Travelling Companions Part 4 (A series of posts looking at British Travel Books)
In Your Stride by A.B Austin. Illustrated by Margaret Dobson.
This is a curio. Published in 1932 by Country Life Ltd (I’d guess the magazine people. It started publication in 1897) and written in the previous year if we are to believe the author. Plenty of reason to trust what the writer has to say but plenty of room for doubt.
The idea was to write a walkers’ guide aimed specifically at city dwellers, and of all city dwellers, particularly those who live in London and who have limited leisure time. Austin hoped that the book would become an essential item in every ruck sack. I have absolutely no idea how many copies were sold. It is still possible to get hold of it but it has obviously been out of print for a very long time. My guess is that the magazine backing would have ensured a decent print run but this is some way short of being a forerunner of Alfred Wainwright.
There is something of the Wainwright about this book though. The author has the same companionable manner, the same quiet authority and the same way of describing things in terms almost of their Platonic ideal rather than in simple past tense narrative. The tense is indeterminate. Often fluctuating between subjunctive, conditional and a vague imaginary tense often used by teachers of creative writing when using a technique known as visualisation. Instead of saying something like,”the valley is long and slopes broadly in an east-west axis with pasture, crops and trees” he says things more along the lines of. “Imagine a sloping valley, which might be trimmed with trees. A man would have to be fit and healthy to traverse it in a single day.” Everything is described in terms of ‘could’ or ‘should’ (what Hector in the History Boys refers to as the tense of possibility). It is endearing, even charming for a while but 250 pages of it becomes vague, unspecific and even doubtful.
A second complaint is a common one among amateur writers dealing with the natural world. My mother was excellent at describing nature if you walked with her along country lanes. Put a pen in her hand however, and suddenly the world is full of joyous birdsong, babbling brooks and brooding mountains. Why does the natural world bring out the flowery poet in so many writers? My friend Mike and I walked a long distance footpath as part of our outdoor education certificate. On the route he was good company and a user of good plain English. “That hill was steep”, “There’s some weather coming over from the west, we’d better find some shelter” or “This view is beautiful. That must be Teignmouth down there”. Walking the route was only half of it. We had to produce a walkers journal and it was as though he had been injected with a shot of second rate versification. “The path continued up the slope like a disappearing snake.” “The deep silence of the night was broken only by the scuttling of mice and perhaps the occasional screech of an owl” (the reality is that he was spark out for 8 hours after downing 6 pints of Flowers’ Original) or “The distant horizon shimmered with hope for the longed for coast where cliffs and sandy beaches and children’s voices awaited our arrival.” Austin is so determined to draw London’s young men and women into the countryside that he out flowers the florist in his prose. The world he describes often has more in common with Narnia than Dartmoor or the Peak District.
“If the night has been frosty, the cart-ruts in the rides crackle underfoot and the lichens are crisp to the touch, but usually the treetops stand inverted in the little pools and the lichens are spongy and moist. As you walk, nothing seems awake but yourself. The rustle of your foot against the bracken bruises the quiet and the parted branch springs back behind you like a sleeper resenting disturbance, returning to his pillow with a petulant jerk.”
There’s money to be made in describing the countryside thus. Many are attracted by sylvan glens and green pastoral. They think this is what Wordsworth and Coleridge saw. Country Life, The Dalesman and even the aforementioned Wainwright created a world whose attractions were significantly imagined. A.B. Austin wasn’t an amateur. He was a journalist; and a successful one during the 20s 30s and 40s. His journalistic skills are further reason to doubt the voracity of the content of the book. Firstly he has the ability to write convincingly about whatever subject the editor pushes in his direction. Secondly he is able to make it sound exciting and enticing. He lacks modesty and begins his trek by covering in an afternoon what it took Mike and I three days to cover. (Granted we stopped at more pubs). By the time he gets into the Highlands of Scotland or the Pyrenees he is covering vast distances at night before being invited into lonely farmhouses where he is immediately given the best seat by the fire, his glass charged, his bowl filled and locals gather round to listen to the exploits of a stranger walking among mountains that are their everyday workplaces.
Like many a journey it begins well but the last twenty miles is a slog to read. It may all be as true as mathematics but quite frankly, by half way I’d stopped believing it. That doesn’t mean I’d stopped enjoying it. There is something here. Maybe aspiration, maybe encouragement, maybe raw enthusiasm that is found in good teaching. A little more plain writing. A little more letting the magnificence of the outdoors speak for itself and there is a good book here.
The best chapter is the first one “The Art of Loitering” where Austin sets out his agenda as a walker. “There are three kinds of walkers, and only one is a loiterer within the dictionary meaning. There are those who walk with grim determination as if the world were a sanded track marked in laps of twenty or thirty miles to the day. There are those who walk with a bleak purpose, far enough to coax the appetite but not far enough to derange the digestion. And there are those who walk because they can’t help it, because walking is for them part of the business of living.”
It sounds good but it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny either as premises of a reasoned argument, or as an all embracing catalogue of those who like to walk. His key argument is that to truly enjoy walking there has got to be time to take in the environment you are walking through. You have got to have time to loiter. Unfortunately ‘loitering’ as a verb has come to have many negative connotations but we mustn’t condemn an idea simply because time has overtaken it.
A final thought on the copy I got sent via eBay. It’s a 1932 edition especially bound by the Lanark Library Service. In some ways it ought to be a collectors piece but it cost me less than £2. It rested on the shelves of Lanark Library for over 80 years and was taken out twice before being “formally de-accessioned” in 2013. Almost the best bit of the book is the instructions to readers pasted inside the front cover. I reproduce it in full.
“This book is lent for a period of FOURTEEN DAYS and must be returned at the expiry of that period or not later than any other such date as may be stamped on the date slip. An extension of this period may be granted at the discretion of the Librarian if application for such extension is made not later than the date on which the book is due to be returned. Fines may be imposed at the rate of 2d per week or part of a week for any period the book is kept beyond the period allowed.
Readers are requested to take every possible care of the books lent to them: damage caused to a book whilst in the hands of the reader must be made good by the reader.
If infectious disease breaks out in the home of the reader, it must be reported immediately to the Librarian who will give instructions regarding the return of the book. Books which have been in contact with infectious disease must not be returned to the Library until disinfection of the house has taken place and no book will be issued to any reader in whose home infectious disease is known to exist.
The attention of readers is drawn to the special facilities of the Library for the provision of books in all subjects. Any book of a special nature may be borrowed for a period of one month. Application for such books, accompanied by the name and full postal address of the reader, may be made to the County Librarian, Hamilton.
I feel as though I have entered another world.