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.