Where My Feet Fall: Going for a Walk in Twenty Stories review, edited by Duncan Minshull – the wander years | Essays


Synonyms for the verb “to walk” are plentiful – promenade, hike and trudge, amble and ramble. Where My Feet Fall, a new collection of essays both sprightly and ruminative, illustrates all these ambulatory attitudes and more, exploring the delights – and challenges – of that most essential of human activities, the placing of one foot in front of the other.

The book is edited by veteran radio producer Duncan Minshull, and features contributions from some appropriately sturdy literary names, among them Richard Ford, Kamila Shamsie and Patrick Gale. Tasked with writing about a particular walk, the 20 writers were given a choice: revisit the old or chronicle the new. This was at the start of 2020, and as the pandemic took hold, several found themselves exploring their own neighbourhoods for the first time, while others footed it through memories of freer times.

Determined to make the most of Italy’s eased lockdown restrictions, Tim Parks and his partner set off in the footsteps of a 19th-century Italian general, journeying across lake land – three days, 50 miles and a blazing 35 degrees to battle. The scorching sun, coupled with the giddiness of liberty regained, makes for scenes of near hallucinatory pastoral bliss: there amid giant lilies and foxgloves, a small butterfly alights on Parks’s lips.

There are also blisters – the first of many in these pages, though it’s hard to imagine the likes of AL Kennedy suffering them. Having grown up in Scotland, where “to walk is to climb”, she has amassed kit. More valuable still is her attitude. “Why is it so pleasant to feel that burn in my legs and that slight rawness at the back of my throat from deep breaths of cold air?” she asks of a bitter, blustery hike up Cumbria’s Skiddaw. “It’s a proof of life.”

Not all payoffs necessitate such intrepidity. For Agnès Poirier, flâneuring through the streets of Paris enabled her to “tame” the city as a student. A few days of walking the Grande Randonnée trail in France proved life-changing for a “feverish” Joanna Kavenna, and in Pico Iyer’s case, a daily stroll through suburban Japan – the same 40-minute stroll he’s been taking for more than a quarter of a century – is vital to his writing method.

He’s not the only one. Along with dogs (always the best walking companions – even when they escape the lead like Irenosen Okojie’s aptly named beagle, Gogo) and directions (maps only ever tell half the story, and yes, it’s still possible to get lost in the age of GPS), the relationship between walking and writing becomes a recurring motif.

Nicholas Shakespeare, for instance, recalls strolling with Borges in Buenos Aires and pottering down a garden path in Cambridge with George Steiner. Elsewhere, authors accompany authors in spirit rather than body. On his annual journey through the Hoo Peninsula, Will Self is haunted by Céline, Conrad and Dickens, while Keshava Guha takes EM Forster around Delhi, and Sinéad Gleeson makes an ambulatory pilgrimage to Maeve Brennan’s New York.

Predictably, the book’s blurb alludes to walking’s benefits, but over the course of tens of thousands of steps, these essays summon vistas far broader and more nourishing than their authors’ mental health – more entertaining, too. “Walking is a strange discipline. Your mind charges all over the place,” observes Joanna Kavenna. Which is why you’ll find Harland Miller musing on classic horror fiction as he speed-limps along the hard shoulder of the M11, Sally Bayley meditating on the Latin meaning of “budgerigar” as she time travels back to girlhood, and Self considering topographic earworms.

“Walking allows you to inhabit your imagination entirely”, Iyer notes. Likewise, reading about walking allows you to inhabit the writer’s imagination just as fully – surely the ultimate armchair travel.

  • Where My Feet Fall: Going for a Walk in Twenty Stories, edited by Duncan Minshull, is published by William Collins (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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