” ‘Ave anuvver little look, and when you fink you’ve looked enuff, ‘ave anuvver little look.”, my no-nonsense driving instructor told me repeatedly as I thrust a Rover down the road on my seventeenth birthday. At that nascent stage of my motoring career, I couldn’t envisage ever zipping around nonchalantly like my older DVLA-approved friends. (Turns out you can make it to 32 functioning quite well on a provisional, so that’s fine.)
I’ve never really regretted not pushing myself to pass my test; never had that hankering that most people have to traverse the tarmacked byways of the country. People say driving is ‘independence’, but I’ve felt no less independent getting myself from A to B or even to G by other means. I love walking, I love trains, and taking a few cabs a month when I’m in a hurry is way less than I would ever spend on a car, and I can foist a bit of my carbon footprint onto some other bugger.
Sometimes people look at you strangely when you’re a walker, when you say you’re going to ‘walk’. Some don’t want you to get mugged, which is nice. Some see the time it will take you to ‘get there’ as injudiciously spent. Some think you will die if you dare perambulate further than five roads away. Telling them you don’t mind walking, in fact want to walk, is always met with disbelief, like you’re being a martyr. Having a dog is a good prop in this event. You can explain away your willingness to move your joints as a reluctant necessity for the sake of the dog. “Well, of course I don’t want to stroll slowly along the sea-path looking out at a shimmering horizon and delighting in the natural slowness of a life before its many modern encumberments, but the dog’s not going to pick up his own shit is he?”
The other day, I chose to walk home from somewhere. I was met with disbelief as estimates were made as to how long it would take me. We all reckoned about an hour. Cue wide eyes and gusting inhalations. After insisting that I truly wanted to, I set off – wrapped up, earphones in, dog setting the pace.
I took a straight route down a long main road, feeling my cheeks pulled taut by a teasing chill. Almost every town has a London Road as its main tributary, and I’ve passed along or across parts of my town’s almost every day of my life here. On this day I was further along it than I’d normally find myself. On one particular stretch I realised I was seeing details I’d not been close to before. I’d passed down it many times in a car but I’d never walked it, so I was familiar with its overview but not its specifics.
I wasn’t looking at anything much when my eyes flicked upwards to the side of a building, its smooth expanse of bricks painted white with old-style signage. Gilbert’s Bakers and Confectioners. I smiled. I love faded paint on exposed shop sidings, like the place has been sliced in half to reveal an older life. I half expect to see 1920s ladies in the windows, milliners on their tea-break, dashing off when they see they’ve been discovered still living untouched by time, dazed woodlice from out of a lifted slab.
I attuned my eyes to everything then, drawn out of my music into my surroundings.
Two sad ladies ignoring each other in a launderette, a scrape-faced teen mopping the floor of a cafe with theatrical swirls, a man mixing cement, two stoners smirking, a house I used to think was so big and majestic now looking so small and tired, a spaniel waltzing past with ball-gown ears, broken stained glass in hidden turret windows, a proud Italian waiter in a waistcoat putting out the bins, pansies poking up through beer cans, a dropped tray of ring doughnuts with chocolate sprinkles, doomed to the swipes of passing gulls.
I wouldn’t have seen any of this if I hadn’t walked. If I’d accepted the lift I would have just seen the blurs of a journey I thought I already knew. I realised even in all my walking I had switched off to what was around me. We all shut out so much stuff, the minutiae of other people’s lives, of our own. When really we always have time to have a little look and then another little look on our way.