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You can’t go dog-walking without a dog, but it would be easy for this project to leave this essential element in visible, as if the fact of having a dog was enough, but the fact of having this dog was irrelevant. In fact, the dog’s (as it were) personality, and the walker’s relationship with it, matter, in subtle but significant ways.

When I first conceived this project we had one dog, Lovejoy; by the time my AHRC funding was approved we’d acquired another, but before long the first had died. We’re about to get a third to bring us back up to two. But it isn’t so much about numbers (though that’s relevant, even on the mundane level of having to keep your eyes on two animals at once, which might affect what else goes on in your mind). Lovejoy, charming and respectful of people as he was, was extremely unsociable with other animals, so he very rarely went off his lead, except on the beach where we could keep a close eye on the horizon and a good grip on his attention with a ball. Materially, I always had a lead in my hand when walking him, and was always aware of any other dogs, cats, rabbits etc nearby. Not very conducive to thinking through creative problems, you might think. Possibly; but Lovejoy knew and accepted the routine, so on the whole he trotted along faithfully by my side. Because he wasn’t off the lead roaming free, it was often easier to keep an eye on him than a better behaved dog, and easier therefore to let me thoughts drift into writing.

Here is Lovejoy chewing something:

Image

The new dog, Cap, is a failed sheepdog, a tricoloured short-haired border collie, the most gentle and submissive dog imaginable. He’s off his lead most of the time; walking with him I feel freer, though there’s a different rhythm to my attention: I look up more often to check on him, I speak to him to baulk his progress and bring him back to me. Inevitably this must alter the space which walking provides for my brain to work creatively, though I’m not sure (yet) whether this difference is either significant or measurable.

More generally my relationship with the dog(s) helps to determine the route, feel, conditions and events of the walk. I’ve already said that I might be holding a lead (or not); the number of hands I have free might determine whether I can feasibly write in a notebook mid-walk (I don’t, on the whole). But my decisions about a walk’s route are also determined partly by the dog and my relationship with it. Dogs learn habits just as we do, so my tendency to go over the same few routes is reinforced by the dog’s expectation that that’s where we’ll go, and to lead me there. At times, too, when we get to a junction, I’ve experienced the dog ‘asking’ me to go a certain way, facing in that direction and turning to look at me. (I might agree to go that way, or not). Or my knowledge of the dog’s personality might condition me to make certain decisions: because Lovejoy was unsociable, I’ve been even more inclined than I might otherwise have been to avoid busy routes. Now that I have a different dog with a different personality, I’m having to unlearn my habits and forge a new human-animal relationship and walking identity.

Here’s Cap:

 

For more on human-animal relations, a good place to start is Hayden Lorimer’s article on ‘Herding memories of humans and animals‘.

Walking has been a topic of interest for writers and academics in a number of disciplines for some years now. Amongst academics, walking has been relevant to art history, literature, cultural geography, human geography, health and beyond. Walking has been a practical tool for artists like Ricahrd Long, psychogeographers and writers from Iain Sinclair to Simon Armitage, not to mention its long history in writing from Thoreau to Wordsworth to Baudelaire to the Situationists. As Sinclair wryly remarks in Patience: After Sebald, Grant Gee’s film essay on the Suffolk walk recorded in The Rings of Saturn,  the countryside is full of writers walking so they can write a book.

So what’s the point of this project, one amongst many in a crowded field?

First, most recent walker-writers have, like Sebald and Sinclair himself, taken walking and the walks they perform as the subjects of their writing. The walking and writing are in some sense identical (just as, for artists like Long or Francis Alys, the walk itself is either the cultural performance or product, or a record of it is. What I am interested in is not this walking as both means and subject of writing, but simply the extent to which walking can be an instrument of writing practice: how my daily dog-walking might enable, hinder or shape my writing. I work at my desk; I stop writing to go and walk my dogs; is this chore, this break in the working day, lost time, or does my writing spill over into this apparent non-writing time? Do I return to the desk better able to write, or writing differently to how I would have written if I hadn’t taken a break, or spent an hour watching Cash in the Attic? The writing I produce may or may not refer to or contain walking – it wouldn’t be surprising if an activity I spend a considerable portion of every day engaged in bled into my writing somehow – but it isn’t essentially or primarily concerned with walking. I am interested in walking as a tool and shaping condition of life, not as a subject.

Second, the form of walking that I am investigating is unusual. Mostly culturally inclined studies of walking have, for various reasons, tended to focus on urban walking. I am interested in rural or semi-rural walking, and specifically in dog-walking, a strange activity which comes somewhere between Romantic walking for inspiration and walking walking to work and leisure walking and chore like washing up. Although the main focus of the project is on the role of such walking in writing practice, I also hope to provide one of the first (if not the first) detyailed studies of dog-walking as a cultural practice.

One of the challenges of working on a subject which has been of interest to lots of disciplines is that I am forced, or tempted, to move into disciplines beyond my own (literature and creative writing). Part of the project is to think about how this can be done while maintaining scholarly rigour: how can I pull together a coherent piece of research which draws on geogrpahy, creative practice, psychology, neuroscience?

Oh, and I’m writing a novel, which I’ve never done before.

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