The Walker by Matthew Beaumont review – an urban wanderland

Sean O’Hagan
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Soma/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Soma/Alamy Stock Photo

In a scene in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom walks to and from a butcher’s shop in Dublin in the early morning, his imagination roaming freely from the local (the shops and pubs he passes) to the exotic (eucalyptus groves in Turkey). Likewise, Mrs Dalloway, in Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, strolls through London’s St James’s Park and Piccadilly, her thoughts and memories prompted – and continually distracted – by the capital’s bustle.

The city was a primary locus of the modernist novel of the 1920s and 30s, an often diverting environment that, when traversed on foot, was nevertheless conducive to reflection, even self-reflection. It was left to a poet, TS Eliot, however, to evoke its alienating effect on the individual psyche. In The Waste Land, the sight of hordes of rush-hour commuters striding purposefully to work over London Bridge symbolises the city’s soul-sapping conformity. “So many,” writes Eliot, “I had not thought death had undone so many.”

For Matthew Beaumont, Eliot’s travellers, their “eyes fixated on their feet”, are the antithesis of the modernist spirit, closed off from the creative possibilities of the city’s myriad surprises. In contrast, Mrs Dalloway and Leopold Bloom are unconsciously alert to its ever-shifting mood, which impinges imaginatively on their own.

Unknowingly, too, they both approximate the emblematic figure of the flâneur as defined by the poet Charles Baudelaire in his 1863 essay The Painter of Modern Life. For Baudelaire, the flâneur was a “passionate spectator”, part idler, part aesthete, who was entirely at ease “in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite”.

Since then the flâneur has, if anything, assumed an even greater importance as a cultural arbiter of urban experience, most recently in the 90s, when contemporary psychogeographers such as Iain Sinclair and Will Self explored even the most pedestrian-unfriendly city zones on foot.

The city can become a character in itself, dramatising a protagonist’s sense of alienation, fear or paranoia

Drawing on numerous literary sources, both familiar and obscure, Beaumont takes the reader on a labyrinthine journey into the literature of walking and thinking that thankfully strays far from the now well-trodden terrain of psychogeography. “What are the politics of walking in the city?” he asks in his introduction to The Walker. “What are its poetics?” In his attempt to definitively answer these questions, Beaumont enlists the help of authors such as Dickens, Joyce and Poe, as well as lesser-known writers, including the intriguing Edward Bellamy, whose novel Looking Backward, from 1888, was “the most successful utopian fiction published in the late 19th century”.

Beaumont’s wide-ranging narrative is structured around intriguingly themed chapters – Going Astray, Wandering, Fleeing, Stumbling, etc. This allows him to roam far and wide, exploring the city as a place in which to lose, reinvent and run from oneself. As anyone who has read Dostoevsky or noir crime fiction will know, the city can also become a character in itself, reflecting and dramatising a protagonist’s sense of alienation, fear or paranoia. Disappointingly, Dostoevsky and Raymond Chandler, whose Los Angeles is both a living, breathing city and a state of mind, only warrant passing mentions in Beaumont’s otherwise exhaustively well-researched narrative. Elsewhere, though, he casts new light on novels as diverse as GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, which features a poet turned detective who wanders on foot through London in his attempts to foil an anarchist terrorist plot, and Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi short story The Pedestrian, in which a man is arrested and transported to a correctional facility for the crime of walking alone at night.

In the final chapter, Not Belonging, Beaumont explores the various methods of economic, political and social exclusion that impinge on, and often invisibly regulate, the daily lives of contemporary city dwellers: surveillance culture, the privatisation of public spaces, and the often oppressive architecture of “visored” buildings whose imposing impenetrability speaks of power and secrecy. “We are not at home in the streets of our cities,” he concludes.

Beaumont revisits the territory of his previous book, Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London, in his more personal afterword. Titled Walking In London and Paris at Night, it reasserts the autonomy of the solitary flâneur, but is also shot through with a sense of foreboding and unease. In Paris’s Belleville neighbourhood, where gentrification has laid siege to a once bustling working-class, predominantly north African community, he comes upon a nocturnal gathering of “Africans, Arabs, eastern Europeans, Roma” who, it turns out, are awaiting the arrival of a mobile food bank. When it comes, the location is immediately transformed into an improvised street market of barter and exchange. As the “bohemian-bourgeois class” sleep in their beds, writes Beaumont, the “poor and homeless people – those whom the streets have claimed – reclaim the streets”. Baudelaire, the flâneur poet of the Parisian dispossessed of another time, would surely have approved.

• The Walker: On Losing and Finding Yourself in the Modern City by Matthew Beaumont is published by Verso (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply