Danubia and the myth of Mitteleuropa

Before I kick off my latest batch of belated travel  blogs here’s my first book of the year, Simon Winder’s not unrelated Danubia (Amazon | GoodReads | Google Books). Reviews: GuardianNew York Times SpectatorTelegraph.

The Austro-Hungarian empire, at the heart of the alluring concept of Mitteleuropa, is a pyschogeographic gold mine – a “psychic and liminal space between east and west rather than an objective geographic reality, its borders imaginary, drawn and redrawn with each new historical situation” (Chris Haddix), erased almost unnoticed in a world of dichotomies after the Second World War. Writing in the New York Review of Books in 1986 (republished in the 1991 edition of The uses of adversity) Timothy Garton Ash explored its temporary rebirth – and in the early 1990s it briefly looked as if there just might be a middle way.

Simon Winder’s Danubia, the companion piece to his Germania, is a “personal history” of the mosaic of Mitteleuropa, taking political and especially military history as its main framework but seasoned with a host of sidesteps and even dead ends. Not entirely chronological and assuming an amount of prior knowledge on the part of the reader, it’s a long haul to get to my personal main event, typified by 1913 (“when Freud waved cheerily from a tram at Schiele and the Second Vienna School sang a capella to delighted cafe-goers”), but equally it’s a pleasure to bathe in the quirks of the Hapsburgs and their blundering incompetence, a quality they excelled in, and simply enjoy the ride.

On central Europe’s towns:

the standard full kit: electric tramways, an opera house, a whole lot of art nouveau, a bust of Schiller and a comically dreary monument featuring a statue of a lumpy woman with an ivy entwined sword and a palm leaf

On the Hapsburg jaw:

the women in portrait after portrait appear to have a sort of awful pink shoe attached to their lower faces

At the start of his bibliography Winder states that he has deliberately excluded Claudio Magris’ Danube (1986), along with Rebecca West’s Black lamb and grey falcon (1941), reprinted in 2006 with an introduction by of course! Geoff Dyer. Like Winder I find it impossible to avoid the gravitational pull of a growing canon of books and authors, and having dusted off my central European bookshelf am now embarking on Nick Thorpe’s The Danube: a journey upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest (Amazon), ie the wrong way, which looks like a good counterpoint to the rather blokey Danubia.

Also making a case to be read is Nick Hunt’s Walking the woods and the water (Amazon; blog), a 2011/12 retread of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1933 trek from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Nick H highlights even more jolly japes in Paddy’s footsteps, including Travellers’ century, a 2008 TV documentary by Benedict Allan, Blue River, Black Sea (Amazon) by Andrew Eames, who “travelled the length of the Danube by bicycle, boat, and, for some reason, a green plastic bathtub” in 2009, and New York Times‘ journalist Matt Gross, who walked from Vienna to Budapest in 2010. A final PLF related find is this analysis of the literary and historical references in A time of gifts, crying out to be mapped.

For a different perspective see Dimiter Kenarov’s From Black to Black, a literary overview which starts and ends with the significance of the Bulgarian equivalent of R4’s Shipping Forecast:

For nearly fifty years the Danube was a demolished bridge, a liquid roadblock. The wall may have been in Berlin, but the truly impassable one was an invisible dam on the Danube, somewhere between Vienna and Bratislava…Today, to sail along the Danube is to see the new face of Europe, old as it is…The great changes of 1989 might have brought freedom to the people of Eastern Europe, Eames suggests, but it has been the freedom that comes from the sudden bursting of a dam wall, the waters inundating everything on their way downstream.

In an article about Freud’s Vienna as inspiration William Boyd asks: “Why do certain cities haunt the imagination? Not just the city itself but the city in a particular historical period.” He identifies the cause as a place in time you would like to have lived in yourself, but sadly the 1913 narrative was a post-war creation. According to Winder at that time Austria-Hungary “could probably have been summed up as a barracksridden, aristocratic and actively philistine place”, with its music viewed as having a merely museum-like quality (Der Rosenkavalier rather than Mahler’s Ninth), its writing disregarded and its painting and architecture swamped by the Paris art scene.

This society “only really appreciated in the rear view mirror” was preserved in the memoirs of countless exiles and the writings of in particular Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, all soon eclipsed by a fresh wave of horrors. The keepers of the flame of the Hapsburg myth see the Dual Monarchy as a period in which a diversity of nationalities lived together peacefully in a well ordered, ideal fairytale world, compared with the series of “small and dirty cages of the new nation states” created after 1918, a dichotomy which persists into the 21st century.

Highlights from my Mitteleuropa bookshelf:

  • Frederic Morton’s A nervous splendor: Vienna 1888/1889, the year Crown Prince Rudolf shot himself
  • Gregor von Rezzori’s Snows of yesteryear on his childhood in Czernowitz  (“his very name a perfect Hapsburg amalgam”)
  • Bruno Schulz’s The street of crocodiles – Schulz lived in Drohobycz, where “oil deposits created a strange little semi-Americanized enclave of prosperity” near Lviv, and was shot dead in 1942 by a Gestapo officer

Just where is Mitteleuropa? The shifting borders are a thing of endless confusion – this timelapse doesn’t really help. Winder includes a map of how Kaiser Karl’s United States of Austria could have turned out, with names such as Carniola and Galicia which have vanished into history.

Update, 2 May: just back from Sofia, pretty definitely not Mitteleuropa and also not on the Danube, although not a million miles from either, brings us the story of Liberland, a self-declared microstate consisting of a wetland wilderness upstream from the point where the Danube is joined by the Drava, a borderland between Croatia and Serbia. More to be done on this stretch of the river, and also on the Rhine, rather less written about.

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Robert Macfarlane’s Old Ways

Last updated: 10 March 2018

Finally completed Robert Macfarlane‘s The old ways, started last summer. A reading in the garden book.

Reviews: Amazon | GoodreadsLibraryThing | three and a half pages of quotes in the book itself

Nature writing fans for whom Robert’s fame precedes him love it, others find the writing tending to the flowery. Falling somewhere in between, the less nature tinged sections, in particular the account of his grandfather’s final walks and funeral (p202-205 in the Penguin edition) and the chapter on Edward Thomas (Ghost) are what made me linger, as did walks in the strange but familiar landscapes of the Hebrides, Palestine and the Himalayas, “improvised pilgrimages of varying levels of seriousness and sanctity” (p235). See Rites of way: behind the pilgrimage revival for more on this particular type of walking challenge.

The book as an artefact has received some care and attention. With a Keep Calm era style cover, the text is divided into four evocatively named parts. Tracking covers England, with one word elemental chapters (track, path, chalk, silt). Following ventures to Scotland (water – south and north, peat, gneiss, granite), Roaming takes Bob abroad (limestone, roots, ice). Finally, Homing brings us back to England (snow, flint, ghost, print).

The final 70 pages or so consist of a glossary, notes, bibliography, acknowledgements and index. This last is interesting. Fairly conventional in conception, it includes the following categories:

  • animals, fish and insects
  • artefacts and artworks
  • birds
  • books, writings, stories and film – includes “books that choose the reader”
  • buildings and stuctures
  • countries
  • flowers and plants
  • ideas and practices
  • illusions and mirages
  • institutions
  • islands
  • maps and map making (but no maps)
  • mountains and hills
  • paths and tracks
  • people
  • places
  • rivers and streams
  • rocks, minerals and earth
  • seafaring, sea roads and vessels
  • songs and music
  • towns, villages and cities
  • trees, woods and forests
  • weather

As an indexing experiment, I’d like to have seen the entries mirroring the poetical tone of the text, perhaps tying in with the synopses at the beginning of each chapter.

From the chapter on Granite/Scotland (p198):

We tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we are in them or on them, when they offer us primary sensations of touch and sight. But there are also landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in the memory long after they have withdrawn in actuality, and such places – retreated to most often when we are most remote from them – are among the most important landscapes we possess…these, perhaps, are the landscapes in which we live the longest, warped though they are by time and abraded though they are by distance. The consolation of recollected places finds its expression frequently in the accounts of those – exiles, prisoners, the ill, the elderly – who can no longer reach the places that sustain them.

Update, 2 March 2015; Macfarlane’s new one, Landmarks (Amazon | Spectator | Gdn), is about to go large. Intriguingly, if wearingly, this is described as a “field guide to the literature of nature, and a glossary containing thousands of remarkable words used to describe land, nature and weather”. See Macfarlane’s word-hoard, doubtless the first of many pieces (and an exhibition):

I organised my growing word-hoard into nine glossaries, divided according to terrain-type: Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands, Coastlands, Underlands, Northlands, Edgelands, Earthlands and Woodlands…Each of the nine glossaries is matched with a chapter exploring the work of those writers who have used words exactly and exactingly when describing specific places.

It seems that there are several other word hoards doing the rounds – see this review of Uncommon ground, with accompanying glossary. As Macfarlane writes: “Smeuse is a dialect noun for ‘the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal’; now I know the word ‘smeuse’, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.”

As John Burnside points out, “Landmarks goes further by enriching, not only our vocabulary of land terms, but also our ways of seeing.” Having recently bought a tree book I’m in with the naming things meme, but re this book I think I’ll stick with this entry from The Digested Read:

Mon-biot: the early morning tweet of the excitable green finch that would have been better off deleted.

Bleeding London: the challenge

We’re just coming up to the first anniversary of this blog – my first post was The lost art of walking, my notes on Geoff Nicholson’s book, published on 5 June. So it’s all his fault…

I’ve published 83 posts (and I’ve a huge  stash of drafts), so this is no 84 and an average of seven posts per month.

On his Hollywood Walker blog Geoff has just posted about Bleeding London: the photo project (Facebook), which has the aim of photographing every street in London:

If the standard A to Z is to be believed, that will involve covering 73,000 streets, an enterprise that sometimes strikes me as utterly insane. At other times however, I think well, let’s imagine the RPS can round up 1000 committed photographers, that’s only 73 streets each, and these guys can take a couple of hundred pictures in a day, so that seems perfectly doable.

While in London Geoff knocked off a square of the A-Z: “frankly it was absolutely knackering, mentally as much as physically (although the expedition only took a little more than three hours)… Here there was the impetus, the necessity, of finding something to photograph in every single street. You could argue that there’s something very democratic about this, maybe something very Zen. Every street becomes equal, you have to find something of interest, something “worth” observing and photographing regardless of where you are.”

Now that’s a challenge for our walks in Danish suburbia! Like writing, photography is a way of exploring the territory (map is not the…) and making it your own. I’ve started taking photos of our five walks and we’ll see what we can do for June.

And it’s low effort/data, building into something else through accumulation. Geoff quotes Sol LeWitt:

When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.

Update, July 2015: the Bleeding London Exhibition is go! Plus Footprints of London’s Jen Pedler is offering Stuart’s first walk, blogged by Geoff. I’m almost moved. Meanwhile, we have coloured in some more local streets, but plenty more still to go.

Mark Mason walks the lines

An alternative to beating the bounds is walking lines. I’ve just finished my second book of the year, a record compared with the last few years which I’ll try to maintain. Anyway, Mark Mason’s Walk the lines: the London Underground, overground (2011), is a sort of urban Simon Armitage with a twist of Geoff Nicholson. While it started out a bit slowly, or maybe that’s just my difficulty with reading, by the last third I was galloping through it, turning down corners as I couldn’t bear to get up to get a pencil or paper to take notes.

See reviews on Amazon Goodreads. Mark offers walks on the Piccadilly, Central and District lines on his website, The importance of being trivial, and his follow up, Move along, please: Land’s End to John O’Groats by local bus, looks tempting.

In terms of lines to walk hereabouts, the obvious one is Hvidovrevej, which runs from the fleshpots of Damhusøen to the sea, but it’s not exactly Oxford Street. Back when we had an only beagle him and me did a decent section of our local S tog line, but with two you can’t just hop on a train to get back, and sniffing time is doubled (if not trebled) anyway. In Copenhagen proper there are several possibilities – more S tog lines plus the metro lines, and round The Lakes, which surely must have been done.

Back to the book…my mother was brought up in London, she and my father spent a couple of years there and I lived in south London for several years myself, so it was a bit of a nostalgia fest. I probably know the Northern Line best, which at chapter 6, or around halfway, is where things really started to resonate. Subtitled Nobody sees you, nobody hears you, on the first page Mark asks:

Does London drive you towards loneliness, make you more solitary than you might otherwise be?

He acknowledges “it’s menus for venues…I’d no more want people blanking me in a country lane than every passer-by on Piccadilly saying a cheery hello”, but after a factoid swapping session with mate Richard (“the conversation mirrors the Tube system itself, effortlessly linking up the entire city, tangents and connections getting you anywhere you want to go”) in the name of socialised pedestrianism Mark decides to try walking in company all the same. His chosen companion: Geoff Nicholson.

Geoff’s novel Bleeding London includes a character who walks every street in London, and in The lost art of walking he relates Albert Speer’s virtual walk from Berlin to Heidelberg via 2000 odd laps of Spandau prison garden. He and Mark get on fine – eye contact is minimised when walking, meaning that people talk freely, and they have the stimuli of Mark’s research notes and Stuart’s sightings from Bleeding London, as well as a brief Routemaster conversation:

My story about hearing one drive past our cottage in Suffolk one night, and looking out to see that it was a 159, the route I used to take to Jo’s in Brixton, is matched – no let’s be honest, trumped – by Geoff seeing a number 6, his local bus when he lived in Maida Vale, at Huntington Beach in Los Angeles.

In a spirit of joyful melancholy Mark mentions Stuart’s plan: when he’s finished walking London he’s going to kill himself. This plan embodies the theory that we walk as a celebration of death, but also the opposite (citing Dane Niels Bohr: the opposite of a great truth is also true). If there are two contradictory urges within us – to live and to die – then does London satisfy the latter as well as the former?

Geoff:

Great cities are like great art, they’re basically indifferent to the visitor…they don’t try to please us or to ingratiate themselves. So you don’t like London? Big fucking deal…You don’t judge great works or great cities – they judge you.

The real test is to stay in the little place, to see how big a fish we could be in the little pond, rather than contenting ourselves with being minnows on the basis that everyone is a minnow.

Next up the Circle Line, at the heart of a great challenge beloved of Australians – the Circle Line Pub Crawl. Mark embarks on this with Matt, the latter in suede lace-ups. About half way in they start walking (and drinking) separately – Matt drinks faster but walks more slowly. It’s hard work, and all that for the line which goes nowhere. 

Mark concludes his challenge walking the Metropolitan Line at Xmas in the snow. Things begin to get difficult: “I’m not looking around so much, concentrating on my feet…it really does start to feel like my senses are closing down, insulating me from discomfort…Walking brings a heightened awareness not just of your surroundings but of yourself. It just so happens in this case it’s a heightened awareness of how awareness can be lowered.”

One of the reviewers on Amazon castigates Mark for lack of Iain Sinclair, but with an extended section walking with Bill Drummond, musing on his cake circle and soup line projects as well as his circular urban work, Surround, plus taking on Richard Long (Bill says he walked into a gallery showing a Richard Long after following a map on which he had written ‘Bill’ – the gallery was at the bottom of the second L) I think this can be excused.

Earlier on Mark comments that the people he knows in London aren’t Londoners, they moved there. Bill echoes this:

If you’re growing up in some far-flung corner of the British Isles you’ve got more time to dream and make plans and develop ideas. If you’re in London there’s too much on offer, too much to take up your time just consuming rather than dreaming. There’s something deadening about it.

Mark concludes that London isn’t a city but an idea:

It’s just a collection of buildings and roads and parks and Tube stations linked by colourful lines which aren’t really there, just as the dreams and ambitions of all the people who come to London only amount to anything if you imagine them as a unified whole.

London is in our mind. But then our minds are all we have, and all we need.

For more Tube goodness see #underground on the A/drift Tumblr and the Tube category on Mapping London, an unending source of fascination. More London walking challenges aplenty on Walk London, plus a final nod to A series of tubes, who set out to walk London’s Tube lines for charity in 2011 and seems to have done five so far. Updates: found another – London buses, one bus at a time is the record of three ‘ladies who bus’, travelling every London bus route from end to end since 2009…here’s Diamond Geezer on the All Lines Challenge.

Postscript, 16 Feb: just finished Geoff’s Bleeding London. While not the sort of thing I normally read, if anyone ever asks me for a list of walking novels it can go on the list next to Harold Fry. The section on guided walks is great fun.

Post-postscript, 24 July: someone’s only gone and walked all the streets of central London – see Noelle Poulson’s Congestion Zone and Londonist interview. That’s dedication. I find I tend to drift, and not just because of the beagles.

how much of the Tube is actually underground?

how much of the Tube is actually underground?

Simon Armitage walks home

photo credit: Guardian

In 2010 Simon Armitage took a walk down the Pennine Way and wrote a book about it, Walking home. Like his earlier book, All points north (1999), it’s laugh out loud funny in a very British way – self deprecation to the max.

Reviews: Amazon (with both sides of the argument) | Goodreads | Google Books (long excerpt) | Guardian 1 & 2 (extract) | LibraryThing

The walk is described as a ‘troubadour journey’ – Simon walked without a penny in his pocket, stopping along the way to give poetry readings in village halls, churches, pubs and living rooms for bed and board. So, yet another walking challenge or project. Entertainingly, at one point he is in danger of bumping into Seamus Heaney, also undertaking a walking project at the same time. And. as I discovered when looking at his website, in 2013 he’s writing the follow-up – Walking away, a journey from Minehead in Somerset along the north coast of the South West Coast Path to Land’s End and beyond…which rather spoils it for me. There are sateliite events, two articles in the Guardian (1 & 2) and everything. It’s not quite Ed and Will’s Walk around Britain.

For a taste of Simon’s deadpan style listen to his #rambings episode, part of the Stuart Maconie season on city skylines. The lads take a ramble on Marsden Moor near Saddleworth, aka Posh Oldham.

Saddleworth is a bit schizophrenic, having been part of Yorkshire until 1974. The moors are the lungs of the north. Simon talks about how the logic of a walk keeps you going, you are in competition with it and have to win. It’s mentally hard work, a different sort of challenge from other stresses such as deadlines. Walking pace mimics a heartbeat, and also the iambic pentameter, say some…walking is a process not a product. The Pennines are the spine of England, with a drop on one side to the North Sea and on the other to the Irish Sea, with views on this walk of Jodrell Bank and Beetham Tower at the end of Deansgate, the fourth tallest residential building in Europe. Fab.

The incredible pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The incredible pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) by Rachel Joyce

Reviews: Amazon | Goodreads | Google Books | Guardian: 1 2 | Independent  | LibraryThing | Observer |  Readmill | Richard and Judy | Wikipedia

A quick check of my LibraryThing reveals that this is only the second novel I’ve finished reading since August 2011, although I don’t read yer actual books much these days anyway.

Loved this – perhaps smacks slightly of a creative writing class and the early pages are a bit of a slog, but once it got going I ran through it. Brilliant pastiche of walking challenges, media coverage, hangers-on and all, culminating in a tear jerking finale. Read it now!

Rachel has written about writing Harold Fry, which might well make you well up again, and there’s a pilgrimage map on Facebook.

Apparently other novels about men with failed relationships going wandering about Britain include Jonathan Coe’s The terrible privacy of Maxwell Sim and Jude Cook’s Byron Easy.

See also Walking for dear life, which also brings in Herzog, Geoff Nicholson and Old Leatherman, plus the etymology of sauntering (from sainte-terre, or “holy ground”, to denote pilgrims who walked to the Holy Land). A true drift!

The lost art of walking

Updates: hear Geoff’s 5 year walking forecast and catch up with his Talking Walking interview from 2010 – the notes are good value…Walking in ruins (Spectator review | mine), on what makes a ruin and what makes them so attractive to him…on Ramblings, 20 Oct 2016

The lost art of walking: the history, science, philosophy and literature of pedestrianism (2008), by Geoff Nicholson

Reviews: Amazon | A Common Reader |  The Complete Review | Goodreads | LibraryThingNYT | This Space

Geoff blogs at The Hollywood Walker – pics pics pics, see also his Flickr, and website.

The lost art of falling down, when bad things happen to good walkers, some fellow travelers and fellow stumblers

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Lao-tzu

Where – and when – does the first step occur? We’re in motion before we know where we’re going, before we realise we’re on a journey at all.

Geoff falls over in LA, where he seldom encounters anyone walking for the hell of it. Walking has to do with exploration, a way of feeling at home and getting to know a place – a way of marking territory, of beating the bounds.

There was a time when everybody walked – they did it because they had no choice. The moment they had a choice, they chose not to do it.

      • walking as an act of political protest – the march -> the forced march?
      • walking for charity – a bit dubious, why not go ahead and donate?

The health benefits of walking are possibly limited – a 180 lb man walking at four  miles an hour burns up about 100 calories per mile. A pound of fat contains 3500 calories, so to lose a pound of flesh you need to walk 35 miles. Walking 24 miles a day is not much of a problem for a serious walker.

He  goes on to look at etymological considerations and the connection between walking and writing, finishing off with a nod to four fellow stumblers – Aldous Huxley, Thomas Jefferson, JJ Rousseau (hit by a Great Dane) and Oliver Sacks (A leg to stand on).

The textualisation of walking – modern literary theory sees a similarity between walking and writing – words inscribe a text in the same way a walk inscribes space – both are ways of making the world our own. Two examples:

    • Michel de Certeau in The practice of everyday life: “The act of walking…is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian, it is a special acting out of the place”
    • Markus Poetzsch: Walks alone and ‘I know not where’: Dorothy Wordsworth’s Deviant Pedestrianism (presented at The 13th Annual Conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism: Deviance and Defiance, 2005) – a willfull turning away from what is generically or topographically normative – the well trodden path – self conscious nonconformism, foregrounding and ascribing significance to something taken for granted and familiar

Los Angeles: walking wounded with Ray and Phil and others

Geoff becomes an LA walker as a cure for depression, drawing a parallel between the forward movement of prose and similar qualities found in the act of walking. Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, ‘nature’s painkillers’, and walking is just about the only form of exercise Geoff had ever done or enjoyed – not just for 20 minutes three times a week but every day and for hours.

LA is not known as a great walking city, but you can buy maps of movie star homes (not to mention the Hollywood Entertainment District Public Urination Map), and after a while and some perverse, contradictory and laborious walks Geoff starts to get the hang of LA – making the city his own, asserting his own version, marking territory, beating the bounds, drawing his own map.

He follows the footsteps of Raymond Chandler and his alter ego Philip Marlowe, making a list of places based on information from his letters, biographies and anecdotal evidence, and explores the Hollywood Walk of Fame, finishing off with an account of walking artist Mudman.

Eccentrics, obsessives, artists: walks with Richard Long, Captain Barclay et al

Many people find the idea of walking for pleasure, and still more for philosophical, aesthetic or deeply personal reasons (eg Steve Gough, the Naked Rambler), odd if not incomprehensible. Geoff explores ‘sustained eccentric walking’, linking Richard Long‘s A thousand miles, a thousand hours (see HOURS MILES) with Captain Barclay (1779-1854), doyen of pedestrian contests. See the Wikipedia entry for pedestrianism for more on competitive walking in the 19th century and beyond.

In the interests of research he undertakes a 15 miles in 15 hours walk, making a walking log of his progress. Is it contradictory and eccentric to document and memoralise walking – what could be more transitory and ephemeral than a walk? Richard Long (A line… | Gdn | again) makes “interventions’ in the landscape, but more often footsteps are all that is left.

What makes a walk (or walker) eccentric? See Sebastian Snow (8700 miles from Tierra del Fuego to the Panama Canal), John Francis aka Planetwalker, Arthur Blessitt (around the world with a 40 lb cross), Buddhist style prostrations…walking for peace, or any reason is not eccentric – but is it possible to walk for no reason?

More “artists”: see Geoff on walking with Hamish Fulton, plus Hamish on Talking walking, and Hamish’s site

Nicholson’s London, your London, anybody’s London

London is a place of walkers with a 2000 year long history of pedestrianism. No part of London is genuinely unknown, hence your own exploration has to be personalised, increasing your own store of particular knowledge, walking your own eccentric version of the city. London’s streets contain walkers of  every description, pursuing separate destinies, pacing out routes of personal need and desire, based on history, literature or private obsessions. Seven million walking journeys are made in London every day.

In the interests of research (2) Geoff goes on a walking tour (The Blitz: London at War), discovering  that two hours standing around listening to stories, interspersed with short walks, is much harder than walking continuously for two hours. The whole tour covers just under a mile.

Geoff visits Iain Sinclair, the walkers’ walker, a guru for hip literary walkers. The most accessible of Sinclair’s books is Lights out for the territory (“the thick dense allusive prose of his nonfiction isn’t easy reading, but a whole lot easier than the ditto of his fiction”), connecting his personal experiences of walking around the more feral parts of the city with various overlapping historical traditions (the literary, the bohemian, the criminal, the mystical, the alchemical), finding secret histories and alternate mythologies. He brings together the worlds of various Londoners and reveals historical characters you wish you knew more about. Iain has set piece walks, different walks for different questions or problems or ideas, a chain of 50 different walks, and with Geoff he walks from his front door to his front gate.

Geoff imagines a Nicholsonian map showing every step he has ever taken in London. He has a certain number of set London walks, which have got more eccentric and sophisticated, more full of the connoisseurship of walking and London, but has also made some successful shots in the dark, such as a walk to the Hornimann Museum – he promised himself he would go back, but so far never has. The map would show thin spidery traces for routes taken only once, thickening around places visited more frequently and positively “clotted and embossed” along the route from the tube station to the front door.

Geoff decides to do his ‘strange walking project’ on Oxford Street, one of the places where people who live there will go out of their way to avoid setting foot on. It’s too popular, too full of ordinary miscellaneous humanity, unpopular with one set of people because it’s so popular with another. He does six transits of Oxford Street there and back over the course of a day, to see how the street and his walking changed. The street is a mile and a half long, so each round trip takes three miles, giving a total of 18. He sets off at 6am on the sixth day of the six month of 2006, completing his last walk shortly before midnight.

People who have difficulty walking – if walking is bad for your condition, the more walking you do the less you can do in the future. Every mile used up means one less to use, walking yourself to a standstill.

As I tripped out one morning: music, movement, movies

Following Songlines – certain songs can act as self guided walking tours. See Bruce Chatwin – Australian Aboriginals, who of necessity were walkers since they never invented the wheel or domesticated a rideable animal, believed the world was sung into being by ancient spirits, so if you know enough songs you would know the whole world. A song can be both map and direction finder.

Songs about walking include the chanson d’aventure, devised by Provencal troubadors and traditionally beginning with the line “as I walked out one morning” and going on to describe a meeting or unusual sight encountered. A walk is an everyday activity which can reveal adventures and wonders wherever we are, or at least within walking distance.

Moving on, there’s the Walkin’ Blues, utilising the walking bassline (one note played for every beat of a 4/4 bar), which in turn leads to stride piano, where the left hand ‘strides’ up and down, alternating bass lines and chords.

In Country and Western walking is often synonymous with honesty and plain dealing – I walk the line. Walkin’ after midnight is more troubling, with streetwalker implications…

Sadly, at this point the book had to go back to the library. May borrow it again or even buy it.

The remaining chapters, which I have read:

  • A man walks into a bar: New York, the shape of the city, down among the psychogeographers and mixologists (laugh at loud chapter)
  • Some desert walkers, walking in and out of nature, with and without God
  • The walking photograph
  • Walking home and away from home (back to Sheffield, moving chapter)
  • Perfect and imperfect walks, last walks, the walks we didn’t take

Update, Dec 2016: other walking primers include Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: a history of walking (2001) and Melvin Coverley’s duo: Psychogeography (2006) and The art of wandering: the writer as walker (2012; review). I read the former around the same time as The lost art, and have plundered the latter to fill some gaps prior to our forthcoming jaunt to Paris. Being a second run-through and the latest of the four it has space for more on the return of the walker, covering Self, Sinclair, Papadimitriou – and Nicholson.