Monthly Archives: March 2013

On Saturday I led a small group of hardy souls on a creative walk in Alnwick, Northumberland – out through the pasture on the other side of the river from the castle and back again. Although we’re in one of the few areas of the UK currently free of snow, it was bitterly cold and windy, so I wasn’t sure if anyone would be prepared to walk or whether they’d get much out of it if we did. But in the face of adversity we developed a collegiate spirit, and the participants responded well to the creative task I had set them, to come up with phrases responding to the landscape and their experiences as they walked. As one of the group pointed out, the task made the walk occupy a strange middle ground between lone and group walking: the focus on producing an individual response meant we walked as a loose group, both together and separate. 

Back at the Bailiffgate Museum I collated the phrases the group had produced into a draft poem, a kind of group poem of shared experience:

River Aln walk
on a very cold day in late March

we’re so keen on
lapwings flapping
the lion’s tail and the 
noise of the trees
a bare wire fence
a bleached landscape
yes keep walking
struggle against the wind

five or maybe 
six seagulls swirling
cold on the cheeks
a landscaped landscape
it was snowing, uneven 
road and frozen fingers

yellow flag flying
brown river flows
moles live here
a red tasselled bag
and wind ruffled water
keep walking briskly
sheep being sheep

sheep getting on with it
slow wagons turning
lost gloves spread 
in chill bewilderment
whose idea was this?
many-bearded trunk
hedgehogs in the trees
hi hello there
risk assessment: done

bleached with cold 
spray-painted lichen
white plastic roofs
soldiers at attention
look out: red jacket
had a daschund
trying to describe
a river flowing up
and swathes of clart
unfriendly gorse and 
witches’ fingers

discarded Foster’s can
cold for the heron
walking’s about walking
when you walk
it belongs to you
windlashed eyes and
lapwings feeding

Shrove Tuesday football
there’s a film online
man with a dog head down 
nice black dog
boiled wool works
grey cloudy sky
what’s that diving hemmed in 
by the water 
rubbish catching branches
a constant hum
the aristocratic weir
water patterns frothing

ochre stone scar
the wide castle 
new pipeline
flotilla of terns
back to the bridge
gloves still there
at the kissing gate
grey slatey stones, jackdaws 
and cold, cold water


Yesterday I read Julien Gracq’s The Narrow Waters thanks to this post at the excellent Vertigo blog. It’s an odd little book: too short, just long enough, direct, elusive, observational, discursive, lyrical… It describes a boat trip on the River Evre which Gracq/the narrator took many times as a child. It really is a description of the things he remembers seeing, what they made him think of and what they foreshadowed, but more to the point the book is a meditation on how memory and perception operate. The idyllic memory is

like a charged religious image, imprinted in us ages ago, where a foreshadowed life can only reveal itself in all its glory on the other side of the ‘obscure corridor’, valley of darkness, or place of exile.

The parallels between a boat trip like this an a walk are obvious; early on, Gracq says:

Why did the feeling anchor itself in me at an early age that if traveling – traveling without any thought of returning – can open doors and truly change one’s life, then that most singular of all forays, an excursion with neither adventure nor unforeseen events that after a few hours finds us home again, right before the gate of our parents’ house, has a more secret magic, like the handling of a divining rod?

(Edit: just realised that this paragraph is quoted in the Vertigo blog post – but then it’s a particularly striking quotation.) The book made me think of a walk I did with the dog last summer, round the villages I grew up in; it made me want to write about that walk, except that perhaps Gracq has rendered that project unnecessary, at least in a certain form. The Narrow Waters will take you an hour to read, an hour that it would be difficult to spend more wisely.

Today there’s persistent rain. Earlier there was the odd flake of snow, but now it must have warmed up a touch because it’s just rain. But it still feels cold, the damp cold that clings to you. I’m typing this looking out and wondering whether to take the dogs before lunch or after – will the weather improve or worsen? One of the dogs is in here with me, and there’s a smell of wet dog because he hasn’t dried out from the morning walk yet.

Oh – hang on – the snowflakes are back; but they won’t settle.

I can’t say I’m looking forward to going out there again, but because of the dogs, I’ll have to. That’s actually something I really like about dog walking: the dogs have to be walked everyday, at least twice a day, and that means I’ll be outside in conditions I would otherwise turn my nose up at. The dog walker is not a fair-weather walker. It means I get outside into the landscape in all conditions, and see it from all angles, and actually, once I’m out there I find I enjoy it. There are of course days when I’m frozen to the bone, wet through and hating it. But there are others when it’s a joy to be trudging through the driving rain, in a deserted landscape, experiencing what life has to offer. It’s easy to be cocooned inside the heated house, inside our luxurious convenience, but I think it does me good to escape that. To feel a bit of rain on the back of your neck has been a fundamental experience in this part of the world; it would be a shame if it became unusual, a quaint phenomenon to be spoken of on the sofa, or in the hush of the car, as strange and yucky as outside toilets.  

Another walking conference, this time in Lyon, France: 

We are looking for papers that engage the conceptual, cultural, textual, and visual dimensions of walking. Contributions may deal with how walking has become an aesthetic program, a form of reflection or a complex, frequently ambivalent metaphor; they may also discuss walking in light of its historical, ideological, aesthetic, philosophical, and poetical implications, or investigate two or more of these aspects jointly. Or they may ask how one can delineate the semantic field of ‘walking,’ which may evoke, among others, the notions of ‘rambling,’ ‘sauntering,’ ‘roaming,’ ‘hiking,’ or ‘perambulating,’ but also of the Aristotelian ‘peripatetic’ and, following Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, of the “flâneur.” What are the values attached to these practices? How does walking enhance our knowledge of a specific place or environment? Are there differences between walking in ‘nature’ and walking in an urban environment? To what extent has walking reinforced or, perhaps, questioned the distinction between the rural and the urban? If major texts in this tradition, such as Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker and Wordsworth’s The Excursion, focus on the countryside, walking is not only, nor even primarily, a rural phenomenon, but is also typical of urban modernity. How has walking as a literary genre evolved throughout the modern period, and, how, following its heyday during the Romantic period, has it been redefined in connection to modernist issues? To what extent does the aesthetics of the ordinary and of chance, which seem to be associated with walking, relate to aspects of postmodern nomadology? Is walking gendered?

The UK Government is considering changes to the law over pedlars – nowadays I think this often means street traders, but originally and also means itinerant traders – so that they will no longer need a license. See this BBC report and the website for more details. It’s clearly a complicated issue, and what strikes me is how this contemporary debate enacts age-old questions about who has the right or permission to occupy or travel through a landscape, and how often the answers to these questions are determined by occupation or activity – whether you’re allowed here depends on what you’re doing here. I must say that, as I walk through city centres I almost never buy from street traders, and find they can be slightly annoying (though not as annoying as chuggers). But I’m not sure I would want either national or local government to pander to my consumerist ego by removing this annoyance. There’s something medieval about street traders, buskers, acrobats and performers being the kind of harmless gauntlet a citizen has to run, and something healthy, it seems to me, about the city as this busy and unprivate place. 

A non-walking post today: details of this workshop at Durham University on Modernism and Non-translation – of interest to me because of my article on untranslated fragments in Michael Hofmann’s poetry.


Lakhovsky_ConversationA workshop on 4th to 5th July will explore the topic of “modernism and non-translation.” The event will see a series of interdisciplinary position papers from leading scholars.

The remit of the workshop is to explore the incorporation of untranslated words, phrases, or textual fragments in modernist writing. The workshop aims to develop a series of inter-connecting test-cases that explore modernists’ use of non-translation in order address the shared themes outlined below.

  • The relationship between modernism and practices of translation. How did writers respond to their lack of knowledge of languages they also worked with (Woolf and Greek; Pound and Chinese; Joyce and Norwegian)? How integral is non-translation to modernism? Is there an implicit theory of translation in modernism? The epistemology of translation: how is “linguistic knowledge” itself raised as a question or problem through practices of non-translation?
  • The political and cultural implications of non-translation: what are the implied relations of “host”…

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