Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: Walking’s New Movement

76. Linda Cracknell, Doubling Back: Ten Paths Trodden in Memory


As I’ve mentioned here before, I hadn’t heard of Linda Cracknell before reading Deirdre Heddon’s and Cathy Turner’s essay, “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” The first of Cracknell’s books that arrived in my mailbox was her little book, Following Our Fathers: Two Journeys Among Mountains; the two stories (essays? what genre have I been reading?) in that book are included in Doubling Back: Ten Paths Trodden in Memory, and so I won’t be writing about them again here. After I read Following Our Fathers, I wondered if Cracknell’s work might serve as a model for what I intend to do. Now, after reading Doubling Back, I’m sure that it could. 

Phil Smith includes Cracknell, along with Simon Armitage and Robert Macfarlane, in a list of writers about walking whose work is too traditional and too interpretive; when interpretation happens in an account of a walk, he argues, “the mobility solidifies into a commodity that is reassuringly unique and recognisable” (54). I think Smith prefers writing that captures the performative nature of a walk in some way (not an easy thing to accomplish) rather than writing that is clearly literary in intention. (He also prefers walking that is relational, or influenced by relational aesthetics, and many of Cracknell’s walks, though not all, are solitary affairs.) Myself, I’d be happy to be included in any list beside Simon Armitage and Robert Macfarlane; I’m coming to realize that my ambitions are literary rather than performative. That’s not a bad thing; there are many different ways to walk, and many different ways to respond to walking. 

Cracknell’s text begins at a writers’ retreat in Switzerland, and it returns there periodically as a way of introducing the walks she is writing about. At that retreat, she walks every morning with a notebook: “There may be chatter or observations I need to note down, a new story idea, or solutions to my writing problems. It’s as if I think better on the move, think more creatively, or as Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have it, ‘my mind only works with my legs’” (12). That quote is apparently from somewhere in the Confessions, a book I should probably be reading as part of this project. Cracknell remembers that she was a walker in childhood: 

I suspect I was a strange child, internalised, tearful, quiet. But I remember that there was always a lot going on in my imagination. . . . I learnt about my need to discover, to make sense of local geography by propelling myself through it. I trod routes into familiarity, let my imagination work on the things left behind by others, and got the dirt of the place under my fingernails. I found self reliance and independence there. (14)

Walking is still part of her life: “I’ve remained both a daily walker and an ‘expedition’ walker. My life has been shaped by it to some extent. An enjoyment of walking in remote and mountainous terrain explains in part my move to Scotland in 1990 from where I started to write five years later” (15).

The walks she writes about in this collection were made over the previous eight years: “They are mostly retreadings of past trails either taken by myself or others. In the act of doubling back I discover what remains or is new and listen for memories, some of which have become buried. I also explore how the act of walking and the landscapes we move through can shape who we are and how we understand the world” (15). The notion of “retreading” is important here, and it’s the reason she uses the word “doubling” in the book’s title. All these walks are, in some way, rewalkings; she is self-consciously following in the paths of others, and that notion links the various walks she writes about. She describes those walks as 

ambles, treks and expeditions ranging across mountains, valleys and coasts in Scotland, Kenya, Spain, Cornwall, Norway and here in Switzerland. Each setting is the realisation of an obsessive curiosity and seems to have chosen me, rather as stories choose to be written. Sometimes they have similarly unforeseen resolutions. (16)

The words “ambles, treks and expeditions” cover the range of walking Cracknell writes about; her walks range from the difficult and dangerous (her climb in the Alps, which I won’t be discussing here because I’ve already written about it) to regular and routine (her walk in the Birks of Aberfeldy, which concludes the book). I like the idea of a range of walking practices; not every walk needs to be a difficult solo trek, and while some walks are better made alone, others walks require the presence of fellow-walkers.

The first two walks, she continues, are 

“saunters” because they are musing and exploratory. Neither of them are steady lines between two places, but meandering rambles with opportunities for distraction and deviation. They take me to places significant in the early lives of Thomas Hardy and Jessie Kesson, landscapes that had long legacies beyond the writers’ youthful roamings and inspired their later texts. I’m also following my younger self. I want to explore how the freedom of certain places at significant points in our lives can encourage us to become close observers of the world, or transform our imaginations, or simply, transform us. (16)

Those introductory words lead into Cracknell’s first chapter, “The Opening Door.” Back in 1976, while staying at Boscastle, in Cornwall, she hears the story of how Thomas Hardy had fallen in love with Emma Lavinia Gifford while a guest at the same guest house she’s staying at (22-23). After Emma’s death in 1912, he returned to the area on a “painful pilgrimage” and wrote poems about her (23-24). Cracknell herself returns to Boxcastle in 2008, “fearful of shattering dreams”: “I rarely like to return to places that have had a powerful hold on me—perhaps it’s a fear of deflation or that things will have changed, but mostly it’s a fear of experiencing too keenly a sense of loss for that past time” (24). She remembers meeting a young man in 1976 and feeling torn between him and her boyfriend back in suburban Surrey (28). She also recalls exploring the cliffs east and west of Boscastle: 

I walked in increasing circles and offshoots from my centre—circles which moved me towards orientation, recognition, familiarity and finally a sense of “owning” the place, or perhaps it owning me. This walking ritual, a sort of “beating of the bounds,” that I learnt here is now instinctive when I visit new places, a link perhaps to Hardy who walked his way to a native knowledge of London in the five years he lived there. (31)

Cracknell has been influenced profoundly by Hardy: his “dialogue between landscape and character, human mood and nature, had captured me as a reader by 1976, and has coloured my own fiction writing. Almost unconsciously, I conjure characters out of particular places, or observe places and landscapes through the state of mind or qualities of my characters” (32). But, more importantly, Cracknell’s return to Boscastle is an opportunity to reflect on how she has changed in the intervening 30 years: “A door opened for me when I was here first, and now I see a clear pathway between that 17 year old who was learning to draw and paint and the woman who writes in 2008. We are not so different. I’ve not outgrown the romance that helped me ‘find my feet’ and shaped my passion for paths and for walking as well as for literature” (35). 

Cracknell’s second chapter, “Dancing, Kicking Up Her Legs,” is also a return to a place that was important to one of her literary influences, the writer Jessie Kesson (whose work I don’t know). She travels to Achbuie in Scotland, where Kesson went, at the age of 19, after a year in a mental hospital: 

It was curious about this powerful influence that took me there in early spring. I wanted to share her exuberance and find the Red Rock she wrote about. And there, high on the moor to the northeast of Achbuie, seen through my wind-tugged hair—a slash of steep gully sliced inland from the Loch into a south-facing cliff. Red and crumbly, fissured in long downward strikes, a superb visual play was created by the orange-red of newly exposed rock against the petrol-glazed blue of age. (41-42)

For Kesson, “[r]ites of passage were played out here,” and she met the man who later became her husband (42). Cracknell sought out Kesson’s writing, “discovered more of the fictionalised re-workings of her own traumatic childhood years” and “began to realise that it was the intensity of the inner life of troubled children” that she was connected to (44). Cracknell makes a second visit, ten days later, and spring has progressed (46). She walks along a burn and gets lost: 

The sense of a well-loved, shared path keeps pulling me Loch-wards, until it leads to a wicket gate in an unyielding high fence. Beyond it I see the purple flash of rhododendron, hints of laid paths, ponds and house roofs. I skirt the fence to the southerly burn looking for another way, smashing through bramble and brush and over fallen logs. My legs are scratched and bloody, torn by the open edges of dead bracken stem. With soil and moss smearing my hands, I’m returning to my childhood garden, my wilderness of rust-glazed water and bracken. Hints of suburbia hang between birch branches and drone with the distant lawnmower. (49)

Getting lost—a common hazard for walkers—becomes a conduit back into Cracknell’s childhood. But I think Cracknell’s primary concern here is the influence of walking in Achbuie on Kesson: 

When she walked on this edge of land and water at the age of nineteen she was perhaps already becoming comfortable with the rebellious identity that would free her from unpromising beginnings and define her as a writer. . . . I like to think it was an extreme change of environment and the experience of spring here that propelled her into that self. (50)

“After six months,” Cracknell continues, “the sensuality and physicality of the place became overwhelming and she ran away,” although she returned for her honeymoon and chose it as the place her ashes were to be scattered (50). The chapter concludes with an assertion of similarity between Cracknell’s walking and Kesson’s: “With limbs swinging I laugh and pant, sweating up through the green song-tunnels beside the burn. Jessie’s granddaughter described how her grandmother would be remembered—‘Dancing, kicking up her legs’—and it seems an apt description also for this hillside in springtime” (51).

Next Cracknell returns to the writers’ retreat in Switzerland, where she is becoming more comfortable with her surroundings:

I don’t take the map on my morning walks any longer; I’ve learnt my one-hour radius and stay within it, walking almost as I do at home, without making decisions, just seeing what each junction decides and greeting the dog-walkers along the way. There’s still an element of exploring as I join up the paths I know, experiment with the route so I can miss out a section on a road, or cut out some up and down by going through a vineyard. I take delight in my ability to improvise. (54)

She introduces her next two walks, on paths in Spain and Kenya: 

I hoped to understand something of the places they connect and pass through, and of the people who walk or walked them. They both kick up issues of tolerance and humanity along with dust and pebbles. Walking “in someone else’s shoes” (or without shoes if they are) and on their paths connects one to their stories and rouses the imagination. An open mind accompanying a good walk might just increase our ability to empathise and cross boundaries in a complex world and make for better participants in the “human race.” (55)

The idea of walking without shoes is an important part of her walk in Kenya; she walked barefoot because her Kenyan companions did as well. 

Cracknell’s third chapter, “Stairway to Heaven?,” begins with a quotation from Hamish Fulton’s Seven Short Walks: “Walking—cuts a line through 21st century life” (61). This chapter is about a walk in the Valle de Laguart in southern Spain: “The Valle de Laguart in the mountain ranges of La Marina in southeastern Spain has been coined ‘la catedral de senderismo’—the cathedral of walking. I first came across a Mozarabic Trail here when walking about ten years ago, and was taken by its ingenuity and precipitousness” (62-63). Her plan is to walk the trails for a week, through La Marina to the Valle de Laguart, a continuous walk (63). She explains that Mozarabs were Christians who retained their faith under the Islamic government in Spain, Al-Andalus, although they weren’t allowed to ring church bells (63).The paths they made are, she says, remarkable, and she compares their construction to the making of books (which were important during the Al-Andalus period; libraries were burned after the return of Christian rule in 1492): 

The making of a book requires investment and multiple skills—writing, translation, papermaking, printing, binding. A path must be built with an understanding of both land and human bodies. It involves surveyors and stonemasons, requires strong builders and insight into the human mind. (64)

“Perhaps if we want a measure of the civility of a period or nation or community,”  she continues, “we need to look at the importance placed on both books and the ways for pedestrians” (64-65).

Much of the chapter narrates the experience of walking and camping alone: 

In the last minutes before dusk at six each evening, I would look for a camping spot on a high terrace. Overnight, my tent compressed a mattress of wild thyme into a small scented bed. The slither of plump olives down the flysheet often punctuated the hours, along with owls’ calls and, frequently, the close grunts and snuffles of wild boar. When I lay down on my first night, the tent at my feet became a screen on which played the shadow puppets of pine branches tossed by wind against the full moon. (67)

The terraced hillsides she mentions here were developed by the Romans and expanded by the Moors. They were, she writes, 

a sculptural intervention as captivating as any piece of land art. Each terrace was an echo of the one before but with a subtle adjustment for the lie of the land—a tighter arc above or a longer stretch, or a spreading to accommodate a decrease in steepness. Looking at a whole hillside covered in terraces from a high point above the Valle d’Arc, I was mesmerised by how they fitted together in great arcs and cirques, one building in a spiral to the top of a conical peak. It was like watching a complex set of eddies and whirlpools in a river. (70)

“I was awed by the land that I crossed,” she writes, by the mountains she climbed and descended every day (72). At first she travels on what I think are gravel roads:

I often followed broad unmade roads on this journey, many in good enough condition to take a car. They sweep in great arcs to find a steady rise or fall, to avoid the deep ravines, and they make their way to the ‘cracks’ in the defences of long mountain ranges. Cross-country walking in this landscape is made near impossible by cataclysmic drops and by the fierce growth of gorse, kermes oaks and other spiny plants characteristic of the garrigue and maquis amongst the boulders. (73)

Eventually, though, she began walking on Mozarabic trails rather than roads, leading to another kind of retreading or rewalking:

After the village of Castell de Castells, heading for Languart, my way began to incorporate short stretches of Mozarabic Trail. I knew them by character straight away. Narrow and stone-lined; polished with use but trustworthy. One side often hugs a terrace wall, while the other is marked by a low boundary of white boulders. They twist and zig-zag through steep ground, worming deep into the gloomiest parts of the gorges. They’re a secret shared between those who walk and the land itself. Walkers are subsumed between terraces, disappear into the inner track of ravines and fissures. The trails are wily and direct, a welcome contrast to the broad tracks, making a virtue of the smallness and dexterity of human and animal feet. Although these short lengths didn’t yet have monumental continuity, and I often found them cut across by bulldozed tracks, they always gave me a skip of delight, as if I’d made a great discovery. I found myself walking them slowly, savouring each step, admiring as I went. I added my footfall to the thorough polishing that my predecessors had given the rock. (73-74)

Those trails had survived many things over hundreds of years, including flooding from storms the previous autumn (74). They were well-designed for pedestrians carrying freight: 

I’m laden with a rucksack myself, and regretting it as I consider my first steep ascent. Voices echo up from below me. I see three figures dazzled to black by the limestone boulders in the river bed. They’re looking up towards me, admiring the shadowed route that’s just carried them down. Reassured by their success, I entrust my feet to the first steps.

Soon I find an easy rhythm. Stride for stride, the steps fit me perfectly. They never force me to drop deeper or stretch further than my body’s comfortable with. On each corner, steps fan out into a perfect dovetail, like pages hinging open from the spine of a book. They allow a significant drop with ease, one that my mother’s knees might manage. Steps built for pathways in the Scottish Highlands are sometimes too high or widely spaced to fit a natural rhythm, and I’ve noticed the scuffed paths that arc around them causing erosion that the path is precisely designed to avoid. Not these. (75)

“I relax, accept the grace of the path, thanking its considerate builders with their Arabised skills,” she writes (75-76). “I arrive at the white boulders on the riverbed and look back up at the shadowland of cliff, crag, buttress, hidden steps, almost laughing at the ingenuity. Already the path has made the landscape seem less severe, more familiar, now that I’m cleft within it” (76). 

Cracknell’s account of walking is accurate and funny. She wakes up on her last morning dehydrated and sunburned: 

I look again for the spring marked on my map that I searched for in half-light last night. I used my remaining water to cook up pasta and went to sleep dehydrated, with my face roaring from too much sun. But I fail again to find the spring. This is my last day of walking and I begin to feel the need to eat properly, to spread out a bit, perhaps even to speak to some people and get clean. My socks smell like an intensive chicken farming unit. But the trajectory towards comfort is still hanging in a balance with the desire to continue the journey. (79)

She climbs up to a castle on the top of a mountaintop and hears church bells from below along with the sound of hunters’ gunshots: “I’m cowering from the naked sun, the back of my mouth sticky and slow, and the skin of my face sultana-dry. I head down; down into the tinkling valleys with questions still ringing in my mind” (81). What those questions are isn’t clear; perhaps she is thinking about the history she has walked through and the differences between that history and the world in which she lives.

In her fourth chapter, “Baring our Soles,” Cracknell thinks about the meanings of walking barefoot. “Walking barefoot can have multiple meanings—from penance to pilgrimage to protest and empowerment to poverty and powerlessness. But it also has a sensory impact,” she writes, noting that her friend Philo Ikonya compares it to talking to the earth (87). “It was a long time since I’d walked barefoot anywhere except on a beach, but I was willing to try,” she continues.  “Philo had told me that women and girls all go barefoot on these village paths. The rainy season transforms the hard red earth into a clogging swamp and shoes are completely impractical. But for me and my friends used to wearing shoes in Nairobi’s streets, it was strange and difficult” (88). Philo’s tells Cracknell about her late brother’s perfect feet: “Philo described the shape of the heel as a zero, with an arch so high that the foot didn’t meet the ground again until the next little zero at the ball and the ‘dot, dot, dot’ of the toes. She would know his footprint anywhere, she said, printed onto the earth paths radiating from the house, layered now under the marks of more recent walkers” (89-90). My flat feet are completely different, and I would find it difficult to walk any distance barefoot, without the lift that orthotics give to my arches. But Cracknell and Philo meet a woman who regularly walks from Nairobi to the village barefoot—a distance of 30 kilometres: 

“She says she can perfectly well afford to buy shoes, but why would she not want to walk barefoot?” Philo signalled the smooth red earth, the maize and coffee plants lifting in the breeze, the absence of vehicles. 

I wondered how the woman’s walk would be interpreted in Nairobi, where, as Philo had said earlier, “the city ways are hostile to barefoot travellers.” Would people read poverty rather than pleasure in her steps?” (93)

Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that walking barefoot was common even in Scotland’s cold climate, although it’s become unusual, and Cracknell rarely thinks about her feet, especially in the winter: 

They’d been bundled up in recent weeks, even as I sat at my desk, or crammed into boots when I’d gone out, boots that seemed to make unbending planks of them, as if appending their natural functions with something more useful. I’d looked at them with distaste in the bath—the thickening yellow toenails suggesting fungal infection, the puffy arthritic joint of the left big toe. And now they’d been released to this! (95)

Cracknell and her companions wash their feet under the garden tap when they arrive at their destination: “The red soil streamed away, the water cooled hot soles, gilded our feet with sunlight. We put on our shoes again. My soles tingled, and as we started back, my gait was shifted by the elevation from the ground. A new perspective, a sense perhaps closed off, but I felt deeply refreshed” (96). 

The chapter ends with an account of Philo’s arrest in Nairobi during a peaceful protest outside Parliament. When she is released, the police kept one of her shoes (99). “‘It’s one thing to love to walk village paths barefoot,’ Philo wrote in an email afterwards, ‘another to be forced to step on cold cement. . . . Our feet celebrations turned into tears.’ She compared it to the humiliation of being stripped,” Cracknell relates (100). After her release she walked back across the city, “barefoot and defiant, carrying the one remaining shoe to demand its pair at the police station” (100). Cracknell recognizes her privilege here: “My own feet still recalled our walk; some of the toughened skin was peeling off in a translucent film grained with contours. I enjoyed the sensation, the visceral reminder of the meeting of our skin with the skin of the earth. But it took on a different meaning now” (100). 

Another interlude at the writers’ retreat in Switzerland follows, which introduces her walks in the mountains of Norway and Switzerland. After those walks, she writes, “I became less intent on walking to ‘get away from it all’ and more interested in walking those paths that beat with a human resonance” (102). Her walk in Norway is a turning point in the project: “I set out on this walk principally for a holiday, but it came to mean much more. I discovered a richly peopled landscape. . . . the generosity of strangers playing their part contributed to a sense of a living, resonant pathway” (128).  She returned home thinking about that: “I felt the need to follow more whispering ways; to seek out stories that still echo underfoot” (128). That realization leads to her walk in Switzerland, in her father’s footsteps. After her account of those two walks, Cracknell returns to the writers’ retreat in Switzerland, but this time she’s gone away to walk in the Alps: “a day walk, a loop. I resisted the lure of well-marked trails leading the eye towards lengthier possibilities. It’s a joy, though, that’s hard to beat: setting out on a long walk, the agenda for forthcoming days dictated solely by the beckoning road. The landscape unrolls, fitness grows, and even the slight sense of hardship and rationed foot is enjoyable” (163-64). “On a long walk in remote terrain life becomes simplified into a line, daily rituals, the rhythm of day and night,” she writes. “Added to this, a passage through a mountain landscape is punctuated by dramatic geographical features; passes and rivers to cross, junctions, inns and settlements, each of which can gather symbolic significance in a mind channelled by motion and perhaps solitude” (164). Because walking connects places together, she continues, it creates continuity, and those places are both physical and mental: 

We discover ourselves as we discover the world. Perhaps reclaiming our own stories through a physical act can help ensure that life’s momentum doesn’t take us sleepwalking onwards, shedding memories carelessly along the way. We may even walk ourselves into a whole new geography. In an age in which our major life changes are mostly unmarked, a long walk can fulfil a necessary ritual. (165)

Those thoughts lead into Cracknell’s seventh chapter, “The Return of Hoof Beats,” an account of a droving journey in the Scottish Highlands.  “Our modest body of people and animals moving as one across an ancient-feeling landscape in Scotland was an ‘unnecessary’ journey,” she writes, but it “felt connected to a stream of time and a legacy of working journeys with animals. I’d envisaged it being a bit like a medieval pilgrimage; a flock of us grouping and regrouping as we moved, stories told along the way, and more created” (172). The group travelled “at a drover’s pace of 10-12 miles a day using old ways and passes which once forged lively connections between places” (172). They moved through a “statuesque landscape” that “seems ‘wild’ now because of its remoteness from most human traffic and habitation. It’s relatively unmarked physically by the web of seasonal trails that would once have kept it busy” (172).

This communal journey was organized by Joyce Gilbert, a historian of the old ways of travelling in Scotland. The journey was inspired by the history of droving in Scotland, a practice that ended in the second half of the nineteenth century (174), and participants, Cracknell writes, were fascinated by journeys and “the urge to discover a sense of place. There were also individual motivations such as a wish to walk with animals, explore and draw creative inspiration from the landscape, follow old ways and keep traditions alive” (173). However, few in the group had any experience with ponies, the animals they were walking with; only one woman, Vyv Wood-Gee, who in 2010 had travelled 800 miles with two ponies from the Isle of Skye to Smithfield Market in London, knew what she was doing (173). Leading ponies on foot is a skill: “you depend more on head-to-head proximity, and your voice, a hand on the pony’s nose, the occasional titbit to induce rapport. This gap between control and trust requires the human-pony relationship to be reciprocal, demanding respect on both sides. It feels more egalitarian than riding” (176). Cracknell is confused by the “slightly contradictory advice” they had received at the beginning of the journey: 

We were told that the ponies needed us to guide them—where best to put their feet, how to keep out of trouble in bogs and on steep ground. They needed to be able to trust us. But we were also told that they would need a very long rein, giving them the freedom to pick their own way, to jump if necessary, swerve out of danger. It suggested that their wayfinding was superior to ours and that they would know the best route. So which was right—did they need us or us them? (176)

It’s a good question, one that could only be answered through practice and experience.

The journey is an emotional one for Cracknell. She describes their arrival at Blair Castle:

I felt intensely aware of the fluid movement of our line; the beat of our feet and clatter of forty hooves on tarmac. . . . We must have made a bedraggled, raggle-taggle spectacle, having come through heavy rain with our loaded panniers and muddy boots. Neatly dressed visitors to the castle watched us go past. I heard a woman answer her daughter’s question with: “They’re travelling with their ponies, love.” I felt a great rush of pride; tears almost. I was a person of the road with my pony beside me, a pony that had become so much more than a luggage-carrier. (182)

That rush of pride is interesting, and suggests that Cracknell has adopted a temporary identity through her experience; she has become a drover, rather than just a walker. There are important differences between this journey and others she has taken:

The rhythms of any camping journey—pitching tents, cooking, sleeping—were extended by looking after the ponies’ needs—untacking, turning them out, finding water. The compassion we needed to find for our animals even when we were tired and hungry, characterised the culture of our expedition, and softened it. (182)

“Over the week the animals became like members of our extended family with distinct personalities and allegiances,” she continues (183). In addition, she writes, “[t]he journey also gathered people to us. Despite our often remote location, and the sense at times of a haunted, abandoned landscape, each night we had extra company of some sort; folk joining us with songs or stories, or hosting us in their fields and steadings” (183). Sometimes local communities would hold “Meet the Drovers” events where “local people and tourists” would “pat the ponies and ask about the way” (183). “It was clear by now that a nerve had been tingled by our quirky procession; a way of life suggested because we were moving alongside animals,” Cracknell writes. “Perhaps it raised a folk memory, barely lost, of our partnership with working animals and the land” (184). Travelling with ponies also brought the group “into tune with the landscape,” making them feel more a part of it and allowing wildlife to come closer, and allowing the travellers to notice more (184). There was something powerful in the repetition involved in this journey, and although detractors might describe Cracknell’s account as overly romantic, clearly she experienced something on that journey that she didn’t on the others she writes about.

In her eighth chapter, “The Dogs’ Route,” Cracknell walks for two weeks to the Isle of Skye from her home in Perthshire: “My route had been trodden before me by the numerous cattle-drovers who had once herded animals south to market at this time of year, streaming in black ghost-lines in the opposite direction” (190). Cracknell finds this walk also very moving, perhaps because it reminds her of passages or changes in her life:

Like a series of thresholds, there had been many crossings on my journey so far—rivers, railways, roads, the Great Glen fault-line, mountain passes, transitions between rock types, the boundaries of mental geography. Each threshold arose to demand from me a commitment of sorts, to the next step in a new terrain. (191)

Her ferry journey from the mainland, for example, took on “a mythic weight. I was in no danger of life or loss, but there was anxiety, the need gnawing at me to put the territory of the past behind me and complete a journey” (191). 

Perhaps this journey was so moving because Cracknell began at her home; that certainly made it different from the others she writes about. “The start in a familiar landscape joined up my day walks, gave me the pleasure of naming places, but also noticing the shifts in colour, and the slow changes in the bulky shape of Ben Lawers as I skirted its sides.” she writes. “It was strange but lovely that for the first two nights I was near enough home to stay with local friends” (193). “The line of the walk was taking me out of familiarity and then returning it to me. Crossing thresholds and linking places” (195). And I have to say, having just finished a walk in Scotland, I was waiting for Cracknell to finally get her boots wet, which she does while crossing a peat bog: “I abandoned the preserve of dry boots and socks. For the first time on the walk I was out of my comfort zone, wet and peat-spattered, travelling very slowly in an unknown land” (194).

Cracknell was walking alone, but because part of her route coincided with the West Highland Way, she found companions on the road: 

I fell into step with two lads I’d met in the pub the night before. Then I left them with a group of cheery Germans who stopped on the summit of the first hill to brew up coffee away from the midges. . . . I passed on to walk with two women from London, and then from them to two young Israeli men struggling under 25 kilo packs, and demanding reassurance about three words that were shivering them with apprehension about what was ahead: “The Devil’s Staircase.”

Unlike a cocktail party, no excuse was ever needed to pass on to the next conversation. It happened naturally with the tying of a bootlace. (196)

Conversations spontaneously happened during a lunch stop at a pub (196), which suggests something about the difference between walking and other forms of transportation:

I don’t think I’ve ever struck up a conversation with anyone in a motorway services, and yet the pubs and cafes on my route were rich with encounter. It was as if my solitude inclined me to drop barriers and delight in sharing experience. With walkers there’s always subject-matter—the route, weather, memories of past walks, advice on new places. Such journey-talk is a small step from how we choose to live our lives and what we value. It’s not, to me, superficial. (197)

Cracknell sometimes stays with friends, and while she enjoys the break from her journey, the impulse to continue moving always reasserts itself:

Despite the kindnesses, the tea and food and drying off, the exchanges of news about mutual friends from university days, I suddenly felt the need for movement. Pressed in this tight drama of valley, water, rock, memory, I needed to breathe, to be alone again, to work out what to do next. I needed to reclaim the journey; to prove that the line I’d partly invented behind me could also continue forwards. (205)

The impulse to move, and to be alone, are interesting here; not every walk needs to be made with other people, and sometimes the forward motion of the journey comes to take priority over other concerns. I’ve felt both of these, and that experience is one of the reasons I reject the prescriptive suggestion that long, solo walks are somehow without value.

Cracknell’s arrival on Skye leads to several important connections with others, however, One is with her B&B host, a man named Philip Tordoff. In the morning, he stands outside with her, 

continuing our conversation about the value of walking the old ways, about what it means to find enlightenment in land and books. . . . I walked off into a dry morning, gusted past the Co-op, and my boots strode me back into a rhythm. Rather than turning for home, I turned south-west towards Elgol, and the road rose to meet me. (206)

At this point, Cracknell reveals the reason for her interest in thresholds and her anxiety about completing the walk: “I’m not an old woman, and yet if you’re considered old once your fertile years are past, I’m heading towards that different way of being. This journey was challenging to my body, calling for stamina, energy, strength, mobility. These were qualities of youth” (207). 

She recalls a letter from her doctor, explaining that she has some kind of “joint disease,” and her response, which was to recall an old man she had seen, nearly bent double, walking along the sidewalk (207). Will she be able to continue walking? At a café in a village, she chats with a smiling woman she had passed earlier on the road, walking (211). She loves walking and encourages Cracknell to continue walking, noting that she has arthritis and can no longer walk: “‘But please, keep doing it,’ she said. ‘Keep walking. For as long as you can.’” (216). 

Cracknell gives this journey a strong conclusion: 

My journey took fifteen days. I passed through some of the most visited places in the Highlands—Glen Lyon and the Great Glen, and under the most climbed hills of Glencoe, Grey Corries, the Glenelg peninsula. Such was the conspiracy of route or time of year or weather that, with the obvious exception of the West Highland Way, I barely met a single walker on my route between days one and fourteen. (217)

People ask her after the walk if she was lonely, a question she ponders: 

There’s a different kind of loneliness that you confront on any walk in the Highlands. Just after crossing the river at the head of Glen Arnisdale at Glen Dubh Lochan, I passed through fragments of a village that was once a drovers’ overnight stance. It would have been a beautiful place to live, on a slightly raised point above the bend in the river. . . . Passing sheilings reduced to tumbled stone and still surrounded by an oasis of green in the high glens, I sometimes fancy I glimpse faces form the corner of an eye, or catch the murmur of voices—curious at a traveller passing. But they don’t discomfort me as the relics left from the deliberate clearance of people from the Highlands do, perhaps because such sheilings were always intended to be temporary. (217-18)

The notion of rewalking becomes personal here: 

The line of this walk had linked places and people warm in my affection from a twenty-five year relationship with this part of Scotland. I’d teased up memories of past climbs, pub nights, days spent with friends and lovers. I hadn’t planned the route around this, at least not knowingly, but now I see it as a string upon which the jewels of special moments are held in lapidary brightness. (221)

Her journey, she continues, “traversed a space ‘inbetween’”:

There were thresholds, an equinox, caves, shores, bogs, bridges, tidal flats, roadside hostelries—liminal places which can be turning points or transitions; places where normal limits don’t apply. I’d walked with the gods and with the dogs. It had been a period out of my normal life. And yet it had also been an intense period of my life. I’d set out to follow an old droving trail but I had also opened up some buried chambers inside myself and the walk had given me time to dwell on their contents. (221)

That intensity is reflected in the tears she sheds when she arrives at her destination on Skye and finds it stormy rather than calm (220). I think this might be Cracknell’s most personal walk, even more personal than the walk in her father’s footsteps in Switzerland. It’s certainly the one that provokes the greatest emotional reaction in her.

Another interlude at the writers’ retreat in Switzerland follows. Cracknell realizes that she and her fellow writers have “made a home” of the place they’re staying, and she wonders whether she will “‘double back’ one day to collect the memories of this special time and place” (224). “It’s a common experience for walking to bring a spiritual peace, a sense of ‘home’ or connection with places, nature, people, as well as offering excitement or enchantment,” she writes. “These are slow ways, with possibilities for stillness and reflection, qualities I associate with the melancholy acceptance of Autumn” (225). “This project,” she continues,

this retreading of former ways first with feet and then in words has left me with traces of red dust, glacier ice, granite, in my veins, and a spring in my step. I’ve beaten the bounds of things I half know, uncovered history and inhabited my wild, childish self again, to relive the thrill of being drawn into a landscape, connecting to nature, seeing where a way leads and who or what I meet. I’ve appreciated better the various motives of footfall and made peace with the contradictory impulses of familiarity and ‘otherness’; self-sufficiency and company. And there’s a sense now that, as well as doubling back, walking moves me forward into some new terrain. (225)

Those words lead into her ninth chapter, “To Be a Pilgrim,” an account of another retreading: a walk from Melrose to Lindisfarne on St. Cuthbert’s Way, following in the footsteps of many pilgrims, as well as Saint Cuthbert himself, “shepherd, monk, hermit, and Bishop of Lindisfarne” (231). On this walk, Cracknell is accompanied by her friend, or lover, Phil (232). It is late October: “I felt a need to refresh my body with physical movement, to feel the spark of sun and rush of wind on my skin before giving in to the dark; to walk the length of the daylight hours. But I was less sure of the landscape and the destination, the path safely way-marked with Celtic crosses that would lead us without any need to navigate” (233). She suggests that “any long walk is a pilgrimage, a ‘holiday’ (or holy day) from familiar places and routines, and from possessions. A simple journey with an ultimate goal holds a bud of transformation, a means of renewing lost parts of ourselves. The pilgrim’s goal has a similar focus to the mountaineer’s summit, but it’s steadier, quieter” (234). “I wasn’t walking Saint Cuthbert’s way for religious reasons,” she writes, 

and yet I love the stories of many traditions, and hoped to find some of these underfoot and to discover places that beat with a spiritual pulse I could connect to. In a curious way I realised that setting out on a journey, leaving home, also gives me a sense of “coming home.” The dropping away of anxiety and everyday concerns results in a feeling of just being “me.” (235)

Those sentences are interesting: what does it mean to have the journey itself give her a sense of being at home? 

Walking with Phil interrupts the forward movement of the walk; he likes to stop to pause, to photograph what they see: “He didn’t worry about time and ‘getting on.’ We were using our feet to explore; to digress for a ruined house or linger over the colour of a beetle. The pause was as important as the pacing” (239). Aside from the weather, the walk is relatively uneventful, until they arrive at their destination and decide to try to cross the mudflats to St. Cuthbert’s Isle at dusk, against all advice. I was expecting disaster, but they manage to cross to the island and back without incident: “Behind us, the world had turned to monochrome. The sea washed away our footsteps and cast Lindisfarne off to become an island sanctuary again, a lulled cradle. Tide and the night stopped our feet, halted the onward rhythm of our journey. We had arrived, and the place insisted that we rest a day or two before we go on our way again” (243). This journey, as many walks in the UK do, ends at a pub, The Crown and Anchor. How appropriate that an account of a journey, one in which the journey becomes home, ends at a pub with the word “anchor” in its name.

Cracknell’s tenth chapter, “Friendly Paths,” is the story of a domestic or home-like walk: “The Birks of Aberfeldy,” made famous by a poem by Robbie Burns (249). It’s an hour-long walk, “shared by locals and visitors with dogs and children” (249). “I’ve walked The Birks often, in many seasons and weathers, even at night,” Cracknell writes: 

The way responds generously to my habit, offering words or images when I’m stuck for them, or the gift of a change in mood. It airs my mind and exercises my body when it’s cramped and subdued by work. I walk it with friends, too, visitors or local people. I’m never bored by it, and can always vary the route slightly; descending by a different track or exploring further up the hill beyond the Falls. Sometimes I leave the etched ways and follow fainter, incipient paths, just to see where they go. They might dump me in bog or snaring heather but I like the deviation; the combination of heartily sharing the ground and absconding to the margins. (250)

As I read those words, I thought about my regular walks in this city, and the way that I do get bored by them, partly because those faint, “incipient” paths are harder to find here. 

Walking the Birks of Aberfeldy is one of the first things Cracknell  does after returning home from being away: “I re-learn the land with my repeated steps, my circuits. But it’s not static. Things happen. Each time there’s the possibility of new discoveries. And I might meet someone by chance who’s taking their own turn of The Birks” (250). “By keeping the paths beaten, our feet earn us the right to be here,” she writes, (250) noting that “birks” is the Scots word for birches (251). (It’s easy to forget that Cracknell isn’t Scots, despite having lived in Perthshire for 25 years.) As she walks, she thinks about Dorothy Wordsworth, who wrote about the place when she came her with her brother (253). She also considers the connection between walking and writing, and the importance of repetition and return in both activities:

The writing of any story is mostly re-writing. My first draft will have a rough sense of direction and content, a provisional resolution, but then I’ll revisit it again and again, re-seeing the material to tighten it, or even to allow it, if it insists, to follow a new route. I think of it as a repeated walk; a loop with varieties or diversions. Revisiting our own memories is like this too. We subtly reconstruct them as we go, so that our life stories are less like photographic, objective reality and more like an act of imagination, re-invented over and over again. (256)

A repeated walk also generates layers of memories: “On a walk like this made over many years, and on many occasions, I’ve cached so many memories amongst the rocks and trees and hills, that re-turning the walk also gives me a way of retracing my own story” (256). She thinks of the arthritic woman she met on Skye and the promise she made to her to keep walking (257). “And now my walking mind gives in to the familiar, agrees to close the circle as I turn, double back towards the town on a level road with views into the valley,” she writes (257). “Contained within this walk each time I do it is the forever-pleasure of turning for home. At this point I always start to think ahead to putting on the kettle and making tea. Tomorrow perhaps I’ll take a turn of the story once again” (258).

This has been an important book for me, not only because I admire it, but because it confirms my recent thinking that I need to incorporate a variety of different walks into my project—not just one epic plod across the prairies, but other kinds of walking: shorter walks, made alone and with other people. I have ideas about how to proceed, and Doubling Back suggests to me that I’m on the right track. Cracknell’s walking, and her writing about those walks, might prove to be a model for my work, and so I’m happy to have read it. 

Work Cited

Cracknell, Linda. Doubling Back: Ten Paths Trodden in Memory, Freight, 2015.

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.

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.

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.

56. Francesco Careri, Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice

careri walkscapes

In Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice, architect Francesco Careri constructs a genealogy of walking that is somewhat different from Phil Smith’s in Walking’s New Movements. It moves from the Dadaists, Surrealists and Situationists, as does Smith, but it ends up with Minimalism and Land Art, rather than performance. My sense that walking as an aesthetic practice is a very broad field is confirmed by the twin genealogies Smith and Careri create. 

In his 2017 forward, Christopher Flynn suggests that walking is “as much an architectural act as a pilgrimage” (8), and that is a good summary of Careri’s argument. The book also has two introductions (one from 2013 by Careri, the other from 2002, the date of the book’s original publication, by Gilles A. Tiberghien). In the 2013 introduction, Careri describes the colonial urban grid of South American cities, and his comments on such grids, and on walking in those cities, also apply to cities in North America, at least to a degree:

I have to look for the points in which the grid breaks up, lose my way along rivers, skirting around the new residential zones, plunging into the mazes of the favelas. Walking in South America means coming to terms with many fears: fear of the city, fear of public space, fear of breaking rules, fear of usurping space, fear of crossing non-existent barriers, fear of other inhabitants, nearly always perceived as potential enemies. To put it simply, walking is scary, so people don’t walk any any more; those who walk are homeless, drug addicts, outcasts. The anti-peripatetic and anti-urban phenomenon is clearer here than in Europe, where it still seems to be on the verge of taking form: never leave the house on foot, never expose your body without an enclosure, protect it in the home or in the car. (13)

There are no favelas in North America, not exactly, but there is a sense of fear attached to urban walking (to a lesser degree, no doubt, than in South America), and those who walk are considered as marginalized (unless, in this city, they are taking a stroll around the artificial lake in the park). There’s no question, though—particularly when it comes to rural walking—that the “anti-peripatetic” phenomenon is deeply rooted here: no one goes anywhere outside of the cities without protecting their bodies inside an automobile. It’s worth noting as well that Careri sees the urban grid as a colonial imposition, whereas Smith (in Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota) suggests that such grids are utopian. Is there a crossover (from the perspective of the colonizer) between colonial imposition and utopian construction? If colonialism was intended as a utopian project (not for the colonized, obviously), does that help to explain why it is so hard for settlers, for colonizers, to address its ongoing legacy? 

Careri’s remarks on the politics of urban walking echo Jane Jacobs: 

It might sound banal, but the only way to have a safe city is to have people walking in the street. This factor alone allows people to watch and watch out for each other, without any need for fences and surveillance cameras. And the only way to have a living, democratic city is to be able to walk, without erasing conflicts and differences, to be able to walk in protest, to reassert our right to the city” (13)

Walking trains citizens; it is “capable of lowering the level of fear and of unmasking the media construct of insecurity” (13-14). So Careri walks with his students: “One motto that guides our walks is ‘lose time to gain space’” (14). He wants them to “get out of a functional-productive system in order to enter a non-functional, unproductive system” (14): 

You have to learn how to lose time, not always seeking the shortest route, letting yourself get detoured by events, heading towards more impenetrable paths where it is possible to ‘stumble,’ maybe even to get stuck, talking with the people you meet or knowing how to stop, forgetting that you were supposed to proceed; to know how to achieve unintentional walking, indeterminate walking. (14)

He calls the Situationist dérive a form of indeterminate walking, and suggests that it has the potential “for the transformation of the nomadic—or more precisely informal—city (14). “Drift,” he suggests, is a nautical metaphor: it connotes ways “to designate a direction, but with extensive openness to indeterminacy, and to listen to the projects of others” (15). That’s important, because determinate projects will fall apart at the first gusts of wind: “There are definitely greater hopes of achieving an indeterminate project” (15). 

At this point, Careri looks back at what he’s written so far, and sees it as connected to “relational” or “participatory” creative processes, which “cannot meet fulfillment without an exchange with the Other” (15). I’m hearing echoes of Smith or even Pujol here: in such relational creative processes, 

the operation usually happens in one of two ways: either you get the ‘other’ involves in your own project, to obtain consensus, or you cancel out your own creativity, leaving the completion of the work completely up to the other. Instead, I believe it is interesting to navigate between these two shores, aware of the fact that we have our own creative project (even our desire to participate is a project in its own right), but also knowing that we want to leave it open, indeterminate. The steering will therefore be done by the inner coherence between the things we come across and those we create, between things that happen and things we make happen, the ongoing discovery of a hidden order we can observe as it comes to life beneath our feet and the perspective they afford us, the possibility of constructing a meaning and a coherent, shared story-route. (15)

This is a reasonable take on relational aesthetics, worth remembering if (or when) I engage in that kind of project later on.

In the 2002 introduction, Tiberghien suggests that Careri offers “a rereading of the history of art in terms of the practice of walking” (20). The book’s main idea, he writes, is that “walking has always generated architecture and landscape, and that this practice, all but totally forgotten by architects themselves, has been reactivated by poets, philosophers and artists capable of seeing precisely what is not there, in order to make ‘something’ be there” (21). Walking serves practical needs, Tiberghien contends, but once they have been satisfied, it takes on a symbolic form that enabled humans “to dwell in the world. By modifying the sense of space crossed, walking becomes man’s first aesthetic act, penetrating the territories of chaos, constructing an order on which to develop the architecture of situated objects” (25). “Walking is an art from whose loins spring the menhir, sculpture, architecture, landscape,” he continues. “This simple action has given rise to the most important relationships man has established with the land, the territory” (26). Only in the 20th century has walking 

freed itself of the constraints of religion and literature to assume the status of a pure aesthetic act. Today it is possible to construct a history of walking as a form of urban intervention that inherently contains the symbolic meanings of the primal creative act: roaming as architecture of the landscape, where the term landscape indicates the action of symbolic as well as physical transformation of anthropic space. (26)

This is the perspective through which Careri looks at the shifts from Dada to Surrealism, from the Lettrist Internation to the Situationist International, and from Minimal Art to Land Art (26): 

By analyzing these episodes we simultaneously obtain a history of the roamed city that goes from the banal city of Dada to the entropic city of Robert Smithson, passing through the unconscious and oneiric city of the Surrealists and the playful and nomadic city of the Situationists. What the rovings of the artists discover is a liquid city, an amniotic fluid where the spaces of the elsewhere take spontaneous form, an urban archipelago in which to navigate by drifting. A city in which the spaces of staying are the islands in the great sea formed by the space of going. (26)

For the first part of the 20th century, walking was a form of anti-art: in a series of excursions “to the banal places of the city of Paris” in 1921, the Dadaists, for the first time, rejected art’s assigned places and set out to reclaim urban space; walking was one of the tools they used “to achieve that surpassing of art that was to become the red thread for any understanding of the subsequent avant-gardes” (27). Three years later, the Dadaists travelled to the open country, where they “discovered a dream-like, surreal aspect to walking and defined this experience as ‘deambulation,’ a sort of automatic writing in real space, capable of revealing the unconscious zones of space, the repressed memories of the city” (27). Then, in the 1950s, the Lettrist International, began to construct the theory of drifting (27). After the Lettrists had transformed into the Situationists, Guy Debord began making the “first images of a city based on the dérive,” as the Situationists experimented “with playful-creative behaviour and unitary environments” (27). 

In the second half of 20th century, walking seen as one of the forms used by artists to intervene in nature (27). In 1966, the journal Artforum published an account of Tony Smith’s journey along a highway under construction. After that, sculptors began exploring theme of the path, first as object, then as experience (27). According to Tiberghien, “Land Art re-examined, through walking, the archaic origins of landscape and the relationship between art and architecture, making sculpture reclaim the spaces and means of architecture” (27-28). In 1967, Richard Long’s created his famous A Line Made By Walking and Robert Smithson’s A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic (a work I had never heard of) became “the first such voyage through the empty spaces of the contemporary urban periphery,” a tour which led Smithson to conclude that “the relationship between art and nature had changed, nature itself had changed, the contemporary landscape autonomously produced its own space, in the ‘repressed’ parts of the city we could find the abandoned futures produced by entropy” (28). “Today’s city,” Tiberghien writes, “contains nomadic spaces (voids) and sedentary spaces (solids) that exist side by side in a delicate balance of reciprocal exchange. Today the nomadic city lives inside the stationary city, feeding on its scraps and offering, in exchange, its own presence as a new nature that can be crossed only by inhabiting it” (28). If you’re hearing echoes of Deleuze and Guattari in the types of space Careri identifies in the city, you’re probably right. 

According to Tiberghien, the first aim of this book is “to reveal the falseness of any anti-architectural image of nomadism, and thus of walking” (29). Paleolithic hunters and nomadic shepherds are “the origin of the menhir, the first object of the landscape from which architecture was developed. The landscape seen as an architecture of open space is an invention of the civilization of wandering. Only during the last ten thousand years of sedentary living have we passed from the architecture of open space to the architecture of filled space” (29). The second aim is “to understand the place of the path-journey in the history of architectural archetypes,” which means looking at the relationship between path and architecture, between roaming and the menhir, “in an age in which architecture did not exist as the physical construction of space, but as a symbolic construction—inside the path—of the territory” (29). In this context, “path” means three related things: “the act of crossing (the path as the action of walking), the line that crosses the space (the path as architectural object) and the tale of the space crossed (the path as narrative structure)”—he intends another meaning, path as aesthetic form available to architecture and landscape (30) In the 20th century, the rediscovery of the path happened first in literature (the Dadaists, Surrealists, and Situationists were writers), then in sculpture (Carl Andre, Long, Smithson), while in architecture it led to radical anti-architecture in nomadism, without (yet) a positive development (30). Through the path different disciplines have produced their own “expansion of the field,” paraphrasing Rosalind Kraus, as a way to come to terms with their own limits (30). “Retracing the margins of their disciplines, many artists have attempted not to fall into the abyss of negation consciously opened by Dada . . . but to leap beyond it”: so Breton transformed Dadaist anti-art into Surrealism by expanding the field into psychology; the Situationists tried to transform anti-art into a unified discipline by expanding into politics; and Land Art transformed the sculptural object “into construction of the territory by expanding the field toward landscape and architecture” (30). “Today architecture,” Tiberghien continues,

could expand into the field of the path without encountering the pitfalls of anti-architecture. The transurbance between the edges of the discipline and the place of exchange between the nomadic and the settled city can represent a first step. In this space of encounter walking is useful for architecture as a cognitive and design tool, as a means of recognizing a geography in the chaos of peripheries, and a means through which to invent new ways to intervene in public metropolitan spaces, to investigate them and make them visible. (30-32)

“The aim is to indicate walking as an aesthetic tool capable of describing and modifying those metropolitan spaces that often have a nature still demanding comprehension,” he writes, “to be filled with meanings rather than designed and filled with things” (32). Walking is a tool which, “due to the simultaneous reading and writing of space intrinsic to it,” enables attending and interacting with “the mutability of those spaces, so as to intervene in their continuous becoming by acting in the field, in the here and now of their transformation, sharing from the inside in the mutations of these spaces that defy the conventional tools of contemporary design” (32). This is a transformation of the path “from anti-architecture into a resource,” a way of expanding architecture’s field of disciplinary action (32), and Careri’s book is intended to be a contribution in that direction (32). I’m not interested in architecture, of course, but I am interested in walking, so my approach to this book was to skim over the passages devoted to architecture (including the final chapter, about Stalker, Careri’s walking group, which investigates the design of urban spaces) and focus on the genealogy of walking Careri constructs.

After Tiberghien’s summary of the book’s argument, Careri begins unpacking his ideas. In the first chapter, Errare Humanum Est . . . (wandering is human), Careri’s thinking takes an anthropological (even mythical) turn: “The primordial separation of humanity into nomads and settlers results in two different ways of living in the world and therefore of thinking about space” (35). He reads the story of Cain and Abel (one of his sources of information about nomadism and settlement) in architectural terms, arguing that it demonstrates“how the relation nomadism and settlement establish with the construction of symbolic space springs from an original ambiguity” (35). That story is about a division of labour: Cain is sedentary, a farmer, while Abel is nomadic, a herder (35). “[I[n the wake of an argument”—there is no Biblical justification for this claim, but never mind—“Cain accused Abel of trespassing and—as we all know—killed him, condemning himself to a destiny of eternal wandering as punishment for his fratricidal sin” (36). According to Careri, as a pastoralist, Abel has more free time, which allows him to experiment, to construct a symbolic universe, to map space and attribute symbolic and aesthetic values to the territory, all of which lead to landscape architecture (36). “So from the very beginning artistic creation, as well as that rejection of work and therefore of the opus that was to develop with the Parisian Dadaists and Surrealists, a sort of recreational-contemplative sloth that lies at the basis of the anti-artistic flânerie that crosses the 20th century, was associated with walking,” he writes (36). The two brothers’ different ways of dwelling (pastoralist versus agriculturalist) “correspond to two conceptions of architecture itself: an architecture seen as physical construction of space and form, as opposed to an architecture seen as perception and symbolic construction of space” (38). That doesn’t mean that settlement led to architecture: “it is probable that it was nomadism, or more precisely ‘wandering,’ that gave rise to architecture, revealing the need for a symbolic construction of the landscape” (39):

The division of labor between Cain and Abel produced two distinct but not fully self-sufficient civilizations. The nomad, in fact, lives in contrast to but also in osmosis with the settler: farmers and shepherds need to continuously trade their products and require a hybrid, or more precisely neutral, space in which this trade is possible. (39)

The Sahel, on the southern the edge of the Sahara desert, functioned as “an unstable buffer zone between the settled city and the nomadic city, the full and the empty,” or as Deleuze and Guattari suggest, striated and smooth space (39):

In other words sedentary space is denser, more solid, and therefore full, while that of the nomad is less dense, more fluid, and therefore empty. The nomadic space is an infinite, uninhabited, often impervious void: a desert in which orientation is difficult, as in an immense sea where the only recognizable feature is the track left by walking, a mobile, evanescent sign. The nomadic city is the path itself, the most stable sign in the void, and the form of this city is the sinuous line drawn by the succession of points in motion. (39-41)

Those points in motion, the “space of going,” are the “very essence of nomadism” (41): “Just as the sedentary path structures and gives life to the city, in nomadism the path becomes the symbolic place of the life of the community” (41). According to Careri, “The nomadic city is not the trail of a past left as a tracing on the ground, it is the present that occupies, again and again, those segments of the territory on which the journey takes place, that part of the landscape walked, perceived, and experienced” (41). “It is from this vantage point,” he continues, “that the territory can be interpreted, memorized, and mapped in its becoming” (41). 

While settlers see nomadic spaces as empty, “for nomads these voids are full of invisible traces: every little dissimilarity is an event, a useful landmark for the construction of a mental map composed of points (particular places), lines (paths), and surfaces (homogenous territories) that are transformed over time” (41). “The ability to know how to see in the void of places and therefore to know how to name these places was learned in the millennia preceding the birth of nomadism,” in the earlier Paleolithic period (41). “The slow, complex operation of appropriation and mapping of the territory was the result of the incessant walking of the first humans,” Careri continues (44). He calls the kind of walking characteristic of hunters and gatherers in the Paleolithic period “erratic” and distinguishes between such roaming and nomadism: “While the nomadic journey is linked to cyclical movements of livestock during the transhumance, erratic movement is connected to the pursuit of prey of the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era” (44). Both nomadism and settlement result from “the new productive utilization of the land that began with the climate change following the last glacial period” (44). They are simultaneous developments, Careri is arguing; settlement did not come out of nomadic transhumance.  Nomadism is not wandering: it “takes place in vast empty spaces, but spaces that are familiar, and a return trip is planned; wandering, on the other hand, happens in an empty space that has not yet been mapped, without any defined destination. In a certain sense the path of the nomad is a cultural evolution of wandering, a sort of ‘specialization’” (49). “[B]oth the routes of the sedentary world and the journeys of the nomad are derived from the erratic, Paleolithic path,” he continues. “The notion of path belongs simultaneously to both cultures, i.e. to the builders of ‘settled cities’ and to those of ‘errant cities’” (49). But the path comes out of the Paleolithic world: the path was “the first anthropic sign capable of imposing an artificial order on the territories of natural chaos” (49). Eventually there was a change from a quantitative to a qualitative space, “filling the surrounding void with a certain number of full places that served for orientation. In this way the multidirectional space of natural chaos began to be transformed into a space ordered, in keeping with the two main directions clearly visible in the void: the direction of the sun and that of the horizon” (49). At the end of the Paleolithic era, then, the landscape, deciphered by human activity, was “a space constructed by vectors of erratic pathways, by a series of geographical features connected to mythical events and assembled in sequence, and it was probably ordered in keeping with the fixed directions of the vertical and the horizontal: the sun and the horizon” (49-50). 

Walking, Careri writes, “though it is not the physical construction of a space, implies a transformation of the place and its meanings” (50). Prior to the Neolithic period and its menhirs, “the only symbolic architecture capable of modifying the environment was walking, an action that is simultaneously an act of perception and creativity, of reading and writing the territory” (50). The menhir, “[t]he first situated object in the human landscape,”

springs directly from the universe of roaming and nomadism. While the horizon is a stable, more or less straight line depending on the landscape itself, the sun has a less definite movement, following a trajectory that appears clearly vertical only in its two moments of vicinity to the horizon: sunrise and sunset. The desire to stablize the vertical dimension was probably one of the motivations behind the creation of the first artificial element in space: the menhir. (50)

Menhirs, simple objects with great density of meaning, were the first human, physical transformation of landscape: they are stones raised vertically, planted in the ground, and thereby “transformed into a new presence that stops time and space: it institutes a ‘time zero’ that extends into eternity, and a new system of relations with the elements of the surrounding landscape” (50). There are many different interpretations of the way menhirs were used, because this invention “could satisfy many different aims” (50-51). They might have had many different simultaneous functions, possibly linked to fertility cults, possibly places where heroes had died, sites where water was found, or boundaries (51). What interests Careri, though, is where they were placed—the possibility that they revealed the geometry and geography of the place, that “they were signals placed along the major routes of crossing” (51):

It is hard to imagine how the travelers of antiquity could have crossed entire continents without the help of maps, roads and signs. Yet an incredible traffic of travelers and merchants continuously crossed nearly impassable forests and uncharted territories, apparently without excessive difficult. It is very probably that the menhirs functioned as a system of territorial orientation, easily deciphered by those who understood its language: a sort of guide sculpted into the landscape, leader the traveler to his destination from one signal to another along the intercontinental routes. (51-52)

Some menhirs are megaliths, requiring large populations to erect, so they may have been situated in neutral zones between populations (52). For Careri, that fact suggests that the places in which the megalithic works were built were “either a sort of sanctuary utilized by the surrounding populations for festivities, or more probably stopping places along the main routes of transit, places with the function of today’s highway rest stops,” visited by many different people, perhaps communicating “the presence of singular facts and information regarding the surrounding territory, information useful for the continuation of the journey,” but also perhaps places of ritual celebrations (52-56). If they were intended to pass along information about the journey, then “[t]he entire voyage, which had been the place of events, stories, and myths around or along the menhirs, encountered a space for representation of itself: tales of travels and legends were celebrated and ritualized around the stones planted in the ground” (56). 

The important thing about menhirs, for Careri, is what came before them: 

Before the physical transformation of the face of the Earth that began with the menhirs, the territory had undergone a cultural transformation based on walking, an action that took place only on the surface of the planet, without penetrating it. The space of the path, therefore, precedes architectonic space; it is an immaterial space with symbolic-religious meanings. For thousands of years, when the physical construction of a symbolic place was still unthinkable, the crossing of space represented an aesthetic means through which it was possible to inhabit the world. (58)

Architecture, then, was not the invention of a sedentary, settled world, if the path was the first example of human place-making.

I’m not sure whether the anthropological evidence supports Careri’s argument. It’s rather Eurocentric, for one thing, despite the reference to the Sahel. In this part of the world, there are no menhirs—medicine wheels, yes, but no standing stones. What does that mean? There was also little pastoralism in North America, as far as I know, although agriculture and hunting and gathering existed side by side. What might that do for Careri’s claims? What about the temporary or semi-permanent structures hunting and gathering peoples built? Don’t they count as architecture? For that matter, what about the structures pastoralists must have erected for shelter? Besides, as Robert Moor points out in his book on paths and trails, many human paths are (or were) first made by animals, not people; people simply used paths that were already in existence. Since Careri’s argument is that paths were the first human interventions in a landscape, what might that point do to his argument? Nevertheless, the suggestion that architecture was nomadic is key to his argument, especially his conclusion (which, as I indicated at the outset, I only skimmed) about the types of urban space Stalker investigates.

Careri begins his second chapter, “Anti Walk,” with an account of the Dadaists’ first excursion, to the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, on 14 April 1921. This was the first of what was to be a series of excursions to banal places in the city, “a conscious aesthetic operation backed up by press releases, proclamations, flyers and photographic documentation” (67). For Careri, it “remains the most important Dada intervention in the city,” “the first step in a long series of excursions, deambulations and ‘driftings’ that crossed the entire century as a form of anti-art” (67). The excursion also “marks the passage from the representation of motion to the construction of an aesthetic action to be effected in the reality of everyday life” (67). “With the Dada visits and the subsequent deambulations of the Surrealists the action of passing through space was utilized as an aesthetic form capable of taking the place of representation, and therefore of the art system in general,” he writes (68). In other words, “Dada effected the passage from the representation of the city of the future to the habitation of the city of the banal” (68). “Dada raised the tradition of flânerie to the level of an aesthetic operation” (74). In fact, that first excursion was an urban ready-made work, “the first symbolic operation that attributes aesthetic value to a space rather than an object. Dada progressed from introducing a banal object into the space of art to introducing art—the persons and bodies of the Dada artists—into a banal place in the city” (74). The excursion was neither decoration nor representation; it was not a material operation and left no physical traces except documentation (74-75). It merely consisted of an event, and actions performed during that event: reading from a dictionary, giving gifts to passers-by, attempts to get people to join them in the street (75). But for Careri, “[t]he work lies in having thought of the action to perform, rather than in the action itself” (75). That would suggest that this excursion was the first example of Conceptual art as well.

In May 1924, the Dadaists performed another intervention in real space, but this time “the plan was for an erratic journey in a vast natural territory”: this event, a deambulation in open country in the center of France, a country walk from Blois, a small town chosen randomly, to Romorantin, marks the passage from Dada to Surrealism (78). It was organized by André Breton, Louis Aragon, Max Morise, Roger Vitrac; afterwards Breton wrote the introduction to Poisson soluble, what would become the first Surrealist manifesto (78). According to Careri, “[t]he trip, undertaken without aim or destination, had been transformed into a form of automatic writing in real space, a literary/rural roaming imprinted directly on the map of a mental territory” (78). The choice or rural space was important for what would become the Surrealists:

Space appears as an active, pulsating subject, an autonomous producer of affections and relations. It is a living organism with its own character, a counterpart with shifting moods, with which it is possible to establish a relationship of mutual exchange. The path unwinds amidst snares and dangers, provoking a strong sense of apprehension in the person walking, in both senses of ‘feeling fear’ and ‘grasping’ or ‘learning.’ This empathic territory penetrates down to the deepest strata of the mind, evoking images of other worlds in which reality and nightmare live side by side, transporting the being into a state of unconsciousness where the ego is no longer definite. Deambulation is the achievement of a state of hypnosis by walking, a disorienting loss of control. It is a medium through which to enter into contact with the unconscious part of the territory. (78-79)

The rural deambulation only happened once, but there were walks through the outskirts of Paris: “one of the most assiduously practiced activities of the Surrealists for investigating that unconscious part of the city that eluded bourgeois transformation” (79). The Surrealists saw the city as amniotic fluid, “where everything grows and is spontaneously transformed, out of sight”—that is where “the endless walks, the encounters, the trouvailles (discoveries of objets trouvés), the unexpected events, and collective games happen” (80). 

Dadaism and Surrealism had different ways of thinking about the city, Careri notes. In Dadaism, the city becomes a place “to notice the banal and the ridiculous” and “unmask the farce of the bourgeois city” (80). The Surrealists, in contrast, move to a positive project, using psychoanalytic theory to look for what is hidden in the city’s unconscious, its non-visible reality (80): “The Surrealist research is a sort of psychological investigation of one’s relationship with urban reality, an operation already applied with success through automatic writing and hypnotic dreams, and which can also be directly applied in walking through the city” (80-81). According to Careri, “[t]he Surrealist city is an organism that produces and conceals territories to be explored, landscapes in which to get lost and to endlessly experience the sensation of everyday wonder” (81). The phrase “everyday wonder” made me wonder if there’s a connection between Surrealism and Smith’s mythogeography—although that is incorrect, or at least premature. Careri suggests that there is one more distinction to be made between the Dadaist exploration of the city and those of the Surrealists:

Dada had glimpsed the fact that the city could be an aesthetic space in which to operate through quotidian/symbolic actions, and had urged artists to abandon the usual forms of representation, pointing the way toward direct intervention in public space. Surrealism, perhaps without yet fully understanding its importance as an aesthetic form, utilized walking—the most natural and everyday act of man—as a means by which to investigate and unveil the unconscious zones of the city, those parts that elude planned control and constitute the unexpressed, untranslatable component in traditional representations. (81)

The Situationists would later accuse the Surrealists of failing to take the potential of the Dada project to its extreme consequences, Careri suggests: “The ‘artless,’ art without artwork or artist, the rejection of representation and personal talent, the pursuit of an anonymous, collective and revolutionary art, would be combined, along with the practice of walking, in the wandering of the Lettrist/Situationists” (81).

In the early 1950s, the Lettrist International began to see getting lost in the city as “an aesthetic-political means by which to undermine the postwar capitalist system,” and the term dérive was coined. Literally, dérive mean “drift,” “a recreational collective act that not only aims at defining the unconscious zones of the city, but which—with the help of the concept of ‘psychogeography’—attempts to investigate the psychic effects of the urban context on the individual” (86). In the dérive, “the contruction and implementation of new forms of behaviour in real life, the realization of an alternative way of inhabiting the city,” outside the rules of bourgeois society, aimed at going beyond Surrealist deambulations (86). According to the Lettrists/Situationists, the Surrealists didn’t understand “the potential of deambulation as a collective art form, as an aesthetic operation that, if performed in a group, had the power to annul the individual components of the artwork” (86). Moreover, they depended too much on a Freudian model of the city:

The miserable failure of the Surrealist deambulation was due, according to the Situationists, to the exaggerated importance assigned to the unconscious and to chance, categories that were still included in the Lettrists’ practice, but in a diluted form, closer to reality, within a constructed method of investigation whose field of action must be life, and therefore the real city. (86)

Lettrist drifting attempted to transform the subjective interpretation of the city (of the Surrealists) into an objective method of urban exploration (86): “The Lettrists rejected the idea of a separation between alienating, boring real life and a marvellous imaginary life: reality itself had to become marvellous” (87). That notion suggests that Smith’s mythogeography is closer to Lettrists rather than Surrealists—not a surprise, given the importance he gives to the Lettrists and the Situationists in his own genealogy. “It was no longer the time to celebrate the unconscious of the city,” Careri writes; “it was time to experiment with superior ways of living through the construction of situations in everyday reality: it was time to act, not to dream” (87).

Walking in a group was, for the Lettrists, 

a means of escaping from bourgeois life and rejecting the rules of the art system. The dérive was, in fact, an action that would have a hard time fitting into the art system, as it consisted in constructing the modes of a situation whose consumption left no traces. It was a fleeting action, an immediate instant to be experienced in the present moment without considering its representation and conservation in time. (87)

For that reason, the dérive fit with the Dadaist logic of anti-art (87). Although the term dérive first appears in an essay by Ivan Chtcheglov (Gilles Ivain), it was Debord, in 1955, who sets out to define experimental methods for observing urban spaces, and 1956, in “Theory of the Dérive,”  he formulates a definition of the dérive and its relation to psychogeography (92). According to Careri, the dérive and psychogeography “replaced the unconscious dream city of the Surrealists with a playful, spontaneous city”: they 

replaced the randomness of Surrealist roaming with the construction of rules of the game. To play means deliberately breaking the rules and inventing your own, to free creative activity from socio-cultural restrictions, to design aesthetic and revolutionary actions that undermine or elude social control. The theory of the Situationists was based on an aversion for work and the premise fo an imminent transformation of the use of time in society,” through automation, work would be reduced, free time increased, “Therefore it was important to protect the use of this non-productive time form the powers that be. Otherwise it would be sucked into the system of capitalist consumption through the creation of induced needs. (97)

For the Situationists, the revolution would have to be based on desire: “to seek the latent desires of people in the everyday world, stimulating them, re-awakening them, helping them to take the place of the wants imposed by the dominant culture” (100). “The construction of situations was therefore the most direct way to realize new forms of behavior in the city, and to experience the moments of what life could be in a freer society within urban reality,” Careri writes (100). And the way to realize new forms of behaviour was through the dérive: “The Situationists saw the psychogeographical dérive as the means with which to strip the city naked, but also with which to construct a playful way of reclaiming its territory: the city is a toy to be utilized at one’s pleasure, a space for collective living, for the experience of alternative behaviors, a place in which to waste useful time so as to transform it into playful-constructive time” (100). The city needed to be experienced as a playful territory that could lead people toward authentic lives (100).

Careri begins his third chapter, “Land Walk,” with the story sculptor Tony Smith’s journey along the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. Smith was the “father” of American Minimal Art, and this event said to be the origin of Land Art and a series of walks in deserts and suburbs in the late 1960s (111). “The story leads to many questions and many possible paths of investigation,” Careri writes. “The road is seen by Tony Smith in the two different possible ways that were to be analyzed by Minimal Art and Land Art: one is the road as sign and object, on which the crossing takes place; the other is the crossing itself as experience, as attitude that becomes form” (111-14). In both cases, art was moving out of the gallery and museum and reclaiming the experience of lived space and the larger scale of the landscape (114). It is a crucial moment, according to Careri:

from this moment on the practice of walking begins to be transformed into a true autonomous artform. What seemed like an aesthetic realization, an immediate flash of intuition, an almost indescribable ecstasy, is then utilized in countless ways by a great number of artists—most of them sculptors—who emerged at the end of the 1960s in a passage from Minimalism to that series of very heterogenous experiences categorized under the generic term of ‘Land Art.’ (114)

Careri compares the work of Carl Andre and Richard Long: Andre “tried to make objects that could occupy space without filling it, to create presences that were increasingly absent within real space”; for him, the ideal sculpture was a road (114). What distinguishes Long’s work from Andre’s is that Andre makes flat sculptures on can walk on, whereas Long’s art is made by walking (114-15):

Therefore, Smith’s perplexities seem, just a few years later, to have already found resolutions in two directions: for Andre the road experienced by Smith is not only art, it is the ideal sculpture; Long goes further, saying that art consists in the very act of walking, of living the experience. At this point is seems clear that the fundamental step has been taken. With Long the passage has been made from the object to its absence. The erratic path returns to its status as an aesthetic form in the field of visual arts. (115)

“The first attempts to use walking as an art form—or, more precisely, as a form of anti-art—were made as an expansion of the field of action of literature into the visual arts”—the field visit, deambulation, the dérive (115). In the 1960s, however, performance art and sculpture expanded to include walking as well (115), and this expansion—especially into sculpture—is important, according to Careri, because it leads back to the path and the menhir:

The return to walking in the field of sculpture is an integral part of a more general expansion of sculpture itself. The artists take steps that seem to trace back through all the stages that led from the erratic journey to the menhir, and the menhir to architecture. In their works we can once again see a logical thread that goes from minimal objects (the menhir), to the territorial works of Land Art (the landscape) and the wanderings of the Land artists (walking). A thread that connects walking to that field of activity that operates as transformation of the earth’s surface, a field of action shared by architecture and landscape design. To effect this passage it is again necessary to find an empty field of action, in which the signs of history and civilization are absent: the deserts and the terrain vague of the abandoned urban periphery. (115)

Later, artists would engage with history and geography, adding their walks as layers of investigation into space.

The next step in the evolution of walking, Careri writes, is the shift from Minimalism to Land Art:

Minimal sculpture, in order to re-appropriate architectonic space, had to go back to come to terms with the menhir, in order to then evolve in the direction of Land Art. And in this journey back to and from the menhir, the path suddenly reappears, seen this time as sculpture in an expanded field, and no longer as a literary form. (124)

Minimal artists, by attempting to annul everything that had been considered sculpture up to that point, found themselves as a sort of “ground zero” of their discipline:

In this process of subtraction they had found objects extraneous to nature, contrasting the natural landscape by means of the artificial signs of culture, erasing that sort of animated presence that had always lurked inside sculpture. The artists had undertaken a series of passages that led them back to the menhir: the elimination of the base or pedestal to return to a direct relationship with the sky and the ground (the menhir is directly planted in the ground); the return to the monolith and the mass (the three parts of the column in architecture corresponded, in sculpture, to the subdivisions of the totem); the elimination of color and natural materials in favor of artificial, industrial materials, artifacts (the stone of the menhir was, in the Stone Age, the most “artificial” material found in nature, and its vertical position was the least natural imaginable); compositions based on simple rhythmical, and serial repetition (points, lines, surfaces); elimination of any adjectival impulses in favor of pure, crystalline forms; removal of the figurative mimesis that still existed in zoomorphic, anthromorphic, and totemic modern sculptures; recovery fo a sort of human dimension and therefore of a more abstract, theatrical anthropomorphism due to that residual ‘animated presence’ that continues to persist in sculpture. (124)

The result of all of these operations was “a monomateric, situated, fixed, immobile, inert, inexpressive, almost dead object,” but nevertheless 

an object that imposes a certain distance and has a new relationship with its space; it is a character without internal life but, at the same time, it takes possession of the space, forcing the observer to participate, to share an experience that goes beyond the visible and that addresses, like architecture, the entire body, its presence in time and space. (124-25)

“While the Minimal object moves toward the menhir, still seen as an object with an internal presence,” Careri continues, “Land Art moves, instead, more directly toward architecture and landscape, i.e. toward the menhir as an inanimate object to be utilized to transform the territory” (125). Land Art was no longer interested in modeling objects in space; instead, it sought 

the physical transformation of the territory, the use of the means and techniques of architecture to construct a new nature and to create large artificial landscapes. Any sculptural anthropomorphism still surviving in Minimalist sculptures is abandoned in favor of that even more abstract mimesis that characterizes architecture and landscape. (125)

In other words, “[i]n Land Art we can see a conscious return to the Neolithic” (125). What interests Careri about Land Art is the way some of its practitioners “rediscovered walking as a primary act of symbolic transformation of the territory, but a crossing of it that doesn’t need to leave permanent traces, that acts only superficially on the world, but can achieve proportions even greater than those of the earthworks” (126).

One of those artists (although he rejects the label Land Art) is Richard Long, particularly his work A Line Made by Walking, which, “thanks to its radical clarity and formal simplicity, is considered a fundamental point of passage in contemporary art” (126-28). It is a line that avoids transforming into an object (128): instead,

A Line Made by Walking produces a sensation of infinity, it is a long segment that stops at the trees that enclose the visual field, but could continue around the entire planet. The image of the treaded grass contains the presence of absence: absence of action, absence of the body, absence of the object. But it is also unmistakably the result of the action of a body, and it is an object, something that is situated between sculpture, a performance, and an architecture of the landscape. (128)

For Long’s fellow walking artist Hamish Fulton, walking is a celebration “of the uncontaminated landscape, a sort of ritual pilgrimage through what remains of nature,” an engagement with ecological concerns and a form of protest (128). In the work of Long and Fulton, “nature corresponds to an inviolable Mother Earth on which one can walk, design figures, move stones, but without effecting any radical transformation” (129). 

However, their approaches are different. One of the main problems in the art of walking is the communication of the ambulatory experience in aesthetic form (129). The Dadaists and Surrealists did not map and avoided literary representation; the Situationists produced psychogeographic maps but avoided representing the real routes of their dérives (129-34). Fulton and Long, though, use maps as an expressive tool (134): “The two English artists in this field follow two paths that reflect their different ways of using the body. For Fulton the body is exclusively an instrument of perception, while for Long it is also a tool for drawing” (134). In Fulton’s work, “the representation of the places crossed is a map in the abstract sense. The representation of the path is resolved by means of images and graphic texts that bear witness to the experience of walking with the awareness of never being able to achieve it through representation” (134). His text works are “a sort of geographical poetry” (134). (What about Long’s text works?) For Long, on the other hand, “walking is an action that leaves its mark on the place,” “an act that draws a figure on the terrain and therefore can be reported in cartographic representation”; also, though, in an inverse sense, “the paper can function as a surface on which to draw figures to be subsequently walked” (134). Walking is thus both an action and a sign, “a form that can be superimposed on existing forms, both in reality and on paper” (134). As a result,

the world becomes an immense aesthetic territory, an enormous canvas on which to draw while walking. A surface that is not a white page, but an intricate design of historical and geographical sedimentation on which to simply add one more layer. Walking the figures superimposed on the map-territory, the body of the wayfarer registers the events of the journey, the sensations, obstacles, dangers, the variations of the terrain. The physical structure fo the territory is reflected on the body in motion. (134-37)

I think this is true of both Long’s work and Fulton’s, although one difference between them is that Fulton tends not to make any alteration to the surface of the earth while he walks, unlike Long, who makes lines and arranges stones. Perhaps, then, Fulton’s work is a better model for my practice than Long’s.

Robert Smithson’s emphasis is “on the quality of the landscape crossed,” Careri suggests. (144). For Smithson, earth art opened up new spaces for physical and conceptual experimentation (144). But first came walking, in the form of Smithson’s exploration of the outskirts of Passaic, New Jersey, A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic:

For Smithson urban exploration is the pursuit of a medium, a means to glean aesthetic and philosophical categories with which to work form the territory. One of Smithson’s most extraordinary abilities lies in that constant mingling in his explorations of physical descriptions and aesthetic interpretations: the discourse crosses several planes simultaneously, loses its way on unfamiliar paths, delves into the material surrounding it.(146)

Smithson’s explorations took place in the city, unlike Long’s and Fulton’s: “The urban periphery is the metaphor for the periphery of the mind, the rejects of thought and culture” (152). The point, for Smithson, is not to condemn the destruction of the river or the industrial wastes that poison it; instead, 

there is a delicate balance between renunciation and accusation, between renunciation and contemplation. The judgement is exclusively aesthetic, not ethical, never ecstatic. There is no enjoyment, no satisfaction, no emotional involvement in walking through the nature of suburbia. The discourse starts with an acceptance of reality as it presents itself, and continues on a plane of general reflection in which Passaic becomes the emblem of the periphery of the occidental world, the place of scrap, of the production of a new landscape made of refuse and disruption. The monuments are not admonishments, but natural elements that are an integral part of this new landscape, presences that live immersed in an entropic territory: they create it, transform it, and destroy it, they are monuments self-generated by the landscape, wounds man has imposed on nature, and which nature has absorbed, transforming their meaning, accepting them in a new nature, a new aesthetic. (153)

In the territory Smithson crosses, “one perceives the transient character of matter, time and space, in which nature rediscovers a new ‘wilderness,’ a wild, hybrid, ambiguous state, anthropically altered and then escaping man’s control to be reabsorbed again by nature” (154). I didn’t know about Smithson’s walk in Passaic, and I intend to learn more about it; Careri’s description of the territory Smithson explores is surprisingly similar to the rural/industrial/natural landscapes of rural Saskatchewan.

So, Careri presents a genealogy of walking as an art practice that is similar to, yet different from, Smiths—no doubt because Careri is an architect, whereas Smith is a playwright and performer. Is it possible to bring those genealogies together? Is that necessary? Must one choose between them? Does Careri’s genealogy leave more room for the kind of walking Smith criticizes as epic or heroic and therefore undemocratic? These are some of the questions that Careri’s book leaves me thinking about. One thing is certain, though: I am going to need to dig into the Dadaists, Surrealists, and Lettrists/Situationists beyond the summary I’ve read in Merlin Coverley’s book on psychogeography. I’m also going to need to learn more about Fulton, and about Smithson’s walk in Passaic (and the art that came out of that walk). As is always the case, one book demands more, leads to more. That’s the point of this exercise: to open doors, to get me thinking, to identify the areas of inquiry of which I’ve been unaware.

Works Cited

Careri, Francesco. Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice, translated by Steven Piccolo, Culicidae Architectural Press, 2017.

Coverley, Merlin. Psychogeography, Pocket Essentials, 2010.

Moor, Robert. On Trails: An Exploration, Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Pujol, Ernesto. Walking Art Practice: Reflections on Socially Engaged Paths, Triarchy, 2018.

Schott , John, and Phil Smith, Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota, Triarchy Press, 2018.

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

53. Clare Qualmann and Claire Hind, eds., Ways to Wander

ways to wander

Ways to Wander is a collection of 54 different sets of suggestions, reflections, instructions, or scores about walking, created by 54 different walkers. It also contains an introduction by Carl Lavery and copies of e-mails between the two editors. All of this material is assembled randomly, and I think that was deliberate. The list of contributors at the end of the book gives contact information and web addresses for all of the contributors, which is helpful information. The book isn’t paginated, which suggests (to me) that its intent is more artistic than scholarly.

Let me start with Lavery’s introduction, which isn’t where the book begins. (I’m straightening out this book, at least a little, in this summary; I hope nobody minds.) Lavery begins by likening a walk to a performance score (indeed, what I’ve called “instructions” as I’ve taken notes perhaps ought to have been described as scores):

there is no simple method for walking or indeed for describing a walk. Like a performance score, a walk is an open-ended phenomenon, no knows in advance what will present itself or who you might mean. The meaning is in the doing, properly performative then, which is to say, self-generating, contingent, improvisatory, light-footed and rooted in the everyday. It is also unexpected. ([9])

Like performances, walks also risk failing; there’s always the possibility that a walk won’t amount to very much ([10]). Chance is important—Lavery cites Robert Walser’s story “The Walk” on that score. The comparison between walking and a score organizes his discussion of the scores, or instructions, presented in this book.

When I read Phil Smith’s Walking’s New Movement, I was a little concerned by what I took to be a demand that walking be collaborative and relational. Lavery doesn’t agree. He notes that some of his walking friends, including Deirdre Heddon and Wrights & Sites, walk with others, but says that he prefers to walk alone:

Though fully aware that my gender and “ablebodiedness” assign me a special privilege, I walk in order to think, to engage in a kind of embodied thinking, to let an idea, like a landscape, unfold. . . .There is nothing exclusive or regulatory in this strategy. Other users will doubtless have different ideas and practices of engagement ([11])

Lavery prefers to walk alone because he finds it conducive to thinking; he cites Kant, Benjamin, Nietzche, and Solnit on this point ([11]). However, these days he thinks of walking and thinking “in terms of a creative process of ruination, which troubles normative notions of the archive” ([12]). He compares that “process of ruination” to Derrida’s notion of “archive fever,” noting that Derrida described that fever as an “infinity of evil” because it tries to impose an order on the past that transcends the fictions of memory. Archive fever sets out to fix the past, whereas walking is “an act of necessary negation” because one step follows the next, and one’s previous steps are typically forgotten ([12-13]). Lavery suggests that it makes sense “to celebrate walking as an act of perpetual and incessant ruination, an instance of a secret that refuses, stubbornly, to reveal itself” ([13]). That secret could be a catalyst for imagining, looking ahead and affirming the future, “which is tantamount to affirming the impersonal flux and flow of a time that we can never inhabit fully or know” ([13]). 

Lavery notes that his article, “25 Instructions for Performance in Cities,” was a stimulus for this book ([14])—everyone seems to cite that article, which means I need to read it. Those instructions, or scores, bring him back to the place where he started:

To perform a score is not to perform in the name of truth, as if one were somehow concerned with idealising a perfect, self-contained actualisation of the original instruction; rather, it is to affirm the necessity of betrayal and the ineluctable reality of failure. In this way, through the necessary ruination of the instruction, the performed score, like the walk, is a guardian of the secret. It realises that the footprints it leaves are a kind of wreckage, an act of creative destruction that has the generosity to foreclose in advance its own will to truth, to temper its own archive fever, and to leave a space for ghosts of the future to come, those spectres who are always still to arrive but yet are strangely already here. ([14])

I’m not sure what Lavery means by the last words of that final sentence—the part about the “ghosts of the future”—but the notion of walking as a form of creative destruction, of footprints as wreckage, is interesting. Often my feet leave no footprints behind at all—if I’m walking on gravel or pavement or dry ground—and I often think of the traces I leave behind as more or less entirely imaginary. However, my walks are not scored—ever. I wonder if that means they aren’t performative at all. That is something I am going to have to think about.

Next, I want to think about the e-mails between the editors that are included here. In the first, Claire Hind praises Rebecca Solnit’s book Wanderlust and suggests “if there is ever a pilgrimage then it is the walk that slips between Ludus (serious play) and Paidia (free play)—which Roger Caillois talks about in his book Man, Play and Games” ([4]). I haven’t read Caillois, but I’m surprised that Hind praises Solnit’s book, given Smith’s critique of its romanticism and literariness. Clearly there are many ways of thinking about walking, and Smith’s version isn’t the only one. The second e-mail sees Clare Qualmann recalling childhood walks in Cornwall and comparing them to her artistic practice of walking in urban spaces ([24]). They are very different forms of walking, and it’s hard for Qualmann to make connections between them. In the third, Claire Hind thinks about the word “wander” in the context of performing and walking and a response to the book they have assembled ([36]). In the fourth, Clare Qualmann notes her affection for following instructions and in “the combination of structure and freedom that rule-based works give me” ([58]). That’s not surprising, since many of the works included here are rule-based. The suggestion that rule-based works combine structure and freedom is interesting. My garden is rule-based—all of the plants included must be native to Saskatchewan—but within that rule there is a tremendous amount of freedom as to what goes where and why. (Most of my reasons are what Smith would call “functional”: I put plants that like shade in the shade, and plants that like sun in the sun). I had not thought much about rule-based walking works, though, which is what the majority of the 54 contributions here are.

Now to those 54 contributions. I’ve left them numbered, because that’s how they appear in the book:

  1. Roger Bygott, “River Rural; River Urban”: Bygott suggests identifying some significant point of a river in an urban area, and then walking to the source and returning; then doing the same, from the city to the river’s mouth and back, taking notes and reflecting, thinking about “how the journey of the river changed as you walked along it” and “how your journey changed as you walked along it” ([2]).
  2. Debbie Kent, “Feeling and Touching: a tactile-kinaesthetic walk”: Kent calls upon the reader to feel the ground beneath our feet; then experiment with walking on different surfaces (soft, hard, slippery, bumpy), or touching the surfaces we see (touch everything, or take samples), and thinking about how long our skin holds the memory of what it touched; or try imagining the feel of everything you see, checking for accuracy by touching something. “With practice,” she writes, “perhaps your brain will start directly converting the visual to the tactile and you can feel the landscape on your skin without thinking” ([3]).
  3. Ranulph Glanville: he suggests wandering is a metaphor for the creative process; one arrives at a place without knowing that place was there when starting out ([5]).
  4. Romany Reagan: she describes a walk in Abney Park Cemetery in London, a place where she goes to think ([6]).
  5. Townley and Bradby: these collaborators present a game for two players, using mobile phones, in which walkers head off in different directions by make the same turns/pauses/resumptions etc. The leader lets the follower know of changes in direction or pauses by sending text messages ([7]).
  6. Alison Lloyd, “I Cannot See the Summit from Here”: Lloyd describes a walk in the Scottish Highlands in which she felt she discovered and owned the landscape, following the map’s contours, which she calls “contour walking” ([8]).
  7. Bronwyn Preece and her daughter, Similkameen O’Rourke, “Off-the-Grid Walking cARTography”: This piece is a collaborative poem written by mother and daughter, and it includes instructions for writing such a poem together over the course of a 24-kilometre walk on a gravel road ([15]).
  8. Alexander “Twig” Champion: Champion presents a meditation on walking in circles, particularly around an object with some personal importance ([16]).
  9. Helen Frosi’s contribution is a poem about walking ([18]).
  10. Simon Pope, “The Underpass”: Pope gives instructions for using one of London’s “multi-exit” pedestrian underpasses to generate a random walk ([19]).
  11. Lizzie Phelps, “Maternity Leaves”: Phelps presents instructions for taking a walk with a young child, walks that are performances, and reflects on having a child has changed her practice ([20]).
  12. Clare Qualmann, “Perambulator”: Qualmann gives suggestions for creating a “Perambulator Parade” to identify places that are difficult for stroller use—a performance that sets out to make a small, local change. I wonder if this is the kind of work Smith is referring to when he criticizes localism—it seems possible ([21]).
  13. David Prescott-Steed, “Walking in Drains”: in Melbourne, Australia, there is a vast network of underwater drains for stormwater runoff; Prescott-Steed likes to walk in them as “a way for me to transgress the rigid structures of the city that routinely discipline our bodies, in turn shaping how we communicate with each other” ([22]), and he suggests a game in which one speaks into a storm sewer, because someone might be passing by below ([22]).
  14. Robin Smith, “Notes to the novice pedestrian”: Smith gives instructions for walking in a city for someone who has never done that before ([23]).
  15. Andrew Brown presents instructions for walking on water: you just have to imagine that it’s an inch deep ([25]).
  16. Bridget Sheridan, “Following Forgotten Footprints”: Sheridan offers instructions for returning to a place where you walked as a child, and then creating a new walk in response ([26]).
  17. Misha Myers: she instructs readers on how to make a journey from home to some special place nearby ([27]).
  18. Neil Callaghan and Simone Kenyon, “Step-By-Step”: these collaborators challenge readers to walk with eyes closed, to walk slowly, to walk backwards, and to walk while imitating someone else’s gait ([28]).
  19. Tom Hall, “City Centre”: Hall, a geographer, gives instructions for walking away from and towards the city centre, watching for signs of the direction you are taking from the cityscape ([29]).
  20. Helen Stratford and Idit Elia Nathan, “Play the City Now or Never!”: this piece is a die that can be cut out and assembled that will, when rolled, issue random instructions for things to do while walking, actions that will make the walk fresh or strange ([30]).
  21. Annie Lloyd, “Walking with my Dog”: this piece is a description, in the form of instructions, for walking in the park with her late dog ([31]).
  22. Phil Smith: he presents a series of instructions for making walking strange, or making walking into a performance; I wondered, as I read them, if this piece is an example of Smith’s mythogeography in action ([32]).
  23. Jess Allen, “Long Shore Drift”: Allen issues instructions for a walk in which the reader carries a stone from one beach to another, in homage to Richard Long’s Crossing Stones ([33]).
  24. Barbara Lounder, “Walker”: Nova Scotia artist Lounder offers three approaches for walking, using the word “walker” as a starting point ([34]).
  25. Marie-Anne Lerjen, “The Closer Walk”: Lerjen gives instructions for walking close to fences, walls, hedges, buildings, without touching them ([35]).
  26. Vinko Nino Jaeger, “Walking Ideas”: Jaeger offers five different ideas about walking and art, including “Walk a poem/tale” and “Walk the gravitational force” ([37]).
  27. Karen McCoy, “Folding Paper Listening Trumpet”: McCoy gives instructions for assembling and using a paper listening trumpet (included on the facing page), which may give its user the ability “to hear and see in alternative ways,” and can be used as “a device for locating minute visual phenomena” by looking through the large end. “In experiencing sound as geographical, the process is one of assembling sound into an aural picture of the landscape or urbanspace,” she writes. The listening/viewing trumpet is intended as a way to cultivate awareness of what is around us ([38]).
  28. Blake Morris: he givesinstructions for using Google Maps to generate a walk, by walking to the pin Google drops on your town, city, or neighbourhood ([40])—except Google Maps doesn’t seem to do that anymore? It doesn’t on my phone, anyway. 
  29. Nick Tobier, “The Best of All Possible Places”: Detroit artist Tobier issues instructions—or mock instructions?—for finding “the best of all possible places” by walking south from a transit station for 15 minutes ([42]).
  30. Thomas Bolton, “The A-Game”: Bolton makes suggestions for walking major highways (not expressways) in London ([43]).
  31. Chance Marshall, “A Walk for Seaton Carew Beach in Hartlepool at Low Tide”: Marshall gives instructions for walking along a beach and helping a group of sea-coalers shovel sea-coal into their trucks ([44]); sea-coalers, according to Wikipedia, are men who collect coal that washes ashore. That would explain why Marshall asks readers to carry a shovel with them on this walk.
  32. Penny Newell, “How to Wander Lonely as a Cloud”: Newell presents a poem, intended for performance, about clouds ([45]).
  33. walkwalkwalk, “Chip Walk”: the three collaborators in walkwalkwalk (Gail Burton, Serena Korda, and Clare Qualmann) present readers with a game that involves walking from one chip shop to the next until full or exhausted ([46]).
  34. Gary Winters and Claire Hind, “Walking With Limited Longevity & A Bottle of Soap Bubbles”: these collaborators offer instructions for a walk that involves blowing soap bubbles and following them as they move ([47]).
  35. Carl Lavery, “Walking in a Gallery”: Lavery’s piece gives instructions for watching Douglas Gordon’s installation 24 Hour Psycho (a version of the Hitchcock film that slows it down so that it runs for 24 hours rather than the original 109 minutes), instructions that include going away for a walk ([48]).
  36. Bram Arnold, “Transecting”: Arnold issues instructions for drawing a line on a map between two points and then walking that line, transecting its “social, historical and personal archives,” along with suggestions about documenting this activity ([49]).
  37. Chris Green, “Radically Walking”: Green gives instructions for taking back public space (space that has become, or feels, private) by walking together with others in a group ([50]).
  38. Jane Fox, “For the River Valley”: Fox presents a poem (apparently made collaboratively with students ) that issues instructions for walking through a river valley ([51]).
  39. Matthew Reason, “Perhaps we are like stones”: Reason offers what is either instructions for or a description of a walk in Yorkshire with a group of fine arts students ([52]).
  40. Molly Mullen, “On the Maunga”: this piece is a bilingual (English/Maori) inviting readers to walk on a mountain ([53]).
  41. Cecilia Lagerström and Helena Kågemark, “In One Step”: the collaborators give instructions for walking slowly, very slowly, one step at a time, with attention ([54]).
  42. Chris Mollon, “Intertidal Walking”: in a poem, Mollon presents instructions for a long walk before and after low tide ([55]).
  43. Vanessa Grasse: she offers instructions for watching people and movement—“The space is performing for you,” she suggests; for walking between two things; for following things; and for reorienting your whole body “to observe and reframe what you see” ([56]).
  44. Emma Cocker: this work is a call to pay attention to the decisions one makes while walking, rather than allowing those decisions to become automatic and thoughtless ([57]).
  45. Kris Darby, “The city as a site of performative possibilities”: Darby presents six walking games, two each for groups, pairs, and individuals ([60]).
  46. Kerstin Kussmaul, “Wolf Trot”: Kussmaul presents instructions for a dance she calls “wolf trotting” and scores to use for this movement ([61])—this piece is interesting, because it separates the terms “instruction” and “score” quite clearly.
  47. Steve Fossey, “Love at First (Site)”: Fossey offers instructions for a walk in which you imagine falling in love, and an invitation to share those moments, or the fictions you construct about them, with Fossey by e-mail ([62]).
  48. Tobias Grice: this piece gives instructions for a walk in which you bounce a tennis ball against various surfaces, allowing it to dictate (somewhat) your pace and direction ([63]).
  49. Charlie Fox, “Waylaid Walking”: Fox offers instructions for a walk in which you see objects, attend to the thoughts they “conjure,” write those thoughts down, and then, after the walk is over, thread those words together to create a longer text ([64]).
  50. Isabel Mosely, “Psithurism”: this piece is a description of, or instructions for, three walks, each of which takes place in a specific, and unnamed, urban environment ([65]).
  51. Linda Rae Dornan, “A Certain History”: Dornan gives instructions for a walk, with repeated demands to document what you see in writing in a notebook, or by drawing them ([66])—the text is arranged in a figure eight, so that it continues indefinitely or infinitely.
  52. Wrights & Sites, “Nostalgic and Pre-Nostalgic Drifts”: this piece is made of instructions (reprinted from the Exeter Mis-Guide) for revisiting scenes from your past (houses you lived in, places you had a memorable conversation or kissed), and marking them with chalk or a wreath ([67]).
  53. Mark Hunter, “Welcome to. . .”: Hunter presents detailed instructions for a guided walk led by someone who knows little about the location where the walk occurs; as a performance it requires the performer to spend a day interviewing people, collecting stories, histories, facts, whatever, and presenting the results in an alternative to the “official” guided tour ([68]).
  54. Claire Hind, “Ways to Reflect”: Hind offers instructions for interpreting or reflecting on walks, using specific theoretical approaches; by researching the histories of a place you photographed; and by making visual connections between 12 different memories by drawing lines between them ([69]).

I realize that by reading this book in this way, cover to cover, I have not read it properly. The back cover copy, in fact, invites readers to put it in their backpacks and refer to it while walking, or to use it in creative workshops, or to treat each page as visual art or poetry (I haven’t mentioned the creativity involved in many of the layouts, although at the same time sometimes those complex layouts make it hard for me to read the text). I might carry this book with me on some walks, as a way of shaking up the dull routines I sometimes feel I fall into, and certainly the range of activities and suggestions and scores and instructions presented here gives a clear sense of the richness of contemporary art walking. At the same time, though, there is a slightness to some of the offerings, which makes me wonder if this book is an example of the kind of work Smith criticizes in Walking’s New Movement, and if it is the reason he is calling for a much more politically radical and engaged form of walking. I don’t know. There is a rich culture of walking art in the UK, and trying to piece it together from here, a long ways away–to figure out who likes what kind of work and who doesn’t, or what kind of work is important and what kind isn’t–is a little like being a Sovietologist during the Cold War, trying to figure out what’s happening in the Politburo by reading the classified ads in Pravda. But that’s my hunch, anyway: I think that Smith wants to inject some of the political energy he sees in psychogeography into the kinds of disparate practices on display in Ways to Wander. I will have to read more to find out for sure.

Work Cited

Clare Qualmann and Claire Hind, eds., Ways to Wander, Triarchy, 2015.

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

52. Arthur Machen, The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering

the london adventure

Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering is one of the central texts in occult and literary psychogeography. It’s also a very strange book. Its digressive narrative is characterized by endless deferral; the narrator (I’m not sure whether this book is a novel, an autobiography, or a pseudo-autobiography) tells one story after another, all in preparation for writing a book called The London Adventure, a text that ends without beginning (142). I’m certainly no expert on Machen, but I have to say that this book is less gothic than romantic, even neoplatonist, and that the “wandering” of its subtitle is as much discursive as ambulatory or geographical. And yet, after reading The London Adventure, the role it plays in particular types of psychogeography becomes clear, as does (to a degree) the term “psychogeography” itself.

The book begins in a tavern in the suburbs of London. The narrator is thinking about the difference between those who work because they have a gift, like the painter J.M.W. Turner, and everyone else—the narrator included—whose employment is “but the curse of Adam, the slavery that we have to endure; about as blessed as oakum-picking and limestone quarrying and treadmill climbing and the other employments of the poor fellows that we call convicts, as if we were not as much convicts as they,” sentenced to earn an honest living (6-7). A man arrives in the tavern, someone the narrator knows. He looks at the narrator in a threatening manner and says, meaningfully, “The leaves are beginning to come out” (10). The narrator knows exactly what that statement means:

I knew what the man meant. I had told him some months before that I was to write a book about London, that it was to be a really great book, this time. But, I explained, I was not going to begin writing it till the leaves were out on the trees, since the green leafage of the boughs made such a marvellous contrast with the grim greyness of the streets; of the streets of which I meant to write: unknown, unvisited squares in Islington, dreary byways in Holloway, places traversed by railway arches and viaducts in the regions of Camden Town. (10-11)

In other words, the book is supposed to be about unfashionable and suburban places, the kinds of locales most writers would avoid because they prefer more chic environs, displaying an obvious importance or heritage. 

The narrator then recalls going to the “waste portions of the world down beyond the Surrey Docks” and visiting a neighbourhood he had never seen before: “Everything was shapeless, unmeaning, dreary, dismal beyond words; it was as if one were journeying past the back wall of the everlasting backyard” (11). Then, on a grey street, he sees something wonderful: 

from the area of one of the sad houses there arose a great glossy billow of the most vivid green surging up from the area pavement half-way up the height of the ground floor windows; a veritable verdant mountain, as blessed as any wells and palm trees in the midst of an African desert. It was a fig tree that had somehow contrived to flourish in this arid waste; but to me a miracle and a delight as well as a fig tree. (12)

“[T]his was to be the kind of adventure out of which I had agreed to make a book; and thus it was that I had talked of waiting till the time of the opening of the leaves before I began it” (12). The problem is—remember, the narrator doesn’t like to work—he doesn’t want to start writing: “Always, or almost always, I have had the horror of beginning a new book. I have burnt my fingers to the bone again and again in the last forty years and I dread the fire of literature” (12).

Nevertheless, that sense of wonder in an apparently banal space is important enough that the narrator tells another story about it: he describes “with absolute veracity” strange events he experienced while in chambers at Gray’s Inn (he must have been a law student, once; he discusses his career as a journalist at length later), and, he states, “I have never forgotten my almost incredulous amazement when I found out, seven years afterwards, that some of these experiences of mine had also been experiences of the monks of St. Columba’s congregation at Iona in the sixth century” (13). This sense of a mysterious connection between past and present events seems to be a characteristic of occult psychogeography, but I think (if The London Adventure is a model for occult psychogeography) that it has other characteristics as well.

One of those characteristics is an anti-materialist, anti-scientific belief in wonders and miracles—wonders and miracles which are, apparently, experienced, like the eerie parallels between the narrator’s experiences and those of sixth century monks:

so corrupt and bewildered is our nature; on the one hand inclined to the crudest, most bestial materialism, to the simple, easy, natural explanation of all wonders, all miracles; on the other, so sickened with sham marvels, with pantomine-chorus fairies on photographic plates, with ghosts that gibber indeed in the vulgarest, silliest manner possible; so bewildered are we, I say, between these two sides that we hardly dare to testify to the things which we have actually known, seen, experienced with our own senses and our own souls, if these experiences go beyond the limits laid down in some twopenny “science” text-book. (13-14)

The narrator continues, “I do my best to conquer this ‘scientific’ nonsense; and so, as I have noted, I try to reverence the signs, omens, messages that are delivered in queer ways and queer places, not in the least according to the plans laid down either by the theologians or the men of science” (14). Those who seek to know, or are certain about their knowledge, are this narrator’s enemies; those who accept mystery are his allies.

The narrator tells another story, this one about how one such message came to him two and a half years earlier, in another tavern, at a time when he was being bullied by his employer and mocked by his co-workers, facing dismissal, which would have meant ruin for his family (14-16). (This experience, and others, seems to be at the root of his dislike of journalism as a profession.) A man walked up to him and asked how the Latin word exaltavit, from the phrase et exaltavit humiles, “and lifting up the lowly,” according to Google, is spelled (17). Being reminded of that phrase—our narrator has had a classical education and sprinkles his text with Latin tags—allowed him to begin to hope, “to life up a little corner of the black curtain of despair” (18). For the narrator, the man with his question about Latin orthography was a messenger, one of two or three he had met in his life, and he states, “I never think of them without great wonder, awe, and reverence” (19). Was it just a coincidence? “It may be so; and I am too keenly aware of the dangers and follies of credulity to deny that it may have been so,” he writes. “Yet, I am a practical man above all things, and coincidence or no coincidence, I know that I was comforted and sustained and enabled by that word through many months of horrible and shameful suffering” (20). 

For the narrator, and for Machen himself, for all I know, those supposed coincidences are significant: they suggest something about the world itself. “It is possible, just dimly possible,” the narrator suggests,

that the real pattern and scheme of life is not in the least apparent on the outward surface of things, which is the world of common sense, and rationalism, and reasoned deductions; but rather lurks, half hidden, only apparent in certain rare lights, and then only to the prepared eye; a secret pattern, an ornament which seems to have but little relation or none at all to the obvious scheme of the universe. (21)

This is, I think, the occult psychogeographer’s sense of the city: it is a text with multiple levels, and the hidden level(s), its “secret pattern,” can only be apprehended by the initiated, in “certain rare lights.” Reason has “nothing to say in the presence of the unknown” (22); forty years before rational people would have dismissed ideas like radio as mere fantasies (23-24). “[W]e know nothing of matters concerning which we know nothing,” the narrator states. “And so this applies to the ghostly world—always allowing that there is any such world. What do we know?” (24-25).

In fact, it seems pretty clear that the narrator does believe in that “ghostly world.” “I firmly believe that the two worlds”—that is, the world of the living and the world of spirits—“have that gulf between them, that magnum chaos, which yawns, let us say, between painting and music”, he suggests, (25) and while one can make analogies between them, or speak of one in metaphors of the other, they “remain worlds apart” (25). The relationship between the two is like that between an actor on the stage, and the actor’s life off the stage (25). Taking that analogy further, he suggests that, just as the world of King Lear is a dream of Shakespeare’s, “it may turn out that this world of ours is but one of the dreams of the Supreme Artist” (26). His sense “of the probable order of things at large” inclines the narrator “to believe that very high messengers—in the play, in the mystery which we are enacting—may be quite ordinary fellows in private life” (27-28). Again we see the sense of (at least) two worlds, which is picked up on by psychogeography, and the belief that the ordinary might actually be extraordinary. Also—and I don’t want to push this too far, because it’s clear that Machen (or his narrator) was an actor as a younger man—the emphasis on performance here might be important as well, given Smith’s belief that the best forms of “new psychogeography” are performative and relational rather than literary. The narrator acknowledges that all of this has been a digression, but he notes, in a manner that is almost metafictional, that such digressions will be characteristic of this book. The point of the digression was “to show that one should hear and weigh all sorts of messages delivered in all sorts of places” (28). 

The narrator’s plan for the book, The London Adventure, “originated in old rambles about London, rambles that began in 1890 when I lived in Soho Street and began to stroll about Soho and to see that here was something very curious and impressive; this transmutation of late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century social solidity and even, in some cases magnificence, into a wholly different order” (30-31). He imagines the previous residents of buildings in Soho, what those buildings might have been over time—the residence of an ambassador, a pickle factory or printer’s works, “a camping ground for poor people, a place where almost every room sheltered a family”—or how one particular building that “looked as if it had been built for a Doctor of Divinity, c. 1720,” now houses (apparently) the sex trade (31-32) (I’m not entirely sure because Machen’s description is somewhat obscure). Like occult psychogeographers, the narrator is reading the past over the present, exhibiting an awareness of multiple possibilities for a space, at least in historical or antiquarian terms. 

But rather than Soho, the narrator wants to focus on the years after 1895, when he began exploring London’s suburbs:

when I first found out the wonders that lie to the eastward of the Gray’s Inn Road, when Islington and Barnsbury and Canonbury were discovered, when Pentonville ceased to be a mere geographical expression. And there was a later time still that was to yield fresh fruit; the days when I ran errands that were often in themselves of inconceivable folly, but led me all the same into queer outland territories that otherwise I should never have seen. (33-34)

Those errands were stories he was assigned to write about by his editor. He recalls one experience, when he went to Enfield (one of the destinations in Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital) to “taste the newly brewed Government ale—some horrible teetotal concoction of those bad times,” but even though he couldn’t find a pub that new anything of this new drink, the journey was not a failure: 

I had passed through such unsuspected countries in my voyage and travel from Enfield through Enfield Wash to Enfield Lock, through fragments of market garden and fragments of wild thicket, by sudden apparitions of grey houses built in the early ’sixties when it had dawned upon the mind of some madman that the day of the Wash was at hand and that the time for ‘development’ had come. (36)

He walks through apparently abandoned suburban developments and shops, ghost estates interspersed with remnants “of much older days,” such as Georgian mansions, now fallen into disrepair, about which the narrator creates a story: “There a substantial man, maybe an Alderman, had once lived; now, everything was falling down, broken, discoloured, desolate, uninhabited” (35-36). This varied suburban cityscape, the mixture of things he saw, and the stories he imagined about them, pleased the narrator: “And while I journeyed back to the office, I felt that I had been enjoying a rich and various experience” (36).

At this point, the narrator interrupts himself to point out that his point of view “is totally  removed from the ordinary tourist, guide-book point of view. I hope I am not without a due sense of the historic and literary interests of London, with which the guide and my guide-book are very properly occupied” (36). The narrator he respects the past, partly because of “literary and historical association,” partly because “of the love of antiquity for its own sake; a curiously compounded pleasure,” although “the more noble, terrible, notorious the associations called up, the less I am moved, in my heart of hearts” (36-37). In other words, he prefers ordinary histories. Nevertheless, he notes that “this love of antiquity for its own sake, apart from any particular literary or historical associations, has always been a great puzzle to me and still remains so” (37). Sometimes the associations that attract him are fictional: the remaining wall of the Marshalsea debtors’ prison reminds him of Dickens’s Little Dorrit, even though she never existed (37-38). “[W]hy should we be interested in places more or less connected with the fortunes of people who never existed, outside the brains and the pages of the romancers?” he asks. “I do not know why we are thus interested, but I know that we are so and that this interest constitutes one of the gentlest of pleasures of life” (38). So, when the narrator goes to Tower Hill, he thinks of Dickens’s characters Mr. and Mrs. Quilp (38-39), the way that the Marshalsea’s wall reminds him of Little Dorrit. “Perhaps, the explanation may be that the historic people are actual people,” he surmises, “creatures of fact not of fancy; and that fancy is infinitely more impressive than fact, partaking, as it does, not of actuality, but of reality” (39). Again, there is a suggestion of multiple layers of associations here, although these associations have their roots in fiction rather than in history, and I think that is another link between The London Adventure and certain forms of psychogeography.

In any case, the book he intended to write “was not to deal in the main with the historical or literary associations of London, nor even with antiquity as such, though sometimes antiquity would form part of the queer pattern that I had in my mind” (39-40). But he immediately plunges into another digression about the strangeness of unknown suburban districts, the individuality of taste, and the notion that life is a play within a play—“that there is no such entity as the thing in itself, there is no absolute existence in things seen,” and that even the “vile, red stones” of a modern suburb “may be transmuted into living, philosophical stones,” that there are mysteries in such places, rituals performed, “though those who officiate are ignorant of the secrets in which they, nonetheless, share” (40-44). Again, the sense of mysteries in the ordinary, which Machen’s book shares with occult psychogeography. This leads to a discussion of Freemasonry: “the ancient rite is duly performed, and so other ancient rites are performed in the rawest, reddest suburbs” (45). Those suburbs would be the subject of his book, even though, on one level, he despises them: 

Well, I was saying, I think, that the book on hand, this famous London Adventure, would have to deal with the raw, red places all around the walls of London; places detestable in themselves, no doubt, from the artist’s point of view, from the point of view of the lover of green fields and woods and shady lanes; but most of all detestable, I think, from my point of view, which is that of a many who loves ancient, memoried things; things of all kinds that have a past behind them, things of all kinds that show use and the touch of men upon them, and have become, in a sense, almost human or, at all events, partake of humanity. (47)

He imagines a worn doorstep, hollowed by a hundred years of feet, and imagines whose feet they might have been: “The feet of the weary and hopeless, the glad and the exultant, the lustful and the pure have made that hollow; and many of those feet are now in the hollow of the grave: and that doorstep is to me sacramental, if not a sacrament” (47-48). The book he intends to write would take all of these things into account: “the old, the shabby, the out of the way; and also the new and the red and the raw. But it was utterly to shun the familiar”—in other words, it would explore the London incognita rather than the London cognita (49).

That book, it seems, would perhaps imagine the lives of people who lived in places in the past, the way the narrator imagines the people whose feet wore down that doorstep. He recalls once wandering into a street between Camden Town and Holloway, where the houses were modest, but where each had a coachhouse and a stable: “for me here were compact histories of the Sketches by Boz period,” he states (50), and he describes the people who would have lived in an 1830s suburb. They are richly imagined in great detail (50-53).  “So much I saw as I passed down that street, Camden Town—Holloway, and I believe that most of it is truly seen; deduced, rather, from the little coach-houses and the little stables; and all a vision of a mode of life that has passed utterly away” (53). 

But, “in spite of the rows and rows of cheap red villas, which we must expect everywhere, there are still remnants of a former age” (55)—such as poltergeists. He concludes, regarding poltergeists, that

a human being is a world and cosmos of forces that reach out to other worlds wholly, or almost wholly, unknown and unconjectured; that, in most cases and probably, as things are, for the best, these forces and powers are dormant and unsuspected; that occasionally and by accident they assert themselves and produce results which prove—nothing. (61)

That odd word, “unconjectured,” shows up many times in this book, and it’s a sign of the narrator’s, and/or Machen’s, interest in mysteries, in the unknown, in esoterica or the occult. For example, he remembers visiting Bath when he was an actor, and how his fellow cast members decided, at a party, to hold a séance. Although he doesn’t believe “that the spirits of the dead can be conjured into a parlour by people sitting round a table in the dark” (66), one of the party clearly felt the presence of a spirit and was horrified by it (66). He notes the differences between that party and a real séance, at which the participants are serious: “They are investigators. They are intensely interested. They have a profound belief that the spirits of the departed can and do communicate with the living” (66-67). And yet, despite their lack of earnestness. a spirit appeared (he says) at that party: “I think that something happened; that the doors were opened; that the human spirit came into momentary contact with unconjectured worlds which it is not meant to visit” (68). “I think of all these things as I pass along the interminable wandering of the London streets,” he writes, “of the strange things which may have been done behind the weariest, dreariest walls” (68).

Now the narrator returns to the tavern where the book began, and the demand that he begin writing his book: “here was I well equipped with long-gathered material for a sermon on the great text that there is wonder in everything and everywhere, wonder above all in this great town that has grown so vast that no man can know it, nay, nor even begin to know it!” (69). The notion that there is wonder in everything and everywhere would be the book’s thesis, if it were an essay, which it’s not. It’s also one of the central characteristics of Smith’s version of psychogeography, although he wants it to include ideological critique as well. Those wonders, though, are (I think) neoplatonic and romantic: “We see appearances and outward shows of things, symbols of all sorts; but we behold no essences, nor could we bear to behold them, if it were possible to do so” (69-70). “We see nothing real, we can no more see anything real that we can take our afternoon tea in the white, central heat of a blast furnace,” he continues. “We see shadows cast by reality” (70). Those who attempt to explain the world using scientific methodology are kidding themselves:

The more foolish of us gather up some of the shadows and put them in saucepans and boil them and then strain: and find out that water is really H2O, which is true enough in its way, and will remain so: till it is found out that H2 is shorthand for ten distinct forces, while O is a universe of countless stars, all revolving in their eternal order about an unknown, unconjecturable orb. (70-71)

“[W]e see nothing at all,” he continues, “though poets catch strange glimpses of reality, now and then, out of the corners of their eyes” (71). 

The suggestion that the world is not real, and that the real world is inaccessible, might bother anyone, and our narrator admits as much: “the recognition of these obvious truths cast me down a little. I had not, then, got the unique object for investigation that I had supposed. London, it was true, was unknowable, an unplumbed depth, but so was Caerleon-on-Usk, that you could see in its totality form the top of the hill; so was the pebble on the path” (71). He looks into an old notebook, and wonders if there is a recurring pattern in his writing. He finds one; it is

the sense of the eternal mysteries, the eternal beauty hidden beneath the crust of common and commonplace things; hidden and yet burning and glowing continually if you care to look with purged eyes. Nay, I think that in this age, which has probably lost what I may call the epic sense, as it lives in villas and flats instead of castles, and goes in tweeds in place of chain mail, for us, I think, it is easier to discern the secret beauty and wonder and mystery in humble and common things than in the splendid and noble and storied things. (75)

I could be wrong—it’s 30 years since I took a course on romanticism—but this strikes me as an example of one form of Victorian romanticism. Nonetheless, the narrator describes himself as “a determined realist,” because he demands “a certain degree of assent in the reader to the propositions which are laid down before him,” and he wants his work to be seen as “credible . . . in the artistic sense, as Micawber is credible, though there never was, in actuality, any such person” (79). 

Back to his notebook, where he is disappointed by various sketches and outlines that led nowhere. “I find my destiny a hard one,” he writes. “Here am I, born apparently with this itch of writing without the faculty of carrying the desire into execution” (91). But he thinks about being a newspaper reporter, and its primary benefit—not being forced to write something to its end, but having seen “queer things and odd prospects” which he would not have seen otherwise, particularly strange places and neighbourhoods (96-97). He tells a story about climbing a mountain when he was a young man, and feeling something spiritual or religious in his encounter with those hills, so that the only expression in words for that feeling was “For ever and ever. Amen” (99). That experience is evidence that “the unknown world is, in truth, about us everywhere, everywhere near to our feet; the thinnest veil separates us from it, the door in the wall of the next street communicates with it” (100). “Men of science”—those who would disagree, perhaps, with that claim—“are always wrong” (100). The stories about his experiences as a journalist are all about running across something mysterious, something that suggests that “we . . . live in an illusory world” (105). He recalls being sent to investigate a dispute over a will in which a man named Campo Tosto left all of his possessions (Flemish paintings and candlesticks) to a man named Turk. He writes, 

here was a man called Campo Tosto living in a place called Burnt Green, which is, practically, a translation of Campo Tosto. Here was a man whose property consisted chiefly in Madonnas and medieval candlesticks, who shot at intruders with the bow, either long or short. Here was his heir, with the good old English country name of Turk. (110-11)

The narrator wrote the story, and his editor didn’t believe it: “He understood, better than I, that one order of illusion must not be allowed to impinge on another” (110-11). He tells similar stories from his career as a journalist, but what the narrator considers to be his strangest story had nothing to do with journalism: he was walking along, thinking about a passage in Boswell’s Life of Johnson about a fashionable baronet named Sir Michael Le Fleming, “when suddenly I saw on a brass plate on the garden-gate the very name that had just entered my mind”—an incident of “mad inconsequence,” meaning nothing at all (118-119). That story led nowhere, he admits:

But I do think that in each there is a hint of certain things. We move, as I have said before, in a world of illusions, but of illusions on one plane. We are mistaken if we think that there is, in ultimate reality, any such thing as a cube, any such thing as a cow; but, at all events, these two are apparently on the same surface of being. But, now and then, there are intrusions upon us from other worlds, probably quite as illusory as our own. And we are accordingly left stupefied. There is no “therefore”; no ratio. (122)

The moral is that the world is infinitely strange, “that even in the rind or surface of it the strangest essences are lurking, that tremendous beauties, amazing oddities are everywhere present,” even if they appear commonplace “123). “Such things are constantly happening in real life, or, at all events, the only life of which we know anything” (124). 

In case you don’t believe me about this book’s romanticism, take a read through this quotation, which presents two pastiches of Keats (one from a letter, the other from a poem): “Strangeness which is the essence of beauty is the essence of truth, and the essence of the world. I have often felt that, when the ascent of a long hill brought me to the summit of an undiscovered height in London; and I looked down on a new land” (127). The narrator recalls living in Notting Hill Gate 40 years before, and how, on one October day, dreaming about becoming a writer, and “seeing the stones glow into a spagyric gold beneath his feet, seeing the plane trees in the back gardens droop down from fairyland, seeing a mystery behind every blind, and the infinite mystery in the grey-blue distance, where, as they tell me, for I have never sought to know, the street becomes dubious, if not desperate” (131-32). That is the way he sees the world, and I think the way occult psychogeographers see the world: there is mystery everywhere, if it can only be sensed.

“But here we are, still delaying over the great work, The London Adventure; and nothing done,” the narrator states:

I begin to reflect on the matter very seriously, as the summer wears on. It strikes me that I had better try an old recipe of mine, and start out, on a book of a totally different kind, in the hope, I suppose, that the one undertaking, going prosperously—as of course it will—may stimulate the other. (137)

That story would symbolize the soul through “exterior things” (137). He would write of a man on summer holiday, who goes to the hills he climbed as a young man, where he would see “something outland,” and then to Caerlon-on-Usk to see the sunset and the river and the Roman walls: “He should go wandering away, this unfortunate fellow, into such a country as he had never dreamed of; he should lose himself in intricacies of deep lanes descending from wooded heights to hidden and solitary valleys, where the clear water of the winding brook sounds under the alder trees” (137-38). Then he would return to London “and perceive that wonderful things have been wrought in him”—that everything he saw “discoursed to him a great mystery, whereby his soul has been renewed within him” (138-39). But this is a story he will never tell, even though he has been thinking about it for 40 years (139). He doesn’t explain why—perhaps because he has just told it.

There is one more story, though, another one about his sense that the real world is hidden from us. Once, while writing an earlier book, he went out for a walk and lost his sense of direction. He couldn’t tell where his lodgings were, or what was north or south, east or west (140-41). “I got home somehow by complicated and dubious calculations,” he writes, “and in a some[wh]at confused and alarmed frame of mind. And odd as it may seem, this perplexity has never wholly left me” (141). That, he thinks, is a story he might be able to tell: a man “who became so entangled in some maze of imagination and speculation that the common, material ways of the world became of no significance to him” (141). 

It’s easy to see the intersection between The London Adventure and occult psychogeography. I don’t know that much about that form of psychogeography, to be honest; I’m still gathering string on the subject of psychogeography in all of its forms. If I were to read Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territories, for instance, I’m sure I would see more connections. I also see intersections between the form of psychogeography that Phil Smith advocates in Walking’s New Movement and The London Adventure. I wonder, for instance, how close the process of coding or recoding spaces is to the stories Machen’s narrator invents about the places he passes when he walks around London. I think there might be other echoes or resonances, and that wouldn’t be surprising, given the powerful influence of psychogeography on Smith’s version of radical walking, and given the importance of The London Adventure to a particular branch of that activity. The more I read about psychogeography—the more I read about any and all forms of radical or aesthetic walking—the more I’m going to understand about it. So I’m happy I tackled one of the practice’s primary texts.

Work Cited

Machen, Arthur. The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering, Martin Secker, 1924.

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

smith walking's new movement

This is an important book. Phil Smith makes an argument in favour of a specific kind of walking that is both politically and aesthetically radical, drawing on psychogeography as a resource but subjecting it to a thorough critique. I can’t say that I understand all the nuances of Smith’s argument—that’s what this summary is for, to help me see what I understand and what I don’t—or that I agree with it; indeed, I sense that, from Smith’s perspective, I’m the wrong kind of walker (I think he would call me “neo-romantic” and “literary,” which are bad things, in his opinion). That doesn’t matter. Walking’s New Movement is a tremendous resource, and it packs a tremendous amount of thinking and arguing and research into its pages. 

In the book’s introduction, Smith explains that he was motivated to write after going to talks by Laura Oldfield Ford, Frédéric Gros, and Alastair Bonnett (they are writers and walking artists—don’t worry, Gros was the only one I knew of before reading this book) shook his thinking about radical walking (1). He decided to write this book as a response to those talks. The book, he suggests, proposes “some massive practical projects,” offers “some smaller-scale tactics,” and promotes “a handful of new ideas” about walking (1). Smith says that he is attempting to write with a kind of binocular vision—both inside walking, as a practitioner, and also above, as if looking down from a satellite or a helicopter: “I am trying to tease out the most progressive threads from the meshworks of walking, which means I have sided with some and against others”—but his arguments are about ideas and practices, he continues, not his personal feelings about individuals (1). 

The introduction also, not surprisingly, outlines Smith’s purpose in this book: “Something extraordinary has happened in radical and art walking in the last fifteen years, the work of many people and of many non-human forces, and this book is intended both to celebrate that and to furiously urge a new change and to help radical walkers realise it” (1). At the same time, rather than list his demands or create a manifesto made up of numbered points, he suggests that while he has attempted to speak directly, he has “also sought to lure you into new trajectories by the curling and folding back of arguments and narratives”—a style of argument he calls “drift-thinking” (2). So the book makes its argument in both form and content, as Smith does in his book on mythogeography, which I wrote about earlier in this project.

The first chapter, “Threat,” begins with an a question: “Things look pretty good for radical walking and for the latest generation of psychogeographers and walking artists. Don’t they?” The answer, though, amounts to a list of the issues Smith wants to address, and is worth reproducing in full:

Yet the change and expansion is neither even nor simple. The performances of radical walking inside the expansion are shifting. Contradictory currents cross the zones of change. General flows and tides emerge to show themselves: an increasing multiplicity of styles and means orbiting around a variety of ideas that together form and re-form approximate coherences; the growth in the number, visibility and influence of women walking, which in its turn exposes other and continuing absences; art and performance practices dispersing across the field; the return of romanticism and the attraction to ‘new nature writing’ within the prospect of an ecological catastrophe; the exposure of semi-hidden places of violence, intensification of the invasion of the subjective, the return of repressed legacies of psychogeography including iconoclasm and the occult; a renegotiation of the relation of theory to practice and the fraying at the edges of epic and sociable walkings. (3)

Smith’s assumption has been that “the explosion of walking arts,” informed by “a political psychogeography with its roots in the early practices of the International Lettrists and Situationist International (IL/SI), are the right ingredients for a difficult, complex, savvy, corporeal, subversive, self-aware, increasingly post-dance-like walking, part of a broad and loose meshwork of resistant practices” (4). He’s optimistic about this, and yet concerned about “an accelerating discontinuity spreading across the field of radical, non-functional and art walking,” and wonders what ought to be done in response (4). That wondering or questioning is genuine: this book has emerged from a period of reflection and activity, of thinking and asking questions, as well as walking and writing. Part of what has emerged from that work, Smith suggests, is “a set of ideas for performing walking practices”:

some are original, others are hybrids or adaptations of existing practices. Taken together, they model performances of walking in relation to eco-romanticism, to misogyny, to occult ambiguity, to apocalypse, to Savilian space and to the encoding of the city. They are a prescription for a new dérive that is already emerging, and has been for a decade or so now. (4-5)

Those ideas are what this book will address.

Smith’s second chapter, “Space Wars,” is partly about a battle for “holey space,” or what Stephen Barber calls “city-space aperture[s] able adeptly to traverse all divisions between underground and surface, in order to instil its disruptive content into the relentless regulation of surface space” (6). Examples of holey space include tunnels in Gaza, place hackers accessing railway tunnels under London, air exclusion zones, basements, silos, bunkers, and hideouts, “but also those invisible above-ground ‘tunnels’ we (and they) deploy for hiding in plain sight in the anonymity of city life” (6). I can’t pretend to understand this, and that’s not surprising, since the concept of “holey space” (according to my quick Google search) originally comes from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s book A Thousand Plateaus, a book I haven’t read but that, it’s becoming increasingly clear, I need to, even though it’s notoriously long and  difficult. Smith’s explanation of the application of the idea of holey space to walking leaves me bewildered: “A radical walking can respond by accessing and keeping open some of the less vulnerable networks of holey space such as the trajectories of saluted magpies and imaginary sky creatures, processional walkways revealed by aerial photography, hollow lanes, and the encoding of spaces as pathways of joy and of night time revellers” (6-7). I honestly don’t know what that means, but perhaps after reading Barber, and Deleuze and Guattari, I’ll have some idea. What is clear from Smith’s remarks about holey space is that it is a space of freedom, but I am not sure how it applies to the walks I make, since I don’t wander into sewers or bunkers or silos when I walk. Such places are off-limits, usually for good reasons (wandering around in a subway tunnel isn’t safe), and in any case, I can’t think of anything like holey space in this city or in the surrounding areas. Perhaps trespassing, particularly in rural areas, might be an example? Climbing through a barbed-wire fence to walk on a piece of unbroken grassland without permission? I don’t know. 

Complementarity to the notion of a battle for holey space is the “ongoing assault on the hospitable upper surfaces of urban space” by power—so that parks and benches are under attack, becoming cluttered by signs that connote “aggressive visual incoherence and anxiety” (7-8). This assault leads to a degradation of public space:

a long process of re-spacing that discourages congregation and contemplation, subjects signs to an over-pixilation, strips human anomalies from public space in order to more starkly distinguish the suspicious from the harmlessly alienated and allows rich, affluent, comfortable, exploited, disturbed and poor individuals to move rapidly through central urban spaces without recognising each other. (8)

By “over-pixilation,” I think Smith means that there are more and more signs in public spaces, signs that make increasing (and threatening?) demands of people in those spaces (I’m thinking of the signs in Wascana Centre here in Regina that forbid smoking or vaping, or that warn of thin ice even in the middle of summer—but Smith is referring to a more threatening variety, I believe). The purpose of those signs, and the rules and regulations they announce, is to strip “human anomalies from public space,” and those anomalies are important, particularly if individuals from different groups are to recognize each other as they move through urban spaces.

Another form of space that concerns Smith is what he calls “Savilian spaces,” the subject of his third chapter. The reference is to Jimmy Savile (those of us outside of the UK may have forgotten the scandal occasioned by the decades of abuse that Savile, a British celebrity, perpetrated on the living and, apparently, the dead as well). A Savilian space is a space of abuse, “a space that seems to have gone missing, become invisible or meaningless, that seems to have been largely unacknowledged in public, legal or academic discourses but to have been consistently exploited semi-publicly/semi-privately by abusers, both individual and organised” (10). Smith’s examples of Savilian spaces include churches, hospitals, special schools—and spaces within those institutions, I should think; these “are often located somewhere between private and public space. They are places to which access is negotiated; though not public places they are usually ‘known’ to, even administered by, the institutions, families, and communities the abusers operate within” (10-11). Savilian spaces are not “places of confinement or concealment, nor are they clandestine or taboo, covert or transgressive. They are inversions or inlets of semi-informal and semi-official space: dressing rooms, offices, private rooms on wards, curtained beds, and so on” (11). These, I think, are the kinds of spaces where Savile abused people. They are “very effective in creating a symbiotic relationship between criminal and official spaces,” because “[s]emi-hidden abuses in semi-hidden space put the official world in a position of ‘semi-knowing’; hearing tales whispered behind the hand, gossip about ‘bad reputations,’ and so on” (11). The institutions responsible for those spaces end up legitimating the outrages perpetrated in them through inaction and collusion. For Smith, the behaviour of police during nineteenth-century pogroms is a parallel; the police would arrive while Jews were being assaulted and murdered, and then step back, allowing the mob to do whatever it wanted and legitimating its violence (11). What makes Savilian space different is that “it is a semi-private space adjacent to public space, rather than public space itself, but it is subject to the same evacuation and validation (and to a greater or lesser extent the same disinterested witness) by official authority,” and in such space, “abusive agents act with the accommodation, tolerance, connivance and embarrassment of public power and authoritative communal relations,” in which the authorities signify their authority but withdraw their responsibility (12). As I read this description, I found myself thinking of offices or dormitories in residential schools, or those rooms in churches adjacent to the sanctuary, where abuses take place. In Savile’s case, though, his celebrity, and the way he was able to psychologically transform space, creating “unreal places of invisibility and silence” (13), was a key factor in the production of Savilian space.

Smith wants radical walking to address Savilian space: “Part of any new movement in psychogeography, if any such thing is to genuinely exist as a force for change, might be an obligation to identify and classify in popular taxonomies the locations and general dynamics of these and other spaces of exploitative and repressive power; requiring an inquisitiveness every bit as un-tame as place hacking” (14). That activity “will be a harsh and threatened mapping,” and as psychogeographers take on this task, they should do so with the understanding “that reactionaries, with the advantage of hegemony, will be able to exploit our discoveries about transit and affordance while we can never re-utilise theirs about exploitation and repression” (14). First of all, “transit” suggests mobility or movement, I think, and “affordance” comes from the work of James Gibson, whom I read about when I read about embodied cognition back in January. It means, I think, what an environment offers to an organism, the possibilities of action an environment allows. 

Given the semi-private, improvised and temporary nature of Savilian spaces, I’m not sure how one would map them (does every hospital bed, surrounded by privacy curtains, constitute a potential Savilian space? If so, would that mean mapping them all?). But for Smith, that mapping would be part of radical walking’s political engagement: “if we really want to engage with the exploitative power as well as the magic of the city, including the ‘magic’ of its exploitative power, then one of the tasks of the new psychogeographers will be to devise maps to locate, and toolkits to provoke, the textures and layers of the exceptional relations of the Spectacle”—here, and elsewhere, Smith is referring to Guy Debord’s theory of the spectacle—“in the same way as we have for the textures and layers of the spectacular Everyday. And Savilian space will constitute one of those layers” (14). This political engagement is essential for Smith:

Shifts in the nature of space challenge us to make new kinds of radical walking that take themselves more seriously as activisms against the Spectacle and against power. They challenge us to generate the movement (rather than ‘create the organisation’) capable of researching and sharing taxonomies of spaces of power, exploitation and affordance to freedom, exacerbating the pleasure we find in the free enchantments of everyday space and expanding the liberties we enjoy in holey space, while tracing, exposing and ending the abuses of Savilian and similar spaces.

This means more than a politics of everyday life; it means a politics for everyday life as politics, privileging everyday life as the site of politics against the discourses of the state and the agents of the Spectacle. (15)

This political activity is, for Smith, an important part of any new form of psychogeography, and he concludes this chapter with a series of questions about what that new form, the new movement of the book’s title, might look like: “What stories would such a movement tell itself and others? What dreams would it have, despite itself? What shapes would it form and what meshworks of structure and desire would it weave?” (15). Smith addresses those questions as the book unfolds.

Smith’s fourth chapter, “Ripping Yarn,” is about women and walking. “The female walker faces the challenge to get beyond or around the threats that women face, in varying degrees, in public space,” he writes, and managing and avoiding such threats, and getting beyond or around “imaginaries in which women are not agents in the landscape but figure as a landscape or as agents missing from it” (16). He cites Judith Walkowitz, who suggests that the figure of the flâneur emerged from horror narratives and a “voyeurism that essentialises the walker as a male ‘explorer’ who reproduces the binaries of the city by retelling narratives of physical peril and sexual threat” (17). I recall that Merlin Coverley mentions this fact neutrally; in contrast, it angers Smith, who notes that some male walkers, including Will Self, consider it to be an exclusively male activity. I was disappointed to read this; I know Self is considered too mainstream a figure among walkers these days, but I like the fact that he walks to and from airports when he travels, something I’d like to try. It’s not just Self, though; many walkers, and writers about walking, ignore women. Smith notes that Iain Sinclair and Richard Long typically stand “at the head of a canonised procession from which women are almost entirely excluded” (17). “It is from this procession that a ‘new psychogeography’ must, painfully, detach itself,” Smith writes, “leaving behind some cherished sources, and find new precedents for itself (Margaret Cavendish, Charles Fourier or Nan Shepherd, for example), freeing itself from ‘the limitations of situationist psychogeography . . . ground[ed] in the male gaze’” (17-18)—the quotation is from an essay by Alexander John Bridger. 

As an aside, that’s one of the great things about this book, from my perspective; it is a rich resource of books and articles about walking that I knew nothing about before. In a note, for instance, Smith acknowledges that he is “purposely fuzzying” the distinctions between other forms of radical walking and psychogeography (18). Those other forms include Nick Papadimitriou’s “deep topography,” Cara Spooner’s “greater choreography,” Tina Richardson’s “schizo-cartography,” Roger Bygott’s “integral drift,” and Bill Psarras’s “hybrid flânerie” (18)—all terms I had never heard of and need to follow up on. Smith celebrates these hybrids and overlappings, celebrating multiplicity without worrying about losing a clarity of definition (18). 

Back to the main focus of the chapter: Smith suggests that the male domination of psychogeography—its older form, the form he would like to see replaced—is bolstered and articulated by 

a very longstanding and resilient literary positioning of women in a landscape of passivity; this is just as common in past accounts by radical walkers as in those of more conservative literary walkers. In radical literature the landscape is female. The male writer explores the secrets of the landscape, often portrayed as someone seducing or penetrating a female entity. (18-19)

Male writers who have participated in that positioning have included Thomas de Quincey, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Stephen Graham, Julian Gracq, Walter Benjamin, and Iain Sinclair (19). “It is hardly surprising, then,” Smith continues, “that a critical geographer like Doreen Massey might mistakenly conflate such a psychogeography with a parody of urban exploration to excoriate ‘the least politically conniving of situationist capers. . . . eroticised colonisation of the city” (19). I have to admit that I missed that quotation when I read Massey’s book—I must have been too busy thinking about space and place and not open to other ideas, which suggests that I ought to re-read it. 

What makes this situation particularly intolerable is that women were and are walking: there were women in the Lettrists International, women participating in the situationists’ drifts, women walking as an art practice (19). Ignoring them, Smith contends, is a “memetic war on memory and agency” (20). More importantly, “the sheer exponential growth in numbers of women practising some kind of radical or art walking” is “shifting the ground away from under the malevolent gaze” (20). It’s important to keep telling this story, he suggests, to continue noting the women engaged in radical or art walking (20). He suggests that the work of Tina Richardson is important as a way of resituating a new psychogeography. Her table of opposing elements—the negative side included the terms masculine/colonial, singularly literary, and univocal, while among the positives was post-Sinclairian—suggests, for Smith, “that while a generation of male literary psychogeographers would not be forgotten, they would be superseded, as the precursors to, rather than the originators of, a new psychogeography” (22). That new psychogeography would come from somewhere else—from the theories and practices of women walkers, in part.

Another source of the new psychogeography, according to Smith, will be an emphasis on performance. In his fifth chapter, “The Return of Art Through Performance,” he suggests that the concept of “ludibrium” “may help us make sense of what is emerging, self-consciously and unplanned, form ambulatory arts” (22). What is a ludibrium? It is “a fiction of an organisation” that brings “a real organisation into being,” Smith contends (22). A ludibrium is made up of actions and provocations, rather than dialogue and stage directions, and it lets loose “a fictional narrative and a dramatic world that invites its realisation in practice in the real world. It is a fictional score to be brought to life not by actors playing parts, but by its characters emerging from real life (22). One example is the London Psychogeographical Association of the 1990s, which was a fictional creation that, through its critiques and provocations, led large groups of people to remap their cities emotionally (22). Other examples of ludibria, defined as “journeys through metaphorical terrains, volatile sites of contestation, and inner landscapes,” include Blake Morris’s memory palaces, Jess Allen’s tilting@windmills around the wind farms fo Wales, the meditative processions of Robert Wilson, Theun Mosk and Boukje Schweigman’s Walking, the collecting/carrying/passing on of precious objects by Elspeth Owen (24). Theatre, despised in visual arts by modernist critics, “has prevailed in walking” (24), Smith suggests, and it seems that ludibria have been the vehicle for that theatricalization.

There are many practices involved in this theatricalization, but Smith wonders whether there needs to be more discussion of political strategy (24). He gives the work of Wrights & Sites as an example (a group he, of course, was part of). Their work in the mid-2000s suggests that strategy can emerge from tactics; “they suggested melding situation-making with dérive to make a walking that could in itself change the city” by attacking “the usual functionalist role of the dérive” as a gathering of information (24). Instead, the point of the dérives conducted by Wrights & Sites was to make situations, “located events that defy the present economic and political system and prefigure a new kind of society” (24). According to Smith, Wrights & Sites

proposed collapsing the walking into landscaping, taking from Michel de Certeau his empowering of pedestrianism, but getting beyond the structuralist passivity of de Certeau’s everyday tactics by adding art-making without an aesthetic product; suggesting that performance and other arts practices could be integrated into situationist praxis on a walk in which the options, to perceptually reframe the city or to physically intervene in the city, were kept open. This had the advantage of change not being planned from above . . . and instead coming by exploration and jouissance (intense pleasure) on the ground. The meanings of a place could be transformed in the process of “re-discovering” and re-enacting it and, when necessary, re-constructing it. In effect Wrights & Sites had invented a new drift-as-ludibrium: a”‘situational dérive.” The touchstone of this “situational dérive” is the whole-body jouissance of the walker, the city defined by the pleasure of a walking body; hypersensitised and micro-architecturally agentive; a prefigurative activity for a “jouissant city”; a ludibrium awaiting a walking movement capable of fully enacting it. (25)

Smith notes that geographer Alastair Bonnett complained in 1998 of the failure of the Situationists to develop an approach to creativity that abandoned avant-gardism and artistic production and engaged with the ways that people explore or mutate their environment. “It is precisely this kind of ‘approach’ that characterises the creative activity around walking today,” Smith contends: 

the sources of that approach are a loosely meshed and at best vaguely psychogeographically-informed array of artists and post-artists, quite capable of negotiating (if not always successfully) the dematerialisation of the art object, relational aesthetics and post-dramatic performance. It is a commonplace (taken from live art, postmodern dance, spatial practices, mapping, and so on) for these artists to place themselves in the junctions of art and the everyday, more oriented to deferral from, than refusal of, art. (25-26)

Such work, he notes, is more likely to engage with the everyday than gallery or theatre spaces (26). Ambulatory artists and activists “engage with the way in which environments are both explored and mutated in a walk,” a practice that is similiar to ludibria, “but more welcoming to the uninitiated, grasping the provocative qualities of a teatrum mundi or of ‘a game of war,’ yet working more often in a vernacular register than in poeticised theory or abstruse symbolic mapping” (26). “Where today’s practices might occasionally spill over into opportunism or un-theorised spontaneity,” Smith continues,

walking might, equally well, suddenly spill over into dance; far better that, then, than to realise rationally and wholly (as localism or obscurantism does) some detail of a scenario that short circuits the “ideal-entire” by giving credibility either to pragmatic things only or to the making of values by the exclusion of others from them. (26)

This statement makes me think about the walks I’ve been making, and whether my focus on pragmatic (Smith might use the word “functionalist”) issues (because I know I require certain things to be able to walk 30 kilometres in the summer heat) would be, for Smith, a problem, or whether he would consider that establishing a goal of 30 kilometres excludes others. Yes to both questions, I would think, but I don’t intend to move away from that kind of walking, and for that reason I might need to begin to develop a defence of long, rural walks as a practice.

Smith sees Rebecca Solnit’s and Morris Marple’s work on walking as both too romantic and too literary (a theme he returns to later); as an alternative, he suggests Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, and his belief in “a lay wisdom of the ordinary that would be as sophisticated as the technical learning required for complex science and quite different from the ‘great ideas’ of philosophy” (27). Smith doesn’t mind Lefebvre’s romanticism, because it is addressed to the future, rather than nostalgically, to the past. “I have become worried,” he writes,

that I have sometimes over-emphasised seeking wonders in the everyday . . . at the expense of exposing the oppressive homogenisation, fragmentation, marginalisation, policed containment and repressive incoherence inflicted on people in public space. . . . At the same time I have no with to leave behind my wonder-tactics for “a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism.” (28-29)

“My attempt at a response, following Lefebvre’s model of revolutionary-romantic strategy,” he continues, “is to plan a distribution of alternative codes to the common things, signs, patterns, flows, encounters, and so on, in everyday public space” (29). The coding process looks like this: first, “identifying the ways in which these public spaces are constructed and rearranged as means to inflict codes that are both limiting, tedious and disorienting,” then assembling 

a taxonomy of things, patterns and so on through which these ideological processes operate in a particular public space. In response, I then place this re-encoding on the buildings in these spaces, record their placing and distribute this information; so, now, the built environment can be read by others as a series of subversive and anti-ideological mnemonics. (29)

“This is a mapping of rebel ideas, dream theories and pleasure principles onto the built environment,” he continues; “an environment that is, of course, always changing and thus itself would be always finessing the codes, and helping to conceal their meanings from those who think themselves above going down into the streets to read the changes in the art of memory there” (29). This process is similar to that of occult psychogeography (29-30). It is “an art of memory for anywhere, education without system; inscribing simply-reasoned radical and vitalist theories into the fabric of things, transforming everyday life into a giant ludibrium” (30). The strategic virtue of the kind of project, for Smith, is that “once the codes and arts have been devised, released and distributed in samizdat and rumour forms, those in central power will be unable to remove them or their architectural and everyday signifiers form an everyday invisible discourse without bulldozing the entire everyday world” (30). “Those reading the codes in the everyday will learn how to do so without outwardly signalling their finessing of their mind maps (dancing with their eyes only)” (30). It would be “a strategic deployment of performance-like tactics that is not realised in art, but in everyday walking through everyday space, enabled by aesthetic technique but without aesthetic product” (30).

I have trouble imagining how this coding project might work in practice—mostly because I’ve never seen it done. Let me imagine a local example: one might walk with a group of people to Victoria Park, where a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald stands. He holds in his left hand a rolled object that I think is supposed to be the British North America Act, but it looks like a burrito or a hot dog. The ideological processes operating through that statue are pretty obvious, I should think: it asserts the right of Canada to this territory; it holds up Sir John A. as an example, as the “Father of Our Country”; it obviates or negates the genocide Sir John A.’s government committed against Indigenous peoples, including the execution of Louis Riel, whose trial took place (so a nearby plaque tells us) very close by. In a recent performance, Métis artist David Garneau, dressed as Riel (about to be hanged, wearing a hood and a noose), engages in a dialogue with the statue about why it should be removed, including attempting to pull it down with a Métis sash. Is that the kind of recoding Smith is thinking about? Is Garneau engaged in “a mapping of rebel ideas, dream theories and pleasure principles onto the built environment” (29)? I’m not entirely sure—perhaps I’ll get a chance to see this kind of coding exercise in action, some time: it seems to be the kind of thing you need to experience in order to understand.

In the following chapter, Smith gives what might be an example of a performance that engaged in a similar coding project: Nando Messias’s The Sissy’s Progress, which was a response to a homophobic assault he experienced near his home in London, a performance which “blends elements of vulnerability and display” (31). “There was no undisputed meaning, no secure space for identity-making, not even a reclaiming of the space from violence; all these things remained unresolved,” Smith writes:

What, instead, was revealed and celebrated/exorcised/invoked were the different spaces within the one space, no one of them more “real” or authentic than any of the others; different strata of conflicting personal and cultural performances and displays, layers of violence . . . different and conflicting narrations of the same places, all cutting through and across each other. (33)

Those layers did not mesh comfortably, as in an idealist, pro-Situationalist approach to the city, but rather they “remained conflicted and tense” (33). At the same time, the spaces “had positive dynamics,” and they offered the possibility of multiple positioning (33). There is a rich potential, he continues, in “deploying multiple tactics sensitive to terrain, to layers, to planes, to rights, to gender and to appearance if and where there is a primary body-identity-provocation to shake the layers of that terrain,” Smith writes (33).

Next, he describes an event in Plymouth that uncovered “a certain model-like conflation of ideas and tactics. . . . I was able to meet whatever the sum of that conflation was by moving abstractly in relation to pigeons and blown packaging—a shift to dance, a refusing to be scared of dance” (35). In other words, Smith subjected himself to a combination of physical forces, and performed that subjection. The result, he continues, was

a complex and multiplicitious dynamic patterning in engagement with multiple complex memes, “other” than human consciousness yet patterning human consciousness, while engaging against the constructing of illusions of legitimacy. . . . I was implicated and implemented. . . . I had (literally) stumbled across a de-normalising trajectory, from vertical to horizontal, to add, with difficulty, to nomadic thinking’s walk away from sedentary thought. (36)

I’m not sure if there’s a connection between these performances and the recoding project Smith describes in the previous chapter. I don’t think there is; I think he is describing a different mode of performance, but I could be wrong. Again, I would need to be part of such performances (I don’t think one is merely a spectator) in order to understand the connection between theory and practice.

Chapter seven, “War of Selves,” is about “the serious business” of psychogeography: the “struggle for the subjective” (38):

The architecture of multiple selves rather than the architecture of the streets is the key terrain of psychogeographical change; nothing changes until we first realise, each one of us, that we are alone and that nothing changes unless we allow that aloneness to change it. Everything else—comradeship, violence, democracy, environment, ideas—is scaffolding. No wonder revolutionary capitalism is so indifferent to structure and so vampiric upon every impulse to create, every desire to produce and every spirit of enterprise. (38)

But subjectivity, Smith insists, is not introspection or solipsism:

We are in the midst of a guerrilla war for what people once called ‘the soul,’ that properly dark and appropriately hidden part of you, a delicacy once hungered after exclusively by priests and false messiahs, but now desired by business and government just as much. Once upon a time acts of non-normative self-affirmation were accompanied by fear of exposure . . . today such exposure is translated into information currency in a digital marketplace. The performance that once disrupted and differentiated itself from the normative is made digestible. (39)

Given this struggle, what is necessary is for walkers to play stupid, to refuse to produce themselves as commodities, to be discreet, to put “machines of invasion into reverse so they become the means of dispersal rather than exposure,” to seek “secret places of footfall for confession and intimacy”—all tactics “that have been prefigured in the intricacy, presentness and presence of live art or in those modern pilgrimages described by Robert Macfarlane and others” (39). (As an aside, that is one of Smith’s few positive remarks about Macfarlane, who is one of my favourite writers.) “The work of the ideology-pilgrim is doubled, and then doubled again,” Smith argues:

It is not an initiation into mysteries hidden within, but, to begin with, a double journey, firstly through a real landscape saturated by ideology, a space where “virgin,” “wild,” “primal” and “unspoiled” are marks of fabrication (in both senses of nobly crafted and scandalously faked), where materiality cannot be relied upon as a counter to its own deceptions, and, secondly, a walk towards a revelation that is no more a given than the rest of the route, but is constructed and reconstructed by each journey . . . not a solipsist or spiritual journey to some “revelation” about the self, other than revealing how much the self is implicated in making everything that imprisons it. (40)

Walkers need to become walker-artificers, finding the reality in illusion, then constructing a new fabrication: that is how one does the “situational dérive” (40). The “situational dérive,” he continues,

is a baroque form of walking. . . . it is a rejection of conventional planning, even of the utopian “New Babylonian” kind, and instead prosecutes a conflation of walking and architecture; a re-making of the city’s meaning through both spontaneous and choreographed walked armed with détournement and performance. (40-41)

Walkers have a responsibility to invent: it “can only be fulfilled by the irresponsibility of refusing to imagine even what contradictions or forces of production might power up such invention; imagination being the most saturated site of ideological reproduction,” Smith continues (41). The “situational dérive is an interrupted and limited mobility, “not by destinations and productions but by decompression chambers, vaults, airlocks and encounters” (41). What is needed is something like the “ambulatory architecture” championed by Wrights & Sites (42). I don’t know enough about their work, but I’ve ordered their book(s).

And yet, Smith continues, “it is clear that there are times when psychogeography has to unclip itself from architecture and physical trace and listen for the silence, feel for the absence, dream the trauma of colonial spaces” (43). Yes—I agree. That’s what I try to do in my walks. The question is, what are the best ways to do that? “The malevolent wreckages of colonialism and misogyny are everywhere in the far-reaching strata that are crossed by our drifts; material ‘depth’ that may have to be accessed by ludicrous dreams” (43). Perhaps, but at least in this part of the world, the reality of colonialism and misogyny is probably powerful enough; I’m not sure why “ludicrous dreams” are necessary. Again, I’m not getting Smith’s point. The contemporary dérive needs the occult, it seems, or at least dreams, magic, vampires and ghosts (44). I don’t understand why that would be; why is gothic fantasy necessary? “[A] new walking movement might appropriate the baroque style of occult psychogeography and begin to ‘quietly’ but publicly encode the existing city in an art of memory, making small material interventions when necessary to finesse the code,” he continues, a suggestion that is related to Doreen Massey’s demand that we examine anew and reinvent (44). As before, I don’t understand the coding or recoding process Smith is alluding to, and I’m not sure how small a material intervention has to be before it becomes illegible. “Psychogeography can ‘re-shape’ a city into ‘as if’ patterns, using the template of ‘occult’ exegeses . . . to attribute new meanings to both generic and unique elements of a city,” Smith continues (44)—and again, I don’t understand how such gothic fantasies are a model. But my confusion grows ever deeper: “To walk a city re-encoded would be a re-composition of that city’s meaning. . . . By writing and then refining the incomplete codes, the mostly unseen and undetectable process of de-composing and re-composing a city might predominate over any cod-sinister hiddenness or finality of meaning” (45). How does a subjective process of asserting codes to objects or buildings change what the city means? David Garneau’s intervention with the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald might add to that statue’s meaning, at least for those who were present at the performance, but if the process is supposed to be “mostly unseen and undetectable,” then how does it have any effect? 

“By sharing and deploying decompositions and limited encodings through unprofitable ‘art’ (technique without product),” Smith writes,

the process can shift gear from subjective pleasure to a democratic ‘art of memory’ anywhere. To be effective would of course require a qualitative leap beyond what passes at the moment for representations of walked place and a strategy for laying various encodings over, under and around each other in ways that others could understand and commit to memory. Theoretical sophistication and (a sometimes sectarian) passion have proved no substitute for artistic technique divorced from art production: a code, a fanciful mapping that cannot be read except through another journey, a score that is only visible when performed. (45-46)

Smith insists that this coding or mapping is essential to walking (at least, walking in urban spaces), and the suggestion that those codes constitute “a score that is only visible when performed” suggests that what he is talking about is close to Garneau’s performance, but I am still confused about what any of this means. I intend to follow up with Smith’s references as a way of trying to sort out my confusion, but I’m honestly not sure how telling fictional stories about places changes them. The difference between what Smith seems to be advocating and what Garneau performed is that Garneau’s narrative isn’t fictional; it’s an Indigenous perspective on the truth about Macdonald, and the reasons that he should not be celebrated with statues.

Interrupted walking, the form Smith has been disscussing, is, he suggests, “an example of slow revolution; not a sudden rupture which leaves everything still to be done and everyone vulnerable to power in other masks, but longstanding in prosecution and effects” (47). “The work of slow revolutionaries,” he continues,

is to place a nail in the flow, to subject it to the torque of resistance, upset and the foot stuck out to trip, to everywhere block and barricade revolutionary capitalism, refusing to “wipe the slate clean” but instead to conserve and détourn the smears on the slate (this is why we love the everyday and its ruins) against the imperative to “start again from scratch,” conserving and transforming obstacles into mini-barricades, chicanes and blockades. (48)

“Contemporary psychogeography,” he concludes, 

may do better to draw upon the dematerialisations of the art object, the co-optation of everyday processes (like mapping) and the anachronisms like slow analogical coding, performance and iconoclastic practice (while rejecting its iconoclastic principles) as the collective means to discreetly navigate a creative space between a hiddenness within subjectivities’ interior worlds and invisible encodings upon an unremovable and uncensorable everyday. (49)

Now the codings have shifted from being mostly undetectable to being invisible. If they cannot be seen, how can they have any impact? Through a performance that names them? I honestly don’t understand this emphasis on coding. Mapping is problematic, too, since as a settler in a territory that is claimed by Canada through an unjust treaty (see Sheldon Krasowski’s book No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous), I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to start drawing maps. So I’m not sure how much of this I can take away. Again, I’m going to have to see this done to understand what Smith is talking about, and I hope I get that opportunity.

The next chapter, “Gros and Romanticism,” argues that Frédéric Gros’s book, A Philosophy of Walking, along with Solnit’s Wanderlust and Marples’s Shanks’s Pony, roots “modern non-functional walking in the nineteenth century romantic movement” and privileges “literary practice” over performance (50). In addition, like other men writing about walking, Gros leaves women walkers out of the story (50). “Gros attempts to relocate radical walking to an actively anti-modernist tendency, championing a direct, uncluttered and innocent encounter with the terrain; aligning it with a romanticism mostly stripped of ‘terror sublime,’” and focusing on presence and mystical fusion with the environment (50). I’m not sure that is an entirely accurate description of Gros’s book, but since Smith is responding to a talk Gros gave in Bristol, it might summarize his remarks there. In any case, Gros apparently described himself in Bristol as a fellow-traveller of the Situationists, a suggestion that bothers Smith, because of Gros’s “nostalgia for the authentic and the pre-modern” (51). Could that be true? he asks. Could psychogeography (both its occult and politically revolutionary forms) be about “a sense of loss of authenticity, a nostalgia for a sense of presence that was more accessible in a pre-modern era, a preference for the antiquarian over the modern, and a savouring of physical and biological ruin and social redundancy over the revolutionary contradictions of production and social organization”? (51). That would mean “that the two main traditions of resistant ambulation—the romantic tradition that began with radical literary walkers (most lively now in ecologically informed visual art, ‘new nature writing,’ performance and poetry) and the disruptive and iconoclastic Dada deambulations and situationist dérives—had disappeared into each other” (51).

That possibility upset Smith very much, and he started reading widely, including authors who identify the dérive as romantic:

Their interpretations struck deep into a practice I had always regarded as disruptive, anti-essentialist, anti-realist and subversive. The more I read, the more fuzzy seemed the break from the romanticism on which I had tried, following others, to found my own wobbly walking; at the very least, with legs astride, trying to walk on both sides of the abyss. But Gros, Bonnett, Rancière and Cooper seemed to deny that abyss in favour of shades of Thomas Gray. (51-52)

All walks, according to Gros, “are romanticist variations, greater or lesser fusions with what is already there. The revolutionary walk is not the making of the terrain itself, but simply a less successful fusion with it” (52). That argument forces this question: “what is it that the situationist-inspired, performance and post-art influenced dérive does that distinguishes it from a romantic walking with a radical veneer?” (52 ).

That question leads to the following chapter, “Yes to Romanticism and Beyond,” which begins with this surprising statement:

To walk as an exchange of presences, not to walk beyond the human, not yet, but to walk alongside ideals and things as companions, to walk sociably, footsteps stretching out the hours, living longer but not forever, slowing light and bending time, but possessing neither. Any new landscape we may discover is inside ourselves, not a possession, but a gratitude for the exchange of presences with the landscape within us and our attending to and tending to the terrain without. Understanding that there is no external and objective ‘landscape’; just as there is no modern world without some foundations resting on the graves of the colonialised, some barely dug. (53)

“Some of what passes for ‘presence and mystical fusion’ is a potent concoction of self-delusion, appropriation of the agency of others and the brutal excisions of a kind of historiographical cutting room floor,” Smith continues, identifying Richard Long, Philip Marsden, and Robert Macfarlane as practitioners of that form of walking (53). Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways, for example, is too traditionalist, too cautious: “It will not set its whole project at the mercy of the road” (53-54); its “brief dérive” is “followed by epic trails with fixed destinations” (55). Despite his walking—and Smith makes the same critique of Linda Cracknell’s Doubling Back (which I haven’t read) and Simon Armitage’s Walking Home (which I loved)—”it is still the ‘main road’ . . . conserved by its perilous narratives, picturesqueness and vulnerability to gaze and imagination, that is somehow more certainly real” (54). Both Cracknell and Macfarlane interpret their journeys, Smith continues, and “when that happens the mobility solidifies into a commodity that is reassuringly unique and recognisable” (54). Well, they are writing books, and books are commodities, right? Or have I missed Smith’s point again? 

Smith is no more convinced by the “new nature writing”—a term I had to look up, because it doesn’t seem to be in use in this country. The “new nature writing,” Smith writes,

may pose some threat to radical walking (more than that from the literary psychogeographers; for while there is very little room at the top of the literary greasy pole anyone can convince themselves that they “appreciate” the natural world) it need have no fears of any new strand of neo-romanticism (very different from its own neo-romantic roots in, say, Arthur Machen, Hope Mirrlees or Paul Nash). In the business of intensity of experience, authenticity, the “real,” risk or immersion, radical walking need not shuffle back, embarrassed. It is on the other side of these writers, it does not have them in its sights, not because they are so far down the road, but because they are at its coat tails. (54)

“Radical walking tops all this by clinging to the rim of the abyss not as an extreme moment on a mountain pass but as the modus vivendi of precarity that mythogeography promotes . . . the walk of uncertainty in ‘uncertain times’ done anywhere,” he continues (55). Anywhere, perhaps, but mostly in urban spaces, it seems, and (certainly in this country) there is a distinction to be made between urban and not. I’m not entirely sure how Smith reaches the conclusion that a concern with ecology is somehow retrograde or inauthentic, but then again, I don’t know anything about these “new nature writers,” and not having read their work, I cannot speak of it. I would say that my walk last summer to Wood Mountain was an intense and authentic experience that involved risk and immersion, and one of its goals was to try to apprehend the sacred in the cultivated land of southern Saskatchewan—a goal I was not able to reach, and one which might in fact be unreachable. I know that Smith has made walks in rural areas (he writes about one of those in Mythogeography) but because his primary interest in this book is in urban walking, I’m not entirely surprised that he finds an attention to nature—an admittedly problematic category, but one many of us find ourselves falling back on, because we are interested in something other than urban or suburban environments—wrongheaded.

I think what Smith objects to is literary representation of walking, rather than walking as a mode of performance:

We need not be cowed by authenticity, nor from admiring these writers for their attention to detail. But we can bring something from post-dramatic performance that goes beyond their romanticist authentic and that is the facility to stage authenticity; when the mask fits it disappears. Knowing that masks are authentic things made of vital matter, which express as well as hide. And for a modernist art tainted by theatre we can draw from Yves Klein, who put his signature on the sky; we can appropriate his absurdly inflationary gesture for an effective asymmetrical relation to climate change, a more appropriate relation to the environment we partly constitute, applying satellite capture techniques to the global climate’s accelerationism, aware that our harmonies may not be the same as other parts of “nature,” that a good parasite does not kill its host, that sustainability will only come with excess, at the very moment we grasp our monstrosity, that our uncanniness is a product of “Nature,” and that a “new psychogeography” honed to finding wonders in alleyways will be better placed than ecologists, who are too busy naturalising globalisation, when it comes to turning the oil tanker. (55-56)

I doubt that ecologists are “naturalising globalisation,” or that the “new psychogeography” is better suited to averting ecological catastrophe than those who study the intricate relations between parts of ecosystems. Perhaps, as Smith’s reference to the Dark Mountain manifesto might suggest, he is looking ahead to a future after our civilization collapses due to climate chaos (I don’t think there will be one, not for our species). The new romanticism, he writes lacks “unreal risks”: 

the walking that mostly informs it, while its efforts and dangers are real and its paths exceptional, is hardly unpredictable. It has yet to “step outside the human bubble,” in the words of the Dark Mountain manifesto. Again, radical walking can be, already is (if it would acknowledge it itself) beyond these new romantics; the epic trails taken by Gros, Cracknell and Macfarlane . . . are safely separated by their own estrangement, their depredation is part of a complicated movement within which distinctions between wild and human-built environment are increasingly disappearing, boundaries between city and country eroded materially and mentally (I, now, no longer get asked repeatedly “can you drift in the countryside as well?”), and public and private meshing. (56)

I don’t understand how any human activity can “step outside the human bubble.” Nor do I understand how one cannot see a distinction between an environment that is primarily wild and one that is constructed by human activity. All environments now are affected by human activity, but a native grassland or the boreal forest is not built by humans: maintained, protected, used and abused, yes, but there is a fundamental difference. I must not be understanding Smith’s point here. And I’m not sure one can drift in the countryside—at least, not in Saskatchewan, given the distances involved: if you don’t have a sense of where you’re going, you will get lost, and that could be a serious problem.

In fact, Smith goes on to celebrate an invasive species—buddleia or butterfly bush—as an ally:

Radical walkers do not need to go lining up with the siege defenders of public space or wilderness, nor enter into exciting hypervelocity-embraces with globalised information space; instead we can seek out and define our own holey space. . . . we can enjoy the edgelanding of everywhere. Buddleia, anonymous animal migrations and expanding microbial colonies are our allies in the marinated terrains of climate changes, and we can help them by opening up disruptive “wild channels” across our cities. (56)

This must be some English thing that Canadians don’t get: invasive species are a problem, sometimes a disaster. How can one celebrate Asian carp in the Mississippi, or giant hogweed or purple loosestrife taking over riparian habitat all over North America, or Dutch elm disease and the mountain pine beetle destroying forests? I just don’t understand, and I think it might be because I lack a certain imaginative flair, that I am too dull and stodgy and grounded, to follow Smith’s flights of fancy. I’m trying, and I’m not succeeding.

Smith recalls his “inter-garden wanderings” in the suburban neighbourhood where he grew up. What he learned, he writes, is that 

you do not have to trample, nor build ramparts in defence of the “natural” or the old, but find a holey space as much in the everyday as in the exceptional, a place between the banal and the fanciful. That within private space there are gaps that are explorable and trespassable, connective and ambiguous; these are the efficacious spaces of subjective and intimate mutual exploration that Savile and his ilk appropriated for Power and that we must take back whenever they are taken from us. (57)

Okay. Fair enough. But not every space is a suburban neighbourhood. And sometimes, to save the “natural,” you do have to build a rampart. I live in a province where just 13.7% of the original grassland ecosystem is left. The rest? It’s gone: destroyed, ploughed under. And we lose more every year—to resource development and cereal agriculture. Don’t the species that need the grassland—animals, birds, grasses and forbs—don’t they deserve a place to live? They can’t exist without habitat. Why is it that humans must take everything for their own uses? Perhaps someone living in the UK can’t understand this point—although Europe is having its own extinction crises because of pesticides and habitat loss. My point is that some spaces are different from others, and we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to recognize that.

Perhaps I am simply anti-modern, or expressing a dislike of the modern or the urban, a reactionary, as Smith suggests much of what passes for radical criticism too often is (57). Perhaps my walks are too difficult, too “ascetic,” not enjoyable (57). Perhaps I don’t understand that cities “are spaces for face to face contact of amazing variety and richness,” that they “are spectacle—and what is wrong with that?” (58). Actually, I do understand that, but I also see “amazing variety and richness” in parts of the natural world that we have not yet destroyed. What is wrong with that?

Smith suggests that cities shouldn’t have to be spectacles: “they could be villages, machines, works of art, telecommunications stations and spaces with the stillness necessary for face to face meetings and the instability conducive to fictional and multi-located contacts” (58). What is a fictional contact? What is a “multi-located contact”? I don’t understand. Cities, he continues, are products of nature, and “city” and “nature” are “parts of a pattern of interlocking extended organisms and cold rhythms” (58). Yes, since humans are part of nature, then our civilization and everything in it has its starting point in nature, but there is, as I have tried to suggest, a significant difference between a functioning ecosystem and a city—which can only be an ecosystem metaphorically. It’s not that, as Smith sarcastically comments, human activity takes place “on remote Platonic planes” which “allow the alternate idealisation of one and demonisation of the other: switching back and forth between ‘innocent nature’/corrupt society’ and ‘nature red in tooth and claw’/‘welfare state’” (58). I’m not talking about deconstructing a binary opposition between the opposition city/nature; I’m talking about an extinction crisis, a climate crisis, and my fear that the outcome of both will be the end of the human experiment. This kind of deconstruction, at a time when our governments and corporations are doing everything they can to destroy our home, is not radical. It’s collaboration.

It would be best, Smith concludes, to “wait in slowness and quietness, for a moment to come when nature and agency are superseded by something no one will or ever could predict” (61). Oh, given our ongoing use of our atmosphere as a carbon sewer, it’s pretty clear what is going to supersede nature and (human) agency—and it won’t be pretty for the species that are wiped out as a result. Including humans. 

In chapter 10, “Psychogeography Never Existed,” Smith writes about reading the introduction to Alastair Bonnett’s 2014 book Off the Map, which renounces nomadic thinking, psychogeography, and spatial theory (62-63). Bonnett’s argument suggests that “a practical psychogeography never actually existed in the UK,” and Smith began to wonder whether psychogeographical writings are imaginary, “black holes of anti-practice” (63). That notion is the second encounter that destabilized Smith’s sense of what psychogeography is. In the subsequent chapter, Smith turns back to the Lettrists and the Situationists. Without their affection for the city, their revolutionary desire to realize it fully, free of capital, and their techniques for achieving that desire, “we might now be far more vulnerable than we are to purveyors of novelty tours and self-deluding ‘leisure walking plus’” and other “hegemonising operations” (64). Most walkers, he contends, “have deployed and transformed situationist techniques to their own ends,” but Bonnett’s contempt for those techniques is not exceptional; he lists more than a half-dozen examples of writers who arrived at conclusions similar to Bonnett’s. “These denigrations hit right at the workings fo what, for many walkers, have been essential motors for interrogating and provoking idealist walking into interesting hybrids; they reach right to the door of IL/SI,” Smith writes. “If the motors have always been useless, then psychogeography’s history is phantom and any connection between contemporary dérivistes and a tradition of useful precedents is fanciful,” because it has never been practiced (65). 

So Smith looks again at the psychogeographical literature, and he decides that in the 1990s, at least, psychogeographers’ walking was “routinised and simplistic,” “testimony to the morbid and annihilating energy of ideas floating about on an absence of complex practice” (66-67). How can radical walking, conceived of in this way, “stand up to a revival of romantic walking with its resources of poetry, escapism, heritage and deep ecological sensitivity in the face of global climate derangement?” he asks (67). I’m not sure why escapism and heritage are necessarily part of romantic walking, along with poetry and ecological sensitivity—I don’t think they are in my walking practice, which I’m pretty sure Smith would describe as both romantic and literary. 

Nevertheless, the following chapter, “Wooooooohoooooo!!!!,” begins to answer those questions—and the answers are, surprisingly (to me), in “the much maligned literary and occult psychogeographyers”: despite their deliberate obscurity and misogyny, they maintained “a space for the irrational, unconscious, haptic, poetic and noumenal,” Smith writes. “It was they who identified where inner life imbeds itself in architectural form, who knew how to walk and explore and to identify where the psychogeographical becomes mythogeographical and engage directly with ideology in motion” (68). (Mythogeography, according to Smith’s online definition, “describes a way of thinking about and visiting places where multiple meanings have been squeezed into a single and restricted meaning.”) “I have enjoyed and learned a great deal from works by occult psychogeographers,” he continues, including Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territory, which helped sensitize him “to complexities, ironies, textures, narratives and layering,” and Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure (the next book I’ll be writing about here) and Hope Mirrlee’s Lud-In-The-Mist, which “have partially shaped my re-imagining of the terrains I explore; simple ways to write code over the top of an existing space and a semi-allegorical approach to built environment” (70). That helps me understand a the notion of coding a little better; what Machen seems to do is imagine histories for spaces, including stories he imagines through Charles Dickens. “Though I have been embarrassed by the antiquarianism and credulity of much of what has passed for occult psychogeography,” Smith concludes, 

what I realise now, in a flash of understanding that cuts through a grey mire of defeatist leftist interpretation, is that it was these very obfuscations of occultism and the well-worn tracks of the uncanny (in a virtuous ambiguity that is as objective as it is human) that brought at least some dérivistes, including myself, into an immersed rather than a token practice. (70)

“[I]f judged on the basis of practical effects . . . it was occult psychogeography that kept the ‘drift’ alive and practised,” he writes (70).

That realization brings us to the book’s thirteenth chapter, “Recently,” which includes a list of exemplary publications about radical walking, which I intend to read, particularly Carl Lavery’s “25 Instructions”; a list of gatherings of radical walkers; web sites related to radical walking and related practices; and examples of practical precedents for performative walking, including Fluxus scores. “By practising a range of tactics the walker can develop their walking as a discipline, skills deployed and hybridised independently, as part of a recognisable ‘mystery’ (in the sense of a skilled trade),” Smith argues. “Accumulations of multiple tactics can tip over into qualitative change; into an uneven, evolving and always, and necessarily, partly covert ‘life score’; what this is all about (75). I was not aware of most of the resources Smith includes here, and I’m grateful that I came across them relatively early in my reading, so that I can include them on my list.

Smith also suggests that “there has also been a significant change of tone in psychogeographically informed writing, a greater commitment to openness and accessibility” (76). While “the heroic solo art walk” of Richard Long or Hamish Fulton, “inaccessible to most people due to its epic proportions, continues to garner admiration among arts managers (and the public),” more recent walking performances are “more sociable”: “The general trend is democratic, but not necessarily yet transformational” (76). My practice is closer to Long’s or Fulton’s (although I don’t move rocks around as I walk), but I would resist the suggestion that my walks are epic or heroic or inaccessible. I’m not a heroic male specimen, just a middle-aged man with bad knees and feet, but I manage to walk distances I’m comfortable with. And I’m not convinced that a relational aesthetics or social practice approach is the only acceptable form of walking. As Smith himself suggests, “a wide range of tactics is now available to anyone willing to seriously engage with radical walking. . . . there is a far deeper immersion of psychogeographical thinking in practice and there is a widespread if approximate understanding of psychogeography among the majority of practising art walkers” (78). While “many longstanding ambulatory explorers and artists engage uninhibitedly with psychogeographical and other ideas,” the expansion of practice-as-research in universities has meant that universities are moving to meet them (78). 

Chapter 14, “The Movement,” casts a critical eye upon the expansion of radical and art walking Smith celebrated in the previous chapter. “Since the 1990s,” he writes,

the burgeoning multiplicity of new walkers has changed the terrain for radical walking. The growth in useful rather than bewildering publications and in opportunities to gather together seems to reflect the growth in the practices themselves; both in the deepening sophistication of ambulatory practices and in the crude numbers participating. (80)

“But is there a dialectical process at work within the increase and diversification?” he asks. 

What if the sudden growth in disparate practices, by its very mass, generates a sudden condensation of practice, a tightening of connections? Might the development of a co-operative and relational (rather than literary and individualistic) psychogeography actually constrain the dispersal and performance of a practice that can only come from the subjective, whose performance is always ‘to the side’ of itself? I have no idea, but I have my suspicions. (80-81)

Is there a need for something “more agitational and dispersive,” something “with a harder edge, more evangelical, more at war with the Spectacle”? (81). Is there a need for a focus on strategies and tactics? Once again, he turns to the work of Wrights & Sites as a model:

we choose very general areas of agreement around practices to work with, then, for a specific project we make a bare collective structure that we can agree on. This structure will consist of Happenings-like spatial and temporal compartments which, by mutual consent we allot to each other. Then each of us, within our allocated, personal compartments, is free to put or do whatever we want without interference from the others. . . . Once the compartments are full the project is complete. (82)

That is how the Mis-guides were written, and how their manifestos and videos were made (82). “By making each of ourselves an ‘anywhere’ we can learn to be a stranger to ourselves,” Smith writes,

and to be better strangers to each other, facilitating a kind of holey organising; creating bare collective structures in order to provide compartments for free activity? Although Wrights & Sites is quite incapable of collectively subscribing to or evolving a political meta-narrative, if you have ever heard or read one of the group’s manifestos . . . you will know that while each of the policies or tactics or demands on its own can be deployed or realised under the conditions of the present political economy, the totality cannot. (82)

Despite or because of the lack of organization among dissident walkers, though, there is “a surprising commonality of general purposes and principles, alongside a huge range of different styles, approaches and genres”—which is a good thing (82-83). Smith suggests that his work on tourists pointed out “just how profound and witty was their agency, and that it was from that agency that everything radical can start” (83). For that reason, he now takes subjectivities seriously and myths positively (as, he contends, psychogeography itself does): “I see not only obfuscation, ideology, the script of neo-liberalism and the ‘shadows of gods,’ but also their revolutionary negation by actions that we cannot predict and should not try to second guess, but must instead await and respond to slowly and anonymously” (83). 

Nevertheless, challenges remain. While more women are walking, there remain few “black and ethnic minority walkers” engaged in radical walking in the UK, and “class division continues to put a moat between practice and theory” (83). That moat “too often consigns creativity to tiny parcels of content-based provocation, milieu specialisation and formal experimentation: niches unvisited by most people in their everyday lives,” he writes. “While the relation between practice and theory is being transformed in the academy by the return to actual practice (a rare anomaly of institutional content), there is at present no similar prospect for a resolution of practice and theory in everyday life” (83). (I wonder if that’s because most people aren’t interested in anything labelled “theory”?) The challenge for radical walking, then, is to extend its reach to those who are excluded: to

disperse those means to free pleasure in the city, getting them out beyond the artists and to those who are least well-prepared to recognise or disposed to use them? Radical walking must learn the creative means of absenting itself in order for others to walk radically; its mortal remains left behind as fallen strategies—global art of memory, collective independence, war on two fronts, open infiltration, leaping over neo-romanticism’s head—for others to pick up or crush to dust as they walk far beyond. (84)

How can an art practice absent itself in order for others to engage in that art practice? What would that look like? I can’t imagine. 

The next chapter, “The Problem is Walking Itself,” returns to the issue of walking artists in public spaces:

The relentless squeezing of the possibilities for artists in public space has had the positive effect of their returning to that space, and along with other pedestrians, not as artists as much as lay architects; leaving the traces of their journeys rather than depositing product, changing images rather than completing representations . . . . The contradiction for power is that the more it denudes and disarms the public and the public artist, the more it clothes and weaponises the nomad. (85)

The word “nomad,” like the term “holey space,” points to the presence of Deleuze and Guattari behind Smith’s argument, and it’s clear that I won’t be able to avoid reading A Thousand Plateaus for this project. It’s also clear that Smith, given his roots in performance, does not like object-oriented art practices:

Walking, by its transient nature and by its relations to materials, has always been placed problematically, paradoxically and productively in relation to “site-specificity”; the “site-specific” being that aesthetic approach which privileges the particularity of a place in the making, content and performance of an artwork. By the time the specificity of site in art-making came to be challenged by Miwon Kwon (2004) and others as essentialising and enclosing itself in identity, art walking had already “moved on” and was carrying its specificities lightly, as much by necessity as self-analysis, but was not yet (or ever) ready to drop them in the flow to globalisation. (85-86)

The “torque enacted” on the flow to globalization 

by the spiky particularities of specificity and the anachronistic pace of the pedestrian are together capable of exerting revelatory distortions. Not as some form of localism . . . but by the irritating, eccentric, anomalous, perverse, de-contextualised and non-representative qualities of individual granules (nothing very attractive to the market there), scratched and broken, snagging on the fine weave of smooth space. (86)

“Smooth space”: Deleuze and Guattari again. “Walking in specificity, by its inherent and contradictory qualities, when armed with a disruptive Brechtian verfremdungseffekt . . . is more capable than other practico-aesthetic-theoretical activities of attending to and breaking up the slippery spaces of hypermodernity . . . and tripping up the mobilities paradigm” (87). Don’t be fooled, though; Smith does not advocate asserting the idea of place as a way of resisting hypermodern space, because doing so loops back to romanticism and authenticity, “as if certain terrains have perhaps yet to qualify for reality” (87). It’s an argument I don’t quite understand: an airport (a hypermodern space) is a place for the people who work there handling baggage or cleaning toilets, just as a grassland is a place for the people who spend time there. I’m not sure one can suggest Nan Shepherd as a psychogeographical precursor on one hand, and dismiss the notion of place as romantic on the other. Smith, though, sees that notion as a temptation that must be resisted, and finds a better model in the “anywheres” of Wrights & Sites, real places that can be found anywhere (88). “Immersed walking practitioners require neither an essentialist conception of place nor an idealist conception of thought,” Smith writes. “By necessity walkers have always had to process the intense specificity of textures and signs with the motion and transience of their own mobility; a slipperiness which renders them not immune to, but at least prepared for and ready to deploy or take advantage of, the subtle adaptations of specificity and site” (89). But the activities that take place in those sites need to become more performance-like and performative, he argues:

By bringing an understanding of post-dramatic performance to such walking we begin to see that part of the problem, a problem we have not solved yet, is “walking” itself. A “walking” that takes no account of those who cannot or do not or who refuse to walk, including the very young, the injured, the reclusive, the excluded, the confined. (90)

I’m not sure that those who refuse to walk matter as much as those who cannot—after all, there are other forms of mobility that operate at more or less the same speed as walking and that could fit together with it. Those who refuse—well, that’s most of the population of this province, and if I were to take into account those who will not walk, then what would I do? Stop walking myself? What would that prove? This is a line of argument I’m never comfortable with, one that suggests that just because I can’t kick a football, nobody else should kick a football either. Still, as Smith points out,

The post-dramatic is one way of understanding that there is nothing natural or universal about walking; every aspect of it is in question. . . . Under challenge is the very idea that there is a normal and ubiquitous behaviour—walking—in which we are all engaged and which therefore gives a universal legitimacy and a level playing field to all our walks. There is no such thing. (90)

Absolutely: walking, in this city, in this province, especially walking more than three or four kilometres, is neither normal nor ubiquitous, and most of my fellow citizens are not engaged in it. So walking is not a technique that provides equal access for everyone to the public sphere; instead, walking is performative, 

an enactment in relation to an illusion of normalcy, to threat, to inhibition, to disability, to appearance, to signs, in which the meaning of “walk” is reinvented and within which the conditions of repression and exclusion are enacted and reinforced whenever resistance to them is not explicitly and structurally inscribed in an anti-walk in the walk. (90-91)

“If we do not resist the universality of walking we condemn ourselves to never finding out how different it can be,” Smith contends, and crawling and falling performances may show us the way to disrupt walking and its “structural assumptions” (91). Radical walkers, he continues, need to assault “the normalising assumptions about what is an acceptable passage through these spaces by addressing the specific inequalities in our assumptions about the pedestrian act, opening up a new and wider range of possible trajectories” (91). Perhaps that’s what he means by inscribing the anti-walk within the walk? I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that I’m not interested in engaging in crawling or falling performances. That’s just not something I want to do, although I respect Smith for engaging in that kind of work. I’m becoming increasingly aware that I’m not a performer, and I’m okay with that.

The last chapter, “What the Laura Said” (sic), is about the third comment that sent Smith on the road to writing this book: an offhand remark by Laura Oldfield Ford, contrasting her art practice to the “coffee table” books of Will Self. That didn’t bother Smith—he thinks that Self and Sinclair have become shorthand terms for “mainstream psychogeography,” against which others define themselves—but he didn’t like the criticism she received as a result, online, from neo-situationists (93). He read her book, Savage Messiah, a collection of zines under a single cover, and was struck by its “raw anger at the alienation of communities and individuals fuelled by feelings, rushes, love, desiring, dreaming and the erotic urge to fight back” (94). “More than anything I have written here, Laura Oldfield Ford prefigures what an engaged and vividly serious and sensitive and sophisticated and historically aware and reflexive walking might be,” Smith writes—but he wouldn’t have read her book if not for her criticism of Self (and the response it received). For that reason, he hopes that his readers will forgive and respond to his attacks on Gros and Bonnett and others, “as a good excuse to make up your own walkings and watchings and readings and thinkings and to take the next steps of an unpredictable movement” (94-95). 

It’s a surprisingly open and humble conclusion, and it emboldened me to express myself fully about this book—the points I didn’t understand, and the points I didn’t agree with—and I appreciate that. As I’ve suggested, there is much in this book with which I don’t agree, and I fear that Smith would dismiss my walking as romantic, literary, and heroic (that is, insufficiently radical, not performative, and not relational), but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an important book for my research. It is. It’s a tremendous resource of writing and thinking on contemporary walking practices, and I wish I had read it as my first text, rather than my fifty-first. At least I have read it now.

Work Cited

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