BOOK REVIEW: Simon Armitage: Walking Away

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Out now
Published by Faber & Faber
More information can be found on Simon Armitage’s website []

Review by Jazmine Linklater

In 2012 Simon Armitage published his travelogue Walking Home, which recounts his walk along the merciless Pennine Way. Giving poetry readings as he went in exchange for bed, board and bath, he never stopped until making it back home to the village he’d grown up in. Despite vowing to never to put himself through such a slog again, “restlessness and imagination” got the better of him. Walking Home, it seemed, was only half the journey.

By luck (or, through months of planning and calculating), he found “a neat symmetrical opposite to the previous adventure” in the north side of the South West Coast path. With the journeys spanning equal distances, at the end of it all the project would be complete. Walking Away is the culmination of his toils.

So he strides forth – sort of, taking a train to Minehead’s Butlins – penniless, but kitted out with all the pomp an outdoors adventure store could provide, as well as a holly branch that he’s managed to whittle into something of a walking stick. The aim is to get to Land’s End and, from there, the Isles of Scilly, passing around a sock at the end of each night’s poetry reading to test his worth as a poet. To begin with, he drip feeds details of the actual poetry readings, focusing on the walk itself.

It’s pure romanticism as Armitage details fantastic views with a painter’s colour palette, often tumbling towards that restrained surrealism we saw in Seeing Stars. Yet, almost every element of the adventure is equally handled with a witty cynicism. The host of friends, strangers and guides that alternate so regularly they become a blur, are subject to the same jovial scathing as the landscape and, more regularly, himself. If there is one thing to be asserted by the time we reach the Scillies, it’s that Armitage is a brilliant comic writer.

The walk, however, grows draining pretty quickly. While on the one hand the immediacy of his account puts the reader right there on the path with him, his thoughts jump around at an alarming rate, lurching from left to right like a drunk’s swaying plod home.

As both poet and reader grow tired of this trudge, personal insights intervene. Relationships with neighbours, with his father, daughter and with poetry come to light as his mind meanders. These manifest more regularly as poetic interludes throughout the book, offering the weary traveller a moment of contemplation.

And it is, after all, the poetry that we care about. Armitage offers some honest accounts of the trials of being a poet: “I’m reading in the window and stand by the front door as people arrive, like a pageboy at a wedding. One woman hands me her ticket, so I tear it in half, hand her the stub and invite her to help herself to refreshments”.

Walking Away is a funny and entertaining book, beautifully written with startling language. However, in its totality, it is missing something. An emptiness pervades the adventure, the setting never being attributed the sublimity that perhaps it deserves, the supporting characters seldom being explored.

The moments that do pass with true passion are those that are totally unexpected, and sadly concern the death of Seamus Heaney. Almost two weeks after Armitage hears the news and the “mercy dash” his wife makes, he finds at the bottom of his poetry-reading-sock a signed copy of Heaney’s Human Chain. That night is a glimpse into the true inner workings of Simon Armitage, and a clarification of why the journey wasn’t quite as upbeat as it could have been. “I start to read but I don’t get beyond the first page. The first poem. The first line. ‘Had I not been awake.’”

It was an amazing feat for Armitage to complete the walk, both mentally and physically. While the book is entertaining, the process itself certainly seemed to be incredibly rewarding and gave way to some beautiful observational writing of the Cornish coast. He says this walk will be his last, but let’s just hope that he hasn’t hung his boots up forever.

Jasmine Linklater is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.

Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.