Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruinswithcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Two books have recently come across the transom, one relatively new,
one comparatively old.The first is
Lauren Elkins’ Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in
Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (2016) and The Wonderful World of Walking by Bill Gale
I belatedly bought myself a copy of Elkin’s Flâneuse since it’s become
obvious that nobody is going to send me a freebie – despite my appearance in
the bibliography.No room in there for Iain
Sinclair though – ha! (You realize that’s an ironic “ha!” right?)
I’d been reading the reviews of Flâneuse - and it’s not
that I trust reviewers whether they’re praising or condemning a book - but there
was something a bit off about many of them.They were incredibly “supportive.”They indicated that the book was a “good thing” but very few of them really
showed actual enthusiasm or affection for the book.“Well researched and larded with examples,”
said Philippa Stockley in the Evening Standard.Diane Johnson’s review in the New York Times seemed especially dutiful, “If
Elkin’s capsule biographies can occasionally seem a bit potted, they are never
For my own part I wanted the book to be good – I like walking, I like
women, I like women who walk, and I want women to be able to walk wherever they
want without being abused or threatened, and all the rest.Hell, some of my best friends are flâneuses. And yet I had my
doubts.These doubts were not entirely
assuaged by reading the book.
For one thing, there’s a chunk about Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury.I can see why there has to be, but the truth
is that I don’t love Virginia Woolf, men don’t, they just don’t.I think it’s mostly because her male characters
always seem so feeble and awful.Wouldn’t
you throw yourself out of a window rather than be in the same room as Mr.
Ramsey of To The Lighthouse fame.And as for Augustus Carmichael, the visiting poet …
And I know people make claims for Mrs. Dalloway as a great psychogeographic novel, but am I right to
be doubtful about this when John Sutherland has made a pretty convincing case
that Mrs. Dalloway actually completes her London drift in a taxi?
Flâneuse also contains a
chunk about Sophie Calle who I think is a pretentious phoney, especially that nonsense
Vénitienne of her “following” a man all the way to Venice, while being “followed”
by a photographer: but I know other views are possible.“These are not
souvenir snapshots of a presence, but rather shots of an absence, the absence of
the followed, that of the follower, and that of their reciprocal absence,” says
Jean Baudrillard, not wishing to be outdone in the pretentious phoney stakes.
This can be blamed
on Lauren Elkin of course, but we’re all on
much safer ground with Martha Gellhorn, especially the articles she wrote
for Colliers magazine about the civil war in Spain.“No matter how often you do it, it is
surprising just to walk to war from your own bedroom where you have been
reading a detective story or a life of Byron, or listening to the phonograph,
or chatting with friends.”
I also very much liked Elkin’s description of living in Tokyo, where
she didn’t have the very best time.“What bothered me most was the certainty I felt that there was a great
city out there full of places I wanted to discover, but I didn’t know where to
look for them.I didn’t know what there
was out there.I didn’t know where to
go, where to walk.”It’s a feeling many
of us have had, in places much less alien than Tokyo.
I wish somebody had recommended to Elkin “Flesh and The Mirror” a short
story by Angela Carter set in Tokyo, "I was
crying bitterly as I walked under the artificial cherry blossoms with which
they decorate the lamp standards from April to September. They do that so the pleasure
quarters will have the look of a continuous carnival, no matter what ripples of
agitation disturb the never-ceasing, endlessly circulating, quiet, gentle,
melancholy crowds who throng the wet web of alleys under a false ceiling of
umbrellas.”I’m not saying this would
have cheered Elkin up much, but it’s a good story.
I assume, on no absolute basis, that Angela Carter was quite the
flaneuse when she was in Tokyo, and also in London, and indeed in Sheffield.
The Wonderful World of Walking is (let’s say) a
text of its time.A chapter titled “Walking
and Today’s Woman” runs to all of two pages.But the book does contain accounts of a few walking women, none of them
exactly household names, and some completely new to me.
Minta Beach walked from New York to Chicago in 1912.Minnie Hill Wood walked from Washington to
San Francisco in 1916.Eleanora Sears,
an all round sportswoman, set a speed hiking record in 1925, walking the 74
miles between Newport, Rhode Island and Boston in 17 hours.I imagine none of these women considered
herself a flâneuse, and they surely didn’t
consider themselves artists, although Minta Beach did publish a book about her
I did have vague memories of a later walker that Gale
writes about: Dr. Barbara Moore.I just
about remember seeing her from time to time on TV when I was growing up in
England.She did a number of long walks,
the one I remember best was from Land’s End to John O’Groats – 1200 miles in 23
days, I know now, so that’s over 50 miles per day.I discover
that was in 1960, so no wonder my memories are vague, and apparently that same
year she walked from San Francisco to New York, 3,387-mile according to Gale, so a fairly
indirect route, and in 86-days, so a fraction under 40 miles a day which seems barely
Still there was much I didn’t know about
her.For one thing, although she was
British by marriage, she was born in Russia in 1903, migrated to England in
1939, and had a career as an engineer.So
she’d have been in her mid to late 50s when she was doing the walks that made
I also didn’t know that she
was a nutritional crank, a vegetarian, but sometimes also a breatharian, believing people could survive without food altogether.According to Bill Gale, “A large glass of
grass juice was her favorite six course meal in one.” In various interviews she
said that people could live to be 150 or 200 years old, and claimed to have
cured herself of leukemia, using a special diet.
What I absolutely didn't know, and which Gale doesn't mention, is that she spent the last years of her life fighting legal property battles over the lab
she was planning to build next to her house in Frimley, in Surrey, and she was
eventually jailed for contempt of court.She died in a St Giles Hospital, London in 1977, somewhat earlier than
she had anticipated.
Well it did seem a slightly improbable
thing, didn’t it, that you’d be walking in the woods somewhere near the town of Chappaqua in upstate New York, a couple of days after the
election, and suddenly you’d find Hillary and Bill Clinton also walking there?
That’s what Margot
Gerster said happened to her, and I have no good reason to doubt her, although the
claims that this was some kind of PR stunt are, I think, understandable.
Gerster wrote on her Facebook page, “'I've been feeling so heartbroken since yesterday's election and decided
what better way to relax than take my girls hiking.
decided to take them to one of favorite places in Chappaqua. We were the only
ones there and it was so beautiful and relaxing.
were leaving, I heard a bit of rustling coming towards me and as I stepped into
the clearing there she was, Hillary Clinton and Bill with their dogs doing
exactly the same thing as I was.
to hug her and talk to her and tell her that one of my most proudest moments as
a mother was taking Phoebe with me to vote for her.
hugged me and thanked me and we exchanged some sweet pleasantries and then I
let them continue their walk.”
Well what else would you do?But
still, a couple of matters arise. First, it must be said that Hillary
Clinton is looking surprising cheerful given recent events, and although we do
know that walking is very good for depression, I still don’t think I’d be
looking quite that sunny immediately after my presidential campaign had
floundered on the treacherous rocks of Trumpism.
I also wonder who took the picture.Was it Bill?Or was it a
bodyguard?I imagine that even in the
woods near Chappaqua, the Clintons travel with a pretty serious security
There’s a lot in the press lately about women walking, not least the
bookby Lauren ElkinFlâneuse: Women Walk the City in
Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and LondonThe book isn’t published yet in the United
States and I’m too mean to buy a hardback copy from England but I’ll get it
soon, no doubt.
The author’s website says, “Flâneuse is a cultural history of women writers and artists who have found
personal freedom as well as inspiration by engaging with cities on foot, and
includes chapters on Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Sophie Calle, and Agnès Varda,
among others.The London
Evening Standard says,“larded with
We all know that women face certain, let’s call them challenges, when out walking, especially while walking alone, although walking alone doesn't necessarily solve much. And in one of those odd, serendipitous moments I happened to be reading a piece in the
book Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies, Francis Wheen’s collected journalism from
1991-2001, in which he discusses Who’s
Who and Debrett’s People of Today,
and has great fun noting people’s “recreations.”
As someone who has a nodding acquaintanceship with a certain kind of
literary “fame,” I wasn’t entirely surprised to find I’d had some small dealings
with a couple of the people he mentions in the article, both of them in Who’s Who, both of themwomen, both of them apparently walkers.
One is Emma Tennant, that's her above, who simply listed “walking around” as a recreation.It so happens I was
once in the frame to write a short story for a collection she was editing.I don’t think it ever appeared, or if it did
I certainly wasn’t in it, but she invited me to her house in Notting Hill for
discussions and whisky, and she and I certainly walked the length of her hall,
once in each direction.
Rather more fun is Deborah Moggach – and nobody has ever denied that
Deborah Moggach is a lot of fun – and
she lists one of recreations as “walking around London looking into people’s
windows.”Well yes.Who doesn’t do that given half a chance?But how many admit it?
Ms. Moggach and I have definitely walked some short distances on the
streets of London together, but we never found anybody’s window to look into.Shame.
A long time ago I had a friend, Patrick, who was at Cambridge University
at the same time as Prince Charles, in the early 1970s.On one occasion in the early hours of the
morning Patrick was walking home from some bacchanal and turned a corner and
there heading towards him was Charles, also walking home from some other
bacchanal.They didn’t speak (much less
exchange sweet pleasantries) but they acknowledged each other’s existence and
the prince gave a shrug and a small jerk of the head indicating a man walking some
twenty feet behind him: a bodyguard.He
looked deeply and suitably embarrassed.
This is pretty much the only positive story I’ve ever heard about
Charles.And I just found the picture
below, taken in 1970 apparently.There’s
the prince walking with Lord Mounbatten, and behind him are couple of royal
subjects.That’s how young men
looked in 1970.Nobody has ever accused Charles of trying to
appear like a man of the people. Maybe he needed a woman to walk with.
So I was doing a word search for “Pynchon+female+flaneurs” y’know, the
way you do, and it turned up a movie review on letterboxd.com, by Chuck Williamson
discussing Pont de Nord, a 1982 movie
directed by Jacques Rivette, which I’d never heard of. I think it has the least relevant DVD cover I've ever encountered.
Rivette used to be one of my main men: Celine and Julie Go Boating was the movie that drew me in. I never saw
the whole twelve hours of his movie Out 1,
but I did make it through the 4 hours of the shorter cut Out 1: Specter. If I’ve
cooled slightly on Rivette it may be partly that so few of his films get wide
distribution, also frankly there always seemed a bit too much acting going on in his movies; not
helped by the fact quite a few of the movies were about people in theater groups.
Anyway, the Williamson review started like this: “Cervantes by way of Thomas Pynchon, Le
Pont du Nord is an improvised game of female flâneurs, urban modernity,
panoptic surveillance, and apophenia run amok. It recasts Paris as a
labyrinthine game board, a liminal space in the throes of renewal whose razed
and roughhewn layout houses an intricately patterned maze.”
Well I was. I found a few stills
online – two women posing around in Paris, one of them instantly recognizable
as Bulle Ogier (a Rivette favorite), the other unknown to me: in fact it was
Bulle’s daughter Pascale, though they don’t play mother and daughter in the
A root around on Amazon suggested Pont de Nord was available on DVD in the
UK but not in the US, and although I really wanted to see the movie, I thought
it was just going to be one those intense passing urges that the internet
fosters then erases. But I thought I’d
check on YouTube, maybe find a trailer or some such, and there was the whole thing. There are, of course, all sorts of reasons to
fret about the royalty-free zone that is YouTube, but I am a weak man – I
It is amazing and wonderful stuff, full of
game playing and psychogeography, and really 90 percent of the film has the two
female leads Marie (played by Bulle) and Baptiste (played by Pascale) wandering
around Paris, usually together; and if you say that the flaneur has to be a
solitary figure, well I’d say you’re being a bit harsh.
the occasional exception, the Paris seen in the movie is disorientatingly
unfamiliar. The women walk the
underpopulated the edgelands of the city, walking through wastelands, past
ruins, past things being demolished, along railway lines, up staircases that
seem to lead nowhere in particular. These
two singular (and I think you’d have to say rather actressy) women look around
them, look for clues, and why deny it, they also look very good.
They are essentially homeless women, in that
Marie has just been released from prison and has nowhere to go, and Baptiste is
a sort of street urchin who seems to be suffering from an unspecified mental
disorder.You can’t help noticing that
they and their clothes stay remarkably clean despite them having no obvious arrangements
for ablutions or laundry, but it’s not really that kind of movie.
There is a sort of thriller plot: you can
get away with a lot if you include a thriller plot. Pierre Clementi is wonderfully, reliably,
creepy as the bad criminal boyfriend, and there’s a lot of stuff with a map, actually
two maps, of Paris, showing the city as a (thoroughly incomprehensible) game,
with different squares representing tomb, prison, pit, auberge, and so on. This
inevitably doesn’t add up to as much you’d like, but somehow you never expect
I couldn’t help thinking I’d have been pretty happy if most of the plot and dialogue had been ditched and I could have
watched the two women walking around this unfamiliar, transitional Paris, and
I’m sure there must be some avant- garde filmmaker out there who’s made a movie
much like that.
But what you do get in Pont de Nord is a sense of
danger, the sense that these two women wandering the city are very vulnerable,
that no good is likely to come of it, and certainly that the men in the film
are unlikely to be any help. And in the
end, things do turn out very badly, though not in the way you’re
expecting. No spoilers from me.
There’s a good deal of discussion in
academic circles about the extent to which female flaneurism even exists. I only follow some of it. There is an argument, much of it having to do
with masculine sexuality and gaze, and the different ways in which men and
women relate to the city, which suggests flaneurism in the Beaudelairean sense
is a specifically male response to certain crises in 19th century
capitalism. There is also, naturally, a
desire for women to reclaim the territory.
an interesting 2002 essay by Helen Scalway titled “The Contemporary Flaneuse:
Exploring strategies for the drifter in a feminine mode.” It discusses the difficulties, and
“negotiations” demanded of a solitary woman walking in London. She describes an area close to where I used
to live: she describes the horrors of the Westway very accurately.
She also writes of the area in general, “Aggressively fast boy cyclists on the pavements. - and all
the stopped people:
unemployed youths, claiming space by their demeanor - probably because they
have no space anywhere, really; all the homeless, the beggars, the drugged,
drunk, deranged, predatory; other victims of care in the community.”
These things have to be negotiated my
male walkers as well, but in a different way no doubt. Scalway also takes an interesting dig at Iain
Sinclair, quoting the opening lines of Lights
Out for the Territory, familiar enough to many readers “The notion was to cut a crude V into the
sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant sign
Yes, there is something
unnecessarily “manly” and macho about that wording, isn’t there? In part I suspect it’s because Sinclair
doesn’t want to come across as some, effete middle-class boulevardier, he wants to show how serious he is, a man on a
mission, with a special literary project.
In person he doesn’t come over as macho at all. But sure, I can’t imagine any woman ever
putting it quite that way, and Scalway certainly doesn’t.
Scalway continues, “I think about the manner of my walking. So then how
actually, do I walk? It’s a looking for spaces to slip
through and round, weaving and threading a path through which opens and closes,
darting, dodging and
dancing, two-stepping, giving way, persistently returning.
“My passage is not,
cannot be, like that of Iain Sinclair’s narrator who freely uses words such as march, stride, slog, swinging out into the main drag, yomp.The words that come to my mind to
describe my movement through the street imply that it's a much more difficult