I can’t help thinking that the literary editor is having a little chuckle to himself, in his own private way, as he hands me Walking Home: Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way to review. What he knows is that, for my sins, I have never been anywhere near the Pennine Way, the long stretch that runs from Edale, Derbyshire, to Kirk Yetholm on the Scottish border. And yet here it is in my hand, a travel diary of sorts, dedicated to Simon Armitage’s 2010 sweaty ramble ‘backwards’ from the Scottish end to his hometown, Marsden, situated near its beginning.
Thankfully, neither familiarity with the moors nor a particular fondness for Kendal Mint Cake are required. Armitage can make a flea sound fascinating. Prior to setting out on what is (one is inclined to agree with his wife) the terrain of his midlife macho-quest, Armitage posts on the internet the details of his intended route, an invitation to the world to join him at various stages of his journey, and a request for pub landlords and the like to arrange poetry readings on his behalf; he’d get by on the proceedings, which he’d store inside a sock.
Essentially the book’s journey is second to its telling. As well as exhibiting the vividness of a diary — it charts some of the Raoul Moat situation as it developed in the same area — it incorporates several of the wonderful verses Armitage composed en route, but probably polished upon returning home. It thrives on anecdote and the sort of lightly-worn literary reference that provides his means of navigating the English landscape:
‘Hardraw is England’s highest waterfall, highest only in the sense that it is the highest above ground, apparently, a distinction I can’t really begin to understand, though not something which unduly troubled Wordsworth when he visited here…With Wordsworth having already left his literary stamp on the place, and having already splurged on waterfall superlatives at High Force a couple of days ago, I decide to give it a miss…’
He sallies forth in drafting a comparison between his mission and that of Sir Gawain, whose story he translated so fantastically some years back. But Sir Gawain can arm himself for combat in less than three verses. Spreading his skin with Avon Skin So Soft, ‘the repellent of choice not only with foresters and trawlermen, but also with British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, apparently’, and strapping on his luggage takes Armitage a rather unheroic hour. Perhaps his walk is more of an Odyssean nostos…. He’s onto a losing battle there, too, and he knows it. Never does Armitage miss an opportunity to send up what he realizes can only ever be construed as pure folly, but is obviously, to him, really quite defining.
His mother walked the Pennine Way when she was fifty. His uncle drudged the trenches of Northern France as a muleteer in the First World War, and Armitage still carries his service medals. Armitage wagers that the presence of many on his path may be accounted for by a ‘Bear Grylls/Ray Mears Box Set’. Between the pages of humour lurks a modern Everyman, unsure about how to be a man today. Pleasingly, often amusingly, for us, he’s not afraid to dissemble this.
Walking Home: Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way by Simon Armitage is published by Faber and Faber today.