Last week, in my post on walking, I mentioned the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, in which the figure of the flâneur emerged. I first heard Baudelaire’s stuff as a youth, in translation, in this extraordinary recording made in 1968. It was good to hear it again, and I thought it worth sharing.
With an apparently innate antipathy to the internal combustion engine, I’ve always been a keen perambulator. I was born and brought up in Stourbridge, that strange interface between the industrial Black Country and the Worcestershire and Shropshire countryside. My beloved Grandfather was a great walker. In my late teens I journeyed to Birmingham to catch a gig and, not wanting to leave early to catch a last bus or train, and lacking any alternative, walked the twelve miles or so back home. I related this to my Grandfather, and it reminded him of the time he had some unexpected army leave, and had to walk a similar distance back home, only to find his wife saying “What are YOU doing here?”
Living on the edge of the town, we weren’t far from a small mature woodland, Norton Covert, once a working sand pit accessing the ice-age sand deposits in the area. The main access point to the Covert was on the junction of Sandy Road and the Sandy Lane bridleway. All this made for fine walking, and a valuable asset in my early years.
Anyone who’s engaged in country walks may have their own primal, formative experience of this. For me, walking brings up memories of those sandy lanes next to mature woodland, long straight roads leading to a topographically diverse Covert with great views of itself; an opportunity to observe nature. My first close encounter with a fox was in Norton Covert: a moment between us where the fox, which had been rummaging in a pile of leaves, and I locked eyes for a moment before the fox remembered itself and scarpered. I remember some of my primary animistic experiences there, as well as observing how wildlife uses the canopy as a transport network, and observing the signs of human impact on the woods.
A walk, to me, is to embark on a journey of unpredictable possibilities. The word walk traces its history back to the Indo-European *walg- (“to twist, turn, move”), via the Old English wealcian (“to curl, roll up”), to the Middle English walken (“to move, roll, turn, revolve, toss”). I like this element of unpredictability in the word. As has been noted by such luminaries as Will Self, walking is political; the twisty-turny connotations of the verb ‘to walk’ leave the route to the destination – or even the idea of a destination at all – unwritten. The word is intimately bound up with political tensions around land, access rights, and liberty. Wikipedia contributors assert that:
freedom to roam takes the form of general public rights which are sometimes codified in law. The access is ancient in parts of Northern Europe and has been regarded as sufficiently basic that it was not formalised in law until modern times.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_to_roam
I’m curious as to the truth of this assertion. These islands historically are known for pioneering the practice of enclosure, erasing common land. This practice proved controversial in law and in letters, being criticised from Sir Thomas More to George Orwell. Tudor politicians were concerned about the effects of land enclosure on the well-being of the people and on the economy, and the people themselves also made their views known in a series of revolts, riots and rebellions.
Kinder Scout to Right to Roam
In 1932, an organised mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District took place, leading to violence as local landowners and gamekeepers tried to force the ramblers away:
several of the ramblers were arrested and imprisoned… over the following days and weeks much larger trespasses were held and public opinion started to sway in the trespassers’ favourRamblers Dot Org
Today, we can see this as the beginning of a journey, taking in the establishment of National Parks, footpaths and trails, and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, codifying the right of free access to certain types of land in England and Wales.
Luminaries of the Enlightenment wrote on the value of walking. Thomas Jefferson, the essential American politician (intimate with revolution, nation-building, war, and slavery) wrote to his nephew advising a course of study, including two hours a day of physical exercise. Jefferson advised “the gun…it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind”. Jefferson continues:
Let your gun, therefore, be the constant companion of your walks. Never think of taking a book with you. The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far. The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man. But I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much the degeneracy of the human body. An Indian goes on foot nearly as far in a day, for a long journey, as an enfeebled white does on his horse, and he will tire the best horses. There is no habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue.The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Volume I, pp298
In a similar vein, but more English mode, the English essayist William Hazlitt, celebrated in his time but little-read today, wrote:
One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but…I cannot see the wit of walking and talking at the same time. When I am in the country, I wish to vegetate like the country. I am not for criticizing hedge-rows and black cattle. I go out of town in order to forget the town and all that is in it. There are those who for this purpose go to watering-places and carry the metropolis with them. I like more elbow-room and fewer incumbrances. I like solitude…
Hazlitt touches on the therapeutic value of walking
There is hardly anything that shows the short-sightedness or capriciousness of the imagination more than travelling does. With change of place we change our ideas; nay, our opinions and feelings.On Going On A Journey (1822)
A kind of freedom can be found in walking the city too.
Paris Street; Rainy Day Gustave Caillebotte
We’ve explored the country walk as a journey without a destination, where in slowing down, and spontaneously exploring the sights and sounds, the mind can relax. Why not bring such an attitude to city walks too? The flâneur, from the French for “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, or “loafer”, emerged as a privileged and critical position in the project we call modernity, not unlike Auden’s Airman, emblematic of the changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The flâneur stands, or rather strolls, to this day, “casual wanderer, observer and reporter of street-life in the modern city”.
The figure emerged through the writings of Charles Baudelaire, whose flâneur “wandered the streets and arcades of nineteenth-century Paris looking at and listening to the kaleidoscopic manifestations of the life of a modern city. The flâneur’s method and the meaning of his activities were bound together, one with the other,” according to Bobby Seal of the Psycho-Geographic Review. As Seal explains
In the twentieth-century Walter Benjamin returned to the concept of the flâneur in his seminal work, The Arcades Project. This weighty, but uncompleted, study used Baudelaire’s flâneur as a starting point for an exploration of the impact of modern city life upon the human psyche…
Benjamin puts forward two complementary concepts to explain our human response to modern city life. Erlebnis can be characterised as the shock-induced anaesthesia brought about by the overwhelming sensory bombardment of life in a modern city, somewhat akin to the alienated subjectivity experienced by a worker bound to his regime of labour. Erfahrung is a more positive response and refers to the mobility, wandering or cruising of the flâneur; the unmediated experience of the wealth of sights, sounds and smells the city has to offer. Benjamin was interested in the dialectic between these two concepts and cited Baudelaure’s poetry as a successful medium for turning erlebnis into erfahrungBaudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur
In working with vulnerable clients, we may find they lack access to green spaces within and outside the city. Services I work with have noted clients who have never, or rarely, been outside the city, and who are unaware or unable to access green spaces near them. Some clients have spoken of the benefits of breaks outside the city, and the benefits of walking in the green.
Liaison and Diversion Services in Birmingham work with clients with multiple health and social challenges referred from the criminal justice system. L&D Birmingham initiated a series of walks in green spaces in the city. Participants included staff and service users. The notion of peer support taking place in outside environments, on a walk, was thought might be beneficial, talking and healing while doing an activity – multi-tasking, in other words.
Walking, in the sense of free roaming in open green spaces, has a lot to offer in terms of improving the physical health and well being of clients on low incomes with multiple social challenges: turning erlebnis into erfahrung.
Walking as a post-trauma therapy has plenty of anecdotal evidence beghind it. Here for example is Jennifer Tennant’s essay “Walking Myself Home”, in which she writes
For me, walking makes space for reflection, much like church or meditation does for others.
Tennant argues walking may have physiological effects similar to eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and thus effective for symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress.
The evidence seems conclusive. The conditions for well-being include the need for walking, for exploring both the twists and turns of our environment, the world we live in, and the possibilities of our souls.
Thanks to three individuals for their invaluable contributions to this post: Emma for initially linking walking with EMDR, Matt B for information under greener horizons, and James E for putting me onto the Hazlitt essay.
Tremendously interesting article in today’s NYT on the power of police unions.
When Steve Fletcher, a Minneapolis city councilman and frequent Police Department critic, sought to divert money away from hiring officers and toward a newly created office of violence prevention, he said, the police stopped responding as quickly to 911 calls placed by his constituents. ‘It operates a little bit like a protection racket,’ Mr. Fletcher said of the union.
Two days ago this happened:
When the officers were suspended, the entire Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team resigned (from the team, not from regular duties), in ‘solidarity’ with the officers responsible, who have now been charged. The NYT article includes this extraordinary invocation of the Nuremberg defence:
The president of a police union in Buffalo said the union stood “100 percent” behind two officers who were suspended on Thursday after appearing to push an older man who fell and suffered head injuries. The union president said the officers ‘were simply following orders.’
Well worth a read.
Have you considered the double-speak around the term ‘social distancing’?
No one is any more or less ‘socially distanced’ per se. If anything we seem to be more socially intimate.
We still live in a society. Physical distancing is what it is, why don’t we call it that?
or, a bum reduced to the status of a trained actor
Part One: Yes, And?
January. But not just any January. It’s 2018. On Jan 9th President Trump cancels a program allowing 200,000 San Salvadoreans temporary status to live in the US, the same day mudslides sweep away 100 houses in Montecito, California, killing at least 20, on land stripped bare by recent fires. On Jan 15th protests against the government in Tunisia marked the seventh anniversary of what’s popularly called the Arab Spring, but what some dared to call the World Revolution of 2011.
Yes, Winter 2018 was not, globally speaking, promising. In Britain, the long-running tragicomedy Brexit was approaching its third year, and no one talked about anything that seemed to matter. By this point, your humble author had just ended a seven-day fast with an improv jam, a spoken word performance and some Space Raiders, followed by a light salad. It remains, to this day, one of my favourite meals.
2017 had shown signs of life in the stand-up and open mic scenes in Birmingham, while a cluster-bomb of improvisational comedy had exploded in the city. Improvisational comedy can trace roots to early modern theatre and music. When American comic Dudley Riggs developed a form of improvised theatre incorporating audience suggestions, one critic labelled it ‘word jazz’. Around the same time, improvisational exercises for actors known as ‘Theatre Games’ were developed. Similar games remain a core element in improv, both in workshops and performances. In the late 1950s, The Second City, a Chicago-based improv group which still exists formed; alumni include John Belushi and Stephen Colbert.
Back in 2017 there were two improv comedy groups active in Moseley alone: Box of Frogs, which describes itself as “Birmingham’s Premiere Impro group”, and Fat Penguin Improv, both running weekly workshops in Moseley. Fat Penguin also added a regular performance at the Patrick Kavanagh pub, and anyone was welcome to join in at the end of the show.
I elected to join in all of that, and wrote a piece for Moseley B13 magazine commenting on this emerging scene. For research I interviewed Kate Knight, and you can hear the interview here, or see the original post for a transcript:
A sense of positive fun is summed up in the improv rule “Yes And”, which states that whatever someone says, one should respond positively rather than contradicting. Kate thinks one of the reasons improv is growing popular is not only the sheer entertainment value, but that the ‘principles that underpin improv can be really effective in life’.
I relished the chance to perform, and make people laugh. I found the experience great for my boosting my emotional intelligence.
My dips into improv had been satisfying, involving, and educational, yet terrifying. In public performance, I got one laugh. One. With the word ‘osprey’. My poetry had gone down well though, so I was hyped that year to do something more. I was on the lookout for something creative. Something bigger.
I’m not a fan of Facebook, or any third-party social web platform for that matter. I think it’s better for individuals to have autonomy online, and we have the technology to empower that. But I was on Facebook and this popped up:
Birmingham Opera Company is seeking volunteers (16+) for the actors and dancers’ groups of the newly commissioned ‘WAKE’.
It will have its world premiere in March 2018. It plays to the strengths of volunteer participants as well as professional singers – a unique mix of local performers and opera professionals that create a world-class work together.Be part of something amazing and join us on Wed 17 Jan in Digbeth for The Taster Actors/Dancers workshop led by Associate Choreographer Johnny Autin, accompanied by singer and musician. No experience necessary – All training provided – 2 rehearsal sessions/week
Travel expenses reimbursed
Now this caught my eye. I’d signed up to participate in the Birmingham International Dance Festival two years previously, but an unfortunate sequence of events put me in a sufficiently bad mood to make me decline the opportunity. Here though was a project with an admirable-sounding mode of operation: opera with the heart of the city.
Open rehearsals, no experience necessary? I fancy that, I thought. Was I ready? Was I ever.
In Review: Star Trek: Picard
I want to review CBS’s latest Star Trek series, Star Trek: Picard. But first I have to set the scene, about my relationship with Star Trek, and a potted guide to its history for those unfamiliar.
Prelude: Star Trek in a nutshell
When I was born, the BBC were three-quarters of the way through their first-run British broadcasts of the original Star Trek series, some two years later than their US broadcasts. Apparently a big hit in Britain, the series was repeated often through the 70s and early 80s. That success, now I come to think of it, may have influenced the commissioning of Blake’s 7, the BBC’s adult-oriented space opera, in 1978.
While I was an avid viewer of Blake’s 7, I never took much to Star Trek. The vision of a multi-national crew, represented by multi-ethnic Americans, nevertheless remains admirable for the times, and it was certainly politically engaged. The series stands as a curious and pioneering attempt to smuggle somewhat cerebral, literary sf concerns into a mainstream show, with a character-based warmth at its heart. It’s a good recipe, with some great ingredients. It addressed very American concerns of the late 1960s, but maybe felt a little bit dated for my generation.
Meanwhile, in the US, Trek also became a big hit in the 70s, re-run in syndication, bigger than it ever was during its original late-60s run on NBC. It grew not only its mainstream audience, but generated a qualitative change in the nature of audience itself, with the emergence of Star Trek fandom. The idea of an organised television audience, with their own voice and ideas, was so far outside of their reality tunnel, the story goes, that industry representatives, on seeing the much larger than expected numbers at the first fan convention, simply left the event, unable to deal with the implications and potential shift of power. The significance of this event for the changing nature of media audiences over the past 50 years bears consideration, as fannish cultural practices slowly, insidiously some might say, became mainstream. These days everyone binge-watches, over-analyses, reviews and makes their own fiction about their favourite TV show. That’s pretty much our culture now. But once, it was a sub-cultural sociality known as fandom.
The success of Star Trek: The Next Generation proved the importance of audience. The idea that Star Trek was a very liberal and progressive – and even in some areas a radical – enterprise, isn’t especially valid for the original series. Many of the ideas we associate with this interpretation of Trek derived from the fan culture of the 70s and 80s, who saw in Star Trek the potential for a radically inclusive and progressive futurism. The idea that poverty, hunger and racism have been eliminated in the future, within an enlightened, yet Earth-centred galactic federation, simply isn’t present in the original series. Indeed, it’s implied Earth is a colonial power. It’s now thought Roddenberry saw these more Utopian, progressive ideas emerge from the fan audience, and adopted them. The development of Star Trek was led by the remarkable creativity of its fan audience. The Next Generation also seems to me influenced by new age culture, surging in late 80s California, where as Dennis Potter once remarked, ‘every nut rolls’ sooner or later. By 1987, Paramount was still making $1 million per episode in syndication. The arguments for a new series were overwhelming.
Star Trek The Next Generation’s cultural influences can be read into the initial decision to dispense with a regular Chief Engineer, but insist upon a regular Counsellor character on the bridge of the new, pastel-shaded and softly furnished USS Enterprise. This reflects the caring, sharing, person-centred, eco-conscious culture of liberal America of that time.
Next Gen had a hard job convincing fans of the original series attached to the idea that Star Trek could only incarnate in the Kirk-Bones-Spock triumvirate. Indeed that idea had been established early in Star Trek fandom’s literature, that the heart and essence of the series lay in the interplay of these three characters. Mr Spock representing the emotionally repressed, logical, thinking element, Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy representing its counterpart, the emotional, feeling man. According to this theory, Kirk represents the perfect integration of feeling and intellect in a man, and thus is fit to both mediate between the forces represented by Spock and Bones, and lead them as their Captain.
The characters of the Next Generation were developed by Gene Roddenberry and DC Fontana, and thankfully don’t attempt to replicate this formula precisely. However, we have a female Doctor, hilariously named ‘Crusher’, and the android Data, who acts as a mirror of Spock in some ways. Unlike Spock, Data has no emotions to repress, so his desire is to become more human, not less. And so we come to Picard, who is presented as an idealised, integrated man. Cultured, intelligent, an explorer interested in poetry and drama, inclined towards the diplomatic and consensus solution, but entirely able to use maximum military force with ruthlessly effective tactics when necessary.
This triumvirate is backed by a slightly larger regular ensemble cast than the original series. By accident or design, the cast assembled had genuine chemistry with each other, forming close real life bonds which persist to this day, and this factor had a lot to do with the success of the series.
After a shaky couple of years, but with a base level of quality and moments of brilliance, Next Gen’s third season, with the writing drastically improving by the week, established the series in its own right. The events of that third season had genuine weight, affecting the characters, Picard in particular, in ways that are still being explored, most recently in the 10 part CBS series Star Trek: Picard that aired earlier this year.
There were times when Stewart had me crying my eyes out as Picard, most notably during the season 6 episode Chains of Command, in which Picard is tortured by David Warner. Picard gives an incredibly sensitive performance, informed by research undertaken with Amnesty International into people’s experiences of torture. Here’s a great Picard moment, from the best Star Trek movie, in which Picard reveals the extent to which his traumas still motivates him several years later.
The state of Trek
After the 2009 cinematic reboot, the Star Trek Universe split into two parallel universes. The new movies occur in the ‘Kelvin’ timeline, while the original universe maintains its existence as the ‘Prime’ timeline. As if mirroring this, the film and television rights split apart when Paramount Pictures’ parent company Viacom dispensed with CBS, who hold the television rights. It was in this environment CBS decided to return Star Trek to television, some 12 years after the last Star Trek TV show, the prequel Enterprise, ended after four seasons. The commercial circumstances were remarkably similar to those that conditions the return of Star Trek to TV back in 1987. The audience for genre film and TV had expanded, fandom now enjoying the kind of relationship with the industry which would have been a mad dream in 1972. Moreover, the back catalogue was finding a new audience on streaming services, just as the original series had found a new audience in syndication back in the 70s, increasing the commercial pressure for new content.
CBS hired Bryan Fuller, who’d worked in his younger days on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and who’d now made a name for himself as the showrunner of the Hannibal Tv series, to develop new Star Trek shows. His winning idea was to create an anthology show which would start in the years before the original series, but progress through the Prime timeline, giving fresh takes on different eras of the show. While there were creative tensions between Fuller and CBS, it seems his early departure from the production of Star Trek: Discovery was more down to scheduling conflicts, with CBS and Netflix keen to get the series quickly while Fuller was tied up on prior commitments to adapt Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for television.
CBS brought in Alex Kurtzmann, who’d worked on the new movies, to oversee Star Trek for them.
I’ve never seen Star Trek: Discovery, although I have seen a couple of the Short Treks anthology show that spun off from it, a show which seems to fulfil Fuller’s vision of a show that can explore any bit of Trek it likes. And Star Trek: Discovery, having explored and reinvented the back story of some of the original series characters (like Christopher Pike, Kirk’s immediate predecessor as Enterprise Captain, and Spock), has now been flung forward to a century after the time of Next Generation, much as previous prequel series Enterprise brought in a plot elements from the far, post-Next Generation future too. This also fulfils Fuller’s plan to have the early seasons set before the original series, and later seasons set in advance of the later spin offs. But much of this has passed me by. I gave up on Star Trek sometime during Voyager, a show with a lot of unfulfilled potential, and saw little of Enterprise. But a little bit of Star Trek, thanks in large part to Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard, stayed with me.
And so the announcement last year that Stewart would be reprising Picard, in a new TV series focused on that character’s life 16 years after the end of the Next Generation, excited me. I figured if Stewart was involved, that suggested quality, and the potential for surprising quality.
So what’s Star Trek: Picard like? Was it a joyful reunion, or a disappointing afterglow? Join me next time to find out.
In late 2015, after physically healing an injury I’d sustained in midsummer, I was looking for some psychological healing experiences. Laughter, of course, is often called ‘the best medicine’ and there seems to be some truth in this. I discovered laughter yoga, which I found an excellent tonic.
What’s the medical evidence for this? Somewhat inconclusive it seems. We know laughter produces endorphins, and seems to involve the limbic system, specifically the hippocampus and the amygdala. In other words, it’s ancient, something laid down early in our primate evolution, and indeed laughter has been observed in other primates.
On the other hand, there’s some evidence the cortex is involved: there’s a cognitive component. This makes intuitive sense. I’ve been told I have a very sophisticated sense of humour. I will laugh or smile along with the rest of humanity at funny cat videos, but I also laugh when others do not. For example, I recall watching the 1995 Judge Dredd movie, in my view an underrated film, and finding it hugely funny in the way it uses American cliches and mythologies to satirical effect. You can’t find that funny without a certain level of cognitive sophistication. My co-watchers were confused as to what I found so funny, while I found the film a fresh look at America. Christopher Hitchens was inclined to consider irony one of the consolations for the losing battle we are all fighting, and something he couldn’t live without; I’d agree irony and wit are precious jewels, producing such satisfying smiles.
Laughter seems to have evolved as a survival strategy for both individual and social health. There’s evidence it relieves stress, boosts the immune system, helps keep a healthy heart and blood flow, and even reduce allergic reactions. It may extend life. It also has social benefits, improving relationships amongst humans. It can also be used to reinforce social isolation of particular humans while improving bonding amongst those who join in the laughter, thus reinforcing shared social norms. The object of the laughter thus plays an important role in those relationships.
In these times, anything that can help our health, particularly the immune system, as well as improve social relationships, has a value that perhaps should not be understated. So I thought I’d share with you three videos that have made me laugh a lot recently.
Thinking about the first example, I guess this is a case of laughing at someone else’s expense, in this case Liam Gallagher’s. And who better? Here’s Sacha Baron-Cohen, on an American chat show, with a very funny story about him:
Chat shows, in amongst the tedium, can provide some spectacular moments of wit and humour. I’ve always been an admirer of Graham Norton. His early forays into the chat show format on Channel Four I thought constituted a quiet revolution in the chat show format. The way he re-focused the format away from the guests and onto the audience, facilitating their participation in the conversation, was very clever. Using early internet humour to widen the tired chat show format into something that could comment on our wider culture, stands as a genuine advance in the form, and he’s partly responsible I think for bringing internet culture to the mainstream.
Here are two examples of humour, again at someone else’s expense. Peter Capaldi and Tom Hanks seize a golden opportunity to make fun of David Walliams, who runs with it beautifully.
My final example is an example of self-deprecating humour, but also perfect timing. Lee Mack tells a very funny story of how he got sacked from Pontins, so perfectly told it even has John Cleese doubled up. Mack apparently regarded this as one of the proudest moments of his career:
Laugh every day, even if you don’t want to. One thing I learned from my laughter yoga experiences is that simulated laughter brings many of the same health benefits as the ‘real thing’, and can easily lead to ‘real’ laughter in ourselves and others.
Laughter, in fact, has been called one of the most contagious things known to humanity, and usefully is transmittable over a distance of more than two metres. Along with orgasm it’s also one of the most effective natural analgesic mechanisms available to us. Perhaps in addition to collectively clapping for those on the front line, we could engage in collective laughter at those responsible for the current crisis, as a way of excluding them from society, and improving social bonds amongst the rest of us?
We have nothing to lose but our pains.
This post’s featured image is copyright Amauta Fotografia, used under license.