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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