Fast-forward many years to 2015, a year which saw the deaths of two people very close to me—my brother-in-law Pete Massey and my good friend and Goldsmiths colleague Bart Moore-Gilbert. Pete died of Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) skin cancer in August 2015. He endured years of terrible pain with great strength and stoicism. He was a hero and I was in awe of him. Then, in December 2015, Bart died suddenly after a short battle with kidney cancer. He stayed alive just long enough to see the birth of his son, Luke, and died a few days later.
As many who have likewise lost loved-ones to cancer will understand, Pete and Bart’s battles left me feeling helpless, and I wanted to do something to address this. I have loved fell-walking from a very young age and have walked extensively in the Lakes, Skye, Iceland and the Alps. Walking was something I knew I could do. I chose the West Highland Way and decided to walk it to raise money for Cancer Research. Much like Herzog, I would ‘walk the line’ for Pete and Bart.
The West Highland Way is by far Scotland’s most popular long-distance walk and is included in the top 20 of the World’s Best Hikes in by National Geographic's Traveler magazine. Stretching 96 miles from Milngavie (pronounced Mull-guy) just outside Glasgow to Fort William in the north, the walk takes in the entire eastern shore of Loch Lomond, then into the Highlands of Rannoch Moor and Glencoe before descending into Fort William, at the foot of Ben Nevis.
I wanted it to be a pilgrimage and so I decided I would walk on my own. I was apprehensive about this, but I needn’t have been. The walk is well-travelled and there is usually someone else within sight. I quickly got into a rhythm with the walking and soon became addicted to the relentless sense of forward movement, an urge that pulls you very strongly, regardless of the terrain. After the 15-mile days, I would arrive at my destination utterly exhausted and yet, after a hot meal and long sleep, I woke each morning raring to go. Any stiffness from the day before was gone after 10 minutes of walking again.
I befriended many people along the way, crossing paths with them again and again. They were all pilgrims like myself, some also doing it for charity, all with their own stories. While stopping in a coffee shop in Balmaha, one fellow traveller happened to notice a photograph on the wall. He looked at it closely for several moments before pointing to it and shouting that the little boy in the photograph was him. It turned out that the photograph was of his primary school class. Why it was on the wall nobody knew and the man had grown up miles away and had no connection at all to Balmaha. What are the odds? Another man told me in The Drovers’ Inn in Inverarnan that he had brought his two children there to show them where he and their mother, who had recently died, had shared many happy memories.
But mostly I was on my own and happy for that. I wanted the eight days to give me time to reflect, to switch off and allow for unconscious processes to take over. The link between walking and thinking is an old one. Thoreau, Benjamin, Nietzsche and Wordsworth were all inveterate walkers for whom walking was a form of creativity. I believe all writing already exists inside one’s self, in a preverbal, rhythmic, motor place in the body. The trick is to find a way of tapping into it. When I can’t find the words, a walk helps to free them from their underground chamber. As I walk, wild thoughts appear. They fly ahead of me and I have to follow them to understand what they are saying.
Then there is the scenery. The further north I travelled, the greater the sense I had of being cast adrift in immense, magnificent landscapes. There are no words to describe how staggering Glencoe is. Only on foot can you get so close to the water, the land and the clouds and I felt I was disappearing into the landscape every day. For me, landscape is one of the sources of art. In Latin, ‘inspiration’ means breathing life into something while the German word Beseelung means to give soul to something. My task on the West Highland Way was to immerse myself in the environment, attune myself to my surroundings and listen to the silence of the place so acutely that it might reveal its melody to me.
By the end of the walk, I was in great shape. The blisters I had picked up on the tough days along the shores of the loch had all healed and I had walked myself into the week. In fact, I could have gone on another week. On the last day out of Kinlochleven and into Fort William, I started so early in the morning that I didn’t see another soul all day. I sang to myself. One of the things that Bart had asked me to do while he was in hospital in the summer of 2015 was to make him some compilation CDs, which I did. I still had them in my iTunes library, so I played them and sang along as I walked and remembered him.
During the week, I thought a lot about the phrase ‘walking the line’. What kind of line was I walking? A tightrope? A tether? A leyline? A songline? Ariadne’s thread? Perhaps a little of all those things. Herzog’s walk was an act of shamanism, a trial by ordeal that Herzog endured, survived and recounted in his book. Ever since finding it that day, my copy of Of Walking in Ice has become my talisman, not because of what it is, but because of what it stands for: decision, resolve, tenacity in the face of adversity. It bothers me, niggles me, like a stone in the shoe; it remains in my body like a potential blood clot to the heart—‘Onwards! Onwards!’—and it has taught me that books can matter, so much so that they can potentially keep a person, or at least the memory of them, alive.
This piece first appeared in the January 2017 issue of Psychologies magazine.
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