Choose your own apocalypse: On walking Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year

Those of us who have crazy parents don’t get to choose the apocalypse we are born into. Whatever it is our parents fear- be it bombs, the middle-classes, nuclear holocaust, public transport, germs, bad table manners, being shown up- gets transmitted to their kids, and we, as their children are forced into living their perception, their as-if existence. I lived the the jungles of Costa Rica and in the suburban, homeschooled deserts of Arizona where my parents could feed their schizoid worldview in peace. Keep the kids away from schools, from churches who didn’t have the right theology, from brain-dead institutions, from ignorant neighbours who didn’t agree, from the spying government, from supermarket loyalty cards that might track our canned bean choices. We never choose which delusions and paranoias will be our inheritance: our parents get to decide who we will be frightened of and how much we hate the outside world, how armed we shall be when we leave the (sometimes literal) bunker. If we’re lucky, if we choose to do the work, we might slowly come to realise we can disarm and there was no need for (the sometimes literal) bunker and rifles and (sometimes literal) self-defence lessons by ex-Chilean army officers. At some point we might come blinking out into the sunlight to discover that the apocalypse never really happened- but what do we do with the rifles, the memories of the bunker, the synapses that can’t be pruned, our reptilian knowing. What do we do with our unchosen apocalypse.

Choosing to walk an apocalypse is maybe a weird decision for someone who claims to have lived through her parent’s own personal one, and who generally hates that genre of film and writing. I can see that. I have chosen to read and re-read a text and walk particular bits of the city that bear an uncanny resemblance to the textures of my childhood. But maybe it is that quality in the writing that draws me to it, the voice that masquerades as journalistic reporting although it trades more in fantasy than in facts. I want in on Defoe’s hysterical, fevered apocalypse, saturated as it is with screams and boils and melodrama. I infinitely prefer it to the pared down, austere one of Mcarthy’s The Road. Defoe gives me permission to play- the Plague of 1665 is mine to take, because he made it his, first of all: the crazy religious language in Journal of a Plague year, the descriptions of infected houses having a foot-long Red Cross painted on their door and the words, ‘Lord have mercy on our souls,’ painted, in my imagination, in scarlet and maybe over a lintel or something. I imagine the claustrophobic screams of terrified plague victims who are quarantined to pest houses and their own rooms. That was the word my mom used to use when she would send us to our rooms. ‘Quarantined.’ ‘You are quarantined to your room girls until you apologise.’ I love the long, internal theological debates the narrator gets himself into about providence and should I stay or should I go with spurious capitals and labrynthine syntax and no punctuation for miles. The indignity of mass graves and plague pits, the despair, the evacuation of the city, the isolation and mistrust. My mother would pray to god before we drove to the air-conditioned supermarket to buy packets of pasta and mincemeat and bags of apples, pray for protection, for a safe journey and successful shopping, addressing the angels to keep charge over us, especially Michael the archangel, and then she’d smoke a cigarette or two at the steering wheel to calm her nerves.

When I walk the narrow alleyways described by Defoe with others like I did on Sunday, I get some control over the apocalypse. I get to choose this one and how I interact with it. I’m not a victim of circumstance anymore, I get to have a little bit of control, I get to make some decisions. And I got to do it with friends, as an adult, on my own terms, one foot in my own imagination and memory, playfully. And maybe this is the logic of play therapy, when I practice psychogeography like this. The thing that I fear is the thing that is transformed, through play, into something that I can use for for the development of my own identity-to add psychic weight to my soul. Because this is a way of claiming my own past, of stepping into the heart of pain rather than denying my history or disavowing that story or numbing my feelings about my upbringing. Walking the plague allows me to go back into the trauma but at a safe distance. I did not get to choose the flavour of apocalypse my parents put us through- and it changed and shaped my psyche and palette for melodrama and language and religious fervour in ways that are still surprising me. But perhaps I could have some say in how I choose to play with my history. This is grown up play. This is proper make-believe for thirty somethings. And I love walking the city like this, and I’m grateful other people want to come play with me.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

I’m deeply grateful to Anna Hart who transmitted, through her walking practice, how valuable reverie and dipping into internal, subjective space is during a walk. Before I joined her weekly Kings Cross walking club in 2015, I thought psychogeography was largely a fact-saturated affair, consisting mainly of turning attention outward toward the city in an frenzy of objectivity. Her monthly silent walks cured me of this notion and taught me how rich, how satisfying it can be to pay attention to imagination and not just buildings and shared histories.

I’m also deeply grateful to Michael who asked on Sunday’s walk, ‘So, why do you want to walk the plague?’ Great question.

Daniel Defoe’s Journal of The Plague Year is published by penguin and is a cracking good read

If you fancy coming on my next walk, you can find more information here

📸 Photo credit: Kat Haylett

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