‘Yet he did not hesitate in his career, but, with a mad energy, retraced his steps at once, to the heart of the mighty London.’
Edgar Allan Poe
My daughter wants to be a detective. I’ve explained to her that this is a high aim. The other day, two men passed us on our way to school. They walked as though being chased, down an alleyway between a block of flats. She watched them pass, and turned to me. ‘I wonder where they’re going.’
I’ve spent a lot of my life asking myself the same question.
For a while around Highbury and Stoke Newington, you might see a man dressed in a double-breasted suit and tie, with a pale fedora cocked low over his eyes, a coat over his shoulders. Everyone called him The Don. He walked the streets between Blackstock Road and Green Lanes and Church Street, always with a languid patience as he examined the prices of the hairdressers, the windows of the haberdashers and cafes. I once saw him help himself to an apple, waving away the protestations of the grocer who wanted to be paid.
When I moved back to that area after a few years away, I looked out for the Don as a sign that I had returned, perhaps not to a home, but to a place I recognised. Sadly, he seemed to have moved on. I encountered other familiar characters, however. A woman who suffered from an eating disorder, so weak she could barely walk. A man who wore a high leather hat, who I had once seen pissing over a shop doorway. Another man with wide hips and startling grey eyes, who carried two large bags with him everywhere. He looked like someone moving house, until you noticed him every day, seated on one of his bags on a corner of Highbury Green, looking defeated, and utterly alone. Even psychogeography has its victims.
Edward Bunker once wrote that a definition of a failure in Los Angeles is someone who doesn’t own a car. And if you don’t drive, you measure your life by strides. During the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, I walked back to Highbury from my job in an office near Holborn. Tubes and buses had been suspended. People walked in droves, orderly and urgent. (It occurred to me that tube strikes have always been endured to prepare for such disasters, simulations under the guise of labour politics). I found myself walking with a woman who wore a rucksack and wrap-around shades. Small, but muscular, she had such a sense of focus and power. We walked side by side for a few metres, but I struggled to match her pace. I thought of The Man of The Crowd, Edgar Allan Poe’s mystery of the flâneur, whose narrator is left exhausted by his pursuit of the character of the city. Ahead of me, the woman headed out into the empty street, and crossed down onto Essex Road.
A couple of years ago, I took a trip to Oslo, where I spent a weekend retracing the steps of Knut Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger. In the same way that Tropic of Cancer has a reputation for being about sex when it’s really about food, Hunger is really a book about walking. It was still on my mind when I returned to my home town not long afterwards, to visit my family. I have a strange relationship with that town these days, particularly after writing about it in my novel. Often this relationship entails walking its streets, while wondering why I chose to write about a small town heroin addict, to consider carefully what exactly I had been thinking. That time, I found myself on a narrow road up a hill in the backstreets, where a high churchyard wall seems always ready to collapse on the passing traffic. It was an area I would often find myself, during those awkward years when I practiced my escape into the world, but lacked any real destination. A figure approached me, lurching out across the years. I’d forgotten his name, if I’d ever known it. He would beg for change in the square, accompanied by a thin grey mongrel on a length of dirty rope. We would talk now and then, our paths crossing on our routes through that narrow town. I remembered his voice, which had a shrill, reedy quality to it, as though caught in the process of breaking. His eyes were large and sad, the yellowy-brown of cough medicine bottles. Now, as he approached me, I saw that his hair had frayed away into baldness, and he had grown a patchy beard along his jaw, which only accentuated the overall hairlessness of his cheeks. The dog had long gone. He still carried himself with an air of distress and anxiety. As he passed me by, it was with the same palpable need to be be somewhere, despite all appearances indicating that a timetable had abandoned him long ago. A pattern of hunger and disappointment had set him walking, probably ever since the last time I’d last seen him. I remembered why I’d written that book.
‘I walk, full of hope and faith…’