Would that all journeys were on foot: writers on the joy of walking

Will Self on London, Fran Lebowitz on New York, Helen Garner on Melbourne and other writers love letters to urban pedestrianism

For Walking the City week exploring all aspects of urban walking, good and bad writers tell us where they walk and why.

Will Self watches the world go by at Charing Cross in London; Fran Lebowitz finds areas of midtown New York off-limits because Donald Trump lives there; Helen Garner says her quotidian route through her Melbourne suburb is not beautiful or meaningful to anyone but her.

These and other writers have shared their love letters to urban walking. And were eager to hear yours. You can send your routes, views and reflections to us using this form, or on social media with the hashtag #GuardianWalking.

My daily walk loops me back on my lifecycle

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, one of Londons most celebrated LGBTQI pubs, is on Will Selfs walk from home, in Stockwell, to Soho Photograph: Rob Holley/PA


Will Self in London

In the early 1900s, 90% of journeys fewer than six miles were taken on foot. Would that they still were! Between being online and being on a bus or a train, we all too often lose our sense of properly being where we are: walking sets that right, as with each footstep we plant, were revivified by our perceptions of this genuinely firma terra.

I walk in London a great deal, and always have. In my teenage years and my 20s, I mainly walked because I was skint. But with age and some emolument has come walking for health; physical and more importantly mental. My favourite walk is a workaday one, from my home in Stockwell where I both live and work to Soho, in yet more central London, where I socialise and shop.

There are several possible routes: the grandstanding one takes me past the Vauxhall Tavern, south Londons most celebrated gay pub, and its near neighbour, the MI6 building; then along the Thames embankment, past the Houses of Parliament, and up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, before I work my way through the backstreets around Leicester Square and enter Soho. But should I want to avoid busy streets, and the phalanxes of tourists battling it out against the three-card-monte scam merchants on Westminster Bridge, I can cross at Vauxhall instead, and make my way through the Arts and Crafts blocks of flats behind Tate Britain (built as social housing, but now luxury flats many of which are used as pied–terres by our lordly legislators), then along Marsham Street through the back of Parliament Square, along Horseguards, and via King Georges steps, up to Lower Regent Street and Piccadilly.

Listen, I know it seems an insult to detail all these storied landmarks as my mere way-stations en route to buy some stationery, or have a coffee with a friend. But in my defence despite the depredations of neoliberalism, and its sequel: the complete commoditisation of urban space it remains the case that London is a very big city indeed. If you know your way around it (or are prepared to get lost), you can always find a vista thats been overlooked, or an under-recognised corner of a familiar neighbourhood. Theres this and theres the delight of true flnerie: the ambulatory pursuit of chance encounters, overheard aperus, and those little unrepeatable vignettes that constitute the never-ending drama of urban life.

It was Dr Johnson who remarked that if you were to stand by the Charing Cross for long enough, youd see the entire world go by. My regular walk can take me past this spot which feels to me like some strange sort of still point, around which that processing world does indeed revolve. But then that could be because I was born in the old Charing Cross hospital, a few yards away which means that even my quotidian pedestrianism loops me back in to my own lifecycle.

Trumps even made walking worse

Fran Lebowitz once spotted Cary Grant on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo


Fran Lebowitz in New York

Ive never taken a walk just to walk. People who drive everywhere take a walk, but for me its a form of transportation. I like to walk because, first of all, youre in control. I could tell you exactly how long it will take you to get from one point in New York to another because Ive walked it a million times. This is not something you say of the subway. It could take you 10 minutes, or it could take you an hour, or you may never get there.

Walking used to be a kind of pleasure, but it is really an enormous effort to make your way around town on foot. The bicycles everywhere, the tourists everywhere, some tourists on bicycles the worst possible combination. I feel like Im in The Exorcist, my head twirling around to see what way theyre coming from. The cyclists are in general quite smug, with that expression on their face like I am saving the planet. I always think: No, I am. They didnt have to manufacture me in a factory. When I wear out, theyre not going to throw me away in a pile of metal and plastic.

The tourists obviously come from places where no one walks anywhere. They dont think of the sidewalk as a road for humans. Though they may annoy me all humans annoy me people who live and work here are always in a rush to get where theyre going, because they have to get to work to make enough money to be able to afford their apartment. They dont stand in the middle of the sidewalk on their phones.

I do not have a phone so when everyone started looking at their phones all the time, I could not believe that everyone was abdicating the observation of New York and giving the whole city to me. I am always saying to people: did you notice that building? And they say no, because no one looks up except me. To me, its like winning a lottery. They just handed me the city. Im the official noticer.

Of course Trump has made everything in the world worse, including being a pedestrian. Because he lives right on Fifth Avenue there is a big part of midtown you cant even go down anymore. Now its Trumps area. If he is there, or his wife is there, you cant walk on that block. Ive had numerous fights with cops about this. A cop once told me: You cannot walk on this block. I said: I am walking on this block. I almost got arrested, she was so angry at me.

Most of my memories of walking stand out for being unpleasant. But there was one day in the seventies, back when New York was mostly filled with New Yorkers. I was walking up Madison Avenue and I noticed that the people walking towards me were kind of stopped. It was just very odd. Of course Madison Avenue is very fancy, especially then I had never seen people behaving like this.

There, coming towards me, was Cary Grant, in a white linen suit, with his white linen hair. He was emanating white. There are a million celebrities in New York. One thing you must never do is look at them, especially not on Madison Avenue. I had never seen New Yorkers stop like that.
As told to Elle Hunt

Putting litter in the bin makes a lucky day

Terrace houses in the suburb of Flemington, Melbourne. Photograph: Alamy


Helen Garner in Melbourne

I walk this exact route through my Melbourne suburb of Flemington every morning. Its not beautiful or meaningful to anyone but me.

I barge out my front gate, under plane trees in which magpies sometimes warble. I cross the railway bridge, turn east at the house with the huge fig tree, then north again, past the brick garage and its inexplicably prolific gardenia bush. Nothing much to report till I reach the witchs house with the iron lace veranda and the hedge of dark pink rose bushes that no ones pruned for years. Every day I think their disgraceful neglect of those roses entitles me to pinch some on my way back. But I know I wont because my walk is a circle and I wont pass them again till tomorrow.

I cut through the booze warehouse car park and dash across the big road to the Bikram yoga school, then dive into the street with the weird antique shop on the corner. Good houses in a row, big wide Californian bungalows. Here, where the street drops downhill to the hockey fields and the concreted creek bed, I once saw a fox go strolling home at dawn. Another day a horrible man cursed me out and kicked my dog in the ribs.

Where the shared pedestrian and cycle track runs alongside the freeway wall I turn south again and pick up speed. Riders heading for the city zoom up behind me with sharp little warning chimes, and gusts of air as they pass. Im breathing hard and feeling powerful. Here comes the old Chinese couple, the dead-faced woman and the husband with his desperate smile. A tradesman in hi-vis stands in the middle of the football oval, reaches for the sky and bows three times.

At the primary school I turn right and tackle the steepest hill. Halfway up, panting, nearly home, I cop the first lemony whiffs of my reward: pittosporum blossom. Its perfume floats between the houses from an invisible tree.

If I can scoop up that McDonalds rubbish from the playground gate and shove it into the bin without breaking stride, Ill have earned myself a lucky day. All this, with its seasonal variations, takes up 40 minutes of what remains of my life, in my undistinguished and beloved suburb.

Walking is transgressive in carmaggedon

People crossing the street in Santa Monica, LA Photograph: Anna Bryukhanova/Getty Images


Rory Carroll in Los Angeles

One of the great joys of my years in Los Angeles was being able to leave my car at home and walk to a cafe, a supermarket, the library, the beach. In the worlds car capital this could seem a transgressive act, putting one foot in front of the other. This, after all, is a sprawling metropolis where sidewalks often dont exist, where everyone obsesses about exit ramps and parking and where traffic jams get nicknamed carmageddon.

But in Santa Monica, a small city wedged between Malibu and Venice, walking was not only feasible, it was pleasurable and an efficient way to get around. My morning routine included wheeling my toddler from our home on Montana Avenue to her daycare at the YMCA on Sixth Street, a one mile, 15-minute stroll past low-rise homes, stores, offices and cafes.

Sunshine, wide pavements, pedestrian-friendly crossings it was bliss. We were on nodding terms with some joggers and dog-walkers, listened to birdsong, paused to collect pebbles, monitored Fourth of July bunting giving way to Halloween pumpkins, then Christmas trees. I learned the timing of the traffic lights on Wilshire Boulevard, a busy thoroughfare, with precision, knowing when to stroll, to trot, to gallop, my daughter strapped into her stroller shouting faster.

During the long, hot summers and autumns I had one grumble: palm trees. Great for postcards, useless for shade.

Theres zen-like triumph in battling the elements

Pedestrians shield themselves from the wind and rain with umbrellas as they cross a road during a storm in Wellington. Photograph: Phil Noble / Reuters


Ashleigh Young in Wellington

Visitors praise Wellington for its compactness. Its so compact! The word is said with a sort of chefs kiss.It is convenient to be able to walk everywhere, but thats also why, sometimes, I dont want to walk everywhere. Everyone else will also be walking everywhere. Wellington is a relatively young city but its history of unwanted social encounters is richly layered.

I was once walking on Wellingtons beautiful south coast, along a long footpath empty but for an old housemate of mine with whom Id badly fallen out years earlier. We walked towards each other on that path by the sea, as though in chilling slow motion and after approximately 100 years, we passed. It felt like an outtake of Blue Planet.

To succeed as a walker in Wellington, you must embrace the turbulence both social and, infamously, weather-related. When it rains, youll want to rip out the slippery cobblestones of death in the central city; on gale-force days, youll want to campaign to have the city rebuilt underground.

The biggest problem I have to contend with when walking is truly my own annoyance. A sudden hail-studded gale blowing open my jacket Im indignant. Slow walkers on a tiny footpath and theres nowhere to pass my spleens swelling. A 4WD mounting the pavement so that it can pass an oncoming car on a narrow road Im Larry David in Paris. Ive internalised the citys melodramatic tendencies.

But then youll be stumping along in a gale and suddenly the silvery harbour is winking through trees. Or a native wood pigeon is perched on a powerline, its chest puffed out like a doughnut. Even the overhead wires for trolley buses that used to crisscross the skyline lent the streets a punk beauty. Wellington is full of these postcard moments, and you see more of them when youre on foot.

Sometimes, if youve been here long enough, when you look into the contorted faces of other pedestrians as theyre lashed by rain, you can just about see a kind of zen-like triumph.

Well-behaved women do not walk at night

View of a bus shelter at night in New Delhi, India. Photograph: Pradeep Gaur/Mint/Getty Images


Priya Alika Elias in Delhi

In Delhi, the female pedestrian is a rare bird. For one thing, its too hot most of the year (Delhi summers are notorious for wilting the most hardened traveller). For another, there are too many men, jostling and crowding each other, busying themselves with Typical Male Activities. Once twilight falls, whos left on the streets but the male cigarette-vendor, the male chaiwalla? Men stake out their territory while women remain quietly at home, making dinner for their families.

And yet I enjoy walking in Delhi. I make it a point to buy my own groceries from the store near my home. I walk in Old Delhi for an hour and reward myself with kebabs that I have to eat standing up in a crowded restaurant. In Lodi Gardens, where it is cooler, I watch peacocks in silhouette against the tomb of Sikandar Lodi. There are clandestine lovers cuddling in the bushes, and I stifle a smile in India, lovers are always on a quest for privacy.

Most of all, I enjoy walking at night, down the zigzag lanes of Hauz Khas Village or Green Park. I walk in whatever I like, refusing to defer to the convention that women dress modestly. Yes, there are male eyes on me, staring at my crop top. Often men are astonished a

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/sep/18/would-that-all-journeys-were-on-foot-writers-on-the-joy-of-walking

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