Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Blot on the Landscape

In Edgar Allan Poe's 1840 short story, The Man of the Crowd, an unnamed narrator follows a man on foot through the streets of London. His quarry constantly immerses himself into the crowded labyrinthine streets, seemingly walking with purpose but without apparent destination. People-watching from a cafe, the narrator is first attracted to the man as the only member of the crowd he cannot categorise: "a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of his expression". He follows him from early evening until the following morning, observing the onward march and constant doubling-back of his relentless search for the most populated areas, whether in the sophisticated heart of the city or the outlying slums. Exhausted by his following of "the decrepit old man", the narrator concludes his pursuit observing, "he refuses to be alone; he is the man of the crowd".

Twenty years later, it was Charles Baudelaire, in The Painter of Modern Life, who defined the flaneur as the idling urban walker, "at the centre of the world, yet hidden from the world". Baudelaire recognised the urban spectator/spectacle who "everywhere rejoices in his incognito" but is, at the same time, "the lover of life who makes the whole world his family". If this idea resulted in the image of a Parisian dandy, with top hat and elaborate walking cane, then it finally fell to Walter Benjamin, the early 20th century German Marxist literary critic, to credibly determine the flaneur as the pedestrian private investigator of the city, as restless and inquisitive as Poe's man of the crowd.

When I lived, worked and studied in London I did a lot of walking: whether to get from A to B more interestingly, to kill time or out of the sheer boredom of being skint, I have at various times explored and wandered the streets of Vauxhall, Westminster, Soho, Bloomsbury, the Old Kent Road, the Harrow Road and latterly, with sleeping babies in pushchairs, the Thames between Deptford and Woolwich. Whilst never claiming to be a flaneur, staying above ground and on foot gave me a sense of the geography of the city which, on my rare returns, I realise I have never lost.

When writer Iain Sinclair published his seminal work, Lights Out for the Territory, at the back end of the 20th century, it seemed as if the flaneur had returned to London as the psychogeographer. And I felt my abstract wanderings were legitimised by Sinclair’s exploration of the urban landscape and his attention to the details of the secrets of the city. His chapter on one of my local parks at the time, Maryon Park in Charlton, location of key scenes from Antonioni’s 1966 film, Blow-Up, made me feel less of a bore for constantly going on about it to anyone who would listen.

Leaving London 10 years ago, I quickly realised that - to paraphrase Springsteeen - it’s hard to be a flaneur in the countryside. I do plenty of walking on the Downs and the coast, but once you leave the designated footpaths you cannot always walk where you want to – get orf moi land! – and you tend to arouse suspicion if you wander around without a dog. My wife thinks I am mad if I ever go walking and do not take the long-legged dog with me but sometimes, and you will have to forgive me here, I want to be alone. Once, walking through the out-of-the-way hamlet of Brownbread Street on my way to Harry H. Corbett’s grave in Penhurst, I was regarded all the way through by several pairs of narrowed eyes. Being a stranger, not dressed for walking and lacking a crowd to hide me from the world, I was suspect. And everybody drives in the countryside; the only reason for a pedestrian to be on country lanes is if their car has broken down.

In the spirit of Iain Sinclair’s 2002 book, London Orbital, in which he charts the former Victorian asylum buildings he encounters walking around the M25, I head off west from my home for the site of Hellingly Hospital, four miles away. Hellingly Hospital was a large asylum – so large it had its own railway - that treated psychiatric patients from 1903 until closure in 1994. The abandoned complex of buildings quickly fell to disrepair and vandalism and became something of a favourite with connoisseurs of derelict buildings. I had visited it once before when I first moved to Sussex and found the deserted and dilapidated Edwardian red-brick buildings, set amongst overgrown vegetation, a moving and melancholy sight.

A mile outside Herstmonceux, the footpath alongside the road ends and I have to negotiate a verge-less half-mile stretch of the national-speed-limit A271 with cars speeding towards me. Headlights flash me several times before I decide to leave the main road and take the Old Road at Magham Down before I am blinded or killed. I knew that most of the old hospital buildings had been demolished and the site is now a new housing development, Roebuck Park; but when I arrive at Hellingly, try as I might, I cannot seem to get to where the few remaining original hospital buildings, and a new secure unit, are. When I get home and consult a map, I realise that I should have just kept following the main route through the development; but I keep turning off and losing myself in deserted cul-de-sacs and closes of new homes. Every time a car passes me, I turn heads and I realise that there is no such thing as the rural flaneur: I am not the man of the crowd, I am a blot on the landscape.

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