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Nostalgia, Nostalgia and More Nostalgia: London's Yearly Flaneur Walk

We were somewhere around Piccadilly, on Jermyn Street, when the sun began to shine. It had been one of those early springtime mornings where you couldn’t quite work out what the weather wanted to do. You wear shorts; it rains. You wrap yourself in a raincoat; it’s twenty degrees. You hide behind a pair of sunglasses; it’s cloudy. With my camera, raincoat, sunglasses and boots, I must’ve looked like some tragic photographer from an ‘80s movie. I don’t like these days. I like certainty, precision, and consistency.

But such a fastidious attitude was incongruous with what I was reporting on: the flaneur walk. Skidding to a halt just off Piccadilly, I locked up my bike and strolled around a corner and was greeted by this yearly tradition: men and women - or ‘chaps’ and ‘chapettes’ - dressed in suits and frocks that haven’t been seen since this time last year. Traditionally, a member of bourgeoise society, the dress code of these flaneurs seemed to date from, at a guess, 1910-1940. Aside the Beau Brummell statue in St. James, this procession of moustaches, spectacles, silk, and high heels are all congregated. There was not a mobile phone in sight, just handshakes and conversation. The click of canes on concrete; the flick of a lighter igniting a cigar; the hearty laughter of these spectacularly dressed men and women. 

Photos by Ben Lewis

They were a joyous, if completely preoccupied, bunch. So engrossed in discussing the particular material of a jacket, the history of a certain bicycle, or how ludicrous it would be to smoke a cigar with a white glove on, they seemed wholly unbothered by the frustrated delivery drivers and cyclists attempting to squeeze through them. They were in a world of their own, chatting left, right, and centre like elegant and sophisticated speed freaks, hopping from subject to subject like an indecisive child flicking through television channels. To watch this scene was enough; it was a thrill in itself. This chorus of conversation had an almost electric feel to it, hypnotic even, for as I weaved throughout snapping photographs, my ears filled with such obscure yet interesting soundbites. I was in a library, being spoken to by the stories that lined the shelves. One could sit for hours and simply listen.

Photo by Ben Lewis

Some minutes passed by, some guy made a speech, and then the flaneurs slowly peeled themselves away from the statue and began walking. I asked somebody where we were going, to which they replied, “Well, we all just wonder around until we get bored and go home.” If this event were a movie, then this would be its tagline. Nothing could better summarise it: a procession of well-dressed dandies merely walking and talking, gesturing emphatically as they conversed with mirror-clean etiquette, valuing one another’s words as if they were their last.

Photo by Ben Lewis

Despite the manner in which these folk were dressed, the mood was (surprisingly) unpretentious. In fact, more of a lamentable feeling lurked beneath the raucous laughter and cigar smoke: this day was, after all, an attempt to revive the allegedly halcyon days of an irretrievable past.   There was a genuine disdain expressed towards those whose phone so much as bulged from their pocket. There was a strained attempt to ignore the chemtrails carving through the sky above, or the distant sirens reminding us of the frightening world that raged away out there. These people surely had day jobs (quite well-paying ones at that), but in their hearts swelled with affection for days long gone, where the distractions and threats of the present were merely products of science-fiction stories. Within minutes, I was deeply intrigued by this posse, allured by the romance of the nostalgia they radiated, and into my head did creep that question: was this what it was like back then?

Photo by Ben Lewis

I had, admittedly, fallen under their spell. That isn’t to say, though, that I failed to notice the contradictions and controversies rife in this superficially romantic tradition. The flaneur is an inherently upper-class idea: the man who wonders through society, observing people, flaunting his wealth through the form of esoteric fashion, enjoying the free time he seems to have so much of, which he seems to be able to afford. Wealth is not only determined by money, but surely also by the free time one has at their disposal. However, what interested me most about the day was not the outfits, but more about how our society’s obsession with the old can be so informative about the now. It seems like our fear and fatigue of the now have brought into contemporary culture a relentless obsession with the old, the past, and the dead. This seems only natural, especially when we live in a day and age where a new existential threat seems to appear every month. Where can we go? The now is exhausting, and the future seems terrifying. Perhaps all we can do is dwell on the past.

Photo by Ben Lewis


Edited by Faye Elder, London and Beyond Editor


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