To celebrate the release of Walking London – our new audio walking tour download – we asked tutor and urban wanderer, Tamar Yoseloff to write about why walking inspires her and how the best ideas always happen on foot.
In her brilliant book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit says:
Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.
It is this alignment of mind, body and world that makes walking a crucial activity for poets. For Wordsworth, perhaps the most famous ambulatory poet, walking was a spiritual state connecting man with nature, so that the walker became part of the landscape he occupied. When a body is upright, in motion, breathing the air of the great outdoors, there is a physical engagement with place that does not occur when seated at a desk. We think differently when we walk, our thoughts match the pace of our stride. We see the world in motion, as we are in motion in it.
That sense of occupation, when transferred to the urban landscape, becomes a radical act. It was Guy Debord in 50s Paris who began to map out his city as a location for artistic statement – and so psychogeography was born. Debord defined psychogeography as ‘the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’ The tenents of psychogeography may not be new, but we are still entranced by the act of urban walking. Consider modern protest groups, such as Reclaim the Streets, or guerrilla gardeners. Their quest is to prioritise the individual rather than the corporation; to give our city back to us.
So back to poets. For those of us who live in cities, it is important to find a landscape that inspires, that we might occupy. The great poet Roy Fisher said of his native city, ‘Birmingham’s what I think with. It’s not made for that sort of job, but it’s what they gave me.’ The project is to find poetry where we might not expect it, lurking around corners or in dark alleyways. The city sometimes makes this project difficult; it is vast and dirty, often unwelcoming, sometimes tragic. But we make our homes here, we attempt to belong; poetry is all about defining how to belong, taming a place through words.
I am not a Londoner; I wasn’t even born in this country. Perhaps that has given me an outsider’s curiosity to explore my adopted city with a different perspective. When I first moved here, I realised the only way to learn London was by foot; underground it’s impossible to get a sense of how the city is laid out, how one neighbourhood gives way to another. And unlike many big American cities, London favours the walker, gives him/her vistas (such as Wordsworth’s from Westminster Bridge), streetscapes, parks. What fascinated me, coming from a place where nothing was truly old, was to find Roman walls butting up against modern towers of steel and glass. I began to seek out those places where the ancient meets the new, where the archaeological layers of the city sneak above ground, give the walker a sense of the span of time.
For many years I lived on the border of Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell, and became fascinated by the history of the lost Fleet River. I would attempt to trace its banks through the topography of the city. My neighbourhood was the neighbourhood of Dickens and Woolf, Chatterton and the newly-wed Plath and Hughes. Some of it was beautiful, some of it was downright ugly; the joy of living in a city is to find both states at once. Many poems came out of the experience of living in that patch of London; and although I’ve now crept south of the river, I still feel when I’m in the environs of Lamb’s Conduit Street or Red Lion Square that I am somewhere familiar, a place engrained in my consciousness.
This is the poem of mine which captures most the feeling of being in that corner of the city. It was a poem born from walking, retracing my steps over and over, until I felt part of the landscape.
It flows beneath my feet, its subterranean banks
unseen. I glide blissfully through my day,
all liquid, like a fish. I can’t understand
what gives this extra lift to my step, as if I’m floating,
and the cars drifting through Clerkenwell Green
are barges carrying sailors home from sea.
But an undercurrent sinks me at Islington:
I sense the bones of the old prison, the plague-dead
dumped straight from their beds, butchers’ scraps
staining the water blood red. The old dark brick
shifts, the city groans in its foundations
and spits me out like a sour grape into the street.
You can download Walking London: An Audio Walking Tour from the Poetry School website.