Benjamin’s Parisian Passages

I have a distant recollection of walking all the way from the Gare du Nord to lunch in the Café Marly by way of the nineteenth-century arcades so beloved of Walter Benjamin. I tried to reconstruct this journey in reverse, starting in the Galerie Vivienne not far from Adrien Gardère’s office:-

A fabulous piece of flânerie and visual tour of Benjamin’s Passages by Charles Robert Saumarez Smith via Passages — | Charles | Saumarez | Smith |

” …

The Arcades book [Das Passagen-Werk] was never intended to be an economic history (though part of its ambition was to act as a corrective to the entire discipline of economic history). An early sketch suggests something far more like his autobiographical work, A Berlin Childhood [:] “One knew of places in ancient Greece where the way led down into the underworld. Our waking existence likewise is a land which, at certain hidden points, leads down into the underworld – a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise. All day long, suspecting nothing, we pass them by, but no sooner has sleep come than we are groping our way back to lose ourselves in the dark corridors. By day, the labyrinth of urban dwelling resembles consciousness; the arcades… issue unremarked on to the streets. At night, however, under the tenebrous mass of the houses, their denser darkness protrudes like a threat, and the nocturnal pedestrian hurries past – unless, that is, we have emboldened him to turn into a narrow lane.”

Two books served Benjamin as models: Louis Aragon’s A Paris Peasant, with its affectionate tribute to the Passage de L’Opéra, and Franz Hessel’s Strolling in Berlin, which focuses on the Kaisergalerie and its power to summon up the feel of a bygone era. In his book, Benjamin would try to capture the “phantasmagoric” experience of the Parisian wandering among displays of goods, an experience still recoverable in his own day, when “arcades dot the metropolitan landscape like caves containing the fossil remains of a vanished monster: the consumer of the pre-imperial era of capitalism, the last dinosaur of Europe”.

… “

An extract from JM Coetzee’s highly engaging essay on Walter Benjamin: ‘The man who went shopping for truth’ as found at: as accessed 30 September 2017-09-30


Impossible City: New Orleans – Places Journal

Sometimes you see a picture and you can tell that something’s missing, but you don’t know what it is …

Or you could try to fill the emptiness with something you love, as I love Walker Percy’s renderings in The Moviegoer:

The street looks tremendous. People on the far side seem tiny and archaic, dwarfed by the great sky and the windy clouds like pedestrians in old prints.

Via: Impossible City: New Orleans — Places Journal


From cradle to the grave we engage with places of differing kinds for differing reasons for better or for worse: places of horror and wonderment, places of joy and sorrow, places to rest, places to work, places that lift us up and places that bring us down, places of lightness and darkness: so many places inhabit our world…

                                                                                          Public Squares































[MN] September, 2017

On ‘Seeing and Noticing’: William S. Burroughs, The Beat Hotel and ‘Taking The Colour Walk’ Through The Streets of Paris

In a dilapidated hotel famously dubbed The Beat Hotel by its colourfully eccentric inhabitants, a coalescence of some of the Beat generation’s most important protagonists came together under one roof to push forward the frontiers of literature, painting and psychic awareness.

In an extraordinary outburst of creative energy, Gregory Corso wrote some of his most important poetry there, Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville devised The Dreamachine , Allen Ginsberg worked on Kaddish (dwelling in Room 25), Burroughs and Gysin experimented with the ‘cut-ups’ and Sinclair Beiles – amongst many others who came and went –  co-authored Minutes to Go with Burroughs and Gysin amidst a burlesque carnival of creative chaos.

Always seeking new paths of creative inspiration, Burroughs also devised a fascinating observational technique known as ‘taking the colour walk’:

“I was taking a colour walk around Paris the other day … I was walking down the boulevard when I suddenly felt this cool wind on a warm day, and when I looked out I was seeing all the blues in the street in front of me… blue on a foulard…a girls’ blue sweater…blue neon…the blue sky …all the blues. When I looked again, I saw nothing but all the reds…of traffic lights…car lights…a café sign…a man’s nose…”

Excerpt from The Beat Hotel, Barry Miles, Atlantic Books, London, 2000, p 157.

Located at 9, rue Git-le-Coeur and curated under Madame Rachou’s ever watchful eye (circa 1957-1963), The Beat Hotel was undoubtedly one of the great oasis’ of Parisian creativity at that time. Indeed, in this extraordinary interview below, Sinclair Beiles recalls some of the legendary ‘eccentricities’, excesses and antics that took place amidst the dilapidated digs of The Beat Hotel –

More biographical information about Sinclair Beiles – one of the Beat generation’s most neglected if not tragically overlooked protagonists – can also be found at:


 – Marcus D. Niski, September 2017



Virginia Woolf: A ‘Street Haunting’

Have you ever walked along a street and imagined the lives of the strangers that you pass?

In Virginia Woolf’s 1927 essay ‘Street Haunting’, the narrator explores this imaginative act of dipping in and out of people’s minds as they move through the city’s wintry, twilight streets. From prime ministers to the homeless, the narrator examines the city’s inhabitants and the spaces they occupy. ‘What greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality’, the narrator asks, to feel ‘that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others’.

Source: The British Library, 20th Century Literature Collection Items as found at:

In the meantime we agreed to forget our cares for the night. We took a little money from our savings and walked to Forty-second Street. We stopped at a photo booth in Playland to take our pictures, a strip shot of four shots for a quarter. We go a hot dog and papaya drink at Benedict’s, then merged with the action. Boys on shore leave, prostitutes, runaways, abused tourists, and assorted victims of alien abduction. It was an urban boardwalk with Kino parlors, souvenir stands, Cuban diners, strip clubs, and late-night pawnshops. For fifty cents, one could slip inside a theatre draped in stained velvet and watch foreign films paired with soft porn.

– ‘Patti Smith’s “Forty Second Street Urban Boardwalk” in: Patti Smith,  Just Kids, Bloomsbury, London, 2010, P 107.




How do we live in our cities? How do we meaningfully interact with them in a world ever-increasingly devoted to time-functional tasks and the economic engine that has become the driving force behind all of the world’s great cities?

Our challenge is to slow down, to see and notice our cities and engage with them at the microcosmic level to enjoy the myriad small things that go to make up the joys of urban environment as well as our own habitation within it.

My interest in these questions was profoundly inspired the work  of George Perec, most particularly, his brilliant collection of meditations on place and space ­ Species of Spaces and Other Pieces which take us from the street, to the apartment and even to the writing desk in an examination of how we interact with our spaces both public and private.

Perec was a master of what I call ‘writing the mundane’: through taking time to dig deeply into the everyday, to see and notice the world around us with acute attention to detail, Perec becomes a master of taking such seemingly mundane interactions – the objects on my work-table, what I can observe in a public square or street, what I can say about the private spaces that I live in – and turning them into some of the most insightful and imaginative literary depictions of the arts of everyday life.

From the village to the mega-city we live in a kaleidoscope of cultures that are as infinitely diverse as the stories of that diversity which emerge from the streets, lanes, gutters and built environments envelope them.

Naked Cities Journal is about sharing these stories of the minutiae of everyday life from different cultures and different storytellers from around the globe.

Marcus D. Niski,  June 2017