Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Like any good urban historian, I know my de Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) is preoccupied with the ways in which we might retain our individuality within the homogenizing tendencies of mass culture. Re-staged in the kind of modern metropolis exemplified by London, Paris or New York, de Certeau presents this tension as a conflict between two different ways of seeing or being in the city. On the one hand, is what he calls “strategic mapping” — the ways in which municipal authorities and planners both view and seek to manage our behaviour and movement. On the other hand, are those “pedestrian speech acts” through which we make the city our own and compose our own individual stories of urban life. Implicitly, this is a contrast between the utopian city traffic plan and a weekend stroll.
But I’m not that good an urban historian any more, and I’ve thought about de Certeau for the first time in years only in taking to the streets of Toronto and London in the past few weeks. I’ve stayed on sidewalks and walked when the flashing lights on pedestrian crossings told me; I’ve also ducked down alleyways, cut across parks and hurried between what would probably seem completely random locations to any city planner. So far, so de Certeau — and none of this marks me out as a particularly unruly urban subject, given that it’s so much part of the fabric of our daily lives. More than anything else, these recent urban practices mark me out as a historian — and a particularly obsessive and geeky one at that. While they might look haphazard and unpredictable when viewed on a map, each of these trajectories has taken me in the footsteps of the confidence trickster and writer that I work on. In Toronto, I got lost trying to find the grand turn-of-the-century hotel he stayed at in 1924, and took surreptitious photographs in the halls of the police court where he was convicted for fraud before being deported from Canada. In London, I struggled through the crowds around Piccadilly to find the imposing office buildings from which he worked and the fashionable mansion flats in which he played — and then retraced what I imagined was his walk to work in the morning.
If these are ‘pedestrian speech acts,’ I wonder what they actually say. For a start, what do they say about me? These days, I’m well beyond being embarrassed about the obsessions and preoccupations that mark my intellectual practice — the historian as method actor. In part, these surface as a compulsive desire to know and to exhaust every last archival possibility before even attempting to make an argument about the past. The habits of a lapsed social historian die hard. In part, my obsessions surface as an equally strong compulsion to seek proximity to the subjects on which my work focuses. Letters, diaries, court reports and newspapers offer the satisfying illusion of reducing the distance between then and now. So too, I imagine, does being in the same place as an incident and individual. The ‘imagine’ matters here, because I’m all too aware that in standing outside an office block on Piccadilly I’m engaging in the kind of ahistorical fantasy for which I’ve criticized family historians and blue plaque merchants in the past. Street furniture and traffic noises can make it difficult at times, but even a fantasized connection carries with it very real pleasures.
And what do these ‘pedestrian speech acts’ say to me? Exploring London or Toronto in search of a long-dead crook is more than just an indulgence — though I suspect, in part, that it is that in part. In walking attentively, we stand to learn something new about the subjects in which our interest rests. At the very least, we might find a moment of clarification or realization in a busy park or public square. Retracing the circuits that bound together the sites around which a confidence trickster’s public and private life took shape, I saw both how tightly bounded the world he forged was and how close he had come to the centers of political power and social leadership in interwar Britain. Years ago, standing at the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus this, I realized the full extent and visibility of the vibrant social world that queer men forged for themselves at the very centre of London between the wars. Seventy-five years on, the Long Bar at the Trocadero, the Coventry Street Corner House, the White Bear public house, the Regent’s Palace Hotel and the arches under the Standard Fire Office where ‘painted and scented boys’ gathered and gossiped had all gone. It was from there — from that place then — that one of Queer London’s main arguments grew. With that in mind, I’ll keep walking and telling my stories about the city in the past.