The Magazine of Human Agency

Walking in the Street

I remember when I was in assembly at school the head came in and addressed us. She brought up some complaints that had been made against some of my ten year old peers. The back streets, ten minutes walk from my home was where my scout hut was, so I knew them well. They were a tight, quiet suburban grid of brick terraces, largely empty of traffic, superficially boring. I suppose I was blessed to have been born into a wider neighbourhood that actively encouraged children to play with each other in the streets. My street and the one next to it must have had ten families living in it, which meant that at any given time there were more than a dozen kids of varying ages kicking about. Generally, I watched them through the gap in my curtains, but sometimes found the courage to step out and play cool with the gang and maybe break old Mrs Thornton’s window with a cricket ball.

So these complaints - referring to the kids who lived several blocks over went something like, “So we’ve received some complaints that children who attend this school have been walking up and down Gardiner Street in the middle of the road in groups of thirty or more, blocking the traffic, being rude to their neighbours, dropping litter, making too much noise and I am telling you this now, we know who is doing this and we’ve already been talking to your parents about your behaviour…” it went on. And at the time I marvelled in the way adults speak to children such as myself to make them feel, despite having nothing to do with it, despite rarely stepping onto the street at all, that I too, was responsible. How all this was happening outside of school holidays I will never know. Critical mass, collective will. Anyway, after that, it stopped.

But I remembered it when living in Brighton, which for its sins does one thing really right: walking in the street - everyone does it, it is normal there. I lived there for six years and in that time the notion of casually cruising down the middle of what would otherwise be a recipe for carnage of a busy road became so utterly entrenched that these days, the only place where I won’t walk in the car lane is dual-carriageways and faster. But while the drivers in Brighton, who seemed generally to accommodate off-piste strolling outside of the pedestrian zone would know to go slow, the rest of the UK and in other countries are late to the fact of my one-man traffic calming programme. Safe to say that I didn’t even bother in the USA because I don’t want to die a foolish death, or kill anyone else. They know this and have laws that penalises “jaywalking”; in America, the car has truly won.

But in Britain it is possible to be bold and step out there. There is a certain kind of a person whom I admire. At the UK’s 2000 Glastonbury festival I watched as a bearded pirate took out a sizeable wrench and, with a small crew, undid entire sections of the perimeter fence. This allowed about 30 seconds for people to surge through before a man dressed as a security guard, armed with a baseball bat, started charging them to pass. Echoes of this activity can be found when adults are shepherded by fences to prevent them from crossing intersections at the most convenient location. Instead of making cars wait, which is always the most sensible thing to do, pedestrians are forced to walk circuitous routes, penned in and subservient to the desires of urban traffic and its drivers. But I’ve seen it in Newcastle and I’ve seen it in Birmingham and elsewhere: bits of fence missing or undone at the essential place, easing a very mundane Human agency.

In the winter of 2018, I was moored just outside Birmingham, on the Soho loop of the Birmingham Main Line canal. I pulled in parallel to a completely empty spot and tied up to the mooring rings. The mooring was about 50 metres long of grass and two metres deep. At one end was a brick wall and at the other was a gate. These two ends were joined by a long metal fence that separated the mooring from the houses that lined the canal. So I walked over to the gate to see about how I was going to get in and out and a sign told me “No Entry”. And for a while, before it came to me, I took a ladder from the roof of my boat and used it to get over the fence to the street beyond. I called the boating office and suggested the insertion of a gate to no avail. So eventually I took my socket set and undid two bolts on one side of a section of the fence, allowing the bolts on the other side to act as a hinge. And you know what? No one cared. I swung the new “gate” open and stepped out into the middle of the road, to walk to the shops.

Today I moored in Nantwich and went to explore the town and on my return, stepped off the curb down a quiet back street and enjoyed the space that cars normally exclusively enjoy. A few pedestrians walked past the other way on the pavement and I suddenly felt like a hobo, but then, yes, that’s exactly what I wanted. For me the pavement is largely another way of excluding people from the greater part of public space, to make way for the convenience of car owners. But out there, out among the dashed white lines, I feel strangely safe. Yes there are cars, but I’m not stupid and get out of their way, but otherwise, there’s no one out here. No one to barge you, to be rude to you, to affront you in the compression of the sidewalk. Thugs do not hang out here and well, if you see someone you love, you’re already half way there.

On the pavement you are almost trapped between buildings and street furniture or parked cars. Out in the middle you are conspicuous, yet curiously unseen - hidden in plain sight - perhaps because people have their eyes within their field of comfort. It is a bold move, but unless the road is really busy, it really is much more free and generally more peaceable. Bold because it necessitates an element of interacting with car drivers in a way that is generally unfamiliar to them, but also because the pavement is not only the place you walk, it is that place for a reason; it has a meaning. To counter or question entrenched meaning is one of the responsibilities that any person can take on. Here, that responsibility yields more agency for me, more space and sense of freedom, a greater autonomy in defiance of car culture and the gentlest of teases: that the pavement and the road do not have to be mutually exclusive; that the
most pedestrian of rules that we are indoctrinated to accept for our own safety, are in fact only rules, not laws and should therefore be prodded with no small affection.

And as I amble down the leafy avenue, whistle out a flattish hornpipe, I am more alert, more alive and at a safe distance from the insidious wants of commerce. Walking is a beat, a beat around the block, a rhythm. It’s whilst walking that I write my songs, my music; it is here I compose my poetry and consolidate my thoughts. I remember those kids, 30 dang kids, mucking about, playing at defiance, blocking traffic, being a “pain”, being kids, being alive and I file it under “Cheap Thrills”, the best kind, and so heartily recommended.

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The Whispers of Birds

 Often, as I have no maps, the stream ahead upon which I daily move is an unseen scroll, revealing its brilliantly lit illuminations as it unfurls. Upon those days when the sun throws hot contrast and the wind is still with insects and the coppice path-ways which normally run thick with clay and footprints are pale and dusty, I tie up to the shade and sink into it; pick about looking for stove twigs to lick the soot-bottomed kettle; watching the sweet smell of unknown trees beam the dapples, rise atop the oaken, the beechen, the ashen canopy. And for a moment, that’s where I am.

I remember a man coming to that place. I’d seen him months before when, on the great river my companions lost power and had to drop the bow-anchor. As we were heading downstream, we begun to rotate about our forward fixing and accordingly the helm astern where I was stood, turned in closer to the foreshore. The spring flow is too strong to fight, so with nothing better to do and having already seen him peripherally, I turned myself counterwise to our rotation to keep him in my station.

A man of unknowable, middling age, tall, hair like the underside of turf sods grew thick beneath a once olive-green hat. I reckoned he wore all his clothes at once, which was not to say there was many - all rainwashed of colour, over-ripe with dark looking grease spots. He had no shoes or socks. His trousers were mended with bits of tape and string. He was walking, half-bent under a world of bungees, bulges, pans and bags; everything tied onto everything else, he was a one man band of silence.

I saw a well-dressed and intentioned couple approach him by the pristine suburban embankment, calling out cautious salutations as one might offer a sandwich to an unexpected visit from a badger. But even as they stood right there in front of him, almost blocking his path, perhaps imagining any amount of bites and blood and savagery, perhaps imagining an opportunity to condescend into heroism, he walked past them as though he had seen nothing at all; as though they, or he were a ghost. “Hello!”, they said, then “Hello?” as he walked on, their shoulders dropped, their mouths forlorn, baffled and rejected.

The activities of our situation midstream took over and I forgot him ‘til I took a wrong turn up a tributary some 30 miles north. There, the water was flat and easy, but shallow and so when I ran aground over a bar of silt and it being one of those late spring mornings that promised heat later, I decided to blow it off, cut the prop, slid out the gangplank and breathed deep the vegetal air arising from the warming brash. Birds, wind, water, leaf, all made their noises. I cocked my head to the sky, but the roads were gone, the city was gone from it.

Later, I made for the woods rimming the high bank and found there an ancient pit, a quarry, its walls steep with lime. Endemic ferns clung in cracks, their leaves waxy flat to catch the muted sun. I saw brackens and high tree roots and vines hung braided loose about the edge. Into it I followed clear vestiges of a freshly trampled path: down, along, then down, ending after five more turns beneath the overhanging face, who’s vast grey visage gauged my smallness, echoed in the dim lit base.

It was here I found a charcoal ring, shimmering-still and ready for my coffee can. I nudged it with my boot to bank it, unpacked my provisions and my blanket and soon enough the kettle for my coffee sang. I’d brought sausages and wine for my meal and, leaning back to a fallen tree, opened my book and was lost in it for a long while, until the light began to slip. After which I fetched more sticks and blanket wrapped, made my own comfortable glow, uncorked the flask and took a sip.

It was obvious that even in these lost woods, someone else was with me, but he didn’t come ‘til night time.

I own it was fortunate to be halfway through a bottle when he did, laid as I was following stars between the scattered clouds, the low moon casting sharp white the loaming boughs, the smoke rising free of its hollow. I would have startled at his eyes, looking at me, wordless through the veil of flames. Instead, I held true, sat up and exclaimed, “You’re late” and when he said nothing in reply I said, “There’s wine” and held out the bottle, but he didn’t move. He just sat and continued to sit, to look and say nothing and, with nothing much to prove, I figured that it was ok, there’s plenty space enough for two.

It’s clear to me now I’d happened upon a stranger’s home and lit his fire with his own twigs, and that he’d come in from his daily tasks to find a man alone, half drunk by his earthen hearth, cooking sausages on his own long and pointy sticks. And his face, blank as a mask, invoked in me sobering projections; intentions perhaps of his forthcoming wrath at my parasitic repast within his lonely pit. For here I was an accidental guest, disturbance in the hermitage.

I lifted the wine again, but this time to my own lips and with a greater effort to appear graceful. For while the woods and mountains permit any kind of anonymous slobbery, to which I own my love of it, when confronted by the massive volume of the wild, this time in a man, violence or restraint unknown, and then maintain to stay, unchanged, to be devoured in his silence, it does the heartbeat good to be respectful.

And in this mode we continued and soon enough, beneath my heavy woollen cloak, in the company of his wordless watch, a breeze of wine, the metallic tink of embers, I fell asleep - but not, not before the image of his face - tight, alive, blank - was deeply set within me. Eyes closed, I watched him watching, felt his watching in all my body, bodily, as though watching were blood. I recalled the poem, “Every night gazelles must sleep, know they the lions’ restless creep.”, and it chilled me for a moment, although it was truth.

And it must have stayed with me the night, because with one punched beat, my heart woke me at first light and maybe it was dew or a rising mist, but it felt like fear-sweat for a brief moment and then in knowing I was alive and he was gone and I was warm still and comfortable, I dozed another hour, evaporating in the dawn sun.

There, with my head on the ground the escarpment felt huge. I reached down to my side, to my glasses. It was already day out there: a kestrel came into focus, hovering way up and over. Two pigeons flew among the branches of a tree, paused, then flew off again. I looked the other way and traced the path down to my position. An old rotting log bore several Scarlet Cups, poised in brilliance amid the brown and green. And there I saw flies, caught like dust, drawing triangles by a damp and mossy boulder. And from where the fire was lit, a stream of light grey smoke lifted from its bed of scalded alder - less than a snuffed candle, but more than a snuffed match.

Where had he been? I sat up, blanket wrapped about my shoulders. Indents pressed in the dirt made their record: of two haunch heavy feet in fair parallel, large by any standards and with hallmarks of long toes. I saw no trace of bags and only a few other footprints walked through the quarry clay - once from the understory, once to return. I looked at the feet. Between them, folded twice, lay a yellowing piece of paper pinned beneath an egg-sized stone.

I’m telling you this because you should know that the paper presented as blank. Disappointed, I threw it to the hot ashes and poked at it with a stick so that I might rekindle a spark for my morning cup, when, delighted, I sharply whipped it out again as thick, brown words began to appear, written, I fancied, in lemon juice. It was already scorching along one edge, so I rubbed it on the damp earth til the red-light faded; uncrumpled it, smoothed it and, beguiled with surprise and the magical appearance of his solitary communication read:

Birds do sing to hide their whispers.

I listened. Just the quiet of the morning; a pair of squirrels chasing trunk spirals, a faint rustling, a light wind. I breathed in my resolve, struck camp and having pulled in the gangplank, used the pole to pry free of the silt. Drifting into centre stream, I took one last listen before turning the key and somewhere, up in a large holly bush, a solitary blackbird, who knows more songs than most, gave gusto in his private vocal treasury.

Graeme Walker, April 2018

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