My office is a lead-lined bunker, impervious to signals from without; the danger, therefore, dwells within. All I keep on my desk are two dictionaries and a thesaurus, but even a dictionary, I’ve found, can devour an hour or two. Words beginning with F or N in particular are spell-binding when there’s a deadline approaching.
Lately, I made the mistake of allowing a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (188X) to infiltrate the bunker. It’s an old small-format hardback with a maroon leatherette cover, perfect for the pocket when walking. I was reading it when I came in and, not wanting the discomfort of a book-filled pocket when seated, set it down on my desk. Oh, all right, it’s true: I put it there as a distraction. And it worked.
I was 21 when I first identified as a pedestrian. I’d earned my P-plates at 19 and gave up driving for good at 20. Driving rattled me; besides, you can’t drive with a book in your hand. And I found that a steady stride coincides with – or does it determine? – the speed at which I think.
I sought out, as kindred souls, writers who walked. Stevenson – through his essay, ‘Walking Tours’ – was the first I found, and I haven’t tired of his company yet. Aside from a shared taste for bipedalism, getting to know him would validate my lifelong distrust of vegetables since (I learned) he had died at 44 whilst preparing a salad.
In ‘Walking Tours’ he wrote: ‘Now, to be properly enjoyed, a walking tour should be gone upon alone.’ For company on a bivouac, he carried a book in his pocket (‘for Tristram Shandy I can pledge a fair experience’) and smoked a briar pipe (‘There are no such pipes to be smoked as those that follow a good day’s march’) or a handmade cigarette.
RLS (as he was known to a long generation of readers) is best read aloud, notwithstanding tripping hazards in the shape of Latinisms and Scots dialect, among other archaic formulations, and the odd classical allusion so arch and convoluted as to make your back ache. A long-haired bohemian, he cultivated an air of truancy; never more so than in the essay, ‘An Apology for Idlers’ in which he countered those who valued industriousness and book-learning over ‘the great Theorem of the Liveableness of Life’:
If you look back on your own education, I am sure it will not be the full, vivid, instructive hours of truantry that you regret; you would rather cancel some lack-lustre periods between sleep and waking in the class.
and (get this, bookworms):
Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.
Even when playing the part of an insolent, unlettered charmer, though, RLS was fully alive to the sacred in nature, including human nature.
In setting out on his 12-day journey through the Cevennes of south-central France, RLS disobeyed his own dictum by recruiting Modestine, ‘a diminutive she-ass… the colour of an ideal mouse’, albeit for reasons of porterage rather than companionship. The two would severely test one another, yet, on nights when he slept outdoors with Modestine tethered close by, RLS would take comfort from the sound of his ‘munching ass’.
One night, high on a ridge in the Upper Gévaudan, the pair made camp in a pine forest. Having retired with the sun, RLS woke at that ‘stirring hour’, around two in the morning, ‘when a wakeful influence goes abroad over the sleeping hemisphere, and all the outdoor world are on their feet’. He sat up in his sleeping sack (we’d have called it a swag) and rolled himself a cigarette. At each ‘whiff’, the silver ring he wore was illuminated inside his cupped hand ‘and became for a second the highest light in the landscape’ –
I have not often enjoyed a more serene possession of myself… And yet even while I was exulting in my solitude I became aware of a strange lack. I wished a companion to lie near me in the starlight, silent and not moving, but ever within touch. For there is a fellowship more quiet even than solitude, and which, rightly understood, is solitude made perfect. And to live out of doors with the woman a man loves is of all lives the most complete and free.
RLS’s next book, The Silverado Squatters, would give an account of a camping trip in California. It was his honeymoon.
I have three copies of Travels with a Donkey: two to give away and one to keep. The keeper was a gift from a long-ago boyfriend, who inscribed its flyleaf: ‘For my Princess, Robyn’. And it was that copy which, left at liberty on my desk a few weeks back, kept me from my writing all one afternoon and part of the next, happy as a munching ass.
Robyn Annear’s books include Bearbrass. She is currently working on a history of all things second-hand.