Walkers of the World Unite!

By Jonathan Power

When first running for president Barack Obama was made to feel uncomfortable on national television when an inquisitor attempted to pin him down on the inconsistencies of his non-smoking pledge. Clearly Obama had some trouble in not, as he put it, ”falling off the wagon”.

But, maybe, he should get completely off the wagon. It was reported that in the inauguration parade gas-guzzling SUVs were not used. But why did he not go a little bit further and insist that everyone walk?

Here is a man who likes to go to the gym every day, but a 45 minutes walk would do the job just as well and set a car-crazed world the example it needs. We have had bicycling heads of state or government before – look at Queen Beatrix of Holland and today David Cameron, the prime minister of Britain, when he was leader of the opposition cycled to the House of Commons. So why not a walker? That is what Cameron has now become.

Someone, you will protest, might take a pot shot at the president. But then, however tight has been the security so far, there have been ample opportunities for assassination- as when he gave his victory speech. There were bullet proof glass panels on both sides of him, but nothing in front or behind.

A new book on ”The lost art of walking” by Geoff Nicholson, says that walking can be likened to sex, ”Basic, simple, repetitive” but ”capable of great sophistication and elaboration. They can be completely banal and meaningless, and yet they can also involve great passions and adventures. Both can lead you into strange and unknown territories: a walk on the side.”

Apparently, during the First World War, British troops on long forced marches were given cocaine tablets to keep going. For many people, bottoms erect in their cars for decades, it might be necessary to repeat the treatment to get them going a pied. But it need not be- if a very popular president sets them an example.

The best thing about walking, as a writer in The Economist recently said, is that ”You are your own boss. Start and halt, look at everything or nothing. Think about a lot or a little.”

Walking is totally different from other forms of locomotion. You see things you have never seen when you go faster – the elegant cornices on an old building, the movement of the leaves on a tree, the direction of the clouds, the strange antics of the birds. Last weekend, out walking, I watched a father swan struggling to insist that his family – one wife and four youngsters – follow him on a long Sunday afternoon walk up a steepish hill away from their home. I laughed until my sides split. The kids just didn’t want to follow. In the end mother took them on a quick flight, while a rueful dad waddled back to the lake to wait for them.

In the days when my long-time paper, the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, was on the Rue de Berri, off the Champs Elysees, I would often walk there from my hotel in the Marais, three or four miles down the Seine. It is quite remarkable that one can conveniently traverse the length of one of the world’s larger cities without having to leave a towpath or a back alley, except for the last 500 metres dash up from the river.

The same is true in London. Setting off from an hotel on the edge of Kensington Gardens where the Patriotic Front stayed during the constitutional conference on Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, it was possible to walk, without touching a main road, through three of London’s great parks, one after another, until I reached the Foreign Office.

Nothing will stop me, wherever I am in the globe, trying to find the walking ways. As Bertrand Russell once said, ”Unhappy men would increase their happiness more by walking 6 miles every day than by any conceivable change in philosophy.”

© Jonathan Power 2013


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