‘He wept because he could not prevent himself from departing on a trip when the need took him; he deserted family, work and daily life to walk as fast as he could, straight ahead, sometimes doing 70 kilometres a day on foot, until in the end he would be arrested for vagrancy and thrown in prison.’
The medical student Philippe Tissié recalling an early encounter with a patient, Albert Dadas, in his doctoral dissertation (Les aliénés voyageurs, 1887). Albert was a gas-fitter from Bordeaux who, following the publication of Tissié’s thesis, became known as the first fugueur; as reports of his obsessive journeying spread throughout Europe, so did diagnoses of fugue, which ramified outward from Bordeaux to Paris, then all of France, Italy, Germany and Russia. By the end of the 19th century, it had acquired the status of a minor epidemic. As Ian Hacking notes in Mad Travellers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses, fugue, which also came to be known as Wandertrieb, automatisme ambulatoire, and dromomania, had existed for centuries; however, it was the publication of Tissié’s thesis that positioned it as a discrete mental illness.
The diagnostic parameters of fugue vary from one region to another (which partly accounts for the different labels). Hacking, whose survey is principally concerned with Tissié’s study of Albert and other contemporary accounts, defines it as a compulsive flight, ‘often in [a] state of obscured consciousness.’ Hacking is reluctant to venture an etiological explanation for Albert’s condition, but acknowledges the concussion (with vomiting and migraine) that accompanied his fall from a tree at age 8. He first disappeared four years later, only to be discovered working in a nearby town, ‘groggy and confused, astonished to find himself where he was, carting umbrellas.’ A pattern was soon established. The fugue would be announced by ‘three days of severe headaches, anxiety, sweats, insomnia…’. Identity papers and some cash would be found (though frequently lost en route). Finally, ‘he would drink several glasses of water… Then off he would go.’ To Algeria, Moscow, Constantinople, sometimes picking up casual work, often sleeping rough, with spells in prison and hospital, unaware of why he traveled, ‘and knowing only where he was going next.’
In early 2000, I began a series of walks, each one taking London as its starting point. I would arrive in the city at dawn, alone, and spend the next twelve hours in districts largely unfamiliar to me, photographing scaffolding and street furniture. The making of images was, at first, the principal reason for the walks; the walks were simply the means by which the images were achieved. Though the days with the camera were long, the miles were relatively few; the city’s densities, its pockets of complexity, are best documented at close range, and I proceeded slowly, street by street. The other, unspoken, reason for the walks was the wearing down, or out, of anxieties that had built up over the winter months. Framing and focusing the city through a lens offered a trance-like detachment; distance and immersion, absence and engagement.
Over the next few years, the walks took me further and further away from London (though usually with London as the point of departure), always bearing east, and lengthening in range. Sheerness, Canvey, the Isle of Grain. By 2005, the making of images was secondary to the expedition, which would often stretch to two or three days, with two or three hours’ sleep snatched in a bin liner. Invariably, the first few hours of the walk would give the camera its stimulus, whether the location was urban or rural; the work done, a blankness would settle on the walk, its purpose forgotten, a thinning out of thoughts to distance and weather, the body working itself deeper into its own fatigue. The internal disquiet that framed the journey at its start was exchanged for more urgent concerns: water, food, shelter. The provisions always scant, the gear inadequate and grief-giving, the pain enduring for days after. After coming to rest, I would resolve never to put myself through it again. Then, when several months had passed, the scars fading, I would lace up my leaking boots, pack the waterproofs that weren’t, and set off.
Ian Hacking contends that the diagnosis of fugue was made possible by several phenomena (or ‘vectors’) that comprised the ‘ecological niche’ in which it thrived. One of these vectors is cultural polarity: Hacking argues that the place of fugue was somewhere between the contemporary phenomena of ‘romantic tourism and criminal vagrancy’. Another vector is release. According to Hacking, fugueurs were almost exclusively drawn from the urban working poor. Fugue offered ‘a space in which dysfunctional men, on the edge of freedom, yet trapped, could escape.’ Trauma and obsession distinguish this mode of walking from the merely touristic (and the merely vagrant), of course, and, for Tissié and his colleagues, marked it out as a clinical state. Are there parallels between the compulsive walking addressed by Hacking – movement through landscape impelled by trauma – and a practice of immersive walking – movement through landscape impelled towards trauma?
East of the city is flatness, emptiness, exposure. It’s here that the waste is carried, miles below the suburbs, through the pumping stations and outfall sewers; here the marsh flats, the rifle ranges, a peninsula cross-hatched with fleets and creeks. I remember the causeway at Grain, a broken line to the military tower, half-lit from the horizon, half-sunk beneath the tide, thirty miles down, another forty to go, skin crisped, feet skewed, the embankment drawing back to a damp pill-box that someone, out here, beyond the settlements, had taken for a shelter. I remember the smoke hanging at the mouth of the pill-box, the small fire inside, the shuffle and twitch of whoever was stoking it. 3am. An hour’s bad sleep on a roll of carpet salvaged from the power station’s perimeter ditch. The water almost gone, the route unclear. Offshore, the tower, patchworked from concrete, stone and brick; leaning into it, a barrack on stilts.
In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke puts forward the idea that the sublime is that which has the power to compel and destroy us. Burke qualifies his argument by acknowledging the distance from the sources of the sublime – pain and terror – that one must necessarily maintain in order to appreciate its effects. Here, the ideas of danger and fear are sufficient to excite and compel the imagination. Their pressures are keen, but moderated. In this way, the sublime ‘anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force.’ And yet, Burke also contends that fear, which is no more than the idea of pain, ‘effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning’. The sublime, then, both impels and paralyses. It is possible to argue that a disconnect of mind from body occurs when this state is prolonged; the body hastening, the mind seizing. The sublime object maintains its distance, unchanged by the journeying.
My walks drifted northwards, still moving through the eastern counties, the eroding coastlines of Essex and Suffolk. In a vandalized boathouse on Aldeburgh beach I wake to night cramps, shaking teeth, tightening skull. It is 11pm on the second day of my walk and I have been dozing fitfully in a white plastic chair since 9.30pm. I attempt to light the room with the feeble torch on my phone. The interior of the boathouse looks like the set of a cheap horror film. I cannot make sense of anything around me, or how I have come to find myself here. Pain is rearing up from all sides. I begin to wonder whether something terrible has happened – to me, to the room. Skull and teeth ache from convulsions. I pick my way over the broken glass, through the dark debris, and out towards the coastal path.
Burke argues for the role of obscurity and uncertainty in constructing the sublime, and identifies night as the means by which this is most effectively achieved: ‘When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger…’ The bounds, the features, the distances of a landscape cannot be perceived with any certainty, or with any measure of safety, when full darkness is upon it.
East of the city is flatness, emptiness, exposure. Beyond the sheer concrete sides and chain-link bridges of Associated British Ports and the twinkling maze of Saltend Chemicals Park is a thinning embankment marking a line where the Holderness peninsula meets the Humber. It is New Year’s Eve and I am walking from Hull to Spurn Point, a sand spit formed of longshore drift, washed down the coast from Flamborough Head. My cold has been worsening for three days. My sleep has been poor. The weather has moved against me. Scribbled on a travel receipt and creased inside my breast pocket is an idea of the city and the plain that I am keen to make use of before it expires. Southeast of the village of Paull, light draining from field and sky, I reach the plain. An impassable channel forces me inland and I am turned halfway to Thorngumbald, a fierce, unexpected shower infusing my unproofed cagoule and aged boots. At Oxgoddes Farm I turn back to the river, or what I think is the river, something not myself pulling through hedges, over creeks and barbed fences, seeking the bird’s flight to the water. I pull through two, three more fields, each more obstacled than the last, each seeming to take me further from my course, and find the embankment. To my left, the dark plain of Sunk Island; to my right, across the river, lie Immingham and Grimsby, the smoke and dazzle of their night industry. I push on, wind and drizzle thickening, making what little there is to see and hear less visible, less audible, driving into me, driving my thoughts further inward, this body onward, the path cut down to two or three jagged paces, no thoughts of the journey before or behind me.
After two hours, the wind softens, the clouds scatter. I lift my head and look around me, left to right. To my left, the dark plain of Sunk Island; to my right, Immingham and Grimsby, the perspective unaltered. I do not appear to have made any progress. I tell myself that I have been moving steadily at three to four miles per hour and yet my relationship to the landscape is unchanged. There is no signage, no lighting, nothing to read and nothing with which to read. There are no benches, no rest stops. My throat is sore. I continue on the path, the outlook unmovable, a burst football appears, I shunt it forward with my right foot, keeping its pace, a few hundred yards it lasts, then rolls into a ditch. I continue on the path, the outlook unmovable. Another hour passes. Towards 10pm I notice a squat shape on the path ahead of me. I walk towards it. It is the Sunk Island Meridian Marker. The obelisk allows just enough space between the marker and the base for me to seat myself. I slump against it.
‘Albert’s obsessive and uncontrollable journeys were systematically pointless’, remarks Ian Hacking, ‘less a voyage of self-discovery than an attempt to eliminate self.’
Half a mile east of the Meridian runs Patrington Channel, its course passing through Skeffling Clays and into the Humber. There is no way across. I head north, through farmland and rough tracks, to Patrington itself, the lit spire of the parish church guiding me from lane to lane. I reach the village and am immediately possessed by the notion that it cannot provide for me, cannot offer refuge. I near a pub on the south side of the village. It is after 11pm. People are crowding the entrance and greeting each other. I cannot go in. I move to the side of the village and look for unsecured outbuildings. I trip the security light in a farmer’s yard and flee. East. An unfinished extension, a loaded skip, a pile of breezeblocks. I make as if to hide myself amongst them but am seen. East. To the cricket ground, its clubhouse fastened against winter, I try its locks, then the toilets, one disused, I force the bracket and it gives, I fall inside, no lights, no plumbing, I slide against the wall and fall forward, resting now, I have nothing for the fever. For half an hour I rock back and forth. The church tower rings for midnight. The damp rises through my feet. I cannot stay here. I gather my things and slap myself awake. The wind has returned to the village, banging the unlatched gates on their hinges, showing me the way out. East.
The Meridian was among the papers presented at the Occursus symposium on Post-Traumatic Landscapes at CADS, Sheffield, Wed 22 May 2013 (click here for the full programme). The account of the walk from Hull to Spurn Point (and back) is concluded in Eastings (click here to read it).
Burke, Edmund. 1757. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. Ed. Womersley, David. 2004. London: Penguin.
Hacking, Ian. 1999. Mad Travellers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses. London: Free Association.