Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Walking with Wodehouse

There are walking purists, for such people, I regret to say, do exist, who profess themselves to be shocked and offended by the very idea of people walking whilst listening to earphones. For them, the sound of feet tramping through the hills and vales of the landscape, or possibly the far off cry of a mouflon or the howl of a timber wolf who has stubbed its toe on a passing rock, are the only permissible audio accompaniment to a walk.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that some people do listen to music whilst walking, and I have occasionally seen unduly stern walkers visibly reprove such musically accompanied hikers, either with a rolled eye or a disapproving shake of the head. Anything more demonstrative than that would, naturally, be unthinkable, but doubtless those admonishers went on their way satisfied with the knowledge that their points had been made.

To those people, the way that I sometimes walk, when out on the hills of Lakeland, or around the coast, is probably similarly bordering on the unforgivable, but I make no apology. On such an expedition, I am frequently to be found listening to audiobooks of P.G. Wodehouse stories, either read by Martin Jarvis, or in the form of full-cast Radio 4 plays.

I do recognise the point at the heart of these walking critics’ objections; for many of them, walking is meditative, purifying pastime, where one sets oneself apart from the normal world and its noises. For them, background music or narration has no part to play in their sacred plod across the ancient landscape. I’m not a monster, and I can see what they are getting at.

Indeed, I often do just that – walking for hours without a sound but the birdsong, the scuff (or squelch) of my boots, the swish of wind or wave, and the occasional ominous rumble of thunder and patter of rain. This is a beautiful way to spend a day, and only rarely have I ended such a walk feeling less happy and refreshed (if physically exhausted) than I had when I started it.

However, on a longer walk – eight or more hours, for example - there is sometimes something extremely pleasant about having a story read to you, as your body trudges on, steadily eating up the miles. The downsides to listening to music and audiobooks whilst walking in the wilderness are not numerous, but are several.

Firstly, you can find yourself surprised, as I have been on a number of occasions, when other walkers come up behind you, without you having picked up on the normal warning signs of another’s approach; the clomp-clomp-clomp of boot on path, for example, or even the heavy breathing of someone who has laboured heavily up a steep incline. This moment of shock can be especially embarrassing if, for example, when one has been stuffing one’s face with lunch in an unsightly manner, chuckling at a gag or neatly-turned phrase, or have been gazing over the landscape with a vacant expression, all of which are embarrassingly likely.

Alternatively, albeit an experience that has not yet happened to me, but only then through dumb luck and my preference for narrative over music, whilst walking, is the risk that one might be singing along heartily to a piece of music being piped directly into your head, only discover that, contrary to your firmly-held belief, you are not actually alone.

For me, as I have recently tended to walk whilst listening to Wodehouse stories, another unlikely downside is the strange sensation of being in two places – two eras even – at the same time. Whilst I take in my surroundings, visually, I have occasionally had an odd but vivid feeling of also walking through the landscapes of Wodehouse’s world; the passages and messuages of Blandings Castle, for example, or the foppish elegance of Bertie Wooster’s Mayfair and the grand houses in Worcestershire, all suffused with an idyllic 1920s rose tint.

And then I wake with a start to realise that a lost walker behind me is asking if I know the way to Harter Fell or Threefooted Brandreth, for example, and I find myself frantically scrabbling the earphones from my head and trying to remember where – and when – I am.

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