Dear Readers, maybe it’s because I’m just about to retire (did I mention that I’m retiring?) but I found this book irresistible. On the face of it, it’s a history of women walking in the city, intertwined with Elkin’s own memories of Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London at various points in her life, and that might be intriguing enough – amongst the cast are Martha Gellhorn, Georges Sand, Virginia Woolf, Sophie Calle and Jean Rhys. But for me, so much of what she says echoes my own experiences of walking, and observing, and noticing. She begins by describing her feelings on being young and living in Paris for the first time.
“Every turn I made was a reminder that the day was mine and I didn’t have to be anywhere I didn’t want to be. I had an astonishing immunity to responsibility, because I had no ambitions at all beyond doing only that which I found interesting”.
And what a wonderful feeling that is! I remember wandering in various cities but most particularly London, not worrying about getting lost, antennae twitching (well I am Bug Woman) for the next interesting sight. Since I’ve been doing the blog, every front garden or patch of ‘weeds’ has become a source of fascination. Even walking around the block can bring forth wonders.
On we go.
“Walking is mapping with your feet. It helps you piece a city together, connecting up neighbourhoods that might otherwise have remained discrete entities, different planets bound to each other, sustained yet remote. I like seeing how in fact they blend into one another, I like noticing the boundaries between them. Walking helps me feel at home.”
And if you wander in a city for any length of time, and if you keep your eyes open, you can’t help but notice that not everyone is lucky. Elkin notes that she sees things in Paris that she’s never seen in New York (though I think you would see sights like this in New York for sure now), and the same is true of London, right now.
“Beggars (Roma I was told) who knelt rigidly in the street, heads bowed, holding signs asking for money, some with children, some with dogs: homeless people living in tents, under stairways, under arches. Every quaint Parisian nook had its corresponding misery. I turned off my New York apathy and gave what I could. Learning to see meant not being able to look away: to walk the streets of Paris was to walk the thin line of fate that divided us from each other”.
I love that last sentence. Do you ever read something, and think that if the author never wrote another word, that would be enough?
Fortunately Elkin carries on. She describes leaving the city of New York to move to suburban Long Island. Suffice it to say that she finds it problematic, and, in the era where we’re coming to realise that separating the places where we live, work, shop and spend our leisure time, her comments (the book was written in 2017) seem particularly apposite. Here she is on the history of suburbia:
“It is a story about breaking away from the collective in all its variety to dwell amongst similar people.
If suburbanites are buffered from encounters with the strange and different by their cars and their single-family houses, this is in part a result of zoning laws which divide towns up into single-use enclaves. Residential, commercial and industrial areas are kept strictly apart, which demands that you drive everywhere as your orbit between work, home, shopping and leisure becomes ever wider. Originally bedroom communities clustered around railway stations with easy access to the cities on which they depended, the suburbs in time became autonomous, spreading away from their city centres. This was mainly the fault of the automobile, which became the pre-eminent way of getting around in the second half of the twentieth century, causing an intricate system of motorways to loop and lace through the landscape, connecting each town to all the others, blurring them into a sprawling mass of units with no easy means of getting from one to the other on foot”.
And while Elkin is writing about America, it’s true to say that many areas in the UK are similarly homogenous and difficult to live in if you don’t have a car.
And she wonders what this means for women:
“I became suspicious of an entirely vehicle-based culture: a culture that does not walk is bad for women. It makes a kind of authoritarian sense: a woman who doesn’t wonder – what it all adds up to, what her needs are, if they’re being met – won’t wander off from the family”.
And it makes me think of all the ways in which walking alone as a woman is viewed as a dangerous occupation (and sometimes can be actually dangerous) – I think of the tales of Charles Dickens or Handel prowling the streets of London while composing a book or indeed the whole of The Messiah, while the only women out and about would have been the unhoused or those who needed to be out to make a living. Yet Elkin gives us some fine examples of women who did it anyway. Their stories are different, but each one is fascinating; Georges Sand observing the Parisian upheavals of the 19th Century, Sophie Calle following strangers through the streets of Venice, or my personal favourite, Martha Gellhorn in Madrid, observing the Spanish Civil War which was going on just down the street from where she was living. When we talk about ‘the flâneur’ we picture a man, probably a dandy, probably with a walking stick and a book in his pocket, possibly with a monocle (or maybe that’s my fantasy). We see him sitting in a café, probably in Paris, leading forth or scribbling in a notebook. But all the time there were women walking, and noticing, and exploring the city.
There is so much of interest in this book. I can’t wait to strap on my walking boots and get out there, to remind myself of why I love London so much. I can’t do better than finish with Elkin’s statement about walking in the city. You might almost call it a manifesto.
“Let me walk. Let me go at my own pace. Let me feel life as it moves through me and around me. Give me drama. Give me unexpected curvilinear corners. Give me unsettling churches and beautiful storefronts and parks I can lie down in.
The city turns you on, gets you going, moving, thinking, wanting, engaging. The city is life itself.”