Women who wander

For International Women’s Day, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the flâneuse. She’s a woman who wanders city streets dawdling, observing and thinking. Not a streetwalker in the sex-worker sense. The term comes from the French male equivalent flâneur, once used to describe famous writers and painters who strolled the streets of Paris. I recently read Lauren Elkin’s highly engaging Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. Straightaway, Elkin points out that a flâneuse is not merely a female flâneur, ‘but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own. She voyages out, and goes where she’s not supposed to.’

I’ve long been a flâneuse myself, walking alone the streets of towns and cities I’ve lived in and visited. Part of this is for the love of walking, but also out of curiosity and for the stimulation of city life – the architecture, the buses and trains, the workers, shoppers, runners and tourists, the aromas from cafes and restaurants and those cherished green spaces of public parks and squares. I was reminded of my walking excursions in old European cities with this passage, where Elkin describes her flânerie in Paris:

‘I am always looking for ghosts on the boulevards. So many people have passed through Paris; did they leave any residue? Some parts of town seem still to be inhabited by older souls who won’t leave – up towards the Portes Saint-Denis and Saint-Martin I think I can feel them, crowds of people in bowler hats and long skirts, I can sense them pressing past me along with the people I recognise from my own time, bare-headed and in short skirts.’

As you can see, some of this book is memoir and travelogue about her own experiences, but equally interesting, it’s also biography and literary criticism. Elkin delves into the lives and writings of famous flâneuses, including Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Martha Gellhorn and George Sand (who dressed as a man to freely walk the streets). One of the flâneuses not mentioned that I would have included is Phyllis Pearsall (1906-1996), who created the A-to-Z maps of London. In producing the first edition of the detailed maps, she walked for 18 hours each day traversing over 23,000 roads covering more than 3,000 miles.

As I reflect on these courageous and somewhat quirky women, I’m aware that they have had the fortune of being for the most part middle class and living in the West, with some freedoms not afforded to poorer women or to women even today, rich or poor, living in some other parts of the world. I am also aware in our present day that these women, these lucky flâneuses, were wandering through cities not under siege – another stark reminder of what people lose at times of war.

Novelist Jean Rhys

Writing in the New Year

I’ve kept journals for years but sporadically, going through stretches of daily journal writing when I lived overseas to once every couple of weeks when I was in the throes of a writing assignment, squeezing in the odd journal entry to capture an idea before it flew away. For this New Year, I thought I’d try something different by vowing to write in my journal every day for the whole of 2021.

While I write nearly every day anyhow, this is a different type of writing. When I was in South Korea and Oman writing in a journal every day was easy as there was plenty to write about – different cultures, languages, new people and problems with being a foreigner. A daily journal at this stage in my life – when so many things seem pointless – is both a challenge and (my reason for doing this) a much-needed form of therapy, woven into a writing exercise. I’m following the advice of the master diarist Virginia Woolf, who once said, ‘the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.’

Ultimately, this is about writing. It brings to mind too the words of Joan Didion, writing some years ago for London Magazine on why she writes. She describes the moment when she realised that she was a writer:

‘By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper…. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.’

The challenge lies in the practice of doing this every single day. I do have other daily routines that require some discipline – I meditate, exercise and do something in French and/or Italian every day without thinking about it, and more importantly, I feel a sense of being out-of-sorts until I have done these things. I’ve been doing this typing version of scribbling in this daily journal for seven days now. So far, so good, but I am still at a point of having to remind myself to do it.

I don’t know what all of this journal writing will bring. It could lead me in the direction of Virginia Woolf, who like me was an erratic, undisciplined journal writer until she turned 33 (okay, younger than me now), when she took up journaling and continued until four days before her death.

I’ll close with a sample, proof that I’m really doing this. In future, I won’t be directly sharing these journal entries with you, dear reader, as that would take away their magic powers.

7 January 2021

Trump supporters have finally had the day that they have lived for – armed and angry, they’ve stormed the capitol and attempted a coup on the US government. They were talking this way long before Trump came on the scene. Now, they’re headlining the news and might even make it into the history books. As remarkable and unbelievable as this all seems, it was predictable, the stuff of dinnertime conversations with friends over the past four years. Shock and expectation entangled – the mind is more complicated than we give it credit for.

Best wishes for the New Year. Keep reading, keep writing.