I love shots of women walking through cities in films. Especially in 80s New York (Meryl Streep in Heartburn, Meryl Streep in Falling in Love, Meryl Streep in Kramer Vs Kramer, Amy Irving in Crossing Delancey, Michelle Pfeiffer in Frankie & Johnny, even Diane Keaton in Baby Boom), I like their voluminous macs and woven bags. The drapey, 80s over-sizedness of their clothes seems to add to the weight of their walking.
There are more contemporary offerings, of course. Greta Gerwig in, any film she’s ever been in, Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, Desiree Akhavan in Appropriate Behaviour. I suppose the women are always single, or single-ish in these films. The film is usually about the desire to resolve that single-ness but, that’s not what I enjoy. Walking scenes could be cut out, so easily. Unless some interaction takes place we don’t really need to know how she got from one place to the other, we can work it out. But here she is, walking through the world with her stuff and her thoughts.
I am very specific about the kind of walking. It has to be on a pavement. I don’t need the jeopardy of cars, nor do I need the cliche of someone “woah-ing” a cab as it almost runs them down. I like a pavement, shop fronts and other pedestrians, completely ordinary walking. Some of these scenes happen in less salubrious parts of the city. The grubby streets that would make your parents’ uneasy if they knew how often you took them as a shortcut. She will walk down them with her mind somewhere else. Ignoring the threat of the men who pass her. She will be ordinary, immersed in the practical aspects of her own life and my heart will skip a beat at the sight of her, in possession of her own life, in the city, alone.
I walk, like the women on screen, through my own life.
I walk to the train and to my studio. I walk around the park, around Soho, around the streets-with-nice-houses-on near my own, less-nice, flat. Sometimes I take a step that splits me in two, into the woman who is walking and another woman who steps back, to watch. I wonder what I look like, do I look like an adult with an adult life?
Walking in London is when I feel most certain. I know the fastest routes, the most scenic streets, the alleyways that circumvent rows of busy shops, the quickest walk to a cinema or museum where you can sneak into the toilets with ease. I know that the Hungerford Bridge is where you should stand if you fear London has lost its luster, the terraces at Richmond are a European Summer Holiday when you cannot afford one and the Night-Bus is where your best and worst thoughts will form. When I moved to London my friend, Tom, said “walk!, it’s less like islands that way.” I took it to heart and I walked and walked and the veins and ventricles of this city joined up and I drifted down them. I walk with purpose.
I think of Virginia Woolf whenever I walk in Bloomsbury and how she loved a night-walk. She wrote that the best time to walk at night is winter, and she was, of course, right. I love being wrapped up and anonymous as I wind my way to somewhere warm and sociable. It is the best and worst thing about London, the anonymity. I can walk to some new part of town and be relieved to be unknown. Or I can disappear into the hoards of people and be, sadly, unnoticed.
I feel my most effective when weaving my way through an underground station. I can dart around tourists and families on museum trips to the ticket gate where I tap my card and feel effortlessly capable. The ticket gate is often where I think “Here I am. An adult woman in London, who’d have known?” Which is a deeply uncool thought, but a true one.
As I turn down a neat little alleyway in Greenwich, I feel a rush of incredible autonomy and capability; that I knew it was there and that I know where it leads. To be a Woman and a pedestrian in the city can be combative and exhausting but sometimes it reminds me that I am in charge and that I will propel myself forward, always forward.
I love shots of women walking through cities in films. I like that they are alone and alive and, usually, wearing a nice coat. I like that even though they are a part of a bigger story, something grand or trivial, for those seconds they are removed of their storyline, the knots and tangles, and they are simply people, immersing themselves in the city, disappearing for a moment and allowing the noise of the world to eclipse the noise of their lives.
I think about walking a lot and I have tried to work out why it is the only way that I can clearly visualize myself. I think it makes me, an uncertain person, into a machine in forward motion, definite and capable. I like walking because It takes me out of my head and into the world. Walking is the clearest way for me to participate in life, I think, and that’s the best I can do.
From Walking Distance by Lizzy Stewart. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Avery Hill Publishing. Copyright © 2019 by Lizzy Stewart.