Review of Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path.
This is what faced fifty year old Raynor Winn in 2013. Then while hiding under the stairs from bailiffs, Ray made the impetuous decision to walk, specifically, to walk England’s South West coast path and to do it with Moth, her now terminally ill partner. The story of Ray and Moth is compelling. Ray is a talented storyteller, and an evocative nature writer, not bad for someone who had never written professionally before. I have read elsewhere, that the book originated as essentially a love letter to Moth, a record to remind him of their remarkable journey and love, for when his condition deteriorated and memories became too flimsy to grasp. The book is a love letter, a remarkable testimony of love and partnership, that stands it apart from other examples of writing about walking and nature. Being a book that explores poverty, homelessness and sickness, it could so easily be an overwhelmingly down read, but it is not, it is anything but. I will admit the first few chapters are heavy going and I cried buckets when I read those first chapters, but those chapters do not set the tone for the rest of the book.
The universe throws beauty and humour at their feet and while self pity would be utterly appropriate given their circumstance, it becomes impossible not to laugh at the absurdities they encounter. Bizarrely they repeatedly encounter people who seem to be under the delusion that Moth is actually Simon Armitage, Britain’s famously ambling poet, ( I have also read Armitage’s Walking Home, his own account of a long distance walk). This sent me goggling for images of Moth, to try and see how such a mistake could be made. I was a bit surprised to see that Moth is a blonde to grey Welshman, which made me wonder how the English could mistake him for their dark haired Yorkshire poet. Even I, here in Australia am familiar with Armitage and his appearance, having read his work, having seen him in interviews, even watched his documentary about Gawain and the Green knight, it was knowledge that made the mistaken identity hilarious. There is some irony in the fact that Moth always carries one book and that is a modern translation of another epic poem: Beowulf, by another great modern poet Seamus Hearney.
I liked this book so much I chose it for an audio book for our longer car trips, so I could share it with G, he also enjoyed the humour but where I cried at those early chapters, he was sceptical, wondering how things could be so disastrous for two people, essentially people who are just like us. Wondering how anyone with the challenges they faced; health, age and financial could set out to just walk when their world was crashing around them. Me, I had no such cynicism, here in Australia the banking royal commission should leave no doubt about the ease with which financial tragedy can strike and I have seen farming families lose everything to predatory financial institutions, not to mention people already struggling on the margins for whom one unlucky event can spell catastrophe. We would all like to think family and friends will rally around but the reality is no one wants to be a burden and as Ray points out no one likes sharing a bathroom. And when your kids are in uni and struggling themselves what can you expect them to do.
I am not a big fan of audio books, I tend to only download books I have already read and then often to just share them with G, but I must say that while I would always recommend reading a book rather than listening, I did really enjoy the narration of The Salt Path by that awesome English actress Anne Reid, (she played the love struck grandmother In Last Tango in Halifax), Reid bought Ray’s words to life.
This is such a life affirming read, and it demonstrates the healing power of nature and long distance walking. Ray and Moth become stronger and more confident as they walk. Moth’s physical symptoms become less severe, despite having been told he should avoid any undue strenuous activity. What they did, went against medical advice and yet, the outcome seemed to be a better, more comfortable life for Moth. The truth is that there is a lot of unknowns with CBD, Corticobasal degeneration, the disease that afflicts Moth and who is to say that a spartan existence with demanding physical exercise is not the best way to prolong a quality life. Their existence really was spartan, while everyone around them seemed to be able to afford endless chips and cream teas they survived on noodles and little else. They faced a daily struggle to find somewhere to sleep and thanks to this book I will never again take the luxury of a hot shower for granted.
I really loved this book and to say it is inspirational sounds a bit cheap, makes it sound like inspiration porn, which it is not, but it is inspirational. Mostly what I loved was Ray’s voice, how she spoke to me about things I could so readily identify with, the grief, and self doubt, the love of nature and walking, and the sheer down to earth, warmth of Ray and Moth. I tend to read a lot of books about walking and nature but this is one of my favourites. The book was shortlisted for both the Costa and the Wainwright which is itself a remarkable feet for a first time author.
Books should always speak for themselves so below is a brief extract. Ray and Moth learnt early on, that people did not react well to discovering they were homeless, so they learnt to be guarded about their circumstances but the paragraphs below involve an encounter with itinerant surfers, people with whom they felt an affinity:
“…So old folks, what are you doing here, washed up in the barn?’
Moth glanced at me and shrugged his shoulders. No need to lie.
‘We’re homeless, lost our house, business everything we’ve ever worked for all our lives, penniless, and I’m dying, so we thought: What the fuck, let’s go for a walk. We’ve come from Minehead, going west, who knows from there.’
‘Wow. That’s a story, right?’
‘But that’s okay, you’re like a wave, man’
‘Yeah, how good a wave is depends on what nature’s doing. It starts to pick up when the wind blows on the water, way out at sea, then it’s all down to how strong that wind is, how long it blows for and how far it travels across the water – we call that the fetch. A big wind, a long fetch, a good stretch of coastline and you’ve got it, you’re barrelling. But you, you’re blown up by a fucking gale, man, and your fetch is still running, you’re heading for the biggest, cleanest barrelling wave, man. Don’t you get it? You’re gonna swash in style!….”
After a cheerful night spent with the surfers Ray and Moth continue on, the chapter ends thus, with an encounter with an old man walking dogs:
… ‘I’ve always wanted to do that. . . just walk for days and days.’
‘then do it. Just pack a rucksack and do it now. You never know how long your fetch will be… depends on the wind.’
The man and dogs grew small behind us, passing between the land-slipped cliffs and the foam. The waves high and crashing on the incoming tide seemed to stretch the vertical horizon, folding us in between the land and the sea. Confined and set free, on the edge but part of it all. Blown up and still building our strength through the fetch.
Towards Zacry’s Island the rocks were blue with thousands of mussels. We filled our pan and boiled them, picking the fat bodies out with the penknife. Occasional people passed, but we were becoming observers, not participants. Crows crawked in the damp air, their calls eerily clear against the cliff face. Our world was changing, the edges fading as our journey drew us on between sea, sky and rock. Becoming one with the wild edge we inhabited, our fetch redefined by the salt path we trod. (pp130-132).