The Gaits of Memory: The Way They Walked

2-P21-W1-1910-7 (125401) 'Wandervögel stimmt die Saiten / lasst uns wacker vorwärtsschreiten (...)' Jugendbewegung / Wandervogel. - 'Wandervögel stimmt die Saiten / lasst uns wacker vorwärtsschreiten (...)'. - Bildpostkarte nach Aquarell von Paul Hey (1867-1952). Nr.77 der Serie: Volksliederkarten von Paul Hey, Dresden (Verlag des Vereins für das Deutschtum im Ausland) o.J. E: 'Wandervögel stimmt die Saiten, lasst uns wacker vorwärtsschreiten (...)' Education / Youth Movements / Wandervogel. - 'Wandervögel stimmt die Saiten, lasst uns wacker vorwärtsschreiten (...)', Song lyrics. - / Postcard after a water colour by Paul Hey (1867-1952). No.77 of the series: Folk song cards by Paul Hey, Dresden (Verlag des Vereins für das Deutschtum im Ausland), undated.


The way famous people in history walked—their gaits—is not given as much attention as the subject deserves. Why did people walk in a particular way? Was it something to do with their legs—their ankles—since surely ankles do play a major part in how we move ourselves around. Is a limp being disguised? Is one leg shorter than another? Do two short or two long legs require one to move in a certain way? Or—more likely than any of these—is one’s gait determined by one’s personality? Why do some men ‘ mince ‘ ? Is there really something called the ‘ Mancunian swagger ‘, most famously seen in the walk of pop singer Liam Gallacher. If so, why do people from Manchester have more cause to swagger than, say people from Southampton or Bristol? It was said that William Morris ‘ rolled ‘, as if he were drunk. Wyndham Lewis, who characteristically for a satirist who relied on caricature, memorably described G. K. Chesterton as a ‘ great foaming Toby jug ‘, may have watched him ‘ roll’ out of a room after a drinking session. We don’t know, but someone of Chesterton’s physical dimensions could hardly walk in any other way. Edgar Wallace, very rich and very unfit, is said to have employed a couple of men to prop him up on both sides on his journey from his limousine to a club or restaurant and back. He could not be bothered to walk…

People sometimes put on a walk for effect, but it is hard for most to sustain this for long.‘ You forgot to limp ‘, someone reminds a friend who wishes to appear mildly disabled for a certain reason. Instead we revert to our usual gait. Walks are divided into certain types, as we shall now see:

The skip

The very beautiful Mavis de Vere Cole, once the young wife of the famous practical joker Horace de Vere Cole, captured the heart of archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who noticed that she moved with a very pronounced skipping motion. The couple married, but it is not known whether the skipping motion persisted during their years together, which were not long, as Wheeler was not a faithful husband.

The glide

Very few men ‘glide’, it would seem. It appears to be confined mainly to women. ‘She glided out of the room ‘, is one novelistic convention that conveys very fast movement without apparent effort. But some real women have been noticed gliding. The servant girl Sarah Walker, with whom poor William Hazlitt —almost old enough to be her father—was smitten for over two years moved with a strange gliding walk which Hazlitt found entrancing but others thought sinister. Here is Hazlitt, writing on Walker’s gait in Liber Amoris ( 1823), which unflinchingly records the whole sorry infatuation:

“Your ordinary walk is as if you were performing some religious ceremony; you come up to my table of a morning, when you merely bring in the tea things as if you were advancing to the altar. You move in minuet time: you measure every step, as if you were afraid of offending in the smallest things.’

But Hazlitt’s friend Bryan Waller Proctor was less entranced:
‘Her movements in walking were very remarkable, for I never observed her to make a step. She went onwards in a sort of wavy, sinuous manner, like the movements of a snake…’ More recently Michael Jackson’s Moon Walk had the effect of gliding…

The mince

Chambers Dictionary describes mincing as ‘to walk in a prim and affected manner ‘.It was remarked (possibly by Thomas Gray ) that Horace Walpole, walked as if he ‘ had beshitted his breeches…’ In the modern era the walk is associated with effeminacy and comedy- think John Inman in Are you Being Served? There is much about  mincing walks online  including a history of mincing going back to the Bible (see Isaiah 3.)

The LORD said:
Because the daughters of Zion are haughty
and walk with outstretched necks,
glancing wantonly with their eyes,
mincing along as they go,
tinkling with their feet…

The reference to tinkling feet probably refers to ankle bracelets. Interestingly the fops of 18th century London had metal bits attached to the soles of their elaborate shoes, so that the noise would draw attention to them. Possibly the lights in the heels of modern trainers have the same intention…It is said that the artist, writer and flaneur Stephen Tennant could mince for England. After visiting Thomas Hardy as Tennant walked to  his Bentley  Hardy remarked ‘I haven’t seen a walk like that since Swinburne was here..’ Swinburne is actually said to have  had an elaborate, contorted style of walk. Ronald Firbank is also said to have had a remarkable way of walking, possibly a mince, possibly a glide..

The John Wayne macho walk

One observer described the Wayne walk as ‘slightly tipsy, slightly off balance looking, rough, tough, and rugged.’ When asked why he had adopted that trademark swagger Wayne replied that ‘the women love it ‘. Another observer contended that at around 6’ 5” in height with a powerful body, his slow, deliberate walk came about as a way of controlling his body. Fellow actor Burt Reynolds contended that Wayne adopted a Native American walk, toe to heel; toe to heel. Two leading ladies, Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall, who both knew him, insisted that he had small feet—about size 6—which necessitated him walking the way he did.

The disguised limp

Everyone knows that Lord Byron was born with a club foot. He didn’t hide it and probably exaggerated the effects of it to provoke sympathy from pretty girls. The famous nineteenth century British artist William Henry Hunt was also born with a club foot and because of it was unable to walk far without pain. John Thaw, who famously played Inspector Morse on TV, suffered a serious fall onto a kerb at the age of 15 which damaged nerves in his knee. The result was a dropped foot, which he tried to disguise in ‘Morse’, but with little success. This effort made him appear to have a slight limp, which many viewers noticed. He also played Richard the Third with a limp at his RADA audition, according to Thaw’s widow, Sheila Hancock, in her account of their marriage, The Two of Us (2004), though she doesn’t mention the kerbside injury. [RR — to be continued]

2 thoughts on “The Gaits of Memory: The Way They Walked

  1. Roger

    “Somewhere in the trash he reads Martland has read that heavy men walk with surprising lightness and grace; as a result he trips about like a portly elf hoping to be picked up by a leprechaun. In he pranced, all silent and catlike and absurd, buttocks swaying noiselessly.”
    – Kyril Bonfiglioli’s description of a (villainous) fat man coming into a room.


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