The lure of the ordinary VI

Patrick Keiller

Thoughts themselves are a form of locomotion, and walking is a rhythm for thought. This suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it1.
According to Rebecca Solnit, the problem in this age of car travel, i-pods and mobile phones is the filling-up of […] ‘the time in-between’, the time of walking to or from a place, of meandering, of running errands. That time has been deplored as a waste […] the very ability to appreciate this uncluttered time, the uses of the useless, often seems to be evaporating, as does the appreciation of being outside – including outside the familiar2. This loss comes at the expense of a rich and immensely broad experience: while walking, the body and the mind can work together, so that thinking becomes almost a physical, rhythmical act – so much for the Cartesian mind/body divide […] great walkers often move through both urban and rural places in the same way; and even past and present are brought together when you walk as the ancients did or relive some event in history or your own life by retracing its route. And each walk moves through space like a thread through fabric, sewing it together into a continuous experience3.
In this way, a distinction between walking in a rural, suburban or urban environment is of little consequence. Likewise whether the place is a distinguished or rather of a liminal space, and whether one’s thoughts are high or low, mainly spiritual or mainly material, do not matter. Walking offers us most when we see it as a tool to access anything and anywhere. It has a pleasing vagueness4. Walking is a subject about straying and that is always straying itself5. Walter Benjamin spoke of Paris: Now a landscape, now a room6 and followed Baudelaire’s footsteps walking all over its topography in a rejection of urban romanticism in favour of modernity. A contemporary equivalent might be urban free-running, a practice originating in the suburbs of Paris, which uses the city's furniture as gym equipment and its order as an invitation to play. Benjamin adopted Paris’s labyrinthine disorder as a model for his writing, an example being One Way Street with its many short narratives […] like a warren of streets and alleys7. Paris was seen as a wilderness, its inhabitants as savages. The flâneur or poet sauntered amongst them, entering as he liked into each man’s personality; he was botanizing on the asphalt, establishing his dwelling in the throng, in the ebb and flow, in the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite8. The city and the text’s modernist anti-structures are less linear narrative and more akin to Bachelard’s vertical poetry, in which simultaneity and ambivalence pervade9. If like Baudelaire, Benjamin experimented in flânerie, then flânerie is an activity that collects multiple associations, experiences and elements of the city like a magnet collecting iron filings. Francis Alÿs' walks with a magnetic toy or magnetised shoes seem to extrapolate this idea into physical reality, providing him with a cargo of debris from a particular temporal and geographical moment. He also records tunes from running a stick along railings, recalling Perec's Une Homme Qui Dort; trails paint after him to mark a tracery of his route; and collects seven stones in my right shoe and three in my left from another walk.

If the flâneur does such, the implication is also that he is collecting matter to respond to a lack. He is searching. The verb saunter’s origin is unknown, but it is possible it derives from sans terre and thus indicates that the walker has no land, or sainte terre with its indication that the walker is conducting a pilgrimage to a promised place. In this light, flânerie and sauntering gain some melancholy and poetic weight. The flâneur is able to be away from home and yet to feel at home anywhere. He has no home and is always an outsider. He is a man in the crowd, yet he is not of it. There is little evidence of the flâneur as a historical person; he is more a motif, and one for all modern, Western humanity. Perhaps he shows that walking is a form of Freudian Fort/ Da in which we perpetually walk away and towards, hide and find. Yet what it is we are hiding and finding most often eludes us.

Jan Morris talks about travel and the writing as autobiography as opposed to travel-writing, showing that it is often about finding an internal, psychological place not a geographical one10. One might not need to leave the home in order to go on such a journey. A late eighteenth century writer whose works include ‘Journey around my Bedroom’ and ‘Nocturnal Expedition around my Bedroom’11 proves this in his titles. 

Journeys and writing are about me, and a place’s affect upon me. Writing is egotistical, autobiographical, can be full of semi-fiction too – dates and events are ‘mights’ and ‘maybes’. I don’t pretend to know a place in any other way than a subjective one12, says Morris. She also agrees about the existence of a melancholy aspect that colours travel, using the Welsh word hiraeth to describe this longing or pining for something that is often intangible, moribund, already existent, or completely utopian. Hiraeth is an ache that is empty of any solid substance yet filled with emotion.

When we walk, we are walking hiraeth, partly in an attempt to alleviate it and partly in enjoyment of it. Travel has an etymology that testifies to its difficult aspect: travailler, to work; and Dante’s Divine Comedy is an example of an extended walk of such struggle.

Walking through Paris as Haussmann got to work sanitising it, the flâneur felt hiraeth. Baudelaire says: Paris is changing! But nothing within my melancholy has shifted! New palaces, scaffoldings, piles of stone, old neighbourhoods – everything has become allegory for me and my dear memories are heavier than stones13. Although saddened by the death of the arcades and the advent of wide boulevards, street-lighting, official names, numbering and policing (all evident, along with the latest invention for walking: the umbrella, in Caillebotte’s painting), an element of enjoyment is audible in Baudelaire; the death of old Paris was also a catalyst for the flâneur’s melancholic creativity. Iain Sinclair describes this bittersweet sensation as urban drift, melancholy bordering on catatonia14. Paris had been delightfully jungle-like for centuries, and the game was to be had in losing oneself in it. The new sense of knowing the city spoiled that mystery, as might the giving of a purpose and time limit – or even satellite navigation coordinates – to a dérive.

Benjamin says that in Eugene Atget’s photographs of the old streets of Paris it is as if a crime is about to take place. Like Baudelaire, Atget captures the last breaths of the pre-Haussmann Paris and the first of new Paris’ department store window reflections and shiny facades. Paris at once feels like a graveyard and a fashion-house panopticon. Man Ray also explored the uncanny and chance encounters engendered by reflections, mannequins and walkers, and looked at the traces of life left around the city in peeling wallpaper or worn steps. The mood is sombre: they say ‘that is dead and that is going to die’ of their subjects15.

Walking, like poetry, contains enjambment and caesura. A walk is divided into stanzas, the surroundings or our physical state influencing its flow and interruptions. Guy Debord says that the city has constant currents, fixed points and vortexes16, indicating its dynamic and poetic tendencies. Film and text unfold only as we view or read them, as does a walk and as do the urban and rural terrains. Therefore perhaps it is these two forms that are best suited to explore walking, all activities sharing a temporal affinity.

Filmmaker Patrick Keiller’s take on London is interesting in this sense, because rather than lay dynamic sequences in a Debordian concatenation of action as we might expect, he holds a belief in the power of the camera to reveal the strangeness of familiar objects. His camera […] remains resolutely still as it frames places […] while the voice over adds layer upon layer of significance17. Titles or captions for each section (Vauxhall, The Romantic, Magnolias) provide a form of versification to the accumulation of near-static images. He finds peculiar connections between disparate stories in the city, his unnamed narrator (the voice of Paul Scofield) unfolding them alongside the story of the film’s Sebaldian protagonist, Robinson. Robinson, like the narrator, is a middle-aged intellectual interested in Romanticism and preoccupied with a melancholic worry for the city’s future. Rimbaud first coined the term robinsonner to mean 'to travel mentally'18, and Robinson captures this ceaseless, slightly worried mental activity perfectly.

Patrick Keiller

The film is shot on old film stock in which reds, yellows and oranges appear highly saturated. The effect is similar to the news film reel once used in the cinema to broadcast headlines. Indeed, London feels a little like one of these newsreels in its choice of scenery: London is shown as a red Routemaster, Big Ben, the Thames and Battersea. Red on grey like a motif.
The effect is also reminiscent of early picture-framing tools used on tourist trips to the Lake District. Walker-tourists would be guided to a spot where they would then look at the landscape through a portable picture frame or a Claude-Glass (a mirror with blue-tinted edges). The topography was thus edited or ‘photographed’ for them in a desirable, pseudo-static format.

Robinson believed, we are told, that if he looked hard enough he could see the molecular parts of the city, its historical events19, this quote encapsulating both Keiller’s praxis and Margaret Taits’s. Post-Thatcherite London does look pessimistic in this film, with homeless people crouching around fires in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, IRA attacks and Battersea Power Station a moribund hulk on the skyline. Robinson and the narrator are flâneurs of sorts, referring abroad and into the past to Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Montaigne. The essence of Romanticism id getting outside of yourself says the narrator as the camera lingers over an inflatable Ronald McDonald somewhere near Surrey Quays or flotsam in the Thames beyond Vauxhall. Such bathos undermines Scofield’s refined Oxbridge accent and adds humour: this is a study of the British way of keeping-up appearances in the face of bleak situations, the enjoyment of self-conscious brooding and feeling hiraeth for something different. In one particularly strange sequence, we visit Joshua Reynold’s house on Richmond Hill; there are bucolic scenes of cows grazing in the valley near the Thames. Yet the accompanying music is a Peruvian jazz, exotic and entirely out of place save for the narrator’s explanation that the pair had met the musicians on the walk and decided to accompany them westwards. In another scene, the pair stays in Monet’s suite in a hotel, yet a poster of the Chippendale strippers who are currently in London fixates the camera. This mode of combining the contemporary with past, geographically near with far, and the prosodic with the poetic is a form of dialectic. Detournement and psychogeography’s technique of making new places or syntheses out of disparate associations is this dialectic at work too.

Iain Sinclair’s over-long paragraphs, like Keiller’s use of the voice over and Peter Ackroyd’s biographies of London, pile layer upon layer of meaning in a vertical accumulation of history, cultural references, bathos and melancholy. A horizontal movement across a topography is contrasted with a vertical descent through its past20. To take a paragraph from Lights Out For The Territory as an example: 

trampling asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself. To the no-bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin-de-siècle decadence, a poetic of entropy – but the born-again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything. Alignments in telephone kiosks, maps made from moss on the slopes of Victorian sepulchres, collections of prostitutes’ cards, torn and defaced promotional bills for cancelled events at York Hall, visits to the homes of dead writers, bronze casts on war memorials, plaster dogs, beer mats, concentrations of used condoms, the crystalline patterns of glass shards surrounding an imploded BMW quarter-light window, meditations on the relationship between the brain-damage suffered by the super-middleweight boxer Gerald McClellan (lights out in the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel) and the simultaneous collapse of Barings, bankers to the Queen. Walking, moving across a retreating townscape, stitches it all together: the illicit cocktail of bodily exhaustion and a raging carbon monoxide high.

For these artists, London is a necropolis, a city of the dead and their stories. Jan Morris also engages with the dead of a place when she writes about it, reviving and reticulating their stories. About Bath, she writes:

I see them often, those elusive shades, as I wander the city. Miss Austen looks a little disgruntled as she picks her way between the puddles towards the circulating library. Lord Nelson looks a little wan as he opens his window in Pierrepont Street to see how the wind blows.21

There is a sense of a continuum and an eternal landscape that underpins the present one, and even if we are writing of contemporary figures, they are motifs for eternal patterns, the types Edgar Allen Poe noticed in The Man of the Crowd.

In inflating certain aspects or eras of a place, others deflate, and our cognitive map grows increasingly different to a topographical one. De Certeau links map-making with panoptic strategic power, as does Brian Friel in his play Translations, which explores the political and cultural reverberations of mapping Gaelic Ireland in the 1830s. But psychogeographic or artistic map-making is more akin to what de Certeau calls tactics: little methods of subverting or making more personal the surroundings22. Stanley Brouwn's project This Way Brouwn explored this map subjectivity or dis-morphia. Asking hundreds of people to draw a quick map to direct him to the station, Brouwn constructed an anthology of maps, all entirely different and personal. 

Stanley Brouwn

A 17th Century ladies’ game called Map of the Land of Feeling did a similar thing, although for different ends. In the game, players would traverse the board, visiting the ‘lac d’indiferance’, and forests or valleys labelled ‘complaisance’ or ‘sincerite’. At the end of the game each player would weave her visited places into a narrative of romance, the journey becoming a personal story. Although the game was not psychogeography, it shares much with that movement. Each area has its own atmosphere; the journey between each is a narrative of sorts; and the spaces in between ‘complaisance’ or ‘sincerite’ are as interesting as the destinations, due to their liminal, slightly ambiguous nature.

Liminal spaces have claimed a significant place in recent art practice, writing and film making – Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital, and Patrick Keiller’s films London and Robinson in Space/ in Ruins being examples. Mabey looks at sewage farms and airfields […] as if they were natural land-forms, inexorably tied to local history and geology23

The dérive often took the drifter in search of peculiar, heterogeneous and often accidental elements24 – elements most often to be found in liminal spaces. These might be spaces outside the city walls, spaces in which uncanny activity, or that which was deemed to be beyond the Pale took place. In Mabey's case, the activity might be that weeds growing in a neat part of the city or suburb where they ought not to. In the case of Annette Messager, it is her own mode of looking that creates the menacing, uncanny atmosphere. In The Approaches, she surveys the street, however, unlike George Perec's objective eye, Messager's becomes transfixed again and again by passing men's crotches. From the photographs of them that she takes, we feel both like a child on the street who is subjected to that view because of our diminutive height, and like a female voyeur avenging for years of sexism on the street.
Suburbia is liminal space itself, and suburban walking neither quite the health and romantic orientated activity of rural walking nor the flânerie of urban. In suburbia one is neither remote from people (as in the countryside) nor alone due to surrounding strangers (the urban equivalent). Walking in the suburb is a marginal activity because driving is what is expected: walking is no longer, so to speak, how many people think25. In this way walking is available as an act of resistance to the mainstream: this makes Mabey, Keiller and Sinclair as unorthodox as Wordsworth was once held to be, when they walk near the M25 or in the suburbs of London under Heathrow’s flight path.

In a way, walking is a liminal activity wherever it is done because it is neither work nor is it inactivity. It is a form of research, perhaps, yet the purpose of this research is often unknown. Pilgrimage is a liminal state too, where one is in-between one’s former state and a future transformation. Almost every life function, from breathing to eating and waking is a negotiation between one thing and another. Walking is as basic as breathing or the heart’s beating, and for as long as we live we will walk some way.

1 Solnit, R (2001) Wanderlust: A History of Walking
2 Solnit, R op. cit.
3 Solnit, R op. cit.
4Debord, G quoted in Coverley, M Psychogeography
5 Solnit, R op. cit.
6 Benjamin, W quoted in Solnit, R op. cit.
7 Solnit, R op. cit.
8 Baudelaire, Ch quoted in Solnit, R op. cit.
9 Bachelard, G The Right to Dream
10 Morris, J in a personal interview, summer 2010 (see
11 Xavier de Maistre
12 Morris, J op. cit.
13 Baudelaire, Ch quoted in Solnit. R
14 Sinclair, I in BBC television interview for London: A City of Disappearances (see
15 Barthes, R Camera Lucida
16 Debord, G (1956) ‘Theory of the Dérive’ in Internationale Situationniste no.2
17 Donald, J Imagining the Modern City
18Coverley, M op. Cit.
19 Keiller, P London
20Coverley, M op. Cit.
21 Jan Morris ‘Bath’ in Amongst the Cities
22 de Certeau, M The Practice of Everyday Life
23 Mabey, R quoted in Sinclair, I On Richard Mabey
24 Dart, G ‘Daydreaming’ in Beaumont, M and Dart, G (eds) Restless Cities
25 Solnit, R op. cit.   

thanks to Stephen Johnstone.