#kbhlæser: Copenhagen reads!

Kbh Læser (FB | Twitter: @kbh_laeser#kbhlæser), is an annual literary festival masterminded by Copenhagen Libraries.

Most of my posts seem to be about events these days, and this one is a rewrite of an old messy post on the festival, updated for 2018. When I first started this blog my focus was primarily the formidling angle, ie how events are presented on the web and how they are amplified (think pictorial broadcasting), shared and archived (or not). Of particular note in this regard is the rise of Instagram and the A3 newspaper.

As I started exploring CPH as place this became an additional focus, and now I’m increasingly exercised by how many festivals feel invisibly labelled “Danish only”, aimed at an audience I’m certainly not a member of, and to be making limited to no efforts to appeal to a more diverse, or, dare I say it, intercultural, audience.

For a public library led event, Kbh Læser is disturbingly highbrow – you’d be hard pressed to find many bestsellers here, and if you aren’t au fait with critical theory you may well be more than a tad turned off. Themes tend to the abstract; 2018 has the somewhat opaque catch-all theme of Manifest (Manifesto; think Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto).

Unusually for these days, there is no English version of the website, although the newspaper (64pp; too much already; selected articles in news) has a couple of English features. Elsewhere, the enthusiastic Ark Books (“For the Danes we’d like to provide the world’s literature, and introduce Danish literature to those who can’t read Danish”) offers its Manifesto Month (2017: Growth Month).

With my name on it, if in a four-way clash with the Beast from the East, were Georges Perec & OuLiPo at Storrs Antikvariat (a new secondhand bookshop in NV), Den Røde Sofa med Mette Dalsgaard (literary translator from Russian) and Flanørens Europa with Fabian Saul (as seen at Flâneur in Copenhagen nearly three years ago) and Mette Kit Jensen (in Kunsten.nu on the city), on what a drift through the streets of Europe can teach us about modern identity. (See also Fabian’s piece in the A3 rag entitled Notes for a pamphlet: walking the Assistens Cemetery of Copenhagen: the city as cemetery and Goethe Institute-supported project Traces of Resistance, now in the UK.)

Also with an international flavour we have a Flytningemanifest (and in English), Beirut læser and København læser syrisk litteratur (“Syrian literature as a part of literary Denmark”, hurra). We also have an art writing piece by Khalid Albaih, a Sudanese political cartoonist currently in CPH under the ICORN programme.

More of note:

  • in place related corner, several articles on bookish things in areas of the city: FrederiksbergVesterbro (unpick: “Istedgade…emmer af diversitet og mangfoldighed”) and Østerbro (just Poesiens Hus then), plus profiles of the new Litteraturhuset at Nybrogade 28 (seemingly beset by delay and various teething issues), Arbejdermuseet and KBH Tegner (comics and related)
  • a Litterært Manifest-kort, a map with 12 places; why-oh-why not online, not least when the project has received support from at least three worthy institutions? (this isn’t the first time, either)
  • Læseforeningen guided community reading events in Kulturtårnet, Ørestad Bibliotek and the tower of Vor Frue Kirke
  • Europa.Manifest, the output of visits to CPH central library during the autumn of 2017 by European and Danish philosophers, now available as a book
  • a Mikrofest from 24 small publishers, party and anthology in one (all in all an encouraging amount of wordplay around mani/fest; fest means party på dansk), with an online portal to come later in 2018
  • ENIGMA, the suitable enigmatic newish museum/not for post and telegraphy type things, has MANIFEST NOW, a virtual exhibition and installation at the main library, consisting of cut-ups from 15 manifestos displayed at random and/or put back together
  • and finally, Kbh Læser: the blog

#kbhlæser in previous years:

Event website critique (2015): usual fish in a barrel stuff. With 159 events from 77 organisers, and 58 venues, you need several ways of finding your way around the programme, but as ever there was no way in via theme or audience. A map/app would have been nice, although there was a list of what’s on at each venue. No search…and while the design is contemporary enough, you are diverted to Copenhagen Libraries’ rather creaky site for full details, where when it’s gone, it’s gone.

In archive terms, there is one page on the festival’s history plus brief summaries of the festivals in 2014 (the body in literature) and 2012 (Copenhagen). 2018 update: now replaced by photo selections on the about page (2015-17 only), although the 2017 programme is still advertised.

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CPH 850: city identity at Golden Days

Latest, Feb 2018: CPH has got itself a Light Festival; the website is entirely in Danglish, which led to some comments on FB; with 40 installations it feels a tad OTT, and Politiken’s review agrees, suggesting that they turn it down a bit, what with one of CPH’s qualities being its dimness, a component of hygge…Byvandring.nu offer some pics with refreshingly downbeat commentary…meanwhile Edinburgh Lumen has gone for “three unique installations…transform St Andrew Square, Assembly Rooms Lane and The Mound Precinct into zen-like portals of tranquility”…

This year’s Golden Days festival (case), running from 2-17 September, took the 850th anniversary of Copenhagen’s notional founding by Bishop Absalon as its theme:

Byer skabes af mennesker, og ingen by har værdi uden sine borgere: Vi er alle skabere af byen. Det er kernebudskabet, når Golden Days Festivalen i 2017 fejrer 850-året for grundlæggelsen af København.

[Cities are created by people, and a city without its people has no worth. We all create the city. This is the message at the heart of Golden Days 2017, celebrating the 850th anniversary of the founding of Copenhagen.]

This truism demonstrates that it may be about CPH but really it’s all about Us. What is it with Danes and place? Or perhaps, what is it with Brits and place? Anyway, Copenhagen’s place-myth, the one everyone grew up with, dates back to Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish Geoffrey of Monmouth, who related how King Valdemar handed a small island over to his foster brother Absalon, Bishop of Roskilde. In 1167 Absalon built a castle on the island, today known as Slotsholmen in the heart of modern Copenhagen.

Archaeological finds date CPH as rather older than this, as pointed out by various sections of the press, but they’re sticking with it, needs must, playing with the myth med glimt i øjet and a fake news style eventFup og fusk! But in a country where supermarkets regularly celebrate spurious birthdays, it’s not really important.

Moving on, early publicity portrayed a fiendishly complicated festival, with 10 people to bear witness to the development of CPH’s cultural heritage around whom the whole shebang would revolve in a set of 10 spor (tracks, trails), with events, guided walks, maps, using “modern network theory” to reveal how the 10 individuals were connected with their contemporaries and with each other. Gosh.

The site design did seem to have had a bit of shine-up, greeting you with shots of the 10 and clips of Copenhagen, plus a blocky menu on the right. Events were keyworded with an appropriate individual, somewhat arbitrarily at times, and you could also browse by location (of the venue), category and day. On the added value content side there were short ‘essays’ and maps with spots for each of the 10, also to be found in this year’s free magazine.

Festival director Svante Lindeburg’s explanation of the curational strategy described a metro diagram, enabling you to see, for example, which of the 10 had connections to the Royal Theatre. This sounded fantastic, but in practice was let down by poor execution and a limited dataset.

Below I have overlaid the maps for near contemporaries Carl Jacobsen and Herman Bang, showing disappointingly no connections:

map overlaying spots for two of the 10

For starters, I’m peeved that the map can only be opened via the site, despite being made in Google Maps. I’d like to fiddle with it! Next, what are the connecting lines about – join the dots? Third, it’s not possible to browse by place. The squares/nodes merely present the text from each individual’s map.

Here’s what you get at the Royal Theatre if you overlay all ten maps and zoom in – there’s not a lot of network theory here:

the unnamed Royal Theatre appears on four maps

Who is Copenhagen?

What of the 10 themselves? Perhaps refreshingly, no Kierkegaard and no Hans Christian Andersen. Less happily we have Women: 2, and Immigrants: 0. That’s just lazy. It’s a shame no one was galvanised enough to come up with an alternative 10, although DR has offered up a five women of the 19th century without trying too hard.

the CPH 850 10: pick a person for events and an essay

The first woman of our 10 is hostess Kamma Rahbek (1775-1829), included largely as a peg for hanging salons on. A meta-salon at KU Bibliotek presented the 19th century salon as gammeldags networking and the equivalent of today’s bookshop readings, with åndrig samtale og et let traktement. Of several contemporary wannabees a Tove Ditvelsen salon at was held at Gentofte Hovedbibliotek; Danish sweetheart Tove lived in Gentofte from 1945-50 and would have been 100 this year, so there was cake…with her writing on growing up in Vesterbro before WW2 Tove might have been a better choice as the second woman of our 10, rather than folkelig inter-war entertainer Liva Weel. Sorry Liva.

A couple of events gave a nod to gender or explored the distaff side of the city – a literary evening in the form of Gin&Gender #9 and a walk from KulturenNu taking in the three statues of named women in the city (for the record: Caroline Amalie, queen consort to Christian VIII, in Kongens Have, women’s education advocate Natalie Zahle in Ørstedsparken and scientist Inge Lehmann, a newcomer on Vor Frue Plads (pic).

A sole event was spotted on newcomers to the city, an Historisk morgen hosted by the National Museum in the Hamad Bin Khalifa Civilisation Center, looking at the effect of immigration (from Russian Jews, Swedish maids and Turkish guestworkers) on Nørrebro as place and its redevelopment as a diverse area in a multicultural society.

It would have nice to have made a passing attempt at presenting a rather more diverse selection of people to represent 850 years of the city’s history. Coupled with a lack of English or any other language other than the dansk throughout, there’s a clear message of who the festival is viewed as being for, and a clear picture of the city’s people-myth. Even going forward.

Where is Copenhagen?

Now then, when you say Copenhagen where (and what) exactly do you mean? The CPH urban area has a population of nearly 1.3 million and is made up of 18 councils, including Copenhagen itself on 606K. While not quite as extreme as Manchester (541K) and its urban area (over 2.5 million), you don’t have to travel far out of the city centre to hit another kommune, a fact that probably doesn’t feature on many mental maps of the city.

As in previous years a number of events were held to the administrative north (specifically in Gentofte, Gladsaxe, Lyngby-Taarbæk and Rudersdal), dressed up as Flugten fra København (the flight from Copenhagen) and limiting the relationship of city and suburb across place and time to a clutch of royal hunting lodges (C4), salon venues (KR) and post-WW2 housing developments (EW). Just don’t call it Copenhagen.

The Frederiksberg-shaped hole in the middle of the city, created in 1901 when CPH swallowed up Valby, Vigerslev and Brønshøj, was neatly filled by an exploration of the kommune‘s continued independence via walks on its eastern and western borders, noticeboards at strategic points and a podcast series. The difference does go beyond street furniture and parking regulations – it’s Danish scale in action.

Other than that CPH 850 meant the city centre and the inner parts of the ‘bros; few events extended further than your average city-breaker, ignoring the city’s own outer areas never mind its post-war suburbs and sprawlYet as cultural historian Ann-Sofie Gremaud of the Denmark and the new North Atlantic project pointed out, Copenhagen exists in many other places, in music, literature and film, and not least in all the people who have lived there or had a direct connection to its growth. Some of this Copenhagen was celebrated in an event at Nordatlantens Brygge, while KulturenNu led a walk on the city and Dansk Vestindien, now the American Virgin Islands, sold to the USA 100 years ago.

Some CPH 850 takeaways

  • Zoom København – the book version, by the prolific Martin Zerlang (who also did a turn retelling the whole tale in 85 minutes); update, Dec: library copy inspected and lugged back after an unopened month or so, ticking all the usual boxes in terms of materiality and style, feeling more like a coffee table item than something corresponding to 21st century reading habits…there’s a post to be written here; the worthy output of a lifetime’s research, but FWIS a disappointingly conventional chronological presentation, dropping the 10 people and the angle of how they might be connected – maybe they should have taken a leaf out of Niall Ferguson’s latest?
  • Københavnerkanon – they love the canonic in Denmark, and CPH is no exception; a panel came up with a top 20 based on 300-odd Facebook and Instagram submissions, subjected to a vote and whittled down to a top 10 revealed on 2 September
  • Copenhagen on film – series of films and talks marking the publication of a mursten entitled Filmens København (Gyldendal; Politiken)
  • Copenhagen in literature:
    • 10 forfattere. 1o perioder. 10 oplaesninger. – 10 authors gave readings from their own back catalogue and from one of the 10 historical periods
    • Litterær københavnercabaret (FB) – readings and songs in Literaturhaus
    • a literary drunks’ map of CPH (FB), one of three maps on offer _in_ CPH libraries (and which typically haven’t seen the digital light of day)

Any walks of interest? In Brønshøj, Oline Brønd, following in the footsteps of her grandfather Evald who has led more than 180 guided walks in CPH, traced the suburb’s identity from Absalon’s Brønshøj Kirke, founded in the 1180s, via the first school in the area, now Kulturhuset Pilegården, to Ib Lunding’s iconic 1928 water tower, soon to be converted into a venue for cultural events.

As well as the selection of tours from Kulturen.nu two rather unexpected delights looked at the city through a different lens: KLOAK, a sewer tour led by former Golden Days director Ulla Tofte, and a nine stop Science walk from Videnskabernes Selskab.

Overall though CPH 850 felt both of and for the creative class, offering an inward-looking, exclusive and rather one dimensional view of cultural heritage and identity, similar to that currently presented by DR’s Historien om Danmark. While I realise Golden Days is heavily dependent on sponsorship and the involvement of local cultural actors, it would be nice to see the festival taking more risks in terms of events and venues, and a more inclusive look at its potential audience – and perhaps presenting a more complex picture of Copenhagen reflecting all its people in the process.

Rising ground: travel vs place

I have bookshelves groaning with travel literature shelved by place. This includes Philip Marsden‘s The crossing place (1993, Armenia), The Bronski house (1995, Poland; not to be confused with, although sitting next to, Radek Sikorski’s The Polish house) and The spirit wrestlers (1998, Russia). After that things gradually went boat-shaped for Philip, culminating in him buying Ardevora, a farmhouse on the banks of the River Fal. Rising ground: a search for the spirit of place (2014; extract) sees him return home to write about Cornwall.

Marsden describes the reasons for this shift from travel to place: “Getting a bit older perhaps, having a young family, being a little less restless. But more than that is the sense that looking deeper into the local is ultimately more revealing than reaching for the exotic”. And it was never just about the travel. “I have written travel books certainly, but have come to each subject fresh – explored it, researched it, teased it out and tried to unravel its attraction. Only then do I assemble the form that it requires to tell.”

But Rising ground is not just about place. It’s also about a journey westwards, tracking earlier ‘topophiles’ of the region such as John Leland, the father of topography, the first to write about people and their relationship with the physical aspects of the landscape, a roving antiquary who suffered a breakdown under the weight of knowledge he had amassed. And John Whitaker, who unlike the ‘crag-happy’ Romantic poets of his era felt that places should be examined to reveal the past, not the picturesque. (It’s quite distressing how many of these early writers of place came to a sorry end. Charles Henderson, who read the landscape like a palimpsest, layered with the text of former lives, died in Rome on his honeymoon at the age of 33, while John Blight, author of A week at the Land’s End, was confined to an asylum for 40 years, dying there in 1911.)

Marsden himself grew up on the edge of the Mendips, where as a child he explored Aveline’s Hole, a 10,000 year old cave cemetery. Revisiting “fuses childhood wonder and adult knowledge, both of which originate in the universal drive to make sense of the world through an understanding of place…a need to belong”.

The second chapter introduces Ardevora as character, run-down with malfunctioning pipework: “knowing a little of the past brought with it the first sense of belonging”. In intervals between house renovations he explores thinking around space and place, starting with Heidegger’s Building Dwelling Thinking (1954):

‘Dwelling’ meant much more than just living in a house. It described a way of being in the world. In Old English and High German the word buan – meaning both ‘building’ and ‘to dwell’ – is linked to the verb ‘to be’. So to be is ‘to be in a place‘. Only by knowing our surroundings, being aware of topography and the past, can we live what Heidegger deems an ‘authentic’ existence…

‘Place’ is somewhere distinctive, where people react to and live with the particular topography around them, whereas ‘space’ is an idealised location, abstracted from the real world, a template which can be dropped over any point on the earth’s surface and allow meaningful discourse about it…

Physical surroundings (places) have the capacity to create mythologies around them…[but] every topophile knows that some sites are better than others – not just prettier or more dramatic, but endowed with a certain quality that attracts to it a host of stories and ideas.

All this inspires him to compose a topophile’s history of Cornwall, following the axes of time and place on foot to Land’s End in a chronology spanning the ritual landscape of Neolithic times, the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment and on to the 20th century.

In Tintagel he probes Geoffrey of Monmouth’s telling of the Arthurian legend, with the castle perhaps the product of “suggestive topography” where idea and place became intertwined in stories which “bounce down through the centuries, their edges rounding and their shape altering with the collective spirit of each age”. Geoffrey drew on the tradition of the locus amoenus or delightful place, in medieval polarity with the hostile wilderness, defined as comprising a tree (or several trees), a meadow, a spring or brook, possibly with birdsong. “The most elaborate examples add a breeze”. Often asserting a collective sense of belonging, with a recurring motif of a sense of enclosure or encirclement.

Returning to the Mendips as his parents sell his childhood home he walks to Glastonbury, whose tor was a constant presence in his childhood. The mythic heart of England, the town was a one-stop pilgrimage site reducing the idea of earthly sanctity and of the nation to a single place, until it was sacked under Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, as universalism took the place of local cultism.

Visiting his parents’ house for the last time he finds only “hollows and imprints” of his family’s presence, “the memories of the place separated from the place itself”. Lying in bed in Ardevora he hears the iron casing of the stove cooling down with a clicking sound, creaking like an old ship, settling down again and getting used to its refit, coming back to life.

The walk westwards is “like walking the plank”. In West Penwith, the “end of the end-end” in Welsh, the ages are rolled into one in a post-modernist bundle. Nearing the coast the land becomes more marginal. Many feel an altered perception as they reach Land’s End: “We began to feel that we could walk like this for ever, never having to turn back but always going on, to see what was round the next headland, and the next”.

In pre-Christian Europe there was a belief that when the sun dropped below the horizon it went on to shine on the realm of the dead. This makes a walk to Land’s End a “rehearsal for the last perilous journey, or perhaps the realm of the future and the time beyond our own death”. Topography gradually seeped into popular consciousness, going beyond the local (what you can see) to the map or plan, an abstracted version of space which creates its own imperatives.

Beyond Land’s End lies Lynonesse, embodying a sense of loss, of that “vanished era when everything was larger and better”, a locus amoenus which goes one step further with the addition of Tennyson’s King Arthur. The mountain that rose from the land was called Camelot, where “save the Isles of Scilly, all is now wild sea”, the site of Arthur’s last day on earth. Mortally wounded, Arthur is carried out to the land’s end, where a barge takes him away into the western ocean.

As for the Isles of Scilly, “like all the best places, [it] draws you into a state of ceaseless questioning…the reduced scale brings questions closer, and adds a heady combination of freedom and isolation”.

To return to the theme of travel vs place, there’s a a sense that all place writing is travel writing, as any book about ‘place’ to a degree moves through the land. And a journey offers a familiar narrative structure, with walking in particular giving “the slow pace with which to be fully attentive, to notice“. Where place writing differs from conventional travel writing is in the deep mapping required to exhaust a place – in a travel book both reader and writer see a place for the first time, as a tabula rasa, and then move on, without building a permanent relationship. Rising ground is about what makes certain places special and about our fundamental response to landscape, whether personal or collective, cultural places which have accrued meaning and stories.

Our reaction to places, to certain landscapes, lies at the heart of both our personal lives and our collective lives, our culture and traditions…It is us who imbue it with spirit and meaning…Something in our make-up drives us to animate the world around us, to fill it with significance.

Globalisation, with the accompanying increased pace of life and communication, is affecting our relationship to place. It is getting more and more difficult to build and maintain connections with a place (aka the local, home) – perhaps one reason for the current boom in place writing, a given genre in English, with its own prize (the Wainwright). How much is this a British thing, built on a melancholic sense of genius loci developed over generations?

Place writing is not much found in Denmark. Having pondered long on why, I wonder if it is partly down to the fact that in a small, homogeneous, essentially inward-looking country there is a lot less moving about, hence less need to find a place or to make it anew in order to belong. This must affect the Danes’ relationship with place – and be indicative of how it can present an issue for the outsider.

The sense of a need to belong to a place is rather less resonant here, with the Danish sense of national identity perhaps taking its ‘place’. There’s also a dominant narrative about people, when I can’t help thinking they protest too much – no one reading about Jack Clemo (who raged against his physical impediments, against nature-lovers and the sentimental, against chapel-goers, and derived a perverse pleasure from devastation) in Rising ground could be in any doubt that place writing is as much about people and their stories as it is about the landscapes and buildings they inhabit.

the walk to Land’s End concluded (Richard Carew, 1602; source)

Sources: The ClearingGranta Books | Guardian | Ramblings | Start the Week (why we react so strongly to some places, look for meaning in them and build up stories about them over time; what makes a landscape (eg a particular site), essentially a blank canvas (space?), significant? three cases: Tintagel, Glasto, Cornwall (the shape?); a sense of place, rootedness, magical places, wandering…communities create maps to create a sense of belonging…)

Some leftover notes from the extract:

  • the effect that physical surroundings have on individuals and communities can be direct or symbolic and mythologised, as in the persistence of a lost homeland
  • the difference between ‘place’ and ‘space’ (p29-30): place is somewhere distinctive, where people react to and live with the particular topography around them, while space is an idealised location, absolute, unlimited and universal; a stress on the latter has led to the “abiding sameness which characterises contemporary life” and “an insensitivity to the significance of place”
  • space as the absolute, unlimited and universal, place the particular, the limited, the local and the bound (Escobar, 2001)
  • the long-term emphasis on space has led to monoculture in farming, homogeneous housing, duplicated shopping malls and the destruction of habitats – the abiding sameness that characterises contemporary life (vs Somewhere vs Anywhere), the result of insensitivity to the significance of place (Relph, 1976)
  • see also Tim Cresswell (2004) and Edward Casey (1996) quotes

On looking and dog walking

tracks for a human, most dogs, labrador and beagle

Latest: a doggy dérive, in New Bedford (MA)

I got into walking as a ‘cultural activity’ after our first dog moved in. He’s now eight and a bit, joined two years later by a little brother. Being beagles, known for their stubborn nature and equipped with the second best nose in the canine kingdom, they are not the most trainable of hounds. (My mother: don’t get a beagle – they run away). This can make walks challenging.

The writer walking the dog describes dog walking thus:

a strange activity somewhere between Romantic walking for inspiration and walking to work and leisure walking and a chore like washing up…

We have a repertoire of five walks which can be extended or reduced depending on the season (our routes on the coldest and hottest days of the year are practically identical), a beagle-scale interpretation of the 30 minute walk round the block. We have also tried beating the bound/aries, or at least as much of them as is within beagling distance, off-pavement action permitting.

While the beags keep their noses on the job I am free to make my own observations of our patch, exploring the unexpected in the local streetscape from prize winning modernist housing to a Le Corbusier style block, tracking the latest teardowns and outdoor fashions, and monitoring the state of trees. Our walks are the perfect justification for wandering into areas where a daily routine would never take us.

After growing up with dogs I had my own take on how things should be, and getting to grips with Danish dog walking habits has taken its toll. I never got the memo which said you should train your dog to ignore other dogs – round here most dog walkers would rather cross the road than exchange greetings. End result: a food chain of unsocialised dogs ranging from the French bulldog who reacts to a beagle, who himself reacts to a labrador.

It’s a different matter in parks and open spaces, where it seems that beagle owners are the only ones who pay attention to dogs on leash signs. And the few dog parks are packed with over-excited dogs getting a rare social fix – a stressful environment with a fight just waiting to happen. (Sadly, most dog parks aren’t well fenced, which makes them a no-no for beagle nr 2, a true escape artist.)

All this has a parallel in the unspontaneity of Danish social life, where encounters are planned ahead with those you know and eye contact on the street is avoided. Just the first of many lessons into Danishness learned through walking.

So we tend to walk solo on our own particular kind of drift, with the twin inspirations of John Zeaman’s Dog walks man, a unique combination of doggy memoir and psychogeography, and suggestion 15 of the Lonely Planet guide to experimental travel:

If you don’t normally walk a dog, take one for a walk and be led by what interests the dog.

In On looking Alexandra Horowitz, psychologist and animal behaviourist (plus owner of “two large, non-heeling dogs”) describes how she was inspired by walking with her dog Pumpernickel to consider how her daily journeys could be done better. In the book she undertakes 11 walks round the block with assorted experts in the way of seeing. Some lessons from her walks:

  • from her 19 month old son – the world at a different granularity, overlooking the edges or limits of an object
  • from  a typographer – the compulsion to read what was readable, to parse all visible text (it’s the same for editors, I’m thinking)
  • from a naturalist – the power of the search image, a mental image of what you seek, ignoring everything else (this explains the efficiency of how a dog finds food – and how we can spot our friends in a crowd but not find something under our noses when it deviates from the expected)

Her reaction to a walk with Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces presents a refreshing take on Jane Jacob’s ‘sidewalk ballet’. Alexandra is a pavement rage type: “slow-moving pedestrians clutching recent purchases and looking at the storefronts, up in the air, anywhere but where they are going…the storefronts that attract their attention are ubiquitous and cluttered – to my eye, visually messy”. For her “a surfeit of slow walkers and loiterers” is a hindrance, for Fred “it’s social; it’s kind of getting a sense of something.”

On that block of Broadway with Fred Kent, I was starkly reminded of the very simple truth that there are many ways to look at the same event.

Alexandra also revisits the territory of her earlier Inside of a dog. Most dog walks are done to allow the ‘animal’ to pee or to get exercise – just as most human walks are done to get from a to b in the quickest time possible. What about walks simply to ‘see’ the world?

Walking with Pumpernickel means seeing the world through her choices, the subjects of her attention and what she balks at or lunges towards. Walks geared to Pumpernickel’s needs:

  • into-the-wind walks – eyes closed, nose in the air, nostrils working
  • smell walks – revisiting old smells, finding new ones…walks defined by smell rather than length or destination (for humans, odours tend to be either enticing or repugnant, alluring or foul, evocative or evaded, but to a dog, smells are simply information, their world a topography wrought of odours)
  • sitting walks for the more mature – in a field with ample olfactory vistas and plenty of dogs upwind (the beags do this in the garden)
  • social walks – to interact with other dogs
  • to avoid: long blocks with no trees or lampposts

Returning alone to her walk round the block Alexandra finds herself alarmed at the limitations of ‘amateur eyes’. Her 11 companions, equipped with diverse sets of coordinates and systems of navigation, have helped her overcome the ‘selective enhancement requirement’ for paying attention, highlighting the different parts of the world we have learned to ignore or do not even know we can see.

She realises that she is missing much simply in the name of concentration (attention’s companion: inattention to everything else): “we miss the possibility of being surprised by what is hidden in plain sight right in front of us”.

From Howard Nemerov’s Walking the dog:

Two universes mosey down the street
Connected by love and a leash and nothing else.

…a pair of symbionts
Contented not to think each other’s thoughts.

foto

walk? who said walk?

Scandinavia and Nordicism

I picked up on Scandinavians: in search of the soul of the north (Amazon) by Robert Ferguson via a review in the TLS. More reviews: Scandi gloom | Irish Times.

Hailed by Richard Eyre as essential reading “for anyone interested in the allure of the Scandinavian landscape, character, history and literature”, I was interested to see how the book would tie in with the UK’s Scandimania, so availed myself of a review copy.

Ferguson has lived in Norway since 1983 and has a largely Norwegian-focused back catalogue. As he himself attests, his Scandinavia is based on “a 19th century dream”.

His first idea was to take a road trip along European route E6 from Trelleborg in Skåne to Kirkenes on the Norwegian-Russian border in a quest for the Scandinavian sense of melancholy. This might have worked, but instead the book is a retelling of historical episodes from the Vikings to WW2, combined with lengthy sections rooted in the literary life of Oslo.

While the commonalities of the three core Scandinavian countries, a crucial part of their self-image, cannot be denied, I’m wary of seeing them as essentially the same. A glance at the map shows puny Denmark at the bottom left hand corner of a landmass stretching, well, true north, an obligatory side-step on Ferguson’s road trip. This geographical difference has implications which are frequently overlooked due to the Danes’ lengthy political dominance of the region. Further, Sweden features very little in Ferguson’s retelling, and with the book’s acknowledgements including one “for help with questions on matters of Danish culture and language” it seems that perspectives may be a little constrained.

The dust jacket (re)states that the quintessential Scandinavian is perceived as “tolerant, socially progressive and possessed of a gently introspective melancholia”. The bagside of the first two is touched on, with a discussion of Janteloven (“the requirement for a degree of social conformity that some found – and still do find – oppressive”), noting that famous Scandinavian artists, writers and filmmakers tend to be extreme figures, “ferociously individualistic and fuelled by a kind of cornered anger”. (Likewise, celebrities tend to go over the top at the drop of a hat.)

Where we are really in trouble though is with the issue of melancholy, supposedly the heart of the book. I’ve never connected this with Denmark, and indeed fairly early on Ferguson is told in one of his name-dropping conversations with writers, here with Danish poet Jesper Mølby (can’t trace), that “we Danes aren’t melancholic”. Bleak maybe, it is conceded, but lacking the romance of melancholia. Ibsen is with me on geographical determinism, “convinced that it was the topography of Norway that made its people so secretive, so brooding, so guilt-ridden”, but we can also see an element of correlation not causation at work: “it was almost as though Scandinavians had embraced the cliché as truth”.

Danish culture offers up two gloomy personalities for discussion. Of the first, the melancholia of Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be attributed to English fashions of the time and a popularity for all things Danish following the marriage of James VI & I to Anne of Denmark, an early example of Scandinavian allure. The character of Hamlet may even be based on John Dowland, an English lutenist at the court of Christian IV.

The second gloomy Dane, Kierkegaard, is presented here as a cautionary tale on individuality. Ferguson’s interlocutor descriibes him railing against “the Christianity of the Danish state church [which] took all the power and danger and challenge out of stuff”, resulting in an ‘asymmetrical paternalism’ which refuses to recognise the existence of bad or even alternative thoughts and treats the thinker of them as a ‘victim in need of treatment’. Today, substitute the welfare state and a system of unwritten social rules for the church and you have a society where diversity is as rare as it is welcomed. Ironically, in Denmark the popular view of Kierkegaard is as doomed lover.

Ferguson has a subscription to glossy Danish archaeology magazine Skalk, and Vikingery features large, as well it might. As far as I’m concerned all that was done and dusted in Primary 3, along with Robert the Bruce and his spider, although I have re-visited things slightly after trips to Orkney and the Faroes. It’s notable though that Scottish/Celtic Viking connections are Norway related, while England’s Viking invaders hailed from Denmark. Their heartlands are to be found on Jutland, a small world away from today’s Copenhagen, if not exactly rugged or remote. If William the Conqueror had sailed east, things could have been rather different. (For the full Viking experience, see Destination Viking – based in Lerwick – and the accompanying Viking Routes; handy map inc Fife here.)

Moving on, of the 15 chapters a good handful have a Danish story at their heart – Denmark is the one with the history, albeit one of constant shrinkage all the way up to 1864 (“tensions over Slesvig and Holsten had flared up again”), a national trauma recently commemorated in a Sunday evening TV series which didn’t export too well. With Copenhagen a centre for German culture in the 18th century and many Spuren (traces) to be found in the city, Germany’s influence on Danish culture feels generally under-explored.

Many of the retellings in the book are reproduced in the form of conversations with local literati – this framing device doesn’t work for me, not least because it comes over second hand, with a touch of the unreliable narrator about it. Other chapters, in particular that on the Scandi experience of WW2, may well be mainly the output of diligent desk research, while a 50 page interlude, a play called Ibsen’s ghosts, is out of place. All in all it’s a bit of an oddity, and not one for the Scandi fanbase looking for the comforts of hygge (nary a trace) or Booth-like repartee. Plus it cites Norway as the world’s happiest country, surely some mistake?

At the end of the book Ferguson reflects on his experience of moving to another country:

I began thinking again about immigration and the rootlessness that comes when it doesn’t work out. I was lucky. Even though I was an immigrant, I never thought of myself that way. I had chosen to come to Norway out of a deep attraction to what I knew of the culture. For me, it was and remains a peculiar sort of honour simply to be allowed to live here.

This sums up the book, focused on the allure of the classic Scandinavian dream and ranging too widely to present a more nuanced picture. As Ferguson is finally almost happy to concede, the narrative of melancholy is a cliché, a literary illusion based on “all the outside world ever knew about the Scandinavians” and an expression of Nordicism. The local experience may be rather different.

Nordicism and its clichés

So, the Scandinavian dream and its attendant Nordicism is an external creation of a familiar type – see Edward Said’s OrientalismOccidentalism and a list of other isms, right down to nesting Orientalisms. Nordicism is less explored, awaiting critique akin to Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans (review), or Vesna Goldsworthy’s Inventing Ruritania (Misha Glenny reviews both). I haven’t even come across a ‘how to write about’ piece (The BalkansAfrica…).

Maybe Nordicism is just in a different place on the hype cycle. A handful of titles examine the allure of the north and the UK’s relation to it, going so far as to ask: Is the UK really in Scandinavia, with an ancient geographic link via Doggerland (article | Unofficial Britain)?

The Nordicist image of Scandinavia/Denmark (they tend to blur together) is a weird combo of Nordic noir (why the long face) and hygge (why so happy) – both through a distorted lens. Resorting to linkage:

For me the happiness thing comes down to glass half full vs glass half empty countries. Being ironically negative is part of the British DNA, one reason why the Danish gritted teeth style of happiness may grate on some. On the other side of the coin we have Bulgaria, 134th out of 158 countries in the 2015 World Happiness Report. Risa Buzatova explores Bulgaria’s consistently poor scoring: while happiness, or perhaps contentment, can be found in countries rich (Denmark) and poor (Bhutan), “Bulgarians cultivate pessimism with an almost peculiar sense of care and national pride”. (Update: the 2017 World Happiness Report has Denmark slip below Norway at 2nd, with Bulgaria up a tad at 105th, the sixth highest rise.)

Finally, The Conversation debunks hygge by invoking Vikingery. It seems the allure of the Scandinavian dream will be around for a while yet.

And just to clear things up…

  • purists define the Scandinavian countries as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, perhaps with the addition of Iceland and the Faroes, both of which were under Norwegian and then Danish rule for centuries
  • include Finland at your peril, although it was under Swedish rule until 1809 – now you are talking about the Nordics
  • Orkney and Shetland were under Norwegian rule until 1472 and hence have Scandinavian heritage – they form a nice contrast with the Faroes, originally settled by Celts
  • Nordicism is not a purely UK phenomenon – it has certainly reached Belgium, and my US based cousin is currently experiencing the arrival of hygge on the other side of the Atlantic

Updates: came across a 2012 piece, which basically says look how European we areImmigration to Denmark is nothing new – just ask the Vikings…Knut Skjærven, a Norwegian photographer living in Copenhagen for many years, asked in a kronik in Berlingske (2 March): Hvordan undgår jeg at blive dansk? (how do I avoid becoming Danish; via Infomedia) – a slightly misleading title, however the piece underlines some of the differences between the two countries outlined above:

I Danmark tænker man horisontalt over flade marker. I Norge tænker man vertikalt op og ned ad bjerge. Neuronerne er koblet forskelligt. Og det er ganske vist.

Here’s Times Resonant on the range of ‘loci’ where identity between cultures can be expressed:

…language (a Norwegian novel), the physical body (performance art), the natural world (imagined Swedish pines), and the built environment (that bridge in that crime series). Stepping back from that, there follows the fact that what ‘outsiders’ might refer to collectively as ‘Scandinavia’ is actually bound together by perceived differences in identity as well as commonalities.

Mind you, in the introduction to an interesting looking short story collection (review), Sjón maintains that the Nordic lands can really be seen as “a single culture with regional variations”. Update: this equally interesting looking post on anthologies states that Sjón also “describes how writers resist the umbrella term ’the North’ and its associations: ‘Their usual reaction is to be annoyed at hearing it… before they answer that there is no common identity.”

Vikingery:

The Centre for Scandinavian Studies’ Rethinking Scandinavia conference in June had several streams of interest. Full papers in due course, it says. Of most interest:

  • Frans Gregersen’s keynote on The battle between the three Scandinavias, the past, the present and the future
  • papers on Swedish exceptionalism and Sweden bashing, the other side of the coin – or hype cycle; I certainly remember it being all about Swedish exceptionalism in the 1970s, which never appealed and was finally debunked by Andrew Brown’s Fishing in utopia (interesting that Sweden as metonym preceded Denmark)
  • in panel 5, Anna Sandberg (KU) on Transnationale forestillinger: Danmark i tysk litteratur og kultur omkring 1900, featuring three texts which fremstilles Danmark med sin geografi og historie adskilt fra resten af Skandinavien – ha! (another example: Danish sadly lacks the concept of fylleangst – it’s worth unpicking why…)

It seems that worrying about Scandi identity and studying its reception overseas has a long history (and is the new black, as the sociology of translations). As a Germanistik graduate I don’t remember a similar Teutonic concern, but the Danish Anglo press does frequently note the obsession with what makes a Dane a Dane. For more see the latest issue of Scandinavica on Peripheral figures: British and Irish receptions of Nordic literature and culture.

The theme of August’s Nordic Research Network conference was The N/north as home. Interesting opening keynote by Stefan Brink on the role of academia in nationalism and state building (not streamed; unSwedish vs unDanish), plus a roundtable on the theme itself.

Updates: spotted on FBDanmarkshistorier i 2017 – hvorfor og hvordan, seminar at RUC (programme) exploring Danish history from the perspective of memory and identity, inc DR’s Historien om Danmark, 99xVSTGN, the Kongerækken podcast, 100 danmarkshistorier – 100 bøger; the chance of any coverage of this sort of event is usually zero, however somehow I picked up that the @AUforsker of the week, @sally_schlosser , was livetweeting, so thanks to her…Eleanor Rosamund B on R4 with Immortal North

Footsteps and sidetracks: adventures, explorations and reflections

Came across Richard Holmes (1945- ) via a review of his latest, This long pursuit: reflections of a Romantic biographer, “a glorious series of essays on the art of life writing and a worthy successor to his earlier volumes on the craft” (vs DJ Taylor in The Times: a “career-celebrating miscellany”). The library obliged with said earlier volumes.

The first, Footsteps: adventures of a Romantic biographer (1985), at first glance dwelt rather more on nuts and bolts than anything particularly essayistic and didn’t live up to the blurb (“a daring mix of travel, biographical sleuthing and personal memoir”), possibly because biography, or maybe creative non-fiction, has changed a lot in the last 30 years. A further issue was the subject matter, centred around the English Romantics in France and Italy and hence neither my time nor place. Possibly not the best place to start – chronological order doesn’t always work : p

Better luck with the second volume, Sidetracks: explorations of a Romantic biographer (2000), which consists of shorter pieces, described thus in the prologue:

A biographer’s collection of short pieces, rather like a novelist’s collection of short stories, but it has a theme and a purpose. It is the fragmented tale of a single biographical quest, a thirty-year journey in search of the perfect Romantic subject, and the form to fit it. It is my personal casebook…it includes two radio-plays, several travel pieces, a large number of character-sketches, some autobiographical fragments, some formal essays, and a very informal short story. All of them were written as different ways of investigating biographical material; to see how far certain hints and possibilities could be taken down the path, explored and relished.

This is useful, and in the best tradition of curated reading sent me back to Footsteps (which we now know was compiled from sketches written during 1980-85), where Holmes “questions his own art and the impulses which drive him on a quest” through the lens of place.

The first section of Footsteps takes on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes (1879). Holmes retraced Stevenson’s journey in 1964, accompanied by a 1936 textbook edition “on the curriculum of generations of English and Scottish schoolchildren” (including I suspect my mother, a fan of Modestine) and described as a “model of polite essay-writing”. Essay-subjects (clearly a fan of the hyphen) given in an appendix include, delightfully, “What are the respective advantages of a walking, cycling, motoring, and caravaning tour?”

This was Holmes’ initiation into the art of biography, and while he notes that the route of Stevenson’s travels has been marked out, “leading the pilgrim from one point de vue to the next and bringing him safely down each evening to some recommended hotel”, he has no desire to return.

Section two marks 1968, the year of revolution in Paris, with a foray into that earlier revolution of 1789, as witnessed by the English Romantics and the White’s Hotel group of expats. He hits his stride with Mary Wollstonecraft, discussing the various likenesses of her which survive and chronicling her two year sojourn in France (1792-94), when she lived for a period in Le Havre with Gilbert Imlay and the ill-fated baby Fanny.

Holmes sees the impact of the French Revolution for the English as lying in the thirty years after Mary’s death, when the next generation, “one of the most brilliant literary circles that has ever existed”, returned to Europe. This is explored in section three, Exiles, on Shelley, Mary Shelley (who spent some time in Dundee at the age of 15/16) and Claire Clairmont in Italy, anno 1972: “my urge was to go directly to the original materials – and most especially to the places – for myself…I drifted without contact through the tourist crowds of the cities”.

Section four covers unfamiliarly unfamiliar ground, in Paris once more in 1976: “a calm, picturesque city; that is to say, a city of pictures. It celebrated the idea of the flâneur, the man who drifts round the streets, gazing at everything that meet his eye”. This results in an interest in photography, in particular the birth of portrait photography, via the archives of Felix Nadar, and to a new subject, Gérard de Nerval (of pet lobster fame), described by Proust as “one of three or four most important French writers of the 19th century” (he also features in Gros’ The philosophy of walking). At the end of this section Holmes comments: “My taste for travel and my ear for footsteps had diminished, it seemed. I was thirty, and it was time to consider the way I should go myself.”

Sidetracks, made up of seven sections each with a brief introduction, covers much of the same ground, but this time from the angle of how Holmes has moved from subject to subject over a nearly thirty year period. An early essay on 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton, described as “my own version of Virginia Woolf’s ‘room of one’s own'”, led Holmes onto his first major subject, Shelley, while a period in Paris in the 1970s resulted in an unpublished 400 page biography and a radio play with the leitmotif of de Nerval.

Sketches and essays written for The Times present a series of experiments with style and storytelling aimed at ‘sidetracking’ the reader, such as “different narrative voices, entering at odd angles, reading facts through fiction or poetry, risking melodrama, facetiousness and sentimentality”. Holmes also returns to Mary Wollstonecraft, persuading Penguin to republish William Godwin’s memoir coupled with the essay she wrote on her travels in Scandinavia (invaluable material for another day) – the piece here is his expanded introduction, a blend of historical research and literary criticism.

Two further sections consist of more Shelley, with pieces written during research for a biography on Coleridge (“a case of pure sidetracking” in the form of an account of a found manuscript and a radio play on Shelley’s last days in Italy) and more Paris in the form of three pieces celebrating the city during 1994-95 while enjoying a “long dreamy trail of daily walks and wanderings” with novelist Rose Tremain. (My personal sidetrack from here leads us back to Tremain’s Music and silence (1999) about Christian IV of Denmark, which I have failed to read several times, and once again the story of Caroline Matilda – and now its contemporary reception via Mary Wollstonecraft – described in A royal affair, a novel I did read by Stella Tillyard, remembered as by Tremain…)

The final section, with the title Homage to the Godfather, consists of three pieces on (or around) James Boswell, written during a research period on Dr Johnson (1990-94). This is where things start to get really meta, with biography as a literary form increasingly popular, a new sub-section of creative non-fiction.

So where did Holmes go next? As it turns out to the bestselling The age of wonder: how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science (2008) and Falling upwards: how we took to the air (2013; review), on the history of ballooning. This breaks his hitherto meticulous chronology, which resulted in a major work around every 15 years and roughly four year periods of research, not necessarily overlapping.

His latest however continues the 15 year cycle of meta-works on the art of biography. Now in reflective mode, it consists of five personal confessions, five restorations and five afterlives, including a “fantasy alternative of Shelley’s middle age”.

The Amazon excerpt dishes up two approaches to writing biography:

  • the Footsteps principle: the biographer must physically pursue his subject, going to all the places s/he has lived, worked, travelled or dreamed – the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places
  • the two-sided notebook concept: a notebook with a form of ‘double accounting’, consciously dividing between the objective and the subjective (in Footsteps he describes the fragments of his own travels becoming scattered and disjointed, while those of Shelley’s become “ever more intricate and detailed and dark”

Taking the three volumes together gives an interesting insight into the work of the biographer, with in Holmes’ case 200 working notebooks used and reused over a period of decades.

And while it’s still a moot point for me how far you need to have an active interest in the subject, it proves the adage that the more you know about something the more interesting it becomes. I’ll be taking a look at Holmes’ latest just as soon as the library can supply it.

Postscript: on a YouTube vid from 2008 Holmes gives his 10 commandments for biography. Worth a look. Plus The long pursuit is R4’s Book of the Week from 12 December.

#walkingwomen: loitering with intent

Updates: Step by Step 5 (series), building on the #walkingwomen project, took place on 24 April, while the LADA Study Room Guide was launched on 25 April and is available for download (contents: schedule of events, directory of artists, list of titles in the Walking Library for Women Walking and a list of titles in the LADA bibliotheque)…Geoff Nicholson on walking with women walkersRhythms of fearCharlotte Mathieson on walking in Villette…more Feminists walking the cityWalking women: embodied perception in Romantic and contemporary radical landscape poetryThe gendered garden (see Abney Rambles)….How walking became a radical act of defiance…Lauren Elkin’s R3 Essay on walking and pavement rage

#walkingwomen are everywhere this summer, with events in London, Edinburgh and Manchester, plus the media fluff around Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse. As a woman who walks, what’s in it for me?

Walking Women: Somerset House and Forest Fringe

Walking Women (The Standard) took place as part of Somerset House’s utopia season from 11-17 July, curated by Amy Sharrocks and Clare Qualmann in collaboration with Dee Heddon. Over 40 walking artists were present, with events including a Wikipedia edit-a-thon (based on the rhizomatic Art+Feminism model; Amy Sharrocks, Simone Kenyon), films, pecha kucha, a Walking Reading Group utopia walk and a new walking library walked along the suffragettes’ marching route. Three pre-event podcasts from Jo Norcup/Geography Workshop’s ‘Er Outdoors project (one | two & three) on Resonance FM, plus recordings from the event.

Walking Women in Embra (WAN), on 11 August was curated by the same team and organised by Deveron Arts/the Walking Institute, part of Forest Fringe (“unusual events and experimental performance in Edinburgh and beyond” since 2007). More of the same, with Scottish contributions including Jeni Cumming (Edinburgh Walking Workshop) and Invisible Edinburgh leading a Powerful women of Edinburgh walking tour, plus Deveron Arts’ Claudia Zeiske on women walking in wild landscapes. Streamed, but no recording as yet.

Also involved was Rosana Cade, whose Walking:Holding (17-20 August; in the Gdn) “invites you to walk hand in hand with a series of very different local strangers around nearby streets, parks and alleyways. It is a participatory performance for one audience member at a time, offering a gentle meditation on identity, touch and intimacy in urban public space”.

Loitering with intent in Manchester

Loitering with intent: the art and politics of walking is an exhibition celebrating 10 years of Manchester’s Loiterers Resistance Movement (LRM),  organised by Morag Rose and running from 23 July to 14 October at the People’s Museum with accompanying events programme (again). Includes male-led events, such as Chris Wood‘s Spatial machines, exploring GPS infrastructure using walking exercises.

As part of the exhibition Tina Richardson has published the second STEPZ zine (PDF), inspired by Northern Psychogeography. Of most interest so far has to be the Manchester Modernist Heroines Walk, celebrating 10 inspirational women, conceived by the Shrieking Violet (on Issuu) in 2011.

Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse

Published on 28 July and R4’s Book of the Week from 8 August, Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: women who walk the cities (GuardianSpectator | Psychogeographic Review, who has a further flâneuse piece | Big Boots) is a blend of memoir and cultural history, focusing on five cities through the mirror of assorted flâneuses (pl? I have no French).

While the cover is off-putting and much, including the inevitable Guardian article, feels over-familiar, Lauren made some good points in an interview at the London Review Bookshop (audio; worth a listen not least for the audience comment: “most women are very interested in clothes”). She initially found Paris a very “ritualised society”, played out through “performative rituals” – walking was one way of connecting to the city. How you practice flâneurie is specific to a time, place and culture, it’s a subversive way of intervening in space. Today’s flâneu(r)/se is “anyone who feels they don’t quite fit in the space they are walking through”, and who by walking tries to defy “the affective charge” of the field of prescriptions (at c47:48).

Walking is like mapping with your feet, it makes you feel at home. Lauren did not walk in US suburbs, where you are considered weird if you walk without a dog or a tracksuit. In Denmark, walking is similarly restricted, although here by the bicycle rather than the car (you may also cycle with your dog running alongside, although tracksuits are definitely déclassé for the cycling crowd).

(See also Cole Swenson’s Walk, poems exploring the walking and writing of George Sand, Virginia Woolf and Lisa Robertson.)

Update: the library obliged. The best section was on Tokyo, an addition to the slim canon on not liking somewhere, where Lauren makes “an attempt to connect with Japan, or at least with its past”, liking Kyoto (note: To-Kyo) rather more.

For the rest, an editorial dead hand feels to be at play, with the sections of memoir feeling like an afterthought added to catch a current wave and addressed to an assumed ‘we’. The much longer biographical sections, as so often, require an interest in the subject to come alive.

As above what resonates most are the sections on moving to another country: “I came here with a suitcase…denuded of context. You quickly cover yourself with new things, a new persona. But you will live in a state of heightened sensitivity; you will always feel exposed…Although I loved the way it felt to be inspired by Paris, set at an angle to it, able to appreciate the ways in which it was different from home, the initial joy of displacement eventually wore off. I wanted to settle into a slot in Paris which corresponded to the slot I had vacated in New York…I was not a rebel. I was just someone who happened to have moved countries. Displaced, dislocated. I wanted to be re-placed, re-located. (p233-234).

On returning to her ‘home’ city she notes (p282) “My city isn’t mine any more. And yet it always will be, more than any other. We get to know our cities on foot, and when we leave, the topography shifts”.

The best quote though comes from Virginia Woolf:

  • As they grow older, says Rose (who has grown older), they become less visible, and they can walk wherever they like at any time of day. (quoted on p307; source: The Years, p173)

2018 update: in an interview with The Literary Tourist Lauren comes clean on not liking Liverpool either, but I’d take issue with her claim that you can’t find yourself somewhere you don’t like; needs must! She’s also not a member of the happy brigade, like me finding it a childlike response to a question no one really asked.

What gives?

Presenting the second #walkingwomen podcast, Dee Heddon and Cathy Turner postulated that #walkingwomen is not about heroic walks or challenges, but rather about how walking transforms the everyday. Walking not as a form of escape, but rather as a way of making connections and relations. See Walking women: interviews with artists on the move for examples.

Can’t it be both? This discourse just doesn’t meet me where I am coming from. Do women really walk so differently from men in the western everyday context? Cathy Turner’s account of the Rural Scapes artists’ talk takes Caspar David Friedrich to task once more – the heroic seems to be at the nub of concern, but don’t we all want to feel the rush sometimes? (Another CDF meme: his heroes are urban outsiders, dressed in city clothes, not part of the landscape.) All too often #walkingwomen reeks of “everything is awesome” (possibly the #some effect), if not the dreaded hygge. The LRM, more about play and inspired by the Situationists, feels a tad more edgy. Update: see also the 4th World Congress of Psychogeography (@TykePsychoGeog | #4wcop | again | report) much of which was streamed by John Popham.

Flâneurie is increasingly reproached for being a) male b) gentrified, an outsider pursuit. Exclusive yes, but not flattening or normative. It’s that which makes it interesting and challenging. (And gender is not a criterion for rejecting, or conversely accepting, something.)

On which note see Deveron Arts’ All roads lead to Venice on 12 August, marking Anthony Schrag‘s (and others) walks to the 2015 Venice Biennale, also involving an ugly walk, and the Guardian’s share your stories feature and follow-up – lots of outsiders there.

As for #walkingwomen, see also Janet Wolff’s The Invisible Flaneuse. Women and the Literature of Modernity (1985; citation) and Helen Scalway’s The Contemporary Flaneuse: Exploring strategies for the drifter in a feminine mode (2002).