Notes to the novice pedestrian: 6th April 2018
High Level Bridge (Newcastle – Gateshead – Newcastle – Gateshead – Newcastle); Tyne Bridge (Newcastle – Gateshead – Newcastle – Gateshead – Newcastle); Newcastle Quayside to Millennium Bridge (Newcastle – Gateshead – Newcastle – Gateshead – Newcastle).
‘We were born on an invisible river which keeps gliding and singing and filling and flowing. We do not know where we go, but we know we are on the stream. We do not always perceive the movement, but we observe that the landscape has changed.’ (Stephen Graham, The Gentle Art of Tramping, 1926, p. 86)
It’s 12.45pm on Friday 6th April 2018 and I’m waiting at the entrance of the High-Level Bridge in Newcastle. I’m about to begin a telepresence walk, that is, a walk with someone else in a remote location. We’re both following a score – Notes to the novice pedestrian – looking out for ‘withs’, learning to negotiate obstacles and observe the patterns of fellow walkers as we traverse the Tyne and Thames respectively.
As I cross the High-Level Bridge over the Tyne for the first time, I attempt to follow an instruction from the score to make eye contact with someone. After a partially successful attempt (I made eye contact, the other pedestrian didn’t) I am prompted to look out for ‘withs’ by my telepresent co-walker.
It proves much more difficult to find withs across the bridge to Gateshead; many people seemed to be walking alone and purposefully in their bipedal commute from one city to another.
The strong metal mesh sides that cage me in are populated with padlocks, autographed with names. Perhaps these are names of lovers, loved ones or lost ones. I pause only momentarily to examine some of the names and, conscious of my telepresent walkers, I continue my walk across the bridge.
Water is dripping from the iron girders of the bridge; I change my position to avoid the obstacle of an amassing puddle of water.
In the puddle, I can see some of my reflection.
As I continue my walk, I receive images of the London walk. For the first time on this journey, I experience a sense of being in two locations simultaneously. I walk and experience – in an embodied sense – the sights and sounds of Newcastle whilst also experiencing – in a virtual sense – the sights and sounds of London. My telepresent walker sends me audio recordings of his walk; I do the same.
I listen to the recordings as I might listen to music on an iPod, yet also feeling like I’m eavesdropping on another’s conversation. I hear my name mentioned in a conversation between Blake and Yaron. Even though I am remote from them, their mention of me in conversation adds to my sense of being present in their walk and them being present in my walk, even though they directly discuss that I not with them on their walk. The audio and images act as a kind of palimpsest of experiences, layering London onto Newcastle and, when I send an audio recording to Blake, layering Newcastle onto London.
Crossing the High-Level Bridge for the fourth time, I deliberately try to walk at a much slower pace, as if to contrast with the purposeful walk of the commuting pedestrians. It takes a lot of concentration to keep my deliberately slow(er) pace; I am subsumed by the collective industrial (industrious?) rhythms of the street’s inhabitants and swept along by the accelerated rhythm of the city. On a bridge without the interruptions of traffic lights or pedestrian crossings, the buses move on without hindrance and it is only my embodied rhythms that seem to be fighting against the unerring rhythms of the workday city. This iron bridge, a symbol of industrial and engineering ingenuity, is a force so mighty and immovable that my personal rhythms – experienced as fragments of the city – are subservient.
I see tourist withs. I look at them, they do not look at me. If they did so, they would probably think I was also a tourist. I have walked back and forth across the bridge several times; anyone watching may think I am lost, rather than getting lost on purpose.
There is no one around; I have long passed the tourist withs. Now it seems I can walk at my own pace, let the rhythms of my body dictate the pace. This rhythmic hegemony is short-lived as I see walkers coming towards me.
I am not wanting to pause but then I receive a video from Blake, who is rhythm watching on the South Bank. I feel a similar need to rhythm watch but I need to change position to do so. I must move from the High-Level Bridge to the Tyne Bridge. A sense of urgency builds in me and I make the decision to make this crossing my last.
As I move towards the Tyne Bridge, Blake and Yaron move towards the Millennium Bridge. As they walk in a part of London I am familiar with, I feel a heightened sense of being both here and there.
As I walk towards the Tyne Bridge, I am sent I receive an image of London’s Millennium Bridge and – in the distance – St Paul’s Cathedral. In a strange moment of being simultaneously present in Newcastle and London, I feel a sense of slight disorientation. Like the feeling of vertigo and excitement induced by a fairground ride or a childish game in which one is span round and round, my senses are heightened and intensified.
In London, Blake and Yaron are getting cattle crowded, forced to move along with the flow of the hordes of people traversing the bridge. In negotiating the relatively quiet passage across the Tyne Bridge, I feel a longing to be where the crowds are, as if to want something that my rhythm can fight against. The supplicant rhythms of my body call out for the crowds of London, as if there is energy to be taken from a mass of bodies moving in close proximity. There is polyrhythmia in these cattle crowds; I feel part of that walk, of that crowd, thanks to the telepresence of my co-walkers. Even from my location in Newcastle, I am part of that polyrhythmic mass of pedestrians, yet I am also removed. I am arrhythmic, an irregular beat pulsing on the Newcastle cityscape.
As I make my final journey across the Tyne Bridge, I look to my right and see the Millennium Bridge in the distance. Sometimes called the ‘blinking eye bridge’, because of its shape, it connects the hedonism and Dionysian atmosphere of Newcastle’s Quayside and its steady flow of stags and hens with the more Apollonian Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts.
As I continue along the Tyne bridge, there are no obstacles, no one to make eye contact with, no withs, no alones.
In London, the streets away from the water are quieter than the crowds around the Millennium Bridge. Around the back streets of Newcastle’s Quayside, I wander through office complexes, car parks and the post-lunch quiet of the post-industrial spaces. A few office workers, taking an early afternoon smoking break, punctuate the entrances to featureless office buildings. Blake reports a similar quiet on the streets of London, away from the South Bank.
As I approach Millennium Bridge, the number of pedestrians increases: couples, families, hens searching for their hotels at the beginning of the weekend, and office workers heading off early to extend their temporary freedom from the machine. This is the new life of a Quayside that was once alive with shipbuilding and industry. The Port of Tyne, once famous throughout the world for its industry and industriousness, is now a hub for leisure, fun and self-indulgence.
As I reach the other side of the Millennium Bridge, I am once again in the city of Gateshead. I pause outside the post-industrial Quayside to observe people’s rhythms. Where once this quayside would have moved to the rhythm of stevedores and the mechanisms of cranes, the rhythms now are of children playing on family days out, visitors to the Baltic, and people consuming the early Spring sun.
In London, Blake has arrived at Liverpool Street Station. A place I travelled through frequently when I lived in Essex in the late nineties and early noughties, I have memories of the rhythms of the station: of late nights and early mornings, weekend trips to the capital, keeping to the rhythms of appointments and meetings. Stations are cocooned worlds, non-places (to use Marc Auge’s term), where time is an honoured commodity; moments of profit (to paraphrase Marx) and prophecy (the train will arrive!)
There is a heightened moment of unity as we share pictures of feet and shadows.
I drift inside the Baltic, taking the elevator. This is a mechanical rhythm that can be interrupted, stopped and started by a single press of a button. My view of the Tyne Bridge is superimposed by a view of a bridge in London; Newcastle bridge-scapes in London.
Crossing the Millennium Bridge back to Newcastle’s quayside, I observe some loiterers, perhaps with intent.
‘Let’s Adore and Endure Each Other’ is the message found on the streets of London. Who are the ‘Others’? What is their particular ‘Otherness’?
I continue walking for a while although I now feel as if I’m walking alone. I was alerted earlier to Blake’s phone battery running low and, having had no contact for a while, I choose to end my part of the walk with a STOP sign. I walk towards the sign to take a photo and notice that the area is ‘PRIVATE LAND’ although it is unclear which parts are private and which are public. These are the undemocratic streets waiting to be democratized by the rhythms of pedestrians.
A Glasgow Drift: 12th February 2017
‘Better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees’
And so, my derive around Glasgow began. As I wandered along the banks of the Clyde, I stopped to read the words above; words that commemorate the contribution of Scottish lives to the Spanish Civil War but words that seemed remarkably prescient to me on that Sunday afternoon in February. Dying on my feet is a sensation I’ve often felt; perhaps on stage, perhaps in social situations, although generally when I’ve been at the behest of others. For me, drifting offers opportunities to be at the behest of no one. Instead, I am at the behest of the city. For the contemporary city, this often includes its machinations; I am moved around the city, as if pushed by an invisible force. The architecture guides me towards where it wants me to go although I feel more in control, as if I am in the driving seat.
Although I felt some of the machinations of contemporary urban planning controlling my drift around Glasgow, I also felt a sense that the city’s former state – perhaps as a hub of shipbuilding and other industries – was still very much present. As I walked along the banks of the Clyde, I noticed the juxtaposition of old with new, of industrial with post-industrial, of urban with urbane.
On the banks of the Clyde, I looked to my left and saw a stairway leading to such a juxtaposition. A boarded-up building, perhaps no longer of any use, stands looking up admiringly at the shiny newness of what it is to be a successful city dweller in the 21st century. By the time one reaches the foot of the building, the dirty greyness of the steps below is forgotten. Perhaps, inside the building, one looks down at the city and – on a sunny day – the glimmering of sunlight on the river might wash away the drabness of the old. These are the accidental machinations of the contemporary city, the Machiavellian machinations of urban planners.
As I continued my drift towards the city centre, I look up as I am used to in most cities, where I am dazzled and enticed by massive screens, distracting me from the reality of the city below. When I look up in Glasgow, however, I don’t see these screens of distraction; instead, I see the magnificence of the former wealth of the city, the grandiloquent fascia of more than a century ago looking down sadly at the orotund mess of a capitalism that has driven to distraction those with the means to participate, and driven to despair those who look on at the fringes of an orgy of frenzied Neoliberalism.
I walk around the edges of a shopping centre; I do not wish to enter the building; I do not want to be dazzled by the spectacle it promises, and so I take the long way around. It is Sunday afternoon and there is a sense of this building, even from the perimeter, being weary in it being ask to work a seventh consecutive day. This is not the mood of the workers, who perhaps appreciate the relative respite of Sunday shoppers, after the busyness and bustle of a Saturday crammed with intent purchasers and those enjoying a little retail therapy for those who can afford it and retail reconnaissance, for those who cannot. Those who want something and have the means to make this happen, do; those who want something but do not have the means, also do, but with a sense of strain (perhaps jouissance?); those who need something but cannot have it, do not. This is the way of capitalism. This is the way of the contemporary city.
When we look up, we see the past in the buildings looking down but we also see the future – or what a future might / should / could be – in the glaring screens of advertising, rolling news, and ideals for living. What we do not see – unless we look down – is those at the fringes of the city and of society. These are the individuals who may be forever on their knees because those of us who are dying on our feet (in more ways than we can possibly realise) want to accelerate this death. We have the choice of dying on our feet, rather than living forever on our knees; others may not have this choice. In a free society and a free world – a world that was fought for as those did in the Spanish Civil War – we should perhaps look down more often at the present than to live in the past and crave the future.
Belfast drift: 23rd-24th September 2017