In Conversation with Harry Bucknall: A Traveller for the People

In Conversation with Harry Bucknall: A Traveller for the People
Roistering and romping his way across the Continent, part-time writer and full-time epicure, Harry Bucknall, recently published his second book, entitled Like A Tramp, Like A Pilgrim (Bloomsbury). The travelogue recounts Bucknall’s stomp across Europe, beginning by the frozen poetry of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and ending at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome – a pilgrim route known as the Via Francigena. Over the course of the trek, Bucknall weaves his way through the verdant environs of rural France, Switzerland and Italy; an experience that he renders in exquisite prose. The infectious jocularity of Bucknall’s penmanship makes the text a satisfyingly cheery read. Culture Trip‘s, Jamie Moore, caught up with Harry to talk travel, spirituality, revelry and everything in between.
Harry Bucknall and his fellow pilgrims hovering above Rome / © Harry Bucknall

Q: Was the trip’s genesis really as serendipitous as losing the manuscript of a book as a result of a lightning storm, then subsequently seeing the Via Francigena route delineated in that day’s paper?

A: That was exactly how it happened. When you write you are telling a story, so I will always allow room for manoeuvre for poetic license, and for the sake of a narrative. But in this case, that was the exact sequence of events as to how I became aware of the route. I aspired to be something of a serious travel writer but my writing is never going to be heavy; I don’t have the intellectual wit or capability for that. Instead, my travel writing is interesting and accessible to everybody; in the Eric Newby style, I suppose. I knew I wanted to do a long walk – any travel writer of that kind of genre at some stage undertakes a long walk. I didn’t know where I wanted to walk or why I wanted to walk, but after my laptop was literally struck by lightning, a whole chain of events was set in motion. I didn’t analyse that strange sequence of events until I got back and started thinking about the structure of the book and thought, “how did it all start?” I had cut out the newspaper cutting that day so was able to put down the exact day and the exact time when it all began. There’s a lot of discussion in the book about angels, and I’m not joking when I say that there were some really strange things that happened. I don’t think that the writing process is finished; something else weird will happen that sets me off on the next stage of the book. I genuinely believe that there is some guardian angel, spirit, or something, that is guiding my career development in this particular area.

Harry Bucknall approaches La Storta / © Harry Bucknall

So are you planning on completing the walk from Rome to Jerusalem?

A: The plan is that book two in this trilogy will take me from Rome, the church in the West, to Constantinople – I am going from the church of the West to the church of the East in Istanbul. Book three is from Istanbul to Jerusalem; that route will be through Turkey, by boat to Cyprus, across Cyprus, by boat to Lebanon, then walking into Jerusalem from there. I’m not prepared to risk Syria; it’s just not worth the hassle.

© Harry Bucknall 

Q: Did you find your army background aided you on your travels? You mention it infrequently and in passing but never explicitly outline its utility.

A: It was an enormous help and support. I don’t like to see myself as some great military martinet; I was in the army for 12 years but left 20 years ago. I see my military background as being like manure on a rose: it plays a very important part in my life; the disciplines all helped me get through it. When I set out, I hadn’t walked 25 miles a day for a very long time, perhaps even before I joined the army. I did a stretch for the SAS so I probably did some quite long routes then, but that was in 1994, so I hadn’t done anything really for about 18 years. What actually got me through was the fear; had I not been a soldier it would have been easier to turn back. It was the fear of coming back and saying, “I got 300 miles and turned around.” Then I would hear, “and you call yourself an army officer?” There was a very real fear of facing up to failure that kept me going. I would never pretend to be a great macho rock-eating commando, I’m just a regular fellow really, and I would never wish my writing to suggest otherwise.

Q: What do think the presence was that you felt and subsequently saw in the Forêt d’Arc-Châteauvillain?

A: It’s a tricky one really, because none of us know how God manifests himself in the world. It’s very strange because there were some elements of the walk that were thoroughly pagan, like when I arrived at the sea – that in a way was a far greater event for me, than arriving in Rome – there was something thoroughly base and pagan about it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t wish to be seen as some sort of Earth Mother, I am just open to these things. My view is this: when you go back to the ancient world, before God, in other words, multitheism, there were demi-Gods and local Gods. What Christianity did was not to get rid of these Gods but reinvent them; for example, St. Nicholas is really the incarnation of Poseidon, Hercules is the archangel Michael. I just wonder whether there aren’t still lots of local Gods and local spirits at work. Maybe the ancient Greeks did have it right: there were different forces that work on different elements of nature. I genuinely believe that angels, however they exist, do jump into people so that person will do a good deed, and then they jump out and bugger off somewhere else. When I was in that forest – I believe it might have been Pan himself, actually – there was something very Middle Earth about it; this was a spirit of the woods. It was quite chilling as an episode because there were all these people foraging on the outside, then I clearly saw him, and it was almost like some sort of medieval character. Was it a God, a local spirit? It was definitely something strange. All of these instances were not episodes of divine intervention; there were no angels with harps and trumpets blowing. But the whole sequence from the house and subsequently the laptop getting struck by lightning – I literally watched the modem cable glow blue – felt deliberate.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Reims / © Hochgeladen von Olrick/WikiCommons

Q: There was a palpable spiritual element to the journey, but you never explicitly state whether you are a Christian, or any other beliefs that you might harbour. Do you consider yourself to be a Christian?

A: Yes, I do. I’m not a bible-thumping zealot by any stretch of the imagination, I wouldn’t dream to be that. But I take great faith in my belief, and I think it’s important to believe in something, because if you don’t, you have no yardstick from which to earth. Did this journey shore up my faith anymore? No, it didn’t. When you come back from a journey like that you are inevitably changed, simply because you had walked all of that way. I didn’t come back as some kind of psalm-chanting lunatic; my faith was just nicely reaffirmed. What was changed was my belief in mankind – I was witness to such human kindness and generosity of spirit. What struck me was that mankind, in spite of all of the dreadful things we do to one another, actually deep down, is good, and on an individual basis, people are good.

Q: Did the journey give you a greater appreciation of the spiritual elements of existence?

Like A Tramp, Like A Pilgrim / © Chris Wormell

A: My mother said that we have to be open to these things. What I mean by that is: in the last 100 years we have started to travel at enormous speeds routinely – the motor car, the fast jet, and so on – as a result of which we whiz through life without really realising what our surroundings are about. I’ve always been aware of that; when I would walk the dog in the morning, I wouldn’t just think, “there’s a tree,” instead I’d really look at the tree, ponder the hedgerows, the fields beyond – I’d appreciate it. In many ways the journey awakened me to be more aware, even more so than I had been – looking at the hedgerow, looking through it, and really understanding it. You come back and are happy to let the wheel of fortune turn at its own pace, rather than try to force it. One thing about a pilgrim is that he sets his goal, and he says, “I’m going to get there, I don’t care how long it takes, but I’m going to get there.” I never thought I’d be the kind of person to do a walk such as this, but now I am sure I will walk to Jerusalem. I do this because it seems to be my lot in life to tell the story, and you’re telling it not for your own sake, but for everyone in the world who can’t do it because they have families and jobs; it is for them that I write. If they get a lot out of what I write, then my work is done.

Q: So how long did it take you to write the book?

A: I got back to Dorset in September 2012 – I took a good three or four weeks off and got lego’ed in Greece. I didn’t start until November so it took about 14 months, and that was in bursts. The first draft was finished in four months, and that is where the really hard graft is done. The second draft took about another two or three months, so in total it took about nine months to write the whole thing, but that was at the same time as running my arts PR company in between. To write is the most special thing to do; it is a real honour to be able to write – if you have a gift you have to go for it. If someone reads Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim and, after finishing it, holds it in their hand and says, “that was a lovely book, I enjoyed it, and I didn’t want it to finish,” that is what it’s all about. That’s why I try not to write anything rude or controversial because that is not what it is all about as far as I’m concerned; I don’t have that depth of knowledge anyway, I don’t claim to be any great theological scholar. It is my job to observe and write down what I see for others to understand, to write in an accessible, easily digestible way. You may not get great arguments from my writing but you will get an understanding.

Pilgrim Passport / © Harry Bucknall

Q: Not long after you left Langres, you came across a couple who asked you why you were going to Rome, and you were taken aback – why?

A: They genuinely caught me off guard, and for some time I wrestled with how I was going to write that piece. It was relatively clichéd in the end, and the reason I reverted to cliché was because that was what happened at the time. I think I said something like, “I want to put the flesh back on to the bones of my life.” Until that moment, I was just going on a jolly jape across Europe; it was as simple as that: a Romantic Elizabethan adventure. But I gradually realised that what I had undertaken was something greater, and was of growing import. Until that moment, I realised that my life had been a bit of a sham, as in all of my previous endeavours there had always been someone to help, someone’s shoulders to stand on to get to where I needed to get to. This time I was all on my own, there weren’t any great squadrons of cavalry or infantry behind me, no Sergeant Major to ensure you were dusted down – it was me and me alone. This was the first time in my life when I was the only one responsible for getting there, the only one responsible for getting out of it. It’s probably the same for everybody; you buy a house, some chap does the conveyance, some chap does the mortgage, some chap does the surveying, but it’s rare that any of us do anything when we are really out their on our own. Polar explorers, trans-globe sailors; it was a comparable experience.

View of Mont Blanc from the Aosta Valley / Ximonic/WikiCommons 

Q: So the journey carved out its own space in your life, and now you’re back, you feel it needs to be filled again?

A: Yes, but there’s no time scale on this at the moment. There’s every understanding that this will happen but no necessary when. I am a great believer in serendipity, but I imagine it will happen in the next five-to-ten years. The journey will be done in one go – you can’t go and do half then come back. This kind of writing is a rich vein. Maybe until now, it seemed to be slightly unfashionable to write about spirituality in any context, but this is not a spiritual journey, this is a journey that is accessible to anybody in any context. I simply wrote down what happened to me at the time. I think the key to it is not to look for it – just set out on a journey and see what happens. In terms of the walk to Jerusalem, I feel that I have started something accidentally on purpose. When I remember that bolt of lightning, I think, “cor, blimey, that was divine intervention at its crudest”. Short of a heavenly host arriving in my sitting room with their trumpets blaring and their harps going, one couldn’t have imagined a chain of events more deliberate than that.

Siena Cathedral / Dudva/WikiCommons 

Q: Throughout the book there is a great deal of revelry in the evenings, involving those you came across and stayed with. Would you say that the merrymaking was an important part of your journey?

A: I would never pretend to be an angel. If there is a party, I assure you, I’ll be at the very centre of it and I’ll be the very last to leave. The best parties are the ones where you leave in time for breakfast or perhaps even later. I also believe that just because you are going on a pilgrimage, it shouldn’t just be hair shirts and wailing and gnashing of teeth – it was never that way in the past – and I was certainly not going to promote any notion of it being that. I’m a great one for enjoying myself – there is enough pain and misery during the day that one wants to let one’s hair down at night. I think undoubtedly that the sense of camaraderie and the sheer fun of it was what bolstered me to head on to the next stop. You would meet people that you hadn’t seen for three or four weeks and these were great occasions for enormous celebration, and by golly, we did. We finished with an eleven-hour lunch. It is important to party and to celebrate in life, so I think it did help me on my way. It also links back to my style of travel writing – it is never going to be heavy and I want to celebrate and enjoy with the reader. So when people read the book, I want people to think, “he’s the kind of guy that I would like to be sat around a table with.” One thing is for sure, it ‘aint ever going to be dull.

[Harry Bucknall’s Like A Tramp, Like A Pilgrim (published by Bloomsbury Continuum) is available now in hardback and e-book.]