A walker’s guide to survival

The other day I wrote a facetious piece about protection against coronavirus. I ended on a joke that some of my readers found offensively misogynist, and one I vowed never to repeat (“There’s no such thing as an ugly woman. There’s only not enough booze.”).


Now, by way of redemption, I feel duty-bound to offset levity with gravity by writing a serious piece about a genuinely effective protection technique based on a law of nature discovered by… well, me.

Unlike many such discoveries, this one didn’t start with an a priori assumption, otherwise known as hypothesis. Instead it emerged a posteriori as a result of drawing inference from a body of empirical observation.

Covid-19 has made tennis impossible and, wife beating not being a viable exercise option, I had to look for some other physical activity. Hence I started walking miles every day, something I hadn’t done since my Moscow youth, when I had no car, hated public transport and couldn’t afford taxis.

Since the pandemic struck I’ve clocked the better part of 100 miles, walking London streets, parks and cemeteries. On my strolls I studiously observe the mandated 2-meter (6’7”) distance from other pedestrians.

Some of them follow suit eagerly, some reluctantly, some not at all. Obviously, telling those groups apart is important for someone who doesn’t wish to curtail his life expectancy.

But how can you anticipate the width of the berth you can expect from a pedestrian? To answer this vital question I’ve turned every walk into a scientific experiment, gathering and mentally tabulating data with the meticulousness of a committed researcher.

Only when I felt that my study sample was wide and representative enough did I attempt to draw some general conclusions. And only after I drew such conclusions did I arrive at an immutable law of human nature.

Here it is: generally speaking, the higher the pedestrian’s class, the wider the berth he’ll give you – and vice versa.

When I shared this discovery with Penelope, her first reaction was that of incredulity. However, invited to make her own observations on this morning’s 4-mile trek, she confirmed my findings.

Mine, however, isn’t an exercise in scholarly abstractions. This discovery has wide practical applications, and in many cases it can make the difference between life and death.

Hence, when choosing a route for an urban walk, one ought to map it though the kind of neighbourhoods where most other strollers can be confidently predicted to fall into the A and B+ social categories.

If you walk only in your own area, you probably know which side of the track is right and which isn’t. Yet if you venture too far outside your home patch, there are certain telltale signs to look for.

In the UK, the cars parked in residential streets are a reliable indicator. If most of them are upmarket German, with a smattering of Aston Martins, Jaguars and perhaps the odd Lexus, you’ll know your life is safe – especially if the cars are late models with an average resale value of £40,000-plus.

Conversely, if you see many beat-up Vauxhalls, Fords and iffy models from Southwest Asia, think of that neighbourhood as a leper colony: any local resident coming your way may make a homicide attempt of exhaling on you.

If you don’t know much about cars, you’re well advised to carry a copy of the Which Car? guide. It doesn’t weigh enough to slow you down, and it could save your life.

(IMPORTANT NOTICE: The car test may not work in other countries. Wealthy continentals, especially Frenchmen, are afflicted with both reverse snobbery and excessive parsimony. As a result, they routinely drive 20-year-old bangers that were no great shakes to begin with, the kind of cars that no self-respecting Londoner would be caught dead in. A Frenchman in a brand-new Porsche is likely to be either a drug dealer or a PSG footballer.)

Windows provide another useful indicator. Any mesh, net or muslin curtains on any windows, no matter how few, should have the same effect on you as a leper’s bell had on a medieval pilgrim. Run for your life.

The presence of much scaffolding in a street is a good sign. It suggests that the residents have enough money to improve or even expand their houses. Such people are unlikely to risk close proximity to a pedestrian. But do watch out for the workmen on the scaffolding: they may come down and walk towards you, chattering away in Polish.

And finally, make sure the area has no mosques, nor churches exhibiting a Jesus Saves sign or similar.

Of course, it’s possible for the wrong people to find themselves in the right neighbourhoods. How can you spot such interlopers?

Here are a few things to watch for: legible T-shirts, socks worn with sandals, any clothing items bespeaking support for any sports team, baseball caps (especially if worn backwards), tattoos and facial metal, closely cropped hair if any, excessive weight and – above all – a feral facial expression permanently frozen in a belligerent grimace.

When you see an individual like that coming your way, cross over to the other side of the street and hope he doesn’t take it personally.

Just remember: now that you know the Boot Law, there’s no reason you can’t walk the streets safely. Yet you’ll be even better off staying at home, saving lives and — most important — protecting the NHS. Or did I get the slogan wrong?

12 thoughts on “A walker’s guide to survival”

  1. Supermarkets are also a good signifier.

    Aldi? Lidl? – No. Waitrose? – Yes.

    If you have a ‘neutral’ supermarket – like Sainsburys or Morrissons – go inside and check what they’re selling. They do do their demographic research and it won’t be the same from one store to the next.

    So, white sliced, frozen pizza, fizzy drinks and large clothing aisles that give the air that static crackle you get from an over abundance of polyester…avoid.

    1. I don’t know if you’ve read Paul Fussell’s 1983 book Class, but it’s the best work on this subject I’ve ever seen. He goes into everything you’ve mentioned and a million things as well: home furnishings, language and even musical instruments.

      1. No I haven’t – but I will now. Thanks Mr B.

        I can remember giving instruction to my parents, who were returning to UK after 20+ years of living abroad and were looking for a suitable area in which to buy property.

        ‘Look at the shops’, said I, ‘Marks & Sparks, John Lewis, Waitrose – good’. ‘Primark, Co-op, Poundstretcher, Aldi, or too many charity shops and hairdressers – bad’.

        You know your area’s declining when that small, independent, gents outfitters becomes a kebab shop.

        1. When we moved into our flat in Fulham, 30-odd years ago, there wasn’t a single chain establishment, either shop or restaurant, in the area. Now they are moving in and, after the coronavirus madness is finished, will probably take over.

          1. All the Chinese takeaways seem to have gone out of business. I expect they’ll be bought up be Chicken Cottage.

  2. “The higher the pedestrian’s class, the wider the berth he’ll give you- and vice versa.”
    La Rochefoucauld would say, ‘the wider the berth he is really giving himself’.

    1. I like his Maxims too. Interestingly, his descendant, Prince de Marcillac, is our neighbour in France: that is, his chateau isn’t far from our cottage. When we met, he was impressed by my ability to recite some of those Maxims.

  3. I have heard it said or read somewhere that his pessimism, and his great work, were largely coloured by the betrayal of a princess acquaintance/friend of his…..

  4. In the USA you want to get outta any area fast where the convenience store has a sign saying: We accept EBT, LINK, SNAP.

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