We did a lot of reading (and walking) in preparation for curating Writing Britain, and one of the authors I found most useful in curating the ‘Cockney Dreams’ section of the exhibition was Merlin Coverley. Merlin’s books on London writing, and especially psychogeographical dérives around the capital (the London Writing and Psychogeography Pocket Essentials), were inspiring and informative in the development of the section.
So I was delighted to get an advance copy of Merlin’s latest book, The Art of Wandering, a history of the writer as walker. Walker-writers – Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Edward Thomas, Iain Sinclair- play a prominent part in Writing Britain, and Writing Britain is referenced in the press release for Merlin's book, alongside a number of other current walking-writing cultural touchstones (the work of Sinclair, Self, Papadimitriou and others).
Merlin’s new book is a perfect accompaniment to, and expansion on, a number of the ideas in Writing Britain, and was in fact written and researched for the most part in the British Library, using our collections. It takes in walkers of all ages and environments- including a wonderful chapter on imaginary walks: from Albert Speer’s circumnavigation of the world in his prison yard, to the Voyage autour de ma chambre (Travel around my Room) by Xavier de Maistre.
Merlin kindly agreed to respond to questions on email, the text of which I reproduce below:
ON THE ORIGINS OF THE ART OF WANDERING…
"The origins of this book grew out of research I had done for an earlier book, Psychogeography, in which I had tried to outline the literary predecessors to contemporary writers such as Sinclair, Ackroyd and Self. By exploring the work of De Quincey and Stevenson, the Surrealists, the Situationists and so on, I was able to piece together a tradition of writing about space and place that obviously had much to do with the role of walking and its relationship to literary composition.
In The Art of Wandering I returned to many of these figures, this time focussing explicitly upon the writer as walker and enlarging the scope of the project to include a much wider time frame. This obviously generated a much larger range of sources and to deal with this I decided to arrange these texts according to the form of walking they represented, from the philosopher to the pilgrim, the visionary to the Romantic, right up to the present day. One of the consequences of this approach was that writers, whose works rarely if ever come into contact, were now sharing the same page. For example, Hilaire Belloc and Werner Herzog came together under the heading of pilgrimage, while Albert Speer and Xavier de Maistre were discussed as examples of the imaginary walker. In fact, I can’t think of another single activity that would bring together such a diverse group of writers as that of walking."
ON THE EXISTENCE OF A CONTEMPORARY WRITING MOMENT…
"I’ve thought a great deal about this question without managing to reach any clear conclusions. This walking moment certainly seems to have become a fairly prolonged one and shows no signs of waning. Intellectual fashions for psychogeography and walking as performance certainly play a part, as does the role of the publishing industry in identifying and exploiting literary trends. But there does seem to me to be a political component too, a way of using walking as a means of challenging prescribed routes and, in particular, a means of drawing attention to parts of the city that would otherwise be overlooked. This has certainly been the case in London over the last 30 years as walking has become tied up with questions concerning the redevelopment of urban space. But then, of course, the same was true of the Paris of Baudelaire and Aragon, and so I’m not sure that we are witnessing something wholly new here, perhaps merely the latest and most visible instalment in an ongoing historical process."
ON DISCOVERING NEW WORKS IN RESEARCHING THE BOOK…
"There are a couple of books which I was very pleasantly surprised to discover while researching this book. The first of these was Albert Speer’s Spandau: The Secret Diaries, which I first came across in Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking, and which was definitely not a name one would expect to find in a literary survey of this kind. Speer’s book is now out of print, but the story it tells is so remarkable, so unexpected, and so unique that it certainly deserves to be rediscovered. I noticed that Iain Sinclair discusses Speer in his recent book, Ghost Milk, so perhaps he is already reaching the attention of a wider audience.
Someone else whom I have read and enjoyed for many years is Arthur Machen, and I had always planned to include his work in The Art of Wandering – not least because I pinched the title from his book of the same name written in 1924. So it was a real pleasure to unearth a collection of his essays and journalism called The Secret of the Sangraal, first published in 1995 by Tartarus Press. Machen writes about London in a way that no other author ever has and his accounts of walks taken through the London suburbs as a young man are amongst the best things he ever wrote."
ON BEING A WALKER AS WELL AS A WRITER…
"I liked to think of myself as a walker before embarking on The Art of Wandering, but having read and written about the pedestrian achievements of De Quincey, Wordsworth and co., I began to see that this term in an altogether different light and I’m now rather reluctant to describe myself as a walker at all. In fact since my children were born my already modest achievements as a walker have been diminished even further and I am now reduced to repeating a short daily circuit to and from school/nursery at an excruciatingly slow pace."
The Art of Wandering is published by Oldcastle Books, and a PDF of the introduction is available for free from the publisher’s site.
**A SIGNED COPY OF THE ART OF WANDERING, PLUS PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY, IS UP FOR GRABS: JUST LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW, OR DIRECT MESSAGE @BLENGLISH_DRAMA, WITH THE ANSWER TO THE FOLLOWING QUESTION: WHICH STOKE NEWINGTON EDUCATED AMERICAN WRITER WROTE THE KEY LONDON WALKING TEXT 'THE MAN OF THE CROWD' (CURRENTLY ON DISPLAY IN WRITING BRITAIN)?**
Architecture is the sculpting of space, and space is power.
Though set in the future, dystopias are essentially critiques of the present and, at their best, offer us valuable warnings and counsel. From a distance, dystopia is fun and utopia bland; everyone reads Dante’s Inferno, few make it to Paradiso. Yet the undoubted pleasures of schadenfreude are not without their own risks. There is a point where healthy essential scepticism slips into paralysing cynicism; where the complete absence of utopian thinking becomes a dystopia itself.
We are right to doubt that we ever will or indeed ever should arrive at Utopia but we are deluded and vulnerable if we fail to recognise the hard-earned utopian fragments all around us. People dreamt of parks, schools, hospitals, libraries, democracy and public space for centuries. We may not realise how quietly radical these achievements are until they are gone, and there are those who plan to benefit from their absence. A common observation is that all utopias are dystopias but the opposite is also true; all dystopias have utopias for a privileged few. In dire times, we are wise to ask, “Who benefits from this?” just as much as we should ask “What are you selling?” of those evangelising about the future.
“Where there is power,” as Foucault pointed out “there is resistance.”
Given that power is so often articulated in terms of spaces of inclusion and exclusion, resistance can be mounted in a reclaiming or uncovering of territory. This happens explicitly in activities like urban exploration and parkour but it occurs implicitly in almost every youth and protest movement. In my hometown, a sectarian state was opposed by locals who declared part of the city Free Derry (inspired initially by student protestors at University of California, Berkeley). This autonomous space was eventually suppressed by military force but not before the example permeated far beyond its boundaries, not least to the impressionable mind of the author.
Seeing how architecture can be used to oppress and exclude but also to subvert and resist is key to understanding the cities we inhabit, all over the world. Even where we do not face overt militarised areas, we face encroaching commercial and liminal spaces that alienate us from our own cities. In Ancient Greece, the word polis was used to refer to both the city and its inhabitants. A city consisting of endlessly spied-on consumers rather than citizens is a cruel forgery, however shiny and new. Yet this example is being actively pursued.
How can we avoid then becoming passive spectators to our surroundings and eventually our own lives? Whether we are explicitly politically-focused or not, the political dimension of cities will make itself known to us. It is very easy to see a time in the near-future where spending time anywhere will necessitate payment, where simply loitering, wandering or exploring will see you moved along as a security risk, where everywhere that is not junkspace, in Rem Koolhaas’ words, will be in private hands.
We need not be Situationists or psychogeographers to realise something’s going wrong and a profound re-engagement with place is necessary. Recently, I’ve been studying video games, for many reasons but perhaps above all because of the interesting cognitive dissonance that comes from seeing virtual worlds expanding while the physical world is restricting. We can do all manner of once-impossible things online while simultaneously being told, in the real world, we cannot take care of the most basic societal needs. We have 21st century technologies and 18th century political establishments. Something is rotten in the body politic and it will take more than snake-oil tonics to cure it.
The problem with resistance is that it always begins too late. To achieve anything worthwhile, efforts must be waged in advance and not retreat. By the time the buildings have been built, the challenges may be almost insurmountable. In the past, radical architecture was wedded to a sense of egalitarian civic spirit; it’s there in Archigram, early Bauhaus, the Russian Constructivists, Hugh Ferriss’ towers, Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion housing, King Camp Gilette’s Metropolis, the Glass Chain letters, Arthur Radebaugh’s predictions and so on.
Whilst mainstream architecture is more extravagant and bizarre than ever, the sense that it is for everyone has been greatly diminished. Always a mirror to the political climate, architecture is largely there to contain rather than liberate us, demanding our obedience rather than serving us and helping us to better ourselves. We must regain the possible by demanding what we are told, in an age of wholesale thefts and selective austerity, is impossible. We must dream again in blueprints. If we do not then someone else will dream our dreams for us.
Find more on Imaginery Cities and buy a copy, or follow for updates.
Darran Anderson is an Irish writer and former co-editor, for publications such as The Honest Ulsterman, 3:AM Magazine & Dogmatika.He has also written for Studio International, The Quietus, Gorse, and Vice.