Best foot forward

For years now pressure groups such as Living Streets and the Ramblers Association have been urging the Government to produce a co-ordinated national walking strategy. With almost geological slowness a “discussion paper” has been circulated, limping from not very interested party to indifferent one. In the meantime, local authorities have pushed ahead with their own walking strategies. If you feed these words into Google you’ll come up with plans advanced by councils as various as Luton and Cheshire. Reading them is to stroll into a petrified forest of bureaucratic jargon, where a Sits (Sustainable Integrated Transport Strategy) sits on the rotten boughs of verbiage.

Meanwhile, the situation gets worse and worse: between the mid-1980s and 1990s walking declined as a proportion of journeys undertaken from 34 per cent to 27 per cent. Assuming — and I see no reason not to — a similar decline for the past decade, we have only one in five journeys being made on foot. It’s just as well that native habitats are declining and woodland being grubbed up, because on current projections no one will walk anywhere at all within 30 years.

Already the evolutionary consequences of our lack of ambulation are being seen: concrete evidence that the theories of Lamarck, for so long discredited, do indeed accurately describe the mechanisms of heritability. Three years ago in Stoke-on-Trent a child was born who, while perfectly healthy in every other respect, had a completely globular body covered with an epidermal layer of dense latex. “Roland X” — as the child is known — is now attending nursery school, and makes the half-mile journey there by car, after being “bounced into the back seat of the family Jeep” by his mother.

Roland is not the only sport: in Peebles there are now five-year-old twins who instead of feet have sets of double bogies curiously reminiscent of those found on shopping trolleys. The obstetrician who delivered them, Dr Finlay Quaye, told The Herald: “They’re in all respects happy, normal children, although they find it difficult to avoid being pushed about a bit in the playground.”

The apparently “natural” occurrence of wheeled or ball-shaped human beings has led to a disturbing new fad in radical elective surgery. Adults are having their feet and legs amputated and replaced with a variety of wheeled prosthetics, ranging from in-line skates to powered scooters. Hermione Forster of the Disability Alliance has described these people as “sadly deluded concerning the consequences of abandoning bipedalism. Once they discover just how parlous the facilities are for wheelchair access they often want to change back — but by then it’s too late.” Then there’s the Weil’s Disease epidemic raging in the Fens, as more and more teenagers have their legs sewn together and take to the waterways, rather than put up with the unutterable tedium of putting one foot in front of the other.

Obviously it’s high time the Government acted on this, and I’m pleased to see that they have: this year a communique was issued by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport pledging that by 2012 every man, woman and child in Britain will have been encouraged to increase the amount they walk by the staggering total of 1,000 paces per year. Moreover, walking is being trumpeted as one of the key legacies of London’s 2012 Olympic games, with a colossal £7m earmarked for encouraging people to put one foot in front of the other — that’s 12p for everyone!

Tessa Jowell has said: “It is no longer enough that we be seen to walk the walk, we must talk up the walk even if this requires cutting corns. We will be creating a new brand mark of excellence — the first in the world for pedestrians — to be called ‘The Golden Foot’. Walkways, paths, trails, woods, fields and even roads can all apply to display the Golden Foot together with jaunty stickers saying ‘I’m a Toe-Sucker’. The campaign will be launched by the Duchess of York at a mass rally in Birmingham city centre at which thousands of former couch potatoes will symbolically stamp to pieces their TV remotes. A new long-distance path, running 1,000 paces from Parliament to Downing Street will be opened by the greatest living human being, Nelson Mandela, and in his honour will be named ‘The Long March to Freedom’. Anyone who undertakes the path will be rewarded with a statue of Nelson Mandela in their home town.”

Stirring stuff, I think you’ll agree, but we’ve seen it all before: the grand vision, the will to change, the huge spend — and then it all ambles into the ground. No, I think that if the Government wants to get more people walking they’d be far better advised to deal with the real impediments: the snakes in the grass, the dodgy paving stones, disused mineshafts and chronic laziness.

To see Raph Steadman’s art work, go here

05.07.08