There’s a great little book by Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is a rambling, beautifully-written memoir combining his enthusiasm for running with thoughts on various topics. Taking that as an out-of-reach aspiration, but nevertheless an inspiration, let me share a few thoughts about my musings when I’m on the path. From when I’m on my own, which is only about 40% of the time. I’ve been delighted to have been joined on over half the legs, including through the winter months, by a wide range of relatives, friends and people I’ve met for the first time through the walk.
Walking is good for thinking, they say – and indeed we know. Charles Darwin built a special walking track – the “sandpath” - in his garden at Down House, so he could think (one of the top 5 houses I’ve ever visited, by the way). Wordsworth composed his lines while strolling gravel paths. So here are a few of the topics which have crossed my mind over the past 321 days...
I think about Melitta, my late wife. She would've enjoyed this stroll, and it would be taking twice as long, because she would be photographing or drawing the plants and birds and animals along the way. She often reminded me to enjoy the journey, rather than focus on the destination, and while I remember this sage advice, I've struggled to emulate her and learn the names of the glorious flora and fauna along the way.
They say that a long journey teaches you about yourself. Well, I've concluded that unless there is someone else walking with me who is both enthusiastic and knowledgeable, I'm unlikely to remember the names of birds or flowers or trees. Last week I was walking with an old friend who pointed out various birds, and suddenly they metamorphosed from LBJs ("little brown jobs") to lapwings or curlews or avocets. It was marvellous. Thank you Ian!
Trees. About three months ago I walked 10-12 miles along the promenade from Blackpool to Fleetwood. There was not a single tree anywhere to be seen! Not just on the promenade, but nearby as well. A lot has been invested in the area, including a great tram line. It seems tragic that no one has thought to plant any trees. I would go so far as to say that all promenades needs some trees to be really great promenades. The same with residential neighbourhoods. Not to mention town centres... Trees improve the view, are good for our health, and just add to the "liveability" of our environment.
And now a suggestion. You know how, especially in seaside towns, there is a queue of people offering to dedicate benches to their relatives who have died. My father died in Seaford, East Sussex, several years ago. I called the town council, asking about dedicating a bench in his name. There was a long waiting list. So I offered instead to sponsor some trees to be planted. They agreed, although the process took about a year, and then the person left and they lost the record etc. All in all it required a lot of perseverance on my part. So here's the thought: why not set up a standard website for towns so that people can donate funds for the planting (and, crucially, maintenance) of a tree in honour of their loved one. Or for a baby who has just been born. The point would be to standardize the process with dropdown menus for location, type of tree, dedication message and so forth to make it really easy for people to sign up, and for the relevant town to plant the tree and put in a dedication plaque. I've seen a couple of examples of trees with dedications along the walk, but this could be something much bigger.
From trees to clean air. Its happened to us all. You’re walking along quietly, suddenly a truck accelerates, you jump, inhale and then cough out the diesel fumes. Really bad for your health; stunts children’s brains, worsens asthma, carcinogenic... The contrast with the fresh, sweet, sometimes salty coastal air I’m breathing on my daily walk along the English coast is stark. Sometimes I have to veer inland where there’s no coastal path. Suddenly I’m back into diesel-air. You know what its like when you’re in a lift with someone who smokes. Your senses twitch.
But it doesn’t need to be like this; nothing is immutable. For those of us brought up in the 1970s/1980s, we could never have imagined a world without cigarette smoke everywhere. And yet, within 20 years, smoking went from cool to sad. Legislation helped, yes, but social mores changed. Becoming a social outcast is a more serious threat to most people than the prospect of a fine. Back to diesel fumes. There are signs of the beginnings of change. Mayors of some major cities are designing schemes to tax or ban diesel vehicles. Buses powered by batteries are beginning to appear. Drivers of diesel-powered trains and buses have been advised not to idle their engines. Sales of diesel vehicles in Europe fell by 16% in the first half of 2018, compared to 2017. And battery prices are falling: between 2014 and 2016 battery prices for electric vehicles fell by around 50%. So a combination of further cost reductions in batteries and regulation/taxation in major cities may mean that within 15-20 years most new buses and trucks could be electric. This change could happen faster if society signals that air pollution arising from diesel is no longer acceptable – for health reasons. Air pollution is the “new tobacco,” says the Director-General of the World Health Organization. He warned that the simple act of breathing is killing 7 million people a year and harming billions more. But it will take a lot more than Dr Tedros’ words. Will the US Surgeon-General announce that diesel fumes are dangerous? Will people start to pressure their local bus company to switch to electric vehicles? Will Amazon stipulate that its goods should be delivered via electric-powered vehicles? Will it become socially awkward to buy a diesel powered car? Will the rankings of cities as places to live include their approach to diesel vehicles? Its quite possible, but this social transformation hasn’t really taken off yet.
Our high streets. There's nothing quite so sad as walking down a high street in a small seaside town, mid-morning, on a spring morning, and...not seeing a single customer on the pavement! The only people around are the shopkeepers standing forlornly in the shops, hoping, waiting. Sometimes they stand outside, looking to entice someone in. And in a high street with say 20 stores, 5-7 are boarded up, and the ones which remain are a combination of charity shops, betting establishments, vaping retailers, estate agents and hair stylists/barbers. (Which reminds me of a Turkish barber experience in Milford Haven, where I asked him to trim the hairs in my ears, and he produced a small flame thrower and assured me that burning them off was much better than using scissors - a moment of inner turmoil, or more accurately, sheer terror.) Back to the empty high street. Is it just a matter of shaking one's head and heading home to buy the next item on Amazon? Would taxing online purchases help level the playing field? While there may be no easy answers, I think everyone can agree that walking down a high street in many small