Why is the act of urban walking so revolutionary?

What both the interwar topographers and the situationists recognised was the transformative potential of large numbers of people regularly stepping outside the matrix, taking to the streets and walking, becoming active participants rather than passive spe

New Statesman
Image: Gueorgiu Pinkhassov/Magnum Photos

“The cry of the age is for distraction, but distraction is precisely what we do not want.” This is not situationist-inspired graffiti daubed on the walls of Paris during the insurrection of May 1968 but a line from the introduction to a 1930 walking book, It Isn’t Far from London, by the stalwart BBC broadcaster S P B Mais. His superficially innocent books describing routes along field paths and over stiles through places such as Stoke Poges and Dorking are calls to reclaim a connection to the spirit of place through “slow, solitary and wayward” walks. He exhorted his readers to “make up your mind to be bound by no programme, to travel with complete irresponsibility” and “continually trespass”.

There was a whole band of urban ramblers exploring the insalubrious and unheralded districts of London during the interwar years. In books such as Gordon S Maxwell’s The Fringe of London, Thomas Burke’s The Outer Circle and James Bone’s The London Perambulator, the previously overlooked suburban hinterland of the city was treated with the same reverence as more conventional heritage sites. The workaday city was celebrated as a land rich in legend and wonder. In the same period, George Orwell was undertaking his politicised tramps around London and into the Kent countryside to experience the hardships endured by the homeless and destitute; then he walked his way from Coventry to Wigan Pier, chronicling the “distressed areas” of the north.

Yet it was a bunch of Parisian gadabouts who turned this damp-tweed form of subversive schlepping into a codified art. For members of the Situationist International (SI), such drifts were fact-finding missions for the transformation of urban living and society in general. The walks were recast as dérives and the findings formed the new pseudo-social science of psychogeography. The intent was overtly revolutionary. Radicalism was not cloaked in the guise of a walking guide; the SI’s ambulatory studies of the Paris suburbs were “reconnaissance missions” for the revolution that was to come – and it very nearly did in May 1968.

Though it’s hard to imagine Mais, Maxwell and Burke, with their schoolmasterly tones, sitting down to sip absinthe with Guy Debord and Ivan Chtcheglov at a Left Bank café, what they shared was the belief that citydwellers’ connection to their environment was under attack from the onward march of urban growth. The car was seen as a tool of capitalist propaganda, the city itself as a manifestation of hierarchies and power structures; modern urban planning was a mass exercise in “organising universal isolation” that shackled and oppressed the human spirit. The primary solution to combat this attack was to walk.

Urban walking is now promoted as a leisure pursuit, with posses of rambling groups herded on to sanctioned routes and heritage trails that double as cycle highways. Although paths such as the Greenway in London give city-dwellers a chance to stand outside the urban soup to float atop like a toasted crouton, sooner or later they sink back into the mire.

The reality of the street is what we need to confront, as increasing proportions of the public realm are quietly transferred to private ownership. Whereas there was a long and hard-fought battle to establish the right to roam over private land in the countryside, a fellow urban rambler, Andrew Stevens, remarked to me recently that there is no comparable right to roam in the city. Take Mais’s and Maxwell’s advice to “constantly trespass” and you’ll soon find yourself pursued by members of the expanding army of private security guards.

Though psychogeography today has largely been adopted as a creative practice, its radical potential remains latent. The walker is more likely to notice the changes taking place within the urban environment – less prone to the stresses and anxieties of overcrowded public transport and congested roads, not as susceptible to whisperings that the city is a place of danger, a zone from which we should seek refuge behind the gates of the latest development of luxury apartments. You feel that, were our urban planners, councillors and developers regularly to “drop their relations, their work and leisure activities” and dérive through the city streets as described by Debord in his “Theory of the Dérive”, there’d be far fewer car-centred consumer colonies in our towns and cities and more “houses where it will be impossible not to fall in love”, as envisioned by Chtcheglov.

To find evidence of Mais’s age of distraction and the situationist “spectacle”, you need only observe the peculiar, somnolent processions of shoppers around Westfield Stratford City, beguiled by glittering chain-store window displays, dazzled by illuminated screens projecting the aspirational dream of an ersatz celebrity lifestyle, available for purchase at the higher-end stores on the second floor. The only footfall of importance here is not psychogeographical but a metric for measuring potential consumer spend.

What both the interwar topographers and the situationists recognised was the transformative potential of large numbers of people regularly stepping outside the matrix, taking to the streets and walking, becoming active participants rather than passive spectators. This “revolution of everyday life” is a radical shift that starts with placing one foot in front of the other.

John Rogers is the author of “This Other London: Adventures in the Overlooked City”, published by HarperCollins (£12.99)