I have often walked Down this street before
But the pavement always stayed Beneath my feet before
All at once am I Several stories high
Knowing I’m On the street Where you live
We had the album of the Moss Hart produced stage version at home, with John Michael King taking the vocals for that song; there was something so positive, so uplifting about his voice and the way he sang it that even now, half a century later, my spirit rises when I hear it. If you haven’t heard it, try this link; take care to click on the icon on the right, not the Bill Shirley version on the left.
Walking is uplifting. I walk as much as I can. Not as much as I could or should, perhaps, but I’m working on it. Right now I walk maybe nine or ten hours a week; usually I manage at least an hour a day. I’ve never driven, so maybe that has something to do with it. Why is that? I’m not entirely sure. As a child I grew up in a family with many cars: for sure I remember we had a Plymouth and a Herald in the early to mid-1960s. Then we had a Studebaker Commander (WBE 5789) for a few years, and finally our first Ambassador (WBJ 3162) in the early 1970s. And then, by the time I was fourteen, nothing. No car.
So I walked everywhere. It was a time when time did not matter. Sometimes I took the tram, especially in the early mornings or late evenings. Sometimes I took the newcomer to Calcutta’s transport ranks, the maroon-with-yellow-stripe minibus, especially if, for some strange reason, time did matter: say if I was meeting friends for a particular showing of a film. Taxis were unaffordable (unless my father was with us); the public bus was best avoided; and the silver-plated “private” bus a veritable death trap.
It was a good thing that I never had far to walk — I could draw out all the journeys of my first 23 years on this earth in one compact map barely five miles square, roughly contained in the map below. My teenage years could be described in a radius of three miles from Flat Ten, 6/2 Moira St, where I lived with my family from 1969 to 1980.
Where was I? Oh yes, walking. People walk in different ways and for different reasons. Some, like Wordsworth described so beautifully, dwelt among the untrodden ways. No crowded Calcutta pavements for them. Yet others walk with purpose and haste, rushing, like Danny Kaye’s Court Jester, late for a date with Alice. [In another shameless sop to nostalgia, here’s the link to his version of I’m Late]. There are Court Jester copycats in every major city nowadays, knocking into people, sometimes even knocking them down. Always in a hurry. Always late for something.
My walks are different. I walk cities, not untrodden ways. I want to hike through humanity and not just nature. Alone in a crowd but still part of the crowd. Most of the time, when I walk on my “own”, I use the time to think. I’m aware of the environment I’m in, but not engrossed in it. Just walking. There’s usually somewhere I’m going, but not in a hurry. I allow myself enough time to take my time. [More often than not, I arrive ten or fifteen minutes early at my destination, and circle it for a while].
Human beings are creatures of habit. We grow accustomed to things, and find comfort in the familiar. Studies in the pattern of usage of mobile telephones have shown that we tend to make the same calls to the same people from the same place at the same time. Not precisely, but close enough for the pattern to be visible. And so it is with walks, when it comes to people like me. My most common walks are common walks, walks I do every time I get the chance. So in London I have walked from St Paul’s to Knightsbridge many times: each road, each crossing, the pubs long gone, the pubs that remain, are familiar friends. [I’ve never done that walk in the other direction — it’s usually when I leave work for a dinner appointment and have an hour or more to kill]. When I go to New York, whenever I get the chance, I will walk from wherever my last appointment finishes to Strand Books. In the past, I used to then walk to the Time Warner Building to visit the bookstore there, but that’s long gone. In San Francisco, I walk from my hotel to City Lights, and sometimes to Book Passage in the Ferry Building. In Cambridge (Cambridge, Mass, not the one this side of the Pond) I walk to the Coop; it doesn’t matter where I start from. In Paris, I try and make it to Shakespeare and Company, but it’s not always convenient; sometimes my last meeting ends too far away from the shop to make walking possible.
Yes, you’ve probably noticed, most of my gentle walks are to bookstores. And there are fewer of them, so I have to work harder at finding them. I suspect I’ll still walk to where they used to be long after they’re gone, because the walk is part of the reason for the walk.
I love Bologna, because it’s a proper walking city. The porticos don’t just extend the living quarters on the higher floors (which they do). They don’t just help with the integration of work and home (which they do). Besides everything else, they provide sheltered walkways at ground level. Mixed use dwellings, cafes and restaurants everywhere, children playing where parents are working, no downtown in sight, what’s not to like?
28 miles of porticos. Wonderful. What joy. Bologna. Not only did they give us gramigna alla salsiccia, not only did they give us the oldest university in Europe, but to top it all they gifted us miles and miles and miles of portico. Bologna is a real city walker’s paradise.
It’s a Jane Jacobs city. Which brings me to the trigger for this post. A comment by a reader in Calcutta, who wanted me to let you know that they’ve been putting the words of Jane Jacobs into action there.
You’ve got to get out and walk.
So check this out. Calcutta Walks. The first set of walks have been completed, but I am sure more will be planned as long as the demand’s there.
Walking is wonderful when you have the time to walk. And you can walk just where you are. It helps if you aren’t in a hurry. It helps when the reason you walk is the walk.
A coda: I lived fairly close to the centre of the map above, so there wasn’t really anything more than three miles walk from me. So I walked. The edges of my world were known and predictable: starting from the south-west, around a quarter to nine on the map, we had the Kidderpore docks, with its smugglers’ bazaar. That’s where you went to get cheap imports of foreign albums (flimsy paper covers sealed in cellophane, chinese or japanese characters sprayed all over them, poorly photocopied artwork…. but there was no other way to get those albums). Nine o’clock took me to Alipore, where one of my closest friends, Vir, lived. Ten and eleven were devoted to the Maidan, the Strand, Eden Gardens. Places for peace and quiet, serenity amidst the throngs. Places that changed completely when there was an important hockey, football or cricket match, but places of peace most of the time. High noon was the University and College St, India Coffee House and scrounging for second-hand books. Between one and three was where my family had their business: the home I was born in, the journal’s offices, the printing presses; 3 o’clock represented Park Circus, the home of another childhood chum, Shaf, and pretty much the eastern edge to my Calcutta life. My early childhood was well established where 4 o’clock and 5 o’clock were, the heart of what passed for Ballygunge in those days, where Rashbehari Avenue met Gariahat. I spent my first dozen years in Hindustan Park Road there. And between six and nine o’clock lay parts I visited rarely, the golf clubs, the sailing lakes, places where I didn’t belong. For some reason, probably affordability, my father wasn’t part of that world. I still went close by occasionally, to visit friends and relatives by the lake, or to go to science classes run by Dr CS Pai on Saturdays and Sundays at Rabindra Sarobar Stadium.