Nobody walks in London or not really. Living in the 21st century city doesn’t really lend itself to it. People tend to move with purpose, on linear journeys from A to B, under pressures of time which render our scope for the essentially meandering, contemplative act of walking nigh on impossible at the best of times. Convenience and speed are the watchwords of modern life in the city. Walking, by contrast, is an activity out of time, without an end but itself.
All that has changed recently. In a matter of weeks we have by compulsion become a city of walkers, of every kin and kind. With public transport out of the question for many of us, we have once again taken to the streets en masse. There are purposeful walkers, heading to work or to the shops; rhythmic walkers, begrudgingly trudging the same paths day by day as a means of keeping some structure in their days; and wanderers, who use the excuse of exercising to head out and get lost, turning left and right down narrow warrens, making aborted shortcuts through cul-de-sacs.
What they have in common is the fact that they are all experiencing their city in an entirely different way to how they normally would. Cut loose from the pre-drawn routes of commuting and socialising, we are each of us reshaping the city after our own footprints, each bringing it to life in a unique way as we traverse it. There are new mysteries and beauties we would not see before: the gas works printed onto the canal, or the scragged beaches by the bridges on the Thames. We are all Leopold Bloom or Clarissa Dalloway, making sense of our individual urban milieu as we go about our newly altered lives.
The wanderings of those two literary figures, through the rapidly growing Dublin and London of the post First World War period, are examples of one of the most abiding cultural types of the 20th century: the flaneur, the archetypal city-dweller, given form and definition by German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin in his monumental Arcades project. Drawing on the poetry of Baudelaire, Benjamin fashioned a figure uniquely suited to the noise and motion of the modern metropolis; perambulating, dislocated, painting the urban environment as he moves through its streets, anonymous in the crowd that imperceptibly drifts apart to let him through.
Unlike the flaneur, when we walk the city we do not do so under the mask of anonymity; even among our many fellow walkers, we find ourselves hyperconscious of each other, passing quickly with our heads down to avoid attracting too much scrutiny. Instead of a drifting crowd we are a collection of scattered atoms, able by our own volition to shift course, arching around each other in a wide berth. Each of us is conspicuous in our very ordinariness, intensely aware of both self and other, in a city of silent streets and thoroughfares.
As we walk and map the city for ourselves, we also become aware of how it is limited to us – in how far we can go before we must turn back. The way that we cover ground is inherently linked to how we conceive of our world, and in a world where the only means of travel is by foot, the limits of that space shrink to the distance that we can cover in a set period. It is for this reason that ancient maps look as they do: for example, the fourth century Tabula Peutingeriana, the only known map of the road network of the Roman Empire, places the distance between human settlements at the very heart of its schemata.
In medieval times, one could probably live an entire life in which one’s sense of the world extended a day or two’s walk in any direction, and no further. Beyond that was the unknown, and there be dragons. The industrial revolution changed all that; the invention of the steam engine brought about the railroad, and this in turn gave rise to mass transit. For the first time in history, the majority of people were freed from the tyranny of the local, altering our understanding and connection to place.
As mechanisation continued apace, the world shrank more and more as the time it took to get from A to B, and indeed the distance between A and B, moved inexorably in opposite directions. In today’s world of mass globalisation, many geographers have gone as far as to argue that time and space are no longer categories of existence for humans. The combination of simultaneous broadcast and reception of information and the obliteration of physical boundaries through open borders and air travel have created a world without limits, which can, as David Harvey has written, “collapse the world’s spaces into a series of images on a television screen”.
Accelerating technology and political change have combined to turn us into an essentially nomadic culture; in Europe, for example, one could cross 27 national borders without necessarily being aware of it, whilst satellite communications mean that we can talk to people and access information at any time no matter where in the world we are. It is, in a sense, an existence without limits; no longer need we be bound to places as once we were.
Over the last two months, this too has changed – or half has. Worldwide border closures, including that of the Schengen zone, and travel bans have thrown us back into a world where we are again physically constrained. For all intents and purposes, the world for most of us is now co-extensive with how far we can walk in a period of time, a condition that the vast majority of people will never have experienced in their lifetimes.
At the same time, the streams of simultaneous communication and constant information continue to flow. In our newly limited lives we are barraged, day and night, by new and fleeting images and stories from every corner of a world which is now out of our reach. The combination of physical limit and unlimited information is discombobulating in the extreme. The world is beyond us again, large and terrifying and somehow unknown, and it is as if our borders are constantly being besieged. There, indeed, be dragons.
From Primrose Hill, one has a totally unencumbered view of central London. On a clear day the three or four miles over to the City melt away, and it is almost as if one could reach out and take the dome of St Paul’s, still visible beneath the profane temples, in one’s hand. But at the same time, it feels like somewhere far off and inaccessible, a place out of another time. So too Westminster, and the Southbank beyond. What shall we find when we return?