When Peter Gabriel wrote Solsbury Hill, he’d had enough of the music industry and being part of the band Genesis. Right from the off, this is a song that is going places and takes the listener with it. I associate it with change, and a feeling of hope. There’s an upbeat sense of purpose to the guitar intro that says: keep up, we’re going somewhere good, if you want to come with us. There’s also a delightful clip in the video which features someone – it may well be Gabriel himself – picking cabbages. Surely a first (and last) in the history of pop music videos.
This song also makes me think of being in the countryside and walking up hills; something that I enjoy doing with family and friends. Even without Peter Gabriel singing about an eagle that ‘flew out of the night’, there’s something magical about savouring a great view from the top of a hill you’ve climbed yourself. Admittedly, it’s dispiriting when you can’t see the view because of thick mist, but it’s joyous on a sunny day to feel on top of the world as you look out across miles of rolling countryside. Much like looking out at the sea from the shore, such a view puts everyday worries into perspective.
I owe a lot to walking, both in terms of my personal life as well as my mental health. Without it, I doubt I would have met some of the most important people in my life, nor found a free and easy means of both transport and mood enhancer. There’s lots of evidence that being in the outdoors is good for our mental health. But walking anywhere (safe – being mugged, I would guess, is not so great for your mental wellbeing) can be a great way to clear the head. Even Nietzsche is reported to have said that “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”. I don’t imagine him to be the cheery, ruddy-faced outdoor sort, though I could well be confusing him with café-loving Sartre, given my scant understanding of philosophy.
Anyway, there’s something about depression in particular, and mental ill health more generally, that makes us turn inward and lose sight of the outside world. Just the sheer act of putting one foot in front of another means we are making progress of some sorts. On some days, just getting out of bed and through the front door, dressed in something vaguely presentable that doesn’t have toothpaste down it, can feel like a finishing a marathon.
Walking is also a great way to talk through an idea or a situation. The rhythm of walking and talking is ideally suited to putting an idea into perspective, as well as getting to know someone else. You’re in control of where you go next. Unlike most forms of transport, you are master of your own destiny and not hindered by cost, road works, defective trains – or that most depressing phrase, a ‘rail replacement bus service’. If you do get lost, it’s down to you to fix it, and if you were to join me on a city break, I’m reliably informed that my map reading will mean a ‘short cut’ might take more time but always lead somewhere interesting.
As a teenager, I used to moan about hill walking being pointless. Which, to a certain extent, it is. At one level, you can’t argue with my teenage logic that could see no point in going up a hill just to come down it again. But such thinking is rather bleakly reductionist. There’s more to hill walking than the sometimes tedious business of walking up them. After all, why eat nice food, if all you are consuming it for is for the nutrients? Life without joy is just existence, and indeed is a good description of the all-consuming greyness of depression. I think I’ve said previously on this blog that though I’ve not taken them myself, anti-depressants are surely anti-misery, not ‘happy’ pills. Depression is not the absence of happiness. It’s the absence of any normal ability to feel human emotion, good or bad.
Sometimes a half-hour walk round a local park is a good way of starting to fight back against the darkness. It lets in a bit of light among the gloom, and can be a way of making that first bit of progress. Walking can’t pay your bills, guarantee you a partner, deal with your bullying boss or tackle the concrete causes of stress in your life. But it can help your mind start to think of itself as an organ that is capable of dealing with such stresses and strains. Not bad for something that is free and that we often do every day without even thinking about it.