Flâneur in Copenhagen

Last updated: 10 March 2018

Back on 19 February I attended Flanør, an event hosted by the Goethe Institut and the Forening af Danske Kulturtidsskrifter, co-hosted by (and at) upscale newspaper Information. Speakers were Ricarda Messner and Fabian Saul from Flaneur Magazine (Facebook | Twitter) and Ulf Peter Hallberg, a Swedish writer living in Berlin since 1983. Here are some photos.

Kicking off proceedings Ricarda (publisher) and Fabian (editor) were asked to define “flâneur “. Cue much shifting in chairs, ending up with:

  • Ricarda: doing something without an aim
  • Fabian: dealing with things which could be lost, on the edge of time; ahead of time, avant garde

Frankly I’m with them on this, it is all more than a tad nebulous and open to interpretation, plus it’s really hard not to come over all pseud’s corner. Looking back my notes are pretty gnomic, and I reckon we’d all do better reading one or more of these articles: William Helmreich in Aeon | Paris Review praises the flâneur | The urban observer.

But the magazine is a lovely thing, internationally focused and published in English. Each issue explores a single street, so far in Berlin (review), Leipzig, Montreal and Rome (video review), with Athens coming up in the autumn (update: now plus Moscow and São Paulo). If they would like to tackle Copenhagen I’m inclined to suggest Valby Langgade. Each issue deals with some oddity, confusion or disruption, with an overall theme emerging during a two month research period.

Moving on, Ulf Peter Hallberg was born in Malmö and now lives in Berlin. I came across him too late! from a Facebook post by Politikens Boghal. He’s another one who blends fiction with real life – see his latest, Strindbergs skugga i Nordens Paris (2012), which intertwines his own background with August Strindberg’s stay in Copenhagen from 1887 to 1889 (published på dansk as Det store tivoli in 2014).

He also walks, and wrote the seminal Flanörens blick (The flâneur’s gaze, 1996; på dansk as Flanørens blik, 2000; Kristeligt Dagblad). It’s an essayroman; quotes from all the usual suspects, photos…I now have an autographed copy : D. Mind you, it’s par for the course that the first book in Danish I might _really_ like to translate is actually Swedish…

Ulf’s flâneurie habit started with childhood visits to Copenhagen with his father, in particular to the auction houses on Bredgade. His father was a collector, along with the flâneur one of the social archetypes in Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and sought inter alia wooden statues from Africa. This approach to life, the attempt to create – curate? – a universal order, is reflected in the novel Europeiskt skräp (2009) – published in English in 2013 as European trash: fourteen ways to remember a father (Amazon | “blends memoir, essay and fiction in an evocative journey through his late father’s world of collecting the European trash”).

And so time was up, before I could get my question/statement in on Kierkegaard (Denmark’s ultimate flâneur), and everyone rushed off looking at their shoes as per usual.

For me Copenhagen is just not set up for flâneurie, or Danes to be flâneurs; it’s not just the hygge, it’s also the over-planning and regulation in both public spaces and personal lives – and not least, the fact that the bike is king. Can you be a flâneur on a bike? Every time I go into ‘town’, ie central Copenhagen, I’m reminded that cyclists rule. While car drivers have become accustomed to giving way on crossings, the rules of the road vs pavement etc, these cyclists just aren’t bothered. The lack of crossings doesn’t help – you can be left standing wondering just how fast those bikes are going, and what direction the next one is going to come from. It’s disturbing for someone with a serious jaywalking habit. But I digress.

Also of interest was the fact that flâneurie’s partner in crime, psychogeography, never came up, as it also didn’t on a recent Danish podcast about Sebald. (And did Asger Jorn, a founder member of the Situationist International and a close friend of Guy Debord, not indulge in the dérive?) Why is this? A quick check of bookshop Saxo brings up zero for Danish translations of Messrs McFarlane or Sinclair, gosh, and while there are translations of Sebald’s The rings of Saturn (1995; translation: 2011) and Vertigo (1990; translation: 2012; see review), Austerlitz (from 2001) will debut in translation in December. Double gosh. And Sebald seems to have a Spanish following, so it’s not just an Anglo/German thing.

But hov, what’s this? On 26 March Mette Kit Jensen (interview) gave a ‘performance lecture’ at Nikolai Kunsthal with the title Ongoing flâneuse, complete with turtle (sic), or perhaps, tortoise. I assume the shelled one was given full respect, I’m not totally comfortable with that aspect…anyway, I was otherwise engaged, and go for the literary turn rather than performance/interventions in any case, however Mette looks interesting. Last year she exhibited Flaneuse de l’Europe, an audiowalk and book at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde, as part of their Museum in the city project:

an audio walk conceived through research the artist has carried out in several larger Europeen cities, such as Rome, Athens, Paris and Istanbul using sounds, impressions and narratives. The short stories are joined together in one long story, which connects to places in Roskilde. Local sound scapes recorded in Roskilde are mixed with global places and episodes in one total sound collage where proximity and flash backs alternate.

An article in Kunsten.nu gives a bit of background (in English here – scroll!) and a map, plus there’s an audio version should you find yourself in Roskilde.

Update: had a go at Det store tivoli (Information: excerpts another & last | review | Berlingske); apparently CPH was dubbed the Paris of the North after the World Exhibition of 1888; Hvidovre Bibliotekerne kindly lent me their new copy, but after three renewals it was time to hand it back – often an issue with library books. The main character is Strindberg’s secretary Knud Wiisby (1865-1941), hired by Edvard Brandes to spy on what August gets up to. (Ulf made Wiisby up, but connected with him on some level, and also has a vague family connection with CPH at that time. Or something.) Wiisby has a close relationship with Swedish author Victoria Benedictsson, who just happened to have unrequited love for Georg Brandes. And why not? Rather more worryingly there appears to be a parallel story set in LA in the present day, but there’s a sticker over that part of the cover.

Update, March 2017: Swedish app merchant Guidly launched a soundwalk about Victoria in Copenhagen at KBH Læser (FB event). The 90 minute walk, with some parts på dansk, runs from Axeltorv, where she met Brandes in 1886, to Kongens Nytorv, where she killed herself in a hotel room two years later.

Update, March 2018: Fabian and Mette resurfaced at #kbhlæser; no sign of Ulf.

Below: scenes from my drift in central Copenhagen, prior to the Flanør event.


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?


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?

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; new ed & again) 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.