Bakewell, that small town in the Derbyshire Dales famous for its tarts which are in fact puddings, is approximately 24 miles from Macclesfield. Take the back roads via Flash and Longnor and you can add a further six or seven miles to the journey. It should take around three hours to get to Bakewell by bike. I say should, because I have never completed the journey, this despite several attempts. These repeated and ‘unsuccessful’ trips have not left me feeling anxious, mildly depressed or to chiding myself with one of those phrases, an all too common part of my youthful vocabulary: “can do better”, “should try harder”, “not good enough”, and the one word that lurked behind them all, failure. As a young man I had hoped that these words, applied like a whip, would drive me on to greater success. They did not. My ‘failure’, a word that now strikes me as anachronistic, to reach Bakewell has not lead to a loss of self-esteem. May I long not get to Bakewell.
In not getting to Bakewell; I always get side tracked by the particular lure of some lane, some single track, dipping down, turning fast. What’s hidden down there… I wonder? And off I go. A road runs along a ridge, a valley appears, looks green, looks promising. Perhaps it’s the village stranded in the mid distance? The needle of a church spire? There must be a road and the fact that I can’t see one makes it all the more appealing. Mystery? I cycle on but not for long. A side road appears more or less in the same direction as the village, the one I must now reach… on my way to Bakewell.
The village I discover is called Hollinsclough. Hollinsclough has a fine old school with an unusual tower. It also has a chapel, the inscription above which reads 1801. There is a red phone box, still working, no pub, no village shop, two roads. Of the latter one goes to Longnor the other falls off to the left. The road to Longnor is wide, freshly mettled and straight. It has all the attributes the other does not. I say ‘other’ because the other does not announce its destination. Too narrow for white lines, it disappears off to the left behind the old school house. Normally I would find this the more appealing of the two. But on this occasion, and I cannot say why, I find myself taking the one to Longnor. The road runs level before slipping gently downward. Freewheeling I straighten my back, plunge my hands into my pockets. There is something seditious and slightly undignified about a man in his 50’s riding a bike without hands. Not something you would want to be seen doing in grown up company. But there is no one around, no cars, no midweek hikers. I make the most of it and zig-zag my way between the white lines. The sun is shining and a warm breeze pushes up the valley, pushes up from Longnor, all the way from Bakewell. I do not know if this is the best way to Bakewell. Or even the right way. Certainly it is not the fastest. Which begs the question; what is the right way? the best way? Is it by time? by condition of the road? by safety? by scenery? by a combination of some or all of the above? by some pre-ordained route called ‘should’? Whatever it is, I am on my way.
Since leaving the ridge with its views of Chrome Hill, I have been on the edge of being lost. This ‘edge’ brings with it a sense of aliveness. The aliveness is infused with excitement. One road leads to another. In these sudden and unexpected moments of praxis the world takes on a preternatural intensity. The edge sits somewhere between paralysing self-doubt and exhilaration. I have learned by trail and error that when in doubt it is best not to give in to the mistake of attempting the internal retracing of our steps. That backward and uncertain glance is in my experience usually met with fear and with fear doubt, which is all too easily nurtured. In the moment of turning inwards, we unwittingly uncouple ourselves from our surroundings and in doing so become lost to ourselves.
In my country lane meanderings am I being that ‘idle man’ that flâneur who Baudelaire described as the “habitual loafer’, the "gentleman stroller,” with too much time on his hands? Or am I being the kind of flâneur which the French Situationalist Philosopher Guy Debora described as a person who: ‘lets themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there’? Or is it Balzac’s, ‘flâneur as artist’, someone who uses his art to explore the world and in doing so is able to see it anew? It is this last which I believe best describes my not getting to Bakewell, a delicate and nuanced form of navigation, one which relies not on maps and fixed points of reference, but a willingness to engage in our surroundings and in doing so be in relationship with mystery. The result of these unexpected moments, if allowed to arise, give birth to a renewed sense of aliveness, vigour and discovery.
For the flâneur the getting to ‘there’ is not the be-all and end-all* With the goal removed as an all-consuming project or passion—an idée fixe, there is no longer any need for an overriding push to ‘put things right’. The judgement which accompanies any push – how well or badly are we doing made redundant, frees us from the anxiety and stress of failure. Our journey effectively cleared of that emotional fog, in the form of the self-critical editor that clouds right action, or any action, we are able to see things clearly which, in turn leads us back to the journey’s mystery. Mystery can only be enjoyed in the enjoining.
With the red herrings of ‘must,’ ‘should’ and ‘need’ removed any resistance to what is, or what is not happening, disappears. ‘Flaneurie’ demands of the ‘artist-flaneur’ something that comes close to a neutral curiosity. Trusting the process and not our educated head, enables us to inhabit the beginners mind: it provides us with space to be curious, open and delighted. Here is Annie Dillard’s edge, how to find it and in the delight, ‘the strength to climb it.’ **
To flâneur is to open ourselves up to an invitation to travel ‘somewhere,’ to have an experience that changes the way we sees things and in doing so change our lives. The road does not promise any guaranteed destination; it is not a means to an end. The road in itself at that moment is an unfolding of all that there is. One road unfolds effortlessly, one into another. Which road do you take? There appears to be choices. There could be confusion, with confusion doubt. Unless you allow yourself to be open to the flirtation, in which case there is no choice other than choosing the road that ‘chooses’ you. In the end the art of flâneurie like any artistic endeavour is an act of faith in that unfolding process which accompanies movement.
For the ‘artist-flâneur’ where too next is only reached in that moment when next is reached. All the information we need held in the moment. There is no need to bring in more information, for there is ‘no shortage’ of information. Any more would be excess to requirement and likely to lead to unnecessary confusion. In the moment of trusting that there is ‘enough’ there is no push, no shove, no my way, no my will be done, no need for correction. This is effortless effort. It is joyous, effortless effort. This is the art of the flâneur, the art of the poet, the jazz musician and, we hope, the art of the therapist. It is that necessary art for all of us intent on exploring relationships that are life giving, that nurture curiosity, that give rise to excitement and with it a love of mystery. For Baudelaire the artist-flâneur was: ‘The lover of life [who] makes the whole world his family.’
* 1605; fr Shakespeare's Macbeth, ''That but this blow Might be the be all, and the end all.’'
** How to set yourself spinning? Where is an edge – a dangerous edge – and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it? Annie Dillard, The Writers Life