This post comes at a time when most of us are getting ready to brave the long walk to the library. That walk might just become a lot longer, considering the current tube strikes. London is really a great city to get around on foot. Wide footpaths, functional signals, streetlights and lots of signs and maps. And, now that spring is here, the weather helps too. But no doubt, you have probably read all of this in some article or the other extolling the virtues of walking around central London. What some of the articles neglect to mention is how to negotiate the crowd and weave your way through packed streets in rush hour without arriving at your destination flushed, sweaty, grumpy and smelling like second-hand cigarette smoke. So, I thought it might be helpful if I share some of the insights I’ve gained from months of people-watching as I marched, dashed and trudged through the city streets. Below follows a brief typology of walkers that you are likely to encounter on the streets of London, and the various strategies they use.
- The Taurus: A Taurus ploughs through the crowd, without looking left or right. Eyes focused straight ahead, walks in a straight line. Woe betide you if you get in their way; when blocked, they may bend their head down and charge right through you, even if you are not wearing red. Invariably, Tauruses (or is it Tauri?) are huge strapping people, with a build that makes it easier to bludgeon their way through the crowd. You can rarely beat them, so I’d suggest join them. It is often a good idea to follow right behind a Taurus as they part the crowds in Moses-esque style. Alternatively, you could invest in a helmet complete with bull-horns to help you power your own charge.
- The Gemini: As you might have guessed, the Gemini is usually two people, often bound (literally) by mutual amorous sentiment. Like Jack and Rose of the Titanic, these good souls will clutch at each other’s hands, determined never to let go (well then, maybe unlike Jack and Rose). They walk step for step together, relying upon their mutual love to waltz through the crowd, blissfully oblivious to the late students and harried executives trying to pry around them. Far be it from me to pass judgment on these hand-holding sweethearts, but the dynamics of pushing through a crowded street when two people resolutely refuse to let you pass in between them often render you heartless.
- The Twister: This person might have harboured dreams of becoming a dancer as a child, or else they may lack the sheer force of the Taurus to power through. So they opt to navigate through the crowd by twisting around other pedestrians, contorting their hips, back and shoulder to squeeze through gaps and make their way through. I often see ‘twisting’ as a passive-aggressive strategy: move half of your body to look courteous, but assert yourself by refusing to be fully side-tracked. A minor caveat: if you are a twister, you at a minor risk of sprains, jabs in the side, and painful arm-brushes.
- The Zig-zagger: The zig-zagger is a bolder version of the twister. Zig-zaggers scurry through the crowd, zooming right and left looking to gain one millisecond or centimetre. They can dart right into your path, before scampering ahead, ready to weave through left and right again. They will give you little or no warning of their intention, so you must always be on your guard for someone who moves right from the shadow of the shop to the edge of the road in seconds. You might be tempted to grab the zig-zagger by the scruff of the neck and tell them that you’re also in a hurry, but they’ll probably have scuttled off already, so I’d humbly suggest you leave off. How to identify one? Well, most zig-zaggers I’ve seen are often slight in build and nimble on their feet, armed with a cute little backpack rather than the bulky bags that weigh the rest of us down. In short, they are the perfect counterpoint to the Taurus!
- The Old Car Engine: I have a pet peeve against this group of walkers. One minute you are following them serenely, your pace set, your footsteps following theirs in perfect sync. And then, out of the blue… THEY STOP! With NO previous warning, they grind to an abrupt halt in the middle of the footpath. Unwitting walkers behind must sputter to a halt too, to avoid crashing into to a faceful of heavy fabric. Or, you are forced to adopt either the zig-zag or twist strategy at short notice, at increased risk of a sprain. Such discourtesy, I tell you! The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to keep a safe one-foot distance between you and the person you’re walking behind, just to be on the safe side.
- The moving bag rack: This specimen is most likely to be sighted on Oxford Street, Regent Street or one of the “shopping streets.” It is often hard to tell that a person lurks under all those shopping bags; it is easier to identify them by the brands on the bags. The bright yellow of Selfridges, the dull-brown paper of Primark, the white-and-red of H&M. Armed with the fruits of their retail therapy, they walk into the streets, loaded down with bulky and bulging appendices to their person and taking up the width of four pedestrians. It is not so much a question of trying not to bump into them as it is trying desperately to avoid knocking into one of the countless bags they are brandishing about.
Of course, this list is not exhaustive. Throw into the mix a handful of street artists, a crowd of tourists and the free newspaper distributors near the tube stations and you’ve got yourself an idea of what walking on the streets can be like. It is an exercise in patience and a test of your resilience, ability to think under pressure, improvisation skills and physical fitness. But, once you have your ‘survival strategy’, I think it is also a wonderful experience.
Do feel free to add any other types that you might have spotted yourself in the comments section. Till then, happy walking! :p