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The Walker. On Finding And Losing Yourself In The Modern City

Matthew Beaumont

Published By Verso Books

Reviewed By Roxane McMeeken, ING Media

In this collection of essays Matthew Beaumont explores the politics and poetry of walking in cities. Each chapter examines a canonical author’s writings about lone walks through a city, including Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop and Virginia Wolfe’s Mrs Dalloway. Through these analyses Beaumont weaves a fascinating discussion about the relationship between the metropolis and the pedestrian. The result is an absorbing investigation of the experience of modern urban life. While written just before the pandemic, The Walker is now especially poignant.

The way you walk in the city is a product of socio-economic factors, Beaumont argues. Idle wandering is for Charles Baudelaire’s privileged and idle flaneur, while those who work must pace briskly between home and the office, like T S Eliot’s London Bridge automatons. And what should we conclude about a society where night walking in the city is safe only for white men?

The psychology of the solitary city walk is explored too. Walking the streets can inspire and energise you, or alienate and exclude. It can provide self-discovery or escape. For Peter Walsh in Mrs Dalloway, walking through London is a journey through mental states ranging from anonymity to exhilaration and then predatoriness.

As wide-ranging as The Walker is, it focuses on London and Paris, and more disappointingly, it is white male biased, with each chapter devoted to a white writer, of which only one is female. There must be another book’s worth of analysis to write about the urban walking experiences and meanings of women and minority communities.

With that caveat, The Walker provokes lots of worthwhile thoughts and can be read at the moment as a guidebook for returning to city centres as we emerge from lockdown.

Watch Matthew Beaumont discussing The Walker at a recent ING Bookclub session.