Back in the 1970s, when walking to school, I often passed a man who behaved in a way that was unique to pedestrians in this part of West London. He walked purposefully, carried a briefcase in his right hand, and held an open book in his left hand, not quite at arm’s length, just below eye level. He was reading and walking at the same time. I usually passed him somewhere on the wide tree-lined street near the Public Library. The pavement there is wide enough for people travelling in opposite directions to pass each other without having to break their stride.
I have thought about this person many times over the last 40 years. Last week, sorting through an A4 notepad from 2015 I found a scribbled note, a prompt for me to develop further sometime: “The man who walked and read at the same time”. I can visualize him now: probably in his mid-50s, bald head, full beard, glasses, jacket and tie. He looked like he might be a teacher. We passed each other dozens of times over the years and never once exchanged a word. As our paths crossed he would look away from his book and catch my eye for less than a second before returning to the text. At the time I wondered if reading and walking was a habit I could adopt, an early form of multi-tasking, a way of cramming in an extra 40 minutes of reading on the way to and from school. I didn’t think it would work for me, and still don’t.
The 1970s were a time of single-tasking rather than multi-tasking. Walking down the street, waiting for buses, queuing up for lunch at the school dining hall: these were not chunks of time that we tried to fill with simultaneous activities, apart from chatting to our mates. We did not try, in the words of a mobile phone commercial from earlier this century, to “make the most of now”. (I have just spent 10 minutes trying to find a suitable example on the web, without success, but can confirm that the phone company in question was Vodafone.) We did not have mobile phones. The Walkman, and with it the idea of listening to something as you went about your daily business, had not become a feature of anyone’s lives. The first time I saw someone in London wearing headphones in a public place was in 1981, on a District Line train heading home. As with trying to read a book while walking I figured that listening to music on the move was not for me. I certainly didn’t want to have music blocking out the sound of what was going on around me on public transport, and still don’t.
I did buy a Walkman in the mid-80s, mainly for use when travelling abroad. It gave me my own choice of music in hotel rooms and holiday apartments, but I never had more than a handful of tapes with me. Elvis Presley’s early recordings (“The Sun Collection”) were always with me. The soundtrack to “Cabaret” accompanied me all over Europe. I bought it in advance of a trip to Berlin one winter. I travelled by train from the Hook of Holland into West Berlin, when the city was still divided. I thought that Kander and Ebb’s songs would be suitable mood music as we passed through East Germany into the city that Sally Bowles had called home 50-odd years earlier. As things turned out, the train noise drowned out the sound of the tape. It always does.
These days, here in London or in any major city, you will see people walking and reading simultaneously every time you leave home, and people wearing headphones or buds listening to, well, music I assume. They are constantly looking down at their devices, unlike the man in the 1970s who combined reading and walking: his book was held just below eye level, so he was more aware of what was going on around him than people today staring down at their smartphones.
I too check my smartphone occasionally when on the move, especially when keeping up-to-date with a sporting event, and will check texts or email as they arrive. When responding to messages though I will always stop, or wait until I am at my destination. You will never see me trying to walk and type a message at the same time, either in the way appropriate to people of my age (typing one-handed, with a single finger or thumb) or in the way that younger people do (two-handed, using both thumbs). You will see me SMH (shaking my head, as younger generations put it) at the sight of cyclists, both hands off the handlebars, typing on their mobile devices with two thumbs while pedalling down the street. By comparison, reading a book while walking down the street is so much safer.