Just Wanderin’ – the spirit of the Flaneur

Henry Foster hofoster.com


After watching it again recently, the way in which Stephen Cluxton sauntered up field to kick the winning point for Dublin in the All-Ireland final in 2011 made me wonder if he spends his days away from Croke Park as a dedicated flaneur.

The term means a “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, or “loafer” (coming from the French verb flâner, “to stroll”) and the way the goalkeeper, who is known as a steely, dedicated, yet modest character, somewhat nonchalantly approached what was the decisive kick of the game perhaps helped him forget, momentarily at least, the huge pressure resting on his shoulders.

It is a moment in time that will stay frozen in Dublin supporter’s minds. By strolling almost the length of the pitch in such a casual fashion – many Kerry supporters were angered that it took Cluxton almost a minute to reach the placed-ball in added time – it seemed to allow him absorb the tumult around him, then detach himself from it and focus entirely on the kick. Being a “stroller” possibly gave the Dublin goalkeeper the time to take the moment in, process it and make the logical step in kicking the ball over the bar. If he had rushed up the field with the adrenalin pumping and a crescendo of noise building in his ears, would he have been so clinical? (It’s worth noting Cluxton dashed back to his goal a lot quicker than he did coming forward for the kick).

A goalkeeper is in a natural position to appreciate the mindset of a flaneur: he can be idle for large parts of the match in which to behold all before him, with a panoramic view of the pitch, players, fans and stadium. When the action is at the other end of the field, he has the relative tranquillity with which to appreciate everything around him as he patrols the square. It might be the sweet smell of the summer grass underfoot or the optimistic chatter of supporters behind the net, full of hope for the season ahead.

What you “experience” is the key difference in a flaneur and an ordinary walker. Charles Baudelaire was an early practitioner of the idea of a person walking a city in order to experience it; he believed it would help us understand urban phenomena, isolation and modernity, while Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s essay Why I Walk puts forth the argument of enlightenment starting from your feet up, and a “complete philosophical way of living and thinking” by becoming a flaneur.

Baudelaire felt the flaneur had a dual role: to be part of the city yet detached enough from it to fully appreciate it. Living in Paris, he wanted artists to become the “botanists” of the sidewalk in order to understand the role of the individual in the massed, industrialised populace. (In an attempt to really slow things down, some Parisian bohemians went as far as walking a tortoise on a lead along the busy footpaths).

Dublin is a delight for a fully-fledged flaneur. It is compact, mainly flat and with enough green space and pedestrianization to allow you to saunter round at your leisure and admire everything from architecture to nature, or the people and their soft patter.

For example, in a short route strolling from south of the city, one can take in the natural beauty of the swans along the canal, and then cut down Harcourt Street and through the verdant foliage of the Iveagh Gardens to bring you out at the splendour of the National Concert Hall. And then around the corner is the heartbeat of Dublin city: St Stephen’s Green Park, banked on every side by resplendent Georgian buildings. The benefit of the many exit gates from the Green mean that the flaneur always has something to look at, or discover anew, when they leave the park (this style of urban planning is a signature in the work of architect Jon Jerde for instance, who designed his Horton Plaza and Universal City Walk projects based on the idea of providing surprises, distractions and sequences of events for the pedestrian).

Go slow

The hustle of Grafton Street is best avoided for the true flaneur. Instead it’s best to ease down my favourite street in Dublin: linear, picturesque Dawson Street and perhaps stop off in Hodges & Figgis bookshop, with its unique curved shop front, created by the hand of an ingenious carpenter. Then skim over the hallowed cobblestones of that bastion of learning in Trinity College and slice through Temple Bar, which during the daytime is in its pleasant guise of Dr Jekyll, not the Mr Hyde it can be after dark. One can stop for coffee in the little cafes on Cow’s Lane and suitably refreshed, look into the National Photographic Archive on Meeting House Square, for the streetwalker with a camera attached is also a flaneur.

Susan Sontag in her 1977 essay, On Photography, describes how, since hand-held units appeared in the early 20th century, the camera has become the tool of the flaneur: “The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitring, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flaneur finds the world ‘picturesque’.”

Snap. And then one can loop up around Christ Church, back down past City Hall on Dame Street and into Dublin Castle, perhaps finishing on a high note by settling on the roof garden of the Chester Beatty library with a good book. Alternatively, a committed flaneur may build up a thirst after their rambles, therefore that other great Dublin institution – the fine hostelry – can be availed of quite readily if one needs a change of oil.

If you decide to adapt the principles of a flaneur, then there is plenty to discover in Dublin. The above is just a small segment of the city; there are many other directions you can take. And who knows, some day you may see young Cluxton, the All-Ireland winning hero, strolling on a similar journey:  “experiencing”, and yet trying to get away from it all the same.

* Recommended reading: Edmund White’s ‘The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris’ (2001)