Last Monday was my birthday. Hence the absence of a post up here. (That and the fact that my energies had gone into a post for the Spectator, which you can read here).

I spent my birthday going on walks – one across Hampstead Heath in beautiful sunshine; the other along part of the London LOOP in the sheeting rain.

‘Which way are we going?’ everyone asked me as we gathered by a corner of Hampstead Heath, bleary-eyed, clutching a thermos of hot toddy, early on Sunday afternoon. I had no idea, so we set off kind of diagonally right, and wandered more-or-less aimlessly, half-hoping to find Kenwood.

It was such fun stomping around the Heath, nattering away, letting conversations meander along whichever bendy course our thoughts seemed to be following. And, of course, there are the views. Whenever one gets up on a hill, away from the centre of London, it’s stunning. It was heaven standing on top of Parliament Hill, eating chocolate biscuits, looking at the greying sky over London’s skyscrapers after sunset. Then someone said, ‘My socks are wet, where’s the pub?’

Out on the London LOOP, we walked through woods with stunning geometric displays of straight-trunked hornbeams, endless piles of autumn leaves, and toddled alongside pretty muddy streams, even a Medieval moat.

It seemed to be an uncanny coincidence (see this old post for more on the nature of coincidence) that, when I got home from the rather wet, windy walk, while still half-thinking about how wonderful walks are, I sat down to read a book and saw the following:

Rambling was a favourite metaphor for thinking and writing … It suggested a leisurely excursion without a distinct goal, and with time to take in the view. It was a principled opposition to the stern linear progress Lytton Strachey so admired in Edward Gibbon, whose readers were not invited ‘to stop and wander, or camp out, or make friends with the natives’ and it opposed, too, the straight lines and rigid grids that had come to define modern design.

This is from the charming, beautiful, and strangely addictive Romantic Moderns by Alexandra Harris, which has pleasingly just been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. In this particular instance, Harris is writing about a talk that Virginia Woolf gave for the BBC in 1937, which Woolf titled, ‘A Ramble Round Words’.

It seemed so serendipitous to be reading about the word and idea of ‘Rambling’, when just returning from birthday walks, which were really rambles – leisurely excursions without distinct goals and with time to take in the views.

Of course, Woolf meant rambling in a metaphorical sense. Her diverting walk is around words, not woods – hers is a meandering path of thoughts. But one of the best things about going on an actual ramble, is that then one’s thoughts ramble along as well.

Etymologically, rambling meant travelling from place to place, without a fixed aim, ‘roving’, slightly before it meant to wander aimlessly in thought. But there is a mere sixteen years in it – from 1624 to 1640. Perhaps it was during this time that people began to appreciate the link between aimless walks and aimless thoughts.

It is a relief to see that Woolf, with her Romantic sensibilities, lifted ‘rambling’ up, away from other rather pejorative meanings of ‘rambling’ – first of all, in 1551, ‘irregular in shape’, and then in around 1645 ‘inelegant’, ‘disjointed’, ‘loose’.  Woolf evidently saw ‘rambling’ as something to be celebrated, to be encouraged. And irregularity in shape does, as Harris points out, utterly oppose the ‘straight lines and rigid grids that had come to define modern design’.

It wasn’t until 1700 that ‘rambling’ was used in association with madness, in the sense of ‘delirious’, ‘raving’. And this is a meaning that Harris doesn’t pick up, in her saner appreciation of the word.

Perhaps the ultimate rambling book is Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze. I don’t mean rambling in the 1693 sense of ‘waffling’, ‘loquacious’ – his is a short, neat little book, which one might well expect from an author who is also a poet. Although its shape masquerades as regular – split into different seasons – within these section breaks are numerous small disjunctures as the narrative jumps from one character to another. Irregular in shape in a marvellously creative way.

But what makes The Quickening Maze such a wonderful rambling novel is Foulds’ magnificent portrayal of patients in a lunatic asylum, including John Clare. Foulds avoids clichés and glib generalisations, giving each individual a unique, resonant voice. Here he is on a patient who refuses to eat:

to eat was to join the ordinary world of bodies and murder, of lust and destruction, was to swim through the world like a worm through soil

It’s certainly the most poetic description of an aversion to food that I’ve ever read.

The ramblings of mad minds are most keenly distilled in Foulds’ portrayal of John Clare. Clare, famously the ‘peasant poet’, loved nature and in The Quickening Maze he goes for walks in Epping Forest, which surrounds the lunatic asylum.

As he rambles through the forest, he scrutinises it – taking in the view. Rather than needing a panorama, microscopic focus is shown to be just as astonishing. Clare passes, for instance, a blackbird with its ‘daffodil-yellow beak, sharp as tweezers’, or notices ‘the glaring, hooked darkness of holly buses, the long whips and shabby leaves of brambles beneath them’.

And Clare’s mind wanders, rambles, just like his feet. But Foulds shows that these rambles aren’t always pleasant meanders; they are increasingly extreme flashes of madness. Clare thinks he is Byron, is periodically overwhelmed by the desire to fight, is convinced he has two wives … he is definitely mad.

I don’t think that my ramblings around the London LOOP, or Hampstead Heath had the same intensity of Clare’s. I was too busy shoving biscuits into my own beak to notice the tweezer-like beak of a blackbird. Perhaps that’s a relief. I don’t think I want to be rambling in a mad way. But although I was too late for blackberries (picking one, he ‘ate it so tart it made his palate itch’) we did pick a generous pocketful of sloes to add to gin. And, well, perhaps, wet and exhausted after our measly four miles or so on the LOOP, our walk echoed Clare’s final walk in The Quickening Maze, where he leaves the asylum and heads towards his home, Helpston, Peterborough:

He just had to keep walking, boring through, shouldering the distance with the low grunting strength of a badger.

Who knew once one reached the horrid age of twenty-seven, badgerdom would be so close?


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