Today The Melbourne Flâneur comes to you from Sydney!
Well, the video above does, anyway. The footage—and the story contained in the brief essay I regale you with in the video—comes from a weekend stay in the inner-city suburb of Paddington some eighteen months ago.
I had just finished a housesit in Gosford. I had been invited to stay a couple of nights in one of those beautiful old terrace houses which are so common in Sydney, looking after a couple of dogs for the weekend before I booked back to Melbourne.
The terrace house was a couple-three blocks back from Oxford street, overlooking the Art and Design campus of the University of NSW, housed in an old brick schoolhouse. The terrace was two storeys and a sous-sol, one of those gloriously perverse constructions with Escher-like staircases, mashed in a block of similar houses on a slight slope.
When I have a housesit, I don’t usually go out at night. As a flâneur, the street is my home, and I feel like I spend enough time on it, spinning my wheels ça et là in search of romance and adventure.
But to be so perfectly placed in Sydney for 48 hours was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Night #1 I ambled up Darlinghurst road to Kings Cross for dinner. I was armed with my trusty Pentax K1000 and Minolta XL-401 Super 8 camera, both loaded for bear with Kodak Tri-X film.
My mission was to scout and clout some suitably seedy Sydney scenes on celluloid.
I chowed down in an Italian joint in Potts Point; took a tour of the lighted windows of the handsome homes in that part of town; dipped the bill on the terrace of Darlo as I scratched a dispatch to myself in the pages of my journal; and bopped back towards the pad.
My bowtie drew some comment as I crossed Oxford street, but I managed to make it to the other side without being assaulted. As I was mainlining it down South Dowling street, my eagle œil de flâneur clocked something curious in Taylor street, a narrow, one-way artery branching off the Eastern Distributor.
That’s the footage you see in the video above. My eye was caught by the gentle, teasing undulation of the verdant leaves veiling and unveiling the moon-like gleam of the streetlamp. I set up my camera on the corner to capture it.
I sauntered back to the terrace house and ambulated the hounds, first one and then the other, before we all reported for sack duty. The dogs were staffies, but the older one, Bella, was weak on her pins and only needed to go as far as the corner and back. Buster was young and vigorous, and I was under orders to give him a tour of the whole block before retiring.
I got him on the lead. The eerie, pregnant peacefulness of Paddington after midnight, an inchoate intimation of which I had scoped in Taylor street, symbolized for me in the striptease played by the leaves and the streetlamp, took hold of me as we passed the dark terrace houses.
I tried to imagine the inconceivable lives behind these elegant façades, the way you might take the front off a doll’s house to get a glim of the works inside. I couldn’t do it. The lives of Sydneysiders seemed too rich and strange.
We turned the corner into Josephson street, another narrow, one-way thoroughfare similar to Taylor street. Buster got the snoot down to do some deep investigating while yours truly lounged idly by, doing some snooping of his own.
I took a hinge on the quiet street, attempting to penetrate the poetic mood of this friendly darkness which was in Josephson street too. This ‘mood’ seemed to be general all over this part of Paddington. I patted the pockets of my memory. What did this place remind me of…?
It was then that ‘The Girl’ tied into us, and if you want to know what happens next—you’ll have to scroll up and watch the video essay!
It’s adapted from a couple of paragraphs I scribbled in my journal a couple of nights later, when I was on the train back to Melbourne, meditating on my weekend as a ‘Sydney flâneur’. As the familiar scenes unspooled beside me on the XPT, taking me away from that brief oasis of unexpected experience, a nice coda to my Central Coast ‘holiday’, I got some perspective on what that poetic mood—which possesses me in all my photographs and videos—might be.
Nothing refreshes the flâneur, that restless spirit perpetually in search ‘du nouveau’, more than a fresh city to test his navigatory chops on. My experience traipsing the streets of Paris has given me a navigatory nonchalance in any new urban environment which often astonishes—and sometimes even alarms—people. Put a map in front of me and I’ll betray my bamboozlement by turning it ça et là, but my sense of topographical orientation—the map I make of places in my mind—is very good indeed. I don’t have to be in a place very long before I’m naming streets to locals as though I’ve lived there all my life.
Sydney, however, still poses a challenge for me. One of my readers, James O’Brien, put me on to the trick. According to James, the secret to navigating Sydney is to think of it in terms of hills and Harbour: if you’re going uphill, you’re heading towards the Blue Mountains; if you’re going downhill, you’re heading towards Sydney Harbour.
It’s a neat trick. I wish I had known it during my 48-hour furlough in Paddington.
On the Saturday, I decided to test my mastery of Sydney in a walk which will no doubt leave my Sydney readers wondering how I managed to do it without map or compass, a tent and several days’ provisions, and the assistance of a sherpa.
And indeed, as I look at my parcours in retrospect on Google Maps, the rather incredible breadth of that expedition (which included a few wrong turns) does seem to show up the difference between a ‘Melbourne flâneur’, like yours truly, and a ‘Sydney flâneur’.
A Sydney flâneur, I dare say, would never have attempted it, because the main difference between Melbourne and Sydney is that the former is a much more ‘walkable’ city.
In Melbourne, you can walk quite a distance, if you’re inclined to. To walk from the city to Brunswick, or from the city to St Kilda, is not a wearisome proposition. The streets are logically arranged, the terrain is not fatiguing, and the experience is altogether a pleasurable one.
But to be a Sydney flâneur requires strategy rather than rugged endurance.
To walk from Paddington to Green Square via Bourke street, then back up to Redfern via Elizabeth street, and finally across to Newtown, with no map and nothing but the sketchy guidance of the bicycle lane to orient you, probably strikes my Sydney readers as the flânerie d’un fou.
With time out for coffee at Bourke Street Bakery and diversions for the dispensing of dosh on vintage bowties and button suspenders at Mitchell Road Antiques, how on earth did I accomplish such a trajet in one day with hardly an idea where I was going?
Je ne sais pas. But it was a thrilling experience to walk a city which I don’t think any city planner ever intended to be seriously trod. You may be able to travel through Melbourne without a car, but Sydney?
Though I cheated on the way back, training from Newtown to Central, and bussing from Central to Flinders street, I wasn’t done filing down the heels on my handmade Italian shoes that day.
Night #2, heavily armed with cameras, tripod and paraphernalia, I attempted an even more ambitious nocturnal sortie for a flâneur who isn’t altogether au fait with Sydney. My plan was to make a massive foot-tour to Circular Quay and back.
I struck out along Oxford street and rambled through Hyde Park around dusk. I inhaled a digestif at Jet, in the Queen Victoria Building, while I unburdened myself to my journal. Then I went on the prowl, Pentax primed, tacking stealthily towards Sydney Harbour by way of George street.
There was some sort of to-do in George street between the QVB and Martin place—I forget what, but a lot of revellers and rubberneckers. My cat-like spirit bristled at the noise and lights and I was glad to get clear of them as I stalked north.
There was a full moon set to scale the sky over the Opera House that night. Having purchased a fresh cartridge of Tri-X from Sydney Super 8, I set up my Super 8 camera by Circular Quay, counting off a long timelapse of the Harbour under my breath and remembering how I had once, on a disastrous second date, walked past this spot, arguing about the comparative architectural merits of the Harbour Bridge vis-à-vis the Opera House with a French girl I had picked up at Darling Harbour two days earlier.
We had not been able to agree on that or on anything else that day, and I had been glad to get my luggage out of her apartment, get rid of her, and get on a train back to Melbourne.
It was getting on towards midnight. I retraced my way back to Town Hall via Pitt street, the lunacy of the high moon and the memory of past amours working their poetic powers upon my spirit, inspiring me to squeeze off a shadowy shot with the Pentax here and there.
I was too foot-sore to trudge on to Central. I had been on my dogs all day, so I saved some Tuscan shoe leather and shouted myself a trip on the Opal card at Town Hall station. On the short train ride, tired as I was, I had my senses sufficiently about me to admire the hard, shiny Sydney girls, hot and fast as the slug from a Saturday night special.
Once I had had it in me to cut across their frames and charm even the hardest chica, but I was beginning to think my days as a pocket-edition Casanova were over.
I thought of the girl in Josephson street. Was I getting fussy in my encroaching middle age? Or was I just developing belated good taste?
When I got back to the terrace around one a.m., I got the hounds out for their third and final walk of the day, but lightning did not strike twice: I did not see the girl in Josephson street again.
I hope you enjoyed this reminiscence of one of my flâneries. I received a lot of positive feedback from followers and visitors to this vlog saying that they enjoyed listening to me reading the audio versions of articles I wrote on the subject of the Coronavirus. So I decided to start releasing the soundtracks of my videos—like the one at the head of this post—for purchase via my Bandcamp profile.
For $2.00, less than the cost of a coffee, you can have my dulcet tones on your pod pour toujours. Just click the link below to support me.
Being a Daygamer myself (albeit one who considers himself ‘retired’ from the Game), your Melbourne Flâneur is a very tough cookie to crack: knowing every trick and technique for stopping a stranger in the street, you can’t arrest the flow of my flânerie if I don’t want to stop for you.
But photographer Alfonso Perez de Velasco (@alfonsoperezphotography on Instagram), ‘loitering with intent’ near the corner of Lonsdale street, caught me on a good day as I sailed confidently down Elizabeth street, and I couldn’t turn down his sincere and complimentary request to snap a portrait of me, the photo you see above.
It’s perhaps too much of a cliché to say that this talented Madrileño now living and working in Melbourne has painted me in a typically Spanish light, with shades of Ribera about me, but I think he’s captured something essential about your sombre, sombrero’d scribe, that blend of light and dark inside a single look which is eminently Goyesque.
With my humour and melancholy, my Machiavellianism and my empathy, I am nothing if not contradictory, and I think Alfonso captures that ambiguity nicely.
It’s a handsome portrait, and very much in keeping with the moody Melbourne style of Alfonso’s street scenes, which really resonate with me. Though he works in muted colour, if you check out his photos on Instagram, I think you will agree there’s a certain similarity with my own black-and-white flânographs around town.
I was feeling ‘everything plus’ that day, all suited up and sharp enough to shave with as I recovered my mantle as a man about town.
As you can just make out in the photograph, I had my chalk-stripe, slightly zootish, suit on—what I call my ‘Big Sleep suit’. It’s my take on that handsome double-breasted chalk-stripe suit that Bogart sports in The Big Sleep (1946) while he’s flirting outrageously with Lauren Bacall.
I was wearing a black shirt with a grey-and-white floral pattern, dark silver tie, black display kerchief with grey Martini glasses on it (courtesy of Fine And Dandy and Brisbane Hatters), and a dark grey vintage Stetson Whippet to cap the ensemble. The slightly clashing touch of chocolate-coloured scarf and gloves was my only concession to the tardy onset of the Melbourne winter. I had my Dunn & Co. trenchcoat slung casually over my Czechoslovakian officer’s map-case, which serves as a stylish satchel for porting my tablet.
I was everything the well-dressed writer-about-town ought to be.
I wasn’t, as Raymond Chandler says, ‘calling on four million dollars’—(tant pis)—but I was just about to call on Elite Office Machines Co. in Carlton to pick up my freshly serviced Silver Reed typewriter.
So I was feeling O.K. that day.
During lockdown, I had a chance to catch up on some reading, and one of the books that came my way was Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century (1989), by Richard Martin and Harold Koda. It was written at the tail end of the ‘Greed is Good’ eighties, so there’s a touch of quaintness about the authors’ commentary: though acknowledging that standards have slipped since the 1960s, Messrs. Martin and Koda have no clue as to how far they will descend in the thirty years up to the present day.
Their thesis is simple yet compelling: ‘We believe that men are knowing in making choices among style options, and that they dress to create or recreate social roles. Both men and women seek to realize roles and identities, but since men’s options in dress would appear to be the more acutely restricted, perhaps selecting a role has assumed more importance for them than it has for women. A man’s role is his operative identity; style choices follow therefrom.’
I like the phrase ‘operative identity’, for it points to the fundamental ‘uniformity’ of men’s style, the basis of almost every garment in the masculine wardrobe in an historical military analogue.
Indeed, Martin and Koda identify twelve such ‘operative identities’ that we men tend to take on as the social rôles by which we choose to be known, and their book is arranged in an ascending hierarchy of these ‘types’, from the ‘Jocks’ and ‘Nerds’ of the title, through the ‘Military Man’, ‘Hunter’ and ‘Sportsman’, up to the ‘Businessman’, ‘Man about Town’ and ‘Dandy’.
The argument seems true that, due to the mobility of action that is the masculine prerogative, at a certain point early in a man’s life, he chooses the rôle that he is going to play, the branch of ‘the Services’ he is going to go into.
Is he going to be a soldier? a blue-collar worker? a white-collar worker? a professor? There’s a ‘uniform’ for every métier that men undertake, and even the most récherché uniform, that of a literary dandy like yours truly, is thoroughly—albeit subtly—based in a military antecedent.
Martin and Koda go on to say: ‘Conventional wisdom has it that men dress to be conventional, but those with insight into male dress might hold that men dress to realize dreams, to be themselves through being someone other than themselves. If, as Shakespeare would have it, “apparel oft proclaims the man,” perhaps it is true that it both claims and proclaims him.’
I agree, for not only do we know a man by the uniform he wears, but the key point is that, unlike for the dames, our trade, boulot or profession is our operative identity: a man is the job he does, and in subscribing to the uniform, he subscribes equally to the professional etiquette of the rôle.
We have certain expectations of the cowboy, just as we have certain others of the lawyer, and the man who inhabits the uniform of either trade will seek earnestly to inhabit the professional expectations we have of him.
Indeed, for most men, it is a point of honour that their behaviour and comportment is congruent with the deportment of their life’s rôle.
But is there, you may ask, really a ‘uniform’ for a writer?
Well, Martin and Koda are instructive on this point, for not only is their book liberally seasoned with pictures of men of letters, but it opens with a spread lifted from the pages of Harper’s Bazaar Uomo in which a contemporary spin is placed on the ‘looks’ of such literary giants as James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry Miller, among others, demonstrating that men who spend their lives ‘off the stage of life’, cloistered in their studies, may be equally ‘leaders of fashion’ to other men.
‘Would a businessman care to walk in the shoes of James Joyce?’ Martin and Koda ask. ‘In the intimacy of a clothing decision, he might, signalling an affinity with the writer. … [T]he male chooses a family tree, a heritage, a sense of identity or likeness that is most compelling because it is not enunciated but simply visually implied.’
And indeed, surveying this spread and the other portraits of writers in this book, one sees a subtle uniform ‘visually implied’: the rakish chapeau, the tie—whether straight or bow—which is more alluring than the usual garotted neckwear, the suit of emphatic cut, or of bold stripes or mysterious patterns, the raincoat which is ported quixotically in all weathers.
I have observed elsewhere on this vlog the unusual number of writers who tend to be dandies. Why should we men of letters, cloistered away from celebrity-hungry eyes in our airy towers of intellect, be so passionate about such an ephemeral subject as fashion?
Well, as I said in my post on ‘What is a flâneur?’, there is no better prima facie indication of an orderly mind than the attention to detail that a man pays to his deportment. If a man cannot order the outer world of his person—(or, worse still, declines to do so, for this betrays a manque of strategy in his thinking)—it is doubtful whether he possesses the energies to order his abstract inner world through words.
In his book Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore (2017), fashion journalist Terry Newman made a close reading of thirty authors and their sartorial style, arguing that the distinction between the ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ man of letters is not really as invidious as one might think at first glance, with an analogue of the writer’s unique literary style manifesting in the arena of his personal style.
Reversing the lens, is there anything that could be divined about my style as a writer from how I dress?
Well, judging from Alfonso’s pictures, I probably look like the man who runs the Melbourne underworld. More than once have others compared my sartorial style—the love of loud pinstripes and clashing contrasts of dark shirts and light-coloured ties—with that of Al Capone.
As Philip Mann observes in The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), the gangster, like the dandy, masters the sober uniform of the Businessman and pushes it to a récherché extreme, beyond the conventions of conservative rectitude, to the point of parody. The gangster, like the dandy, is the rebellious ‘inversion’ of the rôle of the Businessman. But whereas the dandy in some sense ‘satirizes’ the hypocrisy of the bourgeois Establishment, the gangster savagely exposes the blood on the Businessman’s hands, making no bones about the fact that the easy wealth of his ill-gotten gains comes from ‘making a killing’.
Certainly, the rather Italianate character of my prose, full of mannerist touches, might have an analogue in my Medicean love of outrageous intrigue.
It’s interesting to note that the Businessman eschews black in his wardrobe, whereas the gangster and the dandy both revel in it. As Martin and Koda say, ‘The rebel wears black. … Black serves as a sign of social militancy and provocation for men in a way that it does not for women. … [M]en in this century have worn gray or a limited palette of colors in deliberate avoidance of black. When black enters the wardrobe, it arrives with arresting authority and with a social goad.’
It’s the colour not merely of the transgressive Businessman personified by the gangster, but the colour of artists and poets, according to Martin and Koda. Citing Valerie Steele’s Paris Fashion (1988), they describe the ‘triumph of black’ habitually ported by Charles Baudelaire as a ‘bohemian black’ which synthesizes the poet’s aspirations towards the Establishment of the French Academy with his inescapable outcast nature as an unreconstructable renegade.
And in its rebellious association with men who are intellectual threats to the established order of their societies, there is not merely something ‘clerical’ in the nature of black, according to Martin and Koda, but something perversely ‘spiritual’ about this most abjured colour: there is an almost satanic ‘purity’ and ‘cleanliness’ about black, and the man who takes on the rebellious rôle of artist or poet takes on the uniform of an heretical priesthood, dedicating himself to ‘l’art pour l’art’.
I don’t know that I’m so habitually ensconced in black as I am in Alfonso’s photos, but certainly the Velázquean voluptuousness and elegance of black, its noirish, tenebrist radiance—with all the ambiguity and contradictions it suggests—makes it a staple of my wardrobe, a colour that synæsthetically resonates with my nature.
It’s a colour which symbolically connotes a man—whether he be gangster, spy, priest or poet—engaged in some shadowy enterprise, and as I said above, a writer’s work takes place ‘off-stage’, in the ‘backstage’ of life.
Nevertheless, there is a subdued ‘flamboyance’ about the writer: taking the stage only retroactively in the imagination of his readers, the deeply introverted, dandified man of letters perhaps sublimates his repressed performativity in the dark radiance of his uniform.
The trenchcoat, that outrageously démodé relic of the First World War has, ‘[i]n an almost inexplicable combination of meanings and implications,’ according to Martin and Koda, become inextricably associated with men who make their living by the pen and the typewriter, whether they are reporters or writers.
It has transformed itself, they say, from its weatherable functionality as a dependable part of an officer’s uniform, to the ‘sign of the individualist’ in civilian life.
‘It has since come to be identified with good taste,’ Martin and Koda write, ‘but with romantic overtones associated with writers, artists, and individualists…. Defying the convention of the wool overcoat, some men have insisted on wearing the trench coat as standard outer wear, not waiting for rain to justify the versatile and quixotic coat of the visionary….’
On the day Alfonso snapped me, I had just conveyed my freshly relined woollen overcoat to the dry-cleaner in anticipation of the Melbourne winter, so I just had my trenchcoat with me as a potential topcoat.
I would have had it anyway, for in Melbourne, one needs to be prepared for any eventuality—even at the risk of appearing ‘quixotic’—and I rarely step out the door without my trusty Dunn & Co. raincoat, which can equally serve as sufficient insulation against an autumnal Melbourne breeze.
I think the ‘visionary’ nature of this article of apparel probably stems from the ‘quixotic’ tendency of certain careful men (as any man of letters should be) to port it in all weathers, as a dependable, respectable, all-weather topcoat.
Winston Churchill, visionary individualist as a statesman, though quixotic to his contemporaries, was the writer not only prescient enough to foresee ‘the gathering storm’ of the Second World War from a long way off, but was the historian capable of compassing its complexity in retrospect, and he stubbornly ported his Aquascutum in fair weather as in foul.
With certain American writers—Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs among them—the trenchcoat has attained to the status of a signature element in their wardrobes, its patrician associations with officer’s garb and its democratic appropriation after the First World War suggesting a reversal of these writers’ pulpy American origins and their take-up by sophisticated Parisian publishers.
The trenchcoat’s style, like their literary styles, suggests the ‘down-at-heels’ elegance of a declassed gentleman.
For myself, being fundamentally a Parisian at heart, the trenchcoat is an ‘incontournable’ part of my uniform as a flâneur. It’s both strange and a testament to its hardiness and adaptability that this fundamentally British article should undergo so many transatlantic crossings, becoming indissociably associated in the public imaginary first with America, as the garment-of-trade of the intrepid reporter and gumshoe, and then with the French capital, as the grey flag of world-weary existentialists like Camus and Sartre, the tails of their raincoats flapping against the grey Parisian sky.
More than London, the trenchcoat, as article of choice of both Philip Marlowe and Jef Costello, seems as much the symbol of rainless L.A. as of perennially grey Paris, and Melbourne, sharing something of the atmospheric effects of the latter, is also a city in which the incognito camouflage of its mysterious greyness is appropriate for the writer-flâneur, a man whose profession is to be an ‘undercover reporter’ of life.
The thing about a trenchcoat is that, like a hat or a good pair of shoes, it requires the patina of age to look elegant. As Messrs. Miller and Burroughs demonstrate, a trenchcoat needs to look fashionably rumpled—like those gents themselves.
I’ve had my dun-coloured Dunn & Co. almost all my adult life—and it’s probably older than I am, since I acquired it in an op-shop on the Gold Coast when I was a mere gamin of twenty, by which time the venerable British brand had gone the way of all fashion.
It has traipsed with me through the jardin du Luxembourg, as my sole insulation against miserable days in Paris, just as it has served as an improvised blanket under which to do some fooling around with demoiselles Daygamed in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens.
The Fedora and the trenchcoat, as the crown and the gown of your Melbourne Flâneur, this ‘prince qui jouit partout de son incognito’, as M. Baudelaire says, are probably the key symbols of my style, both personal and literary.
I’m most grateful to Alfonso Perez de Velasco for his handsome portraits of me, and I recommend that you check out his Instagram or visit his website to see more of his photographs, including Melbourne street scenes, other denizens of our fair city, and interesting travel pictures from around Asia.
As Coronavirus restrictions ease, today on The Melbourne Flâneur, I get out and about for the first time in two months, taking a flânerie to Bacchus Marsh.
Don’t be deceived by the boggy name: Bacchus Marsh is actually quite a nice place to visit, particularly at the start of winter, when all the trees along Grant street, leading from the station to the township, set up an arcade of red and yellow leaves for you to amble under.
At Maddingley Park, I take a breather at the rotunda to share with you a sneak preview of the manuscript for my next book—a 31-page handwritten letter to my seven-year-old niece, which I wrote during lockdown.
As soon as things got too hairy on the streets, your Melbourne Flâneur, that aristocrat of the gutter, folded up pack, shack and stack and got his handmade Italian brogues parked in more private and stable accommodation than he is used to treating himself to.
For two months, I was sequestered in a West Melbourne hotel room, my world reduced to a single window looking out on a narrow sliver of upper King street. If I crowded into the left side of the window and craned my neck, I could entertain myself by trying to work out on what streets all the tall buildings in the Melbourne CBD were planted.
To say (as I do in the video) that I felt like I was in a ‘gilded prison’ is not to deprecate the kind folks at the Miami Hotel, who I’m very happy to recommend to any visitors to our fair city, but rather to suggest what a strange and vivid time it was to be a writer of a peripatetic persuasion, one who finds his home in the crowd.
In Australia, in the early days of the lockdown, we saw scenes of people returning from overseas being bundled and bullied into suites at Crown, on the government’s tab, and exercising, like les bons bourgeois that they are, their privilege to grouse on Instagram that their confinement in palatial conditions was not up to scratch.
These people enjoyed little sympathy from me. As a writer, the argument that such palatial prison conditions were doing a permanent injury to their mental health cut no ice. Rather, if the mental health of people forced to enjoy such self-isolation at Her Majesty’s expense deteriorates, it is evidence of how little developed are the mental resources of a chattering class to whom every ease and privilege is given in a society that clamours after more and more leisure aided and abetted by technology.
Harsh words, I’ll admit, but as a writer, I found my more modest confinement at the Miami a unique historical privilege which reconnected me with the ancient heritage of my craft and profession.
As soon as I was undercover, as those of you who followed my commentary on the Coronavirus crisis know, fearing the worst, I went straight to work and tried to scratch out every idea and cobble together every piece of research I could find in an effort to make good sense of what the continental was going on outside my little room.
For reasons of historical precedent I’ll explain, I felt—and feel—that the moral responsibility of the writer in a time of crisis is to throw the skills of his profession at the task of collective sensemaking.
And so, while my confrères at Crown faffed and fapped on Facebook and engaged in other acts of mental masturbation with their mobiles, I wrote.
And in fact, apart from penning six long articles on the Coronavirus (which, collectively, could constitute a book on their own), I wrote an entire book—five drafts in two months—for my little niece, attempting to explain the situation to her.
The fifth and final draft takes the form of a 31-page handwritten letter to my niece. It took 25 hours to write, and you can see in the video what the entire manuscript looks like. When spread out in three rows across a table capable of comfortably seating eight people, the manuscript is still wider than the tabletop.
It was an extraordinary experience to ‘write a book by hand’. I thought, when I sat down to handwrite the final draft, that it was simply going to be a ‘copy job’, that I was not going to add anything new or creative to what I had worked up in the previous four drafts.
But when I got in front of the first page of my personalised stationery, when I had my two Montblanc Noblesse fountain pens (one filled with Mystery Black, the other with Corn Poppy Red ink) primed, the experience of committing myself to the words I intended to publish felt like no other book I have written.
Suddenly, the page became a ‘stage’ for me. I was on the stage, and this was the performance. The four previous drafts were mere ‘rehearsals’ for the Big Night, and having learnt my ‘script’, I felt free to improvise upon it, to add and change things as I spontaneously wrote the message of hope and support I intended to communicate to my niece.
Sometimes my eyes even filled with tears as I wrote.
If you know what a ‘Flaubertian’ writer I am, how much I bleed to get a single word onto the page that I am even provisionally satisfied with, you can imagine what an experience it is to write a book that is a ‘spontaneous performance’, where the words I ultimately committed myself to as the words I intended to say for all time to my niece about the Coronavirus, about the rôle of technology in human development, about the future of her generation, were as ‘humanly imperfect’ as only the words of a handwritten letter can be.
If you’re intrigued to know what I had to say to my niece, I give you a sample of the first few pages in the video above.
And it’s not simply the fact that the ‘spontaneity’ of a handwritten letter gives the book a sense of the ‘humanly imperfect’;—it’s in the fact of writing the text by hand itself.
It’s hard to remember, at our technological remove, that for most of human history, most writers have actually written—by hand. No typewriters, and certainly no computers. Truman Capote’s disparaging remark of Jack Kerouac—‘That’s not writing; that’s just typing’—could, regrettably, be applied to most so-called ‘writers’ of the 20th and 21st centuries.
This isn’t merely an élitist distinction. There’s a qualitatively different experience to writing a complex work by hand. The genius-level cognitive co-ordination of hand, eye and brain that James Joyce and Marcel Proust enjoyed would not have produced the greatest novels of the 20th century if these gents had been trained to peck out their thoughts—even at the touch-typist level of virtuosity—rather than guide a fountain pen fluidly across a page.
Moreover, I don’t think it’s coincidental that James Ellroy, who I regard as the greatest living writer, works a mano, has never used a computer, and reportedly doesn’t own a mobile phone. This is a man who eschews distraction and espouses deep focus. The density of his plotting and the inventiveness of his language are testaments to the profound cognitive relationship between writing by hand and the capacity to compass complexity through the abstract symbology of written language.
And though I often get compliments on my handwriting, when I look in awe at the handsome copperplate of some 18th- and 19th-century writers, so perfect-seeming and consistent as to appear to be machine-etched, I feel like the Queensland Modern Cursive of the words I have committed to the page for all time in this book are less ‘elegant’ than I should have liked my niece to read.
But, en revanche, writing a book where the final printed text will be ‘by my own hand’—in the most literal sense—gave me a feeling of reconnecting to the ancient art of my profession—dating back to those scribes whose elegant calligraphy has communicated such ancient books as Genji Monogatari down through ten centuries to us.
We’re too acclimatized to the profound revolution in writing which Gutenberg’s invention of movable type opened up for us nearly 600 years ago. We don’t remember that most books—the Bible or Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry—were handwritten, illuminated manuscripts. Our over-familiarity with type and font, the uniformity of letters and ‘standardization’ of print, has fundamentally changed the nature of what we mean, in the 21st century, by the word ‘writing’, forgetting that machine-printed words are not, as Truman Capote observed, writing at all (in the sense of creative human agency), but typing.
And so, although my handwriting in this book is less than consistent from first page to last, the letters being less ‘uniform’ and ‘standard’ than we are used to expect in a book made since Gutenberg’s time, I quite like the notion of having written a book for my niece which I hope will have the feel of an illuminated manuscript, like an ancient spiritual text, something that connects her, in this hour of crisis for humanity, with all the crises the generations of humanity have endured before her.
For it’s equally hard to remember, let alone imagine, in the 21st century, that most human beings have not known how to read or to write. The profession of ‘scribe’ has always been a noble one—at least until the failed experiment of universal education depreciated it.
If any subtle message might be shaken out of the long articles I wrote on the Coronavirus during lockdown, perhaps it is the conviction that, in the most educated era that humanity has never known, this unnecessary débâcle could—and should—have been avoided. That it wasn’t can be laid squarely at the feet of universal education, which has manifestly failed to realize its promise of making each successive generation more intelligent and engaged with the world than the last.
When you master written language, your capacity to verbally reason, to accurately perceive and interpret the pattern within chaotic events, is increased. If you can write, if you can corral your thoughts in words, you become profoundly dangerous.
Is it any wonder that writers are always the first folks to be housed in the hoosegow when some authoritarian jefe comes to power?
It’s for this reason that the art of the scribe was kept out of the paws of the plebs for so many centuries. To write—to really write—is to think, and I look with disgust—for my niece’s sake—upon a world where people are increasingly put through sixteen to twenty years of formal education and yet are still peasants in their thinking, giving no more evidence of being able to marshal and master their thoughts in a coherent, complex, logical argument than our magickal-thinking forebears.
As I say to my niece in the book, we are no more ‘advanced’ than our earliest ancestors. It is simply that we are habituated to more complicated conditions of life.
The lockdown was a period when it was easy—too easy—for people to succumb to boredom and ennui, to indulge digitally in the lassitude and laziness which is the Shadow of our speed-mad species. Prey to ‘the vultures of the mind’, undistracted by our manifold distractions, and oppressed by the very leisure that we clamour for, most people probably tried to drown themselves all the more in the delusive fakery and shallow abyss of screens during their ‘holiday from life’.
But—thank God—I am a writer, which means I was not wigged out at being locked in a hotel room with only my thoughts for company for two months. Like William Blake, through my self-isolation I had mental health and mental wealth to sustain me. Instead of seeking distraction, I was able to pour out the very resources of thought as ink onto paper.
Most writers, I realized as I stood at my window, looking, it seemed, at an invisible tempest swirling through the streets of Melbourne, have lived in times of profound chaos and unrest. The privilege of education, the noble calling of their profession, enjoins upon them the moral responsibility to be ‘a witness to chaos’.
Whether natural disasters have disrupted the times they live in, or whether their societies have undergone enormous upheavals due to war or political division, the writer is the ‘journalist’, the faithful witness and reporter on ‘what life was like’ at these moments of history.
If you can write, by which I mean, if you can really think; if you have mastered, through the long apprenticeship of education, the abstract symbology of written language to the point where you can make dexterous calculations in the algebra of verbal reasoning, you cannot stand idly by at these moments, but the capacity to think, to reason, to explore ideas through language, and ultimately to shed some clarity on chaos by writing down the formula, the pattern of order you perceive in the disorder swirling all around you, is a moral mission arising from the competency of your professional cognitive skills.
As I stood at the window of my cell, I felt connected, in some spiritual way, with some of the great writers of history whose lives have passed in the midst of chaos. Somehow their handwritten words have survived earthquakes, wars and plagues to guide humanity because some clarity in their delicate perceptions was worth preserving, despite the rending chaos which could easily have torn their words in shreds and scattered them to the winds.
Particularly, I felt a connection to that writer who is one of the most astute calculators of chaos in human affairs, il gran’ signor Machiavelli. Many a time I stood at my window in those two months, blind, like Mr. Kurtz, to what I was looking at as I meditated on the horror of our time and the fears I have for my little niece’s future, and I felt like the divine, diabolical Niccolò avidly surveying the carnage of Florence as it continually changed hands.
He, I knew, would have loved to have been alive in this moment of global upheaval and naked power grabs.
This is not a situation I would wish on my niece. But just as I feel privileged to have lived through such a crisis myself, I also think it’s a good thing for her to have experienced a world-historical event like a global pandemic so early in her life, and I hope the words I am going to give to her shortly will equally stand as an experiential guide for her going forward, something that will help to orient her as this event has done.
I am now at the design and layout stage, so the book will shortly be available for sale in the Dean Kyte Bookstore. If you would like to register your interest in purchasing a copy when it becomes available, you can do so by dropping me a line via the Contact form, and I’ll be sure to get in touch with you as soon as it is ready for release.
Achtung! The track above is best heard through headphones.
It’s been a while since I have uploaded to The Melbourne Flâneur what I call an ‘amplified flânograph’, an analogue photograph taken in the course of my flâneries around Melbourne with a third dimension added to it—a suitably atmospheric prose poem read by yours truly.
I think you will agree that voice and soundscape add a dimension of depth to this image of Uniacke court, a laneway off Little Bourke street between Spencer and King streets famous to aficiónados of Melbourne street art.
It’s one of Melbourne’s ‘where to see’ places—and no more so than when it’s raining.
The image above was not my first attempt to capture Uniacke court on black-and-white film at a very specific time under particular weather conditions.
This shot, taken on a rainy Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m. during winter last year, was the second-to-last exposure on my roll of Kodak T-MAX. It was something of a miracle, because not only did I want to capture this image on that day, at that time, under those conditions, but the laneway acts as service entrance for a number of bars and restaurants, so you have to judge the timing of the shot very well: Uniacke court tends to fill up with cars around 6:00 p.m., blocking the wonderful mural by Melbourne street artist Deb on the back wall.
I had attempted to nab the same shot less than two weeks earlier. Knowing that I had only six shots left on the roll, and that it was unlikely that I would get my dream day, dream time, dream weather conditions, and a conspicuous absence of heaps heaped up in the court, I had come past on a Thursday evening, around 5:40.
Wrong day, wrong time, no rain, and plenty of jalopies jungling up the laneway all equalled a wasted shot I squeezed off reluctantly.
But when my dream day, time and weather conditions rolled around ten nights later, you can bet your bippy I hustled my bustle up Spencer street P.D.Q. against a curtain of driving rain to clip the redheaded cutie holding court over Uniacke court.
And only one car to mar my Hayworthian honey’s scaly embonpoint!
The short ficción I’ve added in the audio track accompanying the photograph is the feeling of that image, the feeling of ineffable mystery which initially drew me to Uniacke court and caused me to make a mental note that some fragrant essence of the place makes itself manifest on rainy Sunday evenings at 6:00 p.m., and that I ought to make the effort to haul out my ancient Pentax K1000 at precisely that time, under precisely those weather conditions, and try and capture that ethereal, ectoplasmic essence on black-and-white emulsion.
Like those weird ellipses in David Lynch’s films, I’ll leave it to you to imagine what dark aura I found emanating from the fatal femme’s breast.
In a recent post, I called flânography ‘the poetry of photography’, and described it as an attempt to photograph the absent, the invisible, the unspeakable energy of places. In many ways, the addition of an expressly poetic description of the laneway and the construction of an ambient soundscape intended to immerse you in my experience is the attempt to ‘amplify’ that absent, invisible, ‘indicible’ dimension of poetry I hear with my eyes in Uniacke court.
Last week I ran into Melbourne photographer Chris Cincotta (@melbourneiloveyou on Instagram) as he was swanning around Swanston street. In the course of bumping gums about my passion for Super 8, Chris said that, while he had never tried the medium, he was all for ‘the romance’ of it.
Knowing his vibrant, super-saturated æsthetic as I do, I could see, with those same inward eyes of poetry which hear the colourful auras of Uniacke court, how Chris would handle a cartridge of Kodak Vision3 50d. And that inward vision of Chris’s vision was a very different one indeed to my own.
That flash of insight got me thinking about the way that qualitatively different ways of seeing, based in differences of personality, ultimately transform external reality in a gradient that compounds, and how, moreover, two individuals like Chris and myself could have developed radically different visions of the same subject: Melbourne.
It could be argued that, if you spend as much time on the streets as Chris and I do, the urban reality of Melbourne could rapidly decline for you into drab banality. But for both of us, Melbourne is a place of continual enchantment, though I think the nature of that enchantment is qualitatively different, based in fundamental differences of personality.
The individual’s artistic vision encompasses a ‘personal æsthetic’, based in one’s personality, which dictates preferences and choices in media which compound as they are made with more conscious intent and deliberation.
Where Chris prefers the crisp clarity of digital, which imparts a kind of hyper-lucidity and sense of speedy pace to his photos, I prefer the murky graininess of film—still compositions which develop slowly.
While Chris tends to prefer working in highly saturated colour that is chromatically well-suited to highlight Melbourne’s street art, I work exclusively in black-and-white.
And while I know that Chris labours with a perfectionist’s zeal in editing his photos so that the hyper-lucid clarity and super-vibrant colours of his images faithfully represent his vision of Melbourne, I prefer to do as little editing as possible, working with the limitations and unpredictability of film to try and capture my vision of Melbourne ‘in camera’ as much as possible.
If I were to offer an analogy of the æsthetic difference created by these cumulative preferences and choices in equipment, medium, and attitude to editing, I would say that Chris’s photographs feel more like the experience of Melbourne on an acid trip, whereas my own pictures give the impression of a sleepwalker wandering the streets in a dark dream.
The city is the same, but the two visions of it, produced by these cumulative technical preferences and choices, are very different.
But where does the vital æsthetic difference come from?
Ultimately, the personal æsthetic which dictates different preferences and choices in equipment, media, and attitudes to editing are couched in two different artistic visions of the same subject, and these inward visions produce two radically different ways of physically seeing Melbourne.
With his crisp, colourful, action-packed compositions, Chris, I think, has a very playful, ludic vision of Melbourne: he sees it as an urban wonderland or playground.
And this is perfectly consonant with his gregarious, extroverted character. For those of us who are fortunate to know him, Chris is as much a beacon of light diffusing joyous colour over Melbourne as his own rainbow-coloured umbrella, and I notice that he effortlessly reflects the colourful energies of everyone he talks to.
If I am ‘the Melbourne Flâneur’, I would describe Chris Cincotta as—(to coin a Frenchism)—‘the Melbourne Dériveur’: his joyous, playful approach to exploring the urban wonderland of Melbourne with the people he shepherds on his tours seems to me to have more in common with Guy Debord’s theory of the dérive than with my own more flâneuristic approach.
Being an introvert and a lone wolf on the hunt for tales and tails, while I’m as much a ‘romantic’ as Chris, it’s perhaps little wonder that the ‘Dean Kyte æsthetic’ should be very different, more noirish as compared to Chris’s Technicolor take: the romance of Melbourne, for me, is dark, mysterious, and I see this city in black-and-white.
Melbourne is not a ‘high noir’ city like American metropolises such as New York and Los Angeles. Rather, there is a strain of old-world Gothicism in Melbourne which, when I sight sites like Uniacke court through my lens, reminds me more of the bombed-out Vienna of The Third Man (1949), or the London of Night and the City (1950).
And if Chris is a beacon of colourful light to those of us who know him, the ambiguity of black-and-white is perhaps a good metaphor for my character, from whence my personal æsthetic proceeds.
If there is a ‘Third Man’ quality to Melbourne for me, it’s perhaps because there’s a touch of Harry Lime in me—the rakish rogue. Like Lime, whose spirit animal, the kitten—an ‘innocent killer’—discovers him in the doorway, you might find me smirking and lurking in the shadows of a laneway, revelling, cat-like, in the mysterious ambience of ‘friendly menace’ in the milieu, what I call ‘the spleen of Melbourne’.
If you haven’t checked out Chris Cincotta’s work on Instagram, I invite you to make the comparison in styles. It’s fascinating to see how two artists can view the same city so differently. And being so generous with his energy, I know Chris will appreciate any comments or feedback you leave him.
Here’s a newsflash for those of you who have not been keeping up to date with the hourly drama that is the weather in Melbourne: it’s been a bit funny lately.
Melbourne is perhaps the only city in the world where the question, ‘What will I wear today?’ is an existential dilemma.
We’ve been having the ‘worst of both worlds’ these past couple of weeks: it’s been both muggy and cold, which means that if you dress for the humidity, you freeze, and if you dress for the rain, you sweat.
That was the uncomfortable dilemma I was living with when Melbourne photographer Tommy Backus (@writes_with_light on Instagram) caught me on the steps of the Nicholas Building in Flinders lane last week.
I first met Tommy in Frankston, where he took some handsome portraits of me, which you can check out here. It was a pleasure to run into him again, and a greater pleasure still to receive a compliment from him on my fashion. I had just come from a business meeting, and before that I had been cursing the ‘bloody Melbourne weather’: cold and rainy as it was, it was too damn muggy to be wearing a three-piece wool suit.
Such is the price of being a dandy, or ornate dresser, in Melbourne: your Melbourne Flâneur, dear readers, suffers on the crucifix of fashion.
You will doubtless recall that when I set forth my thoughts on what is a flâneur, I said that, in addition to being a pedestrian and the keenest possible observer of the æsthetic qualities latent in the urban environment, the flâneur must necessarily be a dandy.
This was the most controversial premise in my argument, but the logic was straightforward and sound: Charity, I said, begins at home, and a man who does not regard himself first and foremost as a worthy æsthetic object of investigation is highly unlikely to bring to bear that acute perspicacity to æsthetic detail in the external world which I attribute to the flâneur if he does not first of all attend to the details of his own person.
But let us not be in confusion about the dandy philosophy. As M. Baudelaire cautions us: ‘Dandyism is not, as many people who have hardly reflected on the subject appear to believe, an immoderate taste for clothes and material elegance. These things, for the perfect dandy, are merely symbols of the aristocratic superiority of his spirit.’
As Philip Mann discerned in his book The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), at heart, æsthetically-minded men who are accursed with the ‘pathology’ of dandyism seek to square the circle of life and art, of form and content, to unify self with the meaning that self creates. The dandy, says Mann, seeks ‘to become identical with himself’—that is, to become identical with his ideal of personality by applying the rigorous æsthetic of a work of art to his own life.
Thus, it is not difficult to see (as per Baudelaire) that the dandy’s outer person may be the canvas of his mind, and that the object of the ‘art’ of dandyism is to integrate the wood of character with the veneer, the outer being a platonic reflection of the inner.
But again, let us not fall precipitately into the error which would appear (superficially at least) to be the next logical steppingstone in our analysis of the dandy life: the dandy is not a ‘fop’.
Though he is androgynous by his very nature, arrogating to himself the feminine privilege of display, there is nothing ‘effeminate’ about the dandy.
As Beau Brummell—the first dandy, and an implacable foe of the kind of ‘peacockery’ in men’s fashion which he set himself to reform in the early nineteenth century—presciently divined, the essence of masculine beauty is of a ‘moral’ (that is, a spiritual) variety, in contradistinction to the physical quality of feminine beauty, and lies in masculine virtues, to wit:—simplicity, rectitude, honesty, discrimination, rigour and sobriety.
Along these classic lines, Brummell designed for himself the first modern ‘suit’—the perfection of masculine costume which, although it has been endlessly tinkered with, modified and refined since his day, will never be superseded by any masculine costume anywhere in the world, precisely because it gives the perfect outward form to the inner, spiritual qualities we associate with that being we call a ‘man’.
The dandy, in seeking to ‘become identical with himself’, identical with his ideal of personality, is not the epitome of masculine beauty because his clothes give him some special ‘aura’ he would otherwise lack, the way that dress, lingerie, makeup and jewellery heighten a woman’s allure and dissimulate her flaws; it is rather because he is at his ‘most transparent’—his most naked, even—when he is fully and perfectly dressed.
Any woman will tell you (by her behaviour, if not by her words) that the thing all women find most attractive in men is not their confidence, but their congruence—the transparent alignment of thoughts, words, and actions.
‘Honesty’ is a closely related quality in the constellation of masculine virtues which comprise congruence, and likewise, any woman will tell you (probably by her words, and certainly by her behaviour) that the thing she finds least attractive in a man is any whiff of ‘dishonesty’, any lack of transparent congruency in his thoughts, words and actions.
And it certainly does not go without saying that in adhering with especial scrupulousness to the rigorous and merciless rules of correct masculine attire which Mr. Brummell was the first to articulate, that a man cannot depart from the masculine virtues of simplicity, rectitude, discrimination and sobriety and still consider himself to be a dandy.
In other words, in contradistinction to what ‘many people who have hardly reflected on the subject appear to believe’, there is no place for the garish or the gaudy in the dandy’s wardrobe. Display for its own ebullient sake (that is, to ‘draw attention to oneself’) is exclusively a quality of the feminine.
The dandy does not ‘seek attention’. Rather, attention naturally finds him;—for we are always attracted to someone who shines with the aura of self-knowledge—including the knowledge of the ‘beauty’ of his own being, which he wears proudly, honestly, transparently for all the world to see, with modest confidence.
We are, in fine, attracted to anyone who gives evidence of being congruent with himself, for such a man, we know, is not easily found, and if he gives evidence of this, it is likely that he is in possession of other masculine virtues, such as honesty, reliability, dependability.
What distinguishes the dandy, however, from even the man who is very well-, very correctly, dressed with respect to ‘the details’ of his deportment, is that the dandy transcends the rules.
When anybody asks me, I tell them that if I were to define my personal style, it would be to say that I am ‘outrageously conservative’ in my approach to fashion.
That is, while I follow the rules scrupulously, as in the photograph above, some hint of my Aquarian nature always escapes the repressive, saturnine influence of Capricorn in me, whether that’s in the fine rainbow pinstripe of the otherwise sober black suit; the almost perfectly complimenting blue floral shirt and tie; or the bottle-green snapbrim Fedora, the Akubra I wore as a flâneur in Paris, with its jaunty red feather.
While perhaps outrageous in themselves, taken as an ensemble, they contribute to an effect of conservatism so extreme that they transcend sobriety in a rather unique way, one which conveys (if I am correctly interpreting the compliments I tend to get from people) the intense creativity and originality I bring to my work as a writer, which is always tempered by my equally intense adherence to precision, correctness, tradition, and ‘bonne forme’.
That is the vital æsthetic difference, the piquant je-ne-sais-quoi of exotic quality I bring to the bespoke writing, editorial and publishing concerns of my clients: like a tailor labouring in a noble and venerable tradition, they know that I will not only follow ‘the rules of good form’ scrupulously, but that, as an irrepressible artist, I will innovate to an unexpected degree within the very narrow latitude of creativity those rules allow to create a document unique to them.
What thinketh you, dear readers? Is the world ripe for a resurgence of dandyism—of ‘beautiful men’ who say and think and do in alignment with the highest versions of themselves? And do you agree that attention to the æsthetic essence of oneself is a cornerstone to being a flâneur?
I’m interested, as always, to contend, defend and generally converse with you in the comments below.
And I recommend you also check out Tommy Backus’s photographs on Instagram. As I said to him last week, it was nice to be able to put names to some of the kooky characters I’ve clocked around town.
One of the icons that Melbourne is known for is “The Skipping Girl”, Australia’s first animated neon sign, which formerly advertised the Skipping Girl Vinegar brand.
From the Art Deco rooftop of a converted factory in Victoria street, Abbotsford, she jumps rope over 16,000 times per night, and one of the most romantic things to do in Melbourne at night is to take the route 12 or 109 trams to Victoria Gardens and watch this 84-year-old icon repeat her nightly performance.
An icon is an image, a symbol which substitutes for an absent other whose spirit is supposed to reside in the icon, animating it, and receiving the adoration which would otherwise go directly to the sacred personage, if they were present.
It’s interesting, therefore, to reflect that the Skipping Girl, who was once the icon associated with a brand of vinegar which is no longer manufactured, has become the genius loci of Melbourne. But when I took the ‘flânograph’ above with my vintage Pentax K1000, she did not represent for me so much a symbol of ‘old Melbourne’ which had disappeared, but someone who had disappeared, an absent other I will always associate with the Skipping Girl.
As I explain in the video below, the first time I encountered the Skipping Girl, I was stepping off the 109 tram with a Dutch girl I had picked up eight hours earlier. We were about to go upstairs to her apartment, across the road in Richmond, and make love.
When I saw that neon icon beating time against the night, it was like seeing an X on a treasure map: this icon of Melbourne would always be, for me, a perpetual monument to a personal conquest, marking the spot of my greatest victory in Daygame.
In his essay “The Poetic Experience of Townscape and Landscape” (1982), documentary filmmaker Patrick Keiller describes the flâneur as a literary motif signifying two types of experience. Following Schiller’s distinction between the naïve and sentimental poet, I think we can summarize Keiller’s two types of flâneur as likewise being ‘naïve’ and ‘sentimental’.
The ‘naïve flâneur’ is more like the classical, nineteenth-century dandy conceived by Baudelaire. As Keiller says, he ‘takes the city as his salon’. He’s a romantic adventurer—a Daygamer, in essence—whose ‘chance encounters are largely with people’ rather than with those architectural citizens of a city, buildings and monuments. Whatever dreamlike quality there is in the encounter between this flâneur and the city derives from ‘his surrender to the randomness of urban life.’
The ‘sentimental flâneur’, en revanche, is a solitary dériveur who drifts through the city as though it were a petrified dream, experiencing the ‘long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens’ which renders the banal street marvellous. As Keiller says, this flâneur ‘may meet others, he may fall passionately in love, but this is not his motive, it merely enhances his experience by enabling it to be shared.’
As a Melbourne flâneur, I have always felt like a synthesis of these two figures, but tending more towards the latter. I can ‘do’ Daygame, I can take adventitious advantage of the randomness of urban life to seize a romantic encounter; but, being a genuine introvert, I am more constitutionally inclined towards solitary drifting through the externalized ‘Forms’ of my thought which streets, parks, statues, monuments and buildings seem to symbolize for me.
Keiller cites Surrealist poet Louis Aragon, who, in Le paysan de Paris (1926), describes this paradoxical sensation of seeming to experience the platonic forms of things embodied in the constitutive elements of the city.
‘The way I saw it,’ Aragon writes, ‘an object became transfigured: it took on neither the allegorical aspect nor the character of the symbol, it did not so much manifest an idea as constitute that very idea. Thus it extended deeply into the world’s mass…’
For Aragon, this sensation was a presentiment of ‘a feeling for nature’, but it would be more specific to say that it was a feeling for the ambiguity of urban nature.
‘I acquired the habit of constantly referring the whole matter to the judgement of a kind of frisson which guaranteed the soundness of this tricky operation,’ Aragon writes.
This ‘frisson’, as Keiller observes, is not dissimilar from that feeling of ‘rightness’ a photographer intuitively senses immediately before he presses the shutter release button. This sensation is the moment when a swatch of street cuts itself out of the banal tableau of urban nature and quadrates itself in the abstract frame of a mental viewfinder as an ‘image’, as something marvellously photogenic.
The sentimental flâneur, Keiller contends, carries a camera to record these marvellous transfigurations. But, sentimental soul that I am, when I went back to photograph the Skipping Girl, nearly a year after my conquest of the Dutch girl, I was not photographing the Skipping Girl and her miraculous transformation of the night.
I was attempting to photograph the absence of the Dutch girl, for whom she was an icon.
In his book with Jean Mohr, Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography (1982), John Berger writes that ‘[b]etween the moment recorded and the present moment of looking at the photograph, there is an abyss.’ It is an abyss of absence, of ambiguity, which carries with it ‘a shock of discontinuity’.
‘The ambiguity of a photograph does not reside within the instant of the event photographed,’ Berger writes. ‘The ambiguity arises out of that discontinuity which gives rise to … [t]he abyss between the moment recorded and the moment of looking.’
In my ‘flânograph’ of the Skipping Girl, that abyss was doubled:—for there would be an abyss between the moment of looking at the developed photograph and the moment I was now recording, just as there was, for me, an abyss between the moment I was recording and the moment the photograph was intended to record, some ten months earlier.
As a writer, I have long played with the idle idea (impossible to realize) of writing a book completely without words. The flânograph of the Skipping Girl was one of a series of photographs I took with my battered Pentax for a ‘picture book’ I intended to compose for my little niece, a wordless collection of black and white images of things and places I had encountered in my flâneries, and which, in their silent ambiguity, might give a child an ineffable, inenarrable sense of the life of an uncle she had never met.
Was there an enduring, impalpable resonance of the unseen, unknown and unknowable event sensible, apprehensible by the viewer of the photograph of the Skipping Girl, démeublé of its ostensible subject, the Dutch girl? Could the feeling—menacing; enigmatic; melancholy—of this particular square of urban nature—what we might call ‘the Spleen of Melbourne’—‘speak for itself’, eloquently and without words?
These were the questions I wanted answers to. And like Eugène Atget, of whom Walter Benjamin said that he photographed the empty streets of Paris as though they were ‘scenes of crime’, I went back and photographed the scenes of my Melburnian conquests—the Skipping Girl, a sodden Windsor place, a certain tree in the Carlton Gardens—now eerily empty of myself and the lovers of a moment who had left mortal wounds in my heart.
This feeling for the menacing, enigmatic, melancholy ambiguity of urban nature which precedes the click of the shutter; this ineffable, inenarrable frisson is what I call ‘flânography’, and it’s something other than photography—something more than merely ‘writing with light’.
It’s a sensitivity to the absent, the invisible, the unspeakable. It’s the poetic cry of the silent image which establishes historical evidence of the ‘baffling crime’ which is the personal ‘situation of our time’, and which the asphalt jungle gives colour and cover to.
If there is a ‘noirishness’ in the flânograph of the Skipping Girl, it is because, when I look back on my brief encounter with the Dutch girl over that abyss of ambiguity which it records, I feel (as I do after all my amours) like the victim of a ‘baffling crime’ at the hands of a femme fatale.
Like a consummate con artist who gets his pocket picked, I gamed her and ended up getting gamed by her.
When writing with light starts to become ‘poetic’ instead of merely prosaic; when the weak intentionality that a photographer possesses to express himself through a box is leveraged to the maximum, such that the urban landscape is transfigured and transformed into an image that is personally expressionistic, then photography starts to become ‘flânography’.
If you are a photographer and would like to explore how I can provide you with bespoke assistance in sensitively curating your work into an artisanal-quality book through provision of my Artisanal Desktop Publishing service, I invite you to download this brochure, or to contact me directly.
Vitus Bacchausen wishes that somebody would make a movie about the flâneur, but admits, for prescient reasons, that such a film would be impossible to make within the constraints of commercial cinema.
Why, Bacchausen wonders, have there been no ‘flâneur movies’?
There are two answers to this question. Firstly, one may adduce a not insubstantial list of characters in film who might be described as flâneurs.
The first, and most obvious, candidate is Scottie Ferguson in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), who, when quizzed, gives his profession as ‘wandering’. But you can also reel off putative examples like the wandering protagonists of Antonioni’s films, such as Lidia in La Notte (1961), Vittoria in L’Eclisse (1962), and the photographer of Blowup (1966).
You could point to Jesse and Céline in Before Sunrise (1995), or the eponymous heroine of Amélie (2001). Petra Nolan of the University of Melbourne even makes a plausible case, in her PhD thesis, for Walter Neff, the vagabond insurance salesman of Double Indemnity (1944), as ‘the cinematic flâneur’ par excellence.
The key word is ‘plausible’.
All the examples adduced above are plausible, and a convincing prima facie case could be made for any of them as cinematic flâneurs, one which would appear to refute Bacchausen’s contention that the figure of the flâneur has not really found his place in cinema.
But my second answer to Bacchausen’s question refutes the one I’ve just given.
I would say that if you look more carefully at any of the films cited above, you must come to the conclusion that they feature characters who partake in flânerie, but that these characters are not themselves flâneurs pur-sang.
In an earlier post, I gave a fairly strict definition of what is a flâneur. I offered three traits which I regard as non-negotiable characteristics in any definition.
Firstly, the flâneur is a pedestrian. He walks, not occasionally, but as his primary and preferred mode of transport.
Secondly, he is an acute observer of the world that files past him as he walks, and as Bacchausen notices, there is, in the sport of observation, a distinctly æsthetic end to the chase. The flâneur is a hunter who chases after beauty.
Thirdly, there is a pronounced element of the dandy in the character of the flâneur. Charity begins at home: unless he firstly recognizes himself to be a worthy æsthetic object of attention, it is highly unlikely that a man who is not assiduously attentive to the details of his own deportment is going to exhibit the level of unusual acuity of attention toward the æsthetic details of the external world which I ascribe to the flâneur.
A man may walk shabbily abroad looking longingly after beauty, but that man is not a flâneur. He is the Average Frustrated Chump you see shambling down Swanston street.
Given the definition above, it’s hard to see how the characters adduced in the first answer are flâneurs, though it can certainly be conceded that they partake in the activity of flânerie in a more or less dilettantish way.
Jep Gambardella, the Roman giornalista of La grande bellezza (2013), is the only character in film I can think of who satisfies my three-point definition as a ‘cinematic flâneur pur-sang’.
So the question remains: Are there flâneur films?
The answer is yes, but it is the character of the films themselves, rather than any characters they contain, which may be regarded as ‘flâneuristic’.
At the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, Slavoj Žižek made some intriguing remarks vis-à-vis. Hitchcock; to wit—how Hitchcock’s films have an uncanny quality, at certain moments, of appearing to ‘think for themselves’.
In Psycho (1960), for instance, there are two extraordinary moments, one immediately after the shower scene and the other immediately before the second murder. In both cases, the camera detaches itself from the point of view of the character it has locked onto and acts ‘queerly’, as though it had an intelligence and agency of its own, moving through space and looking at things quite pointedly, as though it were mutely trying to tell us something, the way our unconscious appeals to us through images.
Žižek calls this ‘thinking through film’, and it’s a highly rarefied cognitive process which seems to emerge from the apparatus of cinema itself—something like Baudelaire’s sensation that the image of sky and sea, and a little yacht trembling on the horizon, seemed to be thinking through him—‘musicalement et pittoresquement, sans arguties, sans syllogismes, sans déductions’ (‘musically and pictorially, without quibbles, without syllogisms, without deductions’).
Meditating on Žižek’s remarks, I began to ask myself what a cinema of flânerie might look like.
In fact, flâneur films are the oldest kind. They have their roots in the actualité, the single, locked-off shot, without pan or cut, of the miracle which a moment of everyday life becomes when you train a camera at it for so long that it transcends its boring banality—like the shot of a sunset unfolding behind the Melbourne CBD which I’ve included at the head of today’s post.
The camera’s ability to gaze fixedly at a detached detail is like, and yet unlike, the flâneur’s acuity of observation, for our eyes do not ‘frame’ things. When a shot is composed and unblinkingly held for minutes on end, and when, as in the video above, it is implied that this perspective is closely aligned but not identical with the point of view of an observer we cannot see, there is the uncanny sense that the camera itself has ‘intelligence’.
A film becomes ‘flâneurial’ when a moment of documentary actuality enters into it and is sustained well beyond what the average viewer would regard as a reasonable length of time.
To my mind, Ozu is the master of this kind of flâneurial cinema. His ‘pillow shots’ are moments of ventilation in a film where architectural features and irrelevant details are held for longer than they would ordinarily be. Ozu’s stubborn refusal to pan or dolly, to allow his camera to ‘look away’, imbues it with a sense of wilful, alien intelligence.
The other attribute of flâneurial cinema is the offshoot of the actualité, the ‘phantom ride’. This is when the camera is placed on a train, tram or car, and, without moving itself, appears to float or glide like a ghost, registering the succession of actual events which pass it by.
The classic phantom ride, the masterpiece of the form, is the famous “A Trip Down Market Street” (1906). Strapped to the front of a cable car, the camera floats towards the Ferry Building for 13 minutes, registering the life of the street with that alien fixity of attention we see in Ozu, never turning its ‘head’ to gaze about itself as a real flâneur would.
The capacity of the camera to move in this gliding, floating fashion, simulating human ambulation but very different from it, is a quality that Antonioni makes good use of in his passeggiate.
In La Notte, the camera, raised at some elevation behind Lidia, appears almost to stalk her as it stealthily tracks her tacking between bollards. In Blowup, in the key scenes set in Maryon Park, the camera is subtly detached from the point of view of the photographer. It pans to sweep the scene in a movement more eerie than a human head-turn because of its mechanical smoothness. Or, in a moment of startling volition, it gazes up at the branches of a tree in what we realize only afterwards was its own ‘point of view shot’.
This uncanny sense of the film possessing its own intelligence and agency, principally through the camera, but also through cutting and the rest of the constitutive apparatus which compose a film, is, I think, what Žižek means when he talks about ‘thinking through film’.
‘To understand the film,’ he says, ‘you should include into its content the message delivered by the autonomy of form. It’s at that level that true thinking in cinema happens.’
When a film has the volition to move—or not move—through the world as it wishes, and to study with its own fixity of attention those details of actuality which arrest it in its passage, the character of the film itself becomes ‘flâneurial’.
What do you think?
Are there characters in movies you would actually define as flâneurs, or, like Bachhausen and myself, are you at a loss to think of any who really meet the measure?
Is it possible for films to ‘think for themselves’, as I’m suggesting?
I’m interested to hear your comments below.
At the beginning of North by Northwest (1959), Mad Man Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) famously reminds his secretary that ‘in the world of advertising there’s no such thing as a lie, there’s only the expedient exaggeration….’
The most common confusion I find myself addressing when I meet prospective clients looking to engage my personal services is defining the difference between copywriting and writing what I call ‘strategic documentation’ for small businesses and individual entrepreneurs.
It’s essentially the difference between telling a truth that your readers can hear and telling them an ‘expedient exaggeration’.
Language is a tool designed to represent reality via a common abstract symbology—a code, if you will. When we communicate in business, it’s important that the message we transmit is the same message that our clients, investors and other stakeholders receive, for a misinterpretation of the code can be costly.
The problem with marketing is that it’s a corruption of the fundamental function of human language. Whether you call it an outright ‘lie’ or an ‘exaggeration’ which expediently facilitates your short-term financial goals, the effect is the same: in seeking to manipulate language to create an impression of your product or service which is not strictly and accurately tied to the referent, marketing does a violence to human language which breaks trust.
If we want to continue doing business with people in the long term, we need to continually affirm our truthfulness, honesty, and trustworthiness—in short, our reliability—in our written communications with them.
But we have all had the experience of writing a memo to a difficult colleague who is hell-bent on pursuing an idée fixe, or a proposal to an investor we desperately want to impress. We seek to express and explain our truth to the reader as honestly as possible, and yet we can’t derail the difficult colleague from his costly plan or persuade the investor we are sure would be the perfect partner for our enterprise.
Our words meet resistance. It’s as though the other party cannot ‘hear’ the truth.
This is what I mean when I say that my Bespoke Document Tailoring service involves writing, editing and proofreading ‘strategic documentation’ for small businesspeople and individual entrepreneurs; for it involves telling the truth in a way that your audience can ‘hear’.
The strategy is empathy. Mirror neurons facilitate our written communications by giving us access to the common code of human language and allowing us to empathically ‘picture’ in our minds what a writer is trying to say in these abstract symbols scratched on a page.
But the problem, as Professor Steven Pinker observes, is that most people—even experts in their own professions—find it tedious and difficult to logically organize their ideas on the page from the point of view of the person who will ultimately read their words.
To put it bluntly, they’re lacking in the strategy of empathy.
Empathy for your reader is the fundamental difference between manipulating language so as to create an expedient impression of your product or service in his or her mind, and manipulating language so that the person you are seeking to persuade can hear the truth of your proposition and agree that the solution you are offering is a good one.
If you want to get your needs met in business, you better be prepared to offer value truthfully in a way that meets the needs of the people you are seeking to convince. Finding the beautiful synthesis between your concerns and theirs and stating it eloquently, reverse-engineering your argument so that it falls out logically from the point of view of your reader, is core to the strategy of empathy.
As you can see, the preparation of ‘strategic documentation’ goes far deeper than copywriting—and, indeed, is diametrically opposed to it.
When you tell the truth about your product or service in a way that your audience can hear, the old alchemy of marketing, trying to massage ‘features’ into ‘benefits’ by some linguistic sleight of hand, is revealed for what it is—an ‘expedient exaggeration’.
If you are in Melbourne and surrounds and you’re not sure how to frame your message in a way that your reader can hear and agree with, I invite you to contact me for a private measure, or download a free brochure to find out more about how I can assist your small business with my Bespoke Document Tailoring service.
One punishing summer day in January, I ‘flânographed’ this Atlas in my anklings about town as a Melbourne flâneur. One of a pair of Telamons who formerly held up the portal of the Colonial Bank of Australia, he now graces the doorway of an underground bicycle garage at the University of Melbourne.
An appropriate place for him to struggle with his eternal burden, perhaps.
As I said in this post, I most often describe the art of writing as being ‘sculptural’ or ‘architectural’, and often a writer feels like this fellow, trying to balance an elaborate structure of thought on the top of his head.
For an academic writer such as the Masters student or PhD candidate, the sense of ‘oppression’, of being weighed down by the burden of this elaborate architecture of thought you are trying to build in words can give you the haunted, worried expression this Atlas wears.
Many students arrive at the Masters—or even the PhD—level lacking confidence in their ability to write essays, reports and theses to an academic standard. And the sense of anxiety is doubled if your first language isn’t English.
In 2005, Wendy Larcombe, Anthony McCosker, and Kieran O’Loughlin conducted a study at the University of Melbourne. They wanted to know whether providing a ‘thesis-writing circle’ to doctoral students from both native English-speaking and non-native English-speaking backgrounds had any effect on the students’ confidence and abilities as academic writers.
Larcombe, McCosker, and O’Loughlin published the results of their study in the Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice in 2007, and if you’re a postgrad struggling with the burden of preparing a research thesis, their article makes for encouraging reading.
Two problems typically confront postgrads: the development of their skills as academic writers, and the development of their confidence.
As Larcombe, McCosker, and O’Loughlin found, both doctoral candidates and their supervisors generally perceive the academic skills support services provided by universities to be ‘too generic’.
As a student at the postgraduate level, you require editorial support that is specific to your discipline. The writing advice and strategies offered by your editor must be bespoke to your needs, framed within the intellectual context and discourse of your discipline, and relevant to the concept you are trying to express in your thesis.
But students arrive at the postgraduate level with different editing skills and editing needs.
Editing the writing of students is something that supervisors don’t always feel is their ‘rôle’. When they do correct spelling mistakes or faulty syntax in draft chapters without providing explanation or instruction, students can feel ‘demoralized’ by the implicit negative judgment of their work, according to Larcombe, McCosker, and O’Loughlin.
A crucial part of developing your skills as an academic writer involves developing your confidence. Having a ‘writing facilitator’ who is independent of your supervisor, one who provides editorial advice tailored to your discipline and to your specific sticking points as a writer, improves both your ability and your confidence.
Larcombe, McCosker, and O’Loughlin found that being able to discuss what you are working on with another writer who offers supportive, positive feedback grows your confidence as an academic writer. Being tutored in the craft of writing by a professional who is able to intelligently discuss your thesis with you helps you to develop the practical skills of writing in a way which is relevant and specific to your discipline.
With my Bespoke Document Tailoring service, I offer postgraduate students in Melbourne a bespoke and personal approach to copyediting and proofreading their theses.
As a professional writer, my specialty is the logical architecture of written language, the organization of ideas at their deepest level so as to ensure maximal comprehension by your readers.
As an Associate Member of the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd), I’m bound by a Code of Ethics, so I can’t help you to cheat, but as a writing facilitator, I can provide independent editorial support which is specific to your discipline and which complements the structural advice you’re receiving from your doctoral supervisor.
If you’re interested in working with a professional writer who can help you to find your own unique style on the page, tutoring you in the development of your voice, I invite you to contact me, or to download a free brochure describing how I can help you with your Bespoke Document Tailoring needs.
A question I am often asked is, ‘What is a flâneur?’ As I explain in today’s video, a flâneur is a kind of ‘Parisian idler’.
Flâner (the French verbal infinitive from which the noun is derived) means both to stroll, saunter, walk or wander more or less aimlessly, and to loaf, laze, or lounge about. The ambulatory motion of the former would seem to preclude the stasis of the latter:—how does one walk and sit at the same time?
This paradox is merely the foundation of a complex structure of irreconcilable logical paradoxes which comprise the ludic enterprise of flânerie and constitute the characteristics of the flâneur.
The question then follows, what is it like to be a Melbourne flâneur? If to be a flâneur is to be a Parisian idler, then to be a Parisian idler in Melbourne would seem to add one paradox de trop to the complex character of the flâneur.
Pas du tout.
I find a lot of similarities between Melbourne and Paris. People often ask if Melbourne is like Europe. The answer is yes. Of all the Australian capitals, Melbourne has the strongest ties to Europe, and despite its fraternal links to Greece and Italy, there seems to me to be an unmistakable soupçon parisien to its arcades and laneways, its bars and cafés, such that I sometimes think of Melbourne as being ‘Paris-on-the-Yarra’.
Key to Melbourne’s Parisian flavour is its walkability. It is, like Paris, a remarkably ‘walkable’ city: you can go very far on foot, and to be a flâneur you must be prepared to travel Melbourne without a car.
Fortunately, its famous tram network (the most extensive in the world) serves roughly an analogous rôle to the Paris Métro, being thoroughly integrated into the peculiar character of the city and the fabric of its streets.
This means that if you get tired of walking in Melbourne, you don’t have to go too far to find the nearest tram stop!
The reason why the flâneur is necessarily a pedestrian is because the pace of idle observation is measured by the foot. In his essay Le peintre de la vie moderne (1863), Charles Baudelaire defines the flâneur as a ‘passionate observer’ whose home lies in the crowd; as a ‘mirror’ large as the crowd itself; as ‘a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness’ which reflects its movements.
In fine, the flâneur is an instrument of observation which reflects the colourful spectacles it observes in two ways: both matter-of-factly, as a mirror reflects actuality, and interpretatively, as a thoughtful subject who reflects upon what he sees.
You can see why the observational avocation of the flâneur might be an amusing exercise for someone whose vocation it is to be a writer: the writer’s desire to transcribe the external details of reality with the rigorous exactitude of a piece of recording equipment finds its playful analogue in his detectival attempts to divine the hidden causes and motivations behind the riddle of events observed obliquely, en passant.
The art of writing is essentially the art of thinking, and there must necessarily be objects upon which the writer may reflect if he is to express his thoughts articulately. To wander dreamily through a beautiful city like Paris or Melbourne is, for a writer, both physical and mental exercise: it allows him scope to play with objects in the landscape, practising his powers of observation and description as he reflects them and reflects upon them in articulations he makes to himself.
‘To feel and to think’, to satisfy the desires associated with such abstract work, to cultivate the ideal of masculine beauty about their persons, this, for Baudelaire, is the sole profession of the dandy, whom he conflates with the flâneur, that ‘prince who revels in his incognito everywhere he goes.’
Indeed, there must always be something of the dandy about the flâneur. Among his many paradoxes, this slumming spy who loves ‘to be in the midst of the crowd and yet hidden from it’ is very much a ‘man of fashion’ in the classic sense, like an heir-apparent travelling in a foreign country under an assumed name, with nothing but the unmistakable marks of his elegance to betray his royal birth.
You cannot be a flâneur pur-sang and not have more than a soupçon of the dandy about you. Precision of observation does not extend to external objects before it takes account of the correctness of one’s own comportment.
It is perhaps surprising to notice how many great writers, whose idle profession of feeling and thinking takes place in the ‘backstage’ of life, away from the observation of others, such that these spies are rarely the cynosure of all eyes, have nevertheless a touch of the dandy about them, a concern for dapper deportment.
An orderly mind is best expressed by orderly dress. And it is rare to find a writer who expresses himself on the page with unusual stylistic panache and who does not also possess some exquisite sprezzatura in his personal style.
Elegant writing, like elegant suiting, is the mastery of convention and the transcendence of strict limitations which define the correctness of expression.
With my Bespoke Document Tailoring service, I can help you to write elegant business documentation which is bespoke to your needs. If you want your documentation to reflect a bespoke image, to possess that æsthetic difference, the piquant je-ne-sais-quoi of exotic quality, why not collaborate with a writer who brings the keen perception and care for detail of the flâneur to your concerns?
I invite you to contact me to arrange a measure. And if you enjoyed this article, or if it aroused ideas of your own you would like to share with me, I would love to hear your thoughts on the flâneur in the comments below.