Monday, 16 September 2013

the gentle art of tramping [stephen graham]

This 1927 tome is a softly spoken meditation on the joys of ‘tramping’. It comes from the epoch of Chaplin and Ragged Trousered Philanphropist, as well as having rural echoes of Benjamin’s urban flaneur. Other points of reference are the Wandering Jew, the hobo, On The Road, the shwami. The tramp is a man whose material possessions, though enumerated and valued, are few. What he has he carries with him. Graham outlines the significance of the book, the coffee pot, the blanket and the other accoutrements of the road. But none of these should impede which is the tramp’s most valuable possession, his liberty.

There’s something fascinating about the tone of Graham’s book. It has a knowing, urban air. There’s a conscious romanticism at work. His tramp is not some skin-and-bone figure desperate for his next meal. As much as this tramp might be said to hark back to a pre-industrial landscape, s/he might also be linked to the modern backpacker. Graham’s walking took him to the US, Russia, Mexico and large swathes of Europe. He was a bounty hunter searching for experience. There’s the assumption of a surplus wealth which allows the tramp to select his adventures, to dip in and out.

Graham’s book tallies with a new, contemporary interest in man’s relationship with the natural world, apparent in the writing of the likes of Macfarlane but also the ‘living-with-nature’ television of Mears or Grills. Modernity is clinging on to the very notion of nature, scared it will be swept away forever by our treasured ‘digital revolution’. We don’t seem to need nature much anymore. Yet we can’t help suspecting that we’re missing out on something through its gradual annihilation. Which could go hand in hand with a terrible revenge, caused by our neglect and disrespect. Graham’s tome prefigures this crisis, but does so in a jaunty way, at a time when melting icecaps and global warming were not even conceived. Nature is still bountiful, the fruits and berries there to be plucked. So this is a book which sings of another age, whilst hinting at our own.

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