Strolling Storylines: The Proustian Pleasures of Walking Whilst Listening to Short Stories

Nicholas Royle has blogged recently about how he gets a lot of his reading done by walking. That’s not audio books + walking, by the way, but actual ambulatory reading: on a pavement, through the lingerie department of Debenhams, going up and down steps and escalators in tube stations, reading.

My response to this is twofold.

a) Are you quite insane Nicholas Royle?! Apart from the cognitive overload, and thus diminishment in attention and returns for both activities, are you not just setting yourself up as Nerd Fodder for louts and ne’er-do-wells to bother? You might as well be wearing a faded Dinosaur Junior t-shirt that has TRIP ME UP/MUG ME printed on the back of it.

b) Absolute, unabashed glee. I want to move up to Manchester and live right next door to Nicholas Royle just so that I can watch him from my window weaving his way down the road with a Richard Yates’ collection held in front of his face. Or maybe we could walk along the pavement together, dodging lampposts, synced to same page of the same short story collection, like a teenage twosome stepping down the high street sharing a single headphone.

Thinking about Royle’s reading habit has also filled me with an incredible nostalgia for how a lot of my own reading was done from the age of 5 – 13 ¾ when a book one was in the midst of reading just had to be consumed, and consume it one would, wherever you were walking, standing, lying down, eating, peeing, pooing, or in a swimming pool (backstroke).

Of course, I am now far too self-conscious and “mindful” to do this anymore, but I certainly read (on an iPhone, and occasionally even in a book) a lot of  short stories, and listen to them too. Most of the time, I’m listening and walking. Particularly this 10-mile walk in the Chilterns, which I have done this summer almost twice a week. I don’t live in the Chilterns, I just really, really like this walk. Another factor contributing to my somewhat OCD selection is that a) I’m a creature of habit and b) I get antsy when faced with too much “choice”. And yet I don’t want to feel I’m missing out by not choosing differently each time either (inherent paradox alert).

My walk is one of the few I know that starts at one tube station (Chorleywood), finishes at another (Chesham) and yet takes in an incredible array of Hertfordshire scenery (rivers, hills, forests) and hardly a whirr from a motor vehicle at any point.

Having done the walk 20 times or more in the last three months and spent probably about 40 of the 60 hours it takes to walk these 200 miles listening to short stories, I have noticed something quite magical beginning to occur: various parts of the walk have become intimately imbued with the sensations/memories/feelings/words of the stories I’ve been listening to. And these sensual remembrance remains, become somehow hard-wired into the act of doing the walk itself.

So for example, whenever I now head out across the Common through the small glade leading to Chorleywood House, I am once again transported to the first few pages/minutes of Alison Macleod’s The Heart of Denis Noble. It is like the enclosing foliage almost synaesthetically mirrors Noble’s delicious, spaced-out “succumbing to the opioids”, the pre-op Schubert soundtrack taking him on a Lethian trip down memory lane, along “the meandering river of fentanyl from the IV drip”.

Once past the cemetery, heading towards hills and clear warm water The River Chess beyond, a giant sugar-beet comes crashing through the windscreen of consciousness and thumps down beside me courtesy of Jon McGregor’s Wires. Perhaps this part of the story has struck and stuck here not only because I listened to it wending my way down this path, but also because this is the one part of the walk that veers relatively close to the M25 where this story, at least for me, is now taking place. Perpetually. Certainly every time I do my Chorleywood to Chesham walk.

So many sights and sounds in one walk, so rich with recollection.

Even a particular stile in a particular field near Sarrat Bottom where Miette’s reading of Kyle Minor’s astonishing The Truth and All Its Ugly suddenly becomes incredibly dark and weird, forcing me to actually stop for a moment, lean slightly into a hedge, catching my breath, muttering “shit, shit” or some other startled imprecation.

And what of the many woods and springs and meadows along this walk, now littered like autumn leaves with Alan Davis Drake’s wonderfully mellifluous Chekhov readings? Or the twenty hours of listening to Richard Yates Collected Short stories, or Paul Bowles, the twenty-five blissed out hours of Nabokov?

Or this stone-bench near one of the weirs? The one resting on a patient and/or malevolent bunny’s head, where someone sells eggs and plants on the side of the bridleway (help yourself, leave some money in a tin – the trusting reciprocity of village economics). This granite stone comma on which I’d rested for a minute or

two, closing my eyes, head propped up on an empty water bottle, suddenly transported to a small aerodrome in Texas where KJ Orr’s “she” meets her future astronaut husband “he”.

Every time I go on this walk, it gets better, richer, more involving. Were I to continue doing this walk for years (and I see no reason not to) I can imagine a point where each step (all 19,465 of them; yes, I have an Omron pedometer) will have a particular real-time as well as superimposed mythical-time resonance to it.

I think this what Bruce Chatwin was trying to communicate in his ode to the Aboriginal walkabout. I’ve read Songlines (twice), but like most things, I needed to walk it to get it.

Has anyone else experienced this sort of thing? If you haven’t you should, because it’s incredibly moving and meaningful.

So here’s my DIY guide to creating your own Strolling Storyline.

  1. Choose a relatively long walk that you would feel happy doing on a regular basis (preferably in the countryside).
  2. Walk it.
  3. Divide your walk between:
    1. listening to short stories (your choice, but some great downloads here & here)
    2. walking silently, with no aural input; just walking, as mindful and fully-embodied as possible
    3. listening to music (Ashkenazy playing Chopin’s Nocturnes, Rachmaninov’s Four Piano Concertos, and the first two Arctic Monkey albums have worked well in the Chilterns for me this summer).
    4. chat: either with the self, or if in company, to another
  4. Revel in the bliss of being fortunate enough to do this sort of thing. Smile and grin at yourself and the world if you can.
  5. Repeat.
  6. Repeat again. And again.

The stories I’ve mentioned in this piece, apart from those I offer links for, can be found in this collection, published by Comma Press. I’d also recommend Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust (A History of Walking) & Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking as literary-spiritual primers.

One Response to Strolling Storylines: The Proustian Pleasures of Walking Whilst Listening to Short Stories

  1. This is sheer bliss, words and thoughts both.

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