Why cities emptied by Covid are perfect for modern flâneurs

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Charles Baudelaire, whose 200th birthday on 9 April will be celebrated with stamp issues, new editions of his poetry and virtual events, is arguably more famous for his concept of the flâneur – an aimless stroller or ambler – than for his writing. That’s partly because reading his volumes Les Fleurs du Mal or Le Spleen de Paris requires a degree of application, but also because the idea of an individual moving through the city streets and finding aesthetic pleasure in the teeming crowds, appeals to us and continues to chime. At least, it did until spring 2020, when the crowds were told to stay at home.

Illustration drawn in 1907 by Raoul Serres for the poem Wine (from Les Fleurs du Mal) by Charles Baudelaire.
Illustration drawn in 1907 by Raoul Serres for the poem Wine (from Les Fleurs du Mal) by Charles Baudelaire. Photograph: World History Archive/Alamy

But even in a ghost city, it’s possible to think and walk like a flâneur. Rainer Hanshe has translated several of Baudelaire’s books into English – including Belgium Stripped Bare, about the French author’s visit to Brussels just before it was struck by a cholera epidemic. He notes: “The flâneur is a figure who, while immersed in the urban throng, is simultaneously separate from it. If more empty than not, our streets are still to some degree populated, and we can engage in the form of communion that Baudelaire referred to as a mysterious intoxication.”

This involves trying to get inside the heads of others – an act of ecstatic empathy that “peoples” the solitary walker’s imagination. It’s a radical idea that envisions the mind as a sponge or, perhaps, a social media channel. Baudelaire’s most memorable phrase for the flâneur was “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness”.

Some of his ideas need updating. The flâneur might be “a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes”, but what about the princesses? Prof Janet Wolff of the University of Manchester has written of the “invisible flâneuse”, of “respectable” women’s absence from public arenas in modern cities. In her 2016 book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City (Penguin, £8.99), Lauren Elkin calls for women to take to the streets, following the example of radically reflective female walkers from Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys to Rebecca Solnit.

Liverpool’s Albert Dock and a view of the Royal Liver building, Cunard building and the Port of Liverpool building.
Liverpool’s Albert Dock and a view of the Royal Liver building, Cunard building and the Port of Liverpool building. Photograph: Alamy

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin expanded Baudelaire’s ideas about the flâneur, adding to the myth of Paris as the archetypal modern metropolis. Some of TS Eliot’s poetic evocations of London sprang from his readings of Baudelaire.

But one can roam and ruminate equally in Cardiff, Dundee, Liverpool or Belfast. As urban consumer culture spreads, in the shape of delivery vans, Deliveroo bikes, “artisan” coffee shops and the like, you can arguably be a flâneur (there’s also a verb, flâner, to stroll) in towns, villages and countryside.

But to do so requires discipline. Here are 10 Baudelairean suggestions for exploring the ghost city.

Read the city

In his poem Le Soleil, Baudelaire writes of “Stumbling on words as on cobblestones”. To say we should treat the city as a text sounds pretentious, but not if we think about street names, tree species and the colours of the brickwork, and unearth forgotten plaques and historic sites. The plaque for Tyburn gallows at Marble Arch is close to a heavily trafficked spot, but few stop to study it. Even famous monuments can be looked at from new angles. Baudelaire wrote about marble statues as if they were sentient. What emotions do they stir in you? Who might have been here before you?

No rush hours – so no hurry

For some translators, “idler” is the best equivalent of flâneur. Ambling is best enjoyed slowly, daydreaming. “A dandy does nothing,” Baudelaire wrote. The pandemic-struck city, with its permanent Sunday-state, is ideal for leisurely meandering. Use it while it lasts.

The night walk

Photo shows a reflection of a figure in a puddle of water while walking a city street late at night.
“The mystery of shadows recast familiar places …” Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Noctambulism is a magical pursuit, as we swap sleep and ordinary dreams (or those garish ones we’ve all been having during lockdowns) for the dreamscape of the city. Artificial light, the absence of others, prowling foxes and the mystery of shadows recast familiar places as strange and special. To see the everyday anew is the ultimate goal of flânerie.

Turn off gadgets

If there’s one thing that kills the art of flânerie, it’s the smartphone; even worse are apps that count steps. Why look down when you can look up and about? If you want a soundtrack to walk to, visit the University of Birmingham’s Baudelaire Song Project and pick a slow-tempo chanson.

Window shopping

Parisian arcade, circa 1950: A woman walks beside the large pillars of the arcade at the western end of the Rue Rivoli, Paris.
A woman walks beside the pillars of the arcade at the western end of the rue de Rivoli, Paris, circa 1950. Photograph: Getty Images

The grand iron-and-glass arcades of Paris inspired Walter Benjamin, who was fascinated by the well-stocked magasins, the “temples” of capitalism. Window-shopping has not been banned, and you can still read the signage, promises, buildings, fashions. We are witnessing the gradual abandoning of the arcades; Benjamin would have been spellbound. Even Liverpool One, opened in 2008, suddenly seems old and semi-redundant.

Stop for a sit-down

Cafes shut? Pubs shuttered? There are always benches and steps, parks and plazas, as well as doorways to loiter in. There’s no shame in sitting. In his dazzlingly erudite book, The Walker: On Finding and Losing Yourself in the Modern City (Verso), Matthew Beaumont makes a convincing argument that convalescence – the state between health and illness – is the perfect mode for discovery as it makes us raw and sensitive but also disconnected. If you’re recovering from coronavirus, you may actually be convalescing. As Covid-19 recedes, our cities are convalescing, too.

Get surreal – or drunk

Philosopher Guy Debord, who described walking as a dérive (drift), was influenced by the surrealists, who used chance and games to develop new ideas and perspectives. One of Debord’s friends walked through a region of Germany following a map of London. Why not walk around an empty Manchester using a cut-up map reassembled at random? In his 1989 book Panegyric, Debord recounts wandering around Europe’s great cities trying different alcoholic drinks, including pints of mixed (half-mild, half-bitter) in England. How about a hip flask of absinthe in Aberdeen? In 1955, Debord developed the idea of psychogeography, which was later taken up by Iain Sinclair, Will Self and others.

Reinvent the city

CGI of Stockton-on-Tees’ green spaces plan.
CGI of Stockton-on-Tees’ green spaces plan. Photograph: Stockton-on-Tees borough council/Ryder

The Paris of Baudelaire and Benjamin is long gone. A flâneur today has to reckon with traffic, overtourism, selfies “in Sartre’s favourite cafe” and soulless spaces like La Défense. The emptying of our cities, and their reinvention post-pandemic has every chance of being an improvement on the hyperinflated housing, glass-and-steel phallocentricity, pseudo-public piazzas and rank consumerism of the late-20th-century metropolis. Perhaps we are ambling into a brighter future? Stockton-on-Tees’ projected giant green space, which will replace high street shops and provide residents with a wonderful patch of rus in urbe when it opens in 2025, harks back to the Victorian era of city parks.

Pick through the rubbish

Baudelaire writes of Paris’s chiffoniers or ragpickers, marginalised proto-recyclers of the city that ignores and shuns them. Benjamin developed this into the idea of poet-as-ragpicker. The ragpicking flâneur can construct his mental collage from the messy, chaotic, ugly, dirty discarded things found around the city. Dustbins and gutters can tell us more than museums. Keyworkers – including refuse collectors – see more of the “real” city than most. UK cities have some of the most extensive and storied post-industrial landscapes in the world, and most are to be found far from honeypots and theme-park “historic centres”.

Keep notes, make sketches

A pedestrian walks in an empty St Peter’s Square in Manchester, north west England on 5 January 2021.
A pedestrian walks in an empty St Peter’s Square in Manchester on 5 January 2021. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Baudelaire was not the first – or the last – wandering philosopher-writer. He took key ideas from Edgar Allan Poe, and authors as varied as Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, George Sand (cross-dressing to penetrate male-dominated milieux), James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Hessel, Ralph Ellison and Edmund White have contributed to the tradition. The flâneur appears in paintings by many artists, including Degas and Manet (while Edward Hopper painted like one), and can be seen ghosting through the work of film-makers such as Agnès Varda and Patrick Keiller. Much of the best travel writing benefits from a quizzing gaze, intellectual restlessness and a degree of distance – see Caryl Phillips’ The European Tribe. The empty city is waiting to be filled with new words.