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

“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)

Image: Gueorgiu Pinkhassov/Magnum Photos

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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With everything from iPhones to clothing turning monochrome, is the West afraid of colour?

If modern design appears particularly achromatic, it only reflects the "chromophobia" which courses through the history of Western thought.

To many English observers, 1666 – the year that the poet John Dryden christened the annus mirabilis, or “year of miracles” – wasn’t especially miraculous. The country was gripped by plague and, after a hot, dry summer, the Great Fire cut a swath through London. But for Isaac Newton, then still a student, it did prove illuminating. It was in 1666 that he first used prisms to prove that white light was not a pure, indissoluble substance but was made up of different coloured rays. This was such a profound challenge to the prevailing world-view that even Newton was shaken. “I perswade my self,” he wrote, “that this Assertion above the rest appears Paradoxical, & is with most difficulty admitted.”

The belief that colours are inferior and therefore naturally subordinate, rather than fundamental, was not new in Newton’s day, nor did it end with his discovery of spectral colour. A pattern of chromophobia – an aversion to colours – courses through Western thought.

Writing in the fourth century BC, Aristotle argued: “The most attractive colours would never yield as much pleasure as a definite image without colour.” For Renaissance artists, this idea was defined by the division between disegno, drawing or design, and colore. Disegno was the foundation of any serious artistic endeavour. The preference for achromatic, “intellectual” form is also evident in architecture. Despite rock-solid evidence from the 19th century proving that Greek marble buildings and statues were once brightly painted, the classical ideal has remained anachronistically bleached. And while modernist and postmodern architects have made some use of colour, the primacy of form is unmistakable in the work of everyone from John Pawson to Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito.

A broad cultural dislike of colour is curious because, speaking in evolutionary terms, our ability to see it has been crucial to our success. Colour vision in primates developed between 38 and 65 million years ago and makes us better able to find ripening red and yellow fruits amid green foliage. Neurons devoted to visual processing occupy much more of our neocortex real estate than those devoted to hearing or touch. Estimates vary but the Optical Society of America has suggested that it may be possible for humans to distinguish between up to ten million different shades.

And we have put this skill to good use. Bold colours have been used by many cultures to mark temporal and spiritual power. Tyrian purple, a rich, reddish dye said to resemble clotted blood, was made using an extract from two different kinds of Mediterranean shellfish and was beloved by emperors in the ancient world. A single pound of dyed cloth would cost a skilled craftsman three years’ wages and became steadily more expensive as the shellfish became rarer.

But even as such saturated colours were coveted, they also elicited disgust. The manufacture of many, including Tyrian purple, involved ingredients such as stale urine and dung. Dye and paintworks were relegated to the urban fringes. Increasingly, the wearing of bright colours was seen as vainglorious and ungodly. Protestants indicated their humility by whitewashing over jewel-coloured murals and smashing stained-glass windows in churches, and by restricting their sartorial palette predominantly to black. An echo prevails today in men’s suits: colours are largely confined to small accessories such as ties and white shirts are held up as the ne plus ultra of refined sophistication. (The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs went one better, opting for a uniform of identical black turtlenecks.)

One reason for this distrust is that colours are difficult to conceptualise. Do they exist physically, or only in our brains? Does everyone see them the same way? Colours have been maligned as chaotic, fickle, irrational and female. The early Christian thinker St Augustine of Hippo accused them of “a seductive and dangerous sweetness”.

Our ambivalence to colour, however, has profited white. Like black, white has not been classed as a real colour since Newton. It has almost become an anti-colour. Take Apple, for example. Although Sir Jony Ive is usually credited with the company’s love for monochrome products (it was certainly Ive who brought this to its apogee), the trend predates his arrival. It can be traced back to the “Snow White” design language developed in the 1980s. Today, as consumer neophilia demands that technology be continually refreshed, Apple’s higher-end products are available in the smallest range of colours – usually just white, black and, for the Asian market, gold – while those lower down come in a slew of fruity brights.

White is not only big business for Apple. In 2014, a Californian man named Walter Liew was found guilty of 20 counts of economic espionage and sentenced to 15 years in jail for selling the secret to a very special shade of titanium-oxide white, used in everything from luxury cars to tennis courts, to Chinese firms for $28m.

Perhaps the final word on the matter should go to Le Corbusier. In 1925, the great modernist recommended that all interior walls should be whitewashed, to act as a moral and spiritual restorative. But he wasn’t just advocating white for white’s sake: although he continued to dabble with colour, he disapproved of it, too. “Let us leave to the clothes-dyers,” he wrote, “the sensory jubilations of the paint tube.”

“The Secret Lives of Colour” (John Murray) by Kassia St Clair will be published on 20 October

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad