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Book review: a brave, even bravura, journey

Francis Phillips reviews The Crossway, by Guy Stagg

The Crossway by Guy Stagg (Picador) is a young man’s book. Written in 2013 when he was 25, it tells of his walk from Canterbury to Jerusalem in search of healing. Healing from what? It is never quite clear but, like many of his generation, well-educated but adrift in a society where there are seemingly no boundaries or immutable beliefs left, Stagg experienced a host of emotional and mental health problems before his walk: depression, panic attacks and temptations to suicide.

It is a young man’s book because it is full of ill-defined hopes, mad schemes, self-dramatization and over-writing – the historical information the reader is given along the way strikes me as unnecessary padding and the prose itself is too often self-consciously crammed with images when a simple statement would do.

This said, it also has all the merits of a young man’s book: buoyancy, an honest admittance of folly in staring out his journey on New Year’s Day (thus ensuring he would strike the Alps on foot in the middle of winter) and the kind of impulsiveness that older people cannot afford: “Rome, Istanbul, Jerusalem. That was it. That was my pilgrimage” he announces without, it seems, much reflection or planning. Somehow it doesn’t matter in the end; despite the snow, the rain, the heat, a drink binge in Greece and gut rot in Turkey, Stagg makes it to Jerusalem. The reader wills him on.

Perhaps calling his long walk – it lasted 10 months – a “pilgrimage” is not quite accurate, if this word is meant to suggest someone journeying within a faith tradition. Stagg writes early on that “I do not believe in God, do not believe in miracles, and do not believe that a sacrament can cure a sickness”. Finally at Jerusalem this stance has not changed. But there is also an underlying sense that his feat of endurance, hiking eight hours a day, six days a week and sleeping wherever a room was offered, has healed him from his former demons or at least given his life a new purpose, balance and confidence.

Stepping away from the “Me too” generation in his walk – “Too anxious to ask for help, I made a virtue of solitary endurance, mistaking my isolation for something heroic” Stagg admits disarmingly – he also comes to realise (as many people never do their entire lives) “How little we need to be happy. How little we need to survive.” This musing comes after several days spent on Mount Athos, talking to monks, in particular Father Constantine. It is a good life lesson, as is the author’s reflection that, looking back on his adventures and misadventures, what remains in his memory is “the charity of so many strangers.”

Sometimes you have to leave home to come to realise the essential decency and kindness that ordinary people in every country will show the wanderer on their doorstep. Stagg’s walk and the book that has resulted from it, is a brave, even bravura, performance.