Thursday, 28 January 2010

Navigating the city

If the flâneur's aimless wandering was the 19th century preferred method of navigating the city, then the dérive or drift was the 20th century's version. First proposed by the Situationists, an avant-garde political and artistic group in 1950s Paris, founding member Guy Debord defined the dérive as a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances, locomotion without a goal. Unlike the unhurried strolling and taking in of the sights and sounds of the city, the dérive was a different affair:

"where one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there."

Incorporated within this idea is the theory of psychogeography - a study of the effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of the individual. By studying this effect, they hoped to expose the manipulation and control to which everyday urban life is subject. The arbitrariness of the method served to force the participant to become aware of the city's hidden or encoded aspects, turning the mundane into unfamiliar territory.

The dérive also contained a playful element - participants would often deliberately disorientate and confuse themselves to show the concealed potential of experimentation, pleasure and play in everyday life. Methods included requiring the walker to follow a route plotted on a street map of one city superimposed on another, or following a straight line or circle drawn between two random points on the map. It is this playful aspect that I wish to emphasise in my own set of journeys, turning the whole enterprise into a kind of game by which I can navigate the city.

You would think that chance would play a large part in these proceedings, but Debord made some surprising observations about the limitations of chance. He maintained that the action of chance is by nature conservative ie. old habits die hard - even in new situations we revert to habitual actions or choices between a restricted number of variations. Something to bear in mind as I make a choice - left or right at the junction.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

The luxury of aimless wandering

There is plenty of mention in literature of the man of the crowd or the flâneur, that invention of poet Charles Baudelaire, sauntering aimlessly here and there about the city streets of 19th century Paris, his eye delighting in the novel sights of modernity. The word flâneur derives from flâner - to saunter, lounge or stroll. The flâneur's journey is aimless and unplanned, lacking a particular destination or purpose; he moves between places, not to places. This act of wandering is traditionally a male pursuit. There are few, if any, true examples of a female equivalent, the flâneuse - in her account of wandering the streets of London (see my last post), even Virginia Woolf needed the pretext of going out to buy a pencil!

In his essay The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire outlines the characteristics of this man of the world who 'wants to know, understand and appreciate everything that happens on the surface of our globe', whose main prerequisite is curiosity. Like the protagonist in Edgar Allen Poe's The Man of the Crowd, he views the world in the hyperreal state of the convalescent, where colour and form are exaggerated, 'rapturously breathing in all the odours and essences of life'. He approaches the world with the eyes of a child, delighting in the child's ability to see everything in a state of newness, where nothing has become stale or commonplace.

Just as Woolf relished the anonymity which walking amongst the crowd afforded her, Baudelaire's flâneur takes pleasure in the invisibility which cloaks his presence on the crowded city streets:

"For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world.... the spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito."

This privilege was rarely accorded to women in the 19th century whose sphere of activity was mainly centred on the home. The majority of those who did venture out onto the streets alone did not have the luxury of this kind of aimless wandering, often being either prostitutes or working women. Thankfully, things have changed somewhat and the vision of a lone woman on the streets is no longer an unusual sight! As a woman with a camera in an urban environment, however, I do not feel that I have the same degree of anonymity and invisibility as the flâneur. My ability to negotiate the city is still circumscribed by certain fears for my own personal safety and well-being. There are areas in any city where it would be hazardous to venture - what will I do if chance directs me there?

The concept of the flâneur is now an outmoded one - 21st century life does not have the time for this kind of aimless wandering and self-absorption. When would we fit it in? In any case, I do not see my proposed journeys as being in the spirit of the flâneur. Their purpose is not so much unbiased observation; nor do I regard them as belonging to the documentary or street photography traditions. I envisage them instead as a kind of personal odyssey, a mapping of the great city of London for myself and on my own terms.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

A question of identity

I have just come across an essay by Virginia Woolf, entitled Street Haunting: A London Adventure. Woolf was an inveterate London walker and there are numerous examples in her novels of characters walking the streets of London. In this essay, she muses on the notion of how we are able to cast off the shackles of our personality as we walk in the city streets, losing ourselves in the anonymous city crowds, where nobody knows who we are or what we are thinking. She realised that you do not have to travel far to lose yourself.

"As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one's own room"

Out in the streets we cast aside that 'shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves' and our minds become concentrated into 'a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye'. It is then that we can free ourselves and become like a collector of images, not wishing to delve too far beneath the surface, not engaging our brains too much, the eye alighting on a succession of pleasing or delightful trophies. There are times in my wanderings when I feel just like this, when as Woolf writes everything is accidentally but miraculously sprinkled with beauty, when even the prosaic or the mundane seem enhanced and beautified.

When we are wandering without any ulterior motive but just following some impulsive impetus to move about, is this when we are more truly ourselves? She asks herself:

"Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?"

Woolf seems to have had a need to put aside the I of her self and take on something of the multiple identities of the crowd, thinking that by penetrating some way into other people's lives she can give herself the 'illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind'. When I am wandering in the city I too relish the idea that nobody knows who I am and there are no expectations of me other than the usual social proprieties. I can be who I wish for the day - a form of escape from the daily realities of life. As Woolf notes 'to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures'.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010


To London yesterday - not a chance journey, but a planned one. As I sat on the train on the inward journey I had plenty of time to reflect on possible approaches to my project, but as the train approached its destination, I found myself increasingly distracted by the vision of the London suburbs flashing past the windows - that vast unknown territory spreading for mile upon mile with its rows of semi-detached houses and parades of shops, the scrubby gardens backing on to the railway line parting occasionally to offer a tantalising glimpse of streets, closes and crescents, stretching as far as the eye can see. This is the London I am not very familiar with and for some reason, long to penetrate and discover its secrets.

As I alighted (I love that almost archaic word - it conjures up visions of trans-continental railways and exotic destinations) at Marylebone Station, I began to make my familiar route around the parts of central London that I know well and once again was struck by how conditioned we are by routine and familiarity. Why take one particular path when there are alternatives? Because we are always in such a hurry to fit in so many things into the day, watching the clock, timing our business before we move on to the next task or deadline. Today was no exception.

The main purpose of my trip was to visit the London Transport Museum to see Suburbia - an exhibition which shows how transport has shaped the growth and identity of the London suburbs This was followed by a talk on Metroland - that area of NW London and beyond where London's boundaries extended into the countryside following the expansion of the Metropolitan Line in the 1920s. Metroland has long been associated with the poet John Betjeman and with a particular vision of leafy Middle England - one where the streets are clean and safe, the air is pure, and every Englishman can own his own home with its strip of lawn and hedge, where privacy and safety are assured.

In Betjeman's poem The Metropolitan Railway the phrase "the morning villas sliding by" reminded me of my journey into London earlier in the day, and the repetition of the station names illustrate just how evocative of place these words are:

"Smoothly from HARROW, passing PRESTON ROAD,
They saw the last green fields and misty sky...

And all that day in murky London Wall,
The thought of RUISLIP kept him warm inside;

And caught the first non-stop to WILLESDEN GREEN,
Then out and on, through rural RAYNER'S LANE
To autumn-scented Middlesex again."

Betjeman himself was well-known for his love of London and the railways, and recounted a tale of his youthful journeys on the London Underground with a friend, travelling on every single Underground line and getting out at every station. Probably beyond the scope of my project, but what better way of exploring London than on the Tube - emerging every so often into some unknown location - virgin territory to explore?

Monday, 18 January 2010

Surrendering your will

I am currently rereading the Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart - essential reading for anyone under the age of 25 but not so popular amongst the middle-aged! I first read it as a student, many years ago and remember being very taken with the idea of living your life according to the throw of the dice. The protagonist in the book does just that and gradually all his major and minor life decisions are guided by the dice. He assigns certain alternatives to each number of the die, or if it is a choice between two options, then he will select option A if it's even or B if it's odd.

Obviously a certain amount of personal choice comes into it as you have to choose the options in the first place - only the selection process is random. Humans will be humans and when he explains the game to his young son, the boy naturally selects only pleasant alternatives which he wants to do. The Dice Man has to set out the rules for him:

"...I finally told him that the dice man game always had to provide risk, that slightly bad choices had to be there too...out of every 6 alternatives, one had to be surprisingly unpleasant."

This gradually leads the Dice Man to bet on ever more shocking stakes, eventually leading to murder. I am definitely not suggesting that I open myself up to the possibility of committing murder or any other crime, but this did lead me to consider how far I would be prepared to go. Did I really want to give myself the option of doing things I didn't want to do? Or was I going to opt for the comfortable course of action? And could I be trusted to follow the dice or would I be tempted to cheat?

I have been thinking a lot over the past few weeks of different methods of random selection - allowing each journey to be under the influence of a certain phenomenon or theme. And as I think of them, I find myself already beginning to meddle in the selection process, checking up beforehand to see if such and such technique would be viable! I have to remind myself that this is definitely not in the spirit of chance and give myself a stern talking to!

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The lure of the unknown

Here I am, preparing myself to join the legions of bloggers out there, adding to the millions of words and images already floating around in cyberspace. Does the world really need yet another blog? Probably not, but as they say, it may already all have been done before, but not by you!

How have I got to this stage, just about to embark on a series of possibly absurd and aimless wanderings around London? For what possible purpose? Because I can, because I want to, because I'm curious, because I want to test myself, because I get bored doing the same old things, because I hate sticking to the rules....

Although we have unprecedented freedom of movement, modern life is so regimented, so subject to rules, our every move monitored and logged. With our diaries mapped out months in advance and deadlines to meet, our daily routines allow us little spontaneity. We live in our heads, hardly noticing our surroundings as we rush from A to B.

When was the last time you made a journey just for the sake of it? A journey that didn't involve travelling to work, to school, to the shops, doing a chore, going out for the night, being a tourist? When was the last time you took the time to look around you, to observe life as it happens, to take pleasure in the moment rather than planning ahead? How would it feel not to be constrained by these duties, to go out and not know what you were going to be doing that day or where you were going to go, to enjoy the pleasure of your own company without being beholden to anyone else, to be free to wander or linger at will, completely subject to the laws of chance? I'm going to find out.

The camera is good at inadvertently capturing the unexpected and the accidental, of which the human eye may be unaware - not really the decisive moment, but the random moment. The stuff of life that flows from one minute to the next, forever shifting and changing - that's what it's all about.