Posts Tagged ‘Slawomir Rawicz’

On walking

August 1, 2019

Having been very critical of a book about walking in my previous post, I realised that I could write about being a walker and what it means to me. But I’m no philosopher…

I’ve always walked. When I was a toddler, once a week I had to walk from the village where we lived into the town a couple of miles away, when my mother went to the market. And back! My stamina was fed by a bag of loose broken biscuits from Woolworths under the pram cover, where my sister rode. And then when I was a little older, I had to do the walk again on a Sunday with my father, to go to church. But the treat was, we got the bus back. When I was five, just after I’d started school, we moved into the town and I could walk to school; at seven, the journey to the juniors was just over a mile each way, and I did this on my own, most of the time without batting an eyelid.

There were also frequent walks for pleasure, usually on a Sunday afternoon if the weather allowed; we went to the town meadows or to the park. Either way, we hoovered up a few miles, and I only recall occasionally being tired.

When I got to boarding school, I could have won prizes for skiving sport and games, which I truly loathed. Instead, my choice to go for a long walk in the surrounding countryside, along with a couple of like-minded friends, was acceptable to the powers that be, so this was what regularly happened, at least a couple of times a week. We explored all sorts of places, woodland, canal and riverbanks, an abandoned airfield…

What I realise is that I have always walked a great deal, finding walking anywhere within reason a normal and usually pleasurable activity, as long as the weather wasn’t truly foul. I developed a reasonable sense of direction and road sense, and an ability to estimate how long a journey would take.

As a student, I walked miles, around the streets of Liverpool, and home across the park at night – ah, those carefree days when I thought little of the city’s dangers. Then, when I moved to Lancaster, I lived in a village again, a couple of miles outside the city, and frequently found myself walking home through the night (buses were never that frequent). And there was the beauty of the Lune Valley and the Trough of Bowland, as well as the Lake District to explore. I walked miles around the streets of London when I lived there for five years.

Cities are best explored on foot, I think. I used to know Paris really well, though it must be over ten years since I was last there. And, although the Metro was quick and efficient and cheap, I walked everywhere as I explored; it was impossible to get lost as there was always a Metro station with a huge helpful map every few hundred yards. You really get the sense of a place when you walk its streets. I’ve explored some of Berlin like that, and found all sorts of wonders. Food and drink are easily available, and I’ve always found locals friendly and helpful.

Having had a number of holidays in Europe with our children when they were young, I got used to country walking there: footpaths and walking trails are so much more clearly and helpfully signposted than in Britain, we found, and often it was not necessary to use a map at all.

Now I travel to the Ardennes every year for a walking holiday. I have learned to use maps reasonably well, although I also find that maps on my phone are very helpful if I think I’m lost. And since I’m on my own, I am beginning to be rather more sensible about safety and security, rather than just blithely striding forth…

So, what, if anything, has my experience of walking taught me?

I prefer to walk alone. If I’m with someone, or with a group, I will find myself paying less attention to my surroundings, to the nature, the flora and the fauna, the views and landscapes, and these are the things I really enjoy when I’m walking for pleasure. You can’t stalk a heron for ten minutes in a group of people, or outstare a wolf or a mouflon if you’re busy chattering; you won’t get face-to-face with a deer who hasn’t noticed you because the wind was blowing the other way… And if you meet someone who’s up for a brief chat rather than the usual polite walker’s ‘Hello!’ (or Bonjour, Guten Tag or whatever) then that’s a brief additional pleasure. I shared half an hour’s walk with a couple of French folk in the Languedoc because we were trying to find a particular track: I’m sure we enjoyed each other’s company, but equally were relieved to make our farewells.

I prefer to walk in forests or woodland, rather than in open space, which is why I prefer the Ardennes to the Lake District, for example, and I’ve written here about my fascination with forests. The birdsong is astonishing – and no, I can’t identify more than a couple of birds by their call, I just like the accompaniment as I go – even though I have poor hearing. And there is always the possibility of spotting or seeing other interesting wildlife.

I like to think. Being alone, and in motion, is very conducive to being reflective, I find. I can review where I’ve got to with my life, make future plans, ponder the meaning of life and existence, feel at peace and contented with my lot; I often find that where I am stimulates what I can only call spiritual thoughts, meditation, if you like. It’s peaceful, and reassuring. And technology is helpful here, too: if I have a moment of epiphany, or just a useful flash of inspiration, I can record a message to myself briefly on my phone so I don’t forget it…

I’ve read about walking, too. When I was quite young, my father introduced me to a fascinating book by a fellow Pole who had escaped from captivity in Siberia with some of his comrades and walked to India. It’s called The Long Walk, by Slawomir Rawicz, and is an astonishing tale of hardship and endurance, a tribute to the human spirit and urge to survive. And I’ve previously mentioned the books of Bernard Ollivier, who walked the entire Silk Route from Istanbul to Beijing. There’s someone whom I can admire and envy, for I can’t really contemplate such lengthy journeys myself because of a problem with my right foot, which will allow me to clock up getting on for fifteen miles a day for a couple of weeks, but does begin to complain quite a lot if I overdo things.

In the end, I suppose I regard walking as natural. It keeps me reasonably fit and healthy, and I’m not obsessive about my 10,000 steps a day, which apparently is a myth anyway. It gets me about at minimal cost, and as long as the podiatrist and the orthotist can sort out my wonky foot, I’m looking forward to many more years and miles…

Fact or fiction?

September 22, 2015

41q7VprqrbL._AA160_51C7dr3B2RL._AA160_I’ve just finished a fascinating book and don’t know what to make of it…

Aussi Loin Que Mes Pas Me Portent is by J M Bauer, and was originally published in German in the 1950s; and English translation apparently exists, called As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me, and it has also been filmed.

It purports to tell the story of Clemens Forell, a Wehrmacht officer imprisoned in the Soviet Union after the Second World War, his escape from a forced labour camp – a lead mine – at the very edge of the country, opposite the shores of Alaska, and three-year journey to freedom by eventually crossing the Iranian frontier. It’s an astonishing adventure, if it is true. But there are quite a few things that call aspects of the account into question.

It reminds me very strongly of The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, which tells the story, allegedly, of the escape of a group of Polish prisoners from Soviet captivity during the same war, who eventually make it to British India. This book was famous among my father’s generation, because this story was the story of their generation, their country and their struggle with he Russians. (It was also filmed, a few years ago.) And it has transpired over the years that the account was not exactly what it purported to be, Rawicz having put together the story as a composite of the accounts of several people he met, rather than his own adventures.

Similarly, when I started to look up the author and the hero of the first book, it turns out to have been put together by a novelist, that the hero’s name is a pseudonym, and that he was back in Germany two years before the events described in the book began. So is this another docudrama, another fictionalisation of reality, or what?

I found it a tad incredible that the Russians would march prisoners from Chita, by the Mongolian border, all the way to Cape Dezhnev, opposite Alaska (look at the map!). There’s nothing that incredible about the journey itself, perhaps, and the hero’s adventures, except that his journey is extremely haphazard, and devoid of almost all detail in terms of place names – the map in the French edition is dreadful and needs a telescope to view it – but after about 450 pages, and a third of the way, the remainder is very telescoped, rushed through, almost. This is not the sign of a good novel, and perhaps enhances the veracity of some of the account. But the hero travels several thousand kilometres through the Soviet Union of the late 1940s without papers or real scrapes or encounters with authority, which I do find barely credible… and this version, the French translation, appears to be twice the length of the English version now long out of print.

I also found the attitudes of Russians and Germans to each other rather stretching of my credulity. Nowhere do any of the Germans acknowledge any war guilt or wrong-doing (perhaps this wasn’t fashionable in the 1950s), but they don’t complain of being hard done by, either. Quite a lot of Russians seem helpful to Forell; this I find hard to take, given that we are only a couple of years after the end of the war, and every Russian would have known of the vileness of German behaviour in the Soviet Union.

So, what’s going on here? Little to glean from any reviews of the book I’ve hunted down, and the various wikipedia articles don’t really dispel all of the doubts and grey areas. On the other hand, as a cracking adventure story, I found it quite compelling. But I also feel somewhat deceived…

Sylvain Tesson

October 2, 2013

417VGbQN-wL._AA160_I came across this French traveller and writer a couple of years ago, and I’m still trying to decide what to make of him. I can’t really class him as an explorer, because I don’t really think there are any of these nowadays, with travel generally being so straightforward compared with long ago (sweeping statement, I know, but this is my blog), so maybe ‘extreme traveller’ would fit the bill. He goes to faraway places, and spends a long time there, with a purpose, and endures considerable, though self-chosen, hardships, and then writes about them, very well.

L’Axe du Loup hasn’t been translated into English. I had to read it, because Tesson was fascinated with the book The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, which claims to be an account of an escape from a Siberian gulag by a group of Polish prisoners during the Second World War, and how they trekked to freedom south through Siberia, Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and Nepal to India. I say claimed, because much recent research has thrown doubt on Rawicz’ story, and it seems more likely to have been a composite account of what many prisoners went through at the time, and certainly to have been possible, though not actually achieved by the man himself. See wikipedia for details. Tesson decided to try and make the journey himself, on foot, carrying everything with him. It’s a fascinating and gruelling journey; he’s well aware that he’s chosen to make the journey and can opt out at any moment, that he doesn’t have to beware of everyone he meets lest they send him back to the gulag, that he can stop and rest, and that he can carry food with him. He makes the journey, and demonstrates that it could have been done; his descriptions of the route and his encounters are very interesting. Sadly (and I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record) the maps are poorly drawn.

Tesson is clearly fascinated by Siberia: Dans les forets de Siberie has been translated into English and is well worth the time and effort. He decides to spend six months (February to July) in a small, isolated cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal, and this is his diary of his time there. In some ways it’s a retreat and journey of self-discovery – can he cope? He does visit people and is visited, too; he has ample supplies of food and can supplement them with fish, and he has an inexhaustible supply of vodka and cigars, as well as reading matter. The observations of the seasonal changes are well described, and the peace and tranquillity seem very welcoming, though clearly considerable inner resources are needed to cope with such isolation, but he does talk of returning. He is a person who clearly find our hectic society of noise and continuous consumption unbearable, and I have a lot of sympathy here; his reflections are worth reading.

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