London (bipedally yours)
By Fernando Sdrigotti.
Establishing shot: a cloudy city; man walking.
City scrolling to the sides, fast. Shops. Houses that all look the same. Victorian house after Victorian house after Victorian house – warehouse – after Victorian house. Kebab place. Off licence. A face staring from a window, toy in mouth, dog or child. And then a high street, epicentres of commerce, exchange, shopping, loitering, drinking, gambling. And Victorian houses once more.
Just to give an example. One possible establishing shot.
Establishing the real city demands thinking about walking. For walking is the only way to really know a place.
Not more than five minutes, five blocks, five hundred yards. Stories on display, the city taking its clothes off, for whoever wants to see whatever is there to be seen. Five minutes, five blocks, are enough to gather the soul of a city by peripatetic means, take it to bed, love it or hate it. The rest is redundancy, reaffirmation, slight negations of the affirmed, freak accidents. We keep returning to a lover. We keep returning to a city. Mostly out of custom. Sometimes out of [in]satiety.
London, Londinium, two thousand or so years of bad weather. And the rest of the clichés.
And me, moving fast, walking fast at different times, walking fast for different reasons and towards different destinations at different moments, different distances, ridiculous lengths, leisurely lengths, therapeutic lengths, professional lengths, immigrant lengths, settled lengths, drunken lengths, lustful lengths, lonely lengths, alive and decaying lengths.
But always walking.
East, West, North of London, South of the river: a succession of presents, of nows, that extend one step after the other, keeping me for ten years on a loop. Kilos of rubber sole gone with the pavement. But always joining A to B bipedally. Walking. Always walking. For as long as I can. For I know no better way.
When I arrived in this city, almost ten years ago, this guy I knew gave me a satori-like piece of advice: work close to your house or live close to your work.
It made sense back then, living in Shoreditch, East London, epicentre of hip and hype and pubs and restaurants that didn’t ask any question about visas or national insurance numbers.
My first job in London was within spitting distance from my flat, some terrible place near the Old Street roundabout.
I used to toil sixty underpaid hours a week, serving weak lager to city slicks and frustrated artists. Still, I was lucky enough to get to and from work in less than ten minutes. In a city of London’s magnitude, even a small triumph over the city-machine might excuse any degradation. I guess it is just about which area of your life you are willing to sacrifice.
I have tried to remain close to work ever since. No longer working behind bars, no longer living among hipsters. I’ve had mixed results.
Stepping into the system of formal employment doesn’t necessarily mean a better relationship with the city.
In London, the gradual loss of the right to the city by the lower and middle classes is evidenced (among other things) by people’s ability to move to and from their jobs on foot.
Once you’ve crossed a certain threshold, perhaps once you’ve placed your ass before a desk, you will be condemned to the kinetic ostracism of everyday commuting.
Commuting decay. Hordes of office clerks, zombified, slowly dying in eternal journeys.
Already in 2001, almost forty percent of the workforce employed in London commuted to work for at least forty-three minutes a day. Most of these trips were and continue to be from the periphery to Zone 1.
There are no reasons to believe that ten years after these figures have shrunk.
The huge ever expanding monster that is the City has expelled thousands and continues to do so with prohibitive rental prices, yuppie urbanism and the encouragement of Tory politics; condemning more and more people to join the sleepy morning travellers. Forecasts for the next ten years are grim: Conservative social engineering, the punishment of the poor, is already in action, assisting a process of gentrification that has been taking place since the mid 1980s.
This taming of the city isn’t a project a la Haussmann. There are no boulevards intended. No pleasant perspectives finishing in arches. No room for middle class flâneurs cutting across the cityscape (we’ve always had it bad for flâneuring in London, so goes the mantra: the peripatetic city par excellence is Paris). No coffee life (save the McBucks). No material for a re-edition of the Arcades Project or Caillebotte’s oeuvre. This is urban discipline without “good taste”. Haussmannisation a la British. Not rude. Not necessarily arrogant.. Just plain unfriendly.
Social engineering in London is not moved by aesthetics or a disciplinarian mistrust of the people. The working classes have long left their taste for the picturesque barricade behind and the middle classes have stopped being allies as the economy collapsed under sub-prime broken promises.
The forced exodus is motivated by the basest of economic reasons. Nobody has understood better that distance means time and time means money than London’s property developers.
With the help of their visionary urbanism London’s Zone 1 has turned into a growing blob of overpriced flats, chain coffee-houses, privatised public space, and organic foods outlets.
A blob, crushing, crunching, expanding, and expelling at a vertiginous pace. Creating dead space. Flattening out London’s social geography.
Downtown. Encounters. Reassurances for the generalised anxiety disorder that infects urban living in a megalopolis.
The city’s core punishes you into diminution to the point that you crave some sort of human recognition. Urban North Stars. It can be the balding fake blond guy that works at the chemist you once – only once – went to. The girl that wears stilettos two sizes too big and walks like a five year old in her mother’s heels. The macrocephalic lady that you used to meet on a daily basis just before the abandoned gas station at Store Street, every morning, around nine twenty five; a marker of time and space (and then you stopped seeing her and time and place lost their macrocephalic marker). The couple of junkies, him from Eastern Europe, her from South London, that you thought were autochthonous to Hackney but that you’ve bumped into that drunken night near the Charing Cross Road, arguing loudly over a cigarette butt while searching desperately for the North-west Passage, descendants of De Quincey, you and them.
Reaffirmation in recognition however diminutive. Brief reaffirming souvenirs of our existence: soon to be forgotten accidents. Necessary accidents in the city.
Every encounter breeds settledness as every North-west passage that remains unfound signals a place to go to, a chance to bring that encounter a step closer.
Constantly searching and aware that without walking there are no encounters.
A different type of walk.
In times of sadness we have walked the city end to end. (I am yet to know the ecstatic stroller. Happiness breeds stillness. Despair’s only antidote is kinesis.)
We were sad and we have cut across the urban body. So many times filling the gaps of our despair with every inch of ground left behind. Who’s been completely alone in London will understand: taking the streets, leaving the claustrophobic monospace of a room rented in a house-share.
Take to the streets. Leave everything behind for some hours. Carry nothing with you but a starved wallet and a lustful desire to step on every single square centimetre in town. If you are completely alone in London then you are completely alone in the world. If you survive a lonesome walk on a Sunday afternoon in December in London, you are closer to enlightenment.
A lonely healing process, walking ourselves to oblivion and out of suffering (walking meditation: kinhin). But also a clean process. Always safer and cleaner than public transport. Especially on those early mornings, too early or too late, when we risked recognising our face in the expressive vacancy of the sadder ones, those that hang their heads against the window. Passive sufferers; one inch closer to suicide.
Public transport lacks therapeutic potential. It’s just this space that smells of armpit, halitosis, self-help literature, and greasy hair. No wonder people keep jumping under buses and trains.
What will happen to us when we cannot walk the city any longer?
Walking will be lost; probably at some point during or soon after the Olympics.
London won’t allow us to walk the walk. The monster will demand more and more office space, parking space, organic space, overpriced, unaffordable space, to satisfy the demands of the Square Mile.
The emptiness of Financial Dwellingland is looming near. The pestilence of early-morning cappucinoed burps, yuppie smog, will expel the last of the under-waged strollers still holding on in the city. Only the suited and their serfs will be seen walking about town.
Times of reinvention. We need to reinvent walking in London. But, can we reinvent it? Can we surrender the city? What can be done? Should we walk on grass? Take to the highways?
Walking on grass stinks of fox hunting and I am yet to know, beyond some writers and drug people, the person daring enough to walk around the M25.
Perhaps the time to leave London is nearing. Walk out of the place. Don’t look back. Just concentrate on the destination – still to be figured out – and the city scrolling to the sides.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fernando Sdrigotti lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 23rd, 2011.