Drifting and striding with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018


One way or another, it seems that Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) is always with us. I’ve owned a copy of The Book of Disquiet for a good long time, and I turn to it more often than many books on my shelves.  My “reading technique” is to open it at random and read a couple of fragments, a reasonable method it seems to me, and one recommended by the translator – Richard Zenith - though I arrived there under my own steam, since it’s a book of fragments, assembled posthumously from 30,000 items found in two huge wooden trunks belonging to Pessoa.

         I never love the writing as much as I feel ought to, and some would say it’s a consciously unlovable text, but I do enjoy his stuff about walking and (for want of a better term) urban exploration, such as this: “Walking on these streets, until the night falls, my life feels to me like the life they have. By day they’re full of meaningless activity; by night, they’re full of meaningless lack of it. By day I am nothing, and by night I am I. There is no difference between me and these streets, save they being streets and I a soul, which perhaps is irrelevant when we consider the essence of things.”
         The man who walks the street becomes like the street: I like that a lot.

Or this: “More than once, while roaming the streets in the late afternoon I’ve been suddenly and violently struck by the bizarre presence of organization in things.  It’s not so much natural things that arouse this powerful awareness in my soul; it’s the layout of the streets, the signs, the people dressed up and talking, their jobs, the newspapers, the logic of it all.  Or rather, it’s the fact that ordered streets, signs, jobs, people and society exist, all of them fitting together and going forward and opening up paths.”
Or indeed this: “Everyone has his alcohol.  To exist is alcohol enough for me.  Drunk from feeling I wander as I walk a straight ahead.”  Apparently Pessoa liked  actual  alcohol too.

         I knew that Pessoa lived in Lisbon for 30 years of his adult life, and rarely left the place (he’d lived in Durban as a child) but what I didn’t know till recently was that he wrote, though of course didn’t publish, a guidebook to the place, running to 88 pages, written in English and published as Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See.
Writing about that book and Pessoa in general for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Casey Walker, author of Last Days in Shanghai wrote, Pessoa doesn’t ever seem to have had much interest, sexually, in women — or in men — but in all his time lingering in coffee houses and restaurants, in long and solitary walks around the city, he must have learned the places of surreptitious assignation, courtship, and romance … What I want to know is: Where in Pessoa’s Lisbon did people go when they needed to weep for how the world goes? Or where did they go to profess their lasting love? I want to go to these places, too. Perhaps Pessoa considered this knowledge too confidential to consign it even to his manuscript trunk.”
I’m not convinced that a man with no interest in sex would know “places of surreptitious assignation, courtship, and romance” but maybe he did.

Even less did I realize that Pessoa wrote his own version, a fragment naturally, of Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd”  - which by many accounts is the ur text for a certain kind of flaneurism and psychogeography.  Pessoa puts words in the mouth (or at least an internal monologue in the head) of the man of the crowd, and has him narrate,
“I became a man of the crowd. I never trusted myself alone. From night unto morn, and from morn unto night I elbowed speedily through crowds, clinging affrightedly to whom I could. Many thought me a thief. But I pressed my body against their bodies as a child clings to its mother during a thunderstorm. I tried to close up my mind's eye as a child seeks to escape the sight of the lightening; I strove to close my mental ears, as a child seeks by burying its head in its mother's lap to hear not the crash of the thunderbolt. And if there were a short gap in the walkers, I would hurry, run, my arms outstretched, eager for the touch of somebody's frame, my own body eager for a shrinking contact. And always, always, amid the shuffle and the tramp of all footfalls, I shivered to hear that firm, inexorable tread.”
         That doesn’t really match up with my idea of Poe’s man, and in fact it sounds far more like Pessoa than it does like Poe, which may be the whole point.

On the subject of writing itself Pessoa offers this, “While out walking I’ve formulated perfect phrases which I can’t remember when I get home.  I’m not sure if the ineffable poetry of these phrases belongs totally to what they were and which I forget, or partly to what they after all weren’t.”

No use suggesting he could have got himself a moleskine, I expect.

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