
And I think: this is why I came, to stumble into the unexpected, to feel the world in its raw state. I open my mouth to shout MORE, but the force of air just rams the word back into my mouth and down my throat.
Walking the Pennine Way backwards not only allows Armitage to air his poetic bent for perversity, but also launches the titular metaphor that makes this narrative a homecoming. Armitage was born in 1963 in the West Yorkshire village of Marsden, nestled not far from the trailhead. It is the pull of home – the promise of returning to his wife and daughter – that keeps him walking when his loneliness bites and his sense of humour fails.
Armitage trudges through England’s most literary landscapes – passing by Wordsworth’s Aira Force (‘what a sight it is to look on such a cataract’) and sleeping in Hughes’s childhood home in Mytholmroyd – but Walking Home is not a literary pilgrimage. Homage, if any is to be paid, is to Odysseus and his legendary yearning for home.
In the course of ten years, Odysseus outwits the Cyclops, is spellbound by the Sirens, sees his crew turned into pigs, is kept as a love-slave, and slays his wife’s suitors before reuniting with Penelope in the marital bed. Armitage’s conquests are not quite so formidable, nor as eldritch. He keeps careful inventory of his wounds: five horsefly bites, a bloody thumb, soreness in big toe of right foot when bent backwards, windburn, chapped lips, and wounded pride. Happily, he is spared blisters.
For reasons best described as masochistic, Armitage elected to finance his journey by giving nightly poetry readings at pubs and in private homes along the way. His Sisyphean efforts netted him nearly £2000 for his trouble and provided endless opportunities for poetry gags: ‘In the presence of the spoken word,’ he observes, ‘the scrape of knife against plate or the opening of a packet of salted peanuts are nuclear explosions.’
It is not giving anything away to say that the journey is not entirely successful. Neither is the book. It is – to use an Armitage word – a little bit ‘boring’, partly because each leg of the journey follows the same formula: a walk, a quirky fan, a beer, an awkward poetry reading, the scrutiny of his takings (not always cash); and partly because the narrator is often damp, chilly, shaken up, and in a bit of a sulk.
‘In many ways,’ Armitage says, ‘the Pennine Way is a pointless exercise, leading from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular, via no particular route and for no particular reason.’ Asked if he would walk the Pennine Way again, his routine answer is no. ‘But if I did,’ he relents, ‘I’d rely more on my feet and less on my tongue.’
He would also take someone brave and intrepid with him: ‘Someone not daunted by mist or intimidated by dark clouds, to guide me across the Cheviots, to hold my hand over Cross Fell, and to part the black curtain which hangs over Kinder Scout and lead me through.’
This article was originally published under the title ‘A Pack of Salted Peanuts’ in Australian Book Review 348 (Feb 2013): 56-57.