The Slow Down London Festival got off to an expected slow start on Friday evening as the Big Slow Walk ambled its way across Waterloo Bridge during the capital’s usually hectic rush hour home. It had been billed as a perfect way to relax, an opportunity to really take in some of the loveliest river views in town whilst following a pace used in walking meditation techniques. Yet by the end of it, Darren Lehane, there to capture the tranquil stroll and unwind himself, had almost come to blows with a complete stranger and felt more stressed than ever before.
As a photographer I’m normally used to whizzing around London’s streets at a hundred miles an hour, trying to get from one event to another, so I was genuinely intrigued to see if I could benefit too from following the walk, albeit with my camera clicking away.
The ‘Go Slow Mob’, about 30 strong, young and old, had assembled in a sun bathed Victoria Embankment Gardens, their spirits high and moods bright. "Take your time, walk in single file and really take in the views," said an organiser through a megaphone. "Remember this is all about relaxing and slowing down." With that the walk filed slowly out of the gardens and up onto the bridge, their Slow Down London banners flapping gently in the river breeze. Photographers and news crews jostled for position on the remaining space of pavement, eager to cover the event.
"What do you make of Slow Down London?" an American news reporter asked a passing office worker. He said nothing, shaking his head in bemusement. "Do you think you could benefit from slowing down?" she persisted, desperate to get a response. He glared angrily at her and hurried on. "Get out the way!" shouted another passer-by. "We've got trains to catch!"
It was already clear that the Big Slow Walk wasn't going to win over the workers and commuters rushing towards Waterloo station. It was the end of the working week and the last thing these people wanted was to slow down and take in the view. However, the slow mob pressed on at snail's pace, seemingly oblivious to the irritated glares and mocking laughs their presence was attracting. After all, there were the London Eye and Houses of Parliament to take in and enjoy.
By the time we reached the middle of the bridge the American news reporter was getting ever more despondent. "No one will talk to me. Everyone seems really angry." Moments later I heard someone clearing their throat behind me and sure enough when I looked down at the back of my jeans they were covered in spit. Before I had the chance to identify the culprit another passerby knocked me to one side, almost causing me to drop my pavement. "Do you mind?" I snapped at a middle-aged suit who was looking at me with undisguised fury. "You could at least say sorry!" Instead of an apology, I was greeted with a stream of obscenities. "And you idiots are effing blocking an effing highway," he rounded off. "And that’s effing illegal!" "Excuse me normally works,"I suggested. "Besides no one is blocking a highway, we're just walking at a relaxed pace...nothing illegal there."
"Eff off you effing twat" was his reasoned response as he rushed on. A couple of young girls in the walk heard him and gasped. Suddenly I saw red and hurried after him. "There's no need for that kind of language is there?" I said catching up with him. "Eff off," he said more loudly. It was clear there was no chance of reasoning with him. He was too conditioned by the rush everywhere syndrome of modern life. A world now so angry and unhappy that the prospect of being held up for a minute or two by a one off event was enough to have him swearing and resorting to pedestrian rage.
And now that made me angry. Who gave him the right to barge people violently out of the way, simply because they are walking slower than he would like? Who gave him the right of way? I suddenly thought of the spit on the back of my jeans and, to my great shame, it all boiled up inside of me.
"If that's your attitude," I growled. "Let's go toe to toe and sort it out that way!" Suddenly uncertainty filled his eyes and he hurried away silently. "Typical,"I yelled. "Run away, coward!" I was about to chase after him again when someone tapped me on the shoulder. "Do you think you could do with slowing down?" asked the American reporter, a microphone waved in my face. I glared at her and walked away. "Why won't anyone talk to me in this city?" she wailed after me.
I guess it's going to take some time for us Londoners to really get the hang of slowing down and relaxing a bit. Which is a great shame as the most relaxed people in London that night had just taken 30 minutes to cross the bridge and were heading off for some specially arranged drinks and live music.
As for me, I think I'll stick to covering anti-government riots and demonstrations in future. They're far less stressful!
Many thanks to Darren Lehane. We hope he had a relaxing weekend.
Slow Down London runs till 4th May. Read Slow news. London Presents: Slow Exposure is at Ray's Jazz Cafe, Foyles until 24th May. Come join us at the private view on Friday 1st May - RSVP firstname.lastname@example.org