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Chris Saunders, Stephen Graham, SF 69

Walking for the Sun and the Wind

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I think we can all agree on the restorative qualities of a country walk. Certainly, since I moved to Sussex, I have come to value walking as much more than a basic mode of transport, surrounded as I am by the tranquillity of fields, footpaths and woods. I only wish I could convince my daughter of the splendours on our doorstep.

In my search for something to inspire my beloved refusenik I landed upon a little book by Stephen Graham called The Gentle Art of Tramping (1926), which has recently been reprinted in a handsome little hardback edition by Bloomsbury. My eyes have been opened to a far more profound approach to perambulation than I ever expected. Tramping, in this case, is approximately a cross between rambling and hiking, more serious than the one and less intense than the other, with an emphasis on living off the land, sleeping outdoors and ignoring wristwatches.

It is written by a real master of the art. Stephen Graham (1884–1975) was an adventurer and journalist best known for his accounts of his treks on foot in Russia. Books such as A Vagabond in the Caucasus and With the Russian Pilgrims to Jerusalem told not only of his huge feats of pedestrianism but also his enduring sympathy for working people. When he enlisted in the Scots Guards during the Great War, he eschewed a commission in order to enter the ranks as a private. He wrote movingly of the life of the recruit in A Private in the Guards, a critique of the army’s method of building a soldier by breaking the man. In The Gentle Art of Tramping he transfers his vagrant skills and subversive instincts to a more intimate British setting because, as he very wisely says, ‘There are thrills unspeakable in Rutland, more perhaps than on the road to Khiva. Quality makes good tramping, not quantity.’

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I think we can all agree on the restorative qualities of a country walk. Certainly, since I moved to Sussex, I have come to value walking as much more than a basic mode of transport, surrounded as I am by the tranquillity of fields, footpaths and woods. I only wish I could convince my daughter of the splendours on our doorstep.

In my search for something to inspire my beloved refusenik I landed upon a little book by Stephen Graham called The Gentle Art of Tramping (1926), which has recently been reprinted in a handsome little hardback edition by Bloomsbury. My eyes have been opened to a far more profound approach to perambulation than I ever expected. Tramping, in this case, is approximately a cross between rambling and hiking, more serious than the one and less intense than the other, with an emphasis on living off the land, sleeping outdoors and ignoring wristwatches. It is written by a real master of the art. Stephen Graham (1884–1975) was an adventurer and journalist best known for his accounts of his treks on foot in Russia. Books such as A Vagabond in the Caucasus and With the Russian Pilgrims to Jerusalem told not only of his huge feats of pedestrianism but also his enduring sympathy for working people. When he enlisted in the Scots Guards during the Great War, he eschewed a commission in order to enter the ranks as a private. He wrote movingly of the life of the recruit in A Private in the Guards, a critique of the army’s method of building a soldier by breaking the man. In The Gentle Art of Tramping he transfers his vagrant skills and subversive instincts to a more intimate British setting because, as he very wisely says, ‘There are thrills unspeakable in Rutland, more perhaps than on the road to Khiva. Quality makes good tramping, not quantity.’
For Graham, tramping is meditative and even creative, giving the walker the mental freedom to express simple joys: ‘We sing as we walk, we walk as we sing, and the kilometres fall behind.’ He wasn’t the first writer to associate walking with songs and poetry. Wordsworth thought that the rhythms of walking bred the rhythms of poetry, as did Edward Thomas after him. In A Literary Pilgrim in England Thomas also wrote of the prodigious hiker George Borrow that:
He walked for the sun and the wind, for the joy and pride of his prowess in walking, and to get from one place to the other. Therefore his writing . . . is just English open country.
You could say the same of Graham, whose aim in this book is to encourage the urban dweller to reconnect with the country and so with themselves. It is an aim that is, as he acknowledges, at odds with the general flow of modern life:
You will discern that going tramping is at first an act of rebellion; only afterwards do you get free from rebelliousness as Nature sweetens your mind. Town makes men contentious; the country smooths out their souls.
As someone who commutes most days from country to town and back again, I can only concur, and apologize for my occasional contentiousness.
This is a book that speaks to our current age very loudly, despite being nearly a hundred years old. Of course, a lot of the practical advice is old-fashioned and, in some cases, baffling. Graham seems to want to build an open fire and brew a pot of coffee every five miles or so, which sounds like a lot of labour for very little reward and requires clanking around the countryside with a dirty great kettle on your back. The burden of necessaries that one carries should also, he maintains, be supplemented by books, writing-paper, a pen, cutlery (but not a fork), a box for butter, shaving equipment, mosquito netting, an air pillow and a glove for taking the coffee pot off the fire. Still, who am I to argue with the don of tramping, especially when he seems so wise on deeper matters? Graham was no dilettante. This book’s philosophy of freedom and solidarity was hard-won through his own experience. These days we are always being told that people are on a ‘journey’ of self-discovery, reaching a goal or achieving an aspiration. The Gentle Art of Tramping goes beyond anything so narrowly linear. On Graham’s journeys, the destination is unimportant, as is time or any kind of direction. He rejects all those industrious, Victorian ideas of filling unforgiving minutes with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run: ‘No, take care of the hours and the minutes can go hang. Take care of your life and your days will be all right.’ He also advocates throwing away maps and plans, and he scorns roads. Instead he favours the ‘zigzag’ walk, in which you take the first left, then the first right, then the first left and so on until, presumably, you reach a dead end or an angry bull. It is here that he introduces a delightful element of gentle anarchy. Tramping is, indeed, a rebellious act:
You are going to be very ill-mannered and stray on to other people’s property. Granted that fundamental impertinence you must be as nice as possible about it; graciously lift your hat to the proprietor when you see him.
There will be trespassing, and there will also be scrounging from obliging farmers’ wives and a little light theft in the scrumping of apples. Not only does he disregard modern notions of time and progress, but also, in the politest way possible, the basic rules of capitalist society. Graham’s world has a very particular ethos that separates it from that of the ‘professional hobo’, which is apparently tacitly understood by everyone as long as you have the right combination of charm and discretion when asking for food and shelter: ‘You enter as a gentleman . . . In return for hospitality of the body . . . one should always give hospitality of the mind or spirit, sympathy, fellow-feeling, bon-homie . . .’ Also, you should never take the last marrow. The parallel tramping universe is irresistibly seductive. The Gentle Art is full of practical advice on boots and the need to avoid wet tweeds, but that is not really the point of the book. It is about defying the traps that the post-industrial world lays for us. It is a treatise against all of those qualities that built the Empire, the same qualities he saw in the army – ambition, industriousness and competition. Anyone entering the tramping world with those values has got it all wrong:
I listen with pained reluctance to those who claim to have walked forty or fifty miles a day. But it is a pleasure to meet the man who has learned the art of going slowly, the man who disdained not to linger in the happy morning hours, to watch, to exist. Life is like a road; you hurry, and the end of it is grave.
In a funny way, he wants readers to regain their sense of themselves and their country by forgetting all those characteristics that we are told make us British in the first place. It is such an attractive proposition precisely because it is so contrary to our conditioning and so lyrically expressed. Graham is well aware that the escape to the country is for almost all of his readers temporary, restricted to weekends and holidays. He is realistic enough to acknowledge that people can’t live their whole lives in his parallel world. The economics of modern life, alas, just don’t allow it. Rather, he sees it as a way to preserve sanity and perspective, and as a great social leveller: ‘It is no small part of the gentle art of tramping to accept the simple and humble role and not to crave respect, honour, obeisance.’ A staunch democrat, he would no doubt point out that, once you have paid for your coffee pot, sturdy boots and pocket edition of Horace, tramping is, unlike most mod- ern therapies, open to all and absolutely free.
Still, I haven’t been able to tempt my daughter out for a long tramp. An ardent sportswoman, she considers an activity without goals or competition to be pointless, even though that very pointless- ness is, in fact, the point. Also, I have to recognize that five days sleeping on rocks and living on wild plums isn’t for everyone. But I think that as long as you abide by Graham’s most fundamental piece of advice you will be alright: ‘one should avoid lying down in a basket of snakes’.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 69 © Chris Saunders 2021


About the contributor

Chris Saunders is the managing director of Henry Sotheran Ltd, Britain’s oldest antiquarian bookseller. He is also a writer on bookish matters and runs the literary blog Speaks Volumes. He shares his house in East Sussex with his wife, daughter and hundreds of books, some of which he’s read.

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