Walking Slowly Nowhere

Yesterday I joined about 200 people at Spillers Wharf on Newcastle’s Quayside to take part in one of Hamish Fulton’s Slowalks, the finale of this year’s AV Festival.  I wasn’t sure what to expect but had seen the video of his Slowalk in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in protest against the detainment of Ai Wei Wei in 2011.  The theme of this year’s AV Festival was ‘As Slow as Possible’, intended as a counterpoint to the faster/better/higher ethos of the Olympics.

These days I am slow by choice – slow to move, slow to make decisions, slow to write, a slow talker.  When I was younger I was quicker, more impulsive, more mercurial, but I found it got me into all sorts of pickles and ended up just confusing me (and other people).  When I was in my late thirties, I had a riding accident that resulted in my being totally immobilized for a month, flat on my back in Hexham Hospital, followed by about six months of gradually getting my movement and confidence back.  It happened the same week that Superman (Christopher Reeve) fell off his horse, leaving him paralysed from the neck down.  That whole experience put the brakes on and since then I’ve been a much more cautious, measured individual.

Coming within a whisker of being paralysed led me to listen more carefully to questions I’d been struggling with all my life and via various circuitous routes and happy accidents I found myself becoming more and more committed to Buddhist practice.  Nowadays I find going slowly helps me stay mindful and generally makes my experience more digestible, manageable.  One of the formal practices, besides sitting meditation, is walking meditation, where you walk slowly along a stretch of ground, about 5 metres long maybe, taking care to turn before walking back.  You might do this for a period of about 40 minutes.  It’s a healthy complement to sitting for long periods and is particularly fine outdoors, contributing to the cultivation of a reliable embodied awareness.

The Slowalk was different in that we were assigned a stretch of tarmac to cover in the designated two hours of the walk – everyone stationed at various points on the white lines of parking bays in the disused car park space at Spillers Wharf.  My route was about 2 metres.  Some people had the longer lines, which were about 3 metres.  Clearly over two hours it would be less about walking and more about moving and pausing.  It was suggested we might want to divide our lines into lengths of time so we knew how much ground to cover.  A gong would sound at the beginning of the walk and also mark the end.  In between it was up to us whether we checked our watches.  We were encouraged not to talk, use phones or cameras and had been asked to wear dark clothing.

When we arrived the atmosphere was festive, the day bright, with blue sky and sunshine but a sharp west wind that would make most of us wish we’d worn more clothes, especially hats and gloves.  Newcastle is a small city and inevitably a lot of us knew each other.  After being assigned our routes, we chatted and then, as one o’clock approached, waited at our stations for the gong.  Suddenly silence fell, pierced only by the cries of the gulls and kittiwakes across the river, the low rumble of traffic in the distance, stray voices from the margins of the walking space.

Getting started felt like a relief, satisfying my curiosity about what ‘it’ would be like – a wonderful example of the difference between intellectual and embodied knowing.  I worked with my awareness to keep my body aligned and poised, although the chilly wind meant I kept my hands deep in my pockets for the whole two hours and could feel tension gathering in my shoulders, braced against the cold.  When the sun came out from behind the clouds, it felt like heaven and I soaked up the warmth I knew wouldn’t last for as long as I’d like.  Out of all the physical discomforts, I struggle most with cold.  The only thing I regret about the Slowalk was not having dressed more warmly.  The day before had been warm – sandals and short sleeves weather – and I’d stayed over in town the night before so I wasn’t properly prepared for the drop in the temperature.  Walking at a normal pace, I hardly noticed the wind but practically standing still, I was exposed, catching every infinitesimal change in warmth.  At times my left calf almost burned with heat; at others my ears burned with cold.

It was both very mundane – simply being still, walking very slowly – and quite sublime.  I experienced waves of bliss, full of appreciation for this group of strangers and friends, willing to take two hours out of a Saturday afternoon to face themselves and each other, to experiment with time and space, to participate in a community artwork on a scrap of post-industrial land at the mouth of the River Tyne.  I was born in Newcastle and have a Geordie’s sentimental attachment to the city and its river. Being at that particular spot, I felt deeply connected with my roots.

I was surprised by how quickly time passed – two hours after all can often drag when you’re doing nothing or waiting for something, someone.  Although we weren’t doing very much, it was clear that plenty was happening: the other people within your range of sight were endlessly fascinating, everyone doing the same thing in their own way; the setting was vibrant with sunlight and colour – trees with their new sharp green leaves, the bright primaries of passing cyclists’ lycra, the fantastic view of the bridges, the Quayside and the city.

At various points an aeroplane would fly over, leaving a contrail in the intense blue of the sky and it was impossible not to be aware of the difference in speed, how quickly it was covering distance.  The yellow Quayside buses went past every ten minutes, again at a speed that bore no comparison to ours.  We were stepping out of time with the rest of the city, the world, and, unlike on retreat at the monastery, could actually witness that other world happening in front of our eyes, even though we weren’t part of it.  Helen, who I’d gone with, said she’d been aware that the aeroplane could have flown from Newcastle to Spain in the time it took her to walk from one end of her line to the other.

I thought less about other things than I expected, absorbed in the experience of being there and intensely focused by the sense of community and collaboration.  It seems like Hamish Fulton has anticipated this aspect of the walks – he says on the Ai Wei Wei video: ‘The rules don’t allow you to daydream’.  The only thought that kept coming back was trying to place the tallest building on the skyline, a tower block I couldn’t identify.  It bothered me as I seemed to feel the need to map my surroundings and locate myself, to be able to say ‘I am here’.

The strongest sense of what was going on came when it was all over.  After two hours of almost motionlessness, there was pleasure in being released from the set of constraints, of being able to talk to our fellow conspirators and congratulate each other on surviving, fulfilling our commitment to the premise.  Everywhere was festive again, only interrupted by the dreaded evaluation forms, which felt particularly irrelevant and inappropriate after what we’d just experienced.  Doing the absolute minimum for two hours felt enormous and profound – we had all returned from another country where they did things differently.  But it was very much the present, not the past.

Helen and I caught one of the yellow buses to the Baltic and made a bee-line for the café and a warming drink.  We met several of our fellow Slowalkers doing the same and felt a lovely solidarity, having taken part in something together, and enjoyed another opportunity for debriefing.  Everyone agreed that it wasn’t what they expected in any way.  We took a look at the exhibitions in the Baltic but after the embodied minimalism of Hamish Fulton’s participatory piece, they all seemed rather cluttered, disengaged, banal.  The Slowalk had been refreshing, original and utterly real.  I was very pleased to have been involved in such an inspiring two hours walking very slowly and going nowhere.