Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: June, 2019

66. Linda Cracknell, Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains

I ran across Linda Cracknell’s name in Deirdre Heddon’s and Cathy Turner’s essay, “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” They described her as a woman doing epic walking—as well as smaller, more localized walks—and writing about them. In fact, she took more than a dozen walks while preparing for a writing project about walking that resulted in three or four books (229-30). Oh, I thought, I want to read those. Unfortunately, they were published by small presses in Scotland and now out-of-print. However, Abebooks found them for me, and this one, Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains, was the first one to arrive. I thought I would save it for my flight to Calgary, or else my flight to Dublin, but it’s not a long read, and so I decided to take it on this afternoon while the cats drowsed with me in the sunporch.

I need to make clear, at the outset, that I am not a mountain climber—I’d be pretty unhappy, living in Saskatchewan, if I were—and so I can’t tell from this book about walking in and climbing up mountains whether Cracknell’s practice might be a model for my own. I’m hopeful, though. In the book’s “Pre-amble” (get it?), she remembers the family walks she experienced in childhood (ix). They led to decades of climbing, mostly in Scotland:

My twenties and thirties were punctuated by mountaineering trips and some fairly cowardly rock-climbing, but I particularly started to enjoy long-distance walking in parts of north-west Scotland most remote from roads—Knoydart, and Fisherfield—wild-camping for five or six days with a sense of journey. I enjoyed the landscape unrolling, the rhythm and motion, the growing fitness, even the slight sense of hardship and rationed food. Only taking what you can carry generates the ultimate sense of independence. (ix-x)

(Note: what the English call “wild camping,” Canadians have to call “stealth camping,” because it’s not actually legal here.) “For me,” she continues, “those journeys were about climbing out of the trivia and pressure of everyday life, escaping the largely human world for a shift of scale” (x). In her 40s, though, she found herself walking less, and this book is a record, in part, of reversing that situation. 

Surprisingly, these two walks changed Cracknell’s view of walking. “The first walk I’ve written about here, following a friend’s father on a journey of life or death through Norwegian mountains, set my feet off in a new direction,” she notes. “I became less intent on ‘getting away from it all,’ and more interested in walking paths which beat with a human resonance” (x-xi). In fact, the two stories in this book “are part of an exploration, on foot and in writing, of this new preoccupation—following people, stories, ancient ways, human structures in the land. I now walk as a way of celebrating both landscape and humanity” (xi). That Norwegian journey made her realize the need for the second walk she talks about in this book, one that connects walking and memory—her memory of her father, who died of cancer when she was a baby (xi). “I found that the time had come to explore his mountains,” she writes (xi).

The first story, or narrative essay, in the book is “Losing my footing, finding my feet again” (1). She accompanies five friends to Norway to follow the path their father, who had been active in the Norwegian Resistance, took in 1944 after he escaped from the Germans and walked across the mountains to Sweden. As with her second story, this one begins in medias res: Cracknell is concerned that the focus of their trip so far has been “meeting people rather than the practical details of the journey. I have little idea of the daily distances planned, or the amount of food we need to carry before reaching the next shop. I try to bury my frustration, wait for the moment when I can breathe the mountain air and get my arms and legs swinging. I want to put my boots back on” (3-4). She recalls meeting her friend Yuli in 1982, in Devon; Yuli’s father, Sven, died when she was young; 60 years later, his family decided to trace his footsteps (4). They had the maps that Sven had drawn after his escape (4-5)—and the account he published after the war—as guides. Cracknell’s account of her journey is layered with Sven’s account of his escape; she shifts from one story to the other, as she does in the second story as well.

But they also had the testimony of people they met who had been involved with Sven’s escape, and they heard stories about Sven’s activity in the wartime resistance (6-7). He was arrested taking photographs of a torpedo station and on a ship ready to be taken for a summary trial when he slipped away from his guard (9). His plan was to escape through the mountains to Sweden; a young man, André, gave him his hiking boots to replace Sven’s worn shoes (9). That was quite an offer, given wartime leather rationing (12). André also helped guide Sven in the mountains, with two other climbers: “they “were the initial link in a generous chain that ushered Sven Sømme 200 kilometres through wild and isolated mountain country still snow-covered in 1944” (12). Sven travelled at night, without a map, adequate clothing, or food, sleeping out in the open or in deserted summer farms, hiding frequently for extended periods of time before it was safe to continue (12). “Valley and mountain, valley and mountain; helping hand to helping hand,” Cracknell writes. “This was the rhythm of his journey” (12).

For the first two days, the party has a volunteer guide, Oddmund Unhjem; he is 73 but the fittest of the group (14). As they walk, Sven’s story comes alive; “we take delight in finally using our bodies to retell it” (15). They cross a high plateau and head into the Eikesdal valley, where they meet Kristian Finset, who, as a boy, had kept quiet about the strange man hiding in the spare bedroom (20). Finset invites them to stay in his house: “The next morning we are tourists—showering under the tallest waterfall in Europe, swimming in the lake, discovering potatokake. Our biggest worry is how to keep the chocolate from melting”—then they walk to Finset’s son’s farm, where they stay the night and see the room where Finset’s father had hidden Sven (20-21). She thinks about Sven’s family, and her own; she has no memory of her own father, who died of cancer in 1961, as Sven did. She has been told that her father was a keen mountaineer but knows nothing about his adventures (22-23). 

Finset’s father gave Sven supplies and accompanied him to a narrow canyon, carrying three heavy planks which he used to make a temporary bridge for Sven; once Sven was across the canyon, the planks were taken away, and Sven was “alone with no retreat” (23). Two days later, Sven learns that the Germans are in the area looking for him (23); after that, he walks at night (26). He tries to swim across a swollen river but fails; he finds a bridge upstream and crosses there (26). He carries as little as possible in his borrowed rucksack; Cracknell, by comparison, has a new rucksack for the trip and she’s carrying too much, and her friends help her choose things that she doesn’t need and that can be sent back (26-27). The group looks for the point where Sven crossed the canyon; Cracknell writes, “I enjoy the sense of walking a storyline” (27).

They find themselves walking across a high moor; their guides have returned home and they are left to continue on their own (28). The party reads Sven’s book around their fire (29). They compare their experience to his: “Because in some senses we are walking for pleasure, it’s easy to forget how it would feel to be alone, and in danger. We have good boots and equipment, no Nazis in pursuit, no need to travel in the night” (30). They realize they have shared experiences with him already, though: “red squirrels trapezing through branches, golden plovers making their plaintive call, ‘tleee,’ and running fitfully towards us. Like him we’ve grazed on blueberries and wood sorrel in the forests. In marshy areas, we’ve picked cloudberries whose taste Sven characterised as ‘sunshine.’” (32). 

They walk all day; the next morning, food is running low, and they begin fantasizing about their favourite meals (32-33). They’re tired and dispirited; a couple in a camper offer them apples, and then a ride to Dombås, which they accept (33). One of their party, Oliver, decides he’s had enough and goes home; the others take a rest day and look at maps, planning their route (34). They take a taxi out of Dombås to pick up Sven’s route again, climbing onto a plateau that reminds Cracknell of the Cairngorms (38). Then, Cracknell falls on a hill and hits her head; she seems to have broken her nose, and her friends urge her to stop walking and find a doctor (39-40). She takes a taxi back to the nearest village to search for a doctor; she’s not sure she will return (40-41). The doctor sends her to a hospital in a larger town, where she is told that her nose is too swollen to treat and that she should go home (41-44). 

“Sven did better than I did,” Cracknell writes (45). He met friends at Nesset, and they helped him hide out for several weeks in a tent above Lake Atnsjøen while he waited for a safe moment to cross into Sweden (45). There, he made contact with his wife, saw his brother Knud, was provided with a false passport and ration cards and a message from his home town; people were overjoyed at his escape (45). Eventually he continued east, where he met a stranger who turned out to be the man charged with helping him to the river, where he crossed into Sweden (46). “He became one of over 48,000 Norwegians who walked or sailed to safety,” and travelled to Britain where he joined the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture before returning to liberated Norway in 1945 (46).

Cracknell’s friends carry on, following their father’s journey, and arrive at the Swedish border (48-49). “Sven’s story remains marked with its own memory-stones; a white-pebbled path visible in the dark,” Cracknell writes. “Like the best folk tale or legend it has been passed on, and then on again. Sven may have avoided leaving prints in the snow for his trackers to find, but he left lasting markers in people’s minds and in their concept of the landscape” (49-50). Cracknell realizes that although walk was intended as a holiday, it had become something more: “I discovered a richly peopled landscape. Even the strangeness of the days following my accident, with generous strangers playing their part, contributed to a sense of a living, resonant pathway” (50). She returns home thinking about this insight: “I wanted to follow more whispering ways; to seek out stories that still echo underfoot. And I began to wonder if that could include a faint path with a strong personal connection” (50). She starts asking questions about her father and a trip he made to the Swiss Alps, hoping to identify one of his journeys, or a route he had wanted to take, and walk a memorial to him (50). “But I had doubts,” she writes. “It might mean a climbing expedition in the Alps—something formidable that I had never done—and I no longer trusted my own feet” (50).

That’s where the second story, “Outlasting our Tracks,” begins (51). As with the first story, Cracknell starts in medias res: she is in a hut in the Alps; it is summer but it has snowed (53). Now, though, the sky is clear and the wind has dropped: “There’s a sense of a charmed day emerging” (53). As the sun rises, Cracknell and her climbing friends Colin and Rick put on their crampons and attach themselves to the rope (54-55): 

A line of shared responsibility now snakes between us, demanding to be watched so that our distances can be adjusted for different conditions—slack or taut, depending. The rope makes a team of us, pulling us out of individual reveries and slow waking with the need to communicate. Like riding a tandem, pauses will need negotiation. (56)

The snow that fell the day before, however, is a problem: 

By covering the footprints of climbers in the days before us, the new snow has made pioneers of us, erasing the accepted route, forcing us to be slow. It disguises crevasses and snow bridges, laying itself in soft piles that our first laborious steps sink into and compress. Those behind us will harden it into an easier-going trail. (56-57)

“We would prefer not to be leading,” she notes (57).

After her walk in Norway, Cracknell had asked questions about her father’s mountaineering: “I wanted to colour in the shaded outline in his photograph, to have some stories to walk or tell” (57). The only mountain anyone could name was the Finsteraarhorn, the one she is climbing now (57). “At half my age, in 1952, my father led his own expedition here,” she writes (58). Her friends Rick and Colin agreed to absorb her into their own trip to the Finsteraarhorn—“bravely, considering my inexperience in the Alps” (58-59). When she was getting ready for the climb, she would look at the map, imagining her father’s route (59). But maps aren’t the same as the actual thing, of course. Their path takes them onto a glacier, which was concealed in dense fog: “Disorientated, I felt I was walking on a sea that had been struck still and silent at a moment of monumental swell” (62). 

Walking and climbing are completely different activities, Cracknell realizes: 

This wasn’t a walk of rhythm and thought, but a strict regime of care and concentration—watching for the route; avoiding the catch of a crampon on an opposite gaiter. My head was bedevilled by the squint, gargoyled grins of stalactite teeth leering out of crevasses; by the image of Frankenstein and his monster wandering fog-drunk on the ice. I was in a faded black and white movie. (64)

Her inexperience is clear, and the fog a constant source of anxiety:

The surface was tamed in time under my crampon claws. I gained confidence, but I longed to see the dark rock-rise of the hills that defined our corridor on either side. How would we know, I wondered, in this labyrinth of fog and crevasse, wandering at the whim of the glacier’s faults and blockades, when we were level with the gothic high notch of rock to our right which held the Konkordia Hut where we would sleep that night? Might we not walk right past it? (65)

She thinks of a photo her father had taken in the Alps: three people, Jim Parry, Effie Pendleton, and David Lawton, “blurred in black and white, paused with backs to the camera”; they are standing on a glacier, heading towards the same alpine hut she and her friends are searching for (65). 

“The trail after my father has been slow,” Cracknell admits. “As a child, I remember searching for photographs, trying to find proof of his existence to fill the gap of memory. In the stiff second drawer of the dining room desk I stole glimpses framed and pasted into albums” (66). Before this trip, she wrote The Alpine Club in the belief that her father was a member; she talked to her mother, her uncle, an old girlfriend of her father’s; she looked at photographs; slowly she learned more (66). It turns out that, in the Alps, her father was with a party from the Oxford University Mountaineering Club (OUMC); she looks at photographs, reads a postcard her father sent home (68). The OUMC was able to provide some details of her father’s journey (68). “As I read the joyous words of joint adventure recorded in the OUMC Journal, Richard Cracknell, the summit-hunter, began to materialise,” she writes (69). Cracknell is able to trace their journey, at least part of the way (69-70).

“I imagined my father, in this three weeks or so of adventure before his ‘grown-up’ life began, feeling viscerally alive as he breathed in fine Alpine air,” she notes (70). He had just finished his chemistry degree at Oxford and had a job with a chemical firm (70). Her pride in her father comes through clearly: “He was an accomplished enough mountaineer to be leading his own party, and had been involved in the equipment tests for the first successful Everest expedition, which he and my mother would hear news of from the Lake District the following year” (70). She thinks about the differences between his equipment and that available to her (70-71). The job he was about to take involved working with epoxy resins, which probably brought him into contact with carcinogens that led to his terminal cancer (71).

Cracknell and her friends cross a dangerous snow bridge (72); the slopes of Finsteraarhorn are dangerous after a snowfall, and she is worried (73). She asks herself why she had “imposed this ordeal upon myself” (75). “I’m not sure I’m up to it,” she tells her friends (75). But, as the climb continues, hope comes to overwhelm her fear; “height beckons,” and she continues “the trudge” upwards (75). She’s still concerned she’s not fit enough, however (77). Climbing is a slow process: “I plant the ice axe; lift my left foot through; lift my right leg through. Plant ice axe, and repeat; and repeat. Every motion is deliberate, and moon-walk slow” (77). She’s surprised, again, that she’s climbing the Finsteraarhorn (78). At the Finsteraarhorn Hut, she learns that Gertrude Bell, “famous as an Arabist, had made the first attempt on the north-east ridge of Finsteraarhorn in 1902. She rarely makes an appearance amongst the lists of men in Alpine climbing histories but her account of the ordeal in a letter to her father is terrifying in its detail” (79). Bell’s party had failed to reach the top of the mountain because of weather, and they encountered a thunderstorm on their descent (79). Storm-stayed, they had to sleep outside, and when they arrived at Meiringen, Bell discovered that her toes were frostbitten, ending her climbing career (80). 

Like Heddon and Turner, perhaps, Cracknell is “puzzled by the lack of women participating in such adventures today”; only 1 in 10 of the people at the alpine huts are women (80). “Maybe it’s that women look for more meditative experiences in the mountains; suffer less summit fixation,” she suggests (80). She wonders if she doesn’t prefer the lower parts of the mountain, the meadows “effervescing with flowers,” the “passes where lives still linger, where green things grow; not these heights which above 3,000 metres seem equally to belong to any goretex-armoured warrior who gets there first” (81). Her self-doubt comes flooding back: “If this is Alpinism, am I really equipped to deal with its fearful implications? I began to think that the pull to the summits must be a young person’s thing, that my father never had the chance to outgrow” (81-82). Cracknell also wonders why Effie Pendleton accompanied her fiancé, David Lawton, and Cracknell’s father on their climb, and she recalls Pendleton’s image in the photograph she has seen: “She looks comfortable in this environment, ready for adventure” (82).

The next day Cracknell’s party continues upwards. The climb is difficult: “Each step is hard-earned” (84). “It’s steep and slow, but I can breathe, my moves feel strong, and we are undoubtedly heading for the summit,” Cracknell states (85). Then they reach the crest of the mountain: “a sudden shocking gulf of sky beyond it. Each step on the crest spreads a revelation of new geography: steep slopes rising in range after range below and beyond, should one dare look. We are walking in the air. Each further step is a bonus. I have no sense of time” (86). It’s late, though, and they are worried about the condition of the snow as the day warms up, and they decide to turn back without reaching the summit (87). The descent is difficult: 

Our feet touch down on the safe-seeming, smooth snow of the Hugisatell. When we look at watches, we see that the ridge has gripped our minds and bodies for four hours. This is what Rick calls “mental fasting,” the absolute focus of mountaineering that clears all else. Now it releases us to a group hug and photos. Words flow again. (88-89)

Despite not reaching the summit, they are happy: “We revel in a sense of achievement, but mostly just in the joy of being up here” (89). 

As with her walk in Norway, Cracknell realizes that sociability and conviviality is the point of this activity:

Colin and Rick name the peaks that years of familiarity with geography, shape, and distance have made theirs. In most areas of Scotland I can do this—know hills from different angles by their relation to each other and to lochs and valleys, despite their shape-shifting. Here I’m still lost, although the characteristic shapes of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc have followed us around enough now to be landmarks. (89)

“I’ve walked so much alone that it strikes me suddenly this sharing is what mountaineering is about,” she writes. “I feel incredibly lucky to have walked the last days fastened in trust to these two men, while following my father’s footsteps” (92).

Now, however, she reveals that the postcard her father sent his parents from Grindelwald “carries a wretched rather than a triumphant message” (93): Effie Pendleton was killed by a falling stone near the top of Finsteraarhorn (93-95). It was his last adventure; when the family took a trip to the Austrian Alps in 1959, his children kept him in the valleys (95-96). She imagines Effie’s death and its aftermath: 

I think of the slow digging of a platform in the snow, the necessary anchoring of the body, and the marking of the spot. A distraught fiancé to bring to safety. How quickly my father must have had to grow up. The youthful alpine-aired faces in the photos from Arolla just two weeks before, turn away from the camera towards serious responsibilities, jobs and death. (96-97)

And yet, her own descent must continue: “We descend the long, slushy slope to the hut, playfully when it allows—a glissading, rope-tugged bum slide—and seriously when sun-softened snow bridges have to be negotiated over crevasses” (97). Cracknell is starting to get sunburned “where the insistent running of my nose has allowed the sun to pierce Factor 40 cream” (97). Despite the sliding, Cracknell is tired and the work is hard: “I am unstable and lurching, rhythm-less, tugging taught the rope. Massive snow balls form on the base of my crampons and I jig along to my newly learnt tap dance with the ice axe dislodging them at each alternate step” (97). They finally reach solid rock, remove their crampons, and continue down the mountain (97-98). At the alpine hut, people in t-shirts are relaxing, drinking beer (98). “None of the three of us seems to feel that we failed to climb the mountain,” she states (98). Cracknell and her friends continue the descent to Konkordiaplatz the following day (99). She thinks about the glacier and its movement: “A little removed by the creep of the glacier lies my father’s way across here. I wonder how far downstream the imprints of his feet have drifted in 56 years, try to imagine their changed patina, perhaps transformed into something resembling a fossilized leaf” (99). “I know this experience will echo on,” she concludes.” A spell has been untied; a story retraced and given words out of silence” (100).

In the postscript, Cracknell returns to Pendleton’s death, and her father’s climb, and she reaches a new conclusion: “My father clearly admired Finsteraarhorn, but didn’t climb it. He chose instead a pleasing south-west to north-east traverse that probably took four or five days across the entire dramatic sweep of the Bernese Oberland, denying the enigmatic tug of its highest peak except as a sight along the way” (104). It’s a surprising discovery:

I’d been distracted by the spear of mountain and overlooked its lower foothills; saw my father as forever-youthful, striving for the highest summits. In this way, his memory beguiled me into a climb far more challenging than I would have chosen myself. After my initial dismay at ‘doing the wrong mountain,’ I’ve come to see it as his joke on me. 

I also see how unreliable memory is, and how buried it becomes. My detective trails were slow and mazed, but it makes sense now that it was on Konkordiaplatz, rather than on the high mountain, that I felt the deep pull of our affinity; our common journeys. Somewhere on the slow glacier the plates of ice we’ve each trodden ground against each other, and our paths coincided. (104)

I wonder, though, given climate change, whether her father’s footprints have melted out of the glacier. That’s churlish, of course; Cracknell’s belief that somewhere, her path coincided with her father’s is quite lovely and a fitting end to her story.

I liked Following Our Fathers: Two Journeys Across Mountains, and I’m happy Heddon and Turner wrote about her so that I was able to discover her work. It’s possible that Cracknell’s layering might provide me with a model for writing about my own walking (although I’m not going to be climbing anything, thank you very much). I also like her recognition that connecting with others while walking is important–even central–to what she is doing. That’s something I want to incorporate into my own walking, although because it’s so difficult and often unpleasant walking in Saskatchewan, I’m not sure how to go about it. I recall that Phil Smith doesn’t think much of Cracknell’s writing; he suggests that by interpreting her journey, “the mobility solidifies into a commodity that is reassuringly unique and recognisable” (Walking’s New Movement 54). I’m not sure that comment doesn’t apply to Smith’s own account of walking in the footsteps of W.G.Sebald, but in any case, a text is solidified; I know some texts are more open than others, and that Smith works hard to keep his own writing open, but at the same time, a text is a commodity, isn’t it? In any case, I do want to write about my walking, and I’m looking forward to Cracknell’s other books arriving in our mailbox, so I can determine whether her practice might be a model for my own. So be prepared to see more blog posts about Linda Cracknell’s walking and writing.


I was thinking last night that I really like Cracknell’s idea of walking a story. That’s what happens on the group walks my friend Hugh Henry curates: we walk the story of the Battleford Trail, or the Frenchman Trail, or, coming up this summer, the Carlton Trail. That’s what I did in the Haldimand Tract three years ago: I walked the story of how settlers stole the Tract from the Haudenosaunee. That’s what I tried to do last summer; I set out to walk the story of Andrew Suknaski’s poems. That idea might be the most powerful thing I can take away from Cracknell’s book.

Works Cited

Cracknell, Linda. Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains, Best Foot Books, 2012.

Heddon, Deirdre, and Cathy Turner. “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 2012, pp. 224-36.

Smith, Phil. On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff, Triarchy, 2014.

———. Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Triarchy, 2015.

65. Carl Lavery, “Teaching Performance Studies: 25 Instructions for Performance in Cities”

In Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Phil Smith includes Carl Lavery’s article, “Teaching Performance Studies: 25 Instructions for Performance in Cities,” in a list of exemplary publications about walking. Why not take a look, I thought? Lavery is a walking artist—his account of walking to mark the ninth anniversary of his father’s death is included in Roberta Mock’s anthology Walking, Writing & Performance: Autobiographical Texts by Deirdre Heddon, Carl Lavery and Phil Smith—and so I thought his 25 instructions might have some relevance to my project.

Lavery begins by pointing out that he trained in a traditional drama department, but when he arrived at De Montfort University in Leicester in 2003 to teach performance, he didn’t know what to do: “You couldn’t rely on a text: there was no transcendental author to refer back to; and no history of criticism on which to base your teaching. The whole thing felt more like art school than drama school—the emphasis was on ‘making’ and ‘devising’ work from scratch, not on staging plays with ready-made scripts” (229). After six months of teaching, however, he came to 

regard the lack of method as the birth of method. I’ve become addicted. . . . Unlike teaching theatre or drama which always led me back to the safety net of the text . . . or books that prescribed well-known methods and exercises for acting . . . teaching performance is like being in free-fall. There is no script, no manual to rely on. This, for me, is where the productive and, ultimately, democratic nature of performance resides. (229-30)

Instead of authoritative texts, in teaching performance studies there is “a productive conversation with, and borrowing from, the relatively new history of the discipline” (230). “So,” Lavery continues, 

in keeping with the spirit of dialogue or bricolage that teaching Performance Studies demands, my dispatches from the rehearsal room will not be in the form of a conventional essay; rather they will take the form of what I have called instructions for performance. My objective here is to stimulate the creative imagination, to get you to execute or accomplish actions. (230)

However, the instructions are intended to be a stimulus, “not a strait-jacket,” and should be approached (and appropriated) with that caution in mind (230).

Lavery makes a pretty big claim about performance:

I realized that instructions for performance could easily be called instructions for living. Why? Because performance does not locate the aesthetic in some difficult realm or privileged zone (the gallery, the text, the mind of the author); rather it locates the aesthetic in where you would least expect to find it—in the material conditions of what the Marxian philosopher Henri Lefebvre calls “everyday life,” in what is closest to you, in what seems disposable and lacking in aesthetic substance. (230-31)

“[P]erformance, learning to live creatively with your environment,” he continues, “resists the direction of a world order that is becoming increasingly depressed, rationalized, and bureaucratized. Confronted with such a world, performance . . . is a mode of resistance, a strategy of playful subversion” (231). 

In more practical terms, Lavery notes that he uses the instructions described in this paper to teach a module called “Performance in the City”—that module explores cities through discourses taken from sociology, geography, ethnography, art, and theatre (231). In their work, he wants students to shift their perception of spaces they might visit or traverse regularly. That kind of shift in perception can be provoked by asking students to do a number of things:

  • List ten things you saw, heard and smelt on your way to class over a period of a week.
  • Return to the same spot every day for a week and witness what happens there.
  • Deliberately get lost in the city.
  • Ask a friend to guide you through the city via instructions given on a mobile phone.
  • Negotiate the city by bus, car, bike and on foot and document your impressions.
  • Collect lost or abandoned objects in the city streets and try to imagine narratives about them.
  • Visit what the French anthropologist Marc Augé in his book Non-Places: Introduction to the Anthropology of Supermodernity calls “non-places”: retail parks, car parks, airports, slip roads, roundabouts, garages and service stations. Experience how they make you feel. Think about what they were.
  • Navigate the city with a walkman playing a narrative about urban journeys that someone else has sampled.
  • Walk the city at night, paying attention to the everyday performances you see on the street.
  • Taken photographs of ten buildings in the city that fill you with inconsolable sadness.
  • Describe how buildings in the rain make you feel.
  • Allow the city to penetrate your senses, your skin.
  • Memorize where you walked during the day and use this to personalize a map of the city. (233)

Many of these suggestions could also be what Smith calls “catapults” for a dérive or drift, it seems to me, and they testify to the connection between what Lavery teaches and psychogeography. In some ways, I find them more useful for walking than the actual 25 instructions that are the purpose of Lavery’s paper. After students complete these exercises, he asks them to reflect on and share their experiences in a number of different ways, including “performative lectures, monologues about place, or simply by taking the class on a guided tour of the sites mentioned,” and the information they share

will then be used as a source for making work in a hybrid manner, combining sound recordings, digital images, film, movement, story-telling, text, dance and peripatetic performance. In this way, the students learn to see performance as something that resists categorization, something that is not-theatre, not-art, not-dance, not-film. Something, in other words, that allows you to do what you want. (233-34)

The notion of students taking the rest of the class on a guided tour of specific sites in the city is interesting, but probably not possible at the university where I teach, given the amount of paperwork involved in taking students off campus, and given the lack of a course budget to take students anywhere. Those barriers, and others, would also apply to his 25 instructions.

According to Lavery, his 25 instructions are of two kinds: general and specific (234). “In both cases, however, there is sufficient space left for the student practitioner to appropriate the instruction for her own ends,” he writes. “The instructions are not designed to be a recipe. It is up to the performer to write the text, find the site, and decide on the medium of expression” (234). The instructions themselves would, as I’ve suggested, generate loads of paperwork and permissions—as well as a need to run everything past the university’s Research Ethics Board, which is not an experience anyone wants to have. Maybe I’m lucky I teach English composition to first-year students, rather than a course on performance in the city. 

Some of Lavery’s instructions are things that students could accomplish while working with other students. Take, for instance, his first instruction:

1. Read everything you can about Sophie Calle’s Dangerous Game (1988), Fiona Templeton’s You—The City (1988), and Mugger Music (1997) by Nick Crowe, Graham Parker and Ian Rawlinson. Meditate on what you read. Try to imagine what the work would be like and how it could be staged in your city. Then proceed to (a) plan your own version of the work; (b) find sites in your city or town that could accommodate the work; (c) rehearse and perform your version with a team of performers. . . . (234)

I’m assuming that “team of performers” would consist of other students, although I could be wrong about that. His third and fourth instructions would also involve students working with their colleagues:

3. Choose a play that is set in a city. Rehearse one scene from the play so that the cast are familiar with it. As the scene is being performed, project (on one of the adjacent walls) silent video footage in real time of cars travelling through the city. Each time the cars stop at a set of traffic lights allow the actors to speak. (235)

4. Point a camera at a location in the city (say for two hours) so that it simply records what comes into view. Edit the footage. Screen the footage in a theatre or at a designated site. On microphones ask live performers stationed to the side of the screen to improvise stories about the people caught on the camera. (235)

The instructions that ask students to confine themselves to a theatre or rehearsal space would be relatively easy to accomplish; others, which demand an engagement with the world off-campus, would be much more difficult. Take, for instance, instruction number nine:

9. Make the private public. Perform what you normally do indoors outdoors. This should include: cooking, eating, reading, washing, brushing your teeth, watching television and sleeping. Do this over a period of twenty-four hours. Stage it in a city square, theatre or shop window. (235)

How would students in Regina be able to live outside for 24 hours during the school year? Where would they find a landlord with vacant retail space (there’s no shortage of that) willing to allow them to rent that space for a short period of time? I can’t imagine. Nor can I imagine putting students at risk by asking them to do these things over 24 hours in the city’s downtown. No, I’m afraid number 9 is a non-starter.

Other instructions, which involve the general public, would definitely require approval from the Research Ethics Board. Take number two, for instance:

2. Place an advertisement in a local newspaper asking for volunteer-participants to meet at a central location in your city at any time after dark. Make it clear that there is a limited number of places for the performance. Choose a master of ceremonies who will greet the participants when they arrive and provide them with a list of instructions. Three participants are then selected to get in a car and warned not to talk to each other or to the performer/chauffeur. A narrative or series of narratives about the city you have created out of newspapers or lies is then played on the car stereo. After ten minutes of travel, the car stops at a garage, ideally positioned on the outer ring-road of the city you live in. The participants are asked via a text message to change cars. After cruising on the outer ring-road for forty minutes the participants are let out at a service station and instructed to carry out a series of tasks. They are then ferried back to the central location in the city and asked to share their experience of the city on a tape recorder, which may or, may not, provide the soundtrack to another performance. (234-35)

Or number five: “Create an installation of the city out of lost objects and the recorded testimonies of local people” (235). Or number 23:

23. Set up a series of booths in the city advertising palmistry, tasseography and tarot readings. Deliberately lie to your customers—predict futures of great happiness, collective joy and ecstatic being. (236)

Lying to participants, deliberately? The REB would freak out at the thought of lying to participants. I don’t know how Lavery is (or was) able to get away with asking his students to do these things: I don’t know how it would be possible where I teach.

There are instructions that would be useful for a walking art practice, though, and which show the influence of psychogeography on Lavery’s teaching. Instructions number six, for example—“6. Perform a series of urban rituals in the city, paying particular attention to liminal sites and sacred spaces that are found in cities” (235)—and number 20— “20. Take your audience on a series of mythical journeys or quests in the city. Try to find kingfishers, sacred groves, fabled wells, underground streams, haunted houses, sites of healing, etc.” (236)—with their attention to myth and ritual, definitely show the influence of British psychogeography. Some of the instructions are things I would consider doing, if only as a way to shake up my walking practice (and to find some value in the city I live in):

7. Explore different types of walking practices in the city: flânerie, drifting, wandering, fuguerie, nomadism and pilgrimage. Use these practices to create performance texts about the city, combining sound, image and text. (235)

12. Read Robert Smithson’s essays on sites and non-sites in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writing (1996). Produce a series of site-specific works according to Smithson’s dialectical methodology. (236)

14. Produce a series of soundscapes of shopping malls, car parks, supermarkets, ring-roads, alleyways, churches and playgrounds. (236)

18. Sketch out smell maps, taste maps, audio maps, affective maps and geological maps of the city. (236)

19. Take a video camera into the city and follow a dog or a cat for as long as you can. Make a film out of this. (236)

24. Draw a straight line through the city from north-south or east-west. Follow the line and produce a performance from what you encounter on the way. (236)

And number 22 is standard advice for writers: “Sit in a park, café or bar and listen to the stories spoken around you. Use this as the basis for a performance text” (236).

If I were ever to be asked to teach a course like the one Lavery teaches—not that likely, I know—his article would be an excellent resource. I might even figure out how to put some of his less practical instructions—at least, the ones that involve the most paperwork—into practice. (Who knows? Maybe getting some of these ideas past the REB wouldn’t be that difficult.) But some of his instructions are things I would consider doing myself, and his suggestions about shifting one’s perceptions of the urban environment are excellent as teaching aids and as ways to see the city with fresh eyes. And all of that makes this article valuable.

Works Cited

Lavery, Carl. “Teaching Performance Studies: 25 Instructions for Performance in Cities.” Studies in Theatre and Performance, vol 25, no. 3, 2005, pp. 229-38.

Mock, Roberta, ed.. Walking, Writing and Performance : Autobiographical Texts by Deirdre Heddon, Carl Lavery and Phil Smith, Intellect, 2009.

64. Deirdre Heddon and Cathy Turner, “Walking Women: Interviews with Artists on the Move”

heddon and turner walking women interviews

I’ve already read (and blogged about) Deirdre Heddon’s and Cathy Turner’s later essay, “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility,”  which summarizes the research that’s presented in this paper. But I found that essay to be so important that I wanted to see what was said in “Walking Women: Interviews with Artists on the Move.” I’m glad I did: there is some overlap, but at the same time, there’s enough new stuff here to make reading this earlier essay worthwhile.

Heddon and Turner begin with Rebecca Solnit and her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. They note that “the history of walking art woven through” that book “is inevitably dominated by the better-known names of male artists,” suggesting that, with exceptions, the ability of women to walk has been limited (14). That is something Heddon experienced as well, when she was writing her 2008 book, Autobiography and Performance. Then, she struggled to find women who included walking practices in their work (15). For Heddon, that struggle raised important questions:

Were there, in fact, many women artists, or did women avoid making walking art for various reasons? Why, if they did exist, was their work seemingly overshadowed by that of male artists? Might an examination of such work prove revealing, pointing towards aspects of walking and walking art that have been unexplored, or suggesting new perspectives on prevalent assumptions about such walking? (15)

One of the few women walking artists Heddon could initially identify was Cathy Turner, a member (with Stephen Hodge, Simon Persighetti, and Phil Smith) of Wrights & Sites; in fact, Turner had invited Heddon to participate in a “gender drift” in Exeter in 2003 (15). Together, Heddon and Turner decided to explore “the gendering of space and walking,” by interviewing women walking artists while accompanying them on walks (15). “We could have simply interviewed these women, inviting them to offer a narrative of their walking,” they write, but such narratives cannot convey the experience of walking (15). For that reason, they continue,

We chose to allow our interviews to be informed by this improvisatory and embodied experience, so that the walk might prompt diversions, tangents, circuits and uncertainties missed in the linear authority of the merely spoken account. Our fieldwork approach also allows us to attend to information from the sites walked through, things that drew our attention, that our walkers pointed out, surprising connections, disjunctions and juxtapositions. Each of the walks taken prompted a particular ‘toponarrative’—a collaborative, partial story of place constructed by at least two walkers. (15)

All of the interviews collected in this article were conducted during walking at various locations throughout the UK.

Heddon’s and Turner’s first task was determining whether “the absence of prominent women in the field (literal and metaphorical) of walking art was due to the absence of women working in this way” (15). They discovered that a lot of women were walking, in the UK and elsewhere (15). They decided to interview 10 artists as a starting point: Elspeth Owen; two members of the trio walkwalkwalk, Clare Qualmann and Gail Burton; Misha Myers; Tamara Ashley; Simone Kenyon; Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre; Emma Bush; Sorrel Muggridge; and Rachel Gomme (15). They write,

a large part of our concern was simply to make this walking more visible. Thus, although we tentatively begin to draw conclusions here, this essay focuses on the walking interviews themselves, the work of the artists and their discussion of their own work (the last a deliberate attempt to vary the voices heard in this field). (15)

The conclusions are explored more fully in their 2012 essay on this subject. This paper is the beginning of their research–and to be honest, I should have read this one first. In any case, both are worthwhile.

In the first walk, Heddon interviews Turner on a walking route that Turner chose, one that runs “along the undercliff between Branscombe and Beer, in Devon” (16). Turner noted that “the ‘leisure walk,’ chosen for aesthetic pleasure and convenience, is easily regarded as the antithesis of the psychogeographic ramble—too easy, too naive, too ‘managed,’ too mapped. Need it be, however? Is it entirely without difficulty, complexity, risk or mystery?” (16). She also raised questions “about the ways in which our experiences shape our assumptions about place, citing, for example, the highly managed forest environment where she enjoys taking her small daughter for walks, despite the doubts cast on this ‘taming’ of the forest space by artist colleagues” (16). She recalled her attempt to “drift,” with her baby, in a domestic space, as part of a video project made for Wrights & Sites: “It was hard,” she said (16). She remembered “the struggle of attempting to experience the house differently, dressed for hiking, wheeling the buggy upstairs, erecting a tent in the bathroom,” and the resulting video can only be read ambiguously, “suggesting entrapment” (16). That experience led Heddon and Turner to consider domestic walking:

We do not want to assume that women’s experience can automatically be mapped onto a concern with the domestic, or to make similarly essentialist assumptions about men’s epic walking. However, Cathy’s observations clearly reflect the ways in which personal experience (here, that of early motherhood) can inform perceptions of space and of its attendant degree of difficulty, complexity, risk and mystery. (16)

I doubt very much that a male walking artist would be concerned with the domestic, however, although I feel the need to point out that not all men are engaged in “epic walking,” either. At least, I don’t think they are. Maybe I’m wrong about that.

In the second interview, Heddon drifted in London with Rachel Gomme, “a dancer trained in the technique of Body Weather, a butoh inspired practice which raises awareness of and attends to the body’s intersections with its environment” (16). Having worked with artists Christine Quoiraud and Simon Whitehead, “and sensing in their practice a deep engagement with the rural landscape,” Gomme “seeks strategies for a similarly embodied response to the urban fabric of London: a way to feel at home” (16). Gomme’s practice “tends to focus on details”: throughout 2007, for instance, she would stop to pick up flowers that had dropped to the ground, and the resulting Found Flower Journal “captures seasons and microclimates, each flower attached to a strip of paper that roughly matches the colour of the sky when she plucked it from the pavement” (16). She’s more interested in “the organic matter of the city” than its architecture” (17). Her 2008 work Undergrowth was

a sort of natural history walk around her local area, literally marked out, in washable green paint, the things that grew where they weren’t supposed to be, or where you didn’t expect them, or where you simply tended not to see them—plants in the road, roots of trees breaking through the pavement, ‘weeds’ in the cracks of walls. (17)

Gomme learned the names of those plants, exchanged knowledge with people from the area who showed up to walk with her (17). Gomme’s walking is often convivial in that way, and Heddon notes that her walking practice 

borrows from her Body Weather technique, a sense of stillness in motion. The hypnotic rhythm of foot falling is threaded through Ravel (2008), where she knitted up a line of yarn as she walked through Camberwell, incorporating bits of found objects or things that people gave her. Six hours of walking, covering a distance of just over two miles, created a knit of 4 1/2 feet x 6 inches. She collected not only objects but people, mostly women, mostly talking about knitting—their grans’ knitting, their mums’ knitting. (17)

The use of methodologies related to relational or social aesthetics—in this case, the conversations Gomme engaged in with passersby—is a recurring theme in this essay.

Turner walked and talked with Emma Bush in Harbertonford, the village in Devon where the lives; they walked a route that is part of Bush’s 2008 Village Walk, and Bush pointed out the field where she researched her 2007 performance lecture, Fields (17). It’s a walk Bush has repeated many times: “Repetition is something she finds interesting. Not striding out into the unknown but focusing in on the detail of the known” (17). Every evening, Bush photographs the same line of houses, “taking time to notice weather, wind direction, owls and buzzards. Nothing is too small or too familiar: she even considered a project where she would contemplate her garden wall” (17). During the interview, Bush stressed “her timidity in talking to people, or walking strange routes. The research process for Village Walk was slow, extended over months and involved repeatedly walking the route with elders from the village and alone. The final walk links a series of the elders’ autobiographical stories along the route” (17). For Turner, “[t]his project’s integrity, its careful methodology, its deliberation, its pushing of small boundaries,” suggested that it was “a metaphor for the hidden steeliness that lies behind the fragility of this walking” (17).

In the fourth interview, Heddon walked with Gail Burton and Clare Qualmann around East London, “following the everyday routes that now form the trio’s Nightwalks” (18). The trio walkwalkwalk “practice what they call ‘an archaeology of the familiar and the forgotten,’ organizing public walks through their familiar places, places deemed marginal or overlooked” (18). Such places in East London at that time were dirty and somewhat abandoned, but they provided “space for the imagination” and were “more receptive to possibilities” (18). Walkwalkwalk’s practice is a “sharp retort to Guy Debord’s dismissal of a student whose routines made a rigid triangle in Paris. . . . Debord was incredulous that the (female) student did not move outside of those three points. Staging a sort of anti-dérive, walkwalkwalk plotted their daily routes to define their own triangle,” and decided to invite others to join them in exploring the relationships within that space (18). Some 20 to 50 people turn up for their nightly walks, which are organized a couple of times a year (18). “Collective walking enables access to places that become ‘off limits’ at certain times (most particularly for women),” Qualmann and Burton suggested. “But the broader politics of freedom are writ large here”: they wanted to do something that didn’t require permissions or money (18). “Their collection of different night walk route maps testifies to the redrawing of margins” in the area, which is beginning to experience regeneration and redevelopment (18). I wonder what those walks are like now, a decade later, or if they are still happening.

Heddon took Elspeth Owen on a walk in Glasgow, on one of Heddon’s own daily walking routes (18). That’s because “Owen is a long distance, long duration walker, her work often providing a structure for the forging of new connections” (18). For example, in 2005’s Looselink Owen “hand-delivered messages in a chain sequence, following directions from one person to another. At no point did she know, in advance, where she would be walking to next” (18). (That would be a dangerous project to attempt in this country: what if someone in Vancouver gave you a message for someone in St. John’s?) In another project, 2009’s Grandmother’s Footsteps, Owen used a similar methodology, “delivering messages from grandparents to other first-time grandparents, crossing fifteen counties in the process” (18). “While the direction and duration of these projects are determined by the people participating in them . . . other projects are dictated by the calendar”: Owen has performed two “blue moon” works, remaining outside for the entire moon cycle, in all weathers, undertaking nightly walks and issuing an open invitation for people to join her (18). 

Owen is 71, and she only started walking in her 40s (18). Her first long walk was a 120-mile trek from Cardiff to Greenham Common, marking the founding of the Peace Camp that was set up to protest the presence of American nuclear weapons (18). Even though she was an adult, her father was furious with her, and that reaction encouraged Owen to develop a walking art practice (18). “Another motivator,” Owen noted, “is her acute sense of fear when walking in unknown places—a fear that she acknowledges, confronts and overcomes with every walk completed. As she explains, all the bad things that she imagined might happen, but didn’t, are placed beside all the good things that did” (18-19). For example, the first night she slept out on her own (a nerve-wracking experience) she woke up to see a white stag (19). I wonder how many similar moments Owen has experienced.

Turner interviewed Misha Myers during a walk around Exeter, following the city wall (19).“Myers is a performance artist and academic, who formerly studied anthropology and practised dance,” and Exeter’s old walls “designated the route of her work Yodel Rodeo in 2007” (19). According to Myers, walking as an art practice “came out of her interest in ‘how people orient,’ an interest, she suggests, rooted in her own experience of displacement”—she moved from the US to the UK—and her work with refugees and asylum seekers (19). For instance, her 2002 project Way from Home “began with refugees in Plymouth and that has since extended to other places. With this project, Myers offers a set of instructions for mapping a place that someone remembers as home, then walking it in another place, remembering it with a co-walker” (19). Myers had thought that everyone who participated would have a clear idea of what “home” was, but that turned out not to be the case: “She recalls a homeless refugee, awaiting deportation, who could not identify home, who walked the shape of a question mark in the public library” (19). Myers encourages people to interpret her instructions and make them their own, to use them to create a journey (19). Her own Yodel Rodeo was an attempt “to walk Mississippi around central Exeter. Initially, she envisaged walking alone through the night but grew interested in inviting others into that imagined space. She therefore involved a group of line-dancers who accompanied her in a route around the walls that ring the city like a corral” (19). Myers’s works “have tended to focus on triggering other people’s creativity and involvement,” in a way that makes the artist herself tend to disappear (19).

Heddon walked with Sorrel Muggridge in Glasgow (19). Muggridge “has been devising walking projects with Laura Nanni for the past five years”; the pair walk together “in shared time rather than in shared space since she has been most often in Nottingham while Nanni is in Toronto” (19). “Spinning the idea of the long-distance walk, their projects utilize the space between them as if ‘mashing up’ geographies, engaging the streets of one city as the streets of another” (19). For instance, their 2009 project Further Afield invited people to walk with someone else across the ocean; participants were connected by telephone with someone walking in Montreal, “exchanging details of one place to re-imagine and navigate the terrain of another. Separated by thousands of miles, the experience nevertheless provided the co-ordinates for collaboration, exchange and connection” (19-20). In another piece, The Climb, Muggridge and Nanni “attempt to climb the height that would allow them to see each other across the horizon,” measuring that height “using an everyday scale—the step” (20):

Though durational (and perhaps never ending), the intention, Muggridge explains, is neither to endure nor conquer space, but to make tangible the impossibility of the scale at which they are working, “emphasizing the scale of space versus the scale of us and letting it be, letting yourself feel liberated rather than challenged by it.” (20)

I’ve seen calls for similar walks on the Walking Artists Network, but I had not understood the point before reading Muggridge’s account of her walks with Nanni.

Turner and Ana Lopez de la Torre walked together in London. Lopez de la Torre explained “that her walking grew out of an interest in public space,” and that rather than being connected to leisure or “a romantic connection with nature,” it is “connected with poverty” (20). Her grandmother, who lived in north-west Spain, told stories about walking from one village to another, “stories that are sometimes about convivial walking, but sometimes about sorrow and hardship” (20). Lopez de la Torre “is interested in an equal valuation of the mythical alongside more factual, historical or scientific material,” but by mythical she seems to refer to communal knowledge (20). She seems to be the closest to a psychogeographer in this group of walkers: she looks for “the incongruities in the city spaces, the oddities, the ways in which the street is controlled and organized, or where control has disintegrated”—such as the impromptu allotment garden they see on the edge of a housing estate: “This is what makes my day,” Torre told Turner (20).

Heddon walked with and interviewed dancers Tamara Ashley and Simone Kenyon in a town in Wales: “They climb the hill behind Kenyon’s house, a route she sometimes runs” (20). In 2007, the pair walked the Pennine Way together: “they were interested in ‘how to locate dance through walking,” and over the 270-mile walk “they tried to pay attention to how their (dancers’) bodies engaged with and responded to the terrain” (21). Even the weight of their backpacks played a role, making them aware of their centre of gravity and connecting them to the earth with their weight (21). “Walking as a duo, they ‘partnered’ the land too,” considering the texture and density of the ground they walked on—peat versus limestone, for example (21). They focused on improvisation during that walk:

Improvising off the land and each other, they remained sensitive to the possibilities of exchange, to shifts in atmosphere and mood (both of the landscape and their relationship). Notably, the largest tensions between the pair were experienced during the most difficult sections. The Pennine Way functioned “like a score” though, with the path providing what Kenyon describes as a “base line” that “pulls you” and “holds you in place.” No matter how bad things seemed to be, they realized (and appreciated) that they simply had to get up each day and get back on the trail. (21)

The pair also curated “six artistic interventions along the route,” inviting other artists to come and change what was happening and give them feedback (21): “In the context of the long-distance and long-duration, these meetings became ‘magnified’ and served to extend the duet, the dialogue and exchange; as did the encounters the pair had with other walkers completing the Way, a lot of whom shared their stories of the path. One walker even left signs on the ground for them” (21). Heddon recognized in their walking that “‘contact improvisation’” was “an appropriately generative description through which to consider this responsive, open practice” (21).

In their conclusion, Heddon and Turner note that they walked with only a small number of the women walkers who contacted them, but that

the richness of this field is already evident. These ten women worked as solo artists, duos and groups; they ranged in ages from 20s to 70s; some were mothers and some weren’t; they were from Britain or had emigrated here; they lived in the city and in the country; they walked alone and they solicited company. Some loved walking as children, some hated it. While all had heard of flâneurs and the Situationists, and many cited Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Janet Cardiff, few seemed overly concerned with or committed to staying within the well-tramped fields. Each had her own agenda and different motivation. The diversity of the practice and the women who make it usefully prevents us from falling into easy essentialisms of “gender.” Nevertheless, each of these women did recognize that she walked as a woman: though what that means is as variable as the women walking. (21)

Given the variety in the walking practices they learned about, they don’t “propose a singular conceptualization of women walking” (21). “However,” they continue, “by walking and talking to these women we aim to rethink—or add—to the theories that relate to aesthetic walking practices” (21). The interviews were a starting point and they intended to continue their analysis (21). Nevertheless, they write,

Our small sample has already prompted us to consider questions of scale, of the monumental and the miniature, and the cultural values attached to one rather than the other. But this work also invites us to problematize such binaries, for in the detailed work of many of these walkers—their dogged attention to their locale(s)—the seemingly miniature becomes gigantic. (21-22)

The local and the global intertwine in these walks, as do the local and the epic: “We reconsider, too, the local and epic, since our long-distance walkers work with both scales simultaneously; Owen travels vast distances to hand deliver personal messages” (22). They are also interested in the way that the walking they discussed “prompts us to consider walking as a convivial or communal activity, over-writing the still powerful historical figure of the solo walker” (22). For instance, Owen’s walking puts connection at its centre; Muggridge and Nanni connect people who are thousands of miles apart; Gomme “knits together people and place, gathering them both as she walks her local streets”; Myers and Lopez de la Torre “both see their work as being that of someone facilitating on behalf of various communities, where the artist does not necessarily ‘lead’ or inscribe the work with their presence” (22). The work also encourages them to think about “the concept of ‘adventure’”: adventure does exist in the walks they’ve discussed, and it’s important to acknowledge that and make it visible, but “as with notions of ‘scale,’ adventure can be rescaled too, depending on your perspective. To work in one’s back yard is to take huge risks, while to walk the Pennine Way, as Simone Kenyon reminds us, is simply to take one step after another” (22).

When I first became interested in walking as an art practice, I was only aware of epic walking by men: Richard Long and Hamish Fulton were the primary examples I knew about. I’m not willing to abandon the notion of epic walking, but it would be interesting, I think, to engage in other forms of walking as well—perhaps forms that are more convivial, perhaps forms that are more local in scale. I would not have come to that realization without reading Heddon’s and Turner’s articles on women walking, and I am curious to learn about other kinds of walking as well. Perhaps there are men (aside from Phil Smith) whose walking falls into the category of social or relational aesthetics; perhaps not all men who walk are engaged in epic walking. One of the things I’m learning as I read through all of this material is just how much I don’t know. It’s rather humbling. I suppose that’s a good thing: better to know what you don’t know than wander around with a false impression of one’s knowledge and competence. Still, if I were asked to put together a syllabus for a course on walking as an art practice, almost all of the examples I’d be able to furnish would be of women walking artists, given the lists provided by Heddon and Turner, and also by Phil Smith—maybe that’s not the worst thing, but it does indicate the lack of balance in my knowledge of the field. In fact, I might find myself being asked to create such a syllabus as part of my comprehensive examinations: I’d better start making lists of walkers I might want to include.

Works Cited

Heddon, Deirdre, and Cathy Turner. “Walking Women: Interviews with Artists on the Move.” Performance Research, vol. 15, no. 4, 2010, pp. 14-22.

———. “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 2012, pp. 224-36.

63. Luke Bennett, “Incongruous Steps toward a Legal Psychogeography”

walking inside out

When I wrote my summary of Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits, I suggested I might turn to this essay by Luke Bennett, which I ran across while I was reading Tina Richardson’s anthology Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography. Back then, I skipped over Luke Bennett’s discussion of Scarp, because I generally prefer to read critical accounts of a text after I’ve read it at least once myself. But I’m glad I did turn to Bennett’s essay. He presents a close reading of two moments in Scarp that I skipped over, before suggesting that there are parallels between psychogeography and the law, and calling for something he describes as “legal psychogeography.” Bennett is a lawyer by training, a geographer by vocation, and a psychogeographer by avocation, and so his thinking on these issues is the product of his unique background and education. He’s also not a bad literary critic, if his readings of those two moments from Scarp are anything to go by.

Bennett begins by suggesting that Papadimitriou “conjures many dissonant ideas, images and registers” in Scarp, and that in this essay he intends to 

dissect two of his strange conjunctions and, in doing so, consider through them the prospects for extending contemporary British psychogeography’s embrace of the incongruous—the out-of-place, the absurd and the out-of-keeping—beyond psychogeography’s usually aesthetically inclined preoccupation with liminality and into the mundane sphere of the law’s everyday manifestations within the built environment. (59)

The first of those “strange conjunctions” is Papadimitriou’s description of fatal car crashes at the “Suicide Corner” on the A41 in the 1950s. According to Bennett, Papadimitriou “draws forth isolated incidents from the pages of long-forgotten local newspapers and memory, activating these incidental archives in order to show a reverberation of these events within the landscape itself” (59). That’s an interesting reading; I thought Papadimitriou was imagining these accidents, that the reference to a local newspaper was part of the fantasy, but perhaps I was wrong. In any case, at one point, Papadimitriou has an anonymous civil engineer think about the highway and how to extend the M1 highway over the high ground above. For Bennett, 

Papadimitriou captures in this passage how the task-orientated gaze of the engineer sees the topography as a set of logistical challenges, a puzzle to solve as he works through in his mind’s eye the most feasible path for his roadway. Papadimitriou’s description seeks to show how all other sensory inputs are blocked (or discarded) as irrelevant to this man’s purpose. He is standing there for a reason. He is harvesting the landscape for what he needs today. This applied gaze foregrounds certain features and backgrounds all else. (60)

At the same time, Papadimitriou “shows how even that focus is vulnerable to undermining the assault of the disregarded ‘background,’ as an irresistible reverie—or at least a momentary noticing of other things, takes hold,” when a bird chirps and he notices the woods and fields and ditches around him (60). “In showing the breaking of concentration caused by the bird’s proximate existence,” Bennett writes, “Papadimitriou keys into a number of trends (or ‘turns’) in contemporary sociocultural theory” (60). What Bennett wants to do in his essay is to map out those trends and show the affinity between contemporary British psychogeography and cultural geography, even though psychogeography “is currently regarded with considerable suspicion by academics” (60). 

First, Papadimitriou’s fictional engineer is embodied; he is “embedded in life and place: his lifeworld” (60). He is, Bennett continues, “engaged in a moment-by-moment cocreation of his sense of place,” partly through “the mental (and disciplinary) constructs he brings (his gaze),” and partly because the place where he finds himself makes him, 

through materially resisting certain options or actions, through presenting certain ‘givens’ (history, morphology, entropy) that he—this individual—cannot resist. He is entrained in a world, a traveller in time as well as space. This place, and ideas, memories and emotions that he or others associate with it, shapes his experience of it and experiences in it. (60-61)

This moment in Papadimitriou’s text is therefore aligned with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and with Kathleen Stewart’s “influential advocacy of consideration of the preconscious swirl of ‘ordinary affects’ (emotions, bodily dispositions, habits) that shape the performance of everyday life” (61), which can be in her 2007 book, Ordinary Affects. (Reading one text always leads to other texts; the research process sprawls in infinite directions.) Stewart, according to Bennett, is interested in how we experience, react, and then make sense of “where the embodied flow of life has swept us”; she also foregrounds the importance of studying everyday life, a concern she shared with Henri Lefebvre, Walter Benjamin, and the Surrealists (61). This connects her to contemporary psychogeography, according to Bennett, which 

has an affinity with this scrutiny of the mundane in that it aspires to a restless multiplicity, to an epistemological promiscuity, to an open noticing of everything, to a renunciation of conventional filters that push certain elements centre stage and cause others to recede from view. All of these aims can be subsumed within the notion of psychogeography having an embrace of incongruity at the heart of its methodology, as it seeks out the complexity, colour, worth and drama of the seemingly ordinary through juxtaposition, playfulness, embodiment, allusion and heterodoxy. (61)

The engineer’s thoughts are also suggestive of Jane Bennett’s “vibrant materialism” theses: “she advocates giving greater attention to nonhuman actors and their potency within our human encounters with the world” in her 2010 book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (61).

Bennett sees a connection between psychogeography in general, and Papadimitriou’s text in particular, and “an ‘object-oriented’ pivot toward materialism” in a number of academic disciplines, from literary and cultural theory to archaeology and philosophy; he suggests that Scarp is linked to that materialist pivot, particularly for “those who foreground the coconstitutive role of human/matter entanglement” and “the mundane, event-forming ‘force of things,’” or “the cumulative effects of many tiny encounters with things, peole and rules that in aggregate make our daily experience and channel our actions” (61-62). Bennett also suggests that Papadimitriou’s engineer’s impression of that spot on the highway would not be the same as the impressions of other visitors: “This is a relational view of the construction of place,” he suggests, one that takes its cue from the work of Doreen Massey and others who apply the work of Gilles Deleuze to geography (62).“For such theorists,” he contends, “the sense of place is dynamic and constantly being re-created because it is only ever an unstable aggregate of the myriad orientations of users of that space” (62). However, “[w]hile the landscape poet can happily leave us with a romantic resurgence of ‘nature’ overwhelming an instrumentalist man, psychogeography’s embrace of incongruity can—and should—be taken further”: it ought to be able “to show how the workaday preoccupations of an instrumentalist science can invade a thought stream of more affective purpose, showing how the ‘straight’ world reasserts itself, barging itself back to the foreground—in short, how it recolonizes consciousness and gaze” (62). For that reason, Papadimitriou’s engineer’s reverie is brief, fleeting, “inevitably undermined by the ‘day job’ returning to his consciousness, the ‘real world’ bringing him back down to earth and back to the prosaic task in hand” (62).

For Bennett, psychogeography is all about juxtapositions of incongruent things, and he suggests that “[u]sing incongruence to tease out and vividly depict all aspects of the multiplicity of the experience of place could be psychogeography’s rich methodological contribution” (62). “Psychogeographers are not the only explorers (or researchers) who want to ‘weird’ the world,” Bennett suggests, referring to anthropologist James Clifford’s embrace of Surrealist practices of collage and assemblage in his 1981 essay “On Ethnographic Surrealism” (63). In addition, British psychogeography’s aspirations “to multipy the readings of any place,” is not dissimilar to Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (64). 

Bennett suggests that psychogeography is focused on “the potentiality of place to avoid the closure (the narrowing down) inherent in instrumentalist meaning making” (64), and he argues that Papadimitriou demonstrates this in the second strange conjunction he wants to explore: an old woman’s death juxtaposed against the formula by which water utilities calculate sewerage charges (64). “Here Papadimitriou willfully brings together two entirely separate parts of the modern world and melds them simply in order to delight in their incongruence,” Bennett writes. “There is a playful surrealist strategem at work here—but also something unusual in psychogeography,” because that formula, known as the Mogden Formula, “is presented without explanation”; there is no reason to mention it, except that Papadimitriou finds it interesting, even occult, in the sense that it’s a part of daily life that remains hidden from most of us (64). (That’s a version of the occult that makes sense to me.) This passage is in the appendix of Papadimitriou’s book, which is the journal of Perry Kutland, one of Papadimitriou’s fictional characters. For Bennett, 

[t]he appendix is both the high point of Papadimitriou’s embrace of contemporary psychogeography’s incongruent intent and the point at which the integrity of his literary text—its manifest point—becomes most unstable. The irruption of the Mogden Formula is only held within a vague semblance of narrative progression by the baseline riff provided by the juxtaposed glimpses of the final events of the old lady’s life. There is something humanist in this, perhaps an implication that we must always strive to find and foreground the real, modest and anonymous lives that play out alongside such systemic abstractions as waste water management. But whatever Papadimitriou’s intent is here, we are certainly left with an embrace of incongruent multiplicity—a simultaneous, parallel reading of multiple, seemingly unrelated fragments of the place under scrutiny, juxtaposing them surrealist collage-like, to see what conjunctions occur. And—for one—it is a juxtaposition that does not quite lapse into a romantic reverie. While the juxtaposition is humanist (perhaps) in overall effect, the reader is left with a glimpse of the strange complexity of the technical bureaucracy by which the most universal of human emissions are ‘managed,’ and perhaps also a sense of Papadimitriou’s fascination with this infrastructural hydrological cycle. (64)

In fact, Bennett continues, by foregrounding the Mogden Formula, 

Papadimitriou gives us a glimpse of what a truly rebellious (and also academically valiant) psychogeography could be, a depictive writing that shows the irruption of technical realms into affective life, reversing the psychogeographer’s usual discovery of a quirky anecdote, a warm breeze, or a fragment of history to energize a mundane place. Through such bleeding back of technical, bureaucratic and regulatory fragments into psychogeography’s “literary” account forming (as a counter to the predominance of romantic reverie), those accounts would vividly reveal how the everyday world is made both of natural and (affective) human vibrancy and of matter, obstruction, systemic regularity, instrumentality and control. (65)

The kind of psychogeography Papadimitriou is engaged in, Bennett argues, would take psychogeography “back toward the original political reconnaissance envisaged by Guy Debord and the Situationist Internal to find in reconnaissance both the ways in which the built environment is experienced creatively by the individual and the strictures and structures by which the regularity and governability of the urban realm is routinely manifested” (65). There is scope in psychogeography “to start searching again for the built environment’s effects upon the emotions and behaviour of individuals and of the presence of specific laws and their related effects within the geographical environment,” the goals Debord advocated for the practice back in 1955 (65).

Here Bennett moves in an entirely new direction: towards something he calls “a legal psychogeography”(65). A legal psychogeography would be 

a hybrid fusing of aspects of environmental psychology, institutional ethnography, all of the sociocultural ‘turns’ (material, affective, relational, everyday), and legal geography to attain—through psychogeography’s embrace of incongruence—insight into the cocreation of place, society and law through localized practices an experiences. (65-66)

“The law does not alone create the world, nor does it have unfettered ability even to shape people, things and places,” Bennett continues, suggesting that “even in the most controlling society, law’s generality must yield to aspects of the specificity of individuals, their actions and their environments—all as imbrications of unique situations and places formed by them” (66). Legal geographers, like himself, therefore “look to study law’s manifestations in (and the curbing of its power by) the social and material world” (66). According to Bennett, the law is defined modestly in legal geography: “modest in the sense that the limit of its writ—its ability to achieve things in the world—is contingent on both the ‘macro’ factors of politics and economics and the specificities of place, power, practices and material qualities” of, in the case of law regarding highways, “any particular road” (66). According to Bennett, that modest definition indicates that “we can achieve something novel with Guy Debord’s definition of psychogeography’s project”: an attention to the material effects and sociopolitical origins of the legal framework that saturates “the built environment” (66-67). “Thus,” he continues,

psychogeography could have a role to play in showing how the law is translated into seemingly incongruent flows of matter, affect, practices and the resulting assemblages of ideas, materials and actions that form buildings, roads and the urban landscape and—in particular—provide ways to reveal the as-lived effects that those flows have upon individuals, moment by moment. (67)

“[E]verywhere has a story to tell,” Bennett writes, 

and . . . there is a concern for the everyday experiences of the everyday people caught up in the law’s spatial effects. And yet legal geography has struggled to find ways to write off the localized, affective and flux-like manifestations of the law and its moment-by-moment influence on the minds and orientations of those subject to it. Here—surely—is where psychogeography has something to offer. (67-68)

A legal psychogeography’s “special contribution” would be “its concern to understand the material-human corelationship, particularly as manifested in the emotional (i.e., affective) lives of individuals through their encounters with power and ordering as expressed in the arrangement of the built environment”—something legal geography is missing (68). Legal psychogeography would therefore be “an interpretive approach that would concern itself with enquiring into the role of sensation as a mediator between law and space—in short, how affect helps make the city, its strictures and its regularities and how they in turn make both the city and its individual citizens sentient,” which is, Bennett suggests, what Debord set as the mission of psychogeography in his 1955 definition (68).

The bringing together of law and psychogeography is not strange, Bennett contends. Both are practices that are drawn toward “fragments and the incongruous” (68). He notes that Papadimitriou’s text “displays a fondness for found, mundane artifacts and texts,” with “the promise that these might provide keys to countless otherwise lost stories” (68), and suggests that “[t]here is a parallel here to the meticulous concern of crime scene investigation, or indeed any attempt by law to understand an event that has occurred at a place, by searching for material traces and then piecing them together” (68). Both Papadimitriou and lawyers are concerned with “the close, forensic examination of fragments in order to explicate the codes, stories and events that lie beyond them,” Bennett argues (68), and like detectives, psychogeographers “pore over both the dusty archive and the dross—the fragments found in event spaces—and construct a narrative by stitching their disparate findings together in accordance with codes of assembly” (69). The only difference between them is their diametrically opposed purposes: a detective seeks to close the case, while the psychogeographer “seeks to open up the space and its things to am amplification—via an incongruent multiplication of meanings” (69). Nevertheless, Bennett argues that the law, like psychogeography, 

actually lives and breathes incongruent multiplicity—it is part of the partisan process, albeit that court judgements ultimately . . . require a judge to select which version of events or interpretation of legal principles he or she prefers. Still, in all areas but the final scene, law’s practice is to directly multiply meanings in partisan fashion within disputes and to do so indirectly by summoning anxious images of contingencies, as future risks to be ironed out within partial contract negotiations, in each case within the scope of given frameworks. As played out day to day in offices, courtrooms and elsewhere across the built environment, the law more than matches psychogeography in its dwelling on darkness, excess, ghosts and incongruent multiplicity. (70)

Even though the law asserts a myth of its self-image, an image “of applied reason stripped of fancy, self-contained and truth-focused,” legal geography “takes issue with this faith in law’s closure,” because it “rests on an assumption that the law is not self-contained in this way—that it is in fact a cocreation of matter, meaning and pragmatic action” (70). For that reason, legal geography “has a natural affinity with the anticlosure sentiment of contemporary psychogeography, and a psychogeographically inclined reckoning of law’s incongruous traces, flows, eruptions, artifacts, loose ends, mess and symbolism is long overdue” (70).

Bennett concludes, “[t]he affective relationship between the arrangement of things in space and the experience of place remains a central trope of psychogeographical account writing,” and psychogeographic research “can present rich reflexive description fo the story-stacking processes by which instances of place are encountered and the terms (and sense) of that encounter negotiated between the creative agency of humans and the resistances and affordances of matter and of normative systems like law” (70). In addition, “[p]sychogeography’s embrace of incongruence can make toward the opening up (explication and potential transformation) of other sense-making strategies at large in the built environment” (70). However, 

just as law’s closure is a myth, so is psychogeography’s aspiration to the propagation of boundless incongruent multiplicity, for it tends too often to multiply meaning only in the direction of an obsessive pleasure-pain poetic excitation. Psychogeography needs to challenge itself, to explicate all matter-text-affect intersections, not just those that lead to whimsy or romantic reverie. (70)

In any case, bringing psychogeography into “studies of law’s manifestations in the built environment” would be “a fruitful next step for both legal geography and psychogeography” (70-71).

What is valuable in Bennett’s essay is his close reading of Scarp—or at least two moments in that text—and the way he demonstrates psychogeography’s interest in “boundless incongruent multiplicity” (70). Perhaps I’ve been short-changing psychogeography’s possibilities, focusing on the wrong things: its play with occult or esoteric knowledge and its incorporation of myth and fiction into its representations of spaces and journeys. At the same time, I need to remember that I walk in an environment where there are boundaries and limits, where the history of colonialism is fraught and tangible. I’m thinking about the treaties, for instance, and the surrender clauses that, as Sheldon Krasowski suggests, were never mentioned during the negotiation of those treaties. Is there a way to bring together the “boundless incongruent multiplicity” that Bennett sees in the most successful versions of psychogeography and the grid roads and surrender clauses of Saskatchewan? I really don’t know. My sense of this is that I’m right to be cautious. But I need to keep thinking about these questions–and about the connection between psychogeography and the kind of walking I do here.

Works Cited

Bennett, Luke. “Incongruous Steps toward a Legal Psychogeography,” Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography, edited by Tina Richardson, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, pp. 59-72.

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, University of Regina Press, 2019.

Papadimitriou, Nick. Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits, Sceptre, 2013.

62. Nick Papadimitriou, Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits


I keep seeing references (in Phil Smith’s work, but elsewhere, too) to Nick Papadimitriou’s “deep topography.” What does deep topography mean? Why do other walkers see it as an important model? There was only one way to find out: to read Papadimitriou’s book, Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits. 

Like other psychogeographical texts, Scarp consists of multiple layers: accounts of the walks Papadimitriou took while researching the book, and earlier walks as well; autobiography or memoir; and accounts of the lives of imagined—Smith refers to them as “mythic” in his discussion of deep topography in On Walking . . . And Stalking Sebald (86)—characters who inhabit the landscape Papadimitriou studies. I’m going to undo the layering in this summary (as I did in my summary of Smith’s book about walking the route W.G. Sebald took in his book The Rings of Saturn) and think about his walking, his memoir, and his mythic characters in turn. I realize that separation pulls apart the mesh (to use one of Smith’s favourite words) that is created in the text, but I’m not sure it’s possible to summarize Scarp without thinking about each of those layers in turn.

But first, to what does the word “Scarp” refer? The first paragraph of the introduction describes Scarp:

A vast yet seemingly invisible presence hovers over the northern suburbs of London. Screened from the consciousness of the city dweller by the pressures of the day-to-day, by self-concern and an inward-looking and anthropocentric culture, the North Middlesex/South Hertfordshire escarpment—or Scarp as I prefer to call it—broods and waits. (1)

Note the personification of that landform: it is alive, capable of brooding and waiting—for what is one of the questions that comes to mind. It is almost one of the mythic characters Papadimitriou imagines (or encounters) in his narrative. Papadimitriou identifies with this escarpment: 

Winter brings the sound of water gushing below low points in the suburban streets and shopping parades as the streams that rise on Scarp swell and are channelled beneath Edgware, Pinner or Ruislip and flow towards their confluence with two broader rivers which embrace London’s northern margins, the Lea and the Colne. . . . I, too, flow downhill through time and distance from some as yet undiscovered point of origin on Scarp, and the growing awareness of this builds in me a desire to return. . . . I realise yet again that my destiny is bound up with Scarp. (1)

Papadimitriou is somehow linked to Scarp: he needs to return to it; his life parallels the flow of the water that springs from it; and his “destiny” is tied up with it. And, as you will see, he is often fused with it.

As Papadimitriou walks in the fields and woods on Scarp, he thinks about the human lives connected to it: “A sense of lives real and imagined rises from the steel streams of cars passing endlessly along motorway cuttings, and gazes from the trains that curve through Scarp’s lower levels at Edgwarebury or Carpender’s Park” (2). He also thinks of the lives of birds, mammals, and insects, “those sentient beings whose undervalued and endangered domain of coppice and spinney, burnt-out car and fly-tipped mound interpenetrates the human world” (2). All of these are inhabitants of a landscape that is ignored, perhaps because it is part of London’s northern suburbs: 

Despite being some seventeen miles from east to west and attaining in excess of 400 feet above sea level in places, Scarp is seldom commented upon by either topographers or psychogeographers, and seemingly possesses no cultural currency. Sliced by railways and motorways, topped by old roads running its length, repeatedly scarred in the name of civic utility, yet never acknowledged openly as possessing a coherent identity, Scarp nevertheless persists in the infrastructural unconscious of the northern reaches of the city. (3-4)

The notion of an “infrastructural unconscious” is interesting and perhaps productive, although one does wonder where such an unconscious would be situated.

“Scarp has been a presence in the back of my mind from my earliest days,” Papadimitrious writes. He remembers looking at it in the distance when he was a child (4-5). As a young man, he went for a walk there, and forgot his immediate concerns (romantic rejection and an expanding bald spot): these were transcended, he writes, “as my senses were drawn beyond the distant downs into clouds, sunlight and a sense of cold grey oceans. It was my first direct encounter with Scarp as an agent of consciousness expansion, my first intimate exposure to its perception-altering power” (6-7). Surprisingly—because psychogeographers don’t seem to like their practice being described as Romantic—Papadimitriou’s connection to Scarp seems (to me at least) to be quite Wordsworthian:

As I began to learn the basic outline of these topographical details and hold them in my mind, my internal balance would oscillate between the ego’s surrender in the face of a larger entity—the land that contained me—and a desire to gain ownership and mastery of that same entity through cultural production. The idea grew that there was a new form of prose or poetry waiting to be invented, a form of writing sufficient for the purpose of capturing the essence of the broader framework to which I had surrendered, a form that would allow me to re-create the voices and experiences of those Scarp dwellers who came before me as a counterpoint to my own. (8)

I find this to be very Romantic; it reminds me of  Wordsworth looking up at the thunderstorm after stealing the boat, experiencing the sublime and then writing about it later on, trying to capture that experience in words. 

Sometimes Papadimitriou goes beyond thinking about the lives linked to Scarp and begins to hear their voices. “Voices other than the merely historic surfaced on my walks,” he writes (8). These include gangsters buried in concrete bridges, “women long dead glimpsed with the inner eye when I stared through windows into warm-lit rooms passed on freezing afternoons,” “garish tales told by beings that confounded accepted notions of time,” and “the outrage of mossy elementals lingering in relic woodlands”; and another presence, one that spoke with his own voice, “whispering endlessly of a journey I’d made into another unacknowledged aspect of the region several years earlier, and seeking to make sense of that voyage of the damned in the light of what I—or rather, we—now knew” (8-9). It’s not clear to me whether Papadimitriou actually hears these voices—they are the mythic creatures Smith describes—or whether he imagines them; in other words, I’m not sure whether he’s mad or (at times) writing fiction. Of course, real psychogeographers would refuse to acknowledge the binary that structures my response to the voices Papadimitriou hears (or imagines), but I’m not a real psychogeographer. One of the things I’ve learned while reading about psychogeography is that my own impulse is documentary, not fantastical, and that I am happy to confine my thinking to what is, rather than expand into what (really) isn’t. That’s the difference (one of them) between what I want to do and what psychogeographers or, for that matter, mythogeographers do. That doesn’t mean that I can’t learn from their work, or that the suggestions Smith makes about types of walking that can help one relate to the spaces one journeys through aren’t of value; but it does mean that I won’t be imagining voices.

An epiphany (again, this is quite Romantic) led to the writing of this book. In August 2009, after 20 years of walking, Papadimitriou was walking on Scarp near a small forest named Spoilbank Wood: when something happened:

In my mind I linked the wood with points further west such as Dancer’s Hill and Welham Green, places walked through repeatedly over the past few years in wildly varying weather conditions. And reaching out from these places in turn, my thoughts extended to further cardinal points in the broader landscape until a large section of its component features was laid out in my mind like a map. (9)

“However,” he continues, “the details didn’t matter so much as the overall vision, the sense of otherwise disparate elements being bound together in one larger presence” (10). That “overall vision” leads to a sense of fusion with Scarp:

As I approached the stream at the bottom of the valley I could feel the breadth of knowledge I’d gained over the years of walking burst through the strictures placed on me by the daily requirements of living. It was as if the landscape myself was flooding into the front of my mind. I was in a state of ecstatic union with the Middlesex-Hertfordshire borderlands. (10)

Papadimitriou experiences that sense of union repeatedly during the book; moreover, his mythic characters experience it as well.

Papadimitriou is clear about the purpose of this book: it is “an inquiry undertaken in order to systematically ‘feel out’ the presence of my subject matter as it brushes against the consciousness” (11). “Throughout,” he writes, explaining his connection to the voices he hears while walking,

I will reconstruct the ghostly voices I hear while walking on Scarp in an attempt to relate my own story to theirs, to locate my own voice and sensations in the ones that came before me—whether those of a murderer, an animal, a deceived young woman, a master botanist, or any of the other myriad layers of experience that distil over the centuries to create regional memory. The deeper implication is that the world that confronts us through our immediate surroundings is alive and intrinsically valuable in ways not amenable to instrumental reason or economic reductionism. (11)

I empathize with his claim that the land is alive and intrinsically valuable, but I also think that one can come to those conclusions without hearing (or creating) voices. I think one can take that value for granted, as a starting point; one needn’t imagine the voices of a “regional memory”—I’m not sure the land remembers, or if it does, that we are likely to become privy to its memories. In other words, I think documentation is enough, and fiction isn’t necessary. At the same time, sometimes I do talk about hearing the voices of the land, but I think I’m using that expression figuratively, metaphorically, and I’m not sure that Papadimitriou isn’t using it literally. Maybe he is actually hearing voices. I don’t know.

In preparation for writing Scarp, Papadimitriou took 30 walks during the summer of 2011, varying between three and 12 miles. These “served to sharpen my focus on the subject covered here. I wanted to understand the overall structure of Scarp, the transition between its component parts, where and how it begins. As I trudged across fields, through hostile-seeming suburbs and beneath A roads I came to understand that in some respects Scarp was a fiction” (11). That’s a surprising conclusion, and yet Papadimitriou doesn’t return to it, leaving me to wonder what he means.

I intended to separate Papadimitriou’s walking from his memoir and his mythic imaginings, but that’s hard to do. The book’s first chapter, for instance, begins with a fictional story about fatal highway accidents at a place called “Suicide Corner” in the 1950s, but then it returns to the present, a time when the landscape has changed, when the busy roads drown out “a rumour of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, supposedly buried on Stanmore Common just to the west, behind the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital,” where the victims of those highway collisions were taken (21). That hospital is abandoned, filled with rubbish: 

The sense of something precious—a soft vulnerable humanity interwoven with businesslike yet compassionate expertise—hovers in the silences, sweeping across the dusty cobwebbed surfaces of the medical implements and through the dormitories with their drained radiators and scratched linoleum floors. There is a brushing of dead spikes of buddleia against steel-framed windows. Pigeons scratch and momentarily flutter as they shift on the perches on the roof. These are the whispers of deep time. (22-23)

Deep time is what interests Papadimitriou, I think. Note also the reference to buddleia here. I asked Smith, on Facebook, why that plant is important; he told me that it grows anywhere, that is colonizes waste ground and abandoned buildings, and that it is one of the few plants that does so. It is the return of life, then, to those abandoned spaces, a sign of the vitality of living things. Botanists might decry it as an invasive species, but psychogeographers celebrate the life force it represents.

It is possible, sort of, to separate Papadimitriou’s accounts of his walks from the other layers in his text. His first walk as research for the book was an attempt to find Scarp’s western beginnings: when he does, he writes, “the impact was less dramatic than I had hoped it would be. Scarp first appears—at least in summer—as a swathe of distant full-leafed trees billowing some distance beyond the rooftops of an emergent new suburb” (37). He continues up a canal: 

My excitement grew as my eyes followed a hawthorn hedge on its half-mile journey uphill between two fields before it terminated in a clump of oaks. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by a sense of standing on the edge of something improbably grand, of staring up at the emergence of a solid and tangible presence. The next step was to get up there. (38)

He recognizes layers of occupation, of land use: trees that “were clearly residues of a sizable estate that the suburb had been built over,” a grand home that had been a hospital but was not a corporate headquarters: “I was a bit put out finding something as banal as a corporate head office on what felt like a holy pilgrimage” (40). He ends up on a busy road, fully occupied by avoiding traffic: “A small roadside shrine consisting of scattered flowers and a rude wooden cross inscribed with the name Michael did nothing to reassure me” (41). (Busy roads in the UK, as I learned while walking back to Oxford from Blenheim Palace, often have no sidewalks.) Then he walks across a farm where “there is a tall mound of smashed concrete that a farmhand told me was part of the remains of the old Wembley Stadium”: he climbs the pile and sees the cardinal points of the surrounding country (42). Next, he follows a line of electrical pylons along a stream; they add, he writes,

a peculiar intensity to the landscape: this is definitely a place of history and power, one of those Celtic “thin places,” where a sense of something other lurks just beyond the visible. . . . I love to sit by the track crossing below the high-tension cables and imagine that I’m somewhere in the Ukraine, circa 1952, staring up at these triumphant monuments to the electrification of my region. (43)

That leads to a vivid fantasy about being a veterinary surgeon on a collective farm, a fantasy that turns out to be an important part of Papadimitriou’s methodology (and therefore of the as-yet unnamed deep topography): 

Proximity flight: that’s what I call this using of environment to trigger mental journeys to another place and time in which the same stimuli can be found. I find it lifts my sense of the environment out of its codified framework and into fresh possibilities of interpretation, my eyes wiped clean by the resultant defamiliarisation. (43-44)

I’m not sure that proximity flight is really necessary, but who am I to say? If it helps Papadimitriou, fine. I do know, though, that I wouldn’t engage in such a practice on my walks. Perhaps they suffer as a result. I have to acknowledge that possibility.

On another walk, Papadimitriou begins on the north bank of the Colne; he walks “through to a bewildering tangle of canal, river, hatch and ditch,” past “derelict industries hidden in arborial swamp,” “and always, just beyond the trees, a sense of rising land, of Scarp’s face staring down at me” (45). “The whole of the Colne Valley is a naturalist’s heaven and remains curiously overlooked by the London crowd,” he writes: it is home to unofficial bird sanctuaries and rare plants (45). “As evening closed in, orange street lights began to flicker far off on the hills opposite,” he recalls. “A blackbird chuckled somewhere close by and I felt myself merge with the deep peacefulness of the mauve woodlands and the mumbling of the distant M25” (48). That merging is an example of the fusion he seeks with Scarp, and as he relives the day’s walk, he writes, “I passed from sweating exhaustion into relaxation and then surrender, [and] Harefield became a limpid globe of light as Scarp absorbed me into its first station” (48). This sense of absorption or fusion leads to a fantasy of an apocalypse in which the M25 highway ends up “crocheted by read leaves of herb Robert, stars of cow thistle”; he becomes one with the landscape, moving through space and time, through life and death and rebirth until he has become one of his own mythical creatures, perhaps, before he finally returns to himself and unrolls his sleeping bag in “a derelict rutting shed” (48-52). That sense of union with Scarp is the goal of Papadimitriou’s walks, I think, and when it doesn’t happen, he is frustrated and disappointed.

Papadimitrious is a naturalist as well as a psychogeographer (a term he doesn’t apply to himself, but which fits his practice). On another walk, he crosses a ditch where, in 1999, he found a rare freshwater shrimp and then fell into the water (54). (He likes the comedy of his mistakes and accidents.) Then he remembers wandering onto a golf course that “represented everything I resented about privilege and wealth,” all the signs that “signified to me the presence of The Enemy” (56-57). He imagines the life of a wealthy golfer (58-61), and then imagines the history of the golf course, going back to the days when it was Cardinal Wolsey’s palace (61). Again he becomes one with the territory: “all of Moor Park resides inside me” (63). He imagines that he is part of all of the sexual encounters in the neighbourhood (63)—there is a deep sexual loneliness in this text—and that he is in all the attics, inhaling the scent of old newspapers, imagining that “the entire suburb is a groove sensation, a humming colony lit deep in ancient woodland (63-64). After he has has coffee with a friend, he continues walking, noticing details (smells, sights, sounds) and thinking about the area’s past (64-65). What’s interesting about this walk is the way that the past—both his own past and that of the terrain through which he is walking—are layered together, and the way that he uses his imagination as a way of exploring the locale. That fusion he seeks is present here as well; as I noted before, it happens on all of his successful walks.

Papadimitriou describes his apartment, which is chock full of old documents and books, glass jars “packed with artefacts gleaned from walks,” and maps (74). All of that material is essential to his walking (and the as-yet unnamed deep topography). In fact, it was a book that made him begin to take his walking more seriously:

It was a first edition of Walter W. Druett’s The Stanmores and Harrow Weald Through the Ages (1938), bought from a charity shop in Edgware in 1999, that alerted me to the possibility that the supposedly dull, annoyingly smug areas of suburbia I wandered through two or three times a week on my walks actually had their own resonant histories. Gradually the arch-sneer I carried with me whenever I walked was replaced by a deeper contemplation. A sense of stewardship rose in me where before there had been mere cynicism or even jealousy. (75)

Papadimitriou comes to regard Druett as 

an all-seeing tutelary spirit hanging over this whole belt of Metroland strung along Scarp’s southern edge. Eventually I decided that my true role in life—aside from whatever menial job I could obtain given my somewhat chequered past—was to repeatedly visit these ostensibly indistinguished pockets of human life and act as an unofficial recorder, a crow-man picking over the ruins, pulling free the anguished missals, black-bordered death notices and final demands of human life. (75)

He assembles a library of material on Middlesex and Hertfordshire (75). He also learns about and comes to love the flora of the area:

I grew to care enormously for surviving pockets of plant life threatened by development: micro-colonies of woodland species hanging on desperately in the corners of parks or gardens and providing a direct link back to records made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I spent a season photographing exotic and rare species of tree and bush planted by urban and rural district councils in honour of the coronation of King George VI. (76)

“Why I did this,” he concludes, “I don’t know” (76). I think his readers have an idea, though: it’s part of his desire to care for, and to learn about, Scarp’s flora.

Papadimitriou also collects discarded personal documents, taken from abandoned buildings or dumpsters (76). His own “collection of forlorn love letters dating from a failed relationship in the 1990s” is part of that collection: “were I to die suddenly and be found months or years later,” he writes, “the officials bearing the responsibility of informing my next of kin would be hard-put to identify me. And this is as it should be: I’m not Nick Papadimitriou; I am Middlesex” (77). Again, we see that desire for fusion with Scarp:

I pull my region closer, dragging its leaf-fall, scrap-iron, blotting-paper substance home with me after every walk. I spread my finds out on the trestle table and spend long evenings in examination. I hear voices hovering around these tiny fragments of other times, other people’s lives, though what is said and who’s had who I can’t often tell. The thought that anything, any event, should be overlooked horrifies me. The spot where a blackbird died, its neck snapped by a wayward football 1968 is a hallowed place; the ants’ nest you exterminated down by the rose bush 1966 is the scene of a war crime. (77)

The shift to direct address here is interesting: who exterminated the ants? For that matter, who threw that football? Is he remembering events from his childhood? It’s hard to tell. In any case, those emotions are part of his union with Scarp:

At such times my thoughts stretch out beyond my localised identity and enter the broader field of the environment in all its complexity and arbitrariness. Though I have sympathy with Green issues and the Deep Ecology movement, the cherishing I feel is not to be reduced to these political and philosophical viewpoints. (77)

In fact, he prefers “the hard-science papers on ecology I read in the British Library: these well-measured and calibrated records of changes in specific plant communities dating back to the era of A.G. Tansley in the 1920s seem closer to my concerns, fine-detailed witness statements regarding what once was” (77).

Papadimitriou states that his apartment also contains the notebooks where he records his thoughts during his walks (78). It must be quite a collection of stuff jammed into a council flat. What, he asks, is the point of 

all this litter, these spiderweb cardboard suitcases and biscuit tins packed with junk? I always approach my chosen subject from a position of near total ignorance. Examining an Edwardian suburb, a complex network of manorial boundaries or an industrial corridor on the margins of a market town, I’m faced with and threatened by an awful blankness. I hardly know what it is I’m looking at and in spite of all the effort expended on getting to know and understand the deep topography of my region I never seem to gain the accretion of knowledge that would enable me to declare myself an expert. However often I swan in like some dishevelled, smoke-infested Richard Mabey of the buddleia set, I forget the names of plants and have to relearn them every year. I squint short-sightedly at small brown birds flapping in hedges, my lips gibbering as I attempt to name them. Rivers and parish boundaries slide around in my mind and become a squirled nightmare of shifting lines and borders. Names of historic figures slip down through the sluice gate into the main drainage scheme of my mind. It’s a bastard. (78)

Note the sudden appearance of the term “deep topography” here: the methodology is not described until the book’s appendix, and then the description appears in a notebook written by one of Papadimitriou’s fictional characters. In any case, his various failures to remember names of plants or birds or historical figures don’t really matter:

while knowledge of structure or nomenclature can foreground discreet aspects of a place, it can also occlude. Sensory properties of locations encountered while visiting or passed through—a particular moist wind that flaps about the face like a flannel, a singular quality of light remembered but seldom encountered—are screened out all too easily if the primary focus is on the type of cornicing found on a building passed or the names of the building companies that transmuted field parcels into batches of housing back in the 1930s. Which aspect of the experiential field serves as the sine qua non for understanding a place? For me this question has never been adequately answered. (78-79)

There are different kinds of knowledge—factual and sensory (or perhaps embodied)—and the latter might be more important than the former, although Papadimitriou isn’t quite sure. I would agree that both are important, but for me, knowing the names of things is an essential part of seeing them, of allowing them to stand forth from their backgrounds. It helps to know what one is looking at, or hearing, or smelling. The names are important–even if sometimes they escape our memory.

On another walk, Papadimitriou, walking west, sees the ends of two separate eastern sections of Scarp, but feels nothing: “Perhaps its the summer heat or the large lunch I had before setting off but there’s no blood in my brain, no near-frenzied pleasure. I’m left with flat fact and nothing else” (81). The union has failed him this time. His sense of being left “with flat fact and nothing else” seems very significant, given his desire to generate myths and fictions about the places he travels to and through on Scarp. That experience of union or fusion is powerful:

I imagine sometimes that I’m on a powerful and as yet undiscovered hallucinogen, one that dissolves the ego-boundaries that subject and object fuse, so that, were I to ingest this substance while visiting Northwood, I would in some way pass into and become the suburb’s main thoroughfare. It would be a multiplex, transtemporal experience, my usual self reduced to a residual monad blabbering in a conflagration of women, men and the billions of objects large and small that surround them and which define their business” (82)

He would pass through time and space; he would become part of the lives of everyone and everything, living and dead, connected to Scarp. This isn’t just a fantasy, even if the need for drugs for it to happen is imagined. “I call this experience prakrti-laya, a yogic term derived from the ancient Indian Samkhya philosophy,” Papadimitriou writes. It is an “absorption into nature,” even if that absorption is only “pseudo-liberation,” a problem that doesn’t bother him at all:

Being a topographer I’m fatally attached to this earth and when I die I will be bound here, destined to burn-out with the planet at the end of its lifespan. To repeat, I don’t care. Do you? Rather this thin enlightenment than a rationalist state of grace born of a conclusive map of the soul or some other arrogant construct. You can take your concern for “spirituality” and “appropriacy” and shove it, mister! I’m on my way out; I’m on my way in. (82-83)

I’m not sure what he means by “appropriacy”—is it a concern for what is appropriate? for limits?—and I think I’d be one of those he would tell to “shove it,” given my skepticism about this process. Nevertheless, none of this is imaginary for Papadimitriou; he seems to have this kind of experience: the details of the lives of those he sees, now and in the past, he writes, “come to me now both as mass and in individual detail in my prakrti-laya, breaking me so thoroughly that beads of sweat appear on my brow despite the cold. I am a weirdo unwelcome in culturally inclusive public libraries; I sit alone, sopping and slobbering, and read local authority handbooks published circa 1962 on shitty rainy day playing fields” (83). He is willing to risk being socially ostracized in his pursuit of prakrti-laya.

At the same time, Papadimitriou experiences self-doubt, or doubt about his project, quite frequently in the book. On one walk, those doubts become overwhelming:

In the final analysis, what can be said about these endless-seeming streets, most of which I have never visited and where I know no one? Yes, there are cars parked everywhere; perhaps the locals are venal by and large; who cares? And why would I want to come on like some two-bit psychogeographer, a myopic and beaked monstrosity eager to impress with my architectural knowledge, my eye for the telling detail? So often something is delivered up on walks, but not today. (84)

He puts his notebook and his camera away. “There is really nothing to say,” he writes, “so I turn away, my head hung in defeat, and start for home” (84). On the way he encounters a hedgehog with its head stuck inside a plastic yogurt tub: “Leaning forward, I pull the suffocating mask free from the tiny animal’s head. Hi, I’m the region and I love you, I want to say. Is there any recognition, any thanks?” No: the animal curls up into a defensive ball (84), which seems to anger Papadimitriou: “The experience has made my day but there is no thanks at the end of it, no appreciation of my perceptiveness or concern. Such is the way” (85). I found this surprising: why expect gratitude from a wild animal? Isn’t the fact that this encounter made your day enough? Later, he suggests he will never know the territory he walks through any better than his cats, which are “doomed by my caring to spend their whole lives living in the gaps between these slabs of pebble-dashed high-density housing” (102). “We can never truly pin down where our place of dwelling lies,” he writes; “each newly discovered overview of what we call home effectively places it within a new topography, forcing us to redefine what it is we mean when we say ‘I live there.’” (102).

Those doubts aren’t really characteristic of Papadimitriou’s walking, though. When he walks, he sometimes pokes an eighteen-inch Boron rod that he carries into the ground and travels back in time, becoming other people (or so he claims) (99). At Harrow Weald, on the grounds of Bentley Priory, which served as the headquarters for Fighter Command during the Second World War, he imagines—or is “swamped with”—“mental images of wartime Britain that seem bound to this landscape, though perhaps they really originate from films seen as a child” (101). Other voices and images surface as he sneaks through a recently completed luxury estate: “the clicks, whistles, and rattles of flocks of starlings,” “the liquid twitter of finches in the hedgerows,” and “another feathered presence that comes to mind whenever I pass this way. I hear his laughter now as he stares down from his roost upon my momentary pleasures, my thinly disguised conceits” (103)—this is the immortal crow, Merops, one of the mythical creatures he imagines or senses. He thinks about the ringnecked parakeets that escaped from a depot at Heathrow and have become naturalized in London: 

now their numerous offspring have taken over much of the land to Scarp’s south including Perivale Wood. All day the parakeets swoop in and out of the trees with a vulgar whee-whee and other manners alien to the natives but one must be tolerant, I suppose. Viewed from the perspective of planetary time we are all immigrants. (116)

That quotation, in the voice of Merops, Papadimitriou’s immortal crow, might raise the ire of ornithologists worried about the loss of habitat indigenous birds must be experiencing as a result of the parakeet invasion, but psychogeographers aren’t interested in such issues: Papadimitriou (or Merops) reads the arrival of parakeets as an image of immigration.

Like any psychogeographer, Papadimitriou is conscious of his emotional responses to the terrain through which he walks. Walking north through Edgware Way Rough, for example, he reports that “[l]oneliness always descends as I enter this land of severed or simply uncompleted routes, of weeds, pylons and oxidised tin cans” (124). On that walk, he climbs “Scarp’s southern face, passing a snagged tree and near-bald pastures scattered with purple and green docks,” seeing hills and the “blue gasometer at Southall Junction” in the distance. The sight makes him think about all of the people who live there, and how small that population is compared to the natural world that sustains them:

packed between these and Scarp are human multitudes, their dynastic interweavings to complex to map. Our privileged modernity is as nothing in the face of the onslaught of clouds and air, the globules of sunlight sliding across the land’s surface and eating whole postcodes at will. Time moils and folds in on itself under this dancing light. (126)

Once again he imagines or remembers the region’s past (126). But he also remembers things he saw on previous walks as well:

Once, just up by Bury Farm, I found the shrunken dried-out husk of a fox wedged high in a hedge of blackthorn. One of its hind legs had become trapped in a crux of blackthorn and the animal had died there. The fox’s skin was a parchment wrapped loosely about a bleached bundle of bones on which was inscribed a life’s journey from heathery spring through dry-ditch summer to hen-house autumn and motorway winter. I looked closely at its teeth, pointed and yellow beneath the curled-over upper lip, and imagined its slow agony under the sun. (127)

That’s a kind of imagining I can get behind—an imagining based in empathy, in trying to understand the life of another being. It reminded me of the body of an orange cat I found under our old garage. I was trying to fix the floor to extend the building’s life (the operation wasn’t much of a success), and I uncovered the cat, which had somehow gotten stuck under one of the beams and died. I imagined its hunger and its terror and wondered why no one had heard its cries. That imagination is, to me, quite different from the one that claims a fusion with the land or that creates mythical creatures. In any case, that dead fox reminds Papadimitriou of another he saw in an abandoned factory: “There was the same snarling challenge to my skin-wrapped reality bubble. The dead fox lifted me out of the sunlit day and the concerns of the human world into an open field of possibilities” (127). I’m not sure what he means by “open field of possibilities,” but I wonder if he’s not suggesting something beyond the kind of imagining I did when I found that cat’s body. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was; that would be his usual procedure. Again, that’s fine for him, but not something I would do. At the end of that walk, Papadimitriou takes a bus towards home and looks at the other passengers: “I had a feeling of having returned from some transtemporal substratum of the manifest world, as if I had visited the Underlands, those deep, throbbing hive-centres where the energies that underpin the disparate phenomena of the stockbroker belt are generated” (130). The Underlands, as Smith points out in one of his books (the idea is so silly that I didn’t write it down and now I can’t find the reference—a failure of my research methods), refers to the notion, held by some psychogeographers, that there is a world underneath the world we inhabit (at least in the UK). Underland is also the title of Robert Macfarlane’s new book, which appears to be about actual caves instead of imaginary ones. But I digress. My point is, some kinds of imagining can help us understand what we find; others, I think, might stand in our way, or distract us.

When Papadimitriou fails to achieve fusion with Scarp, he feels rejected and hated. On one walk, when that happens, he writes,

The land is beginning to hate me; I can sense it trying to stare me out. I expect sooner or later to be driven from farmyards with stones, dogs snapping at my heels. I know I will be blanked in convenience stores in villages seldom visited by anybody who could reasonably be described as sane. Not that I’ll succumb without a fight. I plan to puncture tractor tyres, kick the foul-breathed farm dogs, and burn down barns in revenge. I will march across this land like a one-man infantry division, my course marked by columns of smoke rising above the treeline as the police choppers chup-chup overhead and snipers conceal themselves in the furze or behind decrepit caravans. (187)

This is, obviously, another fantasy, but those columns of smoke remind me of his imprisonment for arson when he was a youth—hang on, I’m getting to that—and it might connect that experience to his anger at being rejected. Papadimitriou then remembers an earlier, more successful walk, and describes the differences between then and now: 

But that was so long ago and now my world was larger, my knowledge greatly increased. Now I carried whole swathes of the region with me, wherever I walked. I was able to work through complex sequences of places in my mind as I lay in bed at night, linking up the different walks I’d made over the years. The towns visited on my journeys and the tracks and roads running between them stayed fixed, each in its mind-mapped place. There were low chalky corners of fields that seemed charged with an indefinable magnetism that drew me to them again and again. Other places seemingly possessed their own gloomy darkness or, for no apparent reason, felt fetid and miasmic but nevertheless attracted me precisely because of their power to induce such a sensation in me. I knew where badgers had died or caravans rotted away until mere stains of rust were all that remained. (191)

That quotation suggests that knowledge is no guarantee of the experience of union that he seeks; it also suggests that some parts of Scarp have different emotional effects on him. Some parts, in fact, such as the stretch between the Great North Road and the A10 to the east, are impossible to know: that area “remains a stranger however often I walk it. I try to fix in my mind the complex configuration of hills that make up this broad largely unpopulated eastern-central segment of Scarp but always come away from the effort no closer to the truth” (191). 

Despite the failure of that walk, Papadimitriou often experiences his desired fusion with the region:

I felt growing in me a pulsating county consciousness. I could sense sun-heated scraps of corrugated iron beneath which adders sheltered, bin-liners of rags strewn in wastes by remorseless A roads, scentless mayweed on gravel mounds nodding in the breeze by wretched abandoned orchards, languid afternoons spent sitting and sipping white wine in the gardens of big houses on the edge of the Hertfordshire atom towns, generations of owls and cats ruthlessly terminated by strychnine. I became a squirming energy spewing forth rats and roaches, disused fire extinguishers rusting in derelict office blocks in Hemel Hampstead or Stevenage. I roared, a fiery demiurge, below the pantiled bungalows, the pubs decked out in brewer’s Tudor, throwing all this multiplicity into the world in my fury before subsiding back into the humming darkness of the undifferentiated planetary mass. (230)

What is surprising about this experience is that it happens while he is looking at a map of Hertfordshire, not while he was actually walking, actually out on Scarp somewhere.

One aspect of the book, and of deep topography as a method, too, I suppose, is Papadimitriou’s interest in and knowledge of botany. On one walk, he describes the flora he sees:

To the left there was a plantation of young sessile oaks, and to the right, hornbeams. Fresh shoots of fool’s parsley grew by the edge of the track and there were domes of comfrey amidst the rotting logs that lined the route. Colonies of the russet-coloured mushroom Clitocybe infundibuliformis, looking like wind-wrecked umbrellas, grew from tree stumps and at one point I passed a decrepit old farm gate along the top of which sprang the brittle antler-like grey sporophores of Xylosphaera hypoxylon. (232)

Despite his claims to forget the names of plants, he clearly remembers them, at least on that walk. It is one of his last walks on Scarp before writing the book, an expedition to find its eastern endpoint:

Excitement grew in me at the prospect of discovering a precise location that I could declare to be Scarp’s terminus. I set off along a road that dropped down towards the land below. I could see long chains of car lights at the bottom of the hill. Large flocks of crows gathered overhead before flying off to roost for the night. Ahead somewhere lay the town of Ware and the complex intertwining of the Lea Valley and the New River. This narrowing convex tongue of land subsiding down into the river valley felt like a finale. (234)

And yet, this walk ends in failure. He sees a church, and it means nothing to him: “Staring blankly at the plastered interior walls, the artfully patterned brickwork I realised I had no grasp whatsoever of church architecture. In fact, I felt as if I’d learned next to nothing about anything I’d seen over all the years I’d been walking” (236). “It grew colder and I felt defeated by Scarp,” he continues:

Looking back on the way I’d just come I had no sense of the pristine and pure diminuendo I had experienced the previous day. All I could see was a confusing mass of mounds and pinnacles visible beyond the semi-detacheds at the town’s edge. Somewhere in my dulled mind I knew that this was as it should be: Scarp should remain an evasive entity that twisted out of my understanding, slipping free of any notion I had of gaining mastery over it. (237)

His emotional reactiveness to geography is obvious here: on that afternoon, “Hertford seemed particularly cheerless” (237). On the train home, he looks out of the window: “As I stared upwards, both horrified and exhilarated, Scarp raised its bony fingers to claw the blank winter sky and gazed back down on me and through me into deeper time” (238).

On his last walk, on a cold November day, he wakes up in a barn after taking a nap, and prepares to leave. This time, his experience, and his emotions, are quite different:

The darkness descends and map reading becomes impossible. Still, it has its compensations. There is poetry in the lit windows of the town that is my destination, a sense of movement and life in people heading for warm homes. As the walk levels out and I hit a small municipal park, I sit down to eat my hummus and spinach sandwiches and jot down my observations in a notebook. I smoke as I write; the scent of tobacco mingling with the smell of mould drifting from the leaves swept up and piled in the gutter” (245)

However, after accidentally killing a fly, his sense of satisfaction disappears: “Blackness descends on the land and, as Scarp shadows me, a burden draped heavily around my shoulders, I pack away my maps and notebook, rise, and walk on” (246). The sense of Scarp as a burden is fascinating. It is both the area he wants to explore, and the area he is obligated to explore. It is an opportunity for the dissolution of his ego and a source of rejection. It is the place he loves and a burden.

Those walks constitute one layer of Scarp. Another is the story Papadimitriou tells about his life. He begins with an account of his childhood in the 1950s and 1960s: the echoes of the war, and the ongoing fear of another war, which were eventually replaced by television, flared trousers, and more and more cars: 

Now we lived—or so I was assured by my parents and Blue Peter—in an age of decency and safety. However, I never quite believed this and sensed that the dignified rows of houses in my road, with their colourful and welcoming front doors and gaily patterned window sashes, were conspiring to create an illusion of permanence. Their apparent fixity seemed to me to be a lie, the momentary dream of a nameless and ultimately vindictive earth god. (24)

That “earth god” seemed to have taken physical form underneath a metal plate in the alley behind their street: “When I bent down and placed my ear to it I heard indecipherable groans and shrieks rising from some sinister place located deep beneath our front gardens, our ornate wrought-iron gates and tarpaulined Morris Minors” (25). The electrical substation at the end of the alley also “seemed to be a place of unheeded urgency and danger” (25). In fact, the terrain of the neighbourhood told of a different world than the one his parents talked about:

The manhole covers, stern-faced backs of houses and lank weeds spoke of a different language from the one used by the adults who surrounded me in my daily life: they challenged the self-assuming certainty of the events played out in the sitting room at home or on the screen of the TV set that had recently arrived. They were doorways through to something larger, older and darker that lurked behind the narratives of our home lives—something that in my imagination took the form of a gnarled and ancient man made of moss, mud and wood who visited us at night, staring fiercely through the windows as we watched Criss-Cross Quiz. (25)

This seems to have been the first time that Papadimitriou had a powerful emotional response to the land around him, and it also seems to have been the first time he imagines a mythic creature to give shape to that emotional response.

Papadimitriou was bullied at school and took refuge “in a patch of wasteland” near the North Circular Road, where he started fired for warmth (26-27). In fact, he rarely attended school and kept watch for police and truant officers. He played at being an archaeologist, but when he dug in the backyard, he encountered only a concrete pipe: 

Had I been a little clearer in my thinking I would’ve spotted the connection between the concrete pipe at the bottom of my garden and the one in the acre of land where I safely bunked school. Years later I worked out that my garden pipe carried a small watercourse downhill to where it joined the stronger stream that fed through “the sewer.” Our back garden rested in a river gully. (30-31)

Buried watercourses are one of the themes of Scarp, which isn’t surprising, since they are a feature of urban and suburban life. Later, in the early 1970s, he revisits a brook he had visited in happier times, before his mother left his father: “Gone were the sunlit vales of my childhood, replaced by dread: dread in the face of the bullying and poverty; dread in the face of the dismal world with its black arterial roads, damp houses, demands of education and gymnasium” (32). As a result, he resolves to follow that brook as far south as possible. He ends up at a major road: “As I gazed into the sun-starved riverbed beneath the road bridge,” he writes, “I knew I had reached the far end of any world I had ever imagined. The undulating silt, filamentous waterweed and rusted detritus resting on the streambed spoke of endings. This place of dumped paint-cans, hubcaps and bike frames uttered one word only: Terminus” (32-33).

As a youth, Papadimitriou sneered at the suburbs, trying to write poems about “the stultifying tedium of suburban life” (79); but all the while, he admits, 

something else nagged at me. The more folkloric aspects of suburban house design; the way the much derided stockbroker belt was interpenetrated by relics of earlier land use; the glimpses of fields or woods visible through gaps in the semi-detacheds: all these suggested to me an organic interface between the human world and processes of longer and deeper aspiration. (79-80)

He was divided between his desire to ridicule the suburbs and to live there (80). That desire to live there was, I think, a desire to belong, to fit in, to have money (always a crucial social lubricant). He tells a story about hanging around outside the home of a girl he liked when he was at school, taking in the architectural details of the neighbourhood, which, he realized,  symbolized the world that girl inhabited, “with its leather-seated cars and professional self-confidence. Yet beneath all this there ran a mysterious counter-current, as if the older world upon which all this wealth had been lacquered continued to exert its influence” (89). And yet, at the same time, those architectural details “were portals that spanned deep-time, cobwebbed doorways, built into the very fabric of the place, which opened onto ethereal fields and woods, mythological and fabled gods and beasts; the noble and timeless tattoo of plant lore” (89). The desire to fit in was not, it seems, as powerful as the desire to invent mythic beings and understand botany—not as powerful as the pull of what would become deep topography.

When he was 15, Papadimitriou set fire to his neighbour’s house. That’s not surprising, given his interest in fire while he was skipping school, and given the anger he must have felt after being constantly bullied. In any case, that fire led to his arrest, conviction for arson, and incarceration. He was, not surprisingly, afraid of going to jail, and tried to imagine it as a positive experience: 

I was definitely on some strange kind of adventure, a journey to lands barely imaginable. Who knew, the experience might imbue me with certain characteristics I felt were lacking in myself, a degree of hardened masculinity, or a flinty philosophical dogmatism, a geezer’s stolid knowledge of what was what in this world. It might make me attractive to women or provide material for a seventeen-page modernist poem I was already composing. I might emerge from prison a saturnine and moody character, someone driven by a deep-rooted impulse to walk alone over the hills and tramp through the edges of satellite towns leaving nary a trace. (148)

In fact, he imagined it might lead to some kind of fame—but that fame would come from walking over hills and through suburbs and writing, the activity in which he is engaged while making Scarp a reality. Surprisingly, despite the details of his experience in court and while on remand, he says little about his incarceration, only that his jail experience led to “the joy of books, O levels attained in education blocks, a sort of knowledge sometimes useful since” (227). Perhaps his fantasy was accurate, then: perhaps going to jail made him into a writer.

The third layer of the text is Papadimitriou’s interest in imagining mythical beings. Even as a child, as I’ve suggested, he was engaging in such fantasies. Before his arrest, for instance, he has this fantasy:

I’ll sleep in ditches or potting sheds. I’ll claw mangle-wurzels from the obdurate earth and suck on sugar beets behind aluminium silos. I’ll grow hairy and mythic in the stockbroker belt. I imagine the waiting fields, the fine houses throwing their shaded light on tangled woos. I yearn for love in the cool darkness of ancient barns. (156)

But most of his mythic creatures are apart from himself: Merops, the immortal crow; John Osborne, an immortal tramp; and Gloria Geddes, a psychedelic hippie queen. All of these characters carry with them parts of their author. Merops, for instance, expresses the same apocalyptic ideas Papadimitriou imagines: “I don’t know why but I think we all sense something deathly about you these days, something you refuse to acknowledge, an unexamined aspect of yourselves which lingers around you and is beginning to rot and stink” (117). There are similar parallels between Gloria and Papadimitriou. When she’s high, Gloria feels herself at one with her surroundings—animal and vegetable, natural and architectural—and she imagines an apocalyptic future where the skyscrapers collapse (171). On another trip, she presses “a fist-sized piece of Hertfordshire puddingstone” to her forehead and travels “up the latticework of light into the groaning, grinding heart of a glacier as it retreated slowly north over aeons, depositing its boulders and gravels onto mounds of dead sea creatures and thick belts of clay as it did so” (174). Then she imagines the aftermath of the glaciation—trees growing and hominids hunting rabbits—which is followed by the sudden appearance of a railway and bungalows and commuters using jet-packs to travel to work (a different, anti-apocalyptic version of the future): “I felt I was a conglomerate of different times bound by some biological cement into the identity called ‘Me,’” she tells Papadimitriou. “It was very profound” (174-75).

When Gloria is high, she always has the kind of experience of fusion, of egolessness, that Papadimitriou seeks when he’s walking (or looking at maps): 

I would take a soul journey through many states. . . . I became woodlands and river valleys. I flowed, an iron-rusted streamlet, into broad alluvial marshlands. I was plant successions and the spoor of animals, sour green berries and clicking insects in late summer grass. Time hung over the murmuring land as I moved on to endings at oceans, at salt spray and feather-clad wildness. (179)

Gloria’s hippie companions find her stories about these experiences incomprehensible (179). On her final trip with them, she becomes a hornet: 

I remember well the poise and pulsing power of my body, the red warmth of the visual continuum, the flowers glowing like other-worldly beacons, the itch of mites slowly dissolving the chitin of my long deadly abdomen. I wound through tapering purple ribbons of pheromone, bound for something ineffable that was hanging suspended like the sun in its power. It was hornet-life itself. (180)

When she comes down, her companions are angry: she’s been abusive, her “ranting” has ruined their own trips, and they reject her (181). After that, however, she experiences fusions with the environment without drugs, just by walking (182-83). In the end, she tells Papadimitriou, she decides to commit suicide by putting her neck on a railway track in front of a train; that will enable her to return to her “living and creating Mother,” Hertfordshire: “We must now dream alive the past and future, and we must return to the Mother if we want to truly live” (184-85).

I’m not sure what to make of the incorporation of this fictional material in the book. Smith argues that fiction is one of the “non-respectable” forms of knowledge that mythogeographers, or psychogeographers, use (59). That may be—although I wouldn’t want to follow them on that particular path—but at the same time, incorporating fiction into a non-fiction book tends to destabilize the truth claims the book makes, I think. I found myself, for instance, wondering whether Papadimitriou’s account of his arrest actually happened, or if it was a fantasy. (I think it happened, but some small doubt lingers.) On the other hand, Cree writer Harold Johnson’s recent book about the life of his brother, Clifford, brings fiction and memoir together and has received incredibly positive reviews. (I haven’t read it yet, but I want to.) And in Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut mixes memoir (the book’s first chapter, an account of how it came to be written, and his own wartime experiences) with fiction and, indeed, fantasy (Billy Pilgrim’s experiences on the planet Tralfmadore). Perhaps I’m wrong about the effect of mixing fact and fiction together, but there is something about the way Papadimitriou does it that I find disquieting.

For instance, the book’s appendix, “Perry Kurland’s Journal,” which purports to be a notebook written by one of his fictional characters, and found by Papadimitriou in a dumpster, is where “deep topography” is defined. Isn’t it odd to have a fictional character define one’s methodology—the methodology others see as defining one’s practice? Like Papadimitriou’s other imagined characters, there are parallels between himself and Kurland: both are interested in botany, for instance. And Kurland’s description of deep topography (or, since he capitalizes the words, “Deep Topography”) matches Papadimitriou’s practice, as it is described in the rest of the book:

Deep Topography is concerned primarily with the experience of place, not its description. However, it is recognised that a complex and mutually reinforcing relationship exists between these two categories.

Deep Topography: a duty to explore.

Deep Topography is not a problem-solving approach to the world, if that concept is defined purely in terms of increasing or improving degree of instrumentality.

Deep Topography places an emphasis on found items—lists dropped on pavements; letters found in attics of condemned houses; personal papers discarded in skips.

It is difficult to place parameters on what constitutes Deep Topographic inquiry: any formula generated for the purposes of cultural elucidation—even the one expressed in this sentence—interferes with the procedure.

Deep Topography: pieces of rusted machinery stumbled upon in dry grasses by Grim’s Dyke, 1967; a box of telephone components found on Enfield Chase during an undated summer about twenty-three years ago: spread the parts out on the table and try to work out the relations between them.

Deep Topography is a dip down into the valley of the unacknowledged: Suicide Corner, June 1958.

Deep Topography is a transmission across time, confounding the thought that all has been swept away: the Allenstein bird table, 1961-1972.

The accusation of nostalgia cold reasonably be levelled at Deep Topography. However, that sentiment is attained not through absence from one’s home but via passing through the land’s eye.

Deep Topography: a return to home at day’s end and, after the exhaustion, a rising into something that is more than personal recollection: rather, it is the land’s very structure and memory unfurling in the mind. (253-55)

Kurland suggests that Donald S. Maxwell’s 1926 book The Fringe of London is one of his “local gods” (261)—a suggestion that others have attributed to Papadimitriou—and he makes a distinction between “place-known” and “place-unknown” (263). Finding strange places is important, Kurland argues: “It is at these times that the conditioned decades evaporate and a new, an urgent depth is attained” (263). Moreover, on one of his walks Kurland experiences a fusion with the land and a unfixing in time, just like Papadimitriou: 

I tumble down into a culvert lined with hart’s tongue and moss and am knee-deep in the current as it flows back behind me. I walk forward and exit the 1970s. I melt into mods, pass into beards and trad-jazz. I become Saxon and Jute, Roman and Briton. Eddies deepen into swirlings. Cables catch my tired feet and my spectacles slip from my nose. As I fall against the channel carrying the Tramway Ditch into the Silkstream, I end. (269)

I’m sure that psychogeographers or mythogeographers would argue that Kurland is simply an alias; Smith uses many aliases in his writing—I almost missed one of his books because it was published under a different name—and he suggests that playing a role is an essential aspect of mythogeography (152). But I come at this text from a different direction, from my training as a literary scholar, and I can’t help finding it strange that Papadimitriou distances the definition of his practice from his own voice; even though that voice is similar to his own, and has similar experiences, it’s still (ostensibly) another character. This, I think, is an aspect of psychogeography or mythogeography or deep topography that I’m just going to have to accept, as strange as it seems to me. 

So, what do I make of Scarp and deep topography? I like Papadimitriou’s repeated encounters with the same landform; it reminds me of Nan Shepherd’s repeated walking in the Cairngorms. I like the detail of his descriptions of the spaces through which he walks. I like his botanical knowledge—mostly because I’ve learned the names of grasses and forbs indigenous to Saskatchewan myself, I suppose, and yet I’d never thought about incorporating that knowledge into my accounts of my walks. (I’m not as strong on the introduced weeds that constitute almost all of the flora one encounters while walking here, but I could improve my knowledge of them—there are field guides available.) I don’t understand the need for mythic creatures, which probably means I’m missing the point of an essential aspect of deep topography, as well as mythogeography and psychogeography. For me, the real world is fascinating enough, without having to introduce fictional characters. Nor do I expect to experience a fusion with any landscape—that seems to me to be another fiction (although that might testify to my own narrowness). What I ought to do now is return to the article on Scarp in Tina Richardson’s anthology—an article I skipped over because I hadn’t yet read Papadimitriou’s work. Sometimes seeing what someone else has to say about a text can help one clarify one’s own ideas. And I also think that it’s okay if my walking practice departs from the models provided by psychogeography, mythogeography, and deep topography. We all must find our own ways forward, our own methodologies, and if mine are different from those of others, I think that’s probably fine. I walk in a different context, a different space, and in a different way. What could be wrong with such multiplicity?

Works Cited

Papadimitriou, Nick. Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits, Sceptre, 2013.

Richardson, Tina, ed. Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography, Rowman & Littlechild, 2015.

Smith, Phil. On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff, Triarchy, 2014.

61. Phil Smith, On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff

smith on walking

As is appropriate for mythogeography, On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff, Phil Smith’s book about following in the footsteps of the late novelist W.G. Sebald’s walk in East Anglia, is made up of different layers—theoretical and tactical discussions of mythogeography, and an account of the walk Smith made—juxtaposed against each other. I found the theoretical and tactical layer to be more important for my purposes than the story of the walk, although that did have surprising resonances with some of my own walking; however, both are important, and while I will be separating the layers in this summary, the way they mesh (to use one of Smith’s favourite words) together is the point of the book.

Before I knew what this book was about, I suggested to a friend that I might like to walk Sebald’s route at some point, because I am a fan of his writing: I find his long sentences fascinating, and I like the juxtaposition of the text with the strange, enigmatic photographs Sebald always includes. I like The Rings of Saturn, the book about walking in  Suffolk, although it’s clear that Sebald’s primary concern in the book isn’t the territory through which he was walking, but the things he was thinking about as he walked. For that reason, I would think that as the “catapult” for a mythogeographical or psychogeographical walk, it might not be the best choice—not if one hoped to measure one’s own experiences against Sebald’s. Not surprisingly, that’s the conclusion Smith reaches as well. That wouldn’t bother me—I would be curious to see if there is any trace linking Sebald’s internal monologue to the terrain—but I think it does bother Smith, and eventually he abandons his walk. An unfinished walk is an interesting thing: there is an endless deferral involved in not reaching one’s destination, and several of the books about walking that I’ve read over the past few years, including Simon Armitage’s book about walking the Pennine Way and Bill Bryson’s story about walking the Appalachian Trail end that way. So does Smith’s On Walking . . . And Stalking Sebald. I make the suggestion cautiously, because I’m pretty sure that Smith can’t stand Armitage’s book–as I recall, he finds it too solid and literary and insufficiently performative–and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like Bryson’s book either. But the comparison–at least on that one perhaps superficial level–is there nonetheless.

Smith begins with a short memoir about his life and his relation to walking. “It may seem odd . . . that I see walking not as a retirement from political struggle or from the sensual pleasures of entertainment, but as a further intensifying of both,” he writes (12). That intensification involves an attention to the ways that power shapes cities and the land, and the way that resistances to that power can be created:

When I walk I draw upon layers of understanding that I have had to gather together in order to shape performances or to make political arguments; I am sensitive to the ways that the land and the cities are managed, owned, controlled and exploited. I am sensitive to the flows of power: information, energy, deference. I am also aware of contradictions in these places; I look out for those pressures that can, unplanned, open up temporarily free spaces, holey spaces, hubs where uncontained overlaps or the torque of bearing down in one place tears open a useful hold in another: these are places where, until we can at last all be free, we might for a while find space to act as we wish. (12)

It’s often easy to see the signs of power, but it’s harder to create or recognize those “temporarily free spaces,” at least for me, and much of Smith’s mythogeographical practice involves opening up such spaces.

Smith is interested primarily in what he calls “non-functional” walking. “I would not want to pretend that there is any one right way to walk,” he writes, and the walking he proposes in this book “strides along beside” other, functional forms of walking (12). In part, this book provides a set of ideas and tactics that can be used for non-functional walking:

You are free to use the ideas and experiences here and turn them into whatever kind of walking you wish: romantic, subversive, nosey, convivial, meditational, whatever. I like multiplicity and I think there may be some good in it—so, as long as your walking does not exclude the walking of others, I will be chuffed to think you are using any tactics or ideas here. (12)

“At the same time,” he continues, “I am giving myself the same privilege in the pages that follow: to walk the walk I want to walk and to evangelise about its qualities” (12). So we are invited to take what we can use and leave what we can’t, to borrow from his own practice if we want, or to refrain, if we don’t.

Smith is interested in “emblems and symbols,” their origins and “codes and secret languages,” their historical meanings (12-13). Those symbols are an important part of the terrain of the walk, which is more important than the walker: 

By walking I have not denied myself the physical pleasures of performance. However, there is a more humbling aspect to walking; for it is not the walker, but the terrain, natural and built, that mostly makes the walk. The walker takes a far more powerful and experienced lover than any audience. Sun, tropical storms, traffic, snow, mists; the terrain is not your backdrop, but seizes the action as its author and agonist. (13)

Thinking of the terrain as the author of the walk, as something that provokes a reaction in the walker, is an essential part of his practice. He finds “a joy in the textures of things,” for instance: he touches a sandstone sculpture of a horse and feels he is touching “a 300-million-year-old desert,” runs his hand over a rusting name plate and suddenly feels “the industry it once advertised” missing (13). That attention to detail is a critical part of his mythogeographical walking. 

Such walking, Smith argues, is not escapist. Quite the contrary, in fact: it is a complex form of resistance:

It feels like a fight inside the fabrics of society for access to all those things that overdeveloped economies circulate at speeds just beyond our grasp: inner life, the wild absurdities of our unique and subjective feelings, beautiful common treasures, uncostable pleasures, conviviality, an ethics of strangerhood and nomadic thinking. Walking is pedestrian. Its pace disrupts things and makes them strange. . . . Whatever flashes by, becomes readable, touchable, loveable, available. However, The Spectacle is not stupid; it has long been ready for such old-fashioned radicalisms, laying down huge and sugary sloughs of wholesomeness and holiness for us to founder in. (14)

The Spectacle, as I’ve noted before in relation to Smith’s work, is a term that comes from the writing of Guy Debord. Here Smith provides his own definition: the Spectacle is “the enemy of the sensitised walker,” “the growing Nothing in the lifeblood of society,” “the dominance of representations over what they represent” (14). It is, he continues, 

the dominance of the ideas of freedom, democracy, happiness over people actually being free, happy and democratically active; enforced by the global deregulation of finance, the giant algorithms of the surveillance states, a media that has gone beyond mass to be more pervasive than gods were ever imagined to be, anti-collectivity laws and the war machines with their enemy-pals in the AK47 theocracies. (15)

For Smith, “[e]mbodied and hypersensitised walking—with senses reaching inwards and outwards—is the antithesis of the Spectacle. The feeling body, alive with thoughts, is a resistance; theatre and insurgency combined. And what better and more unlikely cover than ‘pedestrian’?” (15). The important words here are “embodied” and “hypersensitised”: those are key parts of Smith’s walking practice.

That practice, of course, draws on what Smith calls “mythogeography.” The key principles of mythogeography, he writes, are

multiplicity and trajectory. Applied to walking that means resisting routines and boundaries and treasuring the many selves you may pass through or encounter on your journey. I would always try to protect the freedom of walkers to use guises and camouflage in acts of transformation. In this cause, I sometimes find it necessary to adapt or détourn ideas and rituals taken from sacred spaces. There is always a place for an abstract or inner walk. (16)

Such walking does not exclude what he calls “material interventions,” such as the “ambulant architectures” of Wrights & Sites, “which seeks to equip walkers not only with concepts and tactics, but also with plain damned things for subtle and extravagant transformations of actually existing postmodernity” (16). I’m not sure what the ambulant architecture project was, even though Smith describes one aspect of it in this book; that is an area for further research.

Later, Smith adds more to his definition of mythogeography. It is, he writes, 

an experimental approach to places as if they were sites for performances, crime scenes or amateur excavations (let’s say, grave robbing) of multiple layers of treasure. To get at these different aspects of place and space, mythogeography draws on all kinds of “low theory”; amateur and poetic assembling into manifestos of things I have learned (mostly from others) while out on the road. (59)

Mythogeography, he continues, “is a hybrid of ideas, tactics and strategies. It embraces both respectable (academic, scientific, culturally validated) and non-respectable (Fortean, antiquarian, mystical, fictional) knowledges. It judges these first against their own criteria and then sets the different knowledges in orbit about each other, seeking to intuit their gravitational pulls upon each other” (59). Fortean, Wikipedia tells me, refers to the work of the American writer Charles Fort, who was interested in something called “anomalous phenomena,” a category that includes ufology, cryptozoology, and parapsychology. This must be the “damned data” that Smith often refers to—data that doesn’t make sense according to current scientific knowledge. This is a direction in which I cannot follow Smith—I just can’t believe in UFOs or Bigfoot or ghosts, or feign an interest in such things. But it seems to be part of the way that mythogeography sets out to make the mundane magical. The interest in occult or esoteric phenomena is common to psychogeographers and mythogeographers, it seems. “Mythogeography,” Smith continues, “explores atmospheres and the effects of psychogeography,” and it “regards explorers, performers, activists and passers-by as sites; all as multiplicitous, unfinished and undefinable as the terrains they inhabit” (59). It is not a finished model; rather, it is “a general approach which emphasises hybridity and multiplicity, but does not attempt to limit this to any single combination of elements or homogenous model of diversity” (60). The origins of mythogeography are in the work of Wrights & Sites, which drew from the work of Fluxus, Mike Pearson, Tacita Dean, and Fiona Templeton (60). I know a little about Fluxus, and a little about Mike Pearson and Fiona Templeton, but I need to investigate them further, along with the work of Tacita Dean.

Embodiment is an essential aspect of Smith’s walking:

A functionless walk is about as embodied as you can get. Easing, waiting, responding, jerking, rolling, smoothing, tip-toeing the body across the environment. It would be a shame if, after all the erotic energy expended by people “getting in touch with nature,” no one really touched it. So handle the weft and weave, the detail, the spiny thorn and the nettle hair. Leave a little of your blood on things. Take stones home in bruises. Test clay between your fingertips. Put your head in rivers. Let tadpoles and tiny crabs scuttle across the back of your arm. 

Stand still to feel the different kinds of wind; let them push you, walk against them. 

Tread (with the right boots) on bottle fragments and tin cans. And then spend a few minutes enjoying the textures after the crunch. You don’t always have to be precious. (26-27)

He suggests that walkers experiment with shifting their focus into their ankles, wrists, knees, or hips: 

become a thing of joints and hinges and allow your thoughts and feelings to model them. Thinking with your feet is not about “groundedness,” but rather about rediscovering legs as feelers, tentacles, bio-instruments that complement the meshwork of senses that bathe and caress the surfaces about us with exploratory seeing and touching and smelling and hearing and tasting, all the time swinging the whole body of instruments through the hips. Conduct your senses like an orchestra, reconnecting the two parts of your body in a swaying walk, use your stride to disperse longings to the landscape. (27)

Smith’s comment about “groundedness” is a sign of his unease with notions of connection or rootedness, which would suggest that he would be less interested in Yi-Fu Tuan’s notion of place as the product of experience and stasis than in Doreen Massey’s notion of space as a simultaneity of stories and flows of power. Such connection cannot come, he continues, 

at the expense of disruption, of tripping up and over, stumbling and righting, of calling, of refusal, or risking the crossing, of not looking, of disrupting the flow, of not going to the destination . . . that it is also in these disconnections that the enigmatic meanings of the city and the landscape can be floated free from their immobile sites and engaged in a movement that may eventually lead them back to connections, but not to begin with, not quite yet. Don’t rush it. (27)

I wonder if the open spaces of freedom he suggests can be created or (perhaps) discovered by walking are connected to those moments of disruption and disconnection.

Along with embodiment goes being sensitized to the terrain, and Smith makes a number of suggestions for tactics that can lead to a greater sensitization. These are “mostly subtle devices, games and refrains for peeling away a layer of armour, extending a sympathetic organ or opening the eyes a little deeper” (29). Walkers can, for instance, “[c]arry, touch, inhale, sip, rub and lick things as you find them” (29). They can use repetition by walking the same route over and over again (29). They can “walk the street or the hill path or the beach into yourself. . . . a psycho-geographical act, raising and reforming memories, feelings, self-images and setting them at the mercies of far vistas, of the straightness of the path, of the massing of the flocks above” (29-30). I’m not sure, in practical terms, how to walk the terrain into myself, but it’s important to Smith: he later describes deep autotopographical walking, in which 

autobiography or psychological transformation and crisis are key strands in the weaves around the route. There is no therapeutic guarantee here; what a walk tends to do is to set things in motion, but their eventual trajectory will be determined by your own choices and interventions, by others, by terrains and by accidents. (137)

Walkers can think about how they look at the world and the people in it (30). They might wash or polish “a pavement slab, an empty plinth, or a doorstep for which there is no longer a house” regularly (30). They could experiment with where they place their attention, without limiting their responses to their experiences to the literal: “your feelings are as ambiguous and allusive a set of materials as imagist poetry, to interpret them appropriately,” he suggests (30). Walkers can also occasionally stand still and listen carefully, identifying as many different sounds as possible” (30-31). Later, he suggests that one might walk in disguise (152)—that strikes me as a way to get arrested, but I could be wrong. Perhaps that fear is related to Smith’s next point: walkers need to remember that most threats are not real, and that they shouldn’t allow their fear—of ridicule, for instance—to stand in their way (31). They might pretend to be someone else as they walk (31-32). They might walk the landscape as if it were a body (32) (again, I’m not sure how to do that in practice). They can consciously sensitize themselves to the presence of others in the busy spaces of cities, “making complex steps” and incorporate others “into your choreography” (32). “[S]ensitising yourself to the flows of the city will not redeem you from or inure you to its violent commerce,” Smith writes. “The very opposite: experience and subjectivity are exactly what are most fiercely traded now. Rather than releasing you from the clutches of overdevelopment, sensitising tactics are intended to bring you right into the belly of the Spectacle” (32-33).

Smith inverts Occam’s Razor, the heuristic that suggests that the simplest solutions to a problem are probably the best. Instead, he advises walkers to “adopt, no matter how fragmentary and partial your evidence, the most complex, sinister and portentous explanations possible until disproved by further evidence” (36). This is a psychogeographer’s credo, which helps to explain their baroque interpretations of phenomena. (I’m not sure I can follow Smith down this road; Occam’s Razor is too deeply imprinted on my way of looking at the world. All the more reason, I imagine him saying, to give it a try.) Don’t take your own food, he advises; instead, rely on what you discover along the road (37)—a practice that would lead to hunger in rural Saskatchewan. He advocates relying as well on chance in relation to destinations: “Coming unexpectedly upon an abandoned fairground or the skeleton of an industrial unit will always have far more thrill than a planned and guided trip around a stately home” (37). Later, he expands on this idea:

One of the great things about not knowing where you are going is that relatively unimpressive landscapes, structures or artefacts take on a new aura and wonder when stumbled across or encountered as part of a walking narrative. What, if planned, might be found with some minor self-satisfaction, can instead by encountered as a staggering discovery, a bone-stopping association, a punch in the heart accusation from the past, a precious mis-design; some rotted shed, some parts of a shattered wing mirror like self-fracturing selves, some stream in a suburban valley, a sodium lamplit beauty . . . these unfold one after the other, space unravelling rather than delivering. (116)

“Delivering” suggests something pre-planned, something expected, whereas “unravelling” suggests chance, accident, and a revelation.

Many of these ideas—and the term “psychogeography” itself—come from the Situationist International. Smith first encountered the Situationists in the 1970s, in Richard Gombin’s The Origins of Modern Leftism: “The idea that ours is a society of spectacle struck a powerful chord that is still ringing with me: a society in which the circulation and distribution of images defines social relationships subjugated to economic imperatives still seems to describe the one I ‘operate’ on” (49). For Smith, the Situationist dérives were not only a tactic for understanding the psychological or emotional effects of terrain on individuals; they were also a way to disrupt the spectacle: dérives, he writes, 

were un-planned drifts, in which the criteria for choosing a route were: which promised the most abundant ambience? which had the greatest resonance, the greatest capacity to be détourned, re-deployed for the purposes of disrupting everyone else’s economic trajectories? Most treasured were those places that seemed to manifest a meeting place of different ambiences. These were called “hubs.” (50)

Smith emphasizes that the dérives were not ends in themselves:

They were acts of research; experiences on the street were experimental materials for the creation of “situations”; combinations of site, performance and demonstration out of which might eventually spring new ways of living to transform cities. So, this is a walking that is not an end in itself, that does not test its own qualities in terms of how little its participants bother the public health service, but rather according to its coruscating engagements with the social relationships expressed in the images and ideas that circulate about sites and places. It is a walking of disruption, a walking of refusal, a walking of research and redeployment of old arts in smithereens. (50-51)

According to Smith, “[t]he conditions of these times are more restricted than those when the Situationists drifted Paris” (51)—a claim that might be true of the white dérivistes, but not of, for instance, Abdelhafid Khatib, the Algerian-born Situationist whose 1958 attempts at a drift in the soon-to-be demolished Les Halles market kept ending in his arrest for violating the curfew that was imposed on North Africans in Paris (Khatib). But that’s not Smith’s point, of course. Rather, he is talking about the changes in the Spectacle—its increased reach and power:

The Spectacle is now integrated, concentrated and diffuse: where once it operated through either dictatorship, free mobility, or the penetration of everything, now it deliriously switches, with alacrity, between all three states. In the overdeveloped world any resistance to the Spectacle has switched from the political realm to running battles across the plane of interiority. We are caught in a rearguard action to win back control of our own subjective multiplicities from identity-retailing and an avatar culture that proposes the arts as a tribute band and the streets as a lookalike condition. (51)

“Under these conditions, and in this game of war for interiority and subjectivity,” Smith continues, “the tactics and, more importantly, the strategy of the Situationists have never been more resonant” (51).

Smith provides a list of five steps towards the beginning of a great walk. First, know why you are walking: “disrupt yourself, set yourself going and apart,” and “shake things up for yourself” (53). Second, know where you are walking: head towards somewhere unfamiliar and go to places you would usually avoid. Third, walk with others but keep the focus on the spaces you are passing through. Fourth, free yourself from your everyday, your usual habits: “Find a way to get you off your beaten tracks, and then off your off-your-beaten-tracks” (54). Finally, know what to take—sensible shoes, a notebook and pen, a camera, water (54). Perhaps the most important tip Smith gives is to walk slowly: “An important quality of this walking is its anachronistic pace, decelerated even for walking. . . . Only in such slo-mo walking can she easily and regularly stop to stare obsessively at details, lichen, ironies” (58). That’s great advice, but hard for some of us to adopt, since everyone has their own comfortable stride length and speed. Nevertheless, he wonders what “marathon walkers,” who travel at more than four miles per hour, can see or engage with (103). Nothing, is the presumed response.

The important thing, Smith suggests about walking, is to be ready for what comes: 

Once walking, there is a mythical-ethical aspect: hold yourself in preparedness for whatever arises. A glove dropped or a toy thrown from a buggy. A stumbling fellow pedestrian. An assault. . . . Choose your role. Depending on the character you choose for yourself, and to what layers of mastery and compassion and anger you have ascended, hold yourself always in readiness to accept whatever affordances are given to you. (152)

The term “affordances” is one many psychogeographers use; again, using Wikipedia as a source (a very bad idea, I know, and I apologize), it refers to what the environment offers to the individual. It comes from the work of James Gibson—and if I’m serious about understanding what it means, I’m going to have to read Gibson’s The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Otherwise, I’m going to avoid the term entirely—except when I’m quoting someone who uses it.

Walking can bring about new connections, Smith argues,

through its aches, blisters, shivering and sweating, dehydration in intense heat, dizziness, pain, exhaustion, alienation, involuntary joy, inappropriate arousal, hearing what is usually unheard, bristling with fear, being desperate to piss and having nowhere to go, longing for a hiding place . . . there is little pleasure for most people in such discomforts in themselves (unless you are cultivating them as the status symbols of extreme walking; but what about:

The pain arrived at by pleasure?

The aching from the sheer enjoyment of the walk?

Soreness from the fierce rawness of the experiences?

Walking through the blister pain and out the other side into ease?

The rush when the fear subsides and relief floods in environmentally? (62)

Smith’s emphasis on pain, on blisters, might suggest that he’s thinking about epic walking—walking over long distances and periods of time. That would categorize his walk in Sebald’s footsteps, but it’s also a kind of walking that he tends to eschew in favour of walks that incorporate an approach derived from relational aesthetics.

In one chapter, Smith discusses walking pilgrimages—and that’s of interest to me, since I’ll be giving a paper at a conference on pilgrimage in a couple of weeks. (Would that I had read this chapter before I wrote the paper!) Smith doesn’t care for the notion of pilgrimage as changing oneself self-discovery and the downplaying destinations; that approach devalues the terrain of the walk and its destination: “Reducing sites and shrines to vague and mushy approximations; servicing a fluid commodity-thinking that passes for spirituality (65). Instead, he suggests that what he describes as “postmodern pilgrimage” might be a search for the possibility of sacred points:

Maybe postmodern pilgrimage has no end-point, but rather is a search, or a re-search, for the possibility of such points (or their manifestation in other geometrical forms—perhaps as planes, perhaps as patterns). The pilgrimage, without an end-point, has no space for belief in the efficacy of completion; rather the pilgrim steps into the hyper-flows of the world without map, staff, route, scallop . . . having to reconstruct “pilgrimage” while in the motion of it, consciously and openly going as a “pilgrim” partly to discover how the world, how people, how oneself (selves), how the landscape, how the divine might respond to that. 

I am left curious and attracted to this “pilgrimage” and wondering about its possibilities, where it might lead in terms of unexpected contacts and meetings, in a different kind of understanding of the relationship between place and meanings (everyday and metaphysical), of material space (symbol) and its relationship to “what cannot be represented.” I wonder if the “ghosts” of earlier pilgrim practices would rise up on such a walk. Would anachronisms be renewed, emptinesses filled? (65)

These are interesting questions, and I wonder if the kind of walking Robert Macfarlane describes as “improvised pilgrimages” (235) might be a way of beginning to answer them. In any case, Smith concludes, “[t]here is very little real ‘wrong walking’; there is some element of pilgrimage in it all” (65).

The kind of walking Smith is interested in is, he writes, “all about being flexible and ready”:

The walker can draw upon what among contemporary dancers and movement artists are almost banalities now: the prioritising, above technique, of flexibility and preparedness to accept affordances, to respond, to be open and raw to the moment. All the tactics and ideas here do not mean much without such readiness, such pre-expressivity, necessary for spontaneous reaction to what the road throws at you, which is mostly offers. 

There is a paradox here: preparing to be spontaneous. Unsurprisingly, this is mostly a via negativa; the removal of blocks and inhibitions. It is also creative in a negative way; those blocks and inhibitions sometimes produce useful delays and deferrals. So, simplistic readiness is not enough; what a chosen walking requires is a sophisticated readiness that is strategic, able to translate the immediacy and specificity of the offer from the road to a moving space on a sliding plane of generality: in other words, little things connecting to big things, every brush with the road part of a big picture; a body in flux in co-creation with spaces that are always under construction. (74)

Again, the terrain—the road—is the determining factor: the walker must respond to the road rather than to some predetermined notion or destination or idea. That, of course, is easier said than done, and the outcome may not always be serendipitous: my decision during Wood Mountain Walk to stay on Highway 2 instead of heading towards Willow Bunch may have been the biggest mistake I made on that walk, and it was a response to what I took to be the terrain.

Smith advocates walking with others, which he describes as “convivial drifting”: “the shifting space of disrupted walking is one through which we can negotiate with each other all sorts of differences, helped by that quality in drifting which seems to favour the margins. The best things always seem to come from those on the fringes of a walking group, rather than from its head.” (77). During a drift or dérive, “the group composes the drift together, sharing, assembling, collaging and collaging it” (78). During a drift, he suggests, walkers can try switching their attention between different foci, 

oscillating from a collective gaze upon one another to a romantic gaze to the horizon. Falling for nothing, then for everything. While there is a mental aspect to this rhythmical looking, it is also a de- and re-composition of landscape. As the drift progresses, the rhythm of these switches can begin to take a compositional form: patterns emerge that then operate across the different scales. (134)

As with some of Smith’s comments regarding drifting, it would be easier to experience this being put into practice than to try to do it after reading about it.

But despite his interest in drifting, Smith notes that there are other ways to walk as well. He suggests a number of tactics that involve objects: carrying ephemera in one’s pockets, or like the performance artist He Yun Chang carrying a rock all around the periphery of the UK and returning it, or like Simon Whitehead carrying a table, or like Lonnie van Brummelen dragging a sculpture of Hermes for three months along the sides of roads. In 1998, the duo known as Lone Twin, in a performance called Totem, carried a telephone pole in a straight line through the centre of Colchester, through shops, workplaces, homes, busy streets; the principle of the performance was “activating social events through personal trials” (132). “Choose something to drag,” Smith suggests: “something that will leave a mark, something that transfigures as it is pulled” (82-83). That suggestion reminds me of Leo Baskatawang’s epic walk across Canada, dragging a copy of the Indian Act chained to his leg (Benjoe). Such walking is an intentional ordeal: Smith recalls carrying a wooden plinth at the Sideways Walking Festival in Belgium, a performance that was part of Wrights & Sites “ambulant architecture” project. He carried the heavy plinth for 23 miles, walking too fast and exhausting himself; the experience became a form of  “walking in the architecture of a horror film” (155). Despite his lack of interest in epic walking, Smith clearly is a practitioner—although that’s not the only form of walking he does.

Smith is deeply concerned about walking and gender. He writes,

The question of women and their relation to public space—to the streets and squares, to the public spaces of power—sacred spaces, protest spaces, educational spaces, working spaces, dance floor spaces, political spaces—and their rights of access and agency in the overlapping spaces of public and private life, public and relationship space, personal and family space. . . . without a politics of walking of these, there is no hope at all in walking. (160)

Fears of assault (particularly sexual assault) are not irrational, he notes, even though the world is generous (he argues that’s what women discover when they “take up an offer to walk”), but “the reality of the threats and the reality of the fears they generate are part of the same oppression” (160). He provides a long list of women who walk—a list that is gold for anyone looking to begin studying walking and gender (163). “[W]e need to address the rights of the stranger on the street,” he writes: 

to allow meaningless encounters and trivial situations to multiply, to allow a lack of significance back into the everyday and to wrestle meaningless and trivial space from those who would flood it with theological, cultural and familial restrictions and mono-meanings, to make it free for all those groups who might suffer—or fear they might suffer—assault, violation or intimidation on the road. (164)

Such freedom is an important, even essential goal, although I’m not sure how that goal can be reached—except by more women walking.

Smith ends his book with an appendix entitled “Walking for a change: A manifesto for a new nomad.” In it, he suggests that “[a] walk is nothing until it is over and then it is too late; which may explain the rarity of really good books about walking” (190). There are so many modes of walking, he continues, “that it defies even its own capacities to express other things; trips up on its own multiplicity. Not armfuls of diversity, but sprawling, tumbling or spilling splashes, splinters and streams that evade anyone or anything trying to sweep them up” (191). He suggests that, for him, the most tedious modes are walking are the ones “most practised,” but even those “can be disrupted for a few moments by the myriad of other, non-functional modes: lyrical walking, art crawling, pilgrimage, and so on” (191). “Rather than seeking the mitigation of contradictions,” he continues, the walking he advocates “wants and needs gaps and fractures to make its way, tensions to serve as its capital and catapults, waste and ruins for its building materials” (192). It is in those gaps and fractures, I think, that moments of freedom and openness can be discovered.

As I suggested earlier, all of this theoretical material, and the practical suggestions Smith makes, are interleaved with his account of walking Sebald’s route through East Anglia. What strikes me the most about Smith’s account of his walk is the amount of detail he provides. He obviously stops constantly to take notes and/or photographs—something I didn’t do that much on last summer’s walk to Wood Mountain, but which I should try harder to do in future. When Smith announced his plans to follow Sebald’s path on Facebook, he received negative responses from psychogeographers who hate the book:

I perversely welcomed these adverse comments; though they stung at my purpose. So many of the commentators I had read, without comprehension, were reverential towards Sebald’s work. I had come to feel that I was misusing a sacred tome as pretext for a walk; now the book seemed more abject, ruined, something for me to salvage as I read it along my way. 

I was deluded in every respect. (21)

The Rings of Saturn was an absurd map to take,” he writes, and he “deployed it absurdly” (15). At the walk’s outset, he realized that he had misremembered the sequence of events in The Rings of Saturn: Sebald wasn’t walking to convalesce from “a state of almost total immobility,” but he walked himself into that state, something Smith experienced in his adolescence; so the walk would be “towards immobility,” not away from it (23). Moreover, Smith, writes, he was “painfully aware that what I am doing is a copy of a copy of a copy” (23-24). That’s not entirely a bad thing, he notes later on: while repeated walks “are not equivalent to their originals,” they can be seen as “interrogations of them and stepping off points for new walks. Like Heraclitus’s river (rather more mutable than it is generally understood) the path is never walked the same way twice, is never the same way twice” (71). Later he recommends enacting “in local, accessible forms” some of the “classic” walks (166). I wonder what that might be like—it might be an example of the psychogeographical tactic of walking somewhere with a map of somewhere completely different.

Sometimes, as he walks, Smith completely disagrees with Sebald’s description of a place. Take the seaside town of Lowestoft, for instance: “It is not the wasteland described by Sebald, the wasteland in which it would have been simpler to ‘spontaneously’ discover my provisional narrative of dread to liberation. Instead, that counts for nothing in a vibrant, working-class seaside town” (68). That difference in experience leads Smith to wonder if Sebald is blind to class: 

Is Sebald’s problem when confronting catastrophe—nuclear war, ecological devastation, depredation of species, Nazism—that he sees everything but the catastrophe of class? He is unaware of, or opposed to, the idea that there operates a system that always tends toward, and thrives upon, crisis. . . . Instead, Sebald is super-sensitised to the surprise of tragedy. (70)

I wonder if this is true; I would have to re-read The Rings of Saturn with this suggestion in mind. Clearly, for Smith, tragedy is not the appropriate response to a systemic crisis; tragedy suggests that the crisis was unique, individual, and local, rather than (as Smith contends) the truth: that the crisis is the outcome of a system, the Spectacle.

As he walks, Smith becomes “increasingly suspicious of Sebald’s exploration”: his assumption had been that The Rings of Saturn was supposed to be “a deep engagement with its landscape,” but it isn’t, or else there is “a mismatch between Sebald’s complex intellectualism and his idea of what an embodied engagement with a landscape is. He does not match up to Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘deep topography’”—Papadimitriou’s Scarp is the next book I’ll be blogging about—and, in fact ,he thinks The Rings of Saturn is based on “cursory desk-based research” (85).  Smith discusses Papadimitriou’s notion of deep topography: it is, he writes, is a “wandering and watching and logging and obsessing”; it is “the repeated walking of the same stretch of terrain, observing and re-observing, reading and researching, deep in information and feeling, the terrain and the body seeping into each other, the map into the mind, the mind into the map” (86). “Curling inside his looping journeys,” Smith contends, “Papadimitriou de-romanticises ruins and tweaks the erogenous zones of golf courses. Other narratives bend like tiny dimensions inside the bigger shell, while mythic figures step sure-footedly around his wanders”—mythic figures Papadimitriou invents (86).

At times Smith walks in the country, and at other times he finds himself in suburbs. There, he writes, 

the voids are tiny ones, but as I explore one the whole tin peels open and I find, sunk beneath the modern surface, a mesh of hollow ways and green lanes hidden behind the house backs, a murder narrative, badgers’ sets and kids’ dens, a surprise eighteenth-century mansion among bungalows and odd unofficial handwritten posters. (100)

The multiplicity he finds in suburban neighbourhoods reflects the key principle of mythography:

Multiplicity is the key mythogeographical principle, the principle of multiplicitous narratives and many histories, disrupting the established narratives not only to introduce subaltern ones, but to question the legitimacy of dreamed, felt, feared ones and to invent our own; but where to we go with all this multiplicity? Does it have to pass through a period of loss like this? That the assemblage of multiplicitous narratives, layers, trajectories and so on will almost inevitably lead to some kind of hiatus, a stasis as the mind responds to the multiplicity and its uncapturableness by attempting to reduce it all to some common trait, a universal bon mot, organic ambience. Does it need a shock to shake the multiple elements back to life? Or a sharp intake of breath and a step back, to make some space for the multiplicitous elements themselves? (102)

If he were to make space for the multiplicitous elements of his Sebald walk, he asks himself, what would he see?

The palimpsest of churches, hallucinatory and police-like, the marks and portals (and tones) of the ruling folk, the tiny space of the reading room. The broad friendliness of the popular founded on the remains of a welfare state (and its self-help hybrid), the mutability of buildings, mutation in general, the ghost of US power in the form of hallucinatory livery and absent airfields, a landscape in which things float, things have gone missing (herring are very slowly returning) like the sailors from the Sailors Reading Room, labour and resistance fixed by a pin to a card in a museum. (102)

At times, though, he finds such multiplicity difficult to discover, and in a description that is uncannily like a depiction of the Saskatchewan landscape, he explains why:

Now wandering the farm land beyond Harleston, I am beginning to wonder if this is a non-mythogeographical or even anti-mythogeographical territory. I seem to be at war with it. Yes, of course, each cabbage in each cabbage field is different. Each of the few people I meet has a unique life. But there has been homogenising here, large-scale industrialised agriculture on a predominantly flat landscape. There are very few hedges, very few insects, nothing of the multiplicity of detail from which to easily construct a weave; yet it would still be easy to mistake it for countryside. (159)

Like the Saskatchewan landscape, what he sees near Harleston is dominated by power and authority:

But what there also is here is a plane, a reminder of how what is striated and controlled runs through every feature of itself, not externally controlled but patterned form within its own texture and grain. Authority is unusually exposed out here; it runs through everything, right to the surfaces, a vivid anonymity, moving to the beat of a spectacular humdrum that until now I could not hear. (159)

The key to a mythographical approach to walking would be to find the resistance to that “spectacular humdrum,” or to create it, to invent it. But it is difficult in such a landscape: “This is a melancholy road,” he writes; “I am not concerned that it will immobilise me now, but that it itself is beginning to silt up and grind towards a halt” (159).

One way of creating that resistance is to look for coincidences, which Smith calls “wormholes” (suggesting that they are more than coincidences). For instance, on this walk, the he discovers a real-estate firm called “Jackson Stops”; on an earlier walk, he passed a pub named “Jackson Stops,” which had that name because the estate agents’ “for sale” sign had hung over it for so long (107). Another example: he stops in a bookshop and picks up a book by Charles Hurst, who was the impetus for his 2009 walk (described in Smith’s book Mythogeography) following the line of oak trees Hurst planted (113). Another way of creating that resistance is by (as he suggests elsewhere in the book) looking for complicated explanations of phenomena:

Although I was only dimly aware of its significance, a vein of colour symbolism had begun to run through my walk: firstly, the white of the deer I first heard about in Snape, and subsequently symbols of black, red and finally gold. 

Given the region of fire that my walk was soon to pass through, an area something akin to a crucible, it is hard not to see the parallels with a jumbled alchemy: the purification in the white albedo, the decomposition of the black nigredo, the burning in the yellow light and solar fire of citrinitras, and the end of it all in red rubedo. (119)

Only Smith, I think, would discover alchemical colour symbolism during a walk. It’s something that would never occur to me.

Another source of resistance is parody and irony. When he visits Sutton Hoo, a historic site with Anglo-Saxon burial mounds, he imagines the kind of heritage site he would create:

I wander around the burial mounds enjoying being the first visitor there. I am impressed by the extent of the framing of these humps. Chain fence. Spot lighting. Hand cleanser. Viewing platform. Information board. Finger posts. And I begin to plan a heritage site consisting only of chain fences, spot lighting, hand cleanser, viewing platforms, information boards and finger posts. (126)

Another source of resistance is through references to the occult or to esoteric knowledge (echoing Smith’s interest in Charles Fort). In a taxi to the edge of Rendelsham Forest, he discovers an example of the “disreputable knowledge” he is interested in: the driver talks about “fairy bridges” where one has to call out to the fairies while crossing; she also tells him that the white deer in the forest “signifies the coming of a new charismatic leader,” that it is magical (126). “She is my angel,” Smith writes: “I realise that everything up till new has been prelude. The great walk is about to begin”—and his walk shifts to one about UFOs (126-27).

Smith reports his grief at seeing roadkill, a grief that is connected to the recent death of his mother: “Death is not a mist, not a plane, but a dirty weave of bits, a broken thing requiring more and more broken things to make its gothic swirls. It is nothing in itself, and it is this nothing that is awful” (165). Those reflections remind him of his mother’s death, and her life, but that is territory he cannot write about yet, and that becomes one of the ways in which he has “not succeeded in re-enacting Sebald’s trajectory” (165). In the end, Smith abandons his project: “Now has come the moment to abandon the Sebald route. It has led me as far as it can. The road has melted and inundated the whole terrain. I must do the next part of the work alone; but not immobilised” (171). He catches a bus to Halesworth, and then takes the train home.

On Walking . . . And Stalking Sebald is an unusual book, with its layers of different kinds of text, but its structure gives readers both the theory of mythogeography and an example of its practice. After reading it, I’m getting the sense that I’m finally coming to an understanding of what mythogeography is and how borrowing from it might inform (or even improve) my own walking. And that’s what’s important about this whole project—learning what is useful to me and what isn’t, what I want to do and what I don’t. And there’s no way to discover those things except by reading widely, by learning what’s out there, what others are up to and how their practices relate (or don’t) to my own.

Works Cited

Benjoe, Kerry. “Marching for a Cause,” Leader-Post [Regina], 14 June 2012, p. A3.

Khatib, Abdelhafid. “Attempt at a Psychogeographical Description of Les Halles.” Translated by Paul Hammond. Situationist International Online.

Macfarlane, Robert. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. London: Penguin, 2012.

Smith, Phil. On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff, Triarchy, 2014.

60. Alastair Bonnett, “The Dilemmas of Radical Nostalgia in British Psychogeography” 

dilemmas of radical nostalgia

I often feel nostalgic, sometimes for a past I’ve never experienced. I am nostalgic for a world where the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere is less than 405 parts per million, for instance. I’m nostalgic for a world when southern Saskatchewan was still grassland, a time before settlers arrived (which would mean that, as a descendant of settlers, I would be somewhere else, or perhaps nowhere, but I honestly don’t care about that). I don’t imagine that in the future the concentration of carbon will be less than 405 parts per million, or that this province will have any more than 13.7 percent of its original grassland ecosystem intact, so I imagine the kind of past I’d like to see. I’m not the only one who feels that way. I remember a passage in George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (I think it was The Road to Wigan Pier) measuring a happy working-class home in the 1930s against a similar home in the modern future, and Orwell deciding that the present, when there was work and food and decent housing–all things that, as his book demonstrates, manifestly did not exist in the UK of the 1930s–would be better than what was coming. But at the same time, I know that nostalgia is a vehicle for right-wing fantasies of white supremacy and empire. That’s what those MAGA hats are about, right? A malignant and racist nostalgia—and I’m not attacking Americans here, either; there are enough white supremacists right here, some of them working for one of our major political parties. My point is that nostalgia is slippery and dangerous–and yet, I am very familiar with its call.

So Alastair Bonnett’s essay, “The Dilemmas of Radical Nostalgia in British Psychogeography,” speaks directly to me, and his bibliography suggests lots of further reading on the topic of nostalgia’s place within radical political and aesthetic practices. Bonnett begins with Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital, one of his central examples, a book which, he writes, depicts “a journey in and against the contemporary landscape” and “an act of retrieval of radical histories now by-passed,” but also “a kind of romantic tribute to the brute energy of a technocratic, dehumanized environment” (46). That book is, for Bonnett, also an example of the “psychogeographical turn” in British literary culture and avant-garde activity (46). It is a work that “seeks to re-enchant and re-mythologize prosaic geographies. The resultant effect is disorientating—funny yet melancholic; utterly of our time but ill at ease with modern Britain” (46). In a review of London Orbital, Robert Macfarlane described it as “nostalgic radicalism” (qtd. in Bonnett 46), highlighting what Bonnett sees as its ambivalence, “the unresolved nature of his project” (46). Bonnett’s purpose is to develop this interpretation and to argue “that contemporary British psychoeography should be understood as a site of struggle over the politics of loss within the radical imagination,” and more specifically “that British psychogeography is an arena of conflict between two important strands within British radicalism: the use of the past to critique industrian modernity and the suppression of nostalgia” (46). “[T]hese tendencies, though they remain discordant presences, are, in fact, partially resolved into novel forms of creative praxis,” he writes (46).

Bonnett’s essay has three sections: first, the historical context of “the emergence of nostalgia as a dilemma within political radicalism,” and the second and third examples of British psychogeography—one devoted to Iain Sinclair’s work, and the other to the various psychogeographical groups which sprung up in the 1990s in the UK (47). Both share “a quixotic, love-hate relationship with the past,” exhibiting “an uneasy combination of deracinating modernism and folksy localism,” but both are distinctive in “their fraught relationship with nostalgia” (47). “Within Sinclair’s travel books, the modern landscape becomes a site of creative purgatory,” Bonnett writes. “Britain’s auto-centric, disorienting non-places seem to have for him the fascinating, troubling allure of a kind of necessary violence, a violence that simultaneously anchors the writer in modernism while establishing marginal spaces and histories discovered on foot as sanctuaries that tell of profound cultural and social loss” (47). In what he calls “revolutionary psychogeography,” on the other hand, the simultaneous refusal and deployment of nostalgia 

is enacted in a different way and to different ends. The use of a self-consciously exaggerated and, hence, self-subverting rhetoric of class war enabled these activists to evoke and ironize orthodox revolutionary politics. The development within this resolutely ‘underground’ community of so-called ‘magico-Marxism’ encapsulates the novelty but also the folk-historical inclinations of their project. (48)

For Bonnett, “a newly confident politics of nostalgia can be glimpsed within this milieu: at the counter-cultural margins of society radicalism is (once again) becoming tied to a popular politics of loss” (48). 

This discussion is part of a larger debate about the relationship between radicalism and “the politics of loss,” Bonnett writes (48):

Politics demands the critique of the present and, hence, the necessity of political visions of the past and/or future. Yet within an era that distinguishes itself by its modernity, these are not equivalent options. to be “backward looking” is unacceptable, inadequate, eccentric. . . . However, while we should acknowledge that a yearning for and an attachment to the past is inherently discordant in the modern world, it appears that the relationship between nostalgia and radicalism is uniquely troublesome. “Making a new world” is a defining or, at least, central claim of the radical imagination. (48-49)

“The landscape has been the central stage for the proof and spectacle of radical transformation,” Bonnett continues. “The eradication of old buildings, old place names and old monuments, and the construction of new places, new names and new monuments, provided the most visible symbols of revolutionary intent. This eagerness to build anew was never simply a mere concretization of radical ideology. It was also an assertion of authority over the past” (49). So, by the middle of the 20th century, “the idea that radicals are necessarily suspicious of the past had become so dominant that, across the range of radical opinion—from authoritarian to libertarian—feelings of loss and regret were cast as intrinsically wrong,” and looking back has been seen as wrong-headed (49). Regret about the past leads to resignation about the present and, therefore, political quietism, according to Richard Sennett, a claim Bonnett suggests “bears little scrutiny” and “has the brazen, generalizing quality of a stereotype” (49). Nostalgia therefore came to be seen as “an alien presence” within radicalism (49). 

“However, it is only by addressing the use and subsequent repression of nostalgia in the broader radical movement that we can begin to understand how and why the unresolved problem of the past is played out within contemporary psychogeography,” Bonnett argues (49). Attachments to the past were once central to popular radicalism, but after the late 19th century “such attachments became marginalized and, hence, available to an emergent avant-garde as a resource for cultural transgression” (49). Nevertheless, the relationship between the avant-garde and nostalgia always uneasy: “The way in which the avant-garde imagined and recuperated aspects of the past as pre-bourgeois and pre-civilized is indicative of how it has managed the paradoxes of modernist nostalgia” (50). In fact, he suggests, “[t]he attachment to the land and to myths of traditional community that are so central to late 18th-century and early and mid-19th-century English revolutionary thought have been consistently underplayed” (50). The sense of loss experienced by those early radicals was not just related to “ancient landscapes” but also to “traditional and communal relationships to the landscape” (50). “Whether expressed through romantic or practical historical comparison, resistance to the transformation of ‘our places’ into things owned and traded by an alien class was central to the emotional and political message of early radicalism,” Bonnett writes (50). However, as scientific socialism became pervasive, “such backward-looking perspectives took on an increasingly self-conscious and risky quality” (50). Nostalgia came to acquire “defensive and disruptive connotations” (51), and “resistance to industrial civilization” came to be seen as “arcane and conservative” (51). 

“As hostility to nostalgia developed into a radical orthodoxy, the past became more attractive to the unorthodox,” Bonnett writes. “Hence, one of the consequences of the opprobrium that came to surround the topic was that the past came to take on forbidden connotations and acquired transgressive qualities (especially when cast in the form of the ‘primitive’ and pre-civilized) that attracted the avant-garde” (51). While “[t]he avant-garde have continued to work through the dilemmas and opportunities of radical nostalgia,” though, “an attraction to the past triggers automatic suspicion” (52). For instance, the attempts by the Surrealists and Situationists to “cast the street as a terrain of intimacy and creativity, a space hidden and threatened by the ‘suppression of the street’ augured by modern traffic and modern planning,” might “have had ‘elitist’ components,” with elitism being one of the suspicions modernity has about nostalgia, but “it must also be understood as an attempt to defend ‘popular’ or ordinary space within and from the new technocentric and exclusionary landscapes of modernity” (52). “Nostalgia cannot be adequately summarized as either elitist or popularist,” Bonnett continues. “Indeed, it often acts to confound and confuse such designations and, by extension, the ability of ‘melancholic intellectuals’ ever to be entirely ‘at home’ within either modernity or anti-modernity” (51). For example, “radicalism and nostalgia were most clearly drawn together within the often uneasy combination of anti-technocratic pastoralism and avant-garde experimentalism found within the hippie and bohemian arts scenes of the 1960s and 1970s” (52). In addition, “nostalgia has had a somewhat mercurial presence within theorizations of postmodernism” which is often overlooked: one example is Wendy Wheeler’s 1994 essay “Nostalgia Isn’t Nasty,” which argued that nostalgia is a central feature of postmodernism (53). Nevertheless, nostalgia never became a central theme in postmodern discourse: 

it has been stereotyped by both postmodernists and Marxists as a sign of failure and conservatism. By approaching nostalgia through political history it becomes easier to see that any attempt to classify it as a symptom of postmodernism (or, indeed, of late modern Marxism) is unlikely to be satisfying. The politics of loss are chained to the politics of modernity. This also implies that the possibility of nostalgia’s reassertion in radical politics is best explained by reference to political change (such as the demise of communism) and chronic political dilemmas. (54)

According to Bonnett, “Contemporary British psychogeography may be viewed as a creative space where feelings of loss and redemption are explored and negotiated,” although the dilemmas “negotiated within this body of work are far from unique,” and there have been other “critical deployments of nostalgia by avant-garde groups” (54).

Bonnett turns to Iain Sinclair’s writing as one example of “a creative space where feelings of loss and redemption are explored and negotiated”: his “double mapping of modernity and loss is narrated as an engagement with alienating, often brutally instrumental, landscapes. These places (or non-places) offer disorientation and disharmony while establishing the necessity of resistance and human solidarity” (55). Bonnett argues that London Orbital is Sinclair’s “most revealing and edgy confrontation with the dilemmas of radical nostalgia” so far (55). His exploration of the M25 expressway (the “Orbital” of the book’s title)

both repudiates and welcomes its disturbance, its capacity to dehumanize and deracinate. The ceaseless motorway provides the kind of hostile terrain and antagonism to sentiment required by Sinclair, both explore the creativity born of disorientation and his own profound sense of loss. The road and its surrounding ‘retail landfill’ are used to experience the violence of modernity. It is a violence that lures those who find themselves in and against their era. (55)

Sometimes the tensions in Sinclair’s work are resolved through apocalyptic fantasies (57): “Visions of the doom of Western civilization combine the violence of modernity with a violence towards modernity. They are a familiar avant-garde trope. However, Sinclair’s work offers other, less cataclysmic resolutions. Indeed, his wanderings may be represented as a search for restorative and redemptive community” (57)—in Edge of the Orison, for example, which traces a journey made by poet John Clare (57). However, unlike Clare, “Sinclair never belongs. Indeed, he implies that belonging is now impossible. But this only intensifies his hunger for company, for a community of the dispossessed” (57). This Bonnett suggests, is the reason Sinclair walks with others (58). “It is in Edge of the Orison that Sinclair comes closest to the kind of heartfelt sense of remembrance that one always suspects lies just below the rather glassy façade of London Orbital,” Bonnett continues (58). 

“Reading Sinclair, one may wonder how his melancholic concerns could ever be compatible with the rhetoric of class struggle. Such an incongruous mix is precisely what can be witnessed within the agitational psychogeographical groups,” Bonnett writes (58). While editing a psychogeographical journal, he saw “the odd amalgam of preservationism and radicalism, modernism and anti-modernism . . . propelling psychogeographical activity” (59-60). The occultism of that era of psychogeography imagines the occult, and “other hidden forms and sources of power,” as “a class strategy, a technique of control in the management of the spectacle,” ideas that came to be called “magico-Marxism” (60):

As with many avant-garde interventions, magico-Marxism is determinedly disorienting: is is evasive, infuriating, constantly asking that we see the city in new, unexpected ways. However, I would also argue that the disorienting game played by these psychogeographical groups acted to conceal and cohere the tension between anti-nostalgia and nostalgia, modernist and anti-modernist politics, that animated their project. (60)

Magico-Marxism “combined communist militancy with a romanticization of landscape and memory” (60). Some psychogeographic groups romanticized decaying or abandoned landscapes while being hostile to the destruction of old buildings (62). Bonnett suggests that the impulse towards preserving old buildings, and a hostility toward the construction of new ones, indicates that “the relationship between radicalism and nostalgia is changing”: “The hostility to the past that shaped the socialist tradition from the late 19th century is no longer the force it was” (63).

In his conclusion, Bonnett writes,

Modernity turns the past into an arena of provocation and danger. Attachments to the past and feelings of loss become sites of repression and potent resources for resistance and critique. These processes can be seen at work across many political projects. However, they appear to have a uniquely troubled relationship with that set of ideas and ideals associated with the pursuit of equality and the critique of commercialization that we can, perhaps, still call radicalism. (63)

The different psychogeographies he has discussed “illustrate different ways the dilemmas of radical nostalgia have been negotiated” (64). In Sinclair’s writing, “the non-place urban realm becomes a site of creative purgatory, a necessary violence that simultaneously positions the writer as dependent upon and antagonistic to deracination and alienation,” while in what he has called “revolutionary psychogeography,” the “tension is organized around themes of communism, occultism and preservationism” (64) The result, however, “has a desperate quality: it wants to be communist but it no longer believes; it wants to articulate the sense of loss that sustains it, but it does not know how” (64). The impulse towards preservation of the built environment appears to many as culturally conservative, reflecting “a political paradigm that, although dominant, no longer inspires the automatic loyalty of creative radicals” (64). “With the collapse of communism and the widespread questioning of the sustainability of industrial modernity, the radical imagination has been profoundly challenged. Old assumptions and prejudices can be overturned. And not the least of these concern the role of the past in the politics of the present,” Bonnett concludes (64). “[T]oday the shame of nostalgia is fading. It is perhaps fitting that it is radicals at the most iconoclastic edges of political and cultural life who are beginning to grapple with the fact that the poetry of the future is no longer enough” (65)

Bonnett’s essay doesn’t resolve the tension between nostalgia and radicalism, but it doesn’t have to: it identifies that tension and shows examples of it within psychogeography, and that’s all Bonnett set out to do. His discussion of magico-Marxism is valuable, although my revulsion at the occultism of much of 1990s psychogeography is such that I’m unlikely to pursue that direction of research. In any case, I’m not sure that the tension between nostalgia and radicalism can be resolved—not at the present time. What is clear to me, though, is that I will need to understand more about nostalgia in order to explore my nostalgia for landscapes and histories I have never experienced. One place to begin, of course, is with Bonnett’s bibliography. Another place is by reading more Iain Sinclair, especially Edge of the Orison. Wouldn’t it be great to take a course on Sinclair? Or, even better, to teach one? Maybe someday. It’s possible, even if it feels unlikely.

Work Cited

Bonnett, Alastair. “The Dilemmas of Radical Nostalgia in British Psychogeography.” Theory, Culture & Society vol. 26, no. 1, 2009, pp. 45-70.

59. Deirdre Heddon and Cathy Turner, “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility”

walking women

As I’ve been working on this project, I’ve occasionally read things that made me stop and wonder how I’ve managed to do anything without having already read that text. One example of a text with that kind of power is Phil Smith’s book, Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking. Another is this relatively short article by Deirdre Heddon and Cathy Turner. I don’t know how I would have written the conference paper that I must write in the next week without reading this essay. In fact, I don’t know how I could carry on with this project without reading this essay. If Smith’s book, as I wrote in my summary, should have been the first thing I read, this article should have been the second. And honestly, it leaves me thinking that what I know about walking art couldn’t fill a sweat-stained Tilley hat.

According Heddon and Turner, “earlier theories and interpretations of walking continue to exert influence on cultural understandings of aestheticized walking, informing and shaping current knowledge”; the reiteration of a particular genealogy—“or fraternity”—that includes such figures as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau, André Breton, and Guy Debord, “generates an orthodoxy of walking, tending towards an implicitly masculinist ideology” (224). In that ideology, walking is framed and valued as “individualist, heroic, epic and transgressive,” and these qualities “are understood predominantly in relation to a historically masculinist set of norms” (224). “It is our proposition that a persistent iteration of these features marginalizes other types of walking practices and the insights they might prompt, a marginalization that this essay seeks to address,” Heddon and Turner write (224). Because women are conspicuously invisible in the canon of walking, they began their research project, “Walking Women”: “Having established, with relative ease, that many contemporary women artists use walking as an integral material to their art, in 2009 we walked with and talked to thirteen artists based in the UK, discussing in some detail their practices, motivations, and experiences, including their sense of walking as a woman” (225). They didn’t set out to identify a particular way of walking specific to women: “given that there is no singular ‘woman,’ there can be no such practice” (225). Nevertheless, they recognize that the body that walks can make a difference to the experience of walking (225). Moreover, they write, “setting the work we have encountered thus far beside persistent narratives of walking prompts a necessary and renewed attention to the relative and contextual—mobile—nature of concepts of freedom, heroism and scale, on the one hand, and to the relational politics that make up the spatial on the other” (225). 

First, though, they set out to summarize “the predominant and influential narratives attached to walking,” which are framed by “two enduring historical discourses: the Romantics and Naturalists, tramping through rural locations; and the avant-gardists, drifting through the spectacular urban streets of capitalism” (225-26). Two related sets of imperatives recur in both discourses: “seek out adventure, danger and the new; and release oneself from the relations of everyday life” (226). Both discourses tend to presume a universal walker, but “explicitly and implicitly the walker is typically male” (226). That walker is also completely free of any kind of relationship with others. Rousseau could only engage in contemplation while walking, and he needed to erase anything that reminded him of being dependent (226); Thoreau saw walking as a form of detachment from family and friends, a solo excursion into “the fields and woods” (226). “This might be dismissed as belonging to nineteenth-century chauvinism,” they write, “yet contemporary artists acknowledge a debt to past walkers”—Wrights & Sites, for instance, cite Thoreau’s words approvingly, for example, even though they are a mixed-gender group that often walks with family and friends (226). “This construction of walking as an act of heroic resistance to norms reappears in the postmodern figure of the rhizomatic nomad, pitted against the State and stasis,” they suggest (226). It is also close to Nicholas Bourriaud’s notion of the “radicant” artist, whose art is characterized by “‘wandering practices’ and journey-structures, refusing stable identity or location” (226).

A parallel legacy can be seen in psychogeography: the Situationists shared with the Romantics concepts of “adventure,” “newness,” and “freedom” (227): “The artist, set apart from the crowd, aims to shock us out of our commonplace perceptions into a revaluation of the everyday, reality itself” (227). Given their awareness of subjective experience, one might expect the Situationists to be aware of embodied experiences of space, but their “renderings of space, though complex, seem to fix it, as if space exists separate to its occupations”—that there is a possibility of accessing some form of “pure space” (227). Other psychogeographers, or walkers associated with psychogeography or cited by its practitioners as influences, repeat these ideas. Iain Sinclair, for instance, echoes the need for detachment and “proposes the possibility of being able to read the city as a text . . . without much concern for the specificity of one’s own body and cultural position” (227). Michel de Certeau also suggests that the city is a language that can be spoken by the walker—an idea that is resonant with Sinclair’s claims (227). However, geographer Doreen Massey rejects this notion of space, understanding it instead as “a ‘sphere of relations’” and calling for “a ‘relational politics of the spatial’” that is concerned with the construction of spatial relationships” (228). “Following Massey,” Heddon and Turner write, “we might suggest that the detachment implicit in Romanticism, Naturalism and avant-garde practices (and after them, contemporary psychogeography) refuses to recognize or take any responsibility for its implication in the construction of asymmetrical spatial power relations” (228). Once again, I am reminded that I need to reread Massey’s For Space; somehow, reading it in the context of Yi-Fu Tuan’s ideas about space and place, I missed its importance. (Plus, it’s a difficult book that undoubtedly will require more than one attempt.)

Situationist International member (and spouse of Guy Debord) Michèle Bernstein’s fictionalized account of walking in Nice and attracting unwanted male attention suggests that she was “acutely aware of the constitution of space as a constant, ongoing activity in which bodies are active and implicated” (228). In other words, Bernstein “locates her gendered self within the landscape—her experience as a woman standing in stark contrast to the masculinist presumptions so often iterated within the historical and contemporary explications of walking art” (228). In the remainder of their article, Heddon and Turner introduce various ways in which walking by women “offers possibilities for—and suggests the necessity of—revising and widening the discourses attached to walking, challenging critical orthodoxies” (228). Indeed, the frame of reference of aesthetic walking “might be productively unsettled” by this research (228)—and I would argue that this claim is borne out by their analysis.

First, they discuss questions related to so-called “epic” or “heroic” walking—terms I resisted when I read them in Smith’s book, because I understood them as critical evaluations rather than neutral descriptions. For example, two women artists they interviewed, Simone Kenyon and Tamara Ashley, walked the Pennine Way in 2007 as a durational art project, attempting “to stay attuned to the way the changing landscape made their (trained, dancers’) bodies feel,” and to the fact that they were walking as a duo (229). They had intended “to walk the path as dancers, noting relationships between space and movement and each other,” but male walkers often saw them as lesbians (intended as an insult), and they were exposed to “the persistence of certain ideological assumptions about appropriate places for women to walk, alongside appropriate types of walking for women” (229). “For this reason, we would propose that women’s ‘heroic walking’—walking that takes place on long-durational and geographical scale—is performative, claiming equal right for women to traverse the ‘wild,’ the open spaces,” Heddon and Turner write. “However, the ‘heroic’ attributes might also resonate doubly here, since the perceived risks of the ‘wild’ are gendered; part of the assumed threat for women is generated by the still-dominant cultural perceptions of the implicit threat of men” (229). “Ashley and Kenyon’s work prompts us to ask the difficult question whether women who walk in the ‘wild’ are considered especially heroic,” they continue; such questions are difficult, “because an affirmative answer reiterates cultural presuppositions about gender,” that women are vulnerable and victimized (229).

Another example of a woman engaged in epic walking is Linda Cracknell, who in 2007 undertook a dozen walks to gather material for a writing project, including a 200-mile walk on a Scottish drover’s road and a seven-day walk on the Camino Mozarabe in Spain. Cracknell recalls a phrase she heard repeatedly during the project: “God, you must be so brave” (229). “Rather than suggesting a greater scale of heroism for the female walker, it may well be more useful politically to draw attention to the many women who do undertake walking on this scale and emerge unscathed,” Heddon and Turner comment. “This might generate reassurance that the wild is neither more nor less dangerous to women than it is to men, which in turn may serve to rewrite the inscriptions of space and gender, as well as presumed walking competencies” (229). At the same time, however, they want to go beyond “adding women to a landscape from which they have been absented,” to problematize the values of scale and expose “the mobility and relationality of scales” (230). “For example,” they continue,

though Ashley and Kenyon have walked the Pennine Way, they also point out that on the long durational journey, walking becomes underscored as a repetitive and familiar action—simply one foot after another. The next move is defined. As they state, the long-distance path provided them with a long-term purpose and focus, a choreographic or action-score that guided them and pulled them along each day. In this way, Ashley and Kenyon represent the epic and heroic as in-step and co-incidental with the habitual and the known. (230)

Similarly, Cracknell walked everyday paths in a Kenyan village and made a short walk behind her home: “Contrasting with the narratives of discovery that are attached to the new and unfamiliar,” she suggests that such walking is like revision, that “[i]t is through rewalking, like rewriting, that original stories emerge” (230). All of Cracknell’s walks generated valuable stories, regardless of “their scale of distance covered,” and wherever she walked, she attended to “the details of the micro-landscape,” which “makes the smallest landscape gigantic”: “Attending to detail in this way equalizes walking practices and the focus is on the nearby—not the distant horizon (an open space to be conquered). Wherever one is walking, one is right here, on this foot of land” (230). Cracknell’s experience resonates with my own thinking on walking and place—that one needs to repeatedly encounter a place before one can truly come to know it. And I can confirm that Ashley and Kenyon’s experience of an epic walk as propelled forward by the repeated action of putting down one foot after another—a repetition that sometimes makes the attention Cracknell pays to her surroundings impossible—is absolutely correct. Sometimes, in fact, my walks are experiences of small gestures and tiny distances, in which I tell myself “you can stop at the next haybale,” or “one more kilometre,” or even “just a few more steps.” Focusing on the epic quality of a long walk misses the smallness of the steps which constitute it.

Artist Elspeth Owen is another walker engaged in long-distance, long-duration projects. However, her walks are structurally unpredictable—in other words, she doesn’t know where she is going when she begins. For example, in Looselink (2005), she invited 10 people—all but the first strangers to her—to give her messages to be hand-delivered to another person, who would give her another message, and so on: “In this way, Owen criss-crossed Britain, walking from her home in Cambridgeshire to Newcastle, to South Wales, to Norfolk, and finishing some three months later in Cornwall. Her walking served to create a network of eleven people” (230). Turner and Heddon write,

Whilst Owen is undeniably engaging with the epic, she simultaneously challenges notions of the heroic, solitary walker by inserting a gesture of intimacy into her work, becoming a “link” between people. Her inordinately personal touch reduces the epic to the local scale—one human to one human: one sender, one messenger, on recipient. This simple gesture serves to remind us that, irrespective of distances between, we are connected to each other. (230-31)

The paradox of Looselink, however, is that it’s the long distances between the people, the effort required to cross them, that gives her work its impact, “making the gesture of delivery profoundly committed rather than banal. The small scale gesture (the detail) depends on, is entangled with, the large scale action (the monumental)” (231). Adding to the heroic quality of the project is the fact that at the time Owen was in her seventies (231). However, Owen resists any notions of heroism:

she is adamant that her walking is not in any way related to endurance or suffering. She willingly accepts the kindness of strangers when offered (spare rooms and hospitality) and admits to carrying a large golfing umbrella in her rucksack (useful for shelter, to scare cattle, and as a walking stick). There seems an everyday pragmatism to Owen’s practice that deflates overblown concepts of the heroic—the single walker pitched against the enormity of the open lands—rescaling it in the process. (231)

“Owen, they conclude, “is simply going for a walk.” (231).

Other artists locate their practice in their local vicinity, problematizing the notion of “local,” which is often “tainted with notions  of the parochial” and “marked by the same cultural conceptions that enabled Thoreau to frame his ‘wilderness’ walks as more valuable than walks around a landscaped garden” (231). Notions of wild (or epic) and local are related to scale (and duration) (231). I was surprised to read that Debord’s “Theory of the Dérive” devalues the local (231-32)—I really will have to dig into the writings of the Situationists, won’t I? “The limits of Debord’s own perspective are apparent within the work of many contemporary artists who value the local and habitual,” Heddon and Turner continue, “while other work makes evident the ways in which specific roles and bodies shape the geographies of our lives” (232). For example, Dan Belasco Rogers and Sophia New of plan b, a duo based in Berlin, have recorded every journey they’ve made using GPS since 2007, and the resulting project, You, Me and Everywhere We Go, a visual exhibition of those recordings, “offers unique data concerning not only their habitual, everyday walking practices . . . but the differences between their movements while collaborating as artists, partners and parents” (232). Another example is Wrights & Sites split-screen video presentation that accompanied their performance-lecture Simultaneous Drift: 4 walks, 4 routes, 4 screens. In the video, the three male members of the group are walking in Exeter, Bristol and London, “walks characterized by spaces of sterility and frustration, as sites in the process of redevelopment are frequently barred, blocked or monitored,” while Cathy Turner attempts a dérive inside her house with her baby daughter (232). Turner had imagined that as a celebration of the domestic, but realizes that the results are sad and ambivalent, generating a sense of entrapment (232-33). “In these examples,” Turner and Heddon continue, “plan b and Wrights & Sites deliberately set the local/domestic and wide-ranging/public side by side” (233).

Another example is furnished by walkwalkwalk, a group of three women (Clare Qualmann, Gail Burton and Serena Korda) who map their own daily routes to define a triangle, hosting night walks on those routes twice a year (233). According to Turner and Heddon, walkwalkwalk “recognize the value of their local, habitual and everyday practice, seeing it as filled with immanent potential” (233). Their vision of walking as a web, rather than a single trajectory, “suits a walking philosophy that values the familiar, local, temporal and socio-cultural, as well as the unknown, immediate, solitary, wild—and indeed, finds them entangled with one another” (233). In a similar way, Emma Bush’s Village Walk (2008), based on her village in Devon, “was notable for the way it opened up unexpected spaces and connections within this village environment” (233). Bush’s research process took months and involved repeatedly walking a route with elders from the village, and alone (233). The final route linked the walking to the elders’ autobiographical stories (233-34). Indeed, relational aesthetics seem to be characteristic of work that is focused on the local, and when a critic or artist values relational aesthetics (as Smith does), then “epic” walking will tend to be dismissed. For instance, Misha Myers’s project Way From Home (2002), which was created for refugees living in Plymouth, 

reminds us of the always contextual nature of risk. Myers constructed a framework for walking, with the work actually being made by a collaboration between a single refugee and a single Plymouth resident. Refugees were invited to map a route from the place they considered home to a special place they often visited. They used these maps to then walk the city of Plymouth (their new “home”), accompanied by a city resident, transposing one set of landmarks onto another. (234)

The mismapping of space is a standard psychogeographical tactic, but that is not the purpose of this project: it is intended to bring refugees and residents together. However, Myers came to realize that this “seemingly simple formulation is not empty of risk, adventure or hazard to everybody”; women refugees were frequently unable or unwilling to participate in a walking partnership, preferring to participate in group walks among women of their own cultural group (234). According to Heddon and Turner, Myers’s and Bush’s work suggests that “rather than presuming a safety in the ‘local,’ we might usefully acknowledge and consider the value of risk attached to differently embodied experiences of place, to intimacy, to working in one’s own back yard, to finding oneself in someone else’s everyday” (234).

In fact, Heddon and Turner note that these examples, both the epic and the local, are about establishing relations, rather than escaping them (234). That realization “might lead us to conclude that women’s walking is predicated on relationships to a significantly greater degree than that of their male colleagues, and yet such an idea must be treated with caution, given the danger of essentializing and the complexity and range of contemporary practice” (235). After all, walking as “a convivial practice” (their lovely term to describe Myers’s project) can also be found in the work of Graeme Miller, PLATFORM (John Jordan and James Marriot), and Tim Brennan; it’s not necessarily “a gendered propensity” (235). They note,

While it may be easier to place men within histories and conventions of epic walking, discovery, and colonization and to place women within conventions of the companion, the domestic, the vulnerable and socially dependent traveller, both men and women are engaged in both sites and actions. And yet, if these convivial walks indicate a wider cultural shift towards relational or dialogical aesthetics, by no means exclusive to women, their preponderance draws attention to a need to consider what we mean by “relationship” and “dialogue,” rather than using these terms generically. (235)

“In contrast to Thoreau’s appeal to the ‘ideal walker,’” they continue,

in the work of these women artists we repeatedly encountered an embracing of “obligations” rather than their abandonment. This suggests, at the very least, the necessity of rethinking the relation of walking to relationships. Further, a willingness to acknowledge and exploit entanglement in community and coalition often locates the artist as mediator for communication between people and places, begging the question of whether this role is one reason these walkers are less visible? It is visible that in setting up convivial events, these artists are not the flâneurs, nor yet the Situationists, within, yet separate from, the ambulating crowd. They consider the crowd as their fellow walkers and companions. Some also recognized freedom in companionship—walking in a group, as walkwalkwalk does, opens up night time spaces that may otherwise be considered off-limits (certainly to many individual walkers). (235-36)

Many of the women walkers they interviewed are aware of the ways that “walking itself is framed, compromised and directed by what Rebecca Schneider refers to as ‘monumentality,’ the fixity of a patriarchal culture” (236). Walking, in that sense, 

might be a way of taking issue with constraints—with cultural assumptions about who can walk where, in what way, and with what value—but such constraints are never entirely absent. However uncompromising the walker, she is aware of the ways in which her body is complicit in maintaining the monumental, whether through an internalized fear of transgressing boundaries, whether through domestic constraints that keep her “local,” whether through the coding that makes her own body attract unwelcome attention or whether through cultural norms that constrain or alienate her geography. (236)

I need to read Schneider’s essay, I think; luckily (and for a change, to be frank), the book in which it is found is actually in the library here. 

Turner’s and Heddon’s interviewees acknowledge that anxiety infiltrates their practices (236). Indeed, “[d]espite the political optimism of these women, theirs tends towards a practice that does not offer wholesale alternatives or absolute freedoms (not even from representation and recuperation), since it observes the tensions within spatial practice and within subjectivity—our simultaneous resistance to and entanglement within macro structures” (236). So, Turner and Heddon propose that because problematizing binary scales (local/epic) and the values attached to them, or using walking as a “practice of relations, of social making,” recur within the practices they’ve researched, and because these themes “are not recurrent or even much in evidence in the existing critical evaluation of walking art” (236), new frames of reference are needed, ones “that allow for different engagements with walking art, and for different types of walks to be critically approached” (236). In fact, they argue that their research into the practices of women walking artists “draws attention to a set of possibilities that have not been sufficiently analysed or acknowledged, wherever they occur”:

the political potential of a walking that mobilizes social relationships, without aspiring to an idealized notion of the free man, or free-footed nomad, without the abstract freedom of the epic task, and without prioritizing or opposing distance and dislocation over locality and rootedness. Such walking troubles the values we continue to attach to singularity and to spatio-temporal scale, confirming that the former is illusory and the latter entirely relative. (236)

In other words, looking at the practices of women walkers could lead to a reconfiguration of the way aesthetic walking is theorized and understood.

There is so much to think about in this essay, and it is going to be at the centre of the paper I am about to write. I have a sense that I need to explain the ways that my walk last August was not a solitary experience, that I did engage with people during the walk, that relationships (however fleeting) were created. At least, that’s one of the things this essay leaves me thinking about immediately after having read it. Another reading will leave me thinking about other issues. That’s how this process works. In any case, I won’t be tossing this essay into the pile of things I’ve already read when I leave my studio tonight; no, I’ll be taking it home to reread tomorrow.

Works Cited

Heddon, Deirdre, and Cathy Turner. “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 2012, pp. 224-36.

Smith, Phil. Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Triarchy, 2015.

58. Tina Richardson, ed., Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography

walking inside out

Tina Richardson’s anthology Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography is one of the many books to which Phil Smith refers in Walking’s New Movements, his important discussion of walking as an aesthetic and political practice. I’m not a psychogeographer, but anyone who engages in what Smith calls “non-functional” walking needs to come to terms with psychogeography in some way, and this collection has helped me to begin doing that. I won’t be discussing every essay in the anthology here, just the ones I found useful or interesting (mainly the theoretical ones, although the reports of various dérives are helpful as well, since I’ve never deliberately engaged in that practice). But I can tell you that there is a lot of interesting work about walking in this book–even the essays I don’t talk about in this post.

In her introduction, Richardson suggests that psychogeography is simply an invitation to walk without a map in an unfamiliar space:

Psychogeography does not have to be complicated. Anyone can do it. . . . All you need is a curious nature and a comfortable pair of shoes. There are no rules to doing psychogeography—this is its beauty. However, it is this that makes it hard to pin down in any formalized way. It is also this ‘unruly’ character (disruptive, unsystematic, random) that makes for much discussion about its meaning and purpose, today more than at any other time. (1)

Her book, she continues, proposes to “open up the space that can be defined as psychogeography, providing examples and encouraging debate” (1). She acknowledges—as one must—the origins of the term in the writing of the Situationist International (SI), particularly the work of Guy Debord, and defines the practice as the “study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals” (1-2). Contemporary psychogeography, however, is heterogenous, even international: “The bricolage nature of psychogeography means that its influence for a specific group or individual will be vastly different from that of another” (3). Both definitions of the practice and the practices themselves will be different, so “[i]t might be better to think of the historic influences of urban walking practices as being a kind of toolbox for contemporary psychogeographers” (3). All of the authors in this book practice urban walking as a way to respond to the environment actively, rather than passively, although their methods differ; this book therefore “illustrates the variety of approaches and outputs of the walking practice” (4). Richardson notes that the book brings together pyschogeographers who come from creative or literary backgrounds with academics, but cautions that most psychogeographers are not academics, and that writing by urban walkers often is disseminated in forms that lack value in an academic setting, such as zines and blogs (4-5). 

Richardson notes that, in his book Cityscapes: Cultural Readings in the Material and Symbolic City, Ben Highmore uses the term “thickness”—following anthropologist Clifford Geertz?—“to describe a depth of description attached to cultural spaces” as well as the complexity of the city and subjective responses to its spaces (5). Highmore and others use the terms “affect” and “aesthetics” to refer to the psychological and individual reactions of walkers to spaces and environments, issues which are the “bread and butter” of psychogeography, its output (5). The emphasis on subjectivity can mean that psychogeographical writing can “appear to be at odds with academic writing,” and that sometimes “a space has to be carved out within academia to accommodate new types of writing and enable disruptive ‘situations’ to arise, challenging well-established conventions and provoking discussion” (5). That range of writing styles is reflected in Walking Inside Out.

This anthology, Richardson contends, “is designed to reflect the broad field of urban (also suburban and at times rural) walking in Britain today and to promote discussion on whatever it is we might see psychogeography as being and becoming,” and she encourages readers “to define their own form of psychogeography or use one of the many definitions included herein and to debate the merits of psychogeography and how we might put it to use in the twenty-first century” (5). Facilitating that debate is the purpose of the book (5). She acknowledges that urban walking and psychogeography are not synonyms: “some psychogeographers do countertourist activities, which stray into more rural areas. Also, one might do a walk that crosses urban, suburban, or rural boundaries, so can we fairly say that we are not doing psychogeography at the point we cross these nebulous lines?” (6). Nick Papadimitriou, for example, in his book Scarp, focuses on the English county that used to be called Middlesex, which is urban and suburban but also includes Greater London’s Green Belt (6). Papadimitriou was inspired by Gordon S. Maxwell’s The Fringe of London: Being Some Ventures and Adventures in Topography (6). W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is another instance, a psychogeographical book covering the country of Suffolk (7). Despite those examples, the question of whether psychogeography can be conducted in rural areas continues to be raised. Richardson thinks it can. She notes that Howard F. Stein’s book Developmental Time, Cultural Space: Studies in Psychogeography and the book he edited with William G. Niederland, Maps from the Mind: Readings in Psychogeography, suggest that psychogeography is a Freudian look at space, a consideration of the inner life of the individual and an examination at what connects people to place and how geography, urban or rural, make people who they are (6). Besides, there is little untouched “nature” left in rural spaces in the UK; it’s what geographers call “second nature”—land that has been worked on by humans (6-7). “While the term psychogeography has generally been applied to urbia and can be a convenient way to differentiate the walking from that carried out in the countryside, its urban and rural deconstruction is just one of the qualities that adds to its undefinable character,” she concludes (7).

Psychogeography is interdisciplinary and can draw from many sources, including the work of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, whose theories of micro-politics and bio-politics are a useful critique of the body in space, which “anyone interested in walking and power might find helpful in applying to walking practices” (7). Other examples include human geographer Bradley Garret’s book Explore Everything: Place-Hacking in the City (2013), philosopher Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking (2014), sound artist David Prescott-Steed’s The Psychogeography of Urban Architecture (2013), Phil Smith’s On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald (2014), and Michel de Certeau’s essay “Walking in the City” (7-8). Richardson suggests that Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space “supplies with terms that enable us to analyse urban space and the practices that are involved in it” (8), and that geographer David Harvey’s homage to Raymond Williams, “Space as a Keyword” is important: 

Harvey breaks down space into absolute, relative and relational. Both Lefebvre’s and Harvey’s frameworks allow for methods of categorizing space that highlight a place that can appear at once dominant or rigid but also subjective or fluid, allowing room for negotiation or even appropriation. And one of the ways these challenges to space can take place is through the performative act of walking. (8-9)

She also includes a list of bloggers on walking and psychogeography, which is worth following up on (9).

Richardson then provides a a short history of contemporary psychogeography in the UK (9), beginning with Iain Sinclair, the most high-profile British psychogeographer (9). Sinclair’s writing is often criticized as nostalgic, but she notes that nostalgia was recognized by the Situationists, who argued that charming ruins were not charming (10). Richardson is particularly interested in the literary tradition of psychogeography: J.G. Ballard, Sinclair, films by Chris Petit and Patrick Keiller (12-13), and visual artists such as Richard Long, Wrights & Sites, and arts collective C.Cred, particularly their work Counter Cartographies, a series of walks in London (13-14). Many psychogeographical groups have emerged since the 1990s, publishing their work in zines and reports (14). She discusses Papadimitriou’s notion of  “deep topography,” a way of finding the overlooked without becoming “touristic” (15). 

While “deep topography” “highlights the political dialectic of the other as being outside, located in urban space,” Richardson continues, “it should be noted that the other is also an issue for the inside of psychogeography, both from the perspective of the gender bias toward male psychogeographers and the imposition of power in space itself as it is directed at the urban walker, whatever his or her gender” (15). Indeed, psychogeography is a masculine tradition, perhaps linked to colonization of space and discovery of New World, “a domination of space that creates an order out of chaos that is oriented in the lack of an anthropological understanding of other cultures” (15). For that reason, walker and writer Laura Oldfield Ford doesn’t like her work being described as psychogeography—she is not a middle-aged man playing at being a colonial explorer (15). However, other women do consider their urban walking to be a form of psychogeography (15)—including Richardson herself. She gives many examples of women psychogeographers, including Michèle Bernstein, Debord’s wife, who was a rare woman member of the Situationists (16), and notes that both men and women are subject to power structures if they don’t fit the model of a certain type of citizen (16). Acknowledging those power structures is a central aspect of psychogeography: “Psychogeographers have to decide what boundaries they are prepared to cross, legal or physical, in order to find their ‘story’” (17).

Psychogeographers seek the truths of the city, and while such truths are multiple, there are some “universal qualities that are representative of many psychogeographers” (17). For example, their connection with terrain is more focused than casual strollers, and they become both critics of the space under observation while simultaneously experiencing it in a sensorial way; according to Richardson, “[t]he space becomes momentarily transformed through this relationship. The psychogeographer recognizes that they are part of this process, and it is their presence that enables this recognition to occur” (17-18). The form and purpose of the critique of topology and topography will depend on individual walker—possibly connecting with the space through a text, possibly philosophical or theoretical scrutiny of particular objects, or a political assessment of power structures, or a challenge to those power structures, but all of these approaches involve viewing in a new way what is often seen as natural or normal or ordinary (18). Richardson emphasizes the importance of political engagement: “If a psychogeographer is not revealing the hidden topographical layers of social history or questioning the physical manifestation of some capitalist edifice or other, is psychogeography actually taking place?” she asks (18). One isn’t a psychogeographer because one walks, she contends; one walks because one is a psychogeographer. The psychogeographer’s subjectivity and the reasons for walking are central to the practice (19).

“The beauty of the inexact art that is psychogeography, appearing in the innumerable forms that it has historically taken and continues to display, attests to the durability and relevance of it today. It can be crafted, manipulated and even reappropriated to suit your particular needs,” Richardson concludes:

It can be carried out fundamentally, creatively, or ironically. And it can be picked up and put down like a handy implement that helps you metaphorically whittle away the parts of the urban space of which you disapprove, rather like the SI did with their maps. Psychogeography is continually being reworked, reflected upon and reimagined. It has the ability to absorb the urban space it occupies, situating itself sociopolitically and creatively employing innumerable ways to express itself. (25)

The essays she has collected reflect the range of possibilities inherent in the term “psychogeography.”

In the book’s first section, “The Walker and the Urban Landscape,” Roy Bayfield’s “Longshore Drift: Approaching Liverpool from Another Place” is a report of a walk along the River Mersey from Antony Gormley’s statues Another Place to Edge Hill University research site—in other words, from art to science (32). Bayfield likes the term “Aeolian research,” the notion of being directed by Aeolus, the god of winds, and this notion becomes one of the central themes of his dérive (33). He begins by contemplating the Gormley statues: there are 100 figures, modelled on the artist’s body, facing out to sea, installed over two miles of beach (34). These statues enable multiple readings: they are considered to be a tourist draw and a boost to the local economy and image of Liverpool (34), and their original intended location, the mouth of the Elbe River, a busy shipping area, suggests an undercutting of transcendent or romantic readings the figures might otherwise invite (35). He also notes the playful subversions of the sculptures he has seen—some end up wearing scarves, glasses, hats—and that all of them are slowing rusting away, succumbing to time (35-36).

“Drifting along the beach, we scanned the ground looking for signs”—in other words, like other psychogeographers, the walk is also a reading of objects on the beach for hidden or mythological significance (36). The city seems to fade away, but then it reappears in ruined form: a beach made of bricks and carved stone windows and lintels, rubble dating back to 1942, when bomb-damage debris was dumped there, a practice which continued until the 1970s (37-38). Bayfield suggests that the location felt like Doreen Massey’s description of space as “the sphere of dynamic simultaneity” (qtd. 38) and “included shifting, emergent relations with elements of the environment, with passersby, with each other; the focusing of perception involved in our psychogeographic practice invoking a kind of estrangement, as if we were literally passing through ‘holes,’ walking through ‘disconnections’” (38). He experiences a similar sense of complexity at the Devil’s Hole on Formby Sands, a large, a raised crater created by the wind but that originated in the explosion of a German bomb in 1940 or 1941 (38-39). Finally, he meets the science students, who are surveying the sand, part of a project to create a 3-D model of the coast to help monitor the way it changes over time (39). Science, as “documentation, quantification, the creation of an objective record,” is the reverse of the Gormley sculptures, which set out to explore the human relationship with nature (39).

Months later, Bayfield is drawn back to the area, but this time he walks into rather than out of the city (39). There is litter everywhere: “For some reason the footpaths, towpaths and disused railways via which I had entered towns and cities always seemed to be covered in litter, the lesser-used pedestrian routes acting as a manifestation of an urban subconscious” (40). He passes dock buildings: warehouses, factories, and silos, which feel : “distant from the beach of subjectivity” where the Gormley statues are installed (40). He sees hills of recycled metal, a poster of a Francis Bacon painting of a sitting figure screaming, and a dead pigeon: “Despite these dystopian props, I found this locale quite jolly, perhaps because it reminded me of the south coast port town where I grew up,” he writes, partly because he found “something exhilarating about the vast piles of raw materials, the sense of movement, of the ingredients that had sustained my half-century as a baby boom-born consumer” (41). Finally, he enters an area under redevelopment where there are other walkers and glass office towers (41-42). “My playful drifts had certainly been in search of vision, of sidestepping dominant narratives of place without seeking specific counternarratives, just an embodied, partial, momentary view of what was there, trying, at least, to drop some layers of privileged subjectivity and thus ‘see from the peripheries,’” he contends, paraphrasing Donna Haraway’s 1991 book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (42). In a nearby pub, he considers what he had observed: “Endless movement. Coastlines and rivers shift, bombs fall, towers rise into the sky, cargo moves, metal eyes rust. Zones are established, boundaries set and breached in an ongoing process of interpenetration. Sand, dust and debris blow alongshore in planetary time. Signs and meanings coalesce and evaporate” (43)—ideas that pick up on his Aeolian theme. When I finished Bayfield’s essay, I thought, “so that’s a dérive—or at least one version of a dérive, a primarily individual exploration of space, whereas I had thought dérives were always supposed to be conducted by groups. 

Bayfield’s urban walk is the opposite of the one described by Ian Marchant in “Walking the Dog (For Those Who Don’t Know How to Do It).” Marchant claims he’s not a psychogeographer: his writing is “too full of people or too full of rambling anecdotes about my nocturial adventures,” and he’s not interested in cities (47). He lives in Presteigne, a a little town in Wales, and he was born and raised in the countryside, in a house on the boundary of the South Downs National Park (48). “Cities are not my bag,” he states (48), acknowledging that if he didn’t have a dog, he would never walk anywhere: “I’m a countryman and we get about by car, except when visiting friends from the city insist on ‘going for a walk’” (48). Nor is Presteigne much of a site for psychogeographical exploration (48). There is a social housing estate, and the town’s aluminum casting factory closed the previous year and was torn down, causing high unemployment, and while young people move away and are replaced by retirees and local farmers are desperately poor, he’s not interested in the town’s dark side (48-49): 

I don’t walk that way. That isn’t my story to tell. Maybe it was once, but it isn’t now. Now I’m a writer, a broadcaster, a university lecturer, and when I walk the dog, I want a straightforwardly pleasant walk, one on which I’m highly likely to meet friends but unlikely to come across broken glass, which might incur vet’s bills. I am as far from Guy Debord or Sinclair and Self or Stewart Home and the magico-Marxists as it is possible to be. (49)

Marchant does like Nick Papadimitriou’s notion of “deep topography,” an intimate rather than alienated relationship with landscape, however: “A reinvention of topography sounds called for to me” (49). But he admits that he likes the countryside because it’s beautiful, and the razed factory and rural poor aren’t the only story that can be told about it: “White, middle-aged, middle-class people have a story to tell, too. Concentrating on the dark underbelly of country life is a means of urbanizing the countryside. White, middle-aged, middle-class people like me live in the countryside because it is nice” (49). Still, if he can’t be a psychogeographer, he would like his approach to be deep topography, if that means “an intimate rather than an alienated relationship with landscape” (49), so he is going to write what he knows: his daily walk with his dog through Presteigne (49). However, Marchant decides to borrow one element from the early Debordist psychotravellers: he gets high before going for his walk (50). He notes that Debord came up with the term psychogeography after smoking hashish and getting lost in a park, and that Debord’s first dérive through Paris happened when he was very drunk (50): “The point is still, it seems to me, that landscape is altered by consciousness, and that by altering our consciousness, we alter the landscape” (50). I’m not convinced that altering his consciousness has much of an effect on Marchant’s walk: he describes the houses and buildings he passes and their historical significance, but he always notes whether or not his dog relieves herself in front of them. Nor does he entirely avoid the town’s dark side: he notes that there are many immigrants living in the community, and that some residents hate them (54). Still, his focus is on the positive: he knows many people in the community, and any walk down the high street becomes a series of long conversations (55-56), and he suggests that Presteigne resembles J.R.R Tolkien’s Hobbiton and that he’s happy to stay there; then he heads home for a cup of tea (58).

I skipped an essay on Papadimitriou’s Scarp—I’ll read that book first—and arrived at Alastair Bonnett’s “Walking through Memory: Critical Nostalgia and the City.” Bonnett suggests that his purpose is to explore “how nostalgia for the city shapes the way we use it and think about its future”—in other words, “how fond memories and a sense of loss among ex-residents shape their movement within and relationship to the city” (75). He argues that psychogeography was born with a sense of loss for the city: the Situationists’ relationship with Paris was “framed and informed by the confluence of revolutionary and nostalgic sentiment”—a sense that the “intimate and organic Paris of the bohemian and working-class community” was “under assault by the forces of banalization and modernization,” as the inner-city working-class population was uprooted and massive housing developments constructed on the outside of the city and ancient markets demolished. (75-76) All of this “signalled to the Situationists the dawn of a homogenized, passionless and historically brainwashed city” (76). Bonnett also argues that, in Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem’s writing, what is articulated is “a nostalgia for the authentic attachments and political memories contained in buildings and streets that have witnessed past conflicts,” a mourning for the loss of “popular memory” (76); the suppression of the street was the Situationists’ favourite illustration of the extinction of popular memory (76). “The SI’s attachment to the Paris of intimate streets and their search for more authentic and passionate relationships to place were reflected in their footloose (and foot-based) geographical praxis,” Bonnett suggests (76), and their intense desire for a passionate connection to the city a produce of “the anger and melancholy of loss” (77). Nostalgia, then, “played a creative and productive role in shaping the Situationists’ hostile attitude toward late modernity and the ‘society of the spectacle’” (77).

Bonnett’s research among older people who have left the city of Newcastle but live nearby is a comparator with the Situationist psychogeographers: one is an example of avant-garde radicalism, the other of conservatism (77). They should have nothing in common, but “both employ and deploy images of the past to offer a critical perspective on the banalizing and inauthentic nature of urban modernization, and they both privilege passion and popular memory over mere aesthetics and walking, and intimate scales of urban attachment over modernist grand plans” (78). Through interviews and getting subjects to draw mental maps of the city, marking places and routes they liked and those they avoided on maps of the city (78-79), Bonnett learned what his research participants were nostalgic about. But first, some context for the research:

Over the past fifty years, Newcastle has been through several periods of widespread demolition and rebuild, although the retail centre remains largely Georgian. However, around this small core, there has been intensive redevelopment in the east and west central parts of the city. (78)

That redevelopment has included the construction of a large shopping centre, a highway, and two universities (78). “Conservationism had a relatively low profile until the early 1980s,” he continues. “Since then, a number of conservation-led policies and initiatives have emerged, although they have mostly focused on the retail core” (79). Nevertheless, the redevelopment process has seen working-class neighbourhoods demolished and replaced and their residents displaced, a process that continues, as “the city remains a site of near-continuous large-scale redevelopment, and what remains of the old urban fabric continues to be eroded through either ‘facadization’ or demolition” (79).

What were participants nostalgic for? They missed “the lively bustle of family-run and otherwise unique shops,” including old-fashioned pubs (79). They sensed that the city had lost something of its individuality, and their anger at such losses tempered by hope that local authorities becoming more sensitive to the value of the past (80-82). “Nostalgia shaped respondents’ use of the city through their use of routes and places that they turned to and returned to because of a sense of attachment to the old city,” Bonnett argues, and “this attachment was not an instrumental form; rather, it offers an enactment of a loving relationship to the city” (82). That love, he contends, is a theme found in Situationist psychogeography: “the need for a passionate, loving relationship with place” (83). Indeed, his participants spoke of “a critical but passionate relationship” with Newcastle (84). According to Bonnett, “it has become possible to see the nostalgic content of radical politics as a chronic dilemma rather than a form of ethical and political failure” (84):

The Situationists and the avant-garde world they inhabited, with its certainties and self-confidence, are gone. But the paradoxes of their nostalgic radicalism remain. These are being worked through in a variety of different ways. An openness to the power of the past is a characteristic of the neo-psychogeographical groups that developed magico-Marxism in the 1990s . . . as well as literary psychogeography (best exemplified in the work of Iain Sinclair) and the ‘urban explorers’ of the late 2000s and 2010s. Yet the same period is also seeing more far-reaching reassessments of nostalgia, reappraisals that both question and connect conservatism and ultraradicalism. Nostalgia is being interrogated as an inherent and productive aspect of the modern imagination. . . . The a priori categorization of nostalgia as irremediably passive, conservative, or uncreative may still be commonplace, but it is starting to look like a dated and simplistic view of the world. With these developments comes the possibility of bringing previously disconnected communities of psychogeographical knowledge into dialogue, at least into a comparative analysis. (84-85)

The  “intimate, street-based engagement with the city they love,” he concludes, offers “a set of challenges and practices that suggest a different and unfamiliar (at least within the literature on psychogeography) kind of psychogeographical paradigm,” one “based not on avant-garde discordancy and extremism but on everyday experience and ordinary needs. Perhaps for these very reasons it is an enduring commitment” (85).

Phil Wood begins “Selective Amnesia and Spectral Recollection in the Bloodlands” with a personal mystery: “Why I should spend my time walking around places that most people would choose to avoid has never been entirely clear to me” (89). Nevertheless, he does believe, following Sinclair, that “the act of walking, or purposeful drift, is the route to revelation” (89). He also believes that “the greatest spectral potential” lies in “the places of past or recent tumult,” so in the UK he is drawn to remnants of the Industrial Revolution,” and to eastern Europe, the places Timothy Snyder calls “the Bloodlands,” places “where past and present still coexist in a more dynamic and occasionally dangerous relationship” (89-90). Wood describes his essay as 

an account of my unaccompanied walks, imaginings and hauntings through the cities of Odessa and Lviv in Ukraine. I have chosen them specifically because each has experienced trauma, absence and loos and is in some sense a “wounded city” . . . and yet each has amnesia and has been quite selective in what it has remembered and forgotten or even removed from the record, making for a disjointed and only partial therapy. (90)

Wood’s influences include Sinclair, Sebald, and Papadimitriou, and he is encouraged by Sebald’s statement about looking for invisible connections that determine our lives (90). He also notes that “Walter Benjamin was the first to teach me that ‘progress’ is a dubious notion and that life and history rarely unfold in an orderly fashion” (90), and that Jacques Derrida’s book Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International leads to  “a deeper understanding of the spectral” (90). Derrida coined the term “hauntology” “to suggest that the present can only exist with respect to the past” (90). After 1989, Derrida “asserted that wilful forgetfulness of negligence of recent traumas would return to haunt the new regimes, providing the impetus for future turbulence” (90-91). Derrida’s book is Wood’s main theoretical touchstone.

Wood goes on to describe his walks in Odessa and Lviv. In Odessa, he begins in the area around his hotel a scrubby woodland with hidden ruins, Soviet construction, a place intended for pleasure, with a bandstand, benches, fountains (91). He imagines visiting a spa there and meeting people—an imagining that is a form of appropriation, and not something I would ever engage in: in fact, much of his report is a construction of the lives of imaginary war veterans, spectres he thinks he senses but actually (let’s be honest) simply imagines. This is a side of psychogeography I find troubling. The area is apparently called “Arkadiya” (92)—an irony in contemporary Odessa—and when Wood realizes that homeless, destitute people live in the ruins, and he leaves, “not wishing to impose myself as a gawping intruder in their world” (94). 

The war and the disappearance of the city’s Jews are the trauma the city conceals. In Odessa, many Jews fled with the retreating Soviet army; the ones who stayed weren’t murdered by the Nazis, but by the Romanian troops that occupied Odessa (95). Wood notes that Jews were denounced by their Gentile neighbours, who went on to loot their property (95). This is an aspect of Odessa’s history not acknowledged today in either Romania or Odessa; the city’s only Holocaust memorial, on a busy street, is poorly maintained, and its inscription only reminds visitors of the crimes committed by the Nazis, not by the Romanians or Odessans; in fact, it’s a memorial to the Ukrainians who tried to save Jews; “A little like the postwar Germany as described by Sebald . . . which collectively failed to talk about its own trauma and complicity, there is much that Odessa has yet to address” (95).

Wood leaves Odessa for Lviv, where his walk follows a long curve from the original Old Town Square, through Pidzamche, back through the west side of town to Kropyvnytskogo Square (96). Today, he writes, the city is “largely monoethnic and monolingual,” but in the past, it was multicultural. “This uniformity reflects a terrible decade of liquidation and forced deportation from which virtually no section of Lviv’s citizenry was immune”: the Nazis murdered Jews, the Soviets murdered and deported ethnic Poles and Ukrainians, and there was also “a particularly vicious local war between Poles and Ukrainians”—the Poles who survived were deported to Poland in the late 1940s, while Ukrainians living within the new borders of Poland were deported, and many came to Lviv (96). “But you’d be forgiven for not knowing any of this, as there really are few public or officially sponsored acknowledgements that Lviv ever was anything but a bastion of Ukrainian national purity,” Wood writes (96). If you look carefully, however, you can see “ghost signs,” in German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, on the buildings (96). Wood wandered around, alone, wondering about the histories of the buildings (97). He discusses a statue commemorating warlord Stepan Bandera, “a genocidal psychopath and dictator manqué,” and he’s shocked that “a city that claims to embrace the values of liberal cosmopolitan Europe” should erect such “an ugly, gloating edifice” (99-100). Perhaps, though, in a city whose memory has been stolen such glorification is not surprising, he continues: “where leaders to not take responsibility and information is not freely available, the human mind has an ability to fill the void with nonsense,” such as the results of a 2000 survey in Lviv which asked residents about the percentage of the city’s population that were Jewish: people thought 18.7 percent, but in fact the true figure was 0.2 percent (100). “The failure to recognise death as death produces the uncanny,” he concludes. “When the dead are not properly buried and mourned, they turn into the undead” (100). But, he asks, “Who, after all, am I to reproach anyone on whose truth and which reality to adopt?” (100-101).

The notion of a geographical unconscious is interesting and potentially fruitful, but as I was asked during a seminar paper on the East German writer Christa Wolf’s novel Patterns of Childhood and Gabriele Schwab’s book Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma, where is that unconscious located? I had no answer: from a strictly Freudian perspective, that unconscious must be metaphorical, but most writers who expand the term beyond Freud’s location of it in the individual psyche don’t treat it as a metaphor.

I skipped an essay on Arthur Machen and another about walking in graveyards and arrived at “Psychogeography Adrift: Negotiating Critical Inheritance in a Changed Context,” by Christopher Collier, which addresses the debate on the political “recuperation” of psychogeography. Collier disagrees with both sides of this debate: “the ‘literary’ conception of psychogeography as an artistic tradition not only tends to disavow its radical Marxist heritage but also fails to account for the conditions of its 1990s reemergence, fundamentally based as they were in social praxis and politicized material culture,” and those who deny psychogeography’s “‘literary’ or ‘artistic’ dimension as recuperation,” “implying a fall or troubling deviation from definitive political origins,” miss the practice’s “emergence and proliferation” (131). “Focusing on psychogeography as a primarily critical practice that has been recuperated potentially fails to acknowledge its immanent, open and prefigurative dimensions,” ignores developments since the 1950s, and “risks trapping psychogeography in the ideology critiques of a former age” (131). Collier’s argument is that “psychogeography is literary but in an iterative, excessive sense—as what one might tentatively call ‘infraliterary,’ that is ‘literature’ as a material, social activity and a condition of possibility for collective subjectivation and resistance” (132). By “infraliterary,” Collier is suggesting “the submerged, amorphous, material basis of communication networks and everyday resistance,” using the term “samizdat” as a metaphor (132). That kind of psychogeographical writing “has functioned as the material cultural and social basis that nourishes psychogeography’s more visible literary or artistic ‘tradition’” (132). According to Collier, “the material form of psychogeographic praxis destabilizes fixed ontologies of enclosure and recuperation, in a sense exceeding ontological questions, whether of origin or of nature, in favour of strategic, de- and recompositional ones. Paradoxically, this might entail looking at origins and definitions if only to disprove their legitimacy” (132). 

Psychogeography, as a term, carries with it a lot of baggage, including the traces of the Situationists on psychogeography, which are “like radiation,” proving “stubborn, powerful and sometimes unpredictable” (132-33). The popularity of psychogeography causes some to argue that “it has been ‘recuperated’—defused and diffused into the ‘spectacle’ of capitalist cultural discourse and commodity production,” and therefore “stripped of critical power” (133). According to that argument, psychogeography should be dead—but it isn’t (133). “So which is it: dead or alive?” he asks. “Again one is presented with this constant doubling and instability; psychogeography continually seems to present as dialectical, yet remains forever troubled by its own destabilization, the dialectic made unstable by the radioactive traces that haunt it” (134). Collier proposes that 

the apparently vital problem of psychogeography’s pulse contains within it the answer, and this answer is the deferral to a different register and in many ways a more profound problem. The register is that of the political, and the problem becomes no longer the binary one of whether psychogeography is dead or alive, recuperated or true to some foundational purity, or even whether art can kill the Situationist International. . . . The question is better posed as whether psychogeography—this playful concept defined by a game designer and a self-proclaimed strategist—can be strategically operative, or, instead, whether it must concede game over. (134)

He argues that, for Debord, psychogeography “a dialectical sublation of . . .the surrealists. There was thus no total break between surrealism and the SI; the difference was one of strategic orientation”—“through a revolutionary praxis” it would be taken to the streets with the goal of transforming them—so its origins are neither and both literary and nonliterary: “Paradoxically, therefore, those seeking to return to an originary, ‘radical’ and purely political psychogeography can only end up disproving the very possibility” (136). In other words, psychogeography “has always been ‘literary’ but also excessive and irreducible” (136); it is both praxis but also “its literary articulation can be understood as the material conditions of its citability, complicating any simple dichotomy between words and practice, original and copy” (136).

Next, Collier turns to psychogeography’s “infraliterary” literature. “Psychogeography maintains a radical potentiality, precisely through a proliferation of infraliterary citations and iterations that keep it open to strategic reconfiguration and recomposition,” he writes (138). Its reemergence in the 1990s was “part of a proliferating infraliterature” (138). That renewal would not have happened without the possibilities for oppositional politics that grew within “the international Mail Art movement and a burgeoning alternative press between the 1970s and 1990s” (138). Situationist ideas were disseminated in punk and post-punk social networks and independent publications (139). He also notes the importance of Stewart Home and his collaborator Fabian Tompsett in uniting and deconstructing the various strands of the Situationists’ legacy (140). They reinterpreted the practice “through intentionally convoluted occultist narratives, provocatively wedded to a humorous appropriation of revolutionary tropes and language,” resulting in “magico-Marxism,” a term coined by Alastair Bonnett, a “‘mythopoeisis’” that “was a ‘satirical deconstruction’ of both esoteric conspiracies and a dogmatic adherence to leftist political ontologies and grandiose, teleological posturising” that echoed Robert Anton Wilson and “guerilla ontology,” another influence on 1990s psychogeography (141).

However, Collier writes, “[t]he underground that sustained the 1990s psychogeographic revival is now more or less decomposed” (143). “The problem becomes, therefore, not how to reinvent or revive psychogeography,” he concludes, “but rather how to maintain and sustain the increasingly fragmented and enclosed social and material base from which not just psychogeography but a variety of other, perhaps more urgent, political recompositions might emerge” (143). New formations and ideas will be created, in other words; prepare to be surprised.

In “Confessions of an Anarcho-Flâneuse, or Psychogeography the Mancunian Way,” Morag Rose describes her experience in the Loiterers Resistance Movement (LRM), a Manchester-based psychogeography collective (147). Rose believes in “the multisensual interaction produced through walking and its capacity to generate a relationship between self, space and left-behind traces: the reason I believe walking has terrific power as a kinaesthetic learning tool” (147). When the LRM was founded, she was burned out by conventional activism and “wanted to explore the use of psychogeography as a participatory tool to disseminate radical theories and stimulate critical debate” (147-48). She believed in loitering “as a form of stealth politics that hid its intention under ludic joy, inspired in part by the imperfect avant-garde neo-Marxism of the Situationists” (148). For Rose, “psychogeography primarily offered a form of public engagement with radical theory that was fun, irreverent and active, a praxis developed out of a desire to find appealing methods to critique the hegemonic view of the city” (148). “More than any lecture or printed text, I believe walking as a methodology offers powerful impact and relevance, affording us a deeper appreciation of the nuances of our city,” she contends (149-50), arguing that it’s important “to blur the boundaries between activists, academics and artists” (150) This is “a key strength of the Situationist International’s philosophy and fundamental to a politicized psychogeography,” which she takes from Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (150).

Rose rejects the label “flâneur,” “because a working-class, queer, disabled woman does not have the affordances of Benjamin’s privileged subject,” but she has adopted some of the flâneur’s habits, particularly slowness (149).“Walking and playing should not be radical, but they can become so in a city designed for commerce and speed,” she writes (149). Moreover, she writes,

I have a deep desire to democratize the practice of the dérive and reclaim it from the occult and for all classes and genders; an activist class or an artistic elite is as damaging as a cabinet full of millionaires. An uncomfortable undercurrent of misogyny and neocolonialism lurks within much psychogeography and has since its inception. (150)

The LRM is a challenge to that misogyny and neocolonialsm and provides a walkable alternative (150). Their dérives are a nonhierarchical process, coproduced by participants, movement directed by consensus (151). 

Rose’s own walking influences include walkwalkwalk, Lottie Childs, Laura Oldfield Ford, and Phil Smith (151). She believes that the dérive “can create a temporary autonomous zone, a space of inspiration, imagination and emergent possibilities” (152). She uses a variety of ways to facilitate dérives, “including algorithmic walks, transposing maps, throwing dice, concentrating on specific senses and the use of what Phil Smith calls ‘catapults’ as stimuli” (152). She has also practiced other more formally ludic interventions, such as the game of CCTV bingo (152). The purpose of such games is “to provoke mindfulness and ask questions rather than simply condemn” (152); they are intended to be playful rather than pedagogical (152). 

“Like many psychogeographers,” Rose states, “we tend to gravitate to edgelands and liminal spaces, to seek out blurry and forgotten places where cobbles peek out from under tarmac and buddleia (surely every postindustrial city’s patron plant) bloom triumphantly after breaking through concrete and rust” (154). Again with the buddleia: Smith writes about it in Walking’s New Movement, and I’m missing some vital aspect of that plant’s meaning in the UK. “Even on Market Street (Manchester’s core retail area), we found strange corners of buildings, hidden spaces, runic signs and mythological animals,” she writes. “We also find an abundance of revanchist architecture: newly erected walls to stop homeless people from taking shelter, subtle fortresses secured by design and street furniture too uncomfortable to sleep on” (154). Such discoveries are a way of revealing power structures. They interrogate the everyday, conjure the individual into view, and ask how we can make things better (154). This, for Rose, is “the very essence of loitering” (154).

Rose also engages in subverting heritage walks: “Our approach is to make clear that history is permeable, plural and open to contestation” (154). For example, a walk about women in the history of Manchester arose out of frustration at the lack of women in public narratives about the city, including in heritage tours (154):

We issued a public call for nominations of remarkable twentieth-century women and for advocates to celebrate them” in a special issue of a local arts and culture magazine; they selected ten women, unknown to a general audience, curated a tour based on their work, visiting locations chosen for their symbolic value because “in most cases there was no obvious memorial or anchor point. (154-55)

“By emphasizing resonance, memory, absence and affect,” she continues, “the tour complicated received notions of heritage trails by revealing history to be a subjective and affective construction” (155). Such a multifaceted approach echoes “the conception of space in the writing of Doreen Massey,” one of the featured heroines (155). That walk has been repeated several times through popular demand, “each iteration incorporating suggestions and stories from previous participants until it has evolved into something akin to an immersive theatrical performance’ (155). Other walks are embellished with memories provoked by encounters, “comic observations, retelling/appropriating ‘official’ narratives, streams of consciousness and vernacular folklore,” including reports of Manchester’s canal monster, “something amazing, uncanny and unknowable lurking tantalizingly beneath the surface. We treat each tale respectfully; they influence future explorations and help construct our contribution to Manchester’s palimpsest” (155). I find the notion of subverting history tours fascinating, because such tours are very rare in Canada—or at least in Regina—and they tend to be organized only as special events, such as during the annual Jane’s Walks festival. For them to be so commonplace that they need to be subverted is something I’ve never experienced.

“The dérive offers a creative response to Massey’s ‘chance of space,’” Rose argues, 

by temporarily rewriting the city, revealing its multiplicities and complicating the power relationships implicit in conventional cartography. Objectively knowing the city remains an impossiblity; the dérive champions’ localized attempts to (re)map the territory afford creative acts of self-determination reminiscent of de Certeau’s . . . small resistances. (156)

However, Rose sees “a structural conundrum” in the LRM’s dérives: “Is the organized dérive an oxymoron? To acknowledge the drift and announce its starting point is surely to lose an element of unconciousness, and so the pure dérive must be a mythological creature” (156). However, if the dérive has “become detached from the overt political intent of the SI, this is a positive,” she continues. “Free from didactic and revolutionary polemic, it enables personal epiphanies and imaginative working more suited to our postmodernesque age” (156). According to Rose, her work “demonstrates the accessibility of psychogeography, which still remains an esoteric methodology with a reputation for being arcane and difficult. I believe this is a fallacy based on misunderstandings,” particularly because some of the Situationists’ writings “appear abstracted and impenetrable” (157). She advocates a psychogeography that is accessible to everyone and “truly becomes part of Vanegiem’s Revolution of Everyday Life” (158). 

Despite sexism of psychogeography and flânerie, women embrace both, particularly in communal walks, which break down social barriers and elicit sensations and conversations that can be far reaching (158). “I suspect participants become so embedded in their affective experience, so entangled with the city, that the disinterested, haughty label of the flâneur is not appropriate for either gender,” she writes.“The flâneur and the flâneuse are best seen as archetypes, conduits, inspirations and provocations rather than literal figures” (158). In fact, her methodology “challenges the authority and exclusivity of the privileged flâneur” (158) and demonstrates that “the female walker does not only exist for the benefit of the male gaze” (159).

Rose identifies five key characteristics of a dérive: it should be spontaneous but mindful; it should be participatory, and everyone has a collective responsibility to look after themselves and each other; it is noncommercial; it aims to interrupt the banal and discover the magic in the ordinary; and it is supposed to be pleasurable and fun (159). Such walking “emphasizes the embodied and gendered nature of experience, providing a vehicle to promote an interdisciplinary, expanded psychogeography” (160). The dérive is a mental and physical tool that can trigger imaginations and inspire new ideas to break the hegemony of Debord’s spectacle (161). “If we consider psychogeography as an evolving practice rather than a theory (and surely, due to its embodied nature, we must), then the reality is infinitely richer, more diverse, accessible and inclusive, and its potentialities are more breathtakingly beautiful than the established canon would lead us to believe,” Rose concludes: 

It is in the plurality, the minor epiphanies, that we find possibilities to create a truly revolutionary spatial awareness. The potential for diverse groups of people to engage in experimental walking should be developed as it affords the opportunity to rupture the banal and disrupt the monopoly of capitalism, (re)connecting with space, (re)mapping according to personal affect and (re)creating with multitudinous new stories. (161)

Like Smith, then, Rose sees tremendous possibilities for radical politics in the simple act of walking.

In Phil Smith’s essay, “Psychogeography and Mythogeography: Currents in Radical Walking,” he acknowledges that “[t]he mythogeography project was not planned”: it came out of a shift in the work of Wrights & Sites, “from making site-specific performances to making interventions in everyday life” (165). “What it then became is more a result of emerging opportunities for dispersal than of any coherent strategy,” he continues: mythogeography became “an interwoven set of terms, theory-tales and praxis-narratives made available as far as resources allow to that assemblage of ambulatory and ‘resistant’ practitioners who escape the more popular and literary summaries of psychogeography” (165). According to Smith,

Mythogeography is a theorization of multiplicity and mobility that hangs on the texture, grit and emotion of individual journeys. Its promotion of its own ideas stems partly form a painful awareness of how quickly actions can melt into air and partly from a grudging admiration for those, like the postmodern performers Forced Entertainment . .  who have created a critical-theoretical scaffolding around their own activities (getting their retaliation in first). (165)

Walking became the central practice of Wrights & Sites in response to tensions around the use of theatricality in their site-based performances. They began inviting guests on day-long journeys around Exeter, generating rewalkings of routes and forays into “the rural hinterland,” mapping projects,” walking-video experiments, misguided tours and other “ambulatory events” (166). Their handbooks, An Exeter Mis-Guide and A Mis-Guide to Anywhere, and “A manifesto for a New Walking Culture,” sold all over the world and “fed into a growing practice of ambulatory arts” (166). (Check out the prices used copies of those books are demanding on Amazon and Abebooks–if that’s a sign of importance, these books are very important.) 

From the beginning, the members of Wrights & Sites were aware of psychogeography, or at Smith was; the first use of the term “mythogeographical” was “almost certainly a misremembering of psychogeographical” (166). They wanted to distinguish themselves from “certain hegemonic aspects of the SI” and “the functional role assigned to ‘drifting’ in their project” (166). The key elements of mythogeography include “attention to a multiplicity of layers, equal status given to the subjective and the fanciful as to the public and the political, and the walk itself as a making and changing of meanings rather than as a service function for a later process of change or representation” (167). By 2006, the group’s anxiety about “creating a distinguishable identity had waned,” and they started studying psychogeographical practices, which became much closer to their core practice (167). Their formulation of mythogeography changed; it “specifically addressed the play of ideology, adding apparently missing layers of contestation between the ‘geographical environment,’ ‘emotions,’ and ‘behaviours’ engaged by existing psychogeographical practices. These missing layers were addressed as the ‘myths’ of a place and then engaged playfully, parodistically, destructively, or deconstructively” (167). “Our misguided tours were devoted to engaging, dismantling and remaking the ‘myths’ of their routes,” Smith writes, “a seeking for mythogeographical terrain that intertwined with our aspiration to re-create the experience of place” (167-68). At the same time, mythogeography allows for solo, pilgrimage walks, including Smith’s ambulations “following the 1910 route of an acorn-planting engineer,” which is described in his Mythogeography book, “and the other the ‘route’ of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn,” which “provided the overarching structure” for his book On Walking (168).

According to Smith, the mythogeography project grew within Wrights & Sites, but it has since escaped that group, and it now has “a useful flexibility when it comes to dispersal but also, in common with other neopsychogeographies, a susceptibility to theoretical dissolution. There is no detailed theoretical account of, or practice manual for, systematic psychogeographical praxis,”  he continues, and with the exception of McKenzie Wark’s writing on the subject, “vivid excavations of a meshwork of practices, relationships and ideas form the milieu of the LI and SI,” “it is often difficult to find the contexts through which to understand the dérive” (168). Mythogeography, he continues, 

was informed by its originators’ awareness not only of the inadequacy of documentation to capture affect and liveness . . . and of documentation’s poisonous transformation of actions and experiences into critical artefacts, but also of the alternative possibility of a repertoire of actions . . . supported less by descriptions of practice than by practice as recycling and by toolkits and handbooks. (168)

Smith’s 2010 book, Mythogeography, “attempts to lure its users into a performative reading in order to inculcate them into mythogeographical thinking as much as thinking about mythogeography”; his intention was to create a book “that would be an initiatory and educative ordeal as granular and structural as the drifts themselves” (169). 

Smith discusses the increase in psychogeographic activity of various kinds, but notes, “[t]he downside of stripping psychogeography from détournement and construction of situations has been depoliticization. The upside has been its freeing from functionalism—servicing future events—in favour of a dispersed autonomy and agency” (171). Psychogeography ought to bring together the subjective and the objective: “the subjective act of psychogeographical drifting and the objective, Situationist action of place making could and should be one and the same thing. One side of the equation need not retreat into a hard politics of objectless, relational distributions and activisms while the other immerses itself in affect, subjectivity and aesthetics” (172). Instead, he calls for “new, more intimate and more intangible terrains with which to integrate . . . radical walking’s entanglements with anti-spectacular interiority-battlefields and affect-impregnated anti-identity terrains”—“anywheres,” in other words (172). One example is his GeoQuest project, described in Counter-Tourism: The Handbook (173-74). However, Smith criticizes his writing on that project: the volunteers involved 

were already assembling their own groups of friends and using my tactics on drift-like wanders and reperforming my misguided tours. They were quite capable of organizing themselves once equipped with tactics. Second, I realized that what was so vital and exemplary about the GeoQuest was its transition from its various parts to an “art of living,” not the imposition of that “art of living” as a structure. . . . what was needed for a transition to an “art of living,” or any other assemblage emerging from the “and and and” of tactics, were more and more tactics and an advocacy for setting these tactics in motion about each other in hypersensitized, limited nomadism. (175)

“At last,” he continues, “practicing what I had preached in Mythogeography—the deferring of any synthesis of tactics into organization—I stopped searching for ways to organize others and concentrated on dispersing tactics and theorizations of resistant walking, leaving users and participants to decide on their own forms of organization” (175). 

GeoQuest was exemplary in one other way: “The characteristics that helped it make a qualitative transition conform to some important general trends emerging within radical walking in Britain: the influence of newcomers, the multiplicity of practices and approaches, geographical dispersal, tension between mobility and place, and the return of ‘art’” (175). The participation of women in radical walking, he continues, is its most significant force at the moment in the UK. While there is “a growing multiplicity of resistant ambulatory practices in Britain,” but “there is also now a far greater range of impressively written nonliterary sources for the walker to consult” (175-76). Radical walking is also seeing a geographical dispersion outside London (176). However, Smith argues that despite this dispersion, there is little evidence of walking being connected to place, which, as a Deleuzian, he considers a good thing: “While many aesthetic, disrupted, or radical walkers (the difficulty in finding a suitable collective term is a welcome one) pay close attention to the fine details and textures of their terrains, among such walkers there is more often a sense of connections, mobilities and trajectories than of identities bound exclusively to locations” (176). Mythogeography does not require a choice between the speed of the mobilities paradigm—he cites John Urry here—and located, bounded places; instead, it practices “both a disruption from everyday life and a disruption of that disruption . . . embracing a limited nomadism as well as an obsessive site-specificity that can place a disruptive torque on seamless flows of information and objects” (176). The telltale signs of Deleuze and Guattari are everywhere in that last sentence. I do wonder, though, why an intimate knowledge of place is so often considered a bad thing by psychogeographers. Is it not sufficiently postmodern or something? I really don’t get it.

Smith also sees a return of art to radical walking, although he suggests that 

there is a problem for those following the classic formulation of détournement, in which two moribund art products are combined, destroying both but producing a new, vivid third artefact: the law of diminishing returns. Where do the skills or materials continue to come from to create that third artefact if they are broken or rejected in the process? (176)

The work of Wrights & Sites provides one answer to that question: a movement away from theatre, although they “retained and deployed” their dramaturgical skills (176). There needs to be more poetry in psychogeography:

Transforming ambulatory experiences into dispersals of usable tactics or inspirational representations requires a détourning of arts based on a facility with their techniques, using the anachronism of the aesthetic (just like the specificity of place or the slowness of walking) to create a distorting defamiliarization that disrupts and reveals the routine processes of the ideological noosphere, springing open the bonnet of the techno-linguistic machine while at the same time celebrating and enjoying something like the original symbolist deregulations and reassemblages of language and meaning. (177)

The aesthetic will have a political impact, Smith suggests, although the second half of that sentence is difficult for me to understand. “Such is the ‘rapid transit’ of forms, images and ideas that little of any substance—let alone radical traditions—can be preserved for very long,” he continues:

Fuzzy activity will mostly have to do. We can trust nothing and so have to trust ‘everything’ and ‘anywhere,’ plunging both pleasurably and fearfully into the ‘and and and’ of multiple narratives and trajectories, stitching together new subjectivities and traditions in ruins in a reparative and depressive interweaving . . . under cover of our individualities, paranoias and disruptive anachronisms. (177)

Why such interweaving needs to be depressive as well as reparative is not clear to me; perhaps the clue is in the text by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick that Smith cites in his concluding paragraph. There’s only one way to find out.

In “Developing Schizocartography: Formulating a Theoretical Methodology for a Walking Practice,” Tina Richardson describes her practice, which she calls “schizocartography”: “By applying Félix Guattari’s theoretical critique to the practice of psychogeography, I formulated the term schizocartography from his terms schizoanalysis and schizoanalytic cartography” (181). In combination with psychogeography, schizoanalysis enables “alternative existential modes for individuals in order to challenge dominant representations and power structures as they appear in urban space,” providing an opportunity “for multiple ways of operating in and reviewing the environment” and critiquing “the conventional ways of viewing, interpreting and mapping space” (181). The purpose of Richardson’s is to explain schizocartography, distinguish it from the Guattari’s work and the walking practices of the Situationists, and describe its methodology by providing examples (181-82). 

First, however, she provides a lengthy definition of schizocartography:

Schizocartography offers a method of cartography that questions dominant power structures and at the same time enables subjective voices to appear from underlying postmodern topography. Schizocartography is the process and output of a psychogeography of particular spaces that have been co-opted by various capitalist-oriented operations, routines or procedures. It attempts to reveal the aesthetic and ideological contradictions that appear in urban space while simultaneously reclaiming the subjectivity of individuals by enabling new modes of creative expression. Schizocartography challenges antiproduction, the homogenizing character of overriding forms that work toward silencing heterogenous voices. (182)

Schizocartography also “challenges the ossified symbols of hierarchical structures through the act of crossing the barriers (concrete or abstract) of a particular terrain, which enables “a process whereby something other is accessed, something that might normally be hidden behind the veneer of the dominant spectacle of urban space” (182). It is “the observation and the critique of a particular space,” and “includes the archival, historical and theoretical analysis attributed to that space and the form of output that this research might take” (182). It resembles a drift through the space, “the psyches of those involved in the walk,” as well as the literature on the space (182), and it “culminates in a form of expression that is offered as an alternative to more dominant histories of a place, highlighting ideological processes that might be in operation within the terrain” (182). It is an ongoing process demonstrating “that place is complex and fluid, with an identity that is heterogenous and an unconscious that can be excavated” (182), and it challenges the status quo and questions capitalist subjectivity (182). And it is rooted in the act of walking, in which “the body can trace a new map, one that escapes the rigid hierarchies of an imposed order” (182).

Richardson’s notion of schizocartography has its origins in Guattari’s institutional critique of psychiatry and his ambition to destructure consciousness and overconfident rationality; his analysis is deconstructive, she suggests, because it refuses triadic or binary oppositions: “[i]t is concerned with ‘the other’ to dominant voices and constructions and explores the heterogeneity that is often sidelined in arrangements of hierarchical power” (182-83). She suggests that Guattari’s assessment of psychiatry lends itself to critiques of other hierarchies and institutions (183). In conjunction with psychogeography, his analysis “allows one to critique outward-facing physical structures in the form of buildings that belong to them and the urban settings in which they arise” (183). Guattari’s book, Molecular Revolution in Brazil, coauthored with Suely Rolnik, is especially significant for schizocartography (183), but both that book and the earlier Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics involve geospatial aspects—of institutions and of a country: “these two texts analyse dominant structures, discuss the effect of capitalism on individuals and also provide examples of how people find a way to operate outside (or alongside) these overriding forms” (183). 

These concepts, along with urban walking, make up schizocartography (183). That urban walking is based on psychogeography, as defined by the Situationists, as “the subjective impact that urban architecture had on the lives of those living and working there” (184). For Richardson, Guattari’s writing is relevant to psychogeography because of its critique of capitalism as a form of consciousness that takes consumption as the norm (184)—a critique related to that of the Situationists. Capitalism as a form of consciousness also has geographical effects, and they tend to remove alternative choices from urban spaces; therefore, “a historical and archival analysis is often required to reveal the history of a place in its present conglomeration because urban space often obfuscates heterogeneity” (185). According to Richardson, inserting the body into the space, by walking, “enables one to disclose a social history that may not be apparent on a cursory viewing of that space, nor be accessible in the more readily available literature on that place” (185).

The concept of desire is also present in both Guattari and the Situationists: desires are rerouted back into capitalist process of consumption (185). So too are aesthetics and affect important psychological responses in Guattari and the Situationists. However, Richardson is using the term “aesthetics” “in the psychic sense in regards to the response the individual has to a cultural object—in this context, that of urban space,” which might be unconscious, but is affective (186). It’s not about the appreciation of beauty, but about sensory events and our reactions to them (186). She also defines the way “affect” is used in psychology (and by Deleuze and Guattari): it is not just emotion or mood, but an instinctual reaction to an interactive process (186). “I use the terms affect and aesthetics (often interchangeably) as a way to promote the heterogeneity of subjectivities, a central theme of my practice,” she writes (186). Guattari uses affect and aesthetics to promote the heterogeneity of subjectivities, which is a central theme of schizocartography (187).

Richardson argues that, for the Situationists, dérives became moments (temporal) or situations (spatio-temporal): their project “was about seizing a moment in time and space and attempting to change its aesthetics for a short time by diverting it away from the project of capital” (187-88). By surveying space through walking, a narrative would be generated. However, as a method of urban walking, schizocartography doesn’t limit itself to the dérive: other formats might include participant questionnaries, mapping exercises, or exploring a place looking for something specific (188). “None of these requires the chance quality that the dérive demands,” Richardson notes, “but they do involve the presence of the body in space, subjective reactions to place, or a search for something that may reveal ‘the other’ of a place” (188). The détournement was another Situationist tactic. The détournement is “a way of continually reworking the past in order to resituate it in the form of the new,” a process that can be used for any political or artistic goal (188). According to Richardson, “[t]he relationship between détournement and the schizoanalysis of Guattari is apparent in Guattari’s questioning of overriding forms and how they can become reappropriated, enabling a reformulation (a reterritorialization) to occur that appears as a translation of certain structures” (188). Guattari’s schizoanalysis allows other forms of representation to become available (188). Another concept of Guattari’s that is integral to schizocartography is transfersality, “a particular form of communication that forms a bridge that takes unconventional routes between systems” (189). In  in Félix Guattari: An Abberrant Introduction, Gary Genosko discusses urban walking as “an alternative form of articulation, providing one with a different self to that which is expected by the dominant powers in the capitalistic city” (189). “Desire finds a route through transversality,” Richardson writes, “allowing it to be released from overriding social forms that attempt to regulate the subjectivity of the individual and their behaviour within a given setting” (190-91).

In her conclusion, Richardson wonders if schizocartography is a methodology, and asserts that she doesn’t want it to be understood in such a rigid way (191):

Schizocartography enables the topophilic relationship between space and its inhabitants to become a creative process whereby those spaces can be rewritten,” but “it does not propose to be the authority on a particular place under observation,” nor does it “offer a process that goes further than an archival exploration by offering a psychogeography of place that can add something that might be undiscovered, were it not for the act of placing the physical body in space as a critical tool. (191)

Schizocartography “is a series of tracings in the form of readings and writings of place” that “appear as a reframing that attempts to contest the dominant semiotic of a situation” (192). 

I skimmed the final three essays (on sensory walks, walking and dementia, and psychogeography’s potential role in psychology) and arrived at Richardson’s conclusion, which begins with a quotation from Iain Sinclair about psychogeography as a brand or a franchise (241). That comment leads her to ask, “What has psychogeography become?” (241). She notes that more psychogeographers are using digital tools and cartography (242-43), but suggests they are “at once embracing and critical of the new technology, preferring to use it as one tool among many for creating, recording and producing output from the dérive” (243). 

According to Richardson, “the psychogeographical process is immersive, processual and nondialectical”; it’s not about “the gaze,” because “[t]he walker is both the subject and the object, is seen and seeing” (248). It is important to question one’s own place in the setting of the walk, she continues—a point that is very important to my practice. She also notes that photography can be a problem if it is voyeuristic or scopophilic (248-49). “It is important that the very act of walking and carrying out research does not situate the other as subaltern,” she writes.” And while it may be difficult to find a satisfactory solution to this problem, articulating the concerns as part of the practice one is carrying out goes some way toward raising it as an issue. Part of what makes up the qualities of the new psychogeography is that it is neither touristic nor colonial” (249). I wish that articulating those concerns were enough; my sense is that one needs to find an answer to the questions raised by those issues.

Turning a walk into something more psychogeographical need not be difficult or complex; it might mean asking why a particular urban object came to be placed where it is or why the sidewalk-to-road ratio is the size it is: “Your walk has then become a form of critical psychogeography. When you set out on a walk with this approach, there is also a sense of anticipation of the possibilities that may appear as the fruit of the labour of your walk” (251). “Call it psychogeography,” she concludes. “Don’t call it psychogeography. Walk. Don’t walk. Either way, the ‘franchise’ endures” (251).

What was valuable in this book? I found the range of practices that exist side-by-side under the rubric “psychogeography” was interesting. I found Smith’s explication of mythogeography important, because it clarifies what he means by that term. The accounts of dérives were useful in clarifying what a dérive might actually look like. Bonnett’s discussion of nostalgia encourages me to read his other work on that subject. But perhaps Richardson’s suggestion that one needs to question one’s place walking in a specific location is the most important thing I took from this book. That is a question I continue to ask myself, and I hope I manage to come up with a satisfactory answer.

Work Cited

Richardson, Tina, ed. Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography, Rowman & Littlechild, 2015.

57. Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape

shehadeh palestinian walks

After so many books on the theory of walking, here’s one about actual walking. Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape is essential reading for any descendant of settlers contemplating walking in colonized space. Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer, human rights activist, and writer, and a comparison between his experience, walking in the occupied West Bank between 1978 and 2006 is uncomfortably close to what it might be like for Indigenous people to walk here, in Canada. Certainly there are parallels between the occupation of the West Bank and Canada’s ongoing history. I’ve been asked whether I have the right to walk in Saskatchewan, because it is a colonized space (the numbered treaties, according to Sheldon Krasowski, were cruel tricks in which any discussion of the land surrender clause was omitted from discussion, not completely unlike the legal chicanery used to acquire land for Israeli settlements in the West Bank), and that is a question to which I feel I must respond. Shehadeh’s book is another spur that makes such a response more urgent.

Much of Shehadah’s concern is with the immense changes that have taken place in the Central Highlands of the West Bank, near Ramallah, since the 1970s, due to the construction of Israeli settlements and roads. “When I began hill walking in Palestine a quarter of a century ago, I was not aware that I was traveling through a vanishing landscape,” he states at the beginning of the book’s introduction (xiii). When he was growing up in Ramallah, he thought the hills of the Central Highlands of Palestine were “one of the natural treasures of the world,” and all his life he has lived in houses that overlook those hills: “I have related to them like my own private backyard, whether for walks, picnics or flower-picking expeditions. I have watched their changing colors during the day and over the seasons, as well as during an unending sequence of wars” (xiii). Shehadeh has always loved hill walking, and he started taking long walks in Palestine in the 1970s: “This was before many of the irreversible changes that blighted the land began to take place” (xiii). The hills then were “like one large nature reserve with all the unspoiled beauty and freedom unique so such areas” (xiii-xiv). All of that has changed. The book describes six walks, in the hills around Ramallah, the wadis in the Jerusalem wilderness, and ravines by the Dead Sea, made over 26 years. “Although each walk takes its own unique course, they are also travels through time and space,” a journey beginning in 1978 and ending in 2006, and he writes about the changes in his life and surroundings during that time (xiv). 

There have been many past visitors to Palestine—pilgrims, travellers, and invaders—but their accounts of their journeys describe a land unfamiliar to Shehadeh, one from their own imaginations (xiv). “Palestine has been constantly reinvented, with devastating consequences to its original inhabitants,” he writes (xiv). When cartographers made maps or travellers described the landscape, “what mattered was not the land and its inhabitants as they actually were, but the confirmation of the viewer’s or reader’s religious or political beliefs. I can only hope that this book does not fall within this tradition” (xiv). Examples of travelers who, for Shehadeh, have misunderstood the landscape include Thackeray and Twain (xiv-xv). “I hope to persuade the reader how glorious the land of Palestine is, despite all the destruction that has been wrought over the past quarter of a century,” he writes (xvi).

That destruction includes the building of Israeli settlements on hilltops, “strategically dominating the valleys in which most Palestinian villages are located” (xvi). These settlements are part of an ongoing effort to erase the Palestinian presence in the West Bank: “It is not unusual to find the names of Arab villages on road signs deleted with black paint by overactive settlers” (xvi). For Shehadeh, the settlements represent a paradox: the supposedly Biblical aspects of the landscape—the olive orchards, stone buildings, and terraces—have been produced by Palestinians, who are excluded from the Israeli imagination, and whose history is obliterated, denied, distorted, twisted (xvi-xvii). “Such an attitude fits perfectly into the long tradition of Western travelers and colonizers who simply would not see the land’s Palestinian population,” he contends (xvii). Shehadeh does not hold back when he describes the effect the settlements have had on the land, and on himself:

Ever since I learned of the plans to transform our hills being prepared by successive Israeli governments, which supported the policy of establishing settlements in the Occupied Territories, I have felt like one who is told that he has contracted a terminal disease. Now when I walk in the hills I cannot but be conscious that the time when I will be able to do so is running out. Perhaps the malignancy that has afflicted the hills has heightened my experience of walking in them and discouraged me from ever taking them for granted. (xviii)

It is now impossible to imagine recreating the 1925 walk of historian Darweesh Mikdadi, who took his students on a walking trip through Palestine, all the way to Syria and Lebanon, inspecting battle sites and staying with villagers. It is even impossible to follow in the footsteps of Palestinian geographer Kamal Abdul Fattah, who took his university students on trips throughout historic Palestine. Since 1991, travel restrictions have made that journey impossible (xviii-xix). Along with the settlements and the roads constructed to serve them, Shehadeh condemns the Separation Wall that circles the “settlement blocs” and annexes them to Israel, “in the process penetrating the lands of the Palestinians like daggers” (xix). (Note the violence of that simile.) “As a consequence of all these developments,” he writes,

even shorter school trips have not become restricted, so students can only repeat forlorn visits to the sites within their own checkpoint zone. The Palestinian enclaves are becoming more and more like ghettos. Many villagers can only pick the olives from their own trees with the protection of sympathetic Israelis and international solidarity groups. (xix)

Meanwhile, he continues, “[a]s our Palestinian world shrinks, that of the Israelis expands, with more settlements being built, destroying forever the wadis and cliffs, flattening hills and transforming the precious land that many Palestinians will never know” (xix-xx). Half a million Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank: 

The damage caused to the land by the infrastructural work necessary to sustain the life of such a large population, with enormous amounts of concrete poured to build entire cities in hills that had remained untouched for centuries, is not difficult to appreciate. . . . Beautiful wadis, springs, cliffs and ancient ruins were destroyed by those who claim a superior love of the land. By trying to record how the land felt and looked before this calamity, I hope to preserve, at least in words, what has been lost for ever. (xx)

Every wadi, spring, hill, and cliff has a name—some names Arabic, others Canaanite or Aramaic, indicating their antiquity—but Shehadeh didn’t know these names until Fattah and his students interviewed old men and women who still remembered them (xx).

For the most part, settlers are omitted from the stories Shehadeh tells. They are the “main villains” of those stories, and despite their omission, they are a constant presence:

I despise the aggressiveness of their intentions and behaviour toward my land and its inhabitants but I rarely confront them directly. They are simplified and lumped together, just as the nineteenth-century travelers generalized about the local “Arabs” as they tried to obliterate them from the land they wished to portray. At various points the settlers are viewed from a distance. I fear what they might do. I wonder what they must be thinking. I ask whether I and my people are at all visible to them. (xxi)

Only on his last journey does he meet and have a length conversation with a settler:

I knew that a large part of his world is based on lies. He must have been brought up on the fundamental untruth that his home was built on land that belonged exclusively to his people, even though it lay in the vicinity of Ramallah. He would not have been told that it was expropriated from those Palestinians living a couple miles away. Yet despite the myths that make up his worldview, how could I claim that my love of these hills cancels out his? And what would this recognition mean to both our future and that of our respective countries? (xxi-xxii)

That meeting, he writes, led to the book’s “troubled conclusion” (xxii). This is not a happy book—given the context, how could it be?—but its descriptions of the land’s beauty are powerful, and Shehadeh’s anger at its destruction is palpable.

Shehadeh’s first journey, “The Pale God of the Hills, Ramallah to Harrasha,” took place in 1978, and he begins with a description of the changes has seen taking place in Palestine: 

Cities were being erected in its midst, as were industrial and theme parks, and wide, many-laned highways more suited to the plains of the Midwest of American than the undulating hills of Palestine. In two and a half decades one of the world’s treasures, this biblical landscape that would have seemed familiar to a contemporary of Christ, was being changed, in some parts beyond recognition” (1) 

Shehadeh’s pain at the failure to save the land “would in time be shared by Arabs, Jews, and lovers of nature anywhere in the world. All would grieve, as I have, at the continuing destruction of an exquisitely beautiful place” (1). 

Then he introduces a key term in the book, the Arabic word sarha: 

To go on a sarha was to roam freely, at will, without restraint. The verb form of the word means to let the cattle out to pasture early in the morning, leaving them to wander and graze at liberty. The commonly used noun sarha is a colloquial corruption of the classical word. A man going on a sarha wanders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. (2)

This book is a series of six sarhat, sometimes alone, sometimes with others: “Each sarha is in the form of a walk I invite the reader to take with me. I hope, by describing what can be seen, heard and smelled in the hills, to allow the reader to enjoy the unique experience of a sarha in Palestine” (2).

Shehadeh notes that the land he knows changed before he began walking on it. “There was a time, I’m told, when the hills around Ramallah were one large cultivated garden with a house by every spring,” but in the 1970s, when he returned from studying law in London, “[t]hey had become an extensive nature reserve, with springs and little ponds where frogs hopped undisturbed and deer leaped up and down terrace walls, where it was possible to walk unimpeded” (3). When he was growing up, his family did not own an olive grove, and so their experience of the hills was limited to picnicking in spring. “Otherwise the hills, so close to the house where we lived, were remote and foreign,” he recalls, “little more than a derided buffer that separated us from the horizon where usurped Jaffa lay and at which we looked longingly in the evenings, when the faraway Mediterranean coast blazed with light” (3-4). He only came to know the hills after his return from London. But even then, the hills he would come to love were under threat. The occupation of the West Bank was in its eleventh year and “[i]nsidious but significant changes in the law provided strong indications of Israel’s long-term policies toward the Occupied Territories, my home” (5). He was worried, and “[t]he hills began to be my refuge against the practices of the occupation, both manifest and surreptitious, and the restrictions traditional Palestinian society imposed on our life. I walked in them for escape and rejuvenation” (5). Much of the long first chapter is a meditation on the experiences of his grandfather’s cousin, Abu Ameen, who would often go on sarhat when he was a young man; Abu Ameen also walked in the hills “for escape and rejuvenation.” “To go on a sarha, which was expansive, open-ended and uncontrolled, allowing the soul to roam freely, must have been liberating for the inhabitants of Ramallah, confined as they were within the raggedy hills that offered no view of open territory or wide fertile fields,” Shehadeh writes (4). 

When Shehadeh began walking in the hills, it took time for him to learn how to spot the ancient tracks that crossed the terrace walls and the newer ones made by sheep and goats looking for food and water: 

Some of these were marked on Ordnance maps, others not. I found myself to be a good pathfinder even though I easily got lost in cities. As time passed I began to venture farther and farther into these hills and discovered new terrain, hills with different rock formations, where flowers bloomed earlier because the ground was lower and closer to the sea. (5)

One spring day in 1978, he stumbled on “the legendary Harrasha of Abu Ameen, deep in the hills of Palestine” (7). He found the path he wanted to walk just outside of Ramallah, and “a certain peace and tranquility descended on me. Now I could go on with no need to worry, just walk and enjoy the beauty of the nature around me” (7). Because it was spring, the earth was carpeted by wildflowers: miniature blue irises, low pink flax, Maltese Cross, pyramid orchids (7). He stopped at a wadi where there was a spring. The brown cliff across the wadi were “studded with cyclamens that grew out of every nook and cranny” (8). Then he discovered “a well-preserved qasr,” a round stone structure where farmers kept their produce and slept on the open roof (8):

Before visiting the qasr, I took a moment to look around. It was as though the earth was exploding with beauty and color and had thrown from its bosom wonderful gifts without any human intervention. I wanted to cry out in celebration of this splendor. As I shouted ’S-A-R-H-A!’ I felt I was breaking the silence of the past, a silence that had enveloped this place for a long time. (9)

He sat beside the qasr and surveyed the scene. The ponds along the wadi filled with frogs and spearmint (11). A rock rosebush was growing along the terrace wall, “green against the gray as if someone had carefully chosen it to decorate this ancient wall,” with more cyclamens between the stones of the wall (9). He stepped from one terrace to the next, and beside them, he saw “a yellow broom with its spiky green leaves,” its “sweet scent” filling the air, and lower down, “some tall asphodels and lower still bunches of blue sage,” and grasses (9). On the next terrace, there was another beautiful garden, with an olive tree many centuries old, and above that garden, two more olive trees in another terrace, “surrounded by a carpet of color that spread all the way to the wall that led to yet another garden above, one garden hanging on top of another and another, going up as far as the eye could see. I felt I could sit all day next to this qasr and feast my eyes on this wonderful creation” (10).

Shehadeh begins climbing the hill to the north, thinking about what it would have taken to terrace these hills (11). He hears a rustle, but instead of wild dogs, he sees six grey gazelles running up the hill (11-12). An owl flies directly at him, as he climbed, thinking and “smelling the sharp brittle scent of thyme,” and he falls (12). He espies another qasr, surrounded by pines and oregano, nearby: 

On this walk I had passed at least a dozen abandoned qasrs. Those who had once inhabited them were gone, that way of life was no more. Their owners had moved on to other places. At a certain point the land ceased to be capable of sustaining those cultivating it and other more lucrative opportunities for making a living opened up in the petroleum-rich Gulf and the New World. (12-13)

That exodus has caused a problem, because under Israeli law, if a Palestinian leaves his property, it “‘reverts back’ to those whom the Israeli system considers the original, rightful owners of ‘Judea and Samaria,’ the Jewish people, wherever they might be. Abandonment, which began as an economic imperative in some instances and a choice in others, had acquired legal and political implications with terrifying consequences” (13). The land can end up being expropriated as “public land” and used to build settlements.

Inside that qasr, Shehadeh looks out of the window at the fields: 

The ground was carefully terraced in an almost perfect crescent; the olive trees were evenly spaced and the field between them was cleared fo stones. The surrounding area was wild and chaotic, the terracing was half completed and many of the fields were covered with wild shrubs and thickets. I wondered who the owner of this qasr was and marveled at his industry. (14)

He imagines the lives of those who had lived in that qasr: “It was as though in this qasr time was petrified into an eternal present, making it possible for me to reconnect with my dead ancestor through this architectural wonder. Would this turn into the sarha I had long yearned to take?” (15). Then he discovers a dirt-covered rock that turns out to be a high carved seat (16-17). That seat was an a’rsh, a throne: “I remembered hearing as a child that Abu Ameen, my grandfather’s cousin, had in Harrasha an a’rsh next to his qasr. Could this be it? Could this be the Harrasha where Abu Ameen and my grandfather Saleem used to go for their sarha?” (17). Shehadeh listens to the sound of the wind in the pines and remembers Abu Ameen (17). He worked as a stonemason, saved money to build a qasr, and wanted to get married and have children (19). Abu Ameen’s desires were much different than Shehadeh’s grandfather’s ambitions; he became a lawyer and ended up working for the English occupiers during the Mandate. In fact, Abu Ameen became the the only one of his family who stayed in Ramallah; the others (like Shehadeh’s grandfather) pursued education in the United States, and did not return to the hills (21). “They deserted Ramallah as if it were not their town, their home, the place where they should strike roots, get married and bring up children as their fathers and forefathers had done,” Shehadeh writes (21). He recalls the story he heard as a child about Abu Ameen building his qasr with his wife on their honeymoon (23):

I suspect that the description of the occasion as a honeymoon came later. When the couple was married I don’t believe this concept existed. Couples had no leisure time at all. They were hard-nosed people who had little to survive on. What I marvel at is that in the midst of all this drudgery, Abu Ameen found the time to indulge himself and, using the skills he had learned, carve out of stone his own a’rsh, a monument that has survived for some seventy-five years. (24)

After 1948, Abu Ameen had worked building houses in Ramallah for refugees from coastal towns, but in 1955, a stroke left him lame, unable to farm (25-26). Meanwhile, the other landowners were absent, working in the Gulf or the United States (26). Without them, neglect, the land seemed abandoned; the terrace walls fell, erosion became a problem, the paths were obliterated and the springs clogged (26). The hills became covered in thistles and weeds: 

But in spring they were once again transformed with swaths of purple flax that could be glimpsed from afar, crisscrossed by different patterns of blue from the bugloss, clover and miniature iris like wafts of color painted with a wide brush. In the early morning, as the droplets of dew clung to the delicate petals of the wildflowers catching the sunlight, the valleys seemed to glitter in a kaleidoscope of color. (27)

None of Abu Ameen’s children took up farming—they didn’t even want to visit Harrasha (27). No wonder: life in the qasr was hard; the house was crowded and fuggy from the fumes of charcoal brazier they used to try to keep warm (27). But Abu Ameen preferred it to living in Ramallah. He lived for the spring, when he could leave to live at his qasr (28). 

Abu Ameen “could not have been aware how fortunate he was to have had the security and comfort of seeing the same unaltered view of the hills,” Shehadeh writes. “I was born among hills that looked more or less as they did during the last years of Abu Ameen’s life. But throughout my adult life I had the misfortune of witnessing their constant transformation” (32)—a transformation caused by the constant influx of settlers. “The hills that had provided the setting for tranquil walks where I felt more freedom than I did anywhere else in the world would eventually become confining, endangered areas and a source of constant anxiety” (32): 

One hilltop after another was claimed as more and more Jewish settlements were established. Then the settlements were joined with one another to form ‘settlement blocs.’ Roads were built between these clusters and ever-expanding areas of land around them were reserved for their future growth, depriving more villages of the agricultural land they depended on for their livelihood. (32-33)

When Shehadeh looked at the hills at night, he saw “a continuous stretch of settlements and roads that were creating a noose around Ramallah” (33). Then came the Separation Wall, which “would further divide Ramallah from the villages surrounding it, complicating our life immeasurably and causing yet greater damage to our beautiful landscape” (33). “How I envy Abu Ameen his confidence and security in the hills where he was born and died, which he believed would remain unchanged forever,” Shehadeh writes: 

Could Abu Ameen have ever dreamed that one day the open hills to which he escaped the confinement of life in the village would be out of reach for his descendants? How unaware many trekkers around the world are of what a luxury it is to be able to walk in the land they love without anger, fear or insecurity, just to be able to walk without political arguments running obsessively through their heads, without the fear of losing what they’ve come to love, without the anxiety that they will be deprived of the right to enjoy it. Simply to walk and savor what nature has to offer, as I was once able to do. (33)

It would be easy to dismiss Shehadeh as a romantic, a term he accepts (64), and to critique his nostalgia, but his love of the land is sincere, as is his grief at its transformation.

In 2003, Shehadeh took his nephew Aziz to show him his ancestor’s qasr and have him sit on the a’rsh (36). This was during the expansion of Ramallah after Second Intifada begins—growth caused, in part, because life in other West Bank cities was becoming unbearable because of Israeli policies—and “[t]he wild and beautiful hills surrounding it began to be invaded, not only by the Jewish settlements, which were being established all around its wide periphery, but also by the insatiable appetite of the city’s inhabitants for expansion and growth” (37). When Shehadeh and Aziz got to the qasr, it was intact, but a stone thief had damaged the a’rsh, knocking it over on its side (37-38). Then, on their return walk, they visited a Palestinian police station destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, where his nephew picked up a long thick metal tube, asking “What is this?” Shehadeh froze: it was part of an unexploded missile. He took the bomb from the boy and told him to run, then set it down on the ground, whispering a quiet prayer (38-39). “I have often wondered about Abu Ameen as I stand in the early morning looking over the countryside,” Shehadeh concludes. “What would he have said had he seen the state it now was in? Would his spirit be brimming with anger at all of us for allowing it to be destroyed or usurped, or would he just be enjoying one extended sarha as his spirit roamed freely over the land, without borders as it had once been?” (39-40).

Shehadeh’s second journey, “The Albina Case, Ramallah to A’yn Qenya,” takes place a year later. It shifts back and forth between the walk and Shehadeh’s preoccupations at the time of the walk. “For the first two decades of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank I was still able to walk in the hills unhampered,” he writes, despite the creation of a large number of settlements. “We still believed that it was possible for the occupation to end one day and for peace to be established on the basis of a Palestinian state in the West Bank alongside Israel”—but changes to the laws regarding land were a concern (41). Since 1979, for example, Palestinians have been denied access to land ownership records (41-42). The day he was first refused access, Shehadeh returned home and realized he had locked himself out of his house. He decided to walk “to the enormous pine tree midway down the hill and read” (42-44). Instead of reading, though, he looked at the hills, the mixture of pines and olive trees; the pines were evidence of the abandonment of the land, since farmers would prefer the olive trees (45). The sight of the hills and the blooming wildflowers made him decide to walk down into the valley (46).

The Orndnance Maps Shehadeh sometimes relies on trace their roots to the 1880s, when the Palestine Exploration Fund mapped and surveyed these hills, a process he describes as prerequisite for conquest (47). Europe, and later Zionism, was searching for its cultural roots in the Holy Land, and in the process they have “silenced Palestinian history and relegated it to prehistory, paving the way for the modern state of Israel to take control not only of the land but also of Palestinian time and space” (47). It is lucky Ramallah not mentioned in the Bible, otherwise it would be experiencing “the terror of fanatic fundamentalists squatting inside our town claiming that it belongs to their ancestors on biblical grounds” (47-48). Those first maps became the basis for land registration, which began during the British Mandate, but the 1967 war interrupted the process of registering land deeds and it was not completed. In the Albina case, Shehadeh was representing a Palestinian landowner who was caught up in this situation, a landowner with no Certificate of Registration: “This formality was the loophole the settlers used to question my client’s ownership of his land” (48).

The grasses, shrubs, flowers, were all damp from the rain: 

There were blue hyacinth squills between the rocks. When I slid down and stood again on the path I noticed the crocuses that had sprung out after the rain, filling the little patch around the rock I was sitting on like a pink haze. I didn’t want to crush their delicate petals so close to the ground but this was unavoidable for they were everywhere. (49)

The growth suggests freedom for Shehadeh. “Living as I did in a stifling community, these hills were my only escape, as they had been to Abu Ameen,” he writes (49):

The other day I had to plead with a soldier to be allowed to return home. I was getting back from our winter house in Jericho, where I had spent a relaxing day. I had to implore the Israeli soldier. I told him that I really did not know a curfew had been imposed on Ramallah. I was away all day and hadn’t listened to the news. . . . Oh, the humiliation of pleading with a stranger for something so basic. (50)

Nevertheless, leaving the West Bank was not an option for Shehadeh—then the land would be taken (50). So, as he walked, he pretended there were no settlements nearby, and that he had the hills to himself (50). It was hard to keep up the pretence, though. The hills were covered in natsh, a common thistle; its presence in a field was used by Israeli courts to argue that the land was abandoned and could be taken by Israeli settlers (52-53). Those settlements, Shehadeh argues, were destructive: “By creating new human settlements where none existed, connecting them with roads and isolating existing ones, it would not only strangle our communities but also destroy this beautiful land, and in a matter of a few years change what had been preserved for centuries” (55-56).

At this point, somewhat confusingly, Shehadeh jumps ahead to another walk taken in 1981 with his friend and colleague Jonathan Kuttab, during which they discussed their intention to challenge the Israeli settlement plans in court (55-60). The Israeli argument was that non-registered land was public land, the Palestinians living there were squatters, and the Jews were the only rightful owners: “Legally this position was not sustainable. And yet it was not being challenged. Most Palestinians boycotted Israeli courts, where these challenges could be presented. The settlers could comfort themselves that they were not taking anyone’s private land to establish their settlements” (57). During the walk they came up with a plan, and eventually they found a Palestinian farmer willing to fight the government in court, Sabri Gharib. Despite threats and harassment—the nearby settlers shooting at him, threatening to demolish his house, and repeated night arrests by the military—Gharib stood his ground until his death in 2012: “The resilience of Sabri, whose name itself means patience, was legendary,” Shehadeh writes, noting that his client’s motivation was not nationalism but the land: “Not to fight in every way possible to hold on to his land was a sacrilege” (58-59). Shehadeh and Kuttab were confident when they came up with their plan; 25 years later, Shehadeh mourns their inability to achieve results: “How complicated and dismal the future has turned out, with the land now settled by close to half a million Israeli Jews, living in hundreds of settlements scattered throughout our hills and connected by wide roads crossing through the wadis,” and more recently surrounded by the Separation Wall, a process which has destroyed “the beauty of our hills, separating our villages and towns from one another and annexing yet more of our land to Israel, demolishing the prospect for a viable peace” (60).

Shehadeh reached the village of A’yn Qenya, which he had first visited as a Boy Scout in 1969. He and his friends tried to walk there from their campsite at night: “We were eight young and uncertain men in the dark and for the first time I understood how it was possible to feel comfort in numbers” (62-63). They get lost, sleep on some rocks, wake up in the morning to the sounds of the village (63). When he got to the village, he encountered gazelles again, and they give him the idea of running up the hill to see the sun setting over the Mediterranean (65): “The air was dry and fresh. Lower hills spread below me like a crumpled sheet of blue velvet with the hamlets huddled in its folds. . . . The farther away the hills the smaller they looked. The most distant was a dark blue, like a little pond” (65). However, he continues, “I was unaware that this would be the last time I would be able to stand here on an empty hill. Shortly afterward the Israeli authorities expropriated the land and used it to build the settlement of Dolev” (66). Compared to 2006, when he was writing this book, the 1980s were a time when Shehadeh could walk without restraint: 

I feel gratified to have used that freedom and taken all those walks and got to know the hills. There was one walk that I had always planned which to my great regret I never got around to taking. It would start from the west of Ramallah, passing through Beitunia to Wadi El Mahkwm, passing north of Beit ’Ur. (66)

“I had planned this walk so carefully,” he continues. “Now with the settlements and the Separation Wall it was impossible” (66).

Here Shehadeh begins thinking about the Albina case, one of the first land cases he had handled (66). Settlers were claiming Albina’s land, suggesting he was an absentee, but he was living in East Jerusalem; their second argument was that if he wasn’t an absentee, then his land must be public, although it was registered (69). If those arguments were unsuccessful, they had one more: Albina’s land had been expropriated by the Jordanian government, despite lack of evidence (69-70). Shehadeh describes this case as a “swindle” (70), and notes that by the time he got involved, construction of the settlement had already begun (71). No injunction to stop work was granted, because that would involve a financial loss to the agency promoting the settlement; instead, the work continued as the court heard the case (72). The president of the court tried to get him to convince his client to sell the land (73)—because it was already lost (73). Shehadeh made a visit to Albina’s land. He expected the settlers to be “devils incarnate, fanatic, crazy people, starry-eyed and religiously inspired, who were forcing us to a confrontation and to many years of bloodshed,” and he worried about his safety (76). That turned out not to be the case: 

We were met by earnest-looking men, with no women. They served us tea in Styrofoam cups. We sat around a long table. I felt myself a witness to what it must have been like for the old Zionist settlers. I expect their latterday counterparts were living out an old dream. They were in their thirties and were wearing jeans. Many were bearded. They seemed amiable. They were not starry-eyed, they were hardheaded men who were fully committed to what they were doing and had no conception of how Albina, the victim of their actions, would see them. Nor did they seem to care. (76)

“Their enthusiasm was contagious,” Shehadeh continues. “They were literally camping on the land, pushing out their enemies and expanding the area of their state, perhaps carried away by a sarha of their own. What were a few legal objections against the elevated nobility of their purpose?” (76-77). But they were also, Shehadeh contends, “efficient and calculating businessmen who wanted to get over this legal hurdle” (77). They were without any sense of guilt; they didn’t care about the residents of the nearby village of Beit ’Ur, “[n]or did they have any qualms, as I discovered later, about using any sort of trickery or deceit to get their way. To them the end seemed to justify the use of any means. This was how those who believed they were serving a higher purpose behaved” (77).

When Shehadeh and Kuttab made their plans, they didn’t realize that the legal aspects of the issue “were only one small, ultimately insignificant, component,” or that the building of settlements in the Occupied Territories was a state project that “was not going to be hampered by questions of law. . . . Higher national objectives overrode legal niceties” (77-78). During the hearing on the Albina case, a masked witness (there was no reason for the mask, but court allowed it) baldly lied about the Jordanian army’s use of the land, and Shehadeh wondered whether it was worth continuing “with this farce”: “Was it good for Palestine for us to continue to the end or were we only lending legitimacy to an illegal court?” (79). In the end, he went through “the charade” (80), and while the court found that Albina was the owner of the land, it also decreed that the lease for settlement was legal and binding (81)—a contradictory ruling that made no sense. The court also found that Albina deserved no compensation (82).

Shehadeh jumps ahead in time again, to November 2006, when he went to visit writer Adel Samara in Beit ’Ur. It was a long drive because of the Separation Wall. The new highway’s exit to Beit ’Ur was blocked with a concrete barrier (83-84). The settlement that was built on Albina’s land was separated from the village with a wall, as if the settlers 

belonged to another world, that of a modern consumer society which subsidizes luxury homes built on land that came to it free of charge, with breathtaking views and clean air, connected to the center of the country by a fast four-lane highway built on their neighbors’ land and to which their neighbors had no access. No part of the settlers’ dwellings, not even the roofs of their villas, could be seen from the village, only the high streetlights that were lit all day and night to provide further protection in case one of the village youths decided to put a ladder up and climb the wall and attack the settlement. (85)

Shehadeh considered asking about relations between the settlement and the village, but the wall showed there was no point in asking (85). “Standing before the wall I could see in concrete terms the consequence of the policy of building Jewish settlements pursued by successive Israeli governments over the past thirty-nine years,” he writes: 

For an occupier to take through legal chicanery the lands of the occupied, and in stark violation of international law settle its own people in the midst of the towns and villages of the hostile occupied population can only lead to violence and bloodshed. There is no way that such usurpation of land could be accepted. A bloody struggle was inevitable. (85)

He looked at the wadi to the north and asked whether there were good walking tracks. Yes, ge was told, there were. “I realized this was the wadi I had long wanted to take to fulfill my ambition of walking from the Ramallah hills to the coastal plain and the sea,” he states. “Now it was too late” (87). The Separation Wall, and the settlements, block the way: “This is one walk I will never be able to take” (87).

But there are other hazards involved in walking in the country. Shehadeh jumps in time again, to 1999, and a walk he and his wife, Penny, made in the hills near Ramallah. It was a period of hope that the settlement question would be answered in Palestinians’ favour, because of the negotiation of the Oslo Accords; it was also a time of investment and construction in Ramallah, expansion (88). Shehadeh and Penny were walking to Abu Ameen’s qasr when they heard shots. Someone was shooting at them: “I held her hand and we ran to take shelter against a rock that formed the wall of one of the terraces down the side of the hill. The shots were coming from behind us, from above. We hoped that by flattening our bodies against the rock no part of us would be exposed to the fire” (89). The shooting intensified—but who was shooting? Shehadeh shouted in Arabic, asking them to stop, thinking it’s the Palestinian police, mistaking them for settlers (89). “The shooting continued mercilessly, giving us no respite, no time to take a breath, to think calmly of our next step, to manage, somehow, to escape,” he continues. “A hail of bullets whizzed overhead, struck the rock right in front of where we took shelter, sending splinters up in the air. It seemed likely that some of the bullets would ricochet and hit us” (90). There was a lull in the firing and he stood up and saw two young Palestinian men with guns; he thought they would stop, but they didn’t—they kept firing (90). After 20 minutes, it was over; Shehadeh and Penny walked to a checkpoint on the road to report what had happened, but the police there wouldn’t take a report (90-91). Later, Shehadeh was told later that the valley was dangerous; the young men engaged in target practice there, and there was nothing the government or police could do (92-93).

Six years later—another shift in time—Shehadeh went to the same valley with poet Ramsey Nasr. They saw new buildings and roads. The paths were covered with rubble dumped from higher terraces, but eventually they found a path and begin following it (93). They heard a pack of wild, possibly rabid, dogs barking (94). On the hill above them, soldiers were pointing their guns at them. They didn’t shoot; they asked for identification, because they suspected the poet, a foreigner, was being kidnapped (95-96). Shehadeh was told that one of the soldiers had been there in 1999, shooting at him and his wife (96). Another soldier said, “The hills are dangerous, we have found many corpses here” (97). “I never thought I’d ever meet one of the men who shot at Penny and me and almost killed us,” Shehadeh concludes. “He didn’t seem particularly sorry, and certainly did not apologize, though I was not expecting him to after all those years. Still I was grateful to be reminded that to every story there is an ending” (97). “An ending”—not a happy ending; that is too much to expect in Palestine, it seems.

Shehadeh’s third journey is entitled “Illusory Portals: Qomran, the Dead Sea and Wadi El Daraj.” He writes that he continued fighting against acquisitions of Palestinian land for Israeli settlements, even though outright victories were impossible (98). He was also concerned about land use planning, which seemed to be solely for the benefit of Israelis, and aimed to “designate most empty land for their future use, isolate Palestinian population centers and fragment their territorial continuity by encircling the with settlements” (99). Such planning was intended to confine Palestinian urban development, but the plans for Jewish settlements were prepared with the opposite objective; they had lots of room to expand, “a highly discriminatory, segregated town-planning reality” (99). These developments made him rethink his strategies; it was clear that legal challenges ineffective at curbing or even slowing the settlements (99-100). When the Palestinian Authority was created by the Oslo Accords, it had no power to change village or town zoning or repudiate Israeli claims to land acquired for settlements (100). As a result, Shehadeh rejected the Oslo Accords (101). 

Because of the Accords, some Palestinian cadres were allowed to return, and he and Penny took one of them, Selma Hasan, for a walk near the Dead Sea (101). On the drive to the Dead Sea, Shehadeh felt obligated to tell Selma about the various changes he had seen, but at the same time resented being a guide and would rather have pursued his own thoughts (103). The building of settlements and roads had completely changed Jerusalem and the land to the east (105-09), evidence of the planning regime he criticized:

For twenty-five years I had studied the development of the Israeli sovereign legal language in the West Bank. I monitored how the Israeli state was being extended into the Occupied Territories through the acquisition of land and its registration in the Israeli Land Authority. How large areas were being defined as Israeli Regional Councils and included within Israel. How the planning schemes were changed, how one area after another became for all intents and purposes annexed to Israel, and our towns and villages were left as islands within those Israeli extensions. . . . It was all done ostensibly through “legal” maneuvers, using the law in force in the West Bank because formally speaking the West Bank was not annexed to Israel. To understand and fight this was my war. (109-10)

They were stopped by a checkpoint, which surprised Hasan, who didn’t know that under the Oslo Agreement Israel had jurisdiction over roads (110). She also had no idea what the settlements were like. In that, she was like the PLO negotiators in Oslo (111)—they didn’t listen to legal advice about the settlements,“[a]nd so the Accords the PLO signed saddled us with the Israeli legal and administrative arrangements that envisioned an unequal division of the land between Arab and Jew,” Shehadeh writes (111).

During the journey, there was friction between Shehadeh and Hasan: she thought the Oslo Accords meant new times, while he thought the PLO sold out the Palestinians on the issues of land usage and the settlements (112):

Vast areas of my beloved country were being fenced to become off-limits to us. I felt the gravity of what was happening and I was willing to give everything for the struggle to stop it. My weapon was the law. All my time was taken up with it. Nothing was more important. I had no doubt that if we tried hard we would win and justice would prevail. For that glorious day of liberation there was no limit to what I was willing to sacrifice. 

Now after Oslo was signed and the struggle as I saw it was betrayed, I was back to real time. (114)

In addition, the agreements had made his work redundant, and he was “unable to make any practical use of my legal knowledge and expertise to stop Israeli violations of the law” (118). After 1967, his father had become despondent, and now he was becoming despondent as well (118-19). He was realizing that his work “was nothing but a grand delusion” (123). 

During a brief walk in a wadi, Hasan received a phone call from her husband; he had been given a permit to return to the West Bank, and she took a taxi home to get ready for his arrival. Shehadeh and Penny continued south along the Dead Sea to walk in Wadi El Daraj (124). On the trail, there was a rock that has to be climbed using a rope, and an Israeli soldier guarding a group of students helped him make the ascent: “I couldn’t but be grateful. Without him we would not have been able to proceed with our walk. In the course of this brief encounter the two of us did not exchange a single word. I wondered who he took me to be. Surely not a Palestinian” (126). He experienced vertigo on the trail where it ran between a rock and the cliff edge. He wondered why, and quickly came up with reasons (128):

The emotions were not too difficult to work out. The first was the old and persistent one of wanting a father, or an older brother, to protect me. . . . The second I interpreted as resulting from being at a point when my hold on life was being shaken. In the past I had lived with a strong sense of mission. What had framed my existence and given it a heightened sense of purpose was my resistance to the occupation, my work for justice. I felt called upon to save something, to speak out the truth, warn, resist and win. Now my struggle had been brought to an end. Consequently I lost the confidence that I wouldn’t let myself all to my death. The failures and disappointments I had been going through these past few years had loosened my grip on life and made me almost suicidal. (128-29)

The vertigo was a symptom of his despair. The chapter ends with the Israeli soldier who helped him climb up the cliff firmly closing the door of the bus the students had taken to the trail, clearly symbolizing an ending (129).

Shehadeh’s fourth journey is also near the Dead Sea: “Monasteries in the Desert: Wadi Qelt to Jericho.” It begins ominously:

By the end of the Nineties the future seemed to be moving to only bloodier times. This had been heralded by the increased rate of Israeli settlement and road building, the closing off of parts of the West Bank to Palestinians, settlers’ attacks on Palestinian civilians and the brutal killings of civilians by Palestianian human bombers inside Israel. (130)

However, there was brief respite after the Oslo Accords, and Shehadeh wanted to take advantage of that fragile peace: “It was essential not to hesitate but to venture out and take walks where it was still possible. And though most of upper Wadi Qelt, including the Faraa spring, was already closed to Palestinians, lower Wadi Qelt was still accessible” (130). So, with Penny and a group of friends, he planned to walk part way to Jericho through the hills, although need to get through checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem first (131). At the checkpoint, a soldier wouldn’t let them through, although another did: Shehadeh was angry at himself for not standing up for them, for not doing anything: 

Had this taken place before the Oslo Agreement I would have screamed at the soldier, demanded to see his superior, made it clear that he was exceeding his orders and made sure I put an end to my friend’s ordeal. Instead we all stood by meekly, without so much as a whimper of protest, and ended up feeling grateful just to have been allowed to pass. Perhaps it was time for me to leave. (133)

When they reached the hills where they were going to walk, the group was euphoric because of the contrast with Ramallah, a city surrounded by checkpoints: “the experience of open space, with no walls, no barriers and a wide open sky, made us giddy with joy” (137). They found a carob tree, where they sat to have a picnic (139). “Then we heard noises,” Shehadeh writes:

We looked up and, below the escarpment at the opposite end of the stream, saw a number of settlers approaching. . . . They must have seen us as trespassers, potentially dangerous but perhaps, by the way we looked sitting there drinking coffee and eating our salads, not quite on a military mission. One of the girls from the group approached Rema and asked her: “Where are you from?” Rema’s answer was both straightforward and correct. She simply said: “From here.” (139)

They continue walking and meet some Bedouins, living in brick houses by a canal, who treat them generously (142-44). The Bedouins have been evicted from their land, which is going to be turned into a nature reserve (145). 

Shehadeh used to support the creation of parks, but the damage to the environment, and to his father, caused by the construction of settlements had made him change his mind: 

They were acting like a sovereign, reshaping the countryside, exploiting empty land for the benefit of their own people and designating other areas as reserves for their future benefit. After 1967, when Israel occupied and then annexed East Jerusalem, my father lost many valuable plots of land when the Israeli municipality designated them green areas. I began to think Israel was going to turn East Jerusalem into a paradise of green parks, only to realize that a few years after the land had been acquired from its Arab ownership through expropriation, its designation was changed. The noble aim of keeping East Jerusalem Green was dropped in favor of using the land to construct neighborhoods for the exclusive benefit of Jewish residents, making the city more cluttered and depressing, and my father more despondent, than ever. (145)

Shehadeh’s friend Saba was upset by the news of the Bedouin’s impending eviction: “I have always known it,” he said. “The Israeli plan is to confine all of us in reservations in preparation for our eventual expulsion. Just as they did in 1948” (146). Shehadeh notices the differences between the area now, and what he remembered from past walks there:

During earlier walks all that I could see was the empty wilderness. Now the area looked like a construction site as the new roads to the settlements of Maaleh Mikhmas, Kfar Adumim, Mishor Adumim and Mitzpe Jericho were dug into the hills and land was leveled in preparation for building yet more houses there. Once these settlements are complete a wedge will divide the West Bank into a northern and a southern enclave and put an end to the dream of a Palestinian state. (149)

Everything he had seen that day made him angry—and more and more that was his default emotion.

The group visited the church at the Monastery of St. George of Koziba. It was a place of tranquility, and Shehadah decided he should draw inspiration from it: 

I cannot continue in this state of anger, otherwise it will consume all my energy and I shall waste my life in grumbling and regret. A time comes when one has to accept reality, difficult as that might be, and find ways to live through it without losing one’s self-esteem and principles. Was this not what these hermits and monks had been doing over the centuries, keeping their distance from the world, holding on to what was theirs as they waited for the tide to turn, while around them all they held sacred was violated? (153-54)

“The time had come for me to dedicate myself to a different project, one I could make work, which no one could take from me,” he continues—and that project would be writing (154). “I knew I would be able to find ways of dealing with the trauma of defeat,” he concludes. “Somehow despite the problems and fears I would continue to walk and to write. At my age my father had successfully survived two catastrophic defeats. I was more fortunate. So far, I have had to deal with only one.” (155)

At the beginning of Shehadeh’s fifth journey, “And How Did You Get Over It? Janiya, Ras Karkar and Deir Ammar,” he writes that he knew enough about the Oslo Accords to realize they would lead to chaos, so he protected himself: he built a house within Ramallah, safe from Israeli expropriation, and wrote a memoir (156). “I was digging my heels in, taking refuge in a stone house and waiting for the tide to change, an honorable tradition in the Holy Land,” he writes (156). During this period he went for a walk with his friend Mustafa Barghouti, a doctor and the founder of the Medical Relief Organization. They wanted to talk about the changes they were seeing in the West Bank, after the Oslo Accords (157-58). They intend to begin their walk in A’yn Qenya and finish in Deir Ammar: 

I was aware before we began that the route Mustafa and I were planning to take was prohibited to us. We did not have permission from the military governor to walk there and if we came upon soldiers we could be arrested. A Jewish settler also has the power to make a citizen’s arrest. We had to be careful of both. I was certain that Mustafa, like most Palestinians, was unaware of this prohibition. Before we started our walk I considered telling him but in the end decided against it. One anxious person on this lovely walk was enough. (161)

Shehadeh and Barghouti found their path, crossed the wadi, and walked through an overgrown field of olive trees, where “The unplowed earth . . . had an abundance of wildflowers mottled with the shadows of the clouds” (162-63). They discovered wet ground and realized that they had walked into the open sewers of the Talmon settlement, which disposed of its waste down the valley into land owned by Palestinian farmers (163). Two boys showed them the way out of the bog and told them walking near the paved road was too dangerous—the settlers would try to run Palestinians down deliberately, and the military would shoot at them (163-64). Settlers had practical immunity from prosecution, Shehadeh notes, and could threaten or shoot at Palestinian neighbours without penalty (165).

Although Shehadeh suggests that the land was owned by farmers, he notes that no one was working it: 

Traditionally these were agricultural villages. Within a few decades the inhabitants have been intimidated, their life made unsafe and many of their fields expropriated, and they have been turned into construction workers building the settlements that stood on land that once belonged to them. These were the beginnings of new times, a new relationship to the land and the destruction of the hills as I knew them. (165-66)

Such thoughts threatened his enjoyment of the day, as well as his peace of mind:

For a long time my enjoyment of these hills has been impaired by a preoccupation with the changes in land law relating to them. But such man-made constructs can be diminished if looked at in a particular way. Viewed from the perspective of the land they hardly count. A road makes a scar in the hills but over time that scar heals and becomes absorbed and incorporated. Stones are gathered to build houses but then they crumble and return to the land however large and formidable they might once have been. . . . As these thoughts crossed my mind, I could not help but wonder whether this long-term perspective was simply another justification for having curtailed my activism, or a reasonable defense against Israel’s positing of these changes as permanent and incapable of ever being altered. I realized that the stronger the attempt at impressing me with their permanence, the more my mind sought confirmation of their transience. (167)

As they walked, Barghouti asked how Shehadeh had gotten over his anger. He responds, “By accepting the fact of our surrender and moving on,” but he realized also the way that writing was liberating for him (168-69). The chapter ends, as do the others, with a sense of foreboding: 

As Mustafa and I witnessed during out walk in the hills, our land was being transformed before our eyes, and a new map was being drawn. We were not supposed to look, only to blindly believe in the hollow language of peace proclaimed by Israeli leaders, a peace that amounted to mere words, rhetoric that meant nothing. (177)

That make-believe peace could not last for ever, he concludes; another violent intifada was predictable (177).

Shehadeh’s final journey is“An Imagined Sarha: Wadi Dalb.” “Much has happened since the walk described in the last chapter,” he begins. “My hope that I would find refuge in my stone house was dispelled in the spring of 2002, when the Israeli army invaded Ramallah, entered my home and broke the sense of sanctuary I had ascribed to it” (178). The stated reason for the invasion was self-defence; but Shehadeh argues that for Israel, defending settlements on illegally acquired land had become the same as defending the rest of the country (178). The invasion followed by drastic security measures that closed the entrances of all cities and hundreds of villages (180). There were more checkpoints and obstacles on roads (180). Travel was difficult and Palestinians were subjected to constant harassment (180). There was a feeling that Palestinians would be victims of a mass expulsion, and a ghetto life was imposed on West Bank cities (180). The most destructive development, though, was the Separation Wall (181). “Still,” Shehadah writes,

I was determined that none of this was going to prevent me from taking more walks in the hills. Not the military orders closing most of the West Bank, not the checkpoints and roadblocks and not the Jewish settlements. Weather-wise that spring of 2006 was one of the best for many years. The rain had been plentiful but also well distributed. It continued to rain through April, giving vital sustenance to the wildflowers that by the end of the month usually begin to shrivel and die. I could not let this season pass without a walk. (181-82)

However, Shehadah had gotten lost driving in new settlements and industrial zones a few months earlier and didn’t want to repeat the experience (182). Besides, the changes wrought upon the land meant that he would have to choose a route carefully:

I surveyed my prospects. I could not go to A’yn Qenya through the Abu Ameen track because much of it had been destroyed by new buildings in the course of Ramallah’s expansion to the northwest. Added to this was the fact that the Jewish settlers from Dolev and Beit Eil had raised money to build a bypass road through our hills and valleys, going over private Palestinian lands to connect their two settlements. This badly designed private road caused much damage to the hills and obstructed the passage of water through the wadi. It also destroyed a number of the springs and many unique rock formations, among them a beautiful cliff studded with cyclamens that I often stopped to admire. (183-84)

In addition, the valley to the south was now used for target practice by members of the Palestinian security forces, and access to A’yn Qenya was blocked by an army post (184). Shehadeh decided to look at a map—not something he liked to do, “for it implied submission to others, the makers of the maps, with their ideological biases. I would much rather have exercised the freedom of going by the map inside my head, signposted by historical memories and references” (184). Nevertheless, he continues, “I had no choice. To find a track I could take that without settlers or practices shooters or army posts or settler bypass roads had become a real challenge” (184).

Shehadeh worked out a path, one that avoided army posts, bypasses and settlements (184). He began walking in land that might once have resembled Abu Ameen’s. There was a pine tree, a spring, and a cultivated orchard: “My spirits revived. I felt empowered by the memory of Abu Ameen and his much different times. I did not care what happened to me, I was going to enjoy my walk in the hills” (185). He walked until he found a gully where the track was 

made gorgeous by the view it offered of the valley below with its wide swath of green and the water flowing in its midst shimmering in the mid-morning light. I could not get over how unusual it was to see a green valley with a brook in these dry hills. My heart leaped. I almost ran down the path but thought better of it and, out of kindness to my knees, I slowed down, (185)

When he got to the water he realized there was someone there—an armed settler, smoking “hashish mixed with another more potent substance” in a water pipe, a nergila (186). He tried to cross the stream, but he dropped his hat in the water, and the settler retrieved it for him (186-87). 

Then begins a conversation—or confrontation—between the two men. Shehadeh told the settler that it was a beautiful day and his gun didn’t belong to it—the settler agrees, but said, “I have to” (187). Shehadeh asked the settler if he was afraid of being there alone. “Why should I be?” he answered. “I’ve done no evil to anyone” (188). Shehadeh thought,“Done no evil . . . after all the land he and his people have stolen, after destroying our life for so long” (188). The settler tells him that Dolev, his settlement, is built on public land, and that “All of Eretz Israel is ours” (189). Palestinians could go and live in another Arab states, the settler continues—there are 21 of them (190). “This young man had internalized the official propaganda and was just parroting it.,” Shehadeh writes. “Why should I spoil my walk by listening to such annoying nonsense?” (190). The settler stated that the land is a nature reserve, preserved by the Israelis; Shehadeh’s response was to ask about the settlements, the bulldozers digging highways, and the damage they have done. He described what the land was like before: “You could not see any new buildings, you did not hear any traffic. All you saw were deer leaping up the terraced hills, wild rabbits, foxes, jackals and carpets of flowers. Then it was a park. Preserved in more or less the same state it had been in for hundreds of years” (190). “Progress is inevitable,” the settler responded. He told Shehadeh that the Arab villagers, without running water, have a difficult life, and that they dump their garbage everywhere: “You lack the know-how and the discipline. Leave planning and law enforcement to us. We have built many towns and cities out of wild empty areas. Tel Aviv was built on sand dunes and look how vibrant it is today. The same will happen here” (191).

Then the settler said something that surprised Shehadeh: “I love these hills no less than you. I was raised here. The sights and smells of this land are a sacred part of me. I am not happy anywhere else. Every time I leave I cannot wait to get back. This is my home” (191). The conversation changed to the land they both love, and Shehadeh asked what the settlers called this wadi and this spring, and the men agreed that they both loved walking. However, this shared passion did not calm Shehadeh: “I held my breath. I wanted to blurt out all the curses I had ever learned: You . . . you . . . who’ve taken my land and now walk it as master, leaving me to walk as a criminal on a few restricted paths. But this time I held my tongue” (191-92).

The settler recalled a childhood memory of passing through Ramallah in a car, having stones thrown at them (192).“[I]t destroyed something inside me, perhaps forever,” he said. “I was so afraid. . . . because I could not understand why the Arabs hate us so much. When we got to school I asked the teacher why” (192). Her answer was, “Because they are bad people . . . and they hate Jews. This is why we have to be strong to defend ourselves” (193). Shehadeh responded that by taking the land and refusing to recognize the fact, the presence of settlers means “perpetual war” (193). The settler was not concerned. Shehadeh asked about international law; the settler said that’s “for the weak” (193). “I went to the army for three years,” he continued. “I will defend everything my family fought for. There was a war and we won. Our presence here is a fact that you will have to live with. My grandfather died fighting in the war of independence”—that is, the war for independence from the British (193). Shehadeh was surprised: “But they came to take our country from us and give it to you.” (193). The settler told him that there could be no compensation for properties taken in 1948 unless Palestinians compensated for Jewish losses in Cairo, Baghdad and Yemen. “What have we to do with Egypt, with Iraq, with Yemen?” Shehadeh replied. “Ask them. They are different countries. As far as I’m concerned all people who lost property should be compensated. But you should not link the two cases” (194). The settler’s response was simple: they’re Arabs (194). He saw no difference between the Palestinians and other Arabs, and argued that Palestinians are not a nation: “You never had your own government. . . . you don’t have, you never had, a national presence in Eretz Israel,” but the Jews did, in Judea, three thousand years before (195). “So with the exception of small communities in Jerusalem and Hebron there were no Jews living in the West Bank since that time. The land has been continuously populated predominantly by Arabs. Does this not count in your eyes?” Shehadeh asked.  The settler answered, “It took the Jews three thousand years to return to their land. It’s the only country we’ve got. And you want us to give it up?” (195).

Shehadeh states that taking all the land without sharing is discriminatory, but the settler disagreed: “You want to walk? We have designated areas as natural parks which we forbid anyone, Arab or Jew, from building on. You and us can enjoy these areas” (195). “I have not been able to enjoy these hills since your people came,” Shehadeh replied. “I walk in fear of being shot at or arrested. There was a time when this place was like a paradise, a cultivated garden with a house by every spring. A small, unobtrusive house, built without concrete” (195). The settler scoffed: 

And then the Jews came like the serpent and ruined everything in the idyllic garden. You blame us for everything, don’t you? But it doesn’t matter. We’ve learned our lesson from our long, tortured history. Here in our own land our existence is not premised on your acceptance. We’ve long since found out that we have to be strong if we are to survive here. (196)

Then Shehadeh retrieved his wet hat and turned to walk away. However, the settler asks if he wants to smoke with him, and he does: “I knew from experience that often the first impulse is the best one to follow and my intuition on this occasion was not to refuse” (196). 

“As the strong stuff began to take effect,” Shehadeh recalls, he began to think about another sarha in the same hills, walking with a friend, sitting on rocks near the cyclamen rock, resting at the midway point of their walk. It was sunset and the colours of the hills were changing. A man walked by with long, deliberate strides, as though he was taking measurements: 

In the clarity of the moment I suspected the worst, tidings of a terrible future for our beautiful hills. A short time after this, work began on the settler road connecting Dolev to Beit Eil, which passed along the exact path this man had traversed. He must have been working for the Arab contractor who executed the work on behalf of the settlers. The hills where never the same after that. (197)

That memory made him feel guilty about sharing the hills with the settler, but then he thought, “these are my hills despite how things are turning out. If I postpone my enjoyment of them I might never achieve the sarha that I have sought for so long” (197). “With every draw of the nergila, I was slipping back into myself, into a vision of the land before it became so tortured and distorted, every hill, watercourse and rock, and we the inhabitants along with it,” he continues.  “I was fully aware of the looming tragedy and war that lay ahead for both of us, Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. But for now, he and I could sit together for a respite, for a smoke, joined temporarily by our mutual love of the land” (198). The pair began to hear shots in the background but they didn’t know who is firing. “We agreed to disregard them for now and for a while the only sound that we could hear was the comforting gurgle of the nergila and the soft murmur of the precious water trickling between the rocks,” Shehadeh concludes (198). It is a rather ominous conclusion, a brief moment of wary peace with gunfire in the background.

Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape left me thinking about the parallels between the West Bank and Saskatchewan. There are many differences, of course, but in both places, settlers have done everything possible to displace the original inhabitants of the land, and in both places the settlers—or at least most of them—are blind (wilfully, perhaps, or through ignorance) to that face. I can imagine the conversation Shehadeh has with the settler taking place between a Cree or Saulteaux man out for a walk and a môniyâw hiker or hunter. More importantly, Shehadeh’s final chapter suggests that a love of the land, or even a sense of its sacredness, cannot make up for a history of colonization and displacement, that it cannot generate a sense of shared purpose or understanding. How could it? In addition, the changes Shehadeh has seen in the hills and wadis he loves since the 1970s are not unlike the ones settlers brought to this land by destroying the grassland ecosystem. Unlike the roads Shehadeh imagines becoming part of the landscape, that destruction is permanent, and ongoing, so that less than 14 percent remains. And all of this reinforces my sense that settlers and their descendants do need to justify their walking in this land, because it does belong to others. The shape such a justification would take eludes me right now, but it’s something I’m going to have to think about—and discuss with Elders.

Work Cited

Shehadeh, Raja. Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape, Scribner, 2007.