We live in a world where labelling an activity, person, or group of people with the word ‘radicalism’ suggests something negative, abhorrent, aberrative and inherently dangerous. Such an understanding of these two words have perhaps always been true, although it is never the full story, say Dr Jordan Landes, Dr Mark Merry and Dr Matt Phillpott, the team behind the ‘radical walking’ conference at Senate House on 17 February.
Scholars have commonly referred to the British Liberal Party’s stance on the reform of society and parliament in the 19th century as radicalism. It has also been used to describe the causes of peasant protests in medieval Japan and more recent quests for civil rights.
The word ‘radical’ will likely crop up in the Brexit debates. It is already appearing in the controversial policies of the Trump administration in North America. But radicalism, which is found in many contexts, can be a force for change.
In many cases walking is key to the radical activity, allowing people to advocate for reform by expressing the need for social, political and religious change. Walking allows radicals, whether self-acknowledged or not, to cross boundaries, challenge customs, redefine urban spaces and physically express their opposition and beliefs.
For these reasons we thought that a conference on ‘radical walking’ would be the perfect fit as part of Senate House Library’s Radical Voices season. After all, there are many different views on how and what constitutes such an activity. For example, Katrina Navickas, author of Protest and the politics of space and place, 1789–1848, describes ‘movement’ as containing two meanings. The first is the obvious meaning – the physical actions of the body. The second is of groups of people campaigning for a cause. To understand the second, scholars need to consider the public space in which the campaigning occurs. Processions, marches and rambles provide movement through spaces.
There are many other ways to look at this. There is writing about walking for radical purposes. During the conference Christine Donovan will consider how anarchists describe walking as part of the toolkit available to protesters, while Blake Morris, co-founder of New York’s Walk Exchange and currently a postgraduate researcher at the University of East London, will argue that romantic walking came from a radical social tradition. On a more individual level, Emma Hayward, University of Liverpool research fellow, will examine the writings of Vivian Gornick, the American critic, who wrote about her walk through New York City as a working-class woman.
Another angle from which to examine the subject is through walking’s impact on radical thought. Is there a connection between going for a walk and coming up with radical thoughts? David Stack looks at John Stuart Mill and the relation between his walking and his radical thinking. Amy Westwell will be looking at the conflict between agrarian radicalism and new radicalism in the later 18th century, while Nadia Valman will discuss socialist journalist Margaret Harkness, focusing on the role of the urban walker in her work.
Finally, walking can be used as a tool to challenge ideas and preconceptions, such as those about aging or gender. Katherine Parker-Hay’s genre-crossing discussion will retrace the role of walking in the creation of the Bechdel Test, a tool adopted to challenge gender roles in film but with roots in a comic strip. Michael Eades’ work in Bloomsbury has allowed him to look at what he calls ‘everyday radicalism’ through the personal stories of people with memory difficulties.
The day will end with David Rosenberg’s talk, ‘Putting the past in conversation with the present: footsteps through London’s immigrant East End’. His book, Rebel footprints: a guide to uncovering London’s radical history, examines protest and struggle in London in the 19th and 20th centuries. David Rosenberg’s work will allow us to look at how walking can be used to recover and remember radical actions of London’s past.
We hope the papers will lead to discussions on the importance and power of walking in protest and in support of change, particularly in light of recent marches in London and worldwide. By asking how walking has informed radical thinking and politics in the past few centuries, perhaps we can consider how we experience walking and its impact on our radical voices.
Radical Walking: protest, dissent, and crossing urban boundaries is a one-day conference at Senate House, University of London on 17 February. Tickets are £10 each including lunch. If you would like to join us and see the full programme please look at our event page.