Who I am when I walk the dogs

Part of my research concerns what it means to be a dog-walker, how that identity relates to wider social and political concerns. Or: who am I being when I walk the dogs? To give some simple examples: when I’m walking the dogs, the people I meet generally say hello, and I say hello back. Dog-walkers are acknowledged in the community of the countryside (or perhaps I’d better be more specific and say, of the countryside on the edge of a small provincial town). A lone man walking without dogs is viewed with more suspicion: people might or might not say hello, and they certainly look at him warily. (I’ve been both watcher and watched in that uncomfortable situation. It helps if the lone man is old.)

Or consider the dog-walker as a political subject. There’s a great tradition in literature and social theory, running from flanerie through Modernism and Situationism up to the psychogeographers of the present day, focusing on walking in the city. Michel de Certeau’s famous ‘Walking in the City’, in The Practice of Everyday Life, is a classic of the genre; it presents a wonderful model for analysing the social and political meaning of urban walking, showing, decisively I think, that such everyday practices can’t be taken as transparent or simple or neutral. (De Certeau has a particular radical agenda, but even if you don’t share that agenda you can’t ignore the line of thought he opens up.) But he’s working very much in a tradition which valorises urban walking at the expense of rural, and which treats the city as chaotic, modern, radical and rich, in opposition to a countryside which is traditional, orderly, conservative and empty. (There’s more to say on this opposition in relation to the anthropologist Tim Ingold’s work on the ‘dwelling perspective’ of landscape enquiry – another time.)

In fact, when we come to consider rural (dog-)walking, we find it is just as complicated as urban walking. For example, even something so apparently middle-class and obedient as following a public footpath actually invokes a set of social and political values in tension. Although the walker is being ‘told’ where to go, it’s too simple to imagine the ‘teller’ as a monolithic power or state or concentration of money. The landowner may (or may not) resent the presence of a public right of way across ‘their’ land; the organs of government may have no vested interest in having people walk this way. In a way, to walk along a public footpath represents the assertion of an ancient and statutory right of movement through landscape, and thus constitutes a radical act. We haven’t even come to permissive paths or the several varieties of trespass which walkers can, do or don’t commit in the course of their everyday lives.

Simon Armitage registers something of the complex nature of rural walking in Walking Home, a record of his long walk on the Pennine Way. I’m afraid I found the book disappointing for my purposes: there’s little reflection either on the meaning of walking or on the relationships between walking and writing; but in the preliminaries he does point out that the Pennine Way was ‘born out of the “right to roam” movement, public disquiet after the great depression and the subsequent mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932, [and that]it was, in its conception, as much a political statement as a leisure activity’ (3). You can read much more on the socio-political context and meaning of rural leisure walking – for example the middle-class connotations of lone walking and the working-class connotations of group walking – in Tim Edensor’s excellent article ‘Walking in the British Countryside: Reflexivity, Embodied Practices and Ways to Escape’ (in Body & Society 6(3–4) (2000): 81–106). (I don’t know how to pronounce Edensor’s name: Eden-saw would be strangely apt, but the Peak District village of that name is  pronounced Enza; it was moved, literally the whole village, in order to improve the view from Chatsworth House.)

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3 comments
  1. Angela France said:

    I’ve realised recently how important to me that my walks – or rather where I walk – is ordered as I expect it to be. Walking is a large part of my writing practice; I expect to, and am happy to, speak to other dog walkers but always briefly. I especially enjoy meeting the bent old men with their slow, elderly dogs; the local accents feel like childhood. I walk early in the morning and don’t meet many people but recently, I could hear a babble of voices coming closer from a field away. It was a group walking fast (all with two walking poles) and talking together loudly. I was surprised how much I resented their presence and their loudness. I was furious with them for shattering the early morning with their loud voices and their blindness to their surroundings. I later saw a sign they’d put up to mark a meeting place for a ‘walking boot camp’ and resented them even more. Completely unreasonable of me, I know but it did show me something about the unacknowledged expectations I have of my walking space.

  2. That’s really useful confirmation for me, Angela – the more I think about how, when and where I walk, I see like you that I have ‘unacknowledged expectations’ (now acknowledged, I suppose), and that rathr than just popping out for a walk I actually manage my walking to provide a specific experience. The lone vs group walking thing is funny – because we use walking for thinking about writing, it seems important to be basically alone and undisturbed – but I think that temperamentally I’m more of a lone walker anyway. And yes, the interactions with other dog-walkers are odd – restrained and ritualised, as if we’re diplomats of small and distant nations…

    Thanks for commenting – it’s good to know someone is out there, and very useful to hear about your walking and writing practices.

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