It seems old news to talk about the former Conservative MP Rory Stewart’s decision to step down from his decade-long representation of Penrith and The Border and run as an independent for the mayoralty of London. Old news indeed given our force-fed media diet of evermore breathless updates about Brexit from delighted political pundits being well compensated for their ‘insights’ day to day. For if they say that a week is a long time in politics, then a fortnight must be doubly so. And yet I am drawn back to Stewart’s prim and soft spoken character, even now that the original hullabaloo around his decision has died down.
What brought me back, in particular, were the uniqueness of his first — quite literal — steps. Before any campaigning, under the label of “Rory Walks”, the former MP vowed to walk around and through all 16 boroughs of London. Some will be understandably cynical of any politician’s novel campaigning approach as a gimmick, and often I am in the same camp of doubters. Yet I don’t believe Stewart’s approach here fits such a mould. If we consider how Rory Stewart has approached many of the posts he has held before, and how he prepared for them, we find walking is a trail long-trodden throughout his career.
I believe the simple act of walking is worth discussing in this post for two important reasons. Turning to the first, I want to highlight the political ramifications for Stewart of such a habit. Walking, a simple act thought it may seem, is valuable in its ability to shed light on the locality through which you travel. In short, you do not see the world if you don’t walk out the door. It presents an opportunity to begin understanding where it is you are walking, and to appreciate the lives of those whom you find yourself interacting with.
The understanding that comes is a human, empathetic one. You remember the faces you see; the smells; the sights; the emotions you feel as you walk through an area. It cannot be emulated by a presentation, graph, or picture a politician might ponder over in their offices. Hence why when we want to best understand someone, the idiom goes that we must “walk a mile in their shoes.”
‘But where does politics come into it?’ you might ask. The answer is that it comes back to trust. I have touched before on how trust is shifting away from lofty institutions, and in turn, from “distant politicians” enveloped in their Westminister bubble. It is not hard to notice how widely distrusted our elected representatives are by many in the population; many grumble that ‘they should all get the sack’, that they are ‘not doing their job’ and that ‘you can’t trust any of them’.
These politicians would do well to notice the natural warning signs of a far-receding tide before the tsunami of public opinion washes many of them from their long-held posts. Brexit has weakened the entrenched grooves of party lines on voting practices, and trust has now been refocused upon individuals, not necessarily the party they are from. The implication of this is that voters will no longer so pliantly settle for parachuted-in politicians because their party decrees it.
The key to winning the trust of voters in the near future, for building a solid base of support in such turbulent times for democracy, is by understanding local problems and knowing local people. Only by going back to localities, to people that are known and trusted therein, will a new cadre of locally-minded MPs find themselves sat on those hallowed green leather benches. Walking is the best method to start this understanding, to start this localising process. To be accepted as a local, to be liked and trusted within a constituency, is to quite literally put in the legwork. One must learn the streets, see the issues that face the day to day voters, meet the often angry people walking there, and listen to the established communities within. Voters are beginning to demand far more understanding about their needs from their politicians than previously. Does Stewart understand this? Has he grasped the implicitly political benefits his rambles might provide?
This being said, long stretches spent walking are nothing new to the former Etonian. Rather, it appears that walking has long been a method for Stewart to process the world around him. After leaving the foreign office early in his career, Stewart walked 6000 miles over 21 months across Iran, Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (his book The Places In Between records his journey through Afghanistan), which undoubtedly helped him empathise with many living in his province during his stint as a Deputy Governor in Iraq. Although this remains his most well-known trek, the allure of the habit has not diminished in him over the years. Indeed, it is notable that Stewart’s approach to understanding London reflects the same on-the-ground approach he took during his candidacy for Penrith and the Border.
In his letter to London, Stewart offers that he wants to walk the boroughs in order “to hear from you, to see problems at their most local”, and further stresses his distance from the many career politicians in the “gothic shouting chamber” of Westminster by stating “that local people always know more, care more and can do more about local issues than distant politicians.” I do not believe Stewart is disingenuous when he says this, as he has demonstrated before that he is willing to assess the ground-level reality of a problem before attempting to fix it.
Yet I equally believe he fully understands the positive political benefits his words might have. By highlighting the distance between himself and ‘other’ politicians, and stressing his focus on distinctly local issues tells me that Stewart understands how the public balance of trust has shifted back to localised issues — local people, local communities, local businesses. To me, his letter to London implies a belief in his ability to crest this tidal shift to his advantage. His statements appear both genuine and self-serving concurrently.
Now while I believe this may be the political reasoning for his walking round London, that is not a whole story. Stewart did not spend days, weeks and months of his life walking solely for understanding local problems and the political boon this might impart. Of course not. There are a host of other reasons why he walks so far, so often — why anybody might do the same. This leads me to the second reason for wanting to explore the practice of taking a long walk — for the mentally restorative, and physically beneficial benefits that are increasingly recognised across a plethora of fields.
There have been many varied and famous advocates who all valued the benefits of walking in their lives. Walter Isaacson relates how Steve Jobs often held any important discussions, brainstormed new ideas, and processed his thinking while taking long walks. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche began taking long walks after ill-health forced his resignation as a professor, and with the notes he made and thoughts he had during these, it lead to his most philosophically productive decade. Charles Dickens, the famous writer, worked from 9am till 2pm, and then walked for many miles each day, exclaiming he would “explode and perish” without this routine. It was even on a walk through a central Glaswegian park in the mid 1760s that the inventor James Watt had his flash of genius and finally solved the inefficiency problems dogging the rudimentary steam engines of the day, perfecting the future-powerhouses of the industrial revolution.
What is so attractive about such a simple process? One advantage, at its most basic, is the benefit to your physical health. Keeping mobile is an important habit worth cultivating in our service-based economy, entrapped behind desks and chairs as we are, and walking is the simplest method of providing this mobility. Furthermore, walking your dog, heading for a long ramble in the countryside, or simply waiving your use of public transport to reach your destination on the other side of the city offers weight loss benefits, increased cardiac circulation, bone strength, a metabolic boost, and provides a gentle posture corrective for our sedentary lifestyles.
Further to this, as the literature shows, with an improvement to physical health comes an improvement to our closely entwined mental health. In my own personal experience, and as is oft reported, we find our moods improved following a walk, and there is clear research that has established the positive correlation between exercise and mental health. Compounding this effect is the fact that walking usually gives us some access to nature, and as the mental health charity Mind points out, exposure to green spaces can improve our mood, make us feel more relaxed, less stressed, and less angry. In short, a win-win situation.
The final merit worth mentioning here (which might be a surprising one) is that walking can help us in our learning. It helps us solve intractable problems, digest seemingly unfathomable concepts, and turbo-charge our creativity. As Dr Barbara Oakley has argued in her book A Mind For Numbers, (and as this short blog post on Farnam Street discusses) there is growing recognition around the importance of diffuse thinking in the brain, especially when it comes to the process of learning. In theory, diffuse thinking is where our subconscious mind mulls over details we have gathered when we are focused, and then makes connections between these details, figuring out problems long after we have moved away from them.
This method of thinking then leads to those ‘aha!’ moments, the ‘Eureka!’ when we finally understand something out of the blue. The language learner wakes up one day and finds they understand the grammar rule they were stuck on. Something clicks in James Watt’s mind on his walk and he has founds the “weak side of nature” in the perfection of his steam engine. Suddenly, the complex becomes complete. While this method of thinking is not solely within the remit of walking, as any form of genuine relaxation (not mindless distraction) engages the diffuse mind, walking remains one of the simplest ways of achieving this state of thought.
To caveat this however, when it concerns our creativity specifically, it may be that walking is a superior form of relaxation than to others. The science behind this came in 2014 Stanford study that found 81% of participants who were made to go first on a walk, and then either kept walking or were then seated, performed better on creative divergent thinking tests than those who were not offered this option. Anecdotally, all this might explain my personal habit of pacing on the spot when it comes to wholly understanding a concept, before I sat a test, or when figuring out the vital missing link in my final year university dissertation. But it is perhaps this particular benefit to our creativity that explains why creators from Dickens to Da Vinci found much value in the pursuit, and why Nietzsche wrote that “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”
From the London mayoralty and Rory Stewart, to Friedrich Nietzsche and the birth of the industrial revolution, it is pleasant to see how far walking can take us. Irrespective of whether the practice improves the probability of Stewart’s mayoral election, or his understanding of ground-level issues around London, it is clear that there are many reasons as to why “Rory Walks” became this polymath’s preferred method of reflection and focus.
For whatever challenges we may face day-to-day, be it stress from work, anger at the Brexit process, learning a new skill, or even seeking election for political office, it appears that taking a walk will always be a step in the right direction.