Merlin Coverley, ‘The Art of Wandering: The Writer as Walker’

First published on The Huffington Post (7th August 2012) // 

Coverley has thus far made an intriguing career from his brand of esoteric primers, on interconnected subjects ranging from Psychogeography to Occult London, and with his latest, The Art of Wandering: The Writer as Walker, he re-introduces readers to a seemingly ancient tradition. Serving as a brief history of this storied connection between great, even classic, literature and the epic bouts of pedestrianism which bore them, Coverley inspires in his readers – who it must be presumed are largely made up of either walkers or writers (or both) – a peculiar kind of brotherhood.

And on the most part it is this, a brotherhood, and not a sisterhood (or any other kind of gender neutral kinship) as, unfortunately, it seems throughout the walker-writer history, social mores dictated that there be only a handful of rebel females, most prominently; Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Wordsworth, the latter of which found herself ostracised because of her long-distance strolls. Though this is surely no oversight of research – Coverley’s is extensive – or an oversight of archivists, it’s more a lament of history, rather than his account, that privileged white males dominate so thoroughly. This focus on the Western tradition, he notes, “is a distinction which remains broadly true of all the major walking histories”, with only one exception (Journeys: An Anthology, edited by Robyn Davidson).

So after its dalliance with the European philosophical tradition (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Rousseau all getting a look-in), and then to its religious appropriation in the form of the pilgrimage, walking eventually falls into disrepute, becoming a necessity of the lower classes, one of rogues and vagrants. This is an attitude supported by law, notably the Vagrancy Act of 1824, and its uniformed enforcers as “ever since the Peasants Revolt of 1381, and the subsequent statute of 1383, foot travellers, both urban and rural, who have been unable to provide evidence of their means of support, have been liable to arrest and imprisonment”. And so, going against the then-socially accepted forms of locomotion, these figures ventured out onto the anywhere road, their reasons varied but perhaps eloquently summed up by John Muir when he wrote: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

Coverley’s approach, though oftentimes academic in style, is nevertheless an enlightening one. Covering an astounding amount of material, both well-known and cult writers feature with equal prominence; from Baudelaire, Blake, Whitman and Rimbaud, to the lesser-known Papadimitriou and Walser. And there is, refreshingly, little scepticism in his writing, no mention of the questioning of their lengthy feats for they were, on the most part, masters of fiction, or literary visionaries. That their feats of walking may perhaps be prone to exaggeration is only discussed briefly with Virginia Wolf. There is also Werner Herzog, for example, who, walking from Munich to Paris, where his dying friend and film critic, Lotte Eisner, lay in hospital, documented the journey in his dreamlike Of Walking in Ice, on a pilgrimage that he thought would prolong Eisner’s life. Yet, when questioned about Herzog’s trek, Ms. Eisner reputedly said, “Nonsense. I met him off the train.”

The possibility of exaggeration while reading of the 20-mile-a-day habits of Wordsworth or Dickens, is compounded by the epic imaginary feats of walking of the imprisoned Nazi architect, Albert Speer, who, to keep his sanity, mapped and recorded 31,816 kilometres of circuits around the prison yard, fictitious pilgrimages traced all over the world, spending 12 of his 20 year sentence on foot, thus creating an odd literary hybrid, which poses interesting questions as to the nature of fiction within the walking canon:

“Arrived in Peking today. As I came to the Imperial Palace, some kind of demonstration was taking place in the great square outside it. Two, three, four hundred thousand people – who can say how many? In that constantly surging crowd I quickly lost all sense of direction; the uniformity of the people also frightened me. I left the city as quickly as I could.”

Yet not all subjects of this history are as successful as these. The slowest sections, appropriately, are those on “The Imaginary Walker”, undertaken on the most part by Xavier de Maistre, when under house arrest, eventually writing A Journey Around my Room and later A Nocturnal Expedition around my Room. Although they are perhaps pertinent to a ‘History of…’ these passages almost turn the reader against the writer-walker figure, sections which reveal his ugliest, most unbearably theoretical side. Perhaps interesting as an idea in theory, in practice, it is an arduous journey having to read the thing, and it utterly kills the fun of the stroll.

This psychological focus seems a necessity, though, as the main thrust of Coverley’s book contends that walking has evolved, in the past fifty years, to one of political significance; a way of challenging the capitalist power grid, a way of reclaiming the streets, reclaiming space that has been so shaped and manipulated by oppressive institutions that lineate work and shopping, with little designated outside these spheres. It is in these chapters that the writer-walker becomes most sympathetic in their desire to break free of the beaten path orthodoxy of urban topography, lines and routes seared into our everyday experience with little deviation from the same repeated commute.

These inklings first begin with the surrealists, Breton and Aragon, and are then developed by the proponents of psychogeography in the 1960s, a movement so inebriated with its own cultural and political significance, that it has become what some view as a curious pastime of suspicious characters, as a quote from Geoff Nicholson reads: “a way for clever young men to mooch around cities doing nothing much, claiming that they’re […] doing something really, you know, significant, and often taking Iain Sinclair as their role model.” Employing all manner of labels for the walk: the derivé, the stroll, and the saunter, and also its proponent: from flâneur to perambulator to stalker to fugueur, the walker attempts constantly to define himself as much as the walk itself.

Despite this frequently nauseating theorising, Coverley does a good job in inspiring some actual movement in the reader, be it imaginary or otherwise, as a means of reconnecting with our surroundings, as a response to an increasingly high-rise-minded society; the view from the street is always better, we are reminded, the pace of the walk more inducing of lucid thought.
There is still of course this undercurrent of pettiness, common to all ‘movements’, where mere classification of the word or its significance has become the subject of secret petty squabbles and literary lambasting. The Iain Sinclairs, Stewart Homes and Will Selfs all disputing the true heritage of a single word. It’s perhaps an unfortunate note to end a history of such a seemingly admirable, perhaps even noble, custom. But Coverley recovers by praising an unsung hero of the writer-walker, the “deep topographer” Nick Papadimitriou, writer of Scarp and subject of the documentary The London Perambulator who neatly sums up “deep topography”:

“It’s about getting a very, very dangerous balance between finding the overlooked, and showing it to the other people who have an eye for the overlooked and not making the overlooked into something that is gazed at […] like people looking through the bars of a monkey house while some baboon plays with his penis or picks his arse.”

There is a special place for Papadimitriou in this book, as well as Sinclair. The way they have written about walking has changed not only the activity itself, but the perceptions and possibilities of the places visited, and if you have an eye for the overlooked, Coverley’s and for that matter Papadimitriou’s and Sinclair’s books, are worth a read.