This isn’t a page about the city of Reading, though it is perfectly possible that I might pass through that place. Rather, it is a place to mention some of the books I have read along the way – inspiration, sidelights, wayfinding.
First of all, I’ll mention Paul Jennings, the late British humourist: Observer columnist, Punch editor, author of the ‘Oddly..’ collections…not the Australia children’s author. Jennings poetic flights of fancy, literate humour and delight in language have been a massive influence on me since I found a copy of ‘Next to Oddliness’ in my parents’ house nearly 40 years ago. Now, your Situationists and Iain Sinclairs are all very well, but a case can be made for Jennings as an early psychogeographer, or at least an observant flaneur. Here he describes the delights of walking in London, briefly free of normal routine:
There are moments in even the busiest urban life when our relationship with the city is suddenly changed. A meeting ends early, we have time off to see a doctor or solicitor – whatever it is, for a couple of hours we stroll, we are relaxed, we possess the city, instead of being held ourselves in the grip of its routine. In summer, light winds move through the warm streets… In winter, the afternoon sky goes a heavy pink, the lights come on, we are wrapped in a northern dream of gaiety under the chandeliers. The city has the irrationality of a flower, the power of a volcano.
And here, writing about the way ‘rivers and urban life take each other mutually by surprise’:
To float down a river is to see an unsuspected back view of civilisation – the blank sides of breweries, curious parks, inaccessible pubs, the evening rose-gardens of Edwardian houses, closed looking green sheds belonging to improbable clubs. And to come upon a river in a town is somehow to doubt the comfortable lamp-posts and Odeons; to be reminded by this quiet arm of primordial water, his tame piece of infinity, that life is not a purely municipal affair, but is interlaced with tributaries from the vast, unpredictable sea of chance.
I like this quote from Baudelaire in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, describing the flaneur: ‘He is the I with an insatiable appetite for the non-I, at every instant rendering and explaining it in pictures more living than life itself, which is always unstable and fugitive.’