Across Devon and Cornwall with a sock
Saturday 06 June 2015
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.
Back in summer 2010, Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage embarked on an ambitious walk: the 256-mile route of the Pennine Way, from Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders to Edale in the Peak District. He took no money, but instead performed poetry readings in local communities every night along the way, passing round a (clean) sock at the end for cash donations for lodgings and food. It was an arduous journey and, as the end part of the project, he wrote up a non-fiction account entitled Walking Home. The resulting book proved to be a great success, winning Armitage much acclaim and a wave of new readers. But he swore he’d never do anything like it ever again.
Then, after a couple of years, his resolve began to weaken. Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, Armitage says: “I’m a fairly restless person, really. I started to think that that was only half the job and that I still had a good walk left in me.” So, beginning in late August 2013, he walked the North coast of the South West Coast Path, from Minehead to Land’s End and beyond, again performing poetry ever night with another sock for cash. The resulting book, Walking Away, is published this week.
“I conceived it as the symmetrical other part to Walking Home. I’d enjoyed writing that book and still had the appetite for some more non-fiction based on landscape and travel. So it just seemed the right thing to write a companion book to it.”
It might seem an unlikely comparison, but a few years back John Shuttleworth (aka comedian and songwriter Graham Fellows) made two films about his travels at opposite ends of the country, titled It’s Nice Up North and Southern Softies. Redoubtable keyboardist Shuttleworth was testing out clichés about regional hardiness and friendliness. So did Armitage have a similar hypothesis for Walking Away?
“Well, actually I was looking back the other day on the proposal that I’d sent in to the publishers. And I’d said that one thing that I might do, quite mischievously, would be to contrast the generosity of the people of the North and the people of the South by how much they put into the sock. I could actually do an audit! But as the days went on, I decided that was a little bit crude.” So, was there an overall winner? “Actually, I didn’t even count it up in the end. I just dipped into it whenever I needed to. So that aspect of it became really secondary and it just became more about people and landscape and walking.”
Readers of Walking Home will be aware that Armitage’s original journey wasn’t always an easy one. Was the Southern equivalent any less trying?
“Well, the weather was better,” says the Marsden-born writer. “But the walking…I’d slightly misconceived it. I thought of it as this barefoot stroll along golden sands and it’s actually a really difficult walk. The difficulty is in the fact that it’s coastal and you’re quite high up most of the time, on the cliffs. And then you’re forever dropping into estuaries and rivers and streams, so it’s just up and down all the time. It’s like the Grand National. So it’s really difficult to get momentum going, and pretty hard on the calves. You’re effectively walking a bit of a tightrope as well, really, between the land on one side and the sea on the other, and you do have to concentrate quite a lot on the path. But on the other hand, I didn’t really need a map, and that was a good thing. If you go too far to the right you’re in the sea. So if you’re very wet, you’ve gone wrong.”
When he’s not writing poetry or traipsing across the countryside, Armitage is much in demand in various other areas, too. In recent years he’s presented television documentaries on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur and Homer’s Odyssey, and last year saw the debut of Armitage’s Homer stage adaptation Last Days of Troy at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, as well as a film version of Black Roses, his radio ode to the life and death of tragic Goth teenager Sophie Lancaster.
At any one time, Armitage has a constant stream of projects on his plate. He explains: “I’m very curious about other forms of writing and experimenting in different fields and I’ve been very open and available to do that right from the beginning. I haven’t just seen writing or poetry as something that should just happen in a book, and that’s led me into writing for radio and TV and, particularly at the moment, on the stage. What’s quite odd about it is that all those other elements usually come with deadlines. There’s a contract for all those things and there are people waiting for you to hand the work in. And so on a day-to-day basis, if I’m at home with a computer switched on, that’s really what I’m working on, and then the poems just have to look after themselves.
“Nobody’s screaming at me saying, ‘Where’s your next poem?’” he laughs, “and that seems to suit me. Because with anything that I’ve been doing, whether it’s as a writer or a prof or when I was in probation [Armitage was a probation officer], I was always stealing time to write my poems. And I seem to have got myself into the same situation. I’m always keen to be writing but I don’t want to be just writing poems all the time, even though that’s the heart and soul of it and I think that’s what led me into other forms. But there’s usually poetry involved at some level in these other projects.”
Does he find it hard to turn potentially interesting new writing opportunities down, then? “I’m better at saying ‘no’ than I used to be. I couldn’t pronounce it as a word at one point. Probably couldn’t spell it, either. I’ve just had to be more disciplined about that. Email helps. It’s easier to say ‘no’ in an email than it is on the phone. But I mean, it’s flattering to be asked by different people to do things.”
And there are still areas that Armitage is keen to explore – just not on foot, ideally. For one, he’s currently standing as a candidate for the esteemed post of Oxford Professor of Poetry job, voting for which is being held this month.
“That’s something that I would at some stage really like to pursue, writing about poetry and lecturing. It’s something that I’ve done occasionally, but not with any particular rigour or discipline, largely because I’ve just been so taken up with my own writing and getting that out there. So to spend some time looking more closely and thoughtfully at other poets’ work, and to develop some responses to that, is probably a longer project. What do those people on the radio say who they always invite to talk about the economy? ‘Going forward’. Going forward, yeah, that’s maybe something that, if I get the opportunity, I’d like to do.”
For now, Armitage’s own poetry has become a staple of the GCSE English syllabus, and he still seems genuinely humbled by this honour.
“It is a privilege to have your work put in front of so many energetic minds every year and that’s been going on for 15 or 16 years now. I used to get people coming up to me and saying ‘Oh, I did your poems at school’, and they were 18. Now they’re 35. I always wonder if they’re beginning that conversation because they bear some terrible grudge, that it’s my fault that they failed their English exam and didn’t go on to Cambridge and join the Foreign Office or something.”
Armitage still manages to make the occasional visit to schools to discuss his work, and it’s an opportunity which he relishes. “I like the way kids of that age are not bogged down with ideas of literary criticism. They quite often respond to the poems in a very personal way, which I think is the spirit in which they were written. And it’s good to get a chance to go and put your side of the case in a classroom and just explain, in honest terms, how the poems came about. It’s been something that I’ve really enjoyed and it keeps you on your toes, as well. I mean, I don’t write with that in mind at all. I think that would be a disaster. But every now and again some sharp question from some cocky kid is good for the soul, I think.”
In the coming weeks, Walking Away is set to be a Radio 4 Book of the Week. “It’s a good chance to put a voice to it and to broadcast it.” Armitage will provide the reading himself. “I wanted to. It’s very much a personal project and I think the style of writing is very personal, so it wouldn’t have made sense to me if they’d got, y’know, Alan Titchmarsh in.”
There’s no getting away from the fact that each of Armitage’s walking projects has involved two major undertakings – doing the walk itself, and then writing the book.
“I was wondering the other day whether there was some sort of correlation in Walking Away and Walking Homebetween word count and footstep count – one footstep equals one word. Actually, I wondered that as I was doing the walk, thinking, ‘God, I’ve got to recreate this whole thing now, with an alphabet’.”
So, at this stage, would he consider embarking on another big walking project, or is two quite enough? “That’s it, yeah,” he says firmly. And then, after a moment, he adds: “Well, yeah, I said that before. But I’m pretty sure that I mean it this time.”