Iain Sinclair and Will Self on Walking London

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Panorama of London by Claes Van Visscher, 1616

I’ve got a new eternal certainty to file alongside death and taxes: if you walk around London enough, and you know what he looks like, you will eventually see Will Self. My friend Hannah noticed him outside a Chinese restaurant near Charing Cross. My buddy Ben saw him on the road between St. Pancras and Euston. I’ve bumped into him on a stroll through Hampstead Heath. One day, it will happen to you too.

This is because he loves walking. He really loves walking. In fact, he and Ian Sinclair are key figures in the modern incarnation of psychogeography; a field that involves drifting around urban areas with a sense of freedom and philosophical inspection. Whilst it’s Parisian mid-century beginnings imbued it with a radical leftist political edge, it’s now become something more playful and therapeutic whilst maintaining its philosophical bent – i.e., it’s still about people reclaiming the streets, it’s just that the meaning of that phrase has changed.

In the tranquil grandeur of the Victoria and Albert Hall’s Lydia and Manfred Gorvy lecture theatre, Will Self and Iain Sinclair – both notable writers of the art of walking – took a break from their endless perambulations around London to talk about what going from place to place on one’s own feet means to them. The great relief of the evening was that, despite the subject’s arcane academic roots and Will Self’s tendency to announce things like “this whole imbroglio is epiphenomenal” on Question Time, the talk was both accessible and fun.

The crucial argument of both Self and Sinclair is that you never really know a place unless you’ve walked around it. It’s how you change London from abstract spaces around tube stops into a vibrant living city – Self explained how you come to feel the physical geography of London as hills leading up from a valley river that lie beneath so many buildings and roads. You communicate with London’s character: he expressed his (surprisingly optimistic) belief that the current trend for landscape distorting skyscrapers and oligarch-funded planning is no match for London’s ‘anarchic, hallucinatory personality’ – when you walk around it enough, you realise that what’s innately ‘London’ is also eternally ‘London’. He was more pessimistic about technology; he’s upset by the sights of people walking the streets with one eye on Google maps on their phone, their minds full of social media rather than architecture and living history. “They’re only half here, and half present on some virtual plane”. People are losing the ability to get truly, beautifully lost.

Urban walking has a surprisingly serious side. Self spoke about how it helped to occupy him after he gave up drugs, and how teaching the subject to recent immigrants to Britain had helped them become more connected with a land they felt alienated from. Walking really aids the mind in so many ways: it’s not for nothing that Nietzsche said “I never trust an idea that didn’t come to me on a walk.”

Self and Sinclair are persuasive champions of the cause, and it was a fascinating, eye-opening discussion. I’d never realised how much walking did for you, and how much there was to think about it. Incidentally, I’d walked to this lecture to get into the spirit of it; a two-and-a-half hour stroll from Hendon station down the Edgware Road. I can authoritively tell you that it does feel really good, and is both far more interesting and less tiring than you might imagine. I really recommend leaving the oyster card at home next time you have to transverse the city. For a talk about an obtuse academic, philosophical field this was hardly abstract, purely theoretical subject matter: it’s something you can really feel – if you choose to get on your feet.

By Rory McCarthy

The V&A are currently doing a series of evening events that you can find out about here.