1. In Something of his Art, you follow JS Bach's 250 mile walk from Arnstadt to Lübeck in 1705. Where did you get the idea and what made you interested?
The idea is Alan Davey's, Controller Radio 3. You will remember that under Roger Wright Radio 3 began doing landmark broadcasts of entire bodies of composers' work. When Alan came in he kept up that enterprise and added an enthusiasm for and desire to experiment with Slow Radio. The first UK attempt was inspired and assisted by the Hay Festival - with producer Philip Tagney and studio manager Richard Andrews I narrated a walk from Capel y Ffyn to Hay on Wye, along the ridges. Four hours of that walk was broadcast in May 2017: the BBC's first foray into the Slow movement, which encompasses everything from Italian food to Norwegian TV, via train journeys and narrowboat voyages recorded and broadcast in real time . In the autumn of the same year, producer Lindsay Kemp and the same, legend-in-his-own-lifetime Richard Andrews and I did the Bach Walk, following the great composer's trek, aged 20, from Arnstadt to Lubeck in 1705. Slow Radio had evolved into Sound Walks, where the emphasis lies less on the passage of 'real' time (all these programmes are pre-recorded) than on an immersive audio experience - so slightly fewer footsteps, slightly more going on. I was so up for it, of course, when the offer came through. I happen to know that without Becky Shaw and Peter Florence, who were consulted in the planning stage of the first walk, I would never have got the gig. Thank you, Hay Festival.
2. In following his steps, what do you think you discovered about him that others have missed?
Not so much missed as left unexplored. Other people have done versions of the walk - there are only a few stretches which we can be sure JSB actually paced out - and written about it. The difference is Lindsay Kemp, who is a Radio 3 classical music producer. There aren't many people with that job title and they are all rather quiet, very kind, slightly other-worldly, perhaps, but they are an elite: musicians, historians, journalists, producers and writers rolled into one. Lindsay has read everything written about Bach that matters (he curates his own festival, Baroque at the Edge, in London, January, tickets available; I'll be speaking on Jan 5th); he did the walk for a recce, then making the programme, and again, since, leading a tour. So he is probably the world's leading expert on the route. We became as sure as one can be that Bach walked over rather than around the Harz mountains, so we added a section to his probable route. We focused so intensely on everything that would have been there when he was, from oak trees to fish markets, and - thanks to Lindsay - immersed ourselves in the culture and practices of the time (from carrying a dagger to the then-popular figure of the itinerant musician) that, I think, we got as close to Bach's ghost at that stage of his life as anyone has. It was a truly electrifying experience, intellectually, and, dare I say it, spiritually.
3. What in the journey surprised you most?
I was fascinated by modern Germany, which is the key to Europe; by where it came from and what ruins it was built upon - the 30 years war - and how it is as a country now. I was also amazed at the kind of young man we ended up tracking: rambunctious, dedicated, lustful, thirsty, insecure and convinced at the same time. It made me think a lot about the self-created aspect of what we regard as genius. Sure, it begins with a mighty gift, but that goes nowhere without ferocious determination, planning, risk-taking and a rebel's will. I am most fascinated by Shakespeare, whom I have studied much more than I have Bach. Only a century separates them, but we know almost nothing of Will, compared to Johann. Following Bach threw much light on the kind of man Shakespeare must have been. The financial acumen, the willingness to overturn convention, the impatience with the everyday, the furious self-belief and the drive. These were warriors, in every sense. I was not expecting that. And I was knocked out by how fundamental great music is to German society. We should be pouring musical resources into schools; otherwise we will be left embarrassingly far behind the rest of Europe, Africa and China. Cuts to the arts are unbelievably stupid and cruel.
4. There are passages that are so immediate and evocative, it's like we're walking alongside you. When you actually sat down to write, how did you recall the details?
As a travel writer I am used to running two narratives together at the same time, as the experience unfolds around you. So we get shown luxury hotels or safari lodges or development projects, and we write down all the details, but our real concern is to discover and describe what is really happening to a given population in a certain place at a certain point in their story. Normally on a job I have my notebook out and working from breakfast to blackout. On the Bach Walk my only concern was the programme we were making each day, so my notes are sparse. However, being on a job gives you a heightened awareness. Everything, potentially, is material. So I have good recall of every day, I took some notes, sent emails in the evening that work later as notes - and Lindsay let me have the raw audio, so I although I did not need it, I had the entire walk on tape. A superabundance of riches!
5. Walking and creative inspiration seem to go hand in hand. Why? And what's the most inspiring walk you've taken?
Much has been written about walking putting you in the rhythm of thought. I think it also has to do with a sense of true proportion - how small and vulnerable and thus alert to the world we are when we are truly in it. It takes you out of yourself, seeming to leave in the mind a space for ideas and inspirations. So many walks have changed me. With my father, across Holland Park to school when I was young. Up to the top of the mountain where we lived in Wales for the first time. Around the Deer Park, St Martin's Haven with my mother, many times. Walks through Paris at night when I was penniless and urgently starting out on finding myself. Along the cliffs between St Donat's and Marcross when I was in 6th form there. Ranging around New York and London in my twenties. Two years ago, in a very hot summer, crossing Paris from Austerlitz to the Gare du Nord. Over the Pyrenees about three times with Rebecca. Through the Dolomites, ditto. We were born to walk, thank the Gods.
6. For readers who loved Something of his Art, what other books would you recommend?
There are many influences upon it. Michael Jacobs taught me that going out late makes a good travel writer: read his The Robber of Memories. Barnaby Rogerson (the biographer of the Prophet Muhammad, no less) taught me to approach any subject, however hallowed, without fear. A A Gill shows (in A A Gill Is Away) how you take on huge subjects, objectively, through subjective experience and detail. Jan Morris is so much more than a travel writer - as are all those mentioned here - but she is a great teacher of how much you can do with a small word count. Her Battleship Yamato, for example, is exquisitely brilliant. Although most real readers will have settled down with Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, anyone who wishes to write about place and people should reread it. You could say the same for pretty well anything by Norman Lewis. I also venerate the work of Sophy Roberts and Jay Griffiths, Niall Griffiths and Jim Perrin. These people make writing seem as natural as singing.
7. What was the first book you loved?
Canonball Simp by John Burningham! Simp is abandoned by his master, caught by the Dog Catcher, menaced by the cats and rats and finally taken in by a clown whose employers are lining him up for constructive dismissal. But the day Simp takes the place of the cannonball, everything changes! It is wonderful. My Dad read it to me, along with The Mouse and His Child (Russell Hoban - genius) E B White's Charlotte's Web and Farewell to Shady Glade and The Gnats of Knotty Pine, both by Bill Peet. Mum's reading of Astrid Lingren's The Brother's Lionheart was quietly life-changing, I think. So I have loved a lot of books, right from the off. Lucky me.
8. What was the last book you read?
Jan Morris' Battleship Yamato: of war, beauty and irony was one of them. Currently into Slow Horses by Mick Herron. Both terrific!
9. What are you working on now?
Finally, after about two years, my next non-fiction book has found me: A Rougher Guide to Magna Grecia is going to be an adventure and time-travel book, set partly on the southern frontier of Europe, present day, and partly over two thousand years ago, when Sicily and Southern Italy were Greek. Also I have a children's book, the third Aubrey and the Terrible (Spiders!) novel, due for New Year's eve. I swear only in Welsh publishing does anyone get a deadline like that. Hats off to Penny Thomas and Firefly Press for saving my liver from Christmas.
10. Favourite Bach composition?
The Cello Suites, all and any, Music in the Castle of Heaven is Sir John Elliott Gardiner's title for his majestic biography of Bach.
Something of his Arts is Hay Festival Book of the Month for December, in partnership with Vanity Fair, available online now, or from all good bookshops and libraries.
Travel writer, memoirist and children’s author Horatio Clare was born in London in 1973. He read English at the University of York and later worked as a BBC radio producer on cultural programmes ‘Front Row’, ‘Nightwaves’ and ‘The Verb’. As a freelance journalist he has contributed numerous travel pieces to newspapers and magazines, as well as to ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ on BBC Radio Four.
His books include A Single Swallow, Down to the Sea in Ships, Running for the Hills (which won the Somerset Maughan Award), Orison for a Curlew, Icebreaker and his latest: The Light in the Dark and Something of his Art, both out now.