Walking With Meaning: Finding Your Inner Flâneur

As Blue Badge tour guide and author Frank Molloy reveals, a walk around your city or town can become a fully-immersive experience that brings a new-found appreciation of your surroundings and heritage. And with the pandemic having all but put the brakes on foreign excursions, there’s never been a better time to discover the joys of being a flâneur.

By Frank Molloy

“…our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

(Shakespeare, As You Like It)

For me, ‘lockdown’ is a misnomer. I’ve never felt so liberated from the constraints of modern life. And it’s all been down to making the most of my ‘daily constitutional’.

I’ve always loved walking. In fact, I do it for a living. As an accredited tour guide, I create and conduct guided walks in London. Or at least I did. Lockdown meant visitors stopped visiting and tourists stop touring.

The situation gave me time to reassess my approach. I remembered years ago how I yearned to forge a connection with my city. To do that I had to engage: to walk with meaning. Observing; examining; discovering; sensing; absorbing; thinking.

Turning it into an event. An art form.

It’s nothing original. Others have applied such methods for years. But I believe the lockdown has provided an opportunity to rediscover the joy of walking; the pleasure in interacting with one’s environment.

I wanted to share my reawakened passion, so I wrote my new book, Soul City Wandering,  to explain the concept, encourage new participants, and offer advice on how to go about it.

The words ‘flâneur’ and ‘psychogeography’ are integral. The flâneur is a kind of secretive wanderer chronicling or providing commentary on the urban scene. The word was originally embraced in 19th-century France. In 1863, French poet Baudelaire described the perfect flâneur as a “passionate spectator… ...ceaselessly journeying across the great human desert”. But it could be argued the concept was already practised at least a century earlier in Britain: Hogarth was a habitual flâneur, as were his fellow satirists.

‘Psychogeography’ is a comparatively modern word. In short, it’s a journey or act of experiencing your surroundings on a sensory or emotional level. In Britain, its roots can be traced back, at least , to the Romantic era. The modernist movement also had its adherents. But once again, the French coined the meaning. In the 1950s, philosopher Guy Debord defined psychogeography as the interpretation of “specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”. 

Soul City Wandering author Frank Molloy, one of London’s leading tour guides, says that the act of strolling can become an enriching and deeply rewarding exercise.  

Since then, it has mutated into several derivatives. One involves searching for connections or shared intention between existing locations, landmarks or architecture. Another considers repetitive patterns: human behaviour over time, or the impact of structures on the minds of the local populace. This is sometimes referred to as ‘persistence of place’. For example, the building at 59 Brick Lane, Whitechapel, London, has remained a spiritual centre for hundreds of years, from Huguenot chapel and Methodist church to Jewish synagogue and Islamic mosque.

‘Synergy’, meanwhile, examines where the interaction of multiple agents or events in a specific location produces an effect greater than the sum of their individual significances. A more recent strand is the perception of non-place: unspoken, unrecorded or non-historic spaces, such as wasteland or industrial parks, where a new sense of being may be created.

Before sharing tips on devising walks, it might help to understand what psychogeography is not. It’s not the act of strolling from A to B while studying interesting buildings. It’s not turning off a satnav in the hope of discovering something new. And it’s not deviating from a standard route just for the sake of it. Psychogeography is about interpreting where you are at. Its purpose is to connect with the soul of a place.

London’s nature has had a major effect on the genre, and I used my native city as a model for Soul City Wandering. But similar experiences can be had in any urban setting.

Relying on a specific sense can play a part. Some adherents utilise optical enhancements to give a different perspective (providing, at last, a valid excuse to enjoy life through rose-tinted spectacles!). Others relish urban sounds: the hum of traffic; the wail of sirens; the chatter of loud voices. It’s all part of the fabric of flâneurity. But if you wish to block out ‘other noise’, remember headphones are a useful device.

Indeed, you could create your own soundtrack to reinforce the drama of your surroundings. Try listening to a wider selection of music and setting your device to random play. Often, your environment gives a different nuance to the music. Sometimes the weather, the wildlife, or a whimsical moment catches the rhythm. A magical moment.

Soul City Wandering by Frank Molloy is the ideal guide for anyone wishing to rediscover their urban environment and heritage.

It must be said that lockdown has limited our sensory perception. The walking experience is less tactile. I’m less inclined to handle things. No longer am I feeling the cold steel of a handrail, the grooved wooden arm of a bench, or marble texture of a statue as I stroll. And of course, the wearing of masks blunts the scent of wild herbs, flowers or freshly-cut grass. Then again, the same goes for exhaust fumes, industrial gases and fast-food odours. Small mercies, I guess.

It doesn’t have to be a weekend thing, either. If you seek an antidote to the hustle and bustle of working life, provide yourself with sanctuaries. Engage in a quest for pockets of tranquillity, perhaps for your lunch breaks. The ruins of an old church, a park bench with incredible views, or underneath a spreading chestnut tree. Do you view your regular journey to work as a chore? Well, think of it this way: it’s as individual as you are, so take control of your commute. Can you play with street names? Forge an interpretation of colours? Recognise serendipity with numbers?

If you wish, take a lighter approach. Soul City Wandering includes a walk around pubs of swinging sixties Soho while listening to a fitting soundtrack along the way.

Despite what any ‘expert’ tells you, there are no set rules to psychogeography. Just use some reverie and imagination to encounter places, people or events on your own terms. There’s no secret. It’s just how far down the rabbit hole you want to take it.

On a more individual level, the organic nature is appealing. It's got nothing to do with politics, race, sexuality, or what football team you support. You can strip away all angst and turmoil. Just you and your environment. At the very least, it gets you out into the fresh air, helps keep you fit, and keeps your mind active.

So, my fellow psycho-geographers, let Soul City Wandering be your guide. Go find your inner flâneur. Go find your soul.

Soul City Wandering: A London Pilgrimage by Frank Molloy is published by The Choir Press and is out now on Amazon priced £9.99 in paperback.

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