The Angry Corrie 59: Oct-Dec 2003

Thieves, prostitutes, poets ... and walkers

Wanderlust: A History of Walking, by Rebecca Solnit

Verso, first UK paperback edition 2002, x+326pp, ISBN 1 85984 381 6, £10

"I CAN ONLY MEDITATE when I am walking. When I stop I cease to think." So wrote the Enlightenment philosopher of Nature, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Backward to the peripatetic Greek philosophers, forward to the existentialist Søren Kierkegaard (who walked the urban streets of Copenhagen, not the Rousseauesque forested wilderness), Rousseau hints at the link between thinking and walking of which many addicts of the peripatetic arts are aware.

Solnit's book is not really about walking as a part of mountaineering or exploration - still less about walking as an aspect of daily work - but about walking as a "cultural act". This started in the medieval castles, and then in fortified houses in colonnades designed for the purpose (it wasn't safe to go outside). Later, more peaceful eras saw the establishment of walking in the landscaped gardens of the aristocracy, such as Hampton Court and Stowe, where attempts to recreate the wilds by building ruins and constructing waterfalls and so forth occurred.

Eventually the road was taken from the garden to the wild, and in the Romantic period people began to walk about and visit for stimulation the rugged scenes of nature. As Wordsworth said in his Guide to the Lakes in 1810, "Within the last sixty years [...] had been generated a relish for select parts of natural scenery: and Travellers, instead of confining their observations to Towns, Manufactories, or Mines, began (a thing till then unheard of) to wander over the island in search of sequestered spots [...] for the sublimity or beauty of the forms of Nature there to be seen."

An especially wonderful part of Solnit's book is the exploration of city walking as a cultural act. As cities grew in size in the nineteenth century they became unfamiliar wildernesses, peopled by dangerous tribes (the underclass of Paris were called "Apaches"). The city became a new frontier, and, as the poet Charles Baudelaire said, "What are the dangers of the forest and the prairie compared with the daily shocks and conflicts of civilisation?" He was followed by Louis Aragon the Surrealist poet who in his book Paysan de Paris walked and explored the urban wilderness of thieves, prostitutes and poets.

Solnit is particularly good on how controlling women's walking was an aspect of controlling them in a broader sense. Their clothing made walking very difficult, and additionally the term "streetwalker" carried the assumption that any woman out on her own was a harlot. Solnit also deals with walking today in the cities of the USA where "The pedestrian remains the largest single obstacle to free traffic movement" and where more people are killed by cars in New York than are murdered by strangers - 285 versus 150 in 1997. Where sidewalks (pavements) are more and more omitted from city planning and where in many cities they are privatised to prevent political meetings, loitering and other undesirable activities, now classed as trespass. In this world the gym (a variation of the nineteenth century treadmill in jails) replaces walking as a human activity.

Wanderlust is marred by an American subjectivism (you get a lot of "When I was 17 I ran away to Paris"), by an intellectual eclecticism (a bit of Buddhism, a bit of Marxism, a bit of whatever) and by a certain verbosity. But it is nevertheless a wonderful book, and you should buy it.

Ian R Mitchell

Ed. - Congratulations are due: by climbing Ben Aden on 5/8/03, Ian became the 219th known completer of the Corbetts, a list comprising 219 summits. However, a shadowy friend has asked if he might say this: "The number 219 may signify the mark of the beast (or at least the cad) since Ian's penultimate Corbett was the one long-planned for completion, and he then sneaked up the final one without inviting his pals along for the occasion." We should be told more...

(Perkin Warbeck will review Ian's latest book in TAC60.)

TAC 59 Index