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 (1979).
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 uninteresting.”
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 in Suite 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 walk.
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 imaginable.
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 her famous.
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.