May 12, 2013
Here’s a link to a couple of audio snippets from the talk I gave last night at Up Down and Across…
… a rambling exploration of Europe’s invisible pathways, its not-so-invisible motorways, ancient borders, modern-day myths and the multiple layers of story that lie beneath every walker’s boots. Thanks to Tim Mitchell, David Lintern, Ingrid Plum and Foster Spragge for putting on such an inspired night of talks, songs and art linked by walking.
My walk had as many stories as there were roads to Istanbul. I’ll be doing more talks — and a lot more storytelling — in the near future.
April 20, 2013
If you’re free and in London on 11th May, I’m taking part in Up Down and Across – an evening of talks, performances and art about walking in Westminster Reference Library.
I’ll be talking about roads, landscape, stories and other things relating to my walk to Istanbul. Other participants are mountaineer David Lintern, performer Ingrid Plum, artist Foster Spragge and photographer Tim Mitchell, who’s launching his limited edition photobook ‘Up & Down the Pyrenees.’ All proceeds from the event go to the music education charity Soundmix and the conservation charity The John Muir Trust.
February 20, 2013
My feet came into intimate contact with the road on the final miles to Istanbul. Here are my boots after two and half thousand miles.
These glamorous portraits were taken by my friend Tim Mitchell, photographer and Pyrenean walker.
January 21, 2013
Hello folks. To announce: I’m nearing the end of the first draft of my book about these travels. But in the meantime, I have another book to flog! Loose Words is a limited edition paperback — lovingly homemade and hand-bound — containing quotations from some of the weird and wonderful people I met on the road. I can make and send you a copy for the price of £8.00.
For an additional few quid, I’ll include a CD of ‘Loose Noises’ — the soundscapes of church bells, street musicians, political rallies, snarling dogs and drunken Bulgarian mountain songs I recorded on my journey. It’s seven and a half months of walking compressed into forty minutes of sound.
See below for details…
Limited edition copy of Loose Words: £8.00
Loose Words plus ‘Loose Noises’ CD: £11.00
(inclusive of postage)
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to place an order. Thanks, all. x
October 18, 2012
Last night I was at the book launch for Artemis Cooper’s amazing biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, An Adventure. I was honoured to be interviewed, alongside Colin Thubron and Robert MacFarlane, for the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 — you can hear it here.
It was wonderful to gather with people who knew and loved him well. Artemis told me she keeps the postcard I sent her from Heidelberg’s Roten Ochsen Inn inside her first-edition copy of A Time of Gifts. That means a lot.
The evening made me think a lot about what I’m setting out to do with my own writing. As reviews like this make clear, Paddy was a towering figure both in literature and in life, and his presence over my work could perhaps be seen as daunting. But last night really helped bring home what my book is about, and what it’s not.
For a start, it’s not biographical. I’m not writing about Paddy, or even writing about his writing, but about his journey and all the wonder, mystery, wildness and adventure that it opened up for me.
It’s not about history, as such. Obviously history underlay every step I took on the road — history was in every hill I climbed, and every face I saw. Of course I’m writing with awareness of immense historical change, and much of my journey involved searching through history’s rubble, both in reality and in imagination. But a book can be saturated in history without being a ‘book about history.’ I’m less concerned with ‘history’ than with ‘stories,’ and especially with the border – far more porous than we know — between history and myth.
Colin Thubron spoke last night of how Paddy is ’a marvellous example of somebody who can’t be followed.’ This is in my mind as I write — following the unfollowable. I did follow Paddy’s path, but where it leads me will be somewhere else entirely. I followed his route, but the journey is my own. I have to let my story tell itself — and afterwards, when it’s told, I can let Paddy’s presence back in to illuminate what it needs to.
Now I’m six rough chapters into my book, and have retraced my own journey as far as Budapest. I’m loving every minute of it.
Expect updates soon on publishing news. Until then, I strongly recommend you buy a copy of Artemis’ book. It’s a journey in itself.
August 6, 2012
Although I have no religious beliefs, this walk has been a pilgrimage of sorts – or, at least, has taken on many attributes of one. Atheists can have pilgrimages too, and mine has involved physical hardship, and occasionally mental hardship, the retracing of a once-trodden route, and the process of arriving at a destination of deep importance. On the way I’ve experienced wonder, and genuine moments of transcendence, to which the hardship has obviously been essential. On several occasions I have felt the presence of Patrick Leigh Fermor – not in a looming, ghostly sense, but in the absolute certain knowledge that he had been in the exact same place, or looking at the exact same thing, as I was eight decades later. These were not places mentioned in his books, and the certainty I felt bordered, at times, on the uncanny. In this, and many other senses, the journey has been a spiritual one too.
Last summer, before I started walking, I met someone else who had walked to Istanbul, though by a different route. He talked a lot about pilgrimage, and pointed out that ‘before planes and trains, pilgrims had to return from their destination by walking. Constantinople or Rome was the journey’s centre point - your real destination was your front door.’ In the original sense of pilgrimage, the journey home was as important as the journey to the place of worship, because this was a process of integrating the knowledge the pilgrim had gained on the road into his or her everyday life – and of making that knowledge useful.
Since arriving in Istanbul – the centre-point of my journey from home – I’ve had suggestions from many people that I carry on walking, or at least return home slowly, overland. I’m deeply grateful for all these suggestions, and for the offers of further hospitality – originally I had intended to hitch-hike, take buses and maybe ferries and trains, and spend a few weeks on the return, becoming acclimatised. However, this won’t happen this time. England is important to me too, there are people there I need to see and things there I need to do, and I have reasons for going back now – reasons that really matter. So tomorrow morning I’ll do the thing I always said I wouldn’t do, and board a plane that will take me home in around four hours – 224 days of walking reduced to less than half a day. In many ways the idea terrifies me, and I’ll spend the duration of the journey staring out of the window and wondering what’s down there, what mountains and forests I’m not walking through, what landscapes I’m not understanding, what people I’m not meeting. I experienced something similar the time I caught a train in Germany, when I’d crippled my left foot, and the few times people drove me around on day trips here and there – travelling at even these speeds was shocking enough, after walking pace, so God knows what flying will be like.
But it’s ok. It really is. It’s part of the journey too. I’ll just have to try to compress my homecoming integration-of-knowledge into four profoundly disorientating hours – or, more excitingly, into the book. Every experience is interesting, and everything is important. That’s one thing that walking has taught me, and I’m not forgetting it now.
Still, though, it makes me realise something seldom understood about flying – something you only come to understand if you value travelling slow. If the meaning of life – or one of them – is the accumulation of memories, stories, experiences and adventures, and truly living in the world, then flying is not an efficient way to travel. Travelling quickly is a waste of time.
July 30, 2012
The process of catching up goes on. My feet are healed, my clothes are laundered, and I’m starting to resemble a half-way respectable citizen once more. Soon the real hard work will begin, the gathering of notes and thoughts and starting work on the actual book – which, I realise, basically means beginning the journey all over again, retracing my own steps in my mind as I retraced Patrick Leigh Fermor’s – but for now I’m just delighted to be in this marvellous city.
July 23, 2012
At walking speed, arrival is a process that happens very slowly. It is not a single moment, a switch from ‘there’ to ‘here.’ Over the course of these seven months (two hundred and twenty-four days, to be precise), I’d arrived in Istanbul many times, my imagination outpacing my body, flowing ahead through mysterious landscapes that only existed in my mind, though villages with meaningless names I hadn’t yet learned to pronounce, and stopping abruptly at a postcard image of minarets, domes, and water. But my arrival in the city I’d thought of for so many months as ‘the end’ was a more subtle and complex thing. There was no signpost that said ‘You are now entering Istanbul,’ or ‘Welcome to your destination’ or ‘Well done! You can stop now!’ I arrived as many times in reality as I did in my imagination. I am still arriving.
Part of me arrived when I saw the skyscrapers – an image I hadn’t expected, somehow – a cluster of abstract rectangles shimmering on the horizon. But they were still almost two days’ walk away, following the hard shoulder of a surprisingly empty autobahn. I stopped to rest in a truckers’ cafe, a tarpaulin stretched from an old VW van propped up on bricks by the road, and was offered lifts by everyone – ‘You can be there in forty minutes!’ They were perplexed when I turned them down, but accepted it as a foreigner’s strangeness, and whenever they passed me on the road – shuttling to and from the stone quarries scarring this stretch of the Black Sea coast – they blasted their horns and waved from their cabs. It felt like a victory parade.
I arrived more convincingly the next day, after a last night sleeping out beside a Roman aqueduct, when I realised that at some undefined point the fields and patches of forest had ended and the shapeless sprawl of industrial parks, cement factories and auto repair shops had bled into the outer suburbs of Istanbul itself. I followed a smaller but busier road, past mountains of gravel and razor-wire fences where chained dogs gnashed their teeth outside kennels that looked like tiny slums, breathing in exhaust fumes, covered in yellow dust. I rested in the air-conditioned cool of a petrol station cafe, where businessmen with tucked-in shirts sipped coffee and checked their Blackberries, trying to work out what I was feeling. I wasn’t feeling anything, besides vague bodily pain. A man pulled up a chair at my table. ‘Hello! I saw you walking by the road. What are you doing?’
‘I’ve walked here from Holland.’
‘Oh. Great,’ he said.
From there I inched my way into the city, running on the momentum of exhaustion, fuelling myself on fizzy drinks wherever I could find them. Gradually it started to feel more like a place where people lived and worked, with tree-lined streets and takeaway shops, kiosks, food stands, mini-markets, jostling traffic through which people weaved with a kind of unconscious grace, tea-sippers on plastic chairs, functional modern minarets that looked like telecommunications infrastructure. I asked directions from a man who led me up a hill so steep it felt like the kind of hill that only exists in anxiety dreams, getting steeper and steeper until it’s so steep it’s impossible to get back down – I’d had this experience trying to scramble up a cliff a few weeks before, which added a weird déjà vu to this phase of arrival. From the top, I made a long descent through a cityscape that felt unreal, its horizons always hidden by buildings, people relentlessly moving about from one place to another.
I arrived in Istanbul again at my first sight of the Golden Horn – the impossibly-romantically-named inlet that curves off the Bosphorus, around which cluster the ancient streets and stairways of the Old Town – and knew I couldn’t stop walking then until I had reached the water. I arrived when I saw the Bosphorus itself, its clear light and its wheeling gulls, the white ferryboats churning their way between Europe and Asia. I arrived when I stepped off one of those boats and felt the silent, secret pleasure of knowing I had walked across one continent and was now standing on the edge of another – a pleasure I didn’t quite know what to do with, so kept it to myself. And I also arrived when I saw the skyline that had existed for months in my mind, the postcard image that marked ‘the end’ – the fantastical domes of the Blue Mosque, even vaster and stranger than I’d imagined, great bubbles of stone rising between minarets that looked like insects’ legs, a bizarrely arachnid, crustacean architecture that told me, more than anything else, that I was in a wholly different place from where I’d started.
But that arrival wasn’t the end. As the city takes shape around me, becoming at the same time more familiar and more complicated, I keep arriving in different ways, and each arrival brings another moment of wonder. There are many wonders here – some great, like the mosques and palaces, and the endless beauty of the bright water, and some so small they reveal themselves only slowly, and with walking. The steep alleyways and crumbling buildings, the Arabic inscriptions in stone, the washing on the balconies, the skinny cats on doorsteps. The tool-sellers’ streets, where old men with Islamic beards squat by glittering displays of drill bits, padlocks, screws, bolts and coils of razor-wire. The roadside stands selling mussels with lemon juice, the fried fish sandwiches by Galata Bridge, and the fishermen on the bridge’s upper level reeling silver fish to their deaths, flapping like tiny flags. The dolphins in the Bosphorus, following ferries and sometimes, I’ve been told, submerged submarines from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The ornate golden stands of shoeshine men that look like Ottoman treasure caskets. The hubbub of bars in the alleys of Taksim, the click-click-click of backgammon games, the innumerable buskers of Istiklal Avenue, down which two million people walk every day. The children tobogganing on broken slats of wood down hills of polished cobblestones in tumbledown Balat. The mosques lit up like glow-worms at night, and the rooftop bars from which you can see the spreading lights of the city against the impenetrable blackness of the water. The shoes of dead people, placed outside windows by the families of the deceased to be taken by whoever might need them.
On my first night – another landmark of arrival – I went through exhaustion, then blankness, then great sadness at realising my walk was done. But no walk is ever done. I haven’t stopped walking since I got here, because Istanbul is a journey in itself. Happiness began to build inside me when I realised something very simple, so simple it perhaps sounds corny, but only because it’s true. The end is not the end. No journey is ever finished. When you arrive, you discover that what you’d considered the destination is just another bend in the same road.
July 17, 2012
I arrived at Istanbul’s outer fringes at about eleven o’clock this morning, negotiating gnashing dogs, sweating and hobbling. The soles of my boots, which walked me this whole way, are almost completely worn through, and my feet are now being brought into intimate contact with the road.
Finding the water, walking the bridges over the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, made my arrival feel slightly more real. But still not entirely. The city feels like the centre of everything. The mosques are like vast and extraordinary scarabs crawling on the horizon. I’ll write more on this arrival later – I’m still waiting for my mind to catch up with my body. For now, I just want to thank everyone who has helped me on my way, from Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote the map, to the last old man who brought me a glass of tea in a Turkish village.
July 15, 2012
The call to prayer woke me before dawn in a small whitewashed Turkish town on a cliff above the Black Sea. It was still night-dark outside, the faintest pale light of morning washing the sky to the east. Over the amplified song of the mosque I heard the sound of falling water and stepped outside, anxious of rain, thinking of the next day’s walk and my broken boots. The water was only a fountain, somewhere. But the sound brought back memories of all the times I’d walked through rain, and with this came unexpected sadness, a sudden awareness of how close I am and of all that has gone. Sadness for the rain in Transylvania, for Romania’s green hills, for the plains of Hungary and the rivers I followed there, for Slovakia so quickly gone, for the snow of the Wachau valley, for the Danube, the rain on the Rhine, for the starting out. The fear of not completing my journey, of not getting to Istanbul, has been a bar against this sadness, and I realise now that when I arrive there this fear will be no more, and the sadness, perhaps, will be left.