A flâneur in the works

Thursday 8 April 2010

Charles Baudelaire is generally considered to have developed the meaning of flâneur as “a person who walks the city in order to experience it”. It comes from the French verb flâner, which means ‘to stroll’. But you all knew that didn’t you? The word also comes with additional meanings like: ‘saunterer’, ‘loafer’, ‘lounger’ and ‘slacker’. As well as Baudelaire, famous flâneurs have included, Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Melvyn Bragg, Iain Sinclair, Lisa Jardine, Phyllis Pearsall and walk magazine’s very own, Will Self. (Does that mean the women on the list are a flâneuse?) From his Marxist standpoint Walter Benjamin adopted the concept of the urban observer both as an analytical tool and as a lifestyle. A sideways look at walking anyone?

Waking up Thursday morning it was like winter had finally packed its bags and buggered off. We’ve had a couple of false starts this year but today felt like the real thing. A perfect day to do some sauntering around observing the city – flâneur as lifestyle, I should say so. Leaving my cat sunning herself outdoors I headed off to Maida Vale. Not perhaps the most obvious start point but I’m trying to stitch together a rock ‘n’ roll walk around London and Abbey Road studios to Soho is quite a nice 6 to 7k walk. As ever these days the world’s most famous zebra crossing (probably) was packed with Japanese tourists imitating the Beatles walk. As tourist attractions go the studios are pretty good – rather unprepossessing buildings in a non-descript urban street.

Keeping my eyes on the tree tops I carried on towards Regents Park. You’re really close to Lords here and these days your first view is of the floodlights recently erected for the day-night games that are now a regular part of the modern cricket calendar. They’ve being playing cricket round here since 1787 and adopting new initiatives throughout that time. The present site is about 250m northwest of one of Thomas Lord’s original grounds. This was abandoned in 1813 to make way for the construction of the Regent’s Canal which went through its outfield. And it’s a short journey down this very canal that I do next. The canal was built to link the Grand Union with the London Docks and from this route you quickly find yourself in The Regent’s Park. In the Middle Ages the land was part of the manor of Tyburn, the property of Barking Abbey. Henry VIII appropriated it in his blatant land grab otherwise known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. When the leases expired in 1811 the Prince Regent (later King George IV) commissioned architect John Nash to create a masterplan for the area. Nash originally envisaged a palace for the Prince and a number of grand detached villas for his friends, but when this was put into action from 1818 onwards, the palace and most of the villas were dropped. Nash still transfigured the area though because the south, east and most of the west side of the park are lined with his oh so elegant white stucco terraces. And I must say the various royals have kept it very nice for us – it’s even got a heronry as well as a zoo.


Leaving the park I set off for Heddon Street. I parallel Regents Street (well you can have too many regents in one day if you ask me) and end up in Savile Row. I love the way some areas of cities become associated with specific trades – like doctors in Harley Street and tailors in Savile Row. By all accounts the phrase ‘bespoke tailoring’ originated here from saying that cloth ‘be spoken for’. (When I visited Istanbul a few years ago I came across a street completely populated by shops selling bridal wear. Now that was a riot of colour.) I had to take a quick trip up Regents Street to get to Heddon Street. Perhaps not hugely influential in rock ‘n’ roll but the back of the Ziggy Stardust album from the 70’s contains a picture of Bowie in Ziggy persona in a phone box (remember them?) and this phone box is in Heddon Court. Aah the devil really is in the detail folks.

I finished my walk crossing Waterloo Bridge on the way to Waterloo Station. This provides one of my favourite London views – down river towards Tower Bridge. I’ve read that the poet Wordsworth was said to have preferred Westminster Bridge:

Earth has not any thing to show more fair” (from Upon Westminster Bridge)  

And you thought he only wrote about daffodils and the Lake District. Well that’s poets for ya – what do they know.


Listen to:

Nemo – The Sun Has Got His Hat On

Belle & Sebastian – Here Comes The Sun – Live

The Flying Pickets – Summer In The City

Woodpigeon – A Hymn For 2 Walks In Different Cities

Kanye West – Jesus Walks – Live – Abbey Road Studios

The Duckworth Lewis Method – Gentlemen and Players

David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust (Demo)

The Kinks – Waterloo Sunset

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