Blog post

“Psychotic spatial awareness”: Will Self on Rebecca Solnit and political walking.

Decca Muldowney 3 April 2012

Writing in the Guardian, Will Self argues that walking is political. He points out that while a century ago 90% of Londoner's journeys were made on foot, according to current projections "walking will have died out altogether as a means of transport by the middle of this century." Attempting to demonstrate how alienated we have become from our physical environment, Self imagines what might happen to city dwellers in Britain if our transport systems disappeared overnight and we were forced to rely on our feet to get us around,

Put bluntly: deprived of mechanised means of locomotion - the car, the bus, the train - and without the aid of technology, the majority of urbanites, who constitute the vast majority of Britons, neither know where they are, nor are capable of getting somewhere else under their own power.

It is power that concerns Self. What does the ability to walk in the city mean for us as political beings and what do we risk losing if it disappears? Self turns to Rebecca Solnit's book Wanderlust, which he describes as a "magisterial history of walking". She details her own experiences of walking during the night in San Francisco,

I was advised to stay indoors at night, to wear baggy clothes, to cover or cut my hair, to try to look like a man, to move someplace more expensive, to take taxis, to buy a car, to move in groups, to get a man to escort me - all modern versions of Greek walls and Assyrian veils.

Solnit argues that "many women had been so successfully socialised to know their place that they had chosen more conservative, gregarious lives without realising why. The very desire to walk alone had been extinguished in them." To overcome such socialization, to walk even when it is prohibited or discouraged, is to reclaim power over an urban environment that is increasingly cordoned off, privatized and fenced in. As Self puts it,

We understand that to walk the city and its environs is, in a very powerful sense, to use it. The contemporary flâneur is by nature and inclination a democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control.