SIGNINGS - DISCUSSIONS
TALKS - PRESENTATIONS
Merlin Coverley is a writer and bookseller. He is the author of Pocket Essentials on Utopia, London Writing, Psychogeography, Occult London and The Art of Wandering.
|release date:||June 2012|
|format:||B (198 x 129mm) with flaps|
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The Art of Wandering
The Art of Wandering is a history of that curious hybrid, the writer as walker. From the peripatetic philosophers of Ancient Greece to the streets of twenty-first century London, Paris and New York, this figure has evolved through the centuries, the philosopher and the Romantic giving way to the experimentalist and radical.
From pilgrim to pedestrian, flâneur to stalker, the names may change but the activity of walking remains constant, creating a literary tradition encompassing philosophy and poetry, the novel and the manifesto; a tradition which this book explores in detail. Today, as the figure of the wanderer returns to the forefront of the public imagination, writers and walkers from around the world are re-engaging with the ideas which animated earlier generations. For the walker is once again on the march, mapping new territory and recording new visions of the landscape.
'Coverley's approach is an enlightening one. Covering an astounding amount of material, both well-known and cult writers feature with equal prominence; from Baudelaire, Blake, Whitman and Rimbaud, to the lesser-known Papadimitriou and Walser. '
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Declan Tan - Huffington Post UK
Coverley has thus far made an intriguing career from his brand of esoteric primers, on interconnected subjects ranging from Psychogeography to Occult London, and with his latest, The Art of Wandering: The Writer as Walker, he re-introduces readers to a seemingly ancient tradition. Serving as a brief history of this storied connection between great, even classic, literature and the epic bouts of pedestrianism which bore them, Coverley inspires in his readers - who it must be presumed are largely made up of either walkers or writers (or both) - a peculiar kind of brotherhood. And on the most part it is this, a brotherhood, and not a sisterhood (or any other kind of gender neutral kinship) as, unfortunately, it seems throughout the walker-writer history, social mores dictated that there be only a handful of rebel females, most prominently; Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Wordsworth, the latter of which found herself ostracised because of her long-distance strolls. Though this is surely no oversight of research - Coverley's is extensive - or an oversight of archivists, it's more a lament of history, rather than his account, that privileged white males dominate so thoroughly. This focus on the Western tradition, he notes, "is a distinction which remains broadly true of all the major walking histories", with only one exception (Journeys: An Anthology, edited by Robyn Davidson). So after its dalliance with the European philosophical tradition (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Rousseau all getting a look-in), and then to its religious appropriation in the form of the pilgrimage, walking eventually falls into disrepute, becoming a necessity of the lower classes, one of rogues and vagrants. This is an attitude supported by law, notably the Vagrancy Act of 1824, and its uniformed enforcers as "ever since the Peasants Revolt of 1381, and the subsequent statute of 1383, foot travellers, both urban and rural, who have been unable to provide evidence of their means of support, have been liable to arrest and imprisonment". And so, going against the then-socially accepted forms of locomotion, these figures ventured out onto the anywhere road, their reasons varied but perhaps eloquently summed up by John Muir when he wrote: "I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in." Coverley's approach, though oftentimes academic in style, is nevertheless an enlightening one. Covering an astounding amount of material, both well-known and cult writers feature with equal prominence; from Baudelaire, Blake, Whitman and Rimbaud, to the lesser-known Papadimitriou and Walser. And there is, refreshingly, little scepticism in his writing, no mention of the questioning of their lengthy feats for they were, on the most part, masters of fiction, or literary visionaries. That their feats of walking may perhaps be prone to exaggeration is only discussed briefly with Virginia Wolf. There is also Werner Herzog, for example, who, walking from Munich to Paris, where his dying friend and film critic, Lotte Eisner, lay in hospital, documented the journey in his dreamlike Of Walking in Ice, on a pilgrimage that he thought would prolong Eisner's life. Yet, when questioned about Herzog's trek, Ms. Eisner reputedly said, "Nonsense. I met him off the train." The possibility of exaggeration while reading of the 20-mile-a-day habits of Wordsworth or Dickens, is compounded by the epic imaginary feats of walking of the imprisoned Nazi architect, Albert Speer, who, to keep his sanity, mapped and recorded 31,816 kilometres of circuits around the prison yard, fictitious pilgrimages traced all over the world, spending 12 of his 20 year sentence on foot, thus creating an odd literary hybrid, which poses interesting questions as to the nature of fiction within the walking canon: "Arrived in Peking today. As I came to the Imperial Palace, some kind of demonstration was taking place in the great square outside it. Two, three, four hundred thousand people - who can say how many? In that constantly surging crowd I quickly lost all sense of direction; the uniformity of the people also frightened me. I left the city as quickly as I could." Yet not all subjects of this history are as successful as these. The slowest sections, appropriately, are those on "The Imaginary Walker", undertaken on the most part by Xavier de Maistre, when under house arrest, eventually writing A Journey Around my Room and later A Nocturnal Expedition around my Room. Although they are perhaps pertinent to a 'History of...' these passages almost turn the reader against the writer-walker figure, sections which reveal his ugliest, most unbearably theoretical side. Perhaps interesting as an idea in theory, in practice, it is an arduous journey having to read the thing, and it utterly kills the fun of the stroll. This psychological focus seems a necessity, though, as the main thrust of Coverley's book contends that walking has evolved, in the past fifty years, to one of political significance; a way of challenging the capitalist power grid, a way of reclaiming the streets, reclaiming space that has been so shaped and manipulated by oppressive institutions that lineate work and shopping, with little designated outside these spheres. It is in these chapters that the writer-walker becomes most sympathetic in their desire to break free of the beaten path orthodoxy of urban topography, lines and routes seared into our everyday experience with little deviation from the same repeated commute. These inklings first begin with the surrealists, Breton and Aragon, and are then developed by the proponents of psychogeography in the 1960s, a movement so inebriated with its own cultural and political significance, that it has become what some view as a curious pastime of suspicious characters, as a quote from Geoff Nicholson reads: "a way for clever young men to mooch around cities doing nothing much, claiming that they're [...] doing something really, you know, significant, and often taking Iain Sinclair as their role model." Employing all manner of labels for the walk: the derivé, the stroll, and the saunter, and also its proponent: from flâneur to perambulator to stalker to fugueur, the walker attempts constantly to define himself as much as the walk itself. Despite this frequently nauseating theorising, Coverley does a good job in inspiring some actual movement in the reader, be it imaginary or otherwise, as a means of reconnecting with our surroundings, as a response to an increasingly high-rise-minded society; the view from the street is always better, we are reminded, the pace of the walk more inducing of lucid thought. There is still of course this undercurrent of pettiness, common to all 'movements', where mere classification of the word or its significance has become the subject of secret petty squabbles and literary lambasting. The Iain Sinclairs, Stewart Homes and Will Selfs all disputing the true heritage of a single word. It's perhaps an unfortunate note to end a history of such a seemingly admirable, perhaps even noble, custom. But Coverley recovers by praising an unsung hero of the writer-walker, the "deep topographer" Nick Papadimitriou, writer of Scarp and subject of the documentary The London Perambulator who neatly sums up "deep topography": "It's about getting a very, very dangerous balance between finding the overlooked, and showing it to the other people who have an eye for the overlooked and not making the overlooked into something that is gazed at [...] like people looking through the bars of a monkey house while some baboon plays with his penis or picks his arse." There is a special place for Papadimitriou in this book, as well as Sinclair. The way they have written about walking has changed not only the activity itself, but the perceptions and possibilities of the places visited, and if you have an eye for the overlooked, Coverley's and for that matter Papadimitriou's and Sinclair's books, are worth a read.
Huffington Post UK
'A brisk history of why and in what ways writers have walked'
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David Sexton - Evening Standard
Going for a walk might seem a simple matter. Merlin Coverly, though, who has previously written a primer on “Psychogeography” and a guide to Occult London, uncovers its multiple significations in this brisk history of why and in what ways writers have walked. Although organised thematically — the walker as philosopher, as pilgrim, as vagrant, as visionary, as flaneur, etc — it also progresses chronologically, ending up with London’s arcane and trendy psychogeographers or “deep topographers”, Iain Sinclair and Will Self. En route, there are useful short sections on the walking practices and theories of the likes of Hazlitt, Wordsworth, John Clare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Machen, Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. It has not always seemed so arcane to put one foot in front of the other.
'Path to enlightenment: how walking inspires writers'
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Billy Mills - The Guardian
Beside the pier at Rosroe, at the end of the road, by the mouth of Killary Harbour, on the fringe of Connemara, there's a quite ordinary looking house. The last time I saw it there was a sign on the door saying it was no longer a youth hostel, a function it had served admirably well when I first saw it 40 years ago this summer having walked the breadth of Connemara to get there. Before becoming a hostel, the house was home to the poet Richard Murphy, and before that again, to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who ended up staying there, as he said himself, because he "could only think clearly in the dark" and in Rosroe had "found the last pool of darkness in Europe". The nearby replacement hostel will serve as the starting point for the forthcoming 16th annual Connemara marathon walk, which will cover much the same route as I took all those years ago. I've been thinking about that house a lot over the last while, thanks to a serendipitous conjunction of events. The first of these was the completion of the latest round of work on a collaboration with the composer David Bremner for this year's Béal festival, in Dublin, a choral work called Loop Walks, sections of which are intended to evoke more recent strolls in Connemara. The second was reading Murphy's 2002 memoir, The Kick, and the third was the arrival in the post of a copy of Merlin Coverley's The Art of Wandering, within days of finishing the first two. Appropriately enough, having been addressed not to the house where I now live but to one where I lived 10 years ago, the book found its way to me courtesy of that professional wanderer, our local postman. Coverley's interesting thesis is, essentially, that walking and writing are one activity. To illustrate this, after a short discussion of pilgrim writers, he looks at a diverse range of walker-writers stretching from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to his fellow modern-day psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, via John Clare, William Blake, the English and American romantic poets, Parisian flâneurs, Rudolf Hess and the situationist international to support it. His walker/writers are what might be called romantic individualists. For a Rousseau or a William Wordsworth, the act of walking through the world was not primarily about the world itself; they were much more concerned with walking into their inner worlds. From the day Rousseau turned his back on his native city, these peripatetic writer-thinkers were bent on walking into a kind of alienated individuality. Coverley's walkers are professional outsiders; visionaries and dreamers on the road. Connemara, on the other hand, seems to have produced wandering writers of a different ilk. Wittgenstein, who was known to stop mid-walk on the paths around Killary to draw his symbols in the mud with his walking stick, was on a long walk away from the abstract inhumanity of the Tractatus and towards the logic of everyday speech that characterises his posthumous Philosophical Investigations. Murphy's walks around Rosroe, and his longer term home in Cleggan, were more likely to involve visits to the shops or his neighbours than any mystical end. As Cleggan is a port, and as not even poets have mastered the art of walking on water, he did the next best thing and sailed. In fact, he did more than anyone else to rescue the traditional Galway hooker, and used his boats to draw visitors and their money to an economically deprived area; his wanderings were integrative, concerned with community, and practical. In their concern for the ordinary and for the community through which they moved, philosopher and poet were following in the footsteps of an earlier English-language writer who wandered around the area with good purpose. In the summer of 1905, JM Synge travelled through Connemara in the company of the artist Jack Yeats, by carriage, on foot and by hooker. They were there on a commission from the Manchester Guardian that resulted in a series of 12 articles for the paper and a 1911 book with illustrations by Yeats. But Synge and Yeats were not in pursuit of the picturesque to entertain the Guardian readership. Synge was wandering the west to portray the depths of poverty that was helping to destroy the community, and the paper used his descriptions as part of a fundraising campaign aimed at alleviating it. A pattern of wandering through Connemara as an integrative act, aimed at looking clearly at this small communal world as it is, was established. Synge's true heir is, unquestionably, Tim Robinson, cartographer and peripatetic chronicler of Connemara and its offshore outpost, the Aran Islands. At the beginning of his five-volume journey through these landscapes, Robinson states as the fundamental unit of his rhythm the concept of the "good step", a more gentle placing of the foot on an actual place, sensitive to all the ecologies, both human and natural, temporal and spatial, that the act of walking integrates us into. Synge, Murphy and Wittgenstein (the second volume of the Connemara trilogy is called Last Pool of Darkness) are all present in Robinson's periplum, along with a number of other writers, both in English and Irish, associated with the area; language being one of the ecologies he is concerned to recover. I'd imagine that most of the participants in the walk will have learned much of what they know about the route from Robinson's books and many will be carrying his map for handy reference. Perhaps it is the boggy, stony, watery unpredictable nature of its ground that makes Connemara more suitable for wandering writers with sharp sight than those in search of a vision, or maybe it's the small compass that circumscribes the activities of its walkers. Whatever the reason, it seems to me that they are different, complementary to, the more shamanic figures that people Coverley's pages. One group of wandering writers walks to discover a higher end, the other to attend to the path; as readers, as humans, it seems to me we are fortunate to possess both kinds.
'This is a real eye opener of a book and one I would recommend to anyone'
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Harri Roberts - Outdoor Focus Magazine
Why do we write? To pay bills certainly, and perhaps to get a return on our favourite hobbies, but is there a more fundamental connection between that most quintessential of outdoor activities, walking, and literary creativity?
Merlin Coverley's The Art of Wandering (2012) is an attempt to answer this question, tracing the history of 'the writer as walker' from the peripatetic philosophers of Ancient Greece to the school of contemporary London-based 'psychogeographers' inspired by the walks and writings of Iain Sinclair.
The thematic approach adopted by Coverley (chapter headings include 'The Walker as Pilgrim'; 'The Walker as Visionary'; and 'The Walker and the Natural World' reflects the diversity of cultural meanings which have been ascribed to walking. To the medieval pilgrim, for example, walking was a penance, an act of suffering signifying the walker's repentance and religious devotion. For the Romantics, however, walking was a means of accessing the picturesque and sublime in a world of increasing industrialisation and urban growth. Later walkers, such as Arthur Machen and the Parisian flaneurs, as well as today's psychogeographers, took to exploring this new urban environment on foot, full of wonder and sometimes terror at its endless, crowded variety.
What links these disparate groups of walkers is a sense of deep affinity between writing and walking, of 'the ways in which the act of walking provokes and engenders the act of writing' (13-14). Sometimes the two can appear almost complementary, and Coverley cites as examples the meandering, digressive essays of William Hazlitt and David Thoreau, which replicate structurally the long, circuitous walks of their respective authors. Other writers, such as Jacques Rousseau, discovered in walking a stimulus to thought, while Arthur Machen saw in his own pedestrian explorations of London a symbol of artistic endeavour itself ('an adventure into the unknown'). Contemporary author Will Self likewise sees walking and writing as coterminous occupations, both characterised by a sense of profound solipsism and 'chronic, elective loneliness' (215).
Of course, not all writers are walkers. Ian Sinclair distinguishes between 'peds' and 'pods', the latter being writers 'who sit in a room and just draw the world to them in whatever ways they want to' (207). Equally, the committed walker may find the necessity of writing about his experiences to be a dull chore. The American naturalist John Muir, for instance, who walked twenty-five miles a day from his home in Wisconsin to the Florida Keys, before setting off west to California, once complained that, 'This business of writing books is a long, tiresome, endless job' (124).
It seems unlikely that Muir would have coped with life in prison as well as the former Nazi, Albert Speer. Sentenced to twenty years imprisonment at the Nuremberg Trials of 1946, Speer became an obsessive walker, measuring out a circuit of 270 metres around the prison garden. During the final twelve years of his sentence, Speer set off on an imaginary journey around the globe, using the distances covered in the prison garden - which eventually reached a figure of 31,816 kilometres - to plot a detailed route across Europe and Asia to the Bering Strait, and eventually down through North America as far as Mexico. His 'trip', which was meticulously recorded in his diaries and later published following his release, is rightly described by Coverley as 'both an extraordinary act of will and a monumental imaginative feat' (73).
The Art of Wandering is full of similarly fascinating tales, from Charles Dickens's addictive acts of self-propulsion to the eccentric meanderings of Robert Walser, a Swiss writer whose story 'The Walk' amounts to a walker's manifesto: 'A life of observant idling, city strolling, mountain hikes, and woodland walks, a life lived on the edges of lakes, on the margins of meadows, on the verges of things, a life in slow but constant motion, at a gawker's pace' (166).
If I had one criticism it would be that The Art of Wandering at times attempts to cover too much too quickly, leaving the reader sometimes craving more detail. Nevertheless, this is a real eyeopener of a book and one I would recommend to anyone looking for a good introductory study of 'pedestrian literature'.
Outdoor Focus Magazine
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