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March 30, 2012 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Will Self: Walking is political A century ago, 90% of Londoners' journeys under six miles were made on foot. Now we are alienated from the physical reality of our cities. Will Self on the importance of walking in the fight against corporate control
posted by fearfulsymmetry (55 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well, this is a bit of "get off my lawn" with a side of "get back on the sidewalk."

I mean, I kind of agree with him -- I like walking to get around. I walk about 2-2.5 miles pretty much every Sunday to buy a loaf of bread and have a coffee at a bakery I like, then I walk home or continue on for another mile to another cafe (a vegan cafe, haha!) to meet a friend. I could take a bus, but I like the walk. Similarly, I walk about 20-30 minutes every morning to the main bus terminal to catch the bus I take to work; I could do the trip on another bus at no extra cost, but it's nice to be out walking in the morning, getting a little woken up, and seeing the early morning streets.

However, I do this while listening to podcasts on my iPhone, which I also use to navigate in unfamiliar places (it's great for taking buses out into rural areas where the stops and landmarks are less convenient than those closer to home), so I guess that makes me... well, not quite pedestrian enough.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:44 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


God, this is insufferable philosophical masturbation.

Living in a big city has always been an alienating experience. This is not something that has been imposed by modernity (and certainly not something that we did in the past decade or two). Interpersonal relationships aren't hampered by urban life; if anything, living in a densely populated area gives you more latitude to choose your friends and seek out people of similar interests. There's always going to be a crowd, and you're never going to know everybody in it, like one would in a small village. The author looks at this as though it's a bad thing, ignoring the fact that chance encounters still can and do happen; they just don't take place between every single person that you bump into on the street.

He cites anecdotes from famous 19th-century writers to prove his point...or at least, I think. I couldn't actually figure out what sort of point he was trying to make. I think it has something to do with modern urban design, but it's not really supported by the hypothetical example he made up. Anecdotes from famous 19th-century also probably aren't the most accurate sources to make generalizations from.

What sort of social interactions could you achieve on the streets that wouldn't also be possible on the Tube? If anything, the Tube puts you captive in the same space, moving toward a similar destination as the other passengers. If anything, this should encourage even more interaction.

There's an argument to be made about the virtues of walking, but this seems to be an awfully convoluted and disingenuous way to go about doing it.
posted by schmod at 10:47 AM on March 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


Our walker, by contrast, is unable to experience being alone in place itself: not knowing where she is, and too unfit to travel across appreciable portions of the city by her own motive power, she is condemned to a socialised spatial existence.

I am not sure what I think of the essay as a whole, although I am distrustful of sections like this, which impose a kind of narration on someone's own place of self-- how on earth do you extrapolate "unable to experience being alone in place itself" from the posited taking the Tube and checking the position on a map? (Leaving alone the whole 3 kilos = "too unfit to travel" which I think is really uncalled for.) I don't disagree with his larger points, necessarily, I walk everywhere and I am astounded by the people I know who literally don't see the city for the cars. Their ability to navigate is solely based on traffic signals, they often don't understand how to orient themselves in gridded cities or by figuring out the cardinal directions, nor do they pick up on changes in the buildings over time, etc. So I am all in favor of more walkers and fewer cul-de-sacs, but this seems like a rather harsh way of saying Nyah-nyah my commute is better than yours is. I mean, it takes me an hour and a half to do six miles. I can see how most people in London would, you know, hop on a bus instead, as they probably have other things to do with their time.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:50 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I totally agree that we should all be walking more -- that our streets and traffic laws should be (re)designed to put pedestrians on top of the pecking order, for example. But that article was pure "blah blah blah," the kind of thing where you skip sentence after sentence looking for the point while he waffles on.
posted by Forktine at 10:54 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I walk a lot. Whenever I can. Far more than I need to. I really like walking. Whenever I visit a new city I like to just walk around for a few days, get a feel for the place; the details; bottom-up.

I also enjoy good prose, and this is quite satisfying to read. But whatever Will is really going on about, it's not walking.
posted by dickasso at 10:56 AM on March 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


But that article was pure "blah blah blah," the kind of thing where you skip sentence after sentence looking for the point while he waffles on.

I skipped right to the end, but instead of a point I found the weirdest misreading of "On Exactitude in Science" I've ever seen.
posted by theodolite at 10:56 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


And Brunel University no doubt take no corporate research grants.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:56 AM on March 30, 2012


Also, the fact that London's street grid is completely fucking incomprehensible probably doesn't help things in this particular example.

That said, I think I can also see another problem: Today, very few people live near where they work. While 20th-century transportation technologies did introduce previously unheard of levels of economic mobility, it did weaken communities and cut down on social interaction.

If you can't walk to work, should we really expect you to walk at all?
posted by schmod at 10:57 AM on March 30, 2012


the fight against corporate control

It's a shame because walking instead of driving should not be politicized into a "fight against corporate control," which just creates a divide and perpetuates a culture war.
posted by stbalbach at 11:02 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Schmod: Today, very few people live near where they work. While 20th-century transportation technologies did introduce previously unheard of levels of economic mobility, it did weaken communities and cut down on social interaction.

Yeah, most people, especially in LONDON of all cities, can't afford to live that close to their jobs. Not that I think people shouldn't walk around either their office or where they live or to whatever their hobbies are, but to say airily that someone is alienated and distant from their world because they take the Tube is striking me as curious and curioser.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:02 AM on March 30, 2012


I liked the part where he said that if magic worked as well as science there's no difference between magic and science:

Indeed, so long as the rendezvous with her boyfriend is made, it would make no difference to our young woman if it were effected by her consulting a fetish, or flinging a handful of bones on to the pavement and directing her footsteps in accordance with their arrangement.
posted by Bookhouse at 11:03 AM on March 30, 2012


I agree with schmod, but a comment Will Self made about walking in a less pretentious article [NYT] in 2006 has stuck with me:

In the post-industrial age, [walking] is the only form of real exploration left. Anyone can go and see the Ituri pygmy, but how many people have walked all the way from the airport to the city?"

I tried it in DC two years ago, and noticed things that I'd been overlooking for decades.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:07 AM on March 30, 2012 [14 favorites]


I hope the above will be taken for what it is: a lightly poeticised account of the mental state of an average young woman negotiating her way through the urban environment

There is a certain type of man...often he writes for Adbusters, but not always. He is generally white, generally straight, and not quite as much of a chick-magnet as he feels he ought to be, although he does not admit that to himself. He is generally of the left, but only the part of the left where gender and sexuality are not questioned and where white straight dudes don't get challenged about their whiteness, straightness or maleness a lot. He writes in a didactic tone, centering himself as an expert. Even if he recounts a past mistake, he does it in a way that casts himself in a flattering light.

And when he comes up with someone who is vaguely disgusting, doing modern life wrong and too stupid or ill-informed to realize this, that person is always a young woman. There's usually a vague quality of sexual resentment in his descriptions, and the young woman - who is femmey, vapid, greedy and represents commercial modernity - tends to be positioned as someone he wishes he could fuck but also kind of hates because he can't. (The classic photo-illustration for one of these stories is the sort of thing Adbusters always runs - a photo of a sexy, vapid-looking young woman smirched with commerce for the boy readers to simultaneously desire and resent. If the focus can be on her smeared lipstick or on her mouth as she eats, so much the better.)

The article won't even address this young woman. It will taxonomize her from the outside, using her as the abject feminine bad example that we - implicitly male, straight, impermeable, disciplined - are threatened with becoming or being absorbed by.

Ickity ickity ick.

Also, I am more than three kilos overweight and I walk and bike everywhere. And I have a skinny, disabled friend who can't walk far at all. Neither of us should be shamed for how we live in the city.
posted by Frowner at 11:26 AM on March 30, 2012 [35 favorites]


ryanshepard: "In the post-industrial age, [walking] is the only form of real exploration left. Anyone can go and see the Ituri pygmy, but how many people have walked all the way from the airport to the city?"

I tried it in DC two years ago, and noticed things that I'd been overlooking for decades.
"

I like jogging in weird places and bicycling for these reasons. Also, did you know that DCA is actually fairly accessible by bike, and has a good number of bike racks?

Riding a bike is a happy medium between getting to see shit, and also getting where you need to be on time. Admittedly, I've only walked to an airport once (Prestwick, Scotland if you were wondering), but it was a pretty short walk.

Can you even walk to Dulles? Somehow, I feel that pedestrians would disintegrate on contact with the Dulles Shrine to Modernity. Oh, god. Dulles somehow manages to take all of the tropes about airports and modernity being alienating, and combines them all under one (incomprehensibly-large) roof.
posted by schmod at 11:27 AM on March 30, 2012


...that article was pure "blah blah blah,"...

Those are the exact words I thought at the end of the thing.

I agree that walking is real exploration, and I enjoy it, but walking in the city (or from the airport to the city, or whatever) is far from "the only form of real exploration."
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:27 AM on March 30, 2012


On the one hand, yeah, Will Self article is Will Self-ian and contains at least one word I hadn't heard before (moiling; adverb of moil, 1. To toil; slave. 2. To churn about continuously).

But I thought he made some thoughtful points, and it's interesting reading this in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin killing. Walking, in Martin's case, was not a political act per se; after all, he was just going to the nearest 7-11 or whatever to get a snack. But, as Self alludes to in the article, walking, if you're black and it's 2012, de facto becomes a political act thanks to various structural elements of societal prejudice. To walk somewhere says "I have a right to be here", or "I have a right to take this route from point A to point B", and that assertion is often challenged, to put it euphemistically. Martin claimed this right, and was murdered for his troubles; he wasn't the first and depressingly, will undoubtedly not be the last.

On a more positive note, walking as political statement has, in the UK at least, led to things like the Scottish Land Reform Act of 2003, which effectively means there's no law of trespass in Scotland. Then there are things like the Mass trespass of Kinder Scout, which (eventually) led to similar legislation in England.
posted by Len at 11:33 AM on March 30, 2012 [10 favorites]


Taking the Tube in central london is a total noob move - often times you'll have taken longer and had more hassle than if you'd just walked it. Hell, you'll probably WALK further for some trips. I got less and less reliant on the Tube as I lived there and started walking further and further instead, not just bypassing the noob traps but covering decent sized distances across North London and it really did open up whole new vistas as the little islands of known London around stations became joined up by the intervening landscape.

I found some good shortcust that way, and some good pubs.
posted by Artw at 11:34 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


The only real way to explore the city is with a big shotgun microphone*, a powerful preamp and massive headphones. While walking.

* The shotgun microphone is not for spying, but for listening selectively. It is the audio equivalent of a 100mm macro lens.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:35 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


To walk somewhere says "I have a right to be here"

I like Self's idea of modern disconnection, lives defined by class-stratified consumption as opposed to creation, fulfillment, free experience.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:37 AM on March 30, 2012


Je suis une flâneuse.
posted by mareli at 11:40 AM on March 30, 2012 [3 favorites]




I think before people get out their canes to shake back at Mr. Self, they should consider that an argument from a counter-factual scenario would probably do more to justify Mr. Self's conclusion. I live in a city which was but a small town when World War II brought government jobs and the need for planned growth. The City's lack of any nearby natural boundaries meant that the city grid could expand in any direction without any foreseeable need for artificial constraints such as density requirements or anything of the like.

In a city like this, the only way you can go without a car is by living close to all of the centers of employment and commerce. For the lucky few who have decent pay this is possible, and the quality of life is quite high. But for those forced to live in the sprawl which makes up 90% of this city, the political control exerted by the car (and, necessarily, the petroleum companies) is almost so obvious as to go without notice.

For anyone interested in a more academic treatment of the way that the geometries of most American cities influence urban life and politics, they should check out Hannah P. Higgins' "The Grid Book".
posted by anewnadir at 11:47 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


A century ago, 90% of Londoners' journeys under six miles were made on foot.

I doubt that.

Now we are alienated from the physical reality of our cities.

Speak for yourself. I have always walked most local journeys and have never owned a car. There is nothing political about it; I enjoy it, it keeps me fit, and it gives me time to think. I have no problem feeling alone in place.

Year on year, the number of journeys taken on foot declines – indeed, on current projections walking will have died out altogether as a means of transport by the middle of this century.

Sure it will.

Will Self's inaugural lecture as professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University

This is what's wrong with modern society.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:47 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


While 20th-century transportation technologies did introduce previously unheard of levels of economic mobility, it did weaken communities and cut down on social interaction.

But a lot of people want that. I don't want to live in a small town where everyone knows me. I don't want to feel part of a community of people I have no inherent reason to like.

In the suburbs, you have a lot of space and you are anonymous. In the cities, there's a lot of stuff to do and you are anonymous. I like both quite a bit.
posted by spaltavian at 11:51 AM on March 30, 2012


It does change your mental landscape of a place to traverse it by foot instead of car. You really do establish a sense of place that isn't there when you drive through, and you pick up on the details on the way through, you start to notice the things that make it unique good and bad. I'm out in the middle of the country now and had begun only driving from home to work, but my first bike ride between here and there significantly changed my understanding of the space in between.

I'm not trying to argue that it's essential, or necessary, but I do think that it's a positive thing for those that can do it. It also doesn't hurt to get the hell away from our cars and computers and cellphones once in a while and be left to our own thoughts.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:52 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Frowner: Neither of us should be shamed for how we live in the city.

Maybe I missed something, but I didn't get this from the article at all. Self's long had a thing about psychogeography (he had a column of that title in The Independent for years) and along with people like Iain Sinclair (who is, to be honest, a much better writer than Self on this topic), has written extensively about the intersection of public space, private property and the experience of, and rights surrounding, walking in and around both.

There are large parts of London – and Liverpool, and Leeds, and other British cities – which have been co-opted by private enterprise, in which what was formerly public space – streets, parks, etc. – has been converted into private space masquerading as public, with the associated diminuition of rights of people to be there, and do what they wish. (I'm sure that the same is true in American cities.) These spaces give all the appearance of that which surrounds them, but restrict individuals' rights – from where you can walk, to what you can photograph. Indeed, the whole legal rationale for kicking the Occupy St Paul's protesters out of Paternoster Square was predicated on them occupying private land, and not publically-owned streets (despite the fact that it's almost impossible to delineate the two if you're stood in Paternoster Square.

It's this sort of thing that Self is tilting against. I don't get the imporession that he's saying "well, if you can't walk about your city and instead have the temerity to drive, or take the tube, because you can't walk (or can't walk for longer distances), you're a bad person and should be ashamed of yourself.
posted by Len at 11:54 AM on March 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


Can you even walk to Dulles?

Not without risking death and breaking the law, no (I looked into it). I walked home to Mt. Pleasant from DCA for the reason you mentioned.

Two things I had never noticed before: the huge number of ducks and Red-winged Blackbirds in Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary in the summer, and the fact that you can still very clearly see the ghost of the (thankfully) never-completed Southwest Freeway from the head of the 14th St. Bridge. Also, walking across the Potomac on a beautiful morning after dealing with the TSA brought a line from Whitman to mind, "see spread, off there, the Potomac, very fine, nothing petty about it."
posted by ryanshepard at 12:07 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe I missed something, but I didn't get this from the article at all. Self's long had a thing about psychogeography (he had a column of that title in The Independent for years) and along with people like Iain Sinclair (who is, to be honest, a much better writer than Self on this topic), has written extensively about the intersection of public space, private property and the experience of, and rights surrounding, walking in and around both.

The tone of this piece is very finger-shakey, very "you're doing it wrong, especially women, especially if you're a little pudgy". You can have all the content you like about walking and psychogeography (and I'm a big fan of Ian Sinclair), but if you lead with a sort of disgusting-fascinating portrait of a young woman - if you are drawn to use ordinary young women as bad examples, particularly when they do very ordinary things - if you lead with the arrogant assumption that you can produce an accurate portrait of the "average young woman" in this manner - if you like to figure ordinary people as clueless, depoliticized, naive pawns of commercialism who can't even understand their own plight - then you are shaming, you are building yourself and your ideology up as salvationist, you are writing in order to cover up and overwrite actual people's actual experiences.

And again, any dude who is all "oh, three kilos (that's 6.7 pounds for the American cousins), that means you're so fat you can't even walk a hundred yards without puffing" - which he clearly says in this piece - that is some fellow who shouldn't even be let near a woman's body for any purpose.
posted by Frowner at 12:11 PM on March 30, 2012 [10 favorites]


Read as "Wanking is political." Disappointed.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:17 PM on March 30, 2012


Frowner: oh, three kilos (that's 6.7 pounds for the American cousins), that means you're so fat you can't even walk a hundred yards without puffing" - which he clearly says in this piece

Okay, I'll admit I missed that – I skimmed most of that opening section because, well, it was a typically overwritten bit of Self verbiage, almost to the point of parody, and I figured that he'd eventually snap out of it and get to a more coherent point. But yeah, he could have made his argument without that little jab. (In fact, if I was his editor, I'd have dropped that entire introductory ramble.)

if you like to figure ordinary people as clueless, depoliticized, naive pawns of commercialism who can't even understand their own plight - then you are shaming

Well, then we're looking at a question of where a line is drawn: at what point does an engaged plea to do something – or to think differently about that something – cross over into hectoring? The above point about weight excepted, I think, in the case of this article, you and I probably have different conceptions of exactly where said line is. What's the dividing line between "here is a thing we should be concerned about, or at least just pay attention to" and an eloquent distillation of "you're all a bunch of fucking sheep who should get a clue"? I get the feeling that I'm seeing the former, and you the latter, and I'm interested to know why.
posted by Len at 12:36 PM on March 30, 2012


There is a certain type of man...often he writes for Adbusters, but not always. He is generally white, generally straight... He is generally of the left, but only the part of the left where gender and sexuality are not questioned and where white straight dudes don't get challenged about their whiteness, straightness or maleness...

And when he comes up with someone who is vaguely disgusting, doing modern life wrong and too stupid or ill-informed to realize this, that person is always a young woman.


Lately I get the feeling that a significant bit of what is written on the internet is intellectual one-upmanship that is rarely meaningful or interesting. Of course, I write a lot of things on the internet, and I could be accused of engaging in one-upmanship at this very moment, but it seems strange to create broad categorizations to try and illuminate the wrongness of broad categorizations. (I'll be the first to admit that I am the pot and the kettle on this issue.)

I don't see anything sinister about this essay, or this dude, or anything sinister about the fact that people are lazy and prefer motorized transport to walking. I don't see anything sinister about intellectual one-upmanship either, because what else do you expect when people have chained themselves to a communication device 24/7. It's interesting to think about in a way, and perhaps it's a good sign that accusing other people of thoughtcrime or thoughtapathy even shows up on my radar as something negative, when the world is as bad as the world is.

Maybe if we dropped the posturing, we could have more positive conversations extolling the awesomeness of getting to know a city on your feet, instead of weighty pronouncements trying to link corporate control and Edgar Allen Poe to a farcical destruction of Our Way of Life so we can all hit buttons on our respective thesauri instead of doing something fun. Or maybe it's just Friday and I need to go outside...

Anyway. The essay would have been better if it seemed less desperate to feel important, but I don't think there's any reason to draw the conclusion that the author is a closet anti-feminist.
posted by deanklear at 12:42 PM on March 30, 2012


Not sure I agree with his argument, but I will say that very few things make you feel as alien and disassociated with your fellow man as walking a couple blocks in Los Angeles.
posted by Mchelly at 12:45 PM on March 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


deanklear: The essay would have been better if it seemed less desperate to feel important

But then it wouldn't be by Will Self! (I kid. Mostly.)
posted by Len at 12:45 PM on March 30, 2012


Artw: "Taking the Tube in central london is a total noob move - often times you'll have taken longer and had more hassle than if you'd just walked it."

It took me many years to work this out. My understanding of London's geography was almost entirely tube-based, with no real idea of how the stations map to the streets above. GPS on 'phones changed that, and I kick myself at the three-change tube journeys I used to take that can be walked in twenty minutes.

Also, the fact that London's street grid is completely fucking incomprehensible probably doesn't help things in this particular example.

While I love the way everyone automatically knows their way around a nicely-gridded American city with numbered street names, walking in a city like London is way more fun - you'll get a bit lost, or take the occasional inefficient route, but as a result you come across strange little byways, weird old shops, great little pubs, &c. This probably means I'm a psychogeography-loving flaneur wanker, but I don't really mind that.
posted by jack_mo at 12:50 PM on March 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


Also, did you know that DCA is actually fairly accessible by bike, and has a good number of bike racks?

I am amused that the map on that page has the Cinnabon clearly marked...
(In case you need to carbo-load before the ride home, I guess)
posted by madajb at 12:55 PM on March 30, 2012


See, fun's fun and all, but as a female-type person I get really tired of left-wing dudes (Self, Tim Wise, Derek Jensen...to name a few) whose automatic way of symbolizing what is wrong with the world is to point to a weirdly sexualized image of a stupid young woman. It's alienating. It's distracting. You (o men of metafilter) might imagine that you're reading an article about something you'd like to believe in and it lays into you - not for your gender, since just as anti-white sentiment is not equivalent to anti-black sentiment - but for something that defines you, that is social, that is halfway changeable but not really. Perhaps it's an article about voters' rights and it points out that people who live where you live or speak with your accent are the very embodiment of vapid ignorance. It uses your body and your social presence as a symbol of what's wrong. It doesn't address you; it talks about you, about your failings, to an audience that is not you. And there isn't even any real point - you aren't any stupider or funnier-talking than anyone else.

I as a woman do not like to be used as a symbol - my body, whether it's fat or thin, does not symbolize the failings of the social body.

Self's "poetic" image of an "average" young woman is, yes, insulting to women. It's insulting in a very particular way, a CS Lewis-women-are-sunk-in-the-body-and-dazed-and-confused-and-occasionally-emerge-from-their-stupor way.

You are no doubt familiar with "TV trope", so I assume you have no difficulty with the idea of "writing tropes". There's a particular rhetoric which a certain type of leftist man uses to write about women. Many women find it alienating. And to my mind, it reinforces many men's unconscious beliefs about how women experience the world.

When you're all "but pay attention to the content, not the form"...well, I'm sick of that. Frankly, I suspect that the Self-Jensen-Adbusters-Wise utopia would not be a utopia for me.

This has nothing to do with whether one walks, bikes, buses or drives. It has nothing to do with an interest in psychogeography. ( I walk and bike everywhere and own most of Sinclair's books.) It has to do with how you use words to constitute your audience and move them to political action. If you write in a patronizing creeper manner about women, you're constituting your audience as "women who have learned that nothing ever changes and the men who think it's completely normal and comfortable". That's not the radical change I want to see in the world.

TL; DR: rhetoric counts.
posted by Frowner at 12:59 PM on March 30, 2012 [17 favorites]


In the past, as now, walking was not always an easy experience. There was horse-shit all over the streets of 18th and 19th century London (along with a lot of other stuff), and the rich as a result took carriages everywhere. There were entire streets respectable women could not walk down even if they were not three kilos overweight, not because they were not safe, but they held men's clubs and you'd get heckled or be taken for a whore. There was no adequate street lighting and as time progressed London's chances of being enveloped in toxic, thick fog increased. The rate of street crime was high and shot up at night, making entire areas of the city no go areas, except for those who had no choice. And so forth. The construction of a fantasy London of the past where the walking was easy and people were connected magically to their surroundings isn't exactly making his points any more convincing.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:16 PM on March 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


I as a woman do not like to be used as a symbol - my body, whether it's fat or thin, does not symbolize the failings of the social body.

This sentence really struck me. You see people use that rhetorical technique all the time, and it's definitely gotten old.
posted by Forktine at 1:17 PM on March 30, 2012


schmod: "That said, I think I can also see another problem: Today, very few people live near where they work. [...]

If you can't walk to work, should we really expect you to walk at all?
"

It's true that if you live 10 miles from where you work then walking it is going to take too long. However one could still walk for the last 20 minutes rather than change trains, for example. Doesn't take much more time and it's a bit of fresh(ish) air, sunlight, exercise and time to think before a long day indoors.
posted by dickasso at 1:18 PM on March 30, 2012


Frowner, this is the same Will Self who wrote "Dorian" — here's an article about it.

Can Will Self be a flawed person like you, or is he purposefully perpetuating rhetoric designed to objectify you? It's very possible that I just don't get it, but in this case, it seems like projection to accuse him of being a certain way. He seems like the the sort of effete intellectual who dislikes "average" people in general.
posted by deanklear at 1:29 PM on March 30, 2012


Frowner: When you're all "but pay attention to the content, not the form"...well, I'm sick of that. Frankly, I suspect that the Self-Jensen-Adbusters-Wise utopia would not be a utopia for me.

I don't know enough about Wise or Jensen to speak on their writing, but to me it feels like you're extrapolating a little too much from Self's vignette-sized portrait. Yes, I get that in some ways it's problematic, for the reasons you gave, but I don't see it as part of some overarching plan for a leftist-but-covertly-sexist (or perhaps not-so-covertly-sexist) utopia. And yes, it's possible for there to be no plan as such but for individual contributions from various people to end up coalescing as if there was a plan. It still seems like a reach, though.

I don't know. I'm wary of getting into this much further because I don't know how much of what I'm trying to argue is based upon as dispassionate/neutral a point of view I can muster, and how much comes from the fact that I'm a bloke and thus am blind to, or ignorant of, the more fine-grained varieties of sexism.

I will say, though, that this:
You are no doubt familiar with "TV trope", so I assume you have no difficulty with the idea of "writing tropes".
is needlessly patronising.
posted by Len at 1:37 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I found the essay not personally false and abstractly misogynistic, but hilariously so. I took a bus downtown today and, while I rode and played Scrabble on my phone, I politely told a panhandler I didn't have any money for him and then talked to the woman next to me. We got off at the same spot, talking about the things we have in common, and took the subway-surface line. Then, now on my own, I walked familiar streets to a comfortable destination, saw a movie, browsed in a bookstore while listening to some music, took the subway-surface back to the center of the city, and walked a couple of miles on more familiar streets to a grocery store, then caught another bus home. In the process I saw many strange faces, interesting outfits, and amusing small dogs, and found it all very entertaining. It was a lovely day. The air is clean, the public fountains have started up for the spring, and it's busy and crazy and delicious.

I'm female and it's a large East-Coast city, for heaven's sake, and I felt the same way about London when I was there this summer.
posted by Peach at 1:41 PM on March 30, 2012


This is the kind of thing that gives bullshit a bad name.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 2:07 PM on March 30, 2012


London's street grid makes perfect sense when you realize that it was dictated largely not by city planner fiat, but by, for instance, the daily route Uther the Anglo-Saxon pig farmer took down to the river in the ninth century.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:51 PM on March 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Am I the only one who keeps reading the headline as 'Wanking is Political'? And then thinking 'Will Self, huh, well I guess that makes sense.'
posted by Acheman at 3:14 PM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


He was so much better on Shooting Stars...
posted by davros42 at 3:28 PM on March 30, 2012


Although, if Christopher Wren had got his way, London would have got a grid plan.

Before the iPhone I used to carry an A to Z all the time - one day I wandered off the edge of the map, down by Surbiton, and it felt like I'd gone off the edge of the world.

Where I live is where the roads from Lambeth, Westminster, Waterloo, Blackfriars and (almost) Southwark Bridges meet, so I tend to walk everywhere I can, gout willing, and I think the city's walkability is one of the keys to its personality and, dare I say it, soul.

Will Self, though. Tch. Maybe the world could send him a letter: "Dear Will, Yes, we get it, you're much cleverer than us. Now fuck off."
posted by Grangousier at 3:29 PM on March 30, 2012


He is generally of the left, but only the part of the left where gender and sexuality are not questioned and where white straight dudes don't get challenged about their whiteness, straightness or maleness a lot.
You should write him a letter challenging him about his whiteness, straightness and maleness, whatever on earth that means. I'd love to read it.
posted by planet at 5:50 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Gosh, I'm trying to imagine what a walk from Newark airport to the nearest city center would be. I suppose that it would involve seeing a lot of wetlands, but I have a feeling there are some uncrossable highways involved.
posted by Karmakaze at 5:57 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Couldn't stomach the writing so TL;DR, but I noticed when I moved to a new area that while I'd been driving around it for weeks, it made a big difference when I started cycling around. The better vision, slower pace, and ability to leave the road on a whim instead of having to launch a major operation to stop and look, really transforms a bunch of interchangeable A-to-B routes into locales with familiarity - something that more resembles a "home" area.

I'm not sure if that's what he's talking about, but I'll subscribe to the idea that people getting about by foot changes the nature of a place in myriad good ways.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:54 AM on March 31, 2012


TL;DR: Will Self likes to ramble, both literally and figuratively.
posted by Skeptic at 3:13 AM on March 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I walk all the time in London. I love walking. People who don't walk are steaming great gitblisters.

I have spoken.
posted by Decani at 6:00 AM on March 31, 2012


I took the 3 kilos overweight detail as intended to show the juxtaposition between how obsessively we have come to know every little thing about ourselves and how little we know about the environments we live in.

If Self had meant to imply she was unfit because of her weight would he really have chosen 3kg as the weight detail? It seems like 3 was the chosen figure precisely because it's so insignificant.
posted by sarahw at 4:10 PM on March 31, 2012


I always liked Arthur Machen's way of looking at walking in a city and how it related to exploration.

The fact was that one grey Sunday afternoon in the March of that year, I went for a long walk with a friend. I was living in Gray's Inn in those days, and we stravaged up Gray's Inn Road on one of those queer, unscientific explorations of the odd corners of London in which I have always delighted. I don't think that there was any definite scheme laid down; but we resisted manifold temptations. For on the right of Gray's Inn Road is one of the oddest quarters of London—to those, that is, with the unsealed eyes. Here are streets of 1800-1820 that go down into a valley—Flora in "Little Dorrit" lived in one of them—and then crossing King's Cross Road climb very steeply up to heights which always suggest to me that I am in the hinder and poorer quarter of some big seaside place, and that there is a fine view of the sea from the attic windows. This place was once called Spa Fields, and has very properly an old meeting house of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connection as one of its attractions. It is one of the parts of London which would attract me if I wished to hide; not to escape arrest, perhaps, but rather to escape the possibility of ever meeting anybody who had ever seen me before.

But: my friend and I resisted it all. We strolled along to the parting of many ways at King's Cross Station, and struck boldly up Pentonville. Again: on our left was Barnsbury, which is like Africa. In Barnsbury semper aliquid novi, but our course was laid for us by some occult influence, and we came to Islington and chose the right hand side of the way. So far, we were tolerably in the region of the known, since every year there is the great Cattle Show at Islington, and many men go there. But, trending to the right, we got into Canonbury, of which there are only Travellers' Tales. Now and then, perhaps, as one sits about the winter fire, while the storm howls without and the snow falls fast, the silent man in the corner has told how he had a great aunt who lived in Canonbury in 1860; so in the fourteenth century you might meet men who had talked with those who had been in Cathay and had seen the splendours of the Grand Cham. Such is Canonbury; I hardly dare speak of its dim squares, of the deep, leafy back-gardens behind the houses, running down into obscure alleyways with discreet, mysterious postern doors: as I say, "Travellers' Tales"; things not much credited.

But, he who adventures in London has a foretaste of infinity. There is a region beyond Ultima Thule. I know not how it was, but on this famous Sunday afternoon, my friend and I, passing through Canonbury came into something called the Balls Pond Road—Mr. Perch, the messenger of Dombey & Son, lived somewhere in this region—and so I think by Dalston down into Hackney where caravans, or trams, or, as I think you say in America, trolley cars set out at stated intervals to the limits of the western world.

posted by winna at 8:19 PM on March 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: Taking Will Self way, way too seriously.
posted by Quantum's Deadly Fist at 7:14 AM on April 4, 2012


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