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Andie Miller

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Review of Slow Motion: stories about walking

Just when I thought Slow Motion had disappeared, there’s a thoughtful review by Gill Gimberg in the latest New Contrast:

 

When I sat down to write this review I caught myself puzzling over the genre: was this a book of essays or travel tales? Was the writing autobiographical or biographical? Where, in other words, did Slow Motion fit in with other books of non-fiction I’ve read? I felt a bit silly to be grappling with the genre rather than concentrating on the contents of the book. But, by the time I had come to the conclusion that the genre didn’t matter – that ‘stories’, as Andie herself calls them, would suffice as a descriptor – I had meandered down many interesting paths: into the remote foreign places I love to visit in travel and adventure books, into the fictional lives of others in novels and short stories, and into the minds of my favourite essayists.

Not too different, in fact, from a leisurely ramble through the pages of Slow Motion: stories about walking, a satisfyingly companionable book.

The act of walking grounds us. It connects us, as nothing else does, with the earth. Whether we’re walking in a busy city street or in wilderness, walking reminds us that we’re part of humanity, but also connected with every other living species on the planet. It can be humbling. And humility and connectedness are characteristics that all the walkers in Slow Motion share. It seems to me that the simple act of travelling from one place to another, at the forced slow speed of our own legs and with the inevitable contact with other pedestrians, makes us more fully human.

Not so, being behind the wheel of a car. In ‘Stepping into the Future’ Gordon Bruce talks of the ability of drivers to turn ‘a blind eye to certain social realities’, whereas when walking ‘you have decidedly closer contact with others … and you absorb the atmosphere around you’. In ‘Conscientious Objections’ David, Gordon’s son, says that ‘when you’re driving, you suddenly have that sense of power when people have to scurry around in front of you … It’s a type of tyranny.’ David wasn’t always a driver and he still travels on foot whenever he can. For him, choosing to walk is part of being an environmentalist.

Andie’s walkers are connected in other ways than family ties or place. Many of the walkers she interviews speak of how walking is vital to their creativity. Phaswane Mpe, in ‘In the Footsteps of Bosman and Dickens, via Hillbrow’, says that it is through walking that he finds his stories, and in ‘A Cappella’ Graham Weir, described as a dedicated walker, talks of how ideas formulate during his walks, how songs and stories he is writing come together during and after a walk. But it appears walking has its hazards for a person immersed in theatre and Graham says he is ‘often late for things, because [he stops] to watch people, and how they interact’. He also finds time to talk to people, like Sylvia, who lives ‘in the park at the moment’ and who tells him stories ‘for a small fee’. The book abounds with gentle humour and irony.

Walking in South Africa of course attracts another hazard, namely that ‘obligatory question of crime’ and, as a person who walks and drives, I think of how often I am thankful to own a car when I need to go somewhere at night or pass through an area where I would not feel comfortable on foot. The walkers in Slow Motion deal with the everpresent threat of crime in different ways, but most of them choose to not walk after sunset, use a taxi and avoid certain areas. They also speak of becoming more attuned to their instincts.

Probably the most distressing hidden cost of the crime in this country is loss of personal freedom. And crime has motivated two of the stories, of Dex in ‘Grace Notes’, who is wheelchair-bound after being shot, and of Paul in ‘Metal and Flesh’, who lost a leg and most of his sight in a hit-and-run by a drunken driver. These stories have a surprising twist: the acceptance and total lack of bitterness of both men, neither of whom accepts the label of victim. The latter story also highlights that the biggest danger to pedestrians is, of course, the driver – as the South African statistics show.

While many of the interviewees walk from choice, others walk because they have to. Lovey and Thelma, in ‘From the Margins’, travel unbelievably circuitous and time-consuming routes, on foot and using public transport, to and from work every day. In ‘Half a Continent, Step by Step’, Innocent walked thousands of kilometres in order to escape the massacre in Rwanda and now adds mileage to his legs around Johannesburg.

The fact that travelling on foot is a class issue in some parts of the world, including South Africa, is one of the insights of the book. In a country where those who can afford it own and drive cars, middleclass people, and especially white people, given South Africa’s troubled history, are considered odd if they don’t drive or choose to walk. Having, or choosing, to walk becomes a class issue. Apart from the other benefits of walking, and not only environmental, so ably presented in Slow Motion, this lends walking a kind of political power.

Some people, of course, walk for other reasons. In ‘Shabbat in Glenhazel’, a traditionally Jewish suburb of Johannesburg, religion dictates that there be no driving on the Sabbath and families take to the streets, with pushchairs and reluctant children in tow. In ‘On Fairways and Bunkers’, Moses reminds readers of South Africa’s past, when most senior white employees used to disappear to their weekly Wednesday afternoon appointment with Green & Rough: ‘And I used to remain in the office answering telephones, running around like mad, wondering where these guys were, and I found out later that they were playing golf.’ As a black golfer in a recently whites-only world, Moses laughs at his experiences, but is committed to the game. From the other side of the club, Alec, who has worked as a caddie at the Killarney Country Club for eleven years, shares fascinating stories about the world of caddying. Walking for a cause is covered in the story ‘From March to Parade’ which discusses the early days of the Pride marches and touches upon some complex ideologies, as well as the danger and complexity added to life by the simple fact of not being able to be labelled ‘heterosexual’.

Slow Motion certainly doesn’t lack variety. The fact that the stories were collected over many years adds to the interest value: the book often reads as a historical commentary, from an interesting, ‘close-up’ perspective. There is a strong underlying philosophical current that lends itself to slow and thoughtful reading. In fact, Slow Motion is one of those books you need to own, not borrow, to enable you to dip into it often and regularly, and savour one story at a time, preferably with a long walk in between readings to aid the digestion.

While the reader gets to know the interviewees by their answers, it is through the questions asked and the odd perceptive comment that Andie reveals herself to the reader. And you will soon realise as you amble through the book how each deceptively simple title succeeds, like a welldrawn map, in guiding the reading of the story. Otherwise her authorial touch is subtle; none of the stories are overpowered by her introductions, comments or conclusions and the interviewees are allowed to have their say.

Like a good long walk, Slow Motion is a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying book.

Andie has been an actress, a webmaster and journalist. She is a graduate of the MA in writing programme from Wits University and Slow Motion won the Ernst van Heerden Creative Writing Award from Wits in 2009.

The book contains 364 pages, thirty-four stories and five simple maps that give an idea of the vast collective distances covered by the featured walkers, and locate the stories for the reader. There is also a fairly comprehensive list of references.

 

Slow Motion is published by Jacana (2010).

 

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