In his novel Strandloper, Alan Garner tells the true story of William Buckley, a working-class farm labourer from Cheshire, who was convicted in 1803 on a trumped-up charge of trespass and transported to Australia. Upon arrival, William escapes from the settlement and is rescued from near-death by aborigines of the Beingalite people, with whom he lives for the next 30 years. At the end of the book, he is pardoned and returns to England, where he visits his former fiancée, Esther. Realising that their lives have diverged too far for them to have any future together, he bids her goodbye for a final time and ritually walks the landscapes of their home, as he once walked those of Australia. This restorative last chapter ends with William performing a spirit dance inside the church, uniting the patterns of his life and its two cultures.
It sounds perverse, but as much as I enjoy walking in new places, it’s the familiar, traffic-clogged roads of north Bristol that are more of a stimulus to my creativity. Not that nothing wondrous ever happens in these edgelands: during one Christmas, some years ago now, I was walking along the ring road past the Airbus playing fields, in the company of my eldest child, when we saw a parliament of hares – about twenty in a circle, with three looking out from the middle. That this was so rare and mysterious as to constitute a visitation still seems the case ten years on.
Mostly, though, I plod past retail centres, bus stops, warehouses and suburban semis with my brain idling, much like the engines of the cars queuing alongside me. And it is in this mental state – not quite present in the moment, not quite switched off altogether – that the imagination sparks strange and useful connections.
While I was writing my novel, Dart, this was when my characters would come to life and start talking to each other, apparently of their own accord. It usually happened while I was walking to my then place of work – one mile through a post-war council estate and alongside a stream throttled with rubbish, shopping trolleys and the occasional burnt-out car. An incongruous place for families waiting out the Black Death in their remote Dartmoor village to make their presence felt, you might think, but this didn’t deter them – in fact, they’d grow so vociferous that by the time I reached work, I had to race straight to the toilets to write it all down before one of my colleagues asked me to do something and I forgot it. I’m sure some of the staff must have thought I had a very weak bladder.
These days I stick to poetry, but traipsing the everyday routes of my life still works its magic, whether it’s providing a hitherto unthought-of word or cadence, or an unexpected insight into what the poem wants to say. And occasionally – oh joy! – there’s the dropping of an almost fully-formed poem, or idea of the same, into my consciousness.
So if you’re struggling to shift a bout of writer’s block, why not put your shoes on, switch your brain off and go for a wander down your street? You might walk your way into a whole new poem.