The BBC has recently compiled a series of amazing documentaries which show what life was like for ordinary people in Northern England in the first years of the 1900s.
The documentaries (click here to view on YouTube) derive from the work of pioneering film makers Sagar Michell and James Kenyon (more about them here), and have been restored to their former glory by the National Film Archive in the UK having been lost for many years.
Documentary film of ordinary people’s lives is commonplace now, but in 1900 – only five years after the invention of the film camera – people were still experimenting with its possibilities.
There are many things that can be said about this film series, but there is one thing in particular that drew my attention, and that was how much people depended on the ability to walk to get around.
Cars were still some years away, and although people could use horse- and electric-powered trams, carts and buggies, these were often not much quicker than walking, and so were relatively expensive.
Two-wheeled bicycles were also only newly invented and few people used these. (There’s a very funny clip in the second section of Episode 1, where one man is trying to show another how to balance on a two-wheeler).
The speed of the films has been naturalised, and is as close as possible to the normal speed of people’s movement. And this reveals how much faster people seem to move today. People moved at the pace of their feet rather than at the speed of their wheels.
Apart from the obvious physical and mental health benefits of this much walking, I wonder if a move to replicate some of the social and environmental conditions we see in these films would result in our social relations operating on a more human scale.
I wonder though, if we romanticise these things too much? What would we lose as well as gain from a more pedestrian lifestyle? I wonder if we understood this tension more, whether it would provide some useful insights into our present anxieties about the links between movement and health?
These arguments aren’t new, of course. Paul Virilio’s work on dromology provides a very powerful critique of the role speed plays in people’s lives now (see more here).