Best Of British – Walking Distance: The Simplicity Of An Urban Walk That Turns Existential
by Richard Bruton
Walking Distance starts innocently enough, as Lizzy Stewart talks of her love of seeing those shots in the movies of women walking through cities. Not the important plot scenes, just those quiet moments, the throwaway scenes.
And that’s the beginning of this introspective, intriguing graphic novel that takes walking as a simple thing but crafts a memoir that’s both deeply personal and yet wonderfully universal.
Now, I must admit, I’m a terrible sucker for this sort of thing, works that meander, works that are this relaxed and open. Some hate them, some love them, and I love them. I especially love this sort of work with some wonderfully expressive artwork, Stewart’s styles shifting and changing beautifully, some watercolour wash, some simple line-work, stunning urban landscapes, and then best of all, drifting into abstraction.
Frankly, Walking Distance was a lovely, thoughtful book of, as Stewart herself says… navel-gazing, but navel-gazing that’s deeply thoughtful and fascinating, navel-gazing that makes the reader question themselves.
That’s one of those delightful linework pages, reminiscent of Posy Simmonds if you ask me, but the structure, with those chunks of text dropped into the art, repeats all the way through alongside the gorgeous silent pages, all the message communicated through the artwork.
But, going back to the beginning and the walking, it’s what Stewart loves to see on screen and the thing she does, owning her own urban landscape, a way of giving herself control and agency. Also, it means she observes and documents, quite magnificently, the urban spaces she moves through… just like this…
Just looking at that, it’s not the figure I’m drawn to, but the beauty of the perspective, the gloriously rough trees in the background, and the gloriously uneven railings and chaotic garbage in the fore. It’s a page, like many in here, that I just lingered on, taking everything in. It’s one reason why it’s a such an absorbing read, one that takes far longer than its relatively short 58 pages would make you think.
In Walking Distance, Stewart ponders her life, her self, whether she looks her age, what others think of her, the clothes she wears. As she walks she thinks, she remembers, whether it’s emails she meant to send or forms to fill in.
But there’s so much more, a lyricism to her words, worries that she can’t engage given form in her mind as just grabbing information and storing it for no reason, the allusion to filling a huge suitcase with useless junk that she continually carries around.
Or the page where she simply lists the things that upset, worry, frighten her, whether it’s something as big as the NHS or as small as not being able to keep up with podcasts or prestige television.
A couple of pages further on, there’s a magnificent image of Stewart walking off her own page, the perfect image to sum up what she’s feeling, the disconnect with things, almost the fear of connecting… ‘If I look directly at all of those things then I’ll go mad‘.
The book is full of these little moments, with Stewart moving through her life, musing on the world and herself and what she sees as her non-engagement with it.
And she walks and walks, learning to love London, connecting areas with others, observing and detailing it all so beautifully, pages of those lush greys, going tight on detail but then being able to pull out, veering towards abstraction…
I love the way that the panels slowly degrade the imagery, the tight figure works leading onto something more and more abstract, yet all so beautiful. And speaking of those abstractions, the very next page is perfection, taking the notion of pulling out, the lone walker becoming part of the crowd, part of the urban landscape they are passing through…
Walking is Stewart’s control, her way to feel capable, in charge, knowledge of where she’s going making her feel like a proper person, something she worries over at times.
She points out through the addendum of the book that this isn’t necessarily a book about the wider experience, either of women or of people, more that she is merely writing about ‘being this exact human person‘.
And although that’s certainly true, it’s also about the human condition in general, as some of the thoughts, the concerns, that Stewart has here are no doubt ones you’ve had, I’ve had. It’s doing the wonderful thing of transforming the personal into the shared experience.
And in Stewart’s memoir, this marvelous little meandering thing, we have just that, a pointedly personal thing that has universality. Having said that, Stewart herself rejects the idea of claiming anything like that universality. But, as with all art, the artist’s intent is one thing, but once out in the wild, meaning and understanding shift and alter, dependant on the reader. And I imagine more of us will find that Wallking Distance actually does manage, incredibly well, to speak for us and about our experience. I know I did, and although my reading of it may be wildly different from the artist’s intent, it’s still something wonderfully affecting… and quite gorgeous to look at.
It’s a book that meanders, and I mean that in the best of ways, at times insightful, at times personal, at times celebrating the trivial. But in that meandering, of word and art, there’s a feeling of being totally wrapped up in the world she paints on the page and in your head. A gloriously wonderful book.
Walking Distance by Lizzy Stewart was published by Avery Hill Publishing on 3 October. It’s required reading.