Walking with women walkers

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Eleanora Sears

Two books have recently come across the transom, one relatively new, one comparatively old. The first is Lauren Elkins Flneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (2016) and The Wonderful World of Walking by Bill Gale (1979).

I belatedly bought myself a copy of Elkins Flneuse since its become obvious that nobody is going to send me a freebie despite my appearance in the bibliography. No room in there for Iain Sinclair though ha! (You realize thats an ironic ha! right?)

Id been reading the reviews of Flneuse - and its not that I trust reviewers whether theyre praising or condemning a book - but there was something a bit off about many of them. They were incredibly supportive. They indicated that the book was a good thing but very few of them really showed actual enthusiasm or affection for the book. Well researched and larded with examples, said Philippa Stockley in the Evening Standard. Diane Johnsons review in the New York Times seemed especially dutiful, If Elkins capsule biographies can occasionally seem a bit potted, they are never uninteresting.

For my own part I wanted the book to be good I like walking, I like women, I like women who walk, and I want women to be able to walk wherever they want without being abused or threatened, and all the rest. Hell, some of my best friends are flneuses. And yet I had my doubts. These doubts were not entirely assuaged by reading the book.

For one thing, theres a chunk about Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury. I can see why there has to be, but the truth is that I dont love Virginia Woolf, men dont, they just dont. I think its mostly because her male characters always seem so feeble and awful. Wouldnt you throw yourself out of a window rather than be in the same room as Mr. Ramsey of To The Lighthouse fame. And as for Augustus Carmichael, the visiting poet

And I know people make claims for Mrs. Dalloway as a great psychogeographic novel, but am I right to be doubtful about this when John Sutherland has made a pretty convincing case that Mrs. Dalloway actually completes her London drift in a taxi?

Flneuse also contains a chunk about Sophie Calle who I think is a pretentious phoney, especially that nonsense in Suite Vnitienne of her following a man all the way to Venice, while being followed by a photographer: but I know other views are possible. These are not souvenir snapshots of a presence, but rather shots of an absence, the absence of the followed, that of the follower, and that of their reciprocal absence, says Jean Baudrillard, not wishing to be outdone in the pretentious phoney stakes.

This can be blamed on Lauren Elkin of course, but were all on much safer ground with Martha Gellhorn, especially the articles she wrote for Colliers magazine about the civil war in Spain. No matter how often you do it, it is surprising just to walk to war from your own bedroom where you have been reading a detective story or a life of Byron, or listening to the phonograph, or chatting with friends.

I also very much liked Elkins description of living in Tokyo, where she didnt have the very best time. What bothered me most was the certainty I felt that there was a great city out there full of places I wanted to discover, but I didnt know where to look for them. I didnt know what there was out there. I didnt know where to go, where to walk. Its a feeling many of us have had, in places much less alien than Tokyo.

I wish somebody had recommended to Elkin Flesh and The Mirror a short story by Angela Carter set in Tokyo, "I was crying bitterly as I walked under the artificial cherry blossoms with which they decorate the lamp standards from April to September. They do that so the pleasure quarters will have the look of a continuous carnival, no matter what ripples of agitation disturb the never-ceasing, endlessly circulating, quiet, gentle, melancholy crowds who throng the wet web of alleys under a false ceiling of umbrellas. Im not saying this would have cheered Elkin up much, but its a good story.

I assume, on no absolute basis, that Angela Carter was quite the flaneuse when she was in Tokyo, and also in London, and indeed in Sheffield.

The Wonderful World of Walking is (lets say) a text of its time. A chapter titled Walking and Todays Woman runs to all of two pages. But the book does contain accounts of a few walking women, none of them exactly household names, and some completely new to me.

Minta Beach walked from New York to Chicago in 1912. Minnie Hill Wood walked from Washington to San Francisco in 1916. Eleanora Sears, an all round sportswoman, set a speed hiking record in 1925, walking the 74 miles between Newport, Rhode Island and Boston in 17 hours. I imagine none of these women considered herself a flneuse, and they surely didnt consider themselves artists, although Minta Beach did publish a book about her walk.

I did have vague memories of a later walker that Gale writes about: Dr. Barbara Moore. I just about remember seeing her from time to time on TV when I was growing up in England. She did a number of long walks, the one I remember best was from Lands End to John OGroats 1200 miles in 23 days, I know now, so thats over 50 miles per day. I discover that was in 1960, so no wonder my memories are vague, and apparently that same year she walked from San Francisco to New York, 3,387-mile according to Gale, so a fairly indirect route, and in 86-days, so a fraction under 40 miles a day which seems barely imaginable.

Still there was much I didnt know about her. For one thing, although she was British by marriage, she was born in Russia in 1903, migrated to England in 1939, and had a career as an engineer. So shed have been in her mid to late 50s when she was doing the walks that made her famous.

I also didnt know that she was a nutritional crank, a vegetarian, but sometimes also a breatharian, believing people could survive without food altogether. According to Bill Gale, A large glass of grass juice was her favorite six course meal in one. In various interviews she said that people could live to be 150 or 200 years old, and claimed to have cured herself of leukemia, using a special diet.

What I absolutely didn't know, and which Gale doesn't mention, is that she spent the last years of her life fighting legal property battles over the lab she was planning to build next to her house in Frimley, in Surrey, and she was eventually jailed for contempt of court. She died in a St Giles Hospital, London in 1977, somewhat earlier than she had anticipated.

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Walking with women walkers

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