The Art of Wandering: the writer as walker by Merlin Coverley

Published by Oldcastle Books

Review by John Pilgrim

In this engaging and timely update to The Art of Wandering we are in the convivial company of Merlin Coverley, an author who has written on a variety of topics which will naturally intrigue many Folk Horror Revivalists, including hauntology, psychogeography and occult London.

Merlin Coverley

In the preface to the new edition Coverley reflects on the increasing popularity of walking, not least as an antidote to the stresses of modern life. Many of us will have experienced the positive impact which walking can have in relation to our general sense of wellbeing and in helping us to make sense of our lives. In this book Coverley guides us through the historical legacy of the ‘writer-as-walker’ and surveys the work of contemporary authors, all of whom illustrate how walking, sensemaking and writing are intimately connected.

We learn how from the ancient world to the modern day, the role of the walker has continued to evolve, ‘from philosopher and pilgrim, vagrant and visionary, to experimentalist and radical’. The deceptively simple act of placing one foot in front of another is explored in the context of a rich literary tradition which encompasses writers such as Rousseau, De Quincy, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Clare, Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe, Machen and Virginia Woolf.  We learn too of the work and lives of those involved in twentieth century movements such as Dada, Surrealism and Situationism. Other perspectives are shared such as that of the anthropologist Tim Ingold who reflects on how walking and writing are closely coupled in movement, for ‘to walk is to journey in the mind as much as on the land: it is a deeply meditative practice’.

As well as the philosophical reflections on the relationship between walking and writing, I very much enjoyed the colourful anecdotes which are peppered throughout the book. Coverley explains how Charles Dickens had an extraordinary capacity for walking, on one occasion choosing to get out of bed at two in the morning and walk for thirty miles into the country for breakfast. Another account relays how Dickens often expected his dinner guests to join him for a walk of many miles across the city at night before eating.

As might be expected given the author’s related work, some time is taken to explore the foundations and contrasting traditions of psychogeography, the space where psychology and geography intersect.  Throughout the book an illuminating approach is taken to the use of literary extracts. One such example is that taken from ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ by Guy Debord for whom the psychogeographer, ‘like the skilled chemist, is able both to identify and distil the varied ambiences of his environment’, not least through walking in the form the aimless drift or dérive which enables the practitioner to determine the emotional characteristics of particular zones in the city in a way which would not otherwise be possible.

Several writers highlighted in The Art of Wandering will be of particular interest to those with an interest in horror.  One such writer is Arthur Machen, author of The Great God Pan, who Coverley considers to be of equal significance as a literary walker to William Blake, De Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater) and Dickens.

Portrait of Arthur Machen by John Coulthart

Machen spent many years walking through the streets of London, frequently around Gray’s Inn Road but also further afield and often without direction, overwhelmed by a sense of awe bordering on sheer terror at the city’s dark undercurrents and occult associations. Coverley explains how much of Machen’s work can be seen as a strategy to combat this sense of dread and gain mastery over London’s streets by walking them, and through this knowledge overcoming their menace. Here Coverley draws a vivid picture of Machen as ‘the solitary walker seeking an escape from the labyrinth, yet fated to spend a lifetime in doing so’. 

One contemporary author who appears to have been similarly fated, though not necessarily in such a solitary way, is Iain Sinclair. For more than fifty years Sinclair has pursued what he refers to has his ‘London Project’, a series of poems, novels, diaries and other non-fiction accounts of London’s neglected spaces. 

Iain Sinclair in conversation with John Pilgrim at FHR’s ‘Otherworldly’ event

Early works such as Lud Heat took inspiration from work of Alfred Watkins’ thesis that much of the country’s landscape is connected by hidden ‘lines of force’:

A triangle is formed between Christ Church, St George-in-the-East and St Anne, Limehouse. These are centres of power for those territories; sentinel, sphinx-form, slack dynamos abandoned as the culture supported goes into retreat. The power remains latent, the frustration mounts on a current of animal magnetism, and victims are still claimed.

For Sinclair the city is to be re-discovered through a process of walking and imagination which has the potential to reveal the hidden relationship between the capital’s financial, political and religious institutions.

In more recent years Sinclair has extended the scope of his London project, one journey of note being his extraordinary walk around the M25 in the company of his wife Anna, the artist Brian Catling and the fantasy writer and magician Alan Moore. Participants in the Folk Horror Revival ‘Otherworldly’ event held at the British Museum may also recall Sinclair’s account of the pilgrimage which he and others undertook in memory of Edith Swan Neck, who may have been the first wife of King Harold II. This involved walking over one hundred miles from Waltham Abbey in Essex to St Leonards via Battle Abbey. In instances such as this walking and the act of writing are complementary tools by which hidden narratives and forgotten lives may be resurrected.

Lengthy and arduous walks such as those of Sinclair and Will Self (who once walked across London to New York in a day) are by no means the sole focus of Coverley’s exploration of writer-as-walker.  One literary example which Coverley highlights is ‘Street-Haunting’ by Virginia Woolf.  Subtitled ‘A London Adventure’, Woolf’s essay is essentially a light-hearted account of one woman’s walk across London in search of a pencil.

Virginia Woolf

The deliciously named practice of ‘street-haunting’ was a lifelong habit which Woolf first began when she moved to Gordon Square in 1904 and enabled much of the author’s creative thinking, planning and ‘scene-making’ to flourish. In this essay, Woolf leaves the solitude of her room to explore her fleeting impressions of London’s inherent strangeness and ‘that vast anonymous army of anonymous trampers’.  The transitory nature of Woolf’s walking experience is reflected in her writing which reveals a sense of self which is fragile and free floating.

Importantly, Coverley notes the historical importance of Street-Haunting in relation to the female experience of writer-as-walker, a critical dimension which has traditionally been overlooked.  In the preface to this new edition of the book Coverley rightly acknowledges the dominance of this ‘somewhat dispiriting demographic of ageing masculinity’ and welcomes the counter-narrative that has emerged in recent years, with Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse providing a critical turning point in bringing the female writer-as-walker to the fore. I would have welcomed a deeper exploration of this aspect, for example, through a more detailed appraisal of Rebecca Solnit’s work (Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and A Field Guide to Getting Lost).

The updated edition of The Art of Wandering is an invigorating read, impressive both in its scholarly breadth and in the vivid way in which the relationship between walking and writing is communicated. It also offers the reader something more: a welcome stimulus to re-connect with our cities and landscapes in deeper, more meaningful ways. It is a tonic for our times.

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