On Walking

Commonplace Newsletter #006

Welcome readers new and old to the latest of Thomas J Bevan’s weekly essays on life, literature and flâneury. Previous issues can be found here. Sign up


‘The pedestrian is the highest and most mightiest of beings; he walks for pleasure, he observes but he does not interfere, he is not in a hurry, he is happy in the company of his own mind, he wanders detached, wise and merry, godlike. He is free.’

~Tom Hodgkinson, How To Be Idle.

I never did get round to learning how to drive. Thirty three years old now and not so much as a lesson. I guess I always knew that I was destined to be a pedestrian. 

Well before the age when teenagers harass parents for a block of lessons and a seventeenth birthday banger, I had decided that I would be fleeing my concrete-and-grey-skies hometown for the bright lights of The Big Smoke at the first opportunity. 

And moving to the capital removes the need for a car. Or at least it removes people’s desire to ask you why you don’t have one. (With car ownership being one of the major early milestones of the Rat Race, the lack of a vehicle signals to some that you are not ‘playing the game’. That you have some strange ideas from reading too many books. However, in the ruinously expensive capitals of most Western countries lack of wheels is accepted with a shrug.)

So I always knew I was a stroller. Well before I had heard the term ‘flaneur’ or read Thoreau, I knew that temperamentally I was a loafer, a rambler, someone who was more cut out for people-watching and hanging out than for idling in traffic and hunching in a swivel-chair and mastering the shortcuts of Microsoft Excel.

And given that life’s what you make it (as the Talk Talk song reminds us) here I am, about to head out for my daily constitutional. But before I do I’ll talk some more about walking, that most obvious and neglected of subjects.

To Walk Is Human

The benefits of walking are so numerous, varied and self-evident that it is surprisingly difficult to discuss them. The temptation is to stoop to the level of mere health advice and point out how going for a walk lowers your blood pressure, strengthens your immune system, helps improve the memory and has been linked to longevity and so on. A lesser (or at least more professional) newsletter writer would hammer these points home with examples and personal anecdotes. He would cite sources.

But not me. Because all of those points, great as they are, are only a small fraction of what walking is about. If the main thing you take away from this is that you should start marching laps of the park with your tyrannical FitBit strapped to your wrist then I have failed you.

My contention is this: walking, like the ability to use language, is one of the most fundamental expressions of our humanity. It separates us from the animals* and from machines. 

[*In the sense that we are bipedal creatures, before someone leaves a smart comment pointing out that cats and badgers and giraffes can all, in fact, walk.]

And anything that is so fundamentally human is of fundamental importance. If I were to tell you (and this is all true by the way) that 3 in 4 English children spend less time outdoors than English prison inmates, that 1 in 5 are largely indoors all day and that 1 in 9 have not been to a park, wood or beach for the entire year I hope you would feel a sympathetic twinge of disbelief. Because this is obviously bad. This is obviously, in a sense, inhuman.

And of course those stats are pre 2020, the year when an awful lot of us have spent an awful lot more time than usual stuck in our homes, sitting down, looking at screens.

So the question then becomes: if walking is so intrinsically human, if it is so obviously a good thing, if it is so healthy and easy and free, if the vast majority of people are capable of doing it (even if they may not express sufficient gratitude for this gift) then why do seemingly so few people do it with any regularity?

Well I have my theories...

Walking and Time

‘The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory: the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.’

~ Milan Kundera, Slowness.

Time, especially clock-time and it’s side-effects, will be the subject of its own newsletter at some point down the line. There is a lot to be said about this business of alarms and schedules and sweeping second hands. See, all of these essays interlink, one thought begetting the next.

But anyway. Back to the matter at hand.

I suspect walking has been neglected because it is too slow. We’re far to busy, far too important for this stopping and smelling the roses business. We have places to be. We have things to do.

It’s the curse of utility once again- doing something to get something out of it, rather than doing something because it is intrinsically good. Or, heaven forbid, fun. 

And this is what cars, for the most part, are all about. Getting you from A to B as quickly as the law will allow. The journey itself is an irrelevancy, the landmarks unnoticed, the landscape a blur, all forgotten by the time that you arrive at your location. And more often than not late, ironically enough, because rush hour traffic in major cities often clocks in at an average speed of 2 miles per hour, the speed of a leisurely stroll.

But the point is the forgetting part. The faster you go, the more you forget. Move fast enough through life, from meeting to meeting, from goal to goal, from multitasking day to multitasking day and you are liable to forget the whole thing. This is the answer to the question of ‘Where did all the years go?’ The answer is that they didn’t go anywhere, we just simply ran away from them, our eyes fixed on a horizon that recedes further the more we try and sprint towards it.

The walkers among us know this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Because as the Kundera quote shows, it runs the other way too. Slow down and you will remember more. You will take more in. Your thoughts will begin to likewise slow down and become clearer. 

And emotions will return too. They will bubble up and break through. Awe at your surroundings, bittersweet wistful melancholia, simple joy, peace, reminiscences.

Which leads me, conveniently enough, to my next point.

Walking and Creativity

‘Solvitur ambulando’ [‘It is solved by walking’]

~Diogenes

Where do ideas come from? Theorists would say they come from the subconscious, they come from the dialectic of taking two existing ideas and filtering them through your experience to create a third, new idea. Others would say they come from God or the Muses or the infinite universal vibrations for which we as humans are a mere antennae.

And that is all well and good, and is all quite possibly true. But for me, for what it’s worth, my ideas come from going for a walk.

And I’m not the only one. Kierkegaard, a prodigious walker if ever there was one famously said ‘I have walked myself into my best thoughts’ and Thoreau, his American contemporary* said ‘the moment my legs begin to move my thoughts begin to flow.’

[*K and Thoreau are strikingly similar and have many parallels. Perhaps I’ll cover this in a future newsletter.]

This experience is pretty much universal. There’s a Stanford study that show that walking between 6 and 15 minutes leads to a 60% uptick in creativity versus spending the same time sitting down. 

And there are countless anecdotes of Steve Jobs and his Silicon Valley successors having walking meetings. Even those godheads who would have you sit indoors looking at screens all day can only come up with their diabolical ideas by walking around in the fresh air and looking at the sky and the trees.

So do what they do, not what they want you to do.

I’m going to leave you now with one final quotation. It’s from Hippocrates, the father of medicine who was offering out sound nutritional and preventative health advice half a millennia before the birth of Christ. He said ‘If you’re in a bad mood, go for a walk.’ When asked what if I’m still in a bad mood, he said ‘go for another walk.’

Me, I would go further. I say whether you are in a good, bad, or indifferent mood, go for a walk. I say whether it is sunny, raining or snowing outside go for a walk. I say no matter where you are or what your plans for this Sunday are, go for a walk.

And try walking slower than you usually would and see what kind of ideas and observations well up. You never know, you may just uncover something.

Anyway, that’s enough talking. I’m off for a walk. I hope you are too.

Until next time.

Tom


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