I’m on the Bedford embankment, ‘taking life one step at a time’. I am finding my way. My mum has just died – and we are going for a walk.
Yes, I said ‘we’ because I feel that she’s still very much here, hobbling alongside me with her stick, talking about the trees, looking on the bright side of life. I can hear her. She is saying, ‘I don’t worry, dear.’ And for 95 years, she didn’t.
I miss her. But I am not alone in these heavy times, of course.
Nor am I literally alone. I am walking with three of my writing group. From two metres distance, we talk about love and loss. Ramesh is uncertain. Colette is angry. Paul wants to be alone by the water.
We look and listen. We use our notebooks to collect ‘found language’: memorial inscriptions from the back of benches. Choice phrases from tourist information. Covid warnings from the foot of the bridge. Maybe a poem will come.
We read the words of Robert Macfarlane:
“Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It’s hard to create a footpath on your own. … Paths connect. This is their first duty and their chief reason for being. They relate places in a literal sense, and by extension they relate people.”
[‘The Old Ways’ (2012)]
We are surrounded by spoken texts as we walk: ‘Alsatian man’ charges past us, relating loudly to someone on his mobile. We overhear him say, ‘I test drive cars and that’. When his dog has pulled him out of earshot, one of us asks incredulously ‘… AND THAT?!’ Even before Paul lamely suggests ‘lorries?’, we are all crying with laughter. None of us quite knows why. But Alsatian man goes straight into the notebook.
Macfarlane writes about the poet, Edward Thomas:
“Walking was a means of personal myth-making, but it also shaped his everyday longings: he not only thought on paths and of them, but also with them.”
So, at the end of our walk, we too weave life and memory into myth. A helicopter clatters and fades; geese cackle; traffic purrs. We re-read our notes. We mentally retrace our steps. Then we scribble furiously – shuffling, skipping, splurging – magically discovering what we want to say.
After 20 minutes, we are ready: Colette has written a ghost story which is also a love story. Paul has conjured the effing voice of Alsatian man. And, in something a bit like a poem, Ramesh has nudged his uncertainty aside with the refrain, ‘What are we fearful of?’’
We have, as indigenous Australians do, let the path speak its songlines to us. We have kept pace with each other. We have taken steps, on path and page, to feel closer and less lost.
Simon Wrigley taught English (1973-1994) before becoming an adviser (1994-2013). He chaired NATE 2004-2006. In 2009, he and Jeni Smith co-founded NWP (UK). They co-authored Introducing Teachers’ Writing Groups (Routledge 2015). Simon launched 35 groups around the UK and edited the website www.nationalwritingprojectuk.com. He now runs a community writing group in Bedford.