61. Phil Smith, On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff
As is appropriate for mythogeography, On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff, Phil Smith’s book about following in the footsteps of the late novelist W.G. Sebald’s walk in East Anglia, is made up of different layers—theoretical and tactical discussions of mythogeography, and an account of the walk Smith made—juxtaposed against each other. I found the theoretical and tactical layer to be more important for my purposes than the story of the walk, although that did have surprising resonances with some of my own walking; however, both are important, and while I will be separating the layers in this summary, the way they mesh (to use one of Smith’s favourite words) together is the point of the book.
Before I knew what this book was about, I suggested to a friend that I might like to walk Sebald’s route at some point, because I am a fan of his writing: I find his long sentences fascinating, and I like the juxtaposition of the text with the strange, enigmatic photographs Sebald always includes. I like The Rings of Saturn, the book about walking in Norfolk and Suffolk, although it’s clear that Sebald’s primary concern in the book isn’t the territory through which he was walking, but the things he was thinking about as he walked. For that reason, I would think that as the “catapult” for a mythogeographical or psychogeographical walk, it might not be the best choice—not if one hoped to measure one’s own experiences against Sebald’s. Not surprisingly, that’s the conclusion Smith reaches as well. That wouldn’t bother me—I would be curious to see if there is any trace linking Sebald’s internal monologue to the terrain—but I think it does bother Smith, and eventually he abandons his walk. An unfinished walk is an interesting thing: there is an endless deferral involved in not reaching one’s destination, and several of the books about walking that I’ve read over the past few years, including Simon Armitage’s book about walking the Pennine Way and Bill Bryson’s story about walking the Appalachian Trail end that way. So does Smith’s On Walking . . . And Stalking Sebald. I make the suggestion cautiously, because I’m pretty sure that Smith can’t stand Armitage’s book–as I recall, he finds it too solid and literary and insufficiently performative–and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like Bryson’s book either. But the comparison–at least on that one perhaps superficial level–is there nonetheless.
Smith begins with a short memoir about his life and his relation to walking. “It may seem odd . . . that I see walking not as a retirement from political struggle or from the sensual pleasures of entertainment, but as a further intensifying of both,” he writes (12). That intensification involves an attention to the ways that power shapes cities and the land, and the way that resistances to that power can be created:
When I walk I draw upon layers of understanding that I have had to gather together in order to shape performances or to make political arguments; I am sensitive to the ways that the land and the cities are managed, owned, controlled and exploited. I am sensitive to the flows of power: information, energy, deference. I am also aware of contradictions in these places; I look out for those pressures that can, unplanned, open up temporarily free spaces, holey spaces, hubs where uncontained overlaps or the torque of bearing down in one place tears open a useful hold in another: these are places where, until we can at last all be free, we might for a while find space to act as we wish. (12)
It’s often easy to see the signs of power, but it’s harder to create or recognize those “temporarily free spaces,” at least for me, and much of Smith’s mythogeographical practice involves opening up such spaces.
Smith is interested primarily in what he calls “non-functional” walking. “I would not want to pretend that there is any one right way to walk,” he writes, and the walking he proposes in this book “strides along beside” other, functional forms of walking (12). In part, this book provides a set of ideas and tactics that can be used for non-functional walking:
You are free to use the ideas and experiences here and turn them into whatever kind of walking you wish: romantic, subversive, nosey, convivial, meditational, whatever. I like multiplicity and I think there may be some good in it—so, as long as your walking does not exclude the walking of others, I will be chuffed to think you are using any tactics or ideas here. (12)
“At the same time,” he continues, “I am giving myself the same privilege in the pages that follow: to walk the walk I want to walk and to evangelise about its qualities” (12). So we are invited to take what we can use and leave what we can’t, to borrow from his own practice if we want, or to refrain, if we don’t.
Smith is interested in “emblems and symbols,” their origins and “codes and secret languages,” their historical meanings (12-13). Those symbols are an important part of the terrain of the walk, which is more important than the walker:
By walking I have not denied myself the physical pleasures of performance. However, there is a more humbling aspect to walking; for it is not the walker, but the terrain, natural and built, that mostly makes the walk. The walker takes a far more powerful and experienced lover than any audience. Sun, tropical storms, traffic, snow, mists; the terrain is not your backdrop, but seizes the action as its author and agonist. (13)
Thinking of the terrain as the author of the walk, as something that provokes a reaction in the walker, is an essential part of his practice. He finds “a joy in the textures of things,” for instance: he touches a sandstone sculpture of a horse and feels he is touching “a 300-million-year-old desert,” runs his hand over a rusting name plate and suddenly feels “the industry it once advertised” missing (13). That attention to detail is a critical part of his mythogeographical walking.
Such walking, Smith argues, is not escapist. Quite the contrary, in fact: it is a complex form of resistance:
It feels like a fight inside the fabrics of society for access to all those things that overdeveloped economies circulate at speeds just beyond our grasp: inner life, the wild absurdities of our unique and subjective feelings, beautiful common treasures, uncostable pleasures, conviviality, an ethics of strangerhood and nomadic thinking. Walking is pedestrian. Its pace disrupts things and makes them strange. . . . Whatever flashes by, becomes readable, touchable, loveable, available. However, The Spectacle is not stupid; it has long been ready for such old-fashioned radicalisms, laying down huge and sugary sloughs of wholesomeness and holiness for us to founder in. (14)
The Spectacle, as I’ve noted before in relation to Smith’s work, is a term that comes from the writing of Guy Debord. Here Smith provides his own definition: the Spectacle is “the enemy of the sensitised walker,” “the growing Nothing in the lifeblood of society,” “the dominance of representations over what they represent” (14). It is, he continues,
the dominance of the ideas of freedom, democracy, happiness over people actually being free, happy and democratically active; enforced by the global deregulation of finance, the giant algorithms of the surveillance states, a media that has gone beyond mass to be more pervasive than gods were ever imagined to be, anti-collectivity laws and the war machines with their enemy-pals in the AK47 theocracies. (15)
For Smith, “[e]mbodied and hypersensitised walking—with senses reaching inwards and outwards—is the antithesis of the Spectacle. The feeling body, alive with thoughts, is a resistance; theatre and insurgency combined. And what better and more unlikely cover than ‘pedestrian’?” (15). The important words here are “embodied” and “hypersensitised”: those are key parts of Smith’s walking practice.
That practice, of course, draws on what Smith calls “mythogeography.” The key principles of mythogeography, he writes, are
multiplicity and trajectory. Applied to walking that means resisting routines and boundaries and treasuring the many selves you may pass through or encounter on your journey. I would always try to protect the freedom of walkers to use guises and camouflage in acts of transformation. In this cause, I sometimes find it necessary to adapt or détourn ideas and rituals taken from sacred spaces. There is always a place for an abstract or inner walk. (16)
Such walking does not exclude what he calls “material interventions,” such as the “ambulant architectures” of Wrights & Sites, “which seeks to equip walkers not only with concepts and tactics, but also with plain damned things for subtle and extravagant transformations of actually existing postmodernity” (16). I’m not sure what the ambulant architecture project was, even though Smith describes one aspect of it in this book; that is an area for further research.
Later, Smith adds more to his definition of mythogeography. It is, he writes,
an experimental approach to places as if they were sites for performances, crime scenes or amateur excavations (let’s say, grave robbing) of multiple layers of treasure. To get at these different aspects of place and space, mythogeography draws on all kinds of “low theory”; amateur and poetic assembling into manifestos of things I have learned (mostly from others) while out on the road. (59)
Mythogeography, he continues, “is a hybrid of ideas, tactics and strategies. It embraces both respectable (academic, scientific, culturally validated) and non-respectable (Fortean, antiquarian, mystical, fictional) knowledges. It judges these first against their own criteria and then sets the different knowledges in orbit about each other, seeking to intuit their gravitational pulls upon each other” (59). Fortean, Wikipedia tells me, refers to the work of the American writer Charles Fort, who was interested in something called “anomalous phenomena,” a category that includes ufology, cryptozoology, and parapsychology. This must be the “damned data” that Smith often refers to—data that doesn’t make sense according to current scientific knowledge. This is a direction in which I cannot follow Smith—I just can’t believe in UFOs or Bigfoot or ghosts, or feign an interest in such things. But it seems to be part of the way that mythogeography sets out to make the mundane magical. The interest in occult or esoteric phenomena is common to psychogeographers and mythogeographers, it seems. “Mythogeography,” Smith continues, “explores atmospheres and the effects of psychogeography,” and it “regards explorers, performers, activists and passers-by as sites; all as multiplicitous, unfinished and undefinable as the terrains they inhabit” (59). It is not a finished model; rather, it is “a general approach which emphasises hybridity and multiplicity, but does not attempt to limit this to any single combination of elements or homogenous model of diversity” (60). The origins of mythogeography are in the work of Wrights & Sites, which drew from the work of Fluxus, Mike Pearson, Tacita Dean, and Fiona Templeton (60). I know a little about Fluxus, and a little about Mike Pearson and Fiona Templeton, but I need to investigate them further, along with the work of Tacita Dean.
Embodiment is an essential aspect of Smith’s walking:
A functionless walk is about as embodied as you can get. Easing, waiting, responding, jerking, rolling, smoothing, tip-toeing the body across the environment. It would be a shame if, after all the erotic energy expended by people “getting in touch with nature,” no one really touched it. So handle the weft and weave, the detail, the spiny thorn and the nettle hair. Leave a little of your blood on things. Take stones home in bruises. Test clay between your fingertips. Put your head in rivers. Let tadpoles and tiny crabs scuttle across the back of your arm.
Stand still to feel the different kinds of wind; let them push you, walk against them.
Tread (with the right boots) on bottle fragments and tin cans. And then spend a few minutes enjoying the textures after the crunch. You don’t always have to be precious. (26-27)
He suggests that walkers experiment with shifting their focus into their ankles, wrists, knees, or hips:
become a thing of joints and hinges and allow your thoughts and feelings to model them. Thinking with your feet is not about “groundedness,” but rather about rediscovering legs as feelers, tentacles, bio-instruments that complement the meshwork of senses that bathe and caress the surfaces about us with exploratory seeing and touching and smelling and hearing and tasting, all the time swinging the whole body of instruments through the hips. Conduct your senses like an orchestra, reconnecting the two parts of your body in a swaying walk, use your stride to disperse longings to the landscape. (27)
Smith’s comment about “groundedness” is a sign of his unease with notions of connection or rootedness, which would suggest that he would be less interested in Yi-Fu Tuan’s notion of place as the product of experience and stasis than in Doreen Massey’s notion of space as a simultaneity of stories and flows of power. Such connection cannot come, he continues,
at the expense of disruption, of tripping up and over, stumbling and righting, of calling, of refusal, or risking the crossing, of not looking, of disrupting the flow, of not going to the destination . . . that it is also in these disconnections that the enigmatic meanings of the city and the landscape can be floated free from their immobile sites and engaged in a movement that may eventually lead them back to connections, but not to begin with, not quite yet. Don’t rush it. (27)
I wonder if the open spaces of freedom he suggests can be created or (perhaps) discovered by walking are connected to those moments of disruption and disconnection.
Along with embodiment goes being sensitized to the terrain, and Smith makes a number of suggestions for tactics that can lead to a greater sensitization. These are “mostly subtle devices, games and refrains for peeling away a layer of armour, extending a sympathetic organ or opening the eyes a little deeper” (29). Walkers can, for instance, “[c]arry, touch, inhale, sip, rub and lick things as you find them” (29). They can use repetition by walking the same route over and over again (29). They can “walk the street or the hill path or the beach into yourself. . . . a psycho-geographical act, raising and reforming memories, feelings, self-images and setting them at the mercies of far vistas, of the straightness of the path, of the massing of the flocks above” (29-30). I’m not sure, in practical terms, how to walk the terrain into myself, but it’s important to Smith: he later describes deep autotopographical walking, in which
autobiography or psychological transformation and crisis are key strands in the weaves around the route. There is no therapeutic guarantee here; what a walk tends to do is to set things in motion, but their eventual trajectory will be determined by your own choices and interventions, by others, by terrains and by accidents. (137)
Walkers can think about how they look at the world and the people in it (30). They might wash or polish “a pavement slab, an empty plinth, or a doorstep for which there is no longer a house” regularly (30). They could experiment with where they place their attention, without limiting their responses to their experiences to the literal: “your feelings are as ambiguous and allusive a set of materials as imagist poetry, to interpret them appropriately,” he suggests (30). Walkers can also occasionally stand still and listen carefully, identifying as many different sounds as possible” (30-31). Later, he suggests that one might walk in disguise (152)—that strikes me as a way to get arrested, but I could be wrong. Perhaps that fear is related to Smith’s next point: walkers need to remember that most threats are not real, and that they shouldn’t allow their fear—of ridicule, for instance—to stand in their way (31). They might pretend to be someone else as they walk (31-32). They might walk the landscape as if it were a body (32) (again, I’m not sure how to do that in practice). They can consciously sensitize themselves to the presence of others in the busy spaces of cities, “making complex steps” and incorporate others “into your choreography” (32). “[S]ensitising yourself to the flows of the city will not redeem you from or inure you to its violent commerce,” Smith writes. “The very opposite: experience and subjectivity are exactly what are most fiercely traded now. Rather than releasing you from the clutches of overdevelopment, sensitising tactics are intended to bring you right into the belly of the Spectacle” (32-33).
Smith inverts Occam’s Razor, the heuristic that suggests that the simplest solutions to a problem are probably the best. Instead, he advises walkers to “adopt, no matter how fragmentary and partial your evidence, the most complex, sinister and portentous explanations possible until disproved by further evidence” (36). This is a psychogeographer’s credo, which helps to explain their baroque interpretations of phenomena. (I’m not sure I can follow Smith down this road; Occam’s Razor is too deeply imprinted on my way of looking at the world. All the more reason, I imagine him saying, to give it a try.) Don’t take your own food, he advises; instead, rely on what you discover along the road (37)—a practice that would lead to hunger in rural Saskatchewan. He advocates relying as well on chance in relation to destinations: “Coming unexpectedly upon an abandoned fairground or the skeleton of an industrial unit will always have far more thrill than a planned and guided trip around a stately home” (37). Later, he expands on this idea:
One of the great things about not knowing where you are going is that relatively unimpressive landscapes, structures or artefacts take on a new aura and wonder when stumbled across or encountered as part of a walking narrative. What, if planned, might be found with some minor self-satisfaction, can instead by encountered as a staggering discovery, a bone-stopping association, a punch in the heart accusation from the past, a precious mis-design; some rotted shed, some parts of a shattered wing mirror like self-fracturing selves, some stream in a suburban valley, a sodium lamplit beauty . . . these unfold one after the other, space unravelling rather than delivering. (116)
“Delivering” suggests something pre-planned, something expected, whereas “unravelling” suggests chance, accident, and a revelation.
Many of these ideas—and the term “psychogeography” itself—come from the Situationist International. Smith first encountered the Situationists in the 1970s, in Richard Gombin’s The Origins of Modern Leftism: “The idea that ours is a society of spectacle struck a powerful chord that is still ringing with me: a society in which the circulation and distribution of images defines social relationships subjugated to economic imperatives still seems to describe the one I ‘operate’ on” (49). For Smith, the Situationist dérives were not only a tactic for understanding the psychological or emotional effects of terrain on individuals; they were also a way to disrupt the spectacle: dérives, he writes,
were un-planned drifts, in which the criteria for choosing a route were: which promised the most abundant ambience? which had the greatest resonance, the greatest capacity to be détourned, re-deployed for the purposes of disrupting everyone else’s economic trajectories? Most treasured were those places that seemed to manifest a meeting place of different ambiences. These were called “hubs.” (50)
Smith emphasizes that the dérives were not ends in themselves:
They were acts of research; experiences on the street were experimental materials for the creation of “situations”; combinations of site, performance and demonstration out of which might eventually spring new ways of living to transform cities. So, this is a walking that is not an end in itself, that does not test its own qualities in terms of how little its participants bother the public health service, but rather according to its coruscating engagements with the social relationships expressed in the images and ideas that circulate about sites and places. It is a walking of disruption, a walking of refusal, a walking of research and redeployment of old arts in smithereens. (50-51)
According to Smith, “[t]he conditions of these times are more restricted than those when the Situationists drifted Paris” (51)—a claim that might be true of the white dérivistes, but not of, for instance, Abdelhafid Khatib, the Algerian-born Situationist whose 1958 attempts at a drift in the soon-to-be demolished Les Halles market kept ending in his arrest for violating the curfew that was imposed on North Africans in Paris (Khatib). But that’s not Smith’s point, of course. Rather, he is talking about the changes in the Spectacle—its increased reach and power:
The Spectacle is now integrated, concentrated and diffuse: where once it operated through either dictatorship, free mobility, or the penetration of everything, now it deliriously switches, with alacrity, between all three states. In the overdeveloped world any resistance to the Spectacle has switched from the political realm to running battles across the plane of interiority. We are caught in a rearguard action to win back control of our own subjective multiplicities from identity-retailing and an avatar culture that proposes the arts as a tribute band and the streets as a lookalike condition. (51)
“Under these conditions, and in this game of war for interiority and subjectivity,” Smith continues, “the tactics and, more importantly, the strategy of the Situationists have never been more resonant” (51).
Smith provides a list of five steps towards the beginning of a great walk. First, know why you are walking: “disrupt yourself, set yourself going and apart,” and “shake things up for yourself” (53). Second, know where you are walking: head towards somewhere unfamiliar and go to places you would usually avoid. Third, walk with others but keep the focus on the spaces you are passing through. Fourth, free yourself from your everyday, your usual habits: “Find a way to get you off your beaten tracks, and then off your off-your-beaten-tracks” (54). Finally, know what to take—sensible shoes, a notebook and pen, a camera, water (54). Perhaps the most important tip Smith gives is to walk slowly: “An important quality of this walking is its anachronistic pace, decelerated even for walking. . . . Only in such slo-mo walking can she easily and regularly stop to stare obsessively at details, lichen, ironies” (58). That’s great advice, but hard for some of us to adopt, since everyone has their own comfortable stride length and speed. Nevertheless, he wonders what “marathon walkers,” who travel at more than four miles per hour, can see or engage with (103). Nothing, is the presumed response.
The important thing, Smith suggests about walking, is to be ready for what comes:
Once walking, there is a mythical-ethical aspect: hold yourself in preparedness for whatever arises. A glove dropped or a toy thrown from a buggy. A stumbling fellow pedestrian. An assault. . . . Choose your role. Depending on the character you choose for yourself, and to what layers of mastery and compassion and anger you have ascended, hold yourself always in readiness to accept whatever affordances are given to you. (152)
The term “affordances” is one many psychogeographers use; again, using Wikipedia as a source (a very bad idea, I know, and I apologize), it refers to what the environment offers to the individual. It comes from the work of James Gibson—and if I’m serious about understanding what it means, I’m going to have to read Gibson’s The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Otherwise, I’m going to avoid the term entirely—except when I’m quoting someone who uses it.
Walking can bring about new connections, Smith argues,
through its aches, blisters, shivering and sweating, dehydration in intense heat, dizziness, pain, exhaustion, alienation, involuntary joy, inappropriate arousal, hearing what is usually unheard, bristling with fear, being desperate to piss and having nowhere to go, longing for a hiding place . . . there is little pleasure for most people in such discomforts in themselves (unless you are cultivating them as the status symbols of extreme walking; but what about:
The pain arrived at by pleasure?
The aching from the sheer enjoyment of the walk?
Soreness from the fierce rawness of the experiences?
Walking through the blister pain and out the other side into ease?
The rush when the fear subsides and relief floods in environmentally? (62)
Smith’s emphasis on pain, on blisters, might suggest that he’s thinking about epic walking—walking over long distances and periods of time. That would categorize his walk in Sebald’s footsteps, but it’s also a kind of walking that he tends to eschew in favour of walks that incorporate an approach derived from relational aesthetics.
In one chapter, Smith discusses walking pilgrimages—and that’s of interest to me, since I’ll be giving a paper at a conference on pilgrimage in a couple of weeks. (Would that I had read this chapter before I wrote the paper!) Smith doesn’t care for the notion of pilgrimage as changing oneself self-discovery and the downplaying destinations; that approach devalues the terrain of the walk and its destination: “Reducing sites and shrines to vague and mushy approximations; servicing a fluid commodity-thinking that passes for spirituality (65). Instead, he suggests that what he describes as “postmodern pilgrimage” might be a search for the possibility of sacred points:
Maybe postmodern pilgrimage has no end-point, but rather is a search, or a re-search, for the possibility of such points (or their manifestation in other geometrical forms—perhaps as planes, perhaps as patterns). The pilgrimage, without an end-point, has no space for belief in the efficacy of completion; rather the pilgrim steps into the hyper-flows of the world without map, staff, route, scallop . . . having to reconstruct “pilgrimage” while in the motion of it, consciously and openly going as a “pilgrim” partly to discover how the world, how people, how oneself (selves), how the landscape, how the divine might respond to that.
I am left curious and attracted to this “pilgrimage” and wondering about its possibilities, where it might lead in terms of unexpected contacts and meetings, in a different kind of understanding of the relationship between place and meanings (everyday and metaphysical), of material space (symbol) and its relationship to “what cannot be represented.” I wonder if the “ghosts” of earlier pilgrim practices would rise up on such a walk. Would anachronisms be renewed, emptinesses filled? (65)
These are interesting questions, and I wonder if the kind of walking Robert Macfarlane describes as “improvised pilgrimages” (235) might be a way of beginning to answer them. In any case, Smith concludes, “[t]here is very little real ‘wrong walking’; there is some element of pilgrimage in it all” (65).
The kind of walking Smith is interested in is, he writes, “all about being flexible and ready”:
The walker can draw upon what among contemporary dancers and movement artists are almost banalities now: the prioritising, above technique, of flexibility and preparedness to accept affordances, to respond, to be open and raw to the moment. All the tactics and ideas here do not mean much without such readiness, such pre-expressivity, necessary for spontaneous reaction to what the road throws at you, which is mostly offers.
There is a paradox here: preparing to be spontaneous. Unsurprisingly, this is mostly a via negativa; the removal of blocks and inhibitions. It is also creative in a negative way; those blocks and inhibitions sometimes produce useful delays and deferrals. So, simplistic readiness is not enough; what a chosen walking requires is a sophisticated readiness that is strategic, able to translate the immediacy and specificity of the offer from the road to a moving space on a sliding plane of generality: in other words, little things connecting to big things, every brush with the road part of a big picture; a body in flux in co-creation with spaces that are always under construction. (74)
Again, the terrain—the road—is the determining factor: the walker must respond to the road rather than to some predetermined notion or destination or idea. That, of course, is easier said than done, and the outcome may not always be serendipitous: my decision during Wood Mountain Walk to stay on Highway 2 instead of heading towards Willow Bunch may have been the biggest mistake I made on that walk, and it was a response to what I took to be the terrain.
Smith advocates walking with others, which he describes as “convivial drifting”: “the shifting space of disrupted walking is one through which we can negotiate with each other all sorts of differences, helped by that quality in drifting which seems to favour the margins. The best things always seem to come from those on the fringes of a walking group, rather than from its head.” (77). During a drift or dérive, “the group composes the drift together, sharing, assembling, collaging and collaging it” (78). During a drift, he suggests, walkers can try switching their attention between different foci,
oscillating from a collective gaze upon one another to a romantic gaze to the horizon. Falling for nothing, then for everything. While there is a mental aspect to this rhythmical looking, it is also a de- and re-composition of landscape. As the drift progresses, the rhythm of these switches can begin to take a compositional form: patterns emerge that then operate across the different scales. (134)
As with some of Smith’s comments regarding drifting, it would be easier to experience this being put into practice than to try to do it after reading about it.
But despite his interest in drifting, Smith notes that there are other ways to walk as well. He suggests a number of tactics that involve objects: carrying ephemera in one’s pockets, or like the performance artist He Yun Chang carrying a rock all around the periphery of the UK and returning it, or like Simon Whitehead carrying a table, or like Lonnie van Brummelen dragging a sculpture of Hermes for three months along the sides of roads. In 1998, the duo known as Lone Twin, in a performance called Totem, carried a telephone pole in a straight line through the centre of Colchester, through shops, workplaces, homes, busy streets; the principle of the performance was “activating social events through personal trials” (132). “Choose something to drag,” Smith suggests: “something that will leave a mark, something that transfigures as it is pulled” (82-83). That suggestion reminds me of Leo Baskatawang’s epic walk across Canada, dragging a copy of the Indian Act chained to his leg (Benjoe). Such walking is an intentional ordeal: Smith recalls carrying a wooden plinth at the Sideways Walking Festival in Belgium, a performance that was part of Wrights & Sites “ambulant architecture” project. He carried the heavy plinth for 23 miles, walking too fast and exhausting himself; the experience became a form of “walking in the architecture of a horror film” (155). Despite his lack of interest in epic walking, Smith clearly is a practitioner—although that’s not the only form of walking he does.
Smith is deeply concerned about walking and gender. He writes,
The question of women and their relation to public space—to the streets and squares, to the public spaces of power—sacred spaces, protest spaces, educational spaces, working spaces, dance floor spaces, political spaces—and their rights of access and agency in the overlapping spaces of public and private life, public and relationship space, personal and family space. . . . without a politics of walking of these, there is no hope at all in walking. (160)
Fears of assault (particularly sexual assault) are not irrational, he notes, even though the world is generous (he argues that’s what women discover when they “take up an offer to walk”), but “the reality of the threats and the reality of the fears they generate are part of the same oppression” (160). He provides a long list of women who walk—a list that is gold for anyone looking to begin studying walking and gender (163). “[W]e need to address the rights of the stranger on the street,” he writes:
to allow meaningless encounters and trivial situations to multiply, to allow a lack of significance back into the everyday and to wrestle meaningless and trivial space from those who would flood it with theological, cultural and familial restrictions and mono-meanings, to make it free for all those groups who might suffer—or fear they might suffer—assault, violation or intimidation on the road. (164)
Such freedom is an important, even essential goal, although I’m not sure how that goal can be reached—except by more women walking.
Smith ends his book with an appendix entitled “Walking for a change: A manifesto for a new nomad.” In it, he suggests that “[a] walk is nothing until it is over and then it is too late; which may explain the rarity of really good books about walking” (190). There are so many modes of walking, he continues, “that it defies even its own capacities to express other things; trips up on its own multiplicity. Not armfuls of diversity, but sprawling, tumbling or spilling splashes, splinters and streams that evade anyone or anything trying to sweep them up” (191). He suggests that, for him, the most tedious modes are walking are the ones “most practised,” but even those “can be disrupted for a few moments by the myriad of other, non-functional modes: lyrical walking, art crawling, pilgrimage, and so on” (191). “Rather than seeking the mitigation of contradictions,” he continues, the walking he advocates “wants and needs gaps and fractures to make its way, tensions to serve as its capital and catapults, waste and ruins for its building materials” (192). It is in those gaps and fractures, I think, that moments of freedom and openness can be discovered.
As I suggested earlier, all of this theoretical material, and the practical suggestions Smith makes, are interleaved with his account of walking Sebald’s route through East Anglia. What strikes me the most about Smith’s account of his walk is the amount of detail he provides. He obviously stops constantly to take notes and/or photographs—something I didn’t do that much on last summer’s walk to Wood Mountain, but which I should try harder to do in future. When Smith announced his plans to follow Sebald’s path on Facebook, he received negative responses from psychogeographers who hate the book:
I perversely welcomed these adverse comments; though they stung at my purpose. So many of the commentators I had read, without comprehension, were reverential towards Sebald’s work. I had come to feel that I was misusing a sacred tome as pretext for a walk; now the book seemed more abject, ruined, something for me to salvage as I read it along my way.
I was deluded in every respect. (21)
“The Rings of Saturn was an absurd map to take,” he writes, and he “deployed it absurdly” (15). At the walk’s outset, he realized that he had misremembered the sequence of events in The Rings of Saturn: Sebald wasn’t walking to convalesce from “a state of almost total immobility,” but he walked himself into that state, something Smith experienced in his adolescence; so the walk would be “towards immobility,” not away from it (23). Moreover, Smith, writes, he was “painfully aware that what I am doing is a copy of a copy of a copy” (23-24). That’s not entirely a bad thing, he notes later on: while repeated walks “are not equivalent to their originals,” they can be seen as “interrogations of them and stepping off points for new walks. Like Heraclitus’s river (rather more mutable than it is generally understood) the path is never walked the same way twice, is never the same way twice” (71). Later he recommends enacting “in local, accessible forms” some of the “classic” walks (166). I wonder what that might be like—it might be an example of the psychogeographical tactic of walking somewhere with a map of somewhere completely different.
Sometimes, as he walks, Smith completely disagrees with Sebald’s description of a place. Take the seaside town of Lowestoft, for instance: “It is not the wasteland described by Sebald, the wasteland in which it would have been simpler to ‘spontaneously’ discover my provisional narrative of dread to liberation. Instead, that counts for nothing in a vibrant, working-class seaside town” (68). That difference in experience leads Smith to wonder if Sebald is blind to class:
Is Sebald’s problem when confronting catastrophe—nuclear war, ecological devastation, depredation of species, Nazism—that he sees everything but the catastrophe of class? He is unaware of, or opposed to, the idea that there operates a system that always tends toward, and thrives upon, crisis. . . . Instead, Sebald is super-sensitised to the surprise of tragedy. (70)
I wonder if this is true; I would have to re-read The Rings of Saturn with this suggestion in mind. Clearly, for Smith, tragedy is not the appropriate response to a systemic crisis; tragedy suggests that the crisis was unique, individual, and local, rather than (as Smith contends) the truth: that the crisis is the outcome of a system, the Spectacle.
As he walks, Smith becomes “increasingly suspicious of Sebald’s exploration”: his assumption had been that The Rings of Saturn was supposed to be “a deep engagement with its landscape,” but it isn’t, or else there is “a mismatch between Sebald’s complex intellectualism and his idea of what an embodied engagement with a landscape is. He does not match up to Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘deep topography’”—Papadimitriou’s Scarp is the next book I’ll be blogging about—and, in fact ,he thinks The Rings of Saturn is based on “cursory desk-based research” (85). Smith discusses Papadimitriou’s notion of deep topography: it is, he writes, is a “wandering and watching and logging and obsessing”; it is “the repeated walking of the same stretch of terrain, observing and re-observing, reading and researching, deep in information and feeling, the terrain and the body seeping into each other, the map into the mind, the mind into the map” (86). “Curling inside his looping journeys,” Smith contends, “Papadimitriou de-romanticises ruins and tweaks the erogenous zones of golf courses. Other narratives bend like tiny dimensions inside the bigger shell, while mythic figures step sure-footedly around his wanders”—mythic figures Papadimitriou invents (86).
At times Smith walks in the country, and at other times he finds himself in suburbs. There, he writes,
the voids are tiny ones, but as I explore one the whole tin peels open and I find, sunk beneath the modern surface, a mesh of hollow ways and green lanes hidden behind the house backs, a murder narrative, badgers’ sets and kids’ dens, a surprise eighteenth-century mansion among bungalows and odd unofficial handwritten posters. (100)
The multiplicity he finds in suburban neighbourhoods reflects the key principle of mythography:
Multiplicity is the key mythogeographical principle, the principle of multiplicitous narratives and many histories, disrupting the established narratives not only to introduce subaltern ones, but to question the legitimacy of dreamed, felt, feared ones and to invent our own; but where to we go with all this multiplicity? Does it have to pass through a period of loss like this? That the assemblage of multiplicitous narratives, layers, trajectories and so on will almost inevitably lead to some kind of hiatus, a stasis as the mind responds to the multiplicity and its uncapturableness by attempting to reduce it all to some common trait, a universal bon mot, organic ambience. Does it need a shock to shake the multiple elements back to life? Or a sharp intake of breath and a step back, to make some space for the multiplicitous elements themselves? (102)
If he were to make space for the multiplicitous elements of his Sebald walk, he asks himself, what would he see?
The palimpsest of churches, hallucinatory and police-like, the marks and portals (and tones) of the ruling folk, the tiny space of the reading room. The broad friendliness of the popular founded on the remains of a welfare state (and its self-help hybrid), the mutability of buildings, mutation in general, the ghost of US power in the form of hallucinatory livery and absent airfields, a landscape in which things float, things have gone missing (herring are very slowly returning) like the sailors from the Sailors Reading Room, labour and resistance fixed by a pin to a card in a museum. (102)
At times, though, he finds such multiplicity difficult to discover, and in a description that is uncannily like a depiction of the Saskatchewan landscape, he explains why:
Now wandering the farm land beyond Harleston, I am beginning to wonder if this is a non-mythogeographical or even anti-mythogeographical territory. I seem to be at war with it. Yes, of course, each cabbage in each cabbage field is different. Each of the few people I meet has a unique life. But there has been homogenising here, large-scale industrialised agriculture on a predominantly flat landscape. There are very few hedges, very few insects, nothing of the multiplicity of detail from which to easily construct a weave; yet it would still be easy to mistake it for countryside. (159)
Like the Saskatchewan landscape, what he sees near Harleston is dominated by power and authority:
But what there also is here is a plane, a reminder of how what is striated and controlled runs through every feature of itself, not externally controlled but patterned form within its own texture and grain. Authority is unusually exposed out here; it runs through everything, right to the surfaces, a vivid anonymity, moving to the beat of a spectacular humdrum that until now I could not hear. (159)
The key to a mythographical approach to walking would be to find the resistance to that “spectacular humdrum,” or to create it, to invent it. But it is difficult in such a landscape: “This is a melancholy road,” he writes; “I am not concerned that it will immobilise me now, but that it itself is beginning to silt up and grind towards a halt” (159).
One way of creating that resistance is to look for coincidences, which Smith calls “wormholes” (suggesting that they are more than coincidences). For instance, on this walk, the he discovers a real-estate firm called “Jackson Stops”; on an earlier walk, he passed a pub named “Jackson Stops,” which had that name because the estate agents’ “for sale” sign had hung over it for so long (107). Another example: he stops in a bookshop and picks up a book by Charles Hurst, who was the impetus for his 2009 walk (described in Smith’s book Mythogeography) following the line of oak trees Hurst planted (113). Another way of creating that resistance is by (as he suggests elsewhere in the book) looking for complicated explanations of phenomena:
Although I was only dimly aware of its significance, a vein of colour symbolism had begun to run through my walk: firstly, the white of the deer I first heard about in Snape, and subsequently symbols of black, red and finally gold.
Given the region of fire that my walk was soon to pass through, an area something akin to a crucible, it is hard not to see the parallels with a jumbled alchemy: the purification in the white albedo, the decomposition of the black nigredo, the burning in the yellow light and solar fire of citrinitras, and the end of it all in red rubedo. (119)
Only Smith, I think, would discover alchemical colour symbolism during a walk. It’s something that would never occur to me.
Another source of resistance is parody and irony. When he visits Sutton Hoo, a historic site with Anglo-Saxon burial mounds, he imagines the kind of heritage site he would create:
I wander around the burial mounds enjoying being the first visitor there. I am impressed by the extent of the framing of these humps. Chain fence. Spot lighting. Hand cleanser. Viewing platform. Information board. Finger posts. And I begin to plan a heritage site consisting only of chain fences, spot lighting, hand cleanser, viewing platforms, information boards and finger posts. (126)
Another source of resistance is through references to the occult or to esoteric knowledge (echoing Smith’s interest in Charles Fort). In a taxi to the edge of Rendelsham Forest, he discovers an example of the “disreputable knowledge” he is interested in: the driver talks about “fairy bridges” where one has to call out to the fairies while crossing; she also tells him that the white deer in the forest “signifies the coming of a new charismatic leader,” that it is magical (126). “She is my angel,” Smith writes: “I realise that everything up till new has been prelude. The great walk is about to begin”—and his walk shifts to one about UFOs (126-27).
Smith reports his grief at seeing roadkill, a grief that is connected to the recent death of his mother: “Death is not a mist, not a plane, but a dirty weave of bits, a broken thing requiring more and more broken things to make its gothic swirls. It is nothing in itself, and it is this nothing that is awful” (165). Those reflections remind him of his mother’s death, and her life, but that is territory he cannot write about yet, and that becomes one of the ways in which he has “not succeeded in re-enacting Sebald’s trajectory” (165). In the end, Smith abandons his project: “Now has come the moment to abandon the Sebald route. It has led me as far as it can. The road has melted and inundated the whole terrain. I must do the next part of the work alone; but not immobilised” (171). He catches a bus to Halesworth, and then takes the train home.
On Walking . . . And Stalking Sebald is an unusual book, with its layers of different kinds of text, but its structure gives readers both the theory of mythogeography and an example of its practice. After reading it, I’m getting the sense that I’m finally coming to an understanding of what mythogeography is and how borrowing from it might inform (or even improve) my own walking. And that’s what’s important about this whole project—learning what is useful to me and what isn’t, what I want to do and what I don’t. And there’s no way to discover those things except by reading widely, by learning what’s out there, what others are up to and how their practices relate (or don’t) to my own.
Benjoe, Kerry. “Marching for a Cause,” Leader-Post [Regina], 14 June 2012, p. A3.
Khatib, Abdelhafid. “Attempt at a Psychogeographical Description of Les Halles.” Translated by Paul Hammond. Situationist International Online. https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/leshalles.html.
Macfarlane, Robert. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. London: Penguin, 2012.
Smith, Phil. On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff, Triarchy, 2014.