|The former Iraqi embassy in East Berlin. By Andreas Lux|
Three years ago I got lost on Hampstead Heath. It was a December morning and I was clearing my head after another Christmas party when I realised that I had no idea where I was. I’d walked the Heath many times before but somehow – maybe it was the light, maybe it was because I was still half asleep – as I walked through a little copse of trees everything looked brand new and unfamiliar.
The sun was no use, hidden somewhere behind a watery grey sky. And when I strained my ears to hear where the nearest road might be, all I heard was the wind in the branches.
But instead of the usual fretting that getting lost in a city brings on – Will we make it to so-and-so's on time? Why do all the roads in Balham look the same? – discovering I was lost on the Heath was weirdly comforting. And when I found myself popping out somewhere near Highgate, that pleasant feeling stayed with me.
That night I told the story to a friend at yet another Christmas party and, in the spirit of finding some sort of direction in our freelance, single lives (the irony was probably lost on us at the time), we decided to put our energies into becoming flâneurs.
Or at least flâneurs-lite, as the first thing we discovered about the the real flâneurs was that they had money and servants. We on the other hand needed to earn a living, which occasionally meant showing up somewhere on time.
In fact we wanted nothing to do with the hyper-intellectual, oddly rule-bound world that flâneuring had become: all psychogeography and dull essays in architecture journals, where the freedom offered by just drifting seemed to be cancelled out by an emphasis on theory, history and long foreign words.
We developed the practice of “flaning” (it rhymes with “panning” and doesn't need any accents over the vowels), occasional outings without aim or form, just to see what happened. We never did it together – flaning may be only possible on your own – but we often compared notes on hours, mornings, even days wandering aimlessly through the streets, with no route, destination or goal. In other words, with the intention (if that's not a non-flan word) of getting lost and finding what we found.
What we did find was a unfamiliar and very welcome feeling of calm. To walk purposelessly, when everyone else is striding along, isolates you from of the franticness of the city. Your body slows down and so does your mind. And you start to see things that you never previously noticed: a golden dome on a rooftop on Tottenham Court Road; the different designs of the coal-hole covers on Islington pavements; a certain shop, or a row of houses tucked away in the sidestreet you never turn down.
It's free, it's easy and you can flan almost anywhere: walk more slowly than the crowd in a tube station and see what it does to your heartrate, or be bold and jump on the next bus or train to anywhere.
Drifting and the surrender to chance can take you to unexpectedly pleasing places. Though they can also disappoint of course – I once had an astonishingly dull time in St Albans when I jumped on a fast train out of King's Cross. They also tell us something too about the drifting and randomness of the mind.
So much of our life as urban media men, professionals working hard to be “professional”, is spent imposing order on our external and internal worlds, or running away from their shapelessness. Flaning takes you to a place where shapelessness and the unexpected are the whole point. It's not anarchy – flanists treat the world with respect – but it's an oddly fulfilling way of ducking out of the constraints we make for ourselves, at least for a couple of hours before jumping on the bus back home for a thankfully predictable cup of tea and a new CD from Amazon.