Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Simon Armitage walks home. He begins in Kirk Yetholm and walks south, the length of the Pennines, 256 miles in seventeen days. This modern troubadour starts without a penny in his pocket and, reciting poetry, makes his way back to Marsden and on towards Edale and the end of the Pennine Way.
It is the perfect Romantic gesture, trusting one’s life to art, becoming unaccommodated man. Except he doesn’t. The poetry readings are arranged in advance through his web-site. He passes around a walking sock - a nice touch - for the contributions. An average of £2.66 a head from his 1,158 listeners. A tombstone of a suitcase travels ahead with his luggage. And he is accommodated by friends and admirers and hotels with hot showers and warm duvets and genial hosts who wait in their Volkswagens and Volvos to transport the weary walker to a congenial fire.
Simon Armitage is a comfortable Romantic and the landscape he travels through is a safe wilderness. It is the England he knows and where he is known, where he can look down on his own village and recall the camping holidays with his father on the neighbouring hills.
Cross Fell, Fiends’ Fell, is the highest and lowest point of his journey. On a clear day, he should see the Solway. But as he walks “further into the rocky wilderness, deeper into the milky atmosphere” he feels he doesn’t know who he is, “as if the mist is bringing about an evaporation of identity, all the certainties of the self leaching away into the cloud.” He turns to his GPS, his compass, his map. They - he is with a friend and a dog – see a path, and, on the way up from Dufton, “four apparitions are also jogging, jogging towards us.” They are four fell runners meeting him by arrangement.
He needs people. Every evening he reads to them, waiting for their approval
This is no heroic route-march down the backbone of England. Simon tends his feet and feels the wind and the rain, but he also sees the ordinary world around him. At Alston, the river is “shallow and gossipy where it skitters across pebbles and stones, then soupy and slow in a dam or a basin”.
There are moments of natural magic. In Grasmere, on a brief detour for a poetry reading, he recalls an early morning walk, when, unawares, his Labrador and a fine red stag stood within twenty yards of each other, separated by a stone wall. “I was close enough to see the contoured grain of its antlers, close enough even to see the dark, upturned limpet of its eye.” As the deer lumbered away in the morning light, “the great candelabra of its antlers became silhouetted against the torch of the sun, still low in the sky, and appeared to catch fire.”
And he remembers his past, his childhood with the vividness that only smell and taste can give: “The creosote acts like smelling salts for the memory, reminding me of the many ramshackle constructions I put together with my dad.”
Like all journeys, this is a journey through a country, individually, sharply, never falsely observed, and an inward journey into the self. The man who emerges is an average sort of person, keen on music, friends, family, football. He even tells the story of Jimmy Glass’s famous goal.
There are moments when his world catches fire, is touched by a rare poetic magic, but Simon Armitage’s poetry is found in the everyday and not, save for those brief moments, in the exaltation of the high hills.
This is a book lovely in its ordinariness. Simon Armitage is a very ordinary walker, but an extraordinary poet.