CHARLIE CONNELLY: The wandering masterpiece that is Brexit's antidote
PUBLISHED: 12:00 10 April 2019 | UPDATED: 12:54 10 April 2019
CHARLIE CONNELLY on a reissued classic that celebrates wanderlust and everything that Brexit seeks to deprive us of.
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Of all the rage-inducing aspects of the last three years, two comments above all continue to have me grinding my teeth and occasionally waking up shouting in the middle of the night. Both of them came from the mouth of Theresa May, which is quite an achievement when you consider the carnival of buffoonery we’ve had to endure from the range of spivs, liars, con-artists and intellectual featherweights, some of them elected officials, whose dim-witted, dog-whistling, low-wattage chicanery seems to be on a permanent loop with no sign of this circle of bullshitters being broken any time soon.
First was May’s tin-eared, gratuitously offensive theory that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. If anything sums up the parochial, inward-looking, paranoid nature of Theresa May’s Brexit it’s those words. Entirely, perhaps even deliberately, ignorant of reality and clinging to a pathetic, misguided interpretation of patriotism, this was a clear statement of intent that our vessel in the fluid nature of the modern world was going to have an anchor heaved over the side by Britain’s political inadequates.
There’s a direct link from that remark to the second statement, probably the most egregious of them all: her boasting of ending freedom of movement. Not just stating it, not apologising for it, not even faintly embarrassed by it but actually crowing, practically chairing it shoulder high through the streets as an upside of leaving the European Union.
So one-eyed is the anti-immigrant obsession of this prime minister that the stripping of British citizens, of whom she is supposed to be the ultimate representative and protector, of a basic right isn’t even mentioned as fallout from this cowardly pulling up of the Channel drawbridge.
As the first deadline of March 29 approached, when the great circus of Brexit was being dominated by the sheer weight of Leave clowns swinging from the ladders of the old-fashioned fire engine careering around the ring with May at the wheel clanging its bell, I realised I had to look away. I needed to distract myself from the torrent of nonsense, hot takes and occasional glimmers of calm rationality at least for a while, or risk going nuts myself.
I tried to focus on the times I’d wandered through Europe, walking the flatlands of Flanders, once breakfasting in Switzerland, lunching in Liechtenstein and having dinner in Austria on the same walking day, and crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic countless times on foot. I thought about being simultaneously a citizen of the world and nowhere, and how my right to travel, live and study freely in most of the countries geographically closest to me was being revoked for no acceptable reason whatsoever.
I thought of the landscapes I’d walked among across Europe and how the notion of borders and barriers seems ridiculous when you’re faced with a horizon of mountains or seemingly infinite plain.
I was getting myself worked up again. Luckily I had a copy of The Gentle Art of Tramping by Stephen Graham at my elbow meaning that, if I wasn’t able to chuck a few things in a rucksack and head out into the open to escape the madness I could at least spend a leisurely couple of hours away from the social media torrent of doom and immersed in the antithesis of Brexit chaos.
First published in 1927 but newly reissued in a gorgeous small hardback edition by Bloomsbury, The Gentle Art of Tramping is at heart a celebration of – and in the current climate, eulogy for – freedom of movement. Part how-to guide, part rumination on humanity’s relationship with the landscape, it extols wandering and salutes the right to roam. It scoffs at borders and promotes an innate curiosity about the world.
It really, really couldn’t have reappeared at a more appropriate time.
“Tramping is a way of approach, to Nature, to your fellow man, to a nation, to a foreign nation, to beauty, to life itself,” writes Graham, of setting out on a long journey on foot, sleeping under the stars and relying to a great extent on the generosity of strangers. The Edinburgh-born writer was well qualified to make this summary too, having walked tremendous distances in pre-revolutionary Russia and the USA as well as in Britain and across the rest of Europe.
Written during a break from his long odysseys when the author was in his mid-40s, The Gentle Art of Tramping is a mixture of practical information (much of which still broadly applies today), nature writing and the kind of gently sagacious philosophy that arises from long perambulatory contemplations in the open air.
“If you want to find out about a man go for a long tramp with him,” Graham suggests. “Towns make men contentious, the countryside smooths out their souls.”
This is the antithesis of Brexit, celebrating curiosity about what lies beyond the horizon rather than fearing who or what we might find there. It advocates tolerance and egalitarianism, sharing journeys and passing encounters with people whoever they are, citing the difference in temperament of the man who has “worn silk in the Temple” and is then found “lying in a cave in smoke-scented tweeds”. It’s almost a manifesto for an alternative world where Brexit is just the crackpot idea of a few whackjobs on the internet, a tantalising glimpse of utopia rather than dystopia.
“Class is the most disgusting institution of civilisation because it puts barriers between man and man,” Graham writes. “But in the tramp’s motley you can say what you like, ask what questions you like, free from the taint of class.”
Once you’ve adjusted to the rhythms of the road, he says, you can surrender to curiosity; about who or what lies over the next hill or at that convergence of roads on your map. It’s a romanticised account of life on the road, for sure: at the time it was written the highways and lanes of Britain were filled with itinerants, the traditional pot-menders and gentlemen of the road, but also men who had returned from the war either finding there was nothing for them or so traumatised by the experience they just never went home.
There were thousands of them walking the byways suffering from all manner of mental illness, the only evidence of their continued existence a glimpse of a rumpled hat behind a hedgerow or a wisp of smoke rising above a copse. So yes, this is a rose-tinted account of what was a difficult and unavoidable way of life for many but Graham writes so evocatively we can only forgive this, for if we can’t immerse ourselves now in an indulgence of free movement then when can we?
So beautiful is some of the writing that it makes curtailing our right to freedom of movement even more ridiculous and the notion of a world citizen being somehow stateless even more offensive. Graham constantly reminds us, nearly a century after he sat down in Paris and wrote the book, of what is far more important than bitter parochialism. In a passage reminiscent of W.H. Davies, the ‘tramp poet’, and his poem Leisure in which we’re asked “what is this life if full of care, we have not time to stand and stare”, Graham muses that, “I have seldom gone on a tramp, or a long vagabondage, without seeing things that made the heart ache with their beauty or pathos, and other things that set the mind a-tingle with intellectual curiosity. I do not refer to great episodes, glimpses of important shows and functions, but to little things, unexpected visions of life”.
This is a book in praise of those small moments, those invaluable occasions when the pause button is pressed on our lives and the mind and the body are recharged and replenished. These days more than ever we are assailed by a gushing torrent of news and opinion tracked by a device we hold in our hands and carry with us everywhere and it’s vital to remember that there is more to life than this, especially now.
The Gentle Art of Tramping is far from being a self-help book, indeed the only time it veers close to didacticism is in its practical advice, most if which remains sound (you cannot lie down comfortably with a straw hat on so a tweed hat is best; it’s unnecessary to carry a fork as long as you have a spoon; and you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of a good pair of braces, because “you will have a cosy feeling of nothing defective in your straps, a feeling akin to having a good conscience – much to be desired”). This a meditation on a lifetime of experience as well as a guide to life on the road.
For all its extraordinary scenery and decent roads, Graham largely dismisses Britain as a location for a long tramp due to the danger of being picked up for vagrancy. While describing the United States of America as the “tramp’s paradise” he has much to say on the subject of wandering in Europe, recommending the south of France, especially wine country, but warning that in Spain the people “look somewhat askance upon Bohemians”.
He speaks highly of Bavarians among the Germans as they “did not Gott strafe England and they are quite pleasant neighbours” while ‘Czecho-Slovakia’ has “few canned goods but plenty of good fruit”. In the bandit country of the Caucasus meanwhile, carrying a revolver is a big decision because “you are almost certain to be robbed if it is known you have a revolver – for the revolver’s sake”.
All handy advice for the traveller through a continent recovering from war and oblivious to the impending disasters to come, but most of all this book is a vital celebration of something crucial to our well-being and development as humans: wanderlust. We’re in the process of being deprived of our rights to wander freely, mingling with and learning from people from different towns, regions and nations, relishing the interaction with each other and with our surroundings, celebrating the differences and the similarities. Graham is the ideal writer to lead us through the philosophies and practicalities of putting one booted foot in front of the other and revelling in the freedom of what might lie ahead.
We live in a time of flux and uncertainty and those of us who take pride in our country and our continent grow ever more worried at the prevailing social and political climate. Escaping into the slower, ambulatory world of Stephen Graham lends valuable perspective from beautiful prose, such as this passage describing spending a night outdoors with a loved one.
“A night of murmurings and deepening shadows and freshness, and then, perhaps, of a gentle rain before dawn, and of glimmerings of new day and sweetness of flowers and birds’ songs before sunrise,” he writes. “You watch the boles of the great trees grow into stateliness in the twilight, and the night is over. With an arm around your fair one you go to the point where in orange the great friend of all the living is lifting himself once more out of the east to show us the way of life.”
If that’s what being a citizen of nowhere feels like, then colour me stateless.
The Gentle Art of Tramping by Stephen Graham is published by Bloomsbury, price £12.99.
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