When my sister and only sibling, Elizabeth, died from a brain tumour at the age of 29 in August 1987, I found myself turning to poetry for succour, consolation and a deeper view of things. I called on Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth and other English Romantic poets; I visited Lorca, Levertov and RS Thomas. I also began walking more and more, and further and further. In the simple act of walking, in the natural human activity of placing one foot in front of the other, I encountered a kind of fragile peace; and the sublime scenery I often walked through seemed to provide, at least partly, a benign and numinous response to my unanswerable questions.
I kept a written log of my walking routes from April 1987 to May 2006. Looking at it again recently, I'm reminded that a few weeks after my sister's death Carmen and I stayed for a while in Porthmadog (Wales), where I climbed the little hill of Moel-y-Gest and the mountain of Cnicht, and ascended the Roman Steps from Cwm Bychan. The landscape here in Snowdonia is wild, dramatic and breathtakingly beautiful.
My mother, Joan, died in November 2004, and again I turned to poetry: this time to the poems she'd transferred to her commonplace books in a painstaking and neat hand, or cut out from magazines with scissors and pasted into her scrapbooks; and also those chosen by WB Yeats for The Oxford Book Of Modern Verse 1892-1935. Mum had been awarded this book as a prize for 'General Proficiency' at the end of her 1937-8 year at The Municipal High School for Girls in Doncaster, Yorkshire.
Three years later I completed my first Camino, and lit candles in memory of my sister and mum at various significant stages along the Way. Here's the wonderfully crazy signpost at Manjarin in the Spanish Montes de León:
My father, Fred, died in January 2009, and almost exactly one year later I walked the Vía de la Plata. I dedicated this Camino to him. We did not have an easy relationship, but all is now more peaceable. The last words he spoke to me were: 'You know I love you, Robert'.
Dad did not appreciate the finer subtleties of poetry as such, but he did love the words to the Wesleyan hymns he played on the organ each week at the Methodist village chapel. Only the other day I was leafing through his Methodist Hymn Book and alighted on John Bunyan's Who Would True Valour See (from Pilgrim's Progress):
Let him come hither;
One here will Constant be,
Come Wind, come Weather.
There's no Discouragement,
Shall make him once Relent,
His first avow'd Intent,
To be a Pilgrim.
(The Monk's Gate arrangement by Vaughan Williams, adapted from a traditional English melody.)
Needless to say, he also loved the words of the Bible, and of course the words of the Authorised King James Version are poetry indeed. This is the title page of one of his Bibles:
Poetry and walking have been my salvation in the most challenging of times. There are times when I feel they have actually saved my life, or kept me sane at the very least.
Why does the thin grey strand
Floating up from the forgotten
Cigarette between my fingers,
Why does it trouble me?
Ah, you will understand;
When I carried my mother downstairs,
A few times only, at the beginning
Of her soft-foot malady,
I should find, for a reprimand
To my gaiety, a few long grey hairs
On the breast of my coat; and one by one
I let them float up the dark chimney.
(Collected by WB Yeats in The Oxford Book Of Modern Verse 1892-1935.)