Saturday, 29 October 2011

The art of walking

I’ve just finished reading The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, Literature, Theory and Practice of Pedestrianism by Geoff Nicholson. Along with accounts of many other eccentric pedestrians, Nicholson tells the story of Captain Robert Barclay Allardice (1779-1854), who took part in a number of bizarre pedestrian contests, one of which was set him by ‘an unnamed Duke’ who bet a thousand guineas that he could find a man to walk the ten miles from Piccadilly to Hounslow within 3 hours, taking 3 steps forwards and 1 step back. In 1809, Barclay himself bet someone else a thousand guineas that he could walk a mile in each of a thousand consecutive hours. He began on 1 June on Newmarket Heath, walking a single mile, every hour once an hour, on a set course in Newmarket in Suffolk. It only takes about twenty minutes to walk a mile, so there must have been a lot of hanging around. An enormous crowd gathered to cheer him on as he completed the feat on 12 July.

Nicholson suggests that the longest ever uninterrupted walk was probably taken by the adventurer Sebastian Snow (1929-2001) who walked 8700 miles from Tierra del Fuego to the Panama canal in 19 months. ‘By some transcendental process,’ Snow wrote in his book The Rucksack Man, ‘I seemed to take on the characteristics of a Shire [horse], my head lowered, resolute, I just plunked one foot in front of t’other, mentally munching nothingness.’ He had intended to walk all the way to Alaska but got bored.

Nicholson does not mention another epic walk, made by the comedian Ronnie Barker, as recounted in his autobiography, Dancing in the Moonlight. As a young man he worked unhappily as a hospital porter until, desperate to get into acting, he joined a touring mime company in 1950. After a few weeks of ‘misery and despair’, the tour collapsed in Cornwall without enough money for train tickets, and Barker had to walk all the way back home to Oxford.

Another great pedestrianist was Phyllis Pearsall (1906–1996), the founder of the London A-Z. (Nicholson once wrote a novel, Bleeding London, in which a character tries to walk every street in London using the A-Z.) Here is the account in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

Back in London in 1935 Phyllis Pearsall made a living painting portraits, but she was disillusioned by the pretentiousness of the art world and ready to take on a new challenge, and when she got lost one evening in the streets of London and subsequently realized that the most recent street map of London dated from 1919 she decided to produce her own. Starting with the Ordnance Survey sheets she walked the streets of London for eighteen hours a day, compiling a 23,000 card alphabetical index of streets, which she kept in shoeboxes under her bed, and produced the first London A–Z Street Atlas in 1936.

What the ODNB doesn’t mention, but which I read somewhere, is that Pearsall then took 250 copies of the A–Z in a wheelbarrow to W.H. Smith’s, and they bought them from her.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the same street each with the lamplight of the living-room shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of wheels.’ – Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums, cited in Nicholson, The Lost Art of Walking

2 comments:

  1. sounds great; I really enjoyed Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit as a treatise on walking.

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