A rumination on the nature of authenticity

From Boff: Walking blog 22/9/2016

We’re halfway through a week of walking and singing, on a day’s tramp over fields and over stiles, from Bredenbury to Yarpole. Places joined by walking, places I’ll probably never visit again, but places where things are happening. Good things. I’m with forty or so walkers stringing together a series of concerts with daily stomps across the English and Welsh countryside, and I’m also one of John Jones’ Reluctant Ramblers. For anyone who doesn’t know, John leads a twice-yearly tour around the British countryside, walking up to twenty miles a day and playing a concert every night.

As we arrive in Yarpole there are church bells ringing – for us. The sun beats down and we ditch our bags and boots, laying on the lawn of St Leonards church, our venue for the evening’s concert. British churches have come to signify little else but the past, at best a nostalgic and pleasant reminder of peace and order and at worst the slow, gloomy, draughty death of an idea. This church in Yarpole is different. It’s been re-jigged as a village community centre, with a shop selling everything from toilet paper to locally-brewed beers, a cafe on its own specially-built mezzanine floor and a post office tucked away within the shop. The preaching end of the church – the bit with a pulpit and a cross – is almost an afterthought. Instead, taking over the space where the pews used to be, there’s a small stage set up with a PA and a handful less than 100 seats arranged for a concert. It’s where the Reluctant Ramblers will play, where the day’s walk will be neatly brought to a close in this space that’s been transformed by community, by people who’ve reimagined and reawakened the church’s long-lost power as a gathering place, a hub. In an age when we communicate with our friends mainly through pressing buttons, this step into the past is a great leap forward.

Half a century ago, Guy Debord, erstwhile leader of the Situationists, foretold of a world where instead of experiencing the world in the here-and-now we would instead accept a second-hand version of it. Nothing would be as it seemed; we would live in a society of fabricated pretence, see everything via screens, our language and culture carefully managed for us. Debord called it the Society of the Spectacle – living would become a series of hand-me-down lifestyle choices interspersed with advertisements for products that complemented the Spectacle. Looking at our shopping centres (now rebranded as ‘retail experiences’), watching how everyone looks from their phone screens to the shop window displays and back again, seeing how friendship has been co-opted by internet-based social media, it’s easy to see how right the Situationists were.

What Guy Debord’s lot didn’t predict, though, was post-Situationism; the world after the Spectacle. As far as I can see we’re already one step into that post-Situ era, one step into a world of re-connections and returnings, beginning to reassert social interaction over device-time, learning again to understand ourselves as physical, communal, social creatures.

This is the space I find myself in a couple of days after the Yarpole concert, on a Saturday afternoon walking alone in the middle of a wood somewhere on the Welsh border, back-marking on one of the Reluctant Ramblers’ all-day meanderings. I’m dawdling, humming to myself, following a rough path cut by shards of sunlight, and I gradually become aware of an intense quietness, a silence so heavy it’s deafening. I stop. Too far from traffic, no plane engines, out of range of the other Ramblers’ human snake of bootsteps and chatter, I listen. A bee or fly, somewhere. Nothing else. Surrounded by the wood’s bustling life, huge and incredible, yet everything oh so still, to the point where I might hear a pine-cone drop.

This real world never went away, of course. But now, in this age of ‘reality’ shows, online ‘communities’ and heavy heavy irony, walking in the countryside has become a revelation. The stillness of the woods sounds so incredible because it’s set against a constant chatter of communication technology, of digital bleeps and jolly ringtones. The truth is, people everywhere are rediscovering what’s real. What’s real right now is locally-brewed beer, bicycles, outdoor river swimming, fresh bread, life-drawing, demonstrations and marches, home cooking, bonfires, dancing, allotments, sewing and knitting – and of course, singing, and walking.

The Reluctant Ramblers’ tours are essentially rooted in singing and walking, the quest for some kind of authenticity, the chance to take part in something as old as the hills, something that connects us back long before Cecil Sharp’s nostalgic notion of tradition, back to a physical, elemental, bodily melding of us and the rest of the world. The first time I joined John for the inaugural Ramblers’ walk – seven years ago now – we were nearing the end of a long day of climbing and descending when a noisy scramble of flapping wings above us heralded several red kites leaving the trees and soaring skywards. John immediately called it ‘a Pantheistic moment’. Nature in its element shouting “look at me!”

Every concert we’ve played since then has included a meandering on-stage conversation about the day’s Pantheistic moment – a bolting deer crossing a footpath, a hill-top view across three counties, or in this case, simply a forest silence.

Pantheism offers a way of understanding one’s place in the world, a place where living a meaningful life depends upon a good relationship with our ultimate context: the Universe and the Earth. The second day of this week’s walk stretches uphill from Malvern onto the long undulating ridge that looms above the town. As we set off from the streets of large whitewashed townhouses we pass by the statue of the composer Elgar, and a discussion of Elgar’s music – some of us trying to hum something from the Enigma Variations, and everyone refraining from bursting into ‘Land of Hope & Glory’ – results in the day’s strangely daft Pantheistic moment, when thirty of us gather on top of a hill and listen intently to Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ streamed from YouTube and played on an iPhone. I’m not sure if Guy Debord would have approved, but it’s beautiful all the same.

But back to the singing and walking. As I said, it’s on these two downright physical activities that the Reluctant Ramblers tours are built, the two foundations at the base of a community of people navigating their way out of our towny retail zones and into a landscape of shared jokes and real effort. The walks aren’t easy – they can be long and hard, wet and windy with plenty of hills and navigation, not to mention the scary road-crossings. Hitting a busy A-road after a couple of hours’ grassy wandering is a reminder of the ruthless speeded-up everyday cartoon of commuting, the impersonal traffic noise contrasting with the sounds picked up along, say, a riverbank or a meadow’s hedgerow. After one road crossing we clamber over a fence and leave the roar of the combustion engine to follow a long dyke, where a herd of around fifteen horses gallops alongside us, heavy and powerful and breathtaking. Rainstorms come and go, Benji and Rowan pick apples from cider orchards as we pass, and our feet get muddied or blistered or both. We get lost and found, we stumble over decaying footbridges, we struggle to lift pet dogs over stiles and we alternate between wonderful chatter and glorious quiet.

Earlier this summer I was full of gloom and doom at the realisation that, simply put, the world seemed to be getting worse, as a majority of Brits stood behind the Mail and The Sun and registered their support for a racist, divisive and inward-looking future that had been conjured up by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. (I’ll ignore for now several other pressing matters – the ongoing, widening gap between a rich world and a poor world, a globeful of wars and hunger and a looming environmental catastrophe). Basically, I felt utterly hopeless. Then Rebecca Solnit came along with an article she wrote in The Guardian, a piece that acknowledged the bad stuff but reminded me that hope is still a valuable currency, that in many ways the world is getting better, bit by bit, quietly and from below, out of sight of power and wealth. That’s when I started to see how people were looking beyond the nightmarish Daily Mail headlines and searching for something tangible, real and authentic.

I don’t really know what ‘authentic’ means any more – it’s a word that’s been chronically overused, to sell everything from fireplaces to rock ‘n’ roll. But I do know that people are looking for it. There’s a growing sense of unease with the daily sell sell sell of media (whether social or traditional) and a growing number of people walking, cycling, singing and baking. There are also (lest we forget) armies of young men growing beards, wearing checked shirts and buying their music on vinyl, arguably turning the search for what might be ‘real’ into another consumable lifestyle. Walking and singing (along with digging an allotment, baking bread, sewing, etc etc) are harder to commodify – they’re cheap, communal and require a fair amount of effort, as the wheezing and panting of the Ramblers reaching the summit of Worcestershire Beacon in the Malvern hills will testify.

If you can measure authenticity in sweat, then this is real. Sales of acoustic instruments in Britain are up and rising. Numbers of walkers, too, are up and rising. The number of English adults walking purely for recreation for at least 30 minutes every month has been increasing each year by around 5%.

We’re on stage in Kington at the end of a week’s hard walking with five concerts chucked in for good measure. Every show has been different; it’s easy to talk between songs when you haven’t spent all day on an anonymous tourbus shuttling between anonymous cities. The Pantheist moment today as we ramble through Herefordshire occurs when a group of us get lost off the back of the walk, standing on Offa’s Dyke on top of a vast and unending landscape of rolling hills. John rings us up, wondering where we are. We’re in a field, I tell him. He offers some advice: “Head across the field that has the sheep in it.” All we can see as we look around us are fields and sheep.

But getting a map out galvanises us, wakes us up. See, for me, this is Pantheism – not just a spiritual connection with Nature, but a recognition that we have an integral part within Nature, we are one and all and together and indivisible. The lines on the map are neither abstract nor scientific scribbles, they’re put there so we can work out where we are in the world. Helen jabs her finger across the contours and we look up at the skyline that revolves right around us. We’re here. And we need to go there. Despite being marooned off the back of the walk, despite having wandered blindly into a cul-de-sac of unknown territory, we have hope. And as we head across a fieldful of sheep we’re joined by Guy Debord, his old leather boots cacked up with cow-dung, who tells us: “Like lost children we live our unfinished adventures.”

And that’s what it all is, isn’t it? Rediscovering adventure.

Boff Whalley

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