Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Return Of The Pedestrian

After losing my house I had no option but to live with my parents or be homeless.  As I have noted on this blog over the past few months, I took the first option.  Though it proved to be stressful it was less debilitating than living on the streets or at some council's pleasure in a bed & breakfast.  That delight will probably come when I am bullied at work again and my parents have died.  Anyway, after weeks of searching for a room; being rejected by the bulk of them because I was too old (at 45) or too male or was impudent to ask that there was heating that worked, I finally found the room I mentioned.  I am a sub-tenant of a Lithuanian family in a house with another lodger plus the family of two adults, a child and a dog.  The dog only understands Lithuanian and looks at me with a bewildered stare whenever I speak to her in English.  In contrast, the child flicks between both languages with immense ease. 

In London it is expected that you commute to work.  My parents live 30Km outside London and the route I took meant I could do that in 30 minutes.  I was offered rooms that were 18-19Km from my workplace but with the trains being radial rather than around the circumference and the traffic in so many one-way systems between these rooms and work it easily too 2 hours to cover this distance.  I was fortunate that the room I ended up with is less than 3.5Km from where I work.  Since losing the house, my weight had risen by 3Kg.  My mother had kept trying to persuade me at least to walk around the town where they live, for exercise.  However, having been bullied for ten years in my childhood, there are very few corners of the town which do not haunt me with memories of being humiliated or physically assaulted.   The neighbouring town is a little better as it has been do smashed around by developers in the past thirty years and continues to be altered that there are few structures left from my memory to remind me of what happened: the library where I was punched has been levelled, the swimming pool where I was held under the water is now replaced by a car park and where the other pool, the one at which my trainers were stolen, used to stand is now a landscaped bank of grass and flowers.

I had never visited my new district ever before, so I can walk through it with no ghosts tugging at my peace of mind.  Like much of London, though the area is generally wealthy, there are pockets where ordinary people live and abruptly you can turn a corner and see a very different society from the street you just left.  It reminds me of London Below in 'Neverwhere' (television series 1996; cassette/CD 1996; novels 1996 & 2006; graphic novel 2005) which I have just recently re-watched on DVD.  It is more like 'London Beside'.  The same applies to the architecture.  I am fortunate on my walk to pass large Victorian town houses, 1930s blocks of flats and semi-detached villas, 1950s bungalows, 1960s blocks of flats, 1990s fake versions of the Victorian houses and terraced houses that could have come from any period in the past century.  I suppose this is better than a route that took me alongside a dual carriage way for kilometres.  There are small shops and pubs on the way, some with a very old-fashioned approach - one chemist advertises that it develops films and one post office closes on Wednesday afternoons.

Walking I see the same people, some occasionally, some almost daily.  Many, of course are oblivious to me, tied up in the sounds and images emerging from whatever device they are grasping.  Conversely, I am watched eagle-eyed by parents.  This is the fate of any man walking within 500 metres of a school.  Everyone no matter how smart or shabby looking is perceived as a potential paedophile.  It is very unpleasant, but something that seems unavoidable these days.  I try to skirt going too close to any school, nursery, playgroup or even college, fearful that some mother is going to thrust an assault alarm at me and have me dragged off for lynching because I simply look 'odd'.  I am jumping ahead of myself as before the parents, thrusting us off the pavement with vast pushchairs, there are the sports fanatics, filling up the park with styles that look like they belong in the Eighties as they run and exercise.  There are also the dog walkers, even more demanding than pushchair pushers as their dogs scurry in multiple directions threatening to snare your knees in their leashes and it is always your fault.  From this you can tell the prosperity of the area.  The poorer the area, the earlier in the morning people head to work, something you can witness if you take a  tube train from Mile End at 06.00.  There are the cyclists, looking like left over domestiques from the Tour de France, in top team kits, with more equipment than I have in my car.  It is only at 07.30 that the locals begin to head to work, appearing like the Eloi in 'The Time Machine' (1960) in this case as if summoned by some silent signal.  Literally five minutes can be the difference between an empty street and it being filled with apparently sightless zombies, only zombies who march and brook no-one else in their path.

Apparently a quarter of adults walk for less than two hours per week; I do four to six hours; the recommended is one hour thirty minutes.  I now walk 6.5Km per day, averaging about 6kph.  As occasionally I drive and sometimes I go out at the weekends too, I cover 25-38Km per week.  However, having my health reviewed by my doctor recently, this was deemed to be 'inactive'.  Thus, though I feel healthier from walking apparently it is far from being enough actually to make me healthy.  I have noticed that the stress brought about by idiots driving has been reduced.  However, I would contest the suggestion made in the reports that came out in May, that walking benefits your mental health.  The time you are left to ponder life and to think that I am in a job that I can only afford two suits and I live as a sub-tenant with an immigrant family, is not cheering.  In addition, living in such a prosperous area I see so much arrogant behaviour even of people walking and cycling, let alone the car drivers who regularly try to kill me on the Zebra crossings.  I often arrive at work or back home thoroughly dispirited by seeing how unpleasant people are and knowing that I will never own a house again, not even one of the small, mid-20th century terraced places.  Perhaps I need to put my brain into an ipod or a smartphone to avoid such daily mental challenges.

I did aspire, briefly, to be a flâneur.  This term these days usually means someone who is pretty much a layabout going back to its 16th century routes.  However in the 19th century in France it took on a more proactive sense of being someone who strolled in order to explore his/her urban environment. The ideal flâneur was seen as an individualist, not willing to fit into the category of the 'badaud', i.e. someone who simply gazed without thought at what they were passing, perhaps like the modern 'rubber-necker'.  The flâneur seems to be having a bit of revival, perhaps not in South-West London but in West London by Will Self, author, raconteur and now professor, who is apparently renowned for his peripatetic lectures, i.e. lectures while walking, an approach in theory dating back to Aristotle (384-332BCE), though that view may stem from a mistranslation.  Self's approach in turn seems to have been highlighted by his book 'Walking to Hollywood' (2010) stemming from his obsessive compulsive disorder and obsessions going back to the early 2000s of walking great distances out from London.  Like myself, he did not find the walks curative or beneficial for his mental health.  From what I have heard from an old friend of this blog, his colleague, John Francis, seems to be developing the flâneur concept in terms of lecturing and in exploring the urban environment, perhaps, it has been suggested, stemming from his background in film studies.  This sense of people walking through London and other urban locations equipped unlike any flâneur of the past to challenge, check and capture the scene is an exciting one.  However, I imagine like running and cycling it will be taken and made into a colourful pose activity with expensive clothing that you simply must buy in order to be into it properly.

The flâneur, even on a daily walk, is exploring the town/city, being alert to its history and its changes even day-on-day let alone over the seasons, years and centuries.  It is seen as then leading on into street photography, not only witnessing the urban scene but capturing it.  Wikipedia refers to Susan Sontag in this respect, but I would go back to Robert Doisneau, who has brought street scenes of his Paris in that era to many people in succeeding decades.  Thus, I equipped myself with small camera and dreamt of having the tools to look at the spaces I walked through an augmented reality application on a smartphone, even adding to the elements available online from my walk.  Yet, it has failed.  Even when I got passed the blood-filled blisters, I found that I simply moved like the blind zombies, in fact not even marching at their pace.  I move furtively, seeking to avoid being close enough to a school to be shouted at for being a potential molester, dodging the cyclists on the pavement (despite the minimal traffic on the roads I walk beside), heads down, the world blotted out by the iPlayer.  Getting to work is a physical and mental survival course.  I am not excited by the day-to-day changes and I am depressed by the streets that show me everything I can never have and more.

My walking saves me some money in petrol and that saves the planet some milligrams of pollution.  I guess the stress is not as bad as when I drove and perhaps my chances of being injured or killed have fallen now I am on suburban pavements rather than the M25.  However, it has shown me that not everyone can be a flâneur.  You need to be rich enough and have sufficient prospects not to be overwhelmed by the weight of other people's opportunities.  You certainly need an arrogance to face down the arrogance of those unhappy at you being in the space they want to move into.  It probably helps if you are a woman so that you are not considered a potential burglar, rapist or paedophile at every step.  So I guess the flâneuse it possible in this world.  Perhaps then you can get some benefit from walking through a city.  For me, there are no mental benefits, bar the fact that I am not pursued by the ghosts of my hometown bullies.  Even the doctor's system claims that there is no physical benefit and that walking 25Km is insufficient to render me anything more than 'inactive'.

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