Alice spoke with author Guy Stagg about his first book.
I first met Guy Stagg quite a few years ago at a drinks party. I had begun with ‘So what are you up to at the moment?’, and to my surprise, the answer, for once, was both unexpected and fascinating.
Guy it turned out, had recently arrived home after walking all the way from Canterbury to Jerusalem, alone.
On hearing this, I cornered the poor man for the rest of the evening, gleaning every detail I could. Just what an amazing thing to have done! There we all were sitting at our desks day in day out in London, justifying our ‘careers’ to ourselves and everyone else, endlessly attending banal drinks parties, or just drinking too much cheap white wine in the pub, and Guy, aged 25 had, instead, decided to make this stupendous trip, and not only that, he had done it alone.
Over the last couple of years I had heard he was writing a book about his walk, and when I got wind it was soon to be published, I decided it was time to get in contact again.
So we met, on one of those abnormally freezing spring mornings, in a Dalston coffee shop, and Guy kindly told me all sorts about his own journey, why he took this pilgrimage and why he decided to write about it.
In June 2012 Guy set out on an impromptu walk from his flat in South West London, with the aim of reaching Canterbury the next day. He walked in a pair of borrowed hiking boots and his Barbour, and he reached Canterbury Cathedral on the eve of midsummers day, and says, on arrival felt ‘pure exhaustion’. He said, as he lay in the grass in the shadow of the cathedral bathed in evening sunlight, he felt for the first time in a long time, completely ‘in the present’, the walk had allowed his ‘mind to be cleared out’.
Outside Canterbury Cathedral, there is a stone which marks the start of the pilgrim route the ‘Via Francigena’ and on seeing this stone, it was in that moment, that the idea came to him, and he knew that what he would do next. He knew that he needed to do it soon, to plan quickly and just go, without too much time to think about it.
The part of this that I find amazing is the complete courage, the courage to walk away from your day job, your ‘career’ and to undertake a venture into the unknown, and also to do it completely alone.
Guy studied English at Cambridge, and says at 16 he knew he wanted to be a writer. After graduating the logical career seemed to be journalism, but the fast-paced journalistic style on the comments desk at a newspaper turned out not to be a path that would make him happy. He says at that time ‘he was not proud of his writing’, indeed writing was actually making him unhappy. He was for a time on anti-depressants, and was saving money for law-school, with a change of career in mind.
In the spring of 2012 he came off the anti-depressants, and it was at this point that he decided to make the impromptu walk to Canterbury that changed everything.
Six months later, on new years day 2013, he set out for Jerusalem with the intention of ‘leaving his life behind’. Although he was following a pilgrim route, this wasn’t a religious pilgrimage, at this point Guy ‘wasn’t a believer’ and didn’t believe ‘that ritual could heal’. His only initial deadline was to reach Rome in time for Easter. He took everything he would need and could carry, planning for the alps in the winter, and far warmer climes further East. He navigated using maps, although of course he did have a phone with him just in case.
On the way he stayed in refuges and monasteries, and started to go to mass, sharing in the worship and practices, mainly out of politeness but also out of an intrigue for these medieval rituals, and the people who performed them, and the desire to know ‘what it felt like to be a believer. ‘
He passed through France, Switzerland, Italy, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, to Istanbul where he witnessed the Taxim Square Riots, and on through Turkey, Cypress and Lebanon, and did take one flight to Jordan and then onto Israel, walking around eight hours every day. He says he rarely felt nervous mainly because he ‘had no prior experience or danger, and hadn’t thought about the risks’. But his ‘perspective on highs and lows shifted’.
He also hadn’t anticipated just how kind people would be, nor how much they would share about their lives and experiences. He says that perhaps they were prepared to share more with him, as he was just a stranger passing through. And that often the personal information and fundamental experiences being shared had a religious strand - marriage, children – the most important times in peoples lives, which he found ‘nourishing’.
The purpose of this trip was never to write a book, but as he went, he kept a diary every day taking notes, initially mostly functional jottings, but as he went on, he started to capture events more closely as they had a ‘deeper emotional effect’.
On reaching Jerusalem 10 months later, he says he was just ‘so glad to have done the walk and ‘is glad for every step, good and bad’. He also says he has ‘opened up to being changed’, with a ‘broader shift on his own life’, and he could identify with his experience in a more ‘holistic way’.
On returning to England, he felt almost obliged to write about his journey ‘I have to write about it’, the unusual historical events he had witnessed, along with his shifting understanding of religion, and this unique perspective he had gained.
And so this incredible experience brought him back to writing, it has been an open-ended process, and it has taken him four years ‘for it to be as good as he can make it’. And he is proud for having worked on something consistently for four years.
We spoke a little about travel writers, and Guy says one of his biggest influences has been W.G Sebald, particularly his ‘Rings of Saturn’ in which Sebald intertwines the precise details of a walk in Suffolk with history, crossing space and time. Other writing influences have been Bruce Chatwin and his ‘In Patagonia’ and Olivia Laing.
I wanted to ask about his religious beliefs since completing the walk, and Guy said that he now attends church twice a month, and the walk has drawn him closer towards Christian traditions, fundamentally mysticism, although he still doesn’t agree with the creed. For him, religious ritual is a valid resource even for non-believers.
He also says ‘his need for walking’, for the moment ‘has been fulfilled’, although he has been for some walks around England since arriving back from Jersualem.
His finished book, The Crossway, excitingly is now complete, and I can’t wait to read it.