Cancel your 2020 winter getaway. Holidays are off. In fact, with lockdown 2.0 now in force, you can’t even go on a city break in the UK. You could, however, journey somewhere new via a travel book. Perhaps you’ll read a tale of an adventurous voyage. Perhaps an explorer’s diary. Perhaps one of the many tedious accounts of moving to the Dordogne.
The Walker seeks to take its reader on an intriguing journey, closer to home, through the urban environment. The book’s back cover promises ‘a series of intellectual rambles’ through city streets by examining the influence that walking has had on a range of writers’ work over the years.
Reading this book is somewhat reminiscent of walking in a new town or city, especially the kind of walk where you’re not quite sure where you’re headed. You might be the kind of traveller who’s happy to simply wander and see what’s to be seen. But in this unfamiliar city, you might find barriers to understanding the place – intricate language, elaborate vocabulary, new concepts that surprise. You might become disoriented or frustrated that you can’t find your way.
When I began reading The Walker, I thought I knew what kind of city I was entering. Indeed, I thought this was a book about losing and finding myself in modern cities, as the title suggests. But I have to confess that I quickly found myself quite lost. It felt as if the city I’d wandered into had a cultural understanding that everyone else seemed to ‘get’ but which left me out. And then I realised that The Walker isn’t a travel page-turner for reading on the beach. It’s an academic book, informed by an enormous amount of literary knowledge and analysis.
If you decide to take a meander through author Matthew Beaumont’s literary city, you too might find it frustrating at first. Get ready for long sentences, for words we don’t use in everyday speech, and for scholarly paragraphs you’ll need to read more than a few times before you understand them. But after a while, you’ll get used to it. The architecture of the city is fairly clear and the characters you meet, surprising and incongruous as they may be, tend to explain themselves eventually.
While a book like this isn’t directly aimed at a general non-fiction reader like me (I’m more likely to be found with a Jan Morris volume), I at least appreciated peeking into an environment – a literary environment – I rarely venture into. What I discovered on my journey was a surprise, even rather pleasing at times. It reminded me that without venturing on a ramble, you won’t have travelled anywhere. And if you’re looking for some escapism that goes beyond the clichés of repetitive travel literature, this could well be the book for you.
The Walker: On Losing and Finding Yourself in the Modern City by Matthew Beaumont is published by Verso Books and available to buy now.