Here's that review of Luc Sante's The Other Paris,from the LA Review of Book. It's not entirely about walking, but it certainly involves flaneursim, urban exploration, and (I dare say) psychogeography.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
“As you walk deeper, you retrace the Rocket's becoming: superchargers, center sections, nose assemblies, power units, controls, tail sections . . .”
The above quotation (you guessed?) is from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Tyrone Slothrop is walking through the factory where they made V2 rockets, the Vergeltungswaffe 2, Nazi Germany’s super sonic “revenge weapon,” subsequently seized by the Russians and Americans.
I was a little surprised, as I was walking down Tooley Street, in London earlier this year to find that this thing was still in place on the wall above what used to be, and perhaps still is (though their website seems to be in hibernation) a museum called Britain at War.
That rocket (let’s call it that) has been in place for 20 odd years, but I really don’t know what it is. It’s obviously not a “real” V2.
There are quite a few of the real things around, though they tend to be in serious aeronautical museums rather than on the wall of tourist attractions. The nearest I’ve been to one was at the White Sands Missile Range, outside of Alamogordo in New Mexico. I walked around it, stood beside it, and could probably have reached out and touched it, but since but I was standing on the property of the American military industrial complex I decided against that.
There’s a kind of “rocket garden” at the White Sands Missile Range where you can walk around and look at scary hardware. Most of the stuff is out in the open air, but the V2 is in a solid substantial building, because it needs protection and preservation.
Not many miles down the road from the missile range is the entirely separate White Sands National Monument, a fabulous, two hundred plus square miles of white desert that are a wonder even to a skeptical old desert rat like me.
White Sands has been on mind lately since I was looking for something else in the Nicholsonian archive and found this photograph taken of me – oh good god – probably 25 years ago.
The thing I’m holding that looks like a bit like a clipboard is in fact some kind of rocket debris that must have found its way into the dunes from the missile range next door, after some kind of explosion or jettisoning operating.
It’s one of the smaller regrets of my life that I didn’t stick this piece of detritus in my hand luggage and take it home, though conceivably it was drenched in rocket fuel and evil chemicals and would have done awful things to me. And maybe I wouldn’t have got it through airport security – though this was obviously well before 9/11.
I know I’ve bleated on elsewhere about gardens of subversion, places that are less than Edenic, and possibly all the better for that. And without having more than the average interest in rocketry or space or ballistics I seem to have walked among quite a few flying objects, some identified, some not. This one in Essex for instance:
The most recent one I went to was in Utah, actually called the Thiokol Rocket Garden, belonging to ATK Thiokol, “Supplier of aerospace and defense products. Munitions, smart weapons, propulsion and composite structures.” It’s a place designed so that you can walk and sit and have a snack – all of which I did.
Depending on your finer feelings you can regard this place as a garden of death, or a tribute to man’s greatest achievement, or a piece of accidental “land art.” But my favorite thing about it was this:
Sure, a standard rocket is good enough for me – who needs anything too fancy?
And finally a last word from one of White Sands’ most famous inhabitants, begetter of the V2, and therefore of much else besides, Herr Wernher von Braun, words that form the epigraph to the first section of Gravity’s Rainbow, from an article he wrote titled “Why I Believe in Immortality.”
“Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.”
This is him in later life, with a very nice display of model rockets behind him:
And this is him earlier, working on his Dr. Strangelove impersonation.
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
The Japanese have a word for it, apparently. Hanyauku: the act of walking on tiptoes across warm sand.
The illustration is from Anjana Iyer’s “Found in Translation” series - words that have no direct English equivalent.
Perhaps a Japanese speaker can tell me, do they have a word for walking in pain on really, really hot sand that burns the soles of your feet?
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Life being what it is, right before the atrocities in Paris last week I’d been reading Luc Sante’s The Other Paris, in which he says this about Paris:
“It virtually demands that you walk its length and breadth; once you get started it’s hard to stop. As you stride along you are not merely a pedestrian in a city – you are a reader negotiating a vast text spanning centuries and the traces of a billion hands …
“The great text of the streets was given voice by those relentless walkers who were also writers. Many of the flâneurs were compulsively garrulous types who played the city the way they’d work a party, (or perhaps in the case of Restif, like a pervert at an orgy).”
He’s referring to Restif de La Bretonne, of course, and Sante’s book sent me off reading and researching many things, among them Restif de La Bretonne’s - Les Nuits de Paris, a preposterous book in many ways, in which our hero walks the night streets of Paris, encountering and surviving all kinds of vice, tut-tutting about it, but also recounting it in salacious, lip-smacking detail.
Also, more or less randomly, if there’s really any such thing, I’d taken out of the college library, William Eggleston’s Paris, which is full of good stuff like these, pictures no doubt taken while walking the streets of Paris:
Paris is indeed a place where the visitor inevitably does a lot of walking and takes a lot of photographs, and I do believe – i.e I’ve said it in print, and in person to a number of photographers, including Martin Parr, and nobody’s ever called me on it, that Paris was the place where the first ever picture of people walking was taken: this one by Charles Nègre.
It goes by various titles, but “Chimney Sweeps Walking” is good enough for me. It’s generally dated 1851/2. More to the point, I think it’s actually a posed photograph, and the people are standing still, not actually walking, otherwise they’d be a complete blur.
Still, I don’t doubt that people in Paris as still walking and will continue to walk, and perhaps to pose, regardless of the danger and the horror that’s thrown at them.