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

Azeem Ward
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Living the Meme: What happened to Azeem Ward and his flute?

In the first of a new series investigating what happens to people after they become memes, we speak to Azeem Ward, whose flute recital went viral in 2015.

The Sixties had Woodstock. The Nineties had Lollapalooza. The Tens – and, if we’re being honest, just a single year of them – had Azeem's Senior Flute Recital.

If you were inactive on the internet between 12 and 16 May 2015, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing who Azeem Ward is. After setting up a Facebook page for his end of year flute performance, the University of California student was inundated with over 100,000 RSVPs from the United Kindom, along with multiple requests to fly to England and play (for no apparent reason) Darude’s “Sandstorm” in Nando’s. After international news coverage, Ward – as all memes inevitably do – appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to discuss his newfound fame. On 16 May, he had to turn hordes of people away from the 500 seat recital hall, and over 55,000 individuals tuned into a livestream of the event. Then, Ward disappeared. Not from social media, and not from the world, but from the internet’s collective consciousness.

Search interest in "Azeem Ward" over time

“I’d say no,” answers Ward, when I ask him whether, one and a half years later, he still receives any special attention or has any fan interactions. “I’m just regular Azeem now, and I’m okay with that. Regular me is a more focussed person that is not reacting to things that are happening around me.”

Ward is Skyping me from his home in Iowa, where he is getting his master’s degree in flute performance. He spends his time composing flute beatbox songs, learning how to produce music, and teaching a class on flute fundamentals at the university. “A lot of [the students] here in Iowa know what happened but they don’t go like: ‘Oh my God! It’s Azeem!’. It’s just like, ‘Hey, what’s up man? I saw that one thing about you on Jimmy Kimmel’.”  

The original Facebook event page

Ward regained his anonymity when he moved to Iowa, as many of his fellow undergraduate students in California recognised him because he was on the local news. “But the whole viral thing was a UK thing,” he explains, “It wasn’t really around the whole US.”

An Azeem meme

Four months after his famed flute recital, Ward did come to the UK and toured the country to perform as part of various university freshers’ weeks. “That was a crazy time,” he says, “I was over there for five weeks and played 22 shows in 12 different cities, all the way from London to Scotland.” His concerts were popular, though most people came to take a selfie or ask about how the recital happened, and only a few wanted to talk to him about music. Still, Ward profited from the events. “We did make some pretty good money," he says, admitting he earnt around $5,000. 

Despite clearly enjoying this time, Ward seems unfazed that his viral fame is now over. His only regrets, he says, are that he didn’t make any connections in the music business while in the UK, and that he didn’t have any social media accounts set up before he went viral, so there was nowhere for people to go to listen to his music. “When you go viral people hold onto that rather than taking you seriously as a musician,” he says. “Sometimes it annoyed me but sometimes I realised that I wouldn’t be there in the first place if it wasn’t for going viral.”

Azeem now, photo courtesy of Azeem Ward

So what advice would Ward give to the next person who finds themselves, unwittingly, the object of the internet’s affection?

“I'd say don't lose sight of what you've already been doing in your life, like keep your focus. I'd say that sometimes in your head you're like ‘Oh man, I have to do this now’, but you've just got to stay focussed on your goals. When you have your own path and you go viral you have a lot of people asking you to do all these different things. It was pretty intense – I’m not used to having a lot of people look at me and my actions, so I was pretty anxious at first. In the end I realised that I came to do what I came to do, and I had to go do it.”

Although Ward doesn’t miss being internet-famous, it is clear that going viral had an impact on him. He recalls the peak of the madness with telling clarity, sharing specific details such as "256 people” clicked attending in "four hours", and “then 512”, before 12,000 people RSVP’d overnight. Mostly, however, he seems very grounded, though he acknowledges it was “out of control” and “really crazy”.

Perhaps Ward feels this way because he received little in the way of negativity or hate. He fondly discusses memes that were created and art that was drawn about him, and the support of his family and friends. “Even though there were a lot of silly things going on, I managed to make it positive for the school,” he says. “I had no haters. Everyone was like ‘Damn, Azeem. Good job, man’.”

One day, Ward hopes to come back to London, although he is wary of returning. Not because of his viral fame, nor the number of selfies he might have to take with Nando's customers, but because of Brexit. Our conversation, like all post-June conversations, turns swiftly to the topic, and Ward asks me about the economy. “I was thinking about trying to do a doctorate over in London, but if things aren't going to be so good in a few years...” 

Ward admits he wouldn’t be bothered if he never went viral again. “When I think of something going viral, I think it has a point in time where there’s so much interest and then it goes away. I’d like to produce material and the attention to keep going up.” So do you want to be famous, I ask? “Do I really want to be famous?” he ponders. “Being famous is okay, I guess. But I want to be is respected and appreciated.”

To listen to Azeem’s music visit soundcloud.com/azeem-ward or Like his Facebook page.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, reach out to Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.