Walking Away, by Simon Armitage - Book review: wittily self-deprecating, much like a hipper Alan Bennett

Across Devon and Cornwall with a sock

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The Independent Culture

In 2010 the poet Simon Armitage walked the Pennine Way in the “wrong” direction, ending up at his home village in Yorkshire. Every night he did a free reading, collecting donations in a sock. He got a book out of it: Walking Home. In Walking Away, ‘“further travels with a troubadour”, he describes his aim of “lacing the boot of Britain’s south west peninsula”. The plan is the same: take no money, perform every night, walk with whoever turns up.

Poets and the sea, he figures, are a natural fit, but the seaside is a different matter. “I’ve given readings at hundreds of towns and cities across the UK but rarely if ever on the coast itself … It leads me to wonder if poetry-reading is essentially an inland activity.” He describes the Pennine Way as “a brutal, punishing slog from start to finish” and initially sees the South West Coast Path as an easier, sea-level walk. His illusions are swiftly dissipated; the route may be more touristy, but this is a trek with frequent vertiginous plummets and exhausting ascents for minimal forward gain.

This time out, Armitage is a much more seasoned walker, less moany about his feet and back, less obsessive about calories and kit (although he loves his weatherproof hat). The gimmick about the sock is also swiftly forgotten: he is supported throughout by generous hospitality, which he sometimes repays with sharp pen-portraits. As before, he has a brilliant eye for detail, whether it’s a “framed photograph of a pebble on the wall over the headboard”, which tells you all you need to know about a room’s decor, or the verbal tics of the eccentrics he meets along the path.

He spends an unsettling night in Boscastle’s Museum of Witchcraft (“pentangles everywhere…”). Finding a unidentified jar of brown powder in the kitchen he decides not to make a drink in case it’s “the granulated remains of Aleister Crowley or the charred bones of a heretic”.

There’s some lovely nature writing: sparrowhawks “jerking and scything”, a raven “cronking and honking”, descriptions of sea-colours and sand, the coastline like “a long thick crust bitten and chomped by the hungry ocean”. Not all his similes are poetically elevated, though: a seal “bobs and rolls in the water like a big black turd”. 

Armitage is gratified by the interest his poetry tour attracts, but makes one mortifying discovery: one venue is holding 40,000 unsold poetry books, the stock of former residents Peterloo Poets. Feeling personally guilty, he suggests the unwanted volumes be used as cavity wall insulation. “Don’t think we haven’t tried it,” comes the grim response.

He doesn’t stop at Land’s End but heads off to the Scillies via a notoriously “sloppy” ferry he dubs the “floating vomitorium”. His plan was to finish up on remote Samson – population listed as “(1)” – for “the last opportunity for a public event in the UK before the vast, reader-less expanse of the Atlantic Ocean”, but is foiled by the weather. At least he gets a good poem out of it, “Scillonia”.

He is wittily self-deprecating, much like a hipper Alan Bennett. One of his hosts says that she would have got the shower mended if he’d been John Hegley. His final list of the alien items in the sock runs to over a page, and includes a 5p fuel coupon, a bullet, and a condom. “I won’t be doing any more long walks,” he insists, but this charming, if footsore troubadour is sure to find new poetic adventures.

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