In Praise of Walking: A Hunt Through Three Novels
by Matthew Turner
Luke Turner, Out of the Woods Weidenfeld & Nicolson 288pp ISBN 9781409188018 £19.99
Max Porter, Lanny Faber 224pp ISBN 9780571340286 £12.99
Going for a walk is often taken for granted, it’s so commonplace in fact that it’s easy to forget its medicinal properties or what feelings and sensations walking conceals and reveals. The humble walk evades discussion probably because it’s older than the language we would use to delineate its meaning. However anachronistic, a walk is still important: it introduces an element of continuous picturesque narrative to our lives, without jump cuts or montage, when all technological innovations propagate such experiences of fragmentation; it fertilises a direct interaction with the world, with the road ahead and the people on it, when everything else seems to cry out for our distraction.
Walking is usually considered a minor form of escape, of getting some space – and it is – but for me, growing up in a deracinated old mining town, it opened up a parallel world. I would look at pictures of grand country estates and manor houses, imagining the bowers of rolling greenery they were set within were, although completely inaccessible to me, the real English countryside. Later, however, I began to realise these were fake, as artificial as the TV shows I obsessively watched. Instead, the ‘real’ British landscape existed in the weird interzones and forgotten places that usually pushed up against the extinct industry of the town in which I lived. They were the green corridors next to railway tracks, left to fend for themselves, the paths through which must have had dubious beginnings with people in search of sexual conquests – the resultant fulfilment seemingly fertilising the apples and berries which grew there in abundance. They were the alleyways through industrial estates and car parks ensconced in the dense moisture of musty hot nettles, discarded bricks and bottles frosted with dirt and filled with unknown substances. And the network of disused canals that were once dredged and emptied revealing an acrid museum of strange objects like votive offerings from those who once worked around them, on par with, to me at the time, any of the V&A’s exhibits I had seen on school trips. All of these places were made up of the runoff from everyday life, nevertheless, walking there allowed me to explore my imagination in the backwaters of everyone else’s. They were not just paths; they were my psyche, my personal Parisian arcades and they rewired my town and my perception of it. I didn’t fit in in the usual places, but here I did – I could exist quite happily in this parallel stratum of geography, despite not being able to escape the place itself.
I now live in London and still retain this sense that I can walk the polluted and busy city on another plane. I can go for ‘a medicinal’ as my grandfather called going for a walk, using another logic of movement, through the liminal ghost spaces made up of forgotten fragments of land and my own very personal routes of desire.
In the deconstructed wake of World War One there was a resurgence of topographical nature writing to propagate a radical reengagement with the environment after a violent disengagement during the conflict. To a certain extent, nature has a certain order that is immune to human intervention, ploughing forward despite historical events, finding time, eventually, to grow back up through the concrete and to cover toxic sites with grass once again. It has the ability to reorder the world and those who engage with it – bringing stability in times of upheaval and confusion. Managing to put things back together again after they have been shattered, both nature and walking are the film reel on which the fragmented frames of experience can be placed to make them appear as a continuous and smooth movement forward.
Perhaps then, amid the aftershocks of another monumental reordering of the world with digital technologies, revisiting nature through walking and reading can be a way of reconstructing perception, and reimagining the self through observation and imagination. Three books: Out of the Woods by Luke Turner, Mothlight by Adam Scovell and Lanny by Max Porter, all explore this organic catalyst for reflection. They offer a new type of dérive through looking closely at what is at hand at a moment when skewing typical modes of perambulation around a city or place conjures images of cars veering onto footpaths. Each of the three books also delivers a different perception of the quintessential British walk and uncovers some of its complex and illusive meaning.
Mothlight by Adam Scovell is a story of merging identities spliced together – ‘spliced’ in the sense of something simultaneously being put together and taken apart – from a hidden drift of old photographs in an act of celluloid divination. It follows the life of Thomas and his supernatural pull towards a woman called Phyllis, charting the development of their relationship as they bound over a mutual love of moth collecting and walking. Thomas feels that Phyllis has a secret that he is not privy to, and after her death, and his inheritance of her house and its contents, starts to look through her old photographs to try and solve the mystery. Journeys, paths and walking were traditionally related to sending messages and communicating, and in something akin to a séance Thomas starts to mimic Phyllis’ walks through the Welsh mountains and takes similar routes through the photographs she has left him. The riddle, however, is never solved, not directly anyway; instead the narrative perambulates around this invisible subject, a ghostly-unarticulated answer to Thomas’ suspicions, which the narrative references towards without confronting fully. We get close to the answer by the end of the novel, yet instead of an admission we read, “‘Phyllis Ewans walked,’ she said, ‘and that is all’”. Walks then, of various kinds, bring the novel into resolution, in tandem with being a system of concealment. Walks often hide our emotional lives in plain sight like this. Going for a walk is usually about something else being played out – it is a euphemism containing a phantom subject that is cached under its inconsequential nature.
It is this simultaneity of meanings that nature and walking always contain, best captured in Uccello’s most famous painting, ‘The Hunt in the Forest’. On first viewing, this prodigious work is neatly ordered to the rules of one-point perspective, to a vanishing point far in the distance, marked above with a fine sickle moon that the hunters – and some of the hunted – stare and race towards. The painting, however, has another fugitive reading, it contains a territory of freedom and escape – or maybe further entrapment – from the confines of this disciplined arrangement of trees. The hunters and their dogs gallop lustfully into the darkness, without a thought for the folly of catching an animal by night. The singular vanishing point crumbles entropically into a fog of many others, the once aligned trees become offbeat and syncopated with rhythms going against each other. Are they actually hunting their desires? This forest is good and evil, ordered and chaotic all at the same time, none the less, you are never sure on which side the slippery coin has landed.
If Mothlight explores the emotional sleight of hand contained within walking, then Out of the Woods by Luke Turner is concerned with confronting the conflicted parallel meanings of walking through nature, the same as those contained with ‘The Hunt in the Forest’. The book explores how Epping Forest, a 2,400-hectare area of ancient woodland on the outskirts of London, helped him resolve conflicts with his bisexuality and the sexual abuse he was a victim of as a child. Turner sweeps away the antiquated notions of how bucolic, pastoral idylls heal through their purity, instead, the forest is cast as containing the worst and best of human actions, our products and waste, both our dreams and nightmares, and it’s through confronting this simultaneous existence that nature performs its exorcism. There is a fluidity in nature and within this Turner finds a place for coming to terms with himself ‘there are no morals to nature, no right or wrong way to be or behave within it’.
There is a tendency to gender and sexualise plants and trees into masculine and feminine polarities, when it’s actually beyond such potentially corrosive classifications and codifications. Nature, like the people and stories that Turner finds within it, is full of bodies, identities and interiorities that shift without ceasing to be themselves. We gender and sexualise walking too, but really it is genderless, or should be, for it has typically been the tool through which to transgress seemingly concrete boundaries. It has been used to rebel and protest, by homosexuals and others persecuted for the their sexuality to walk and find a place to fuck, by pilgrims searching for spiritual enlightenment, by mourners walking down funeral roads to guide someone into the afterlife and by refugees walking the last few miles of their long journeys to cross geographic borders. Through walking we also transgress the bounds of ourselves and become linked to everyone else with that primitive urge to walk and move forward in a unity of bipedal locomotion. We are not human on our own; we are only human through these mimetic relationships.
In Max Porter’s Lanny, a pastoral modern day fairy tale set in a village one hour away from London, walking subsumes another boundary and the walker, a mythical figure known by local schoolchildren as Dead Papa Toothwort, becomes the environment through which he walks. In the opening pages of the novel he wakes from a long nap and begins to hunt through the village for a particular child, and bleeds into a new object with every step, ‘He walks a few paces as an engineer in a Day-Glo vest. He takes a step in a dinner suit, then an Anderson shelter, then a tracksuit, then a rusted jeep bonnet, then a leather skirt, but nothing works.’ Not all people are woodland spirits, still, walking requires similar acts of creation as the walker attempts to organise the bombardment of cut up information in the form of sights, sounds and smells that passes by on a stroll down the street. We become the environment, fuse with it, as we attempt to take everything in and join the dots into a logical constellation of experience. And through this simple act we remake the landscape as we pass through it.
Dead Papa Toothwort is not only an amorphous walker he is also an embodiment of nature itself, comprising of, similar to Out of the Woods, both its characteristics of fear and joy. Mountains, rivers, trees and plants, much the same as Dead Papa Toothwort, operate on a different time scale to humans and people find comfort in the idea that we are but small cogs in a much larger and intricate machine that will outlive everyone’s existence on the planet – it can put ones worries into perspective. Walking is nature too, and has been around for millions of years, so in going for a simple walk you are in nature even in the most polluted and artificial of cities, and this provides access to all the benefits of the wilderness wherever you may be. Perhaps the same can be said of reading too; with every step of a word, every stride of a sentence, every lap around the block of a paragraph you are taking a walk through some kind of nature. The three writers’ explorations of the typical English walk, that everyone takes like a pill with no idea of the instructions or aftereffects, encompasses its ills and positive attributes. Yet they all use the slowness of writing, reading and walking to reveal how literature can offer a new rhythm of elaboration, one that slows down blistering and multi-layered sequentially to ameliorate the shrapnel of acceleration, and find a new tempo for safely rambling through uncertain times.