Monday, 7 November 2011

We Walk Straight So ...

When I was a boy at primary school, one of the activities that we would do in the playground was stand side-by-side with a friend, always another boy and cross over our arms so that we were locked together. We would then march around the playground saying loudly in unison ‘we walk straight so you’d better get out the way’ (enunciated so it sounded like ‘we want straitsa you’d bettah get out tha-way!). Generally we did not actually walk straight we would simply march into other boys who would often pair up just like us so they could march into us and the whole thing would descend into what was then termed ‘a bundle’. Where this ‘game’ originated from I do not know, presumably from the place most physical games did especially for children for whom kicking a ball around was forbidden as none of the playgrounds that I used while at primary school had less than one side which was a row of windows and in some cases three sides were windows. Why I was suddenly reminded of this game which I cannot have witnessed in over thirty years was as a result of trying to walk down a street in London.

I heard on BBC radio that officially Britain has become more polite than in recent decades, but as yet I have to see any evidence of this and one case in point is how difficult it is to move around as a pedestrian. Places like Oxford Circus and Leicester Square in central London have always been difficult not only from the numbers of people but the fact that many people on the street have no idea where they are going and/or have their attention distracted by everything that is going on around them. However, even in suburban areas of London, places like Ealing or Harrow or Richmond, you find it difficult. This is because on the pavement, as on the roads, no-one seems willing to yield even a few centimetres nor to wait even a matter of seconds to allow someone else to pass. I suppose if I see people in cars forcing their way out of side roads into the main flow of traffic and bullying people out of lanes, I should not be surprised that I see the equivalent of such behaviour on the pavement, especially as unlike car drivers, many pedestrians are young people. A television advertisement for an insurance company shows pedestrians behaving like cars and says we would not behave like drivers when walking. However, they are in fact wrong and most people do behave precisely like that replicating the scenes they show in their advertisement.

I am not going to go on demonising children and teenagers. However, it is probably unsurprising that witnessing what their parents and other adults do it should seem to them to be ‘weak’ to move even a fraction of a step. It is exacerbated by the fact that unlike older people, children and teenagers often travel in groups, and all want to walk side-by-side. Going along the pavement, even walking through pedestrian areas I find myself being pushed to the sides, hard up against buildings. No matter how large the space is, groups of pedestrians spread to fill it. Where I live during the week has broad pedestrianised areas but I find myself dodging between four or five family members or students strung out for a couple of metres across the space.

When I have run out of space and am squeezed against a shop window, even this does not seem enough and I get a tut or a sigh as if I have done something wrong as one person for a matter of seconds has to expend the effort to step around me. My journeys are lengthened by this constantly being squeezed to the side, having to pull my jacket or shoulder bag in, even having to turn side-on so the people can get by without having to adjust how they are walking. Often rather than be pushed into the wall, I am compelled to step into the road with all the risk that that entails. The difficulty is not only that the people I encounter have an utter unwillingness to move even a little, but they seemed exasperated that anyone should be walking in the opposite direction to them; they also tire of people moving too slowly in their direction too as she witness from the complaints about the elderly and disabled or parents with the off-road pushchairs if they are not proceeding fast enough for the bulk of pedestrians.

It often not the case that the people who are unwilling to move are aware that you are liable to collide with them. I have written before about how people are cut off from the world by their mp3 player and their mobile phone:
 Ever since mobile phones were invented no-one has seemed able to stand still while using them, I guess hence the name, it is not the phone but the user who is in fact mobile. The thing is now, with smartphones that there is so much to look at on the screen that using them takes the full extent of the owner’s vision. Yet, they do not stop, they keep ploughing on, gazing intently and fingering the screen of their phone, assuming that everyone will navigate around them. These people can be slow moving, giving you time to get out of their way. However, to me it rather seems an insult to the blind that people with sight do not use the faculty they have been blessed with. Maybe in the future mobile phones will be constructed with white sticks extending from them. Certainly someone needs to invent facilities that alert the user to other bodies within a certain proximity or even to allow the user to see in front of them as they are looking down at the screen, through having a camera in the top of the phone rather than on the back.

Despite all my ailments I can move freely and sufficiently speedily to avoid colliding with the ‘we walk straight’ pedestrians. However, this is not the case for all pavement users. The elderly, disabled people, people with small children or pets, are a lot less manoeuvrable and it appears that the message to them is simply that they should not be out walking at the times when ‘normal people’ wanting to walking in strict lines to get places. The issue of the we-walk-straighters is that they are symptomatic of a broader problem, the manifestation of the Thatcherite belief that there is no society just individuals and families (or their equivalent on the street, gangs of friends). Why it is so difficult to move around a British town on foot or by car is because so few people these days understand that to travel in an urban area is to become part of a machine or even an organism, one that has different components moving at different speeds.

I once saw an art installation which consisted of a video the artist had shot at a junction in Vietnam where five roads met. The range of traffic was incredibly diverse and included pedestrians, cyclists, mopeds, rickshaws, motorbikes, cars, vans and lorries all on the road rather than the pavement. The video was shot from an apartment overlooking the junction. What was startling was how soothing it was to watch. This is because despite all the variety of the traffic the different elements flowed so that no-one collided and no-one even held up someone else. To me it looked rather like blood flowing around the body. I am sure there are accidents and arguments in that city as anywhere but it is apparent that the Vietnamese in cities often far more crowded than London, had the necessary attributes to make such incidents rare rather than happening almost every minute.

To march through as a pedestrian is to disrupt the traffic ‘machinery’ to the extent that it causes jolts to the system, tensions and upsets. Things move far more smoothly when people look ahead, have patience and work in co-ordination with others. However, none of those attributes are now valued in British society so as a consequence we have all the huffing and puffing and the arguments, the need to squeeze against a wall to avoid a confrontation and the stresses that all this brings.

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