The Gaits of Memory: the way they walked. Part two

carringtonIn part one we looked at the way John Thaw tried to disguise a leg injury he had sustained as a teenager. Later on in his audition for RADA he had played Richard III with a limp and as Morse he had tried to disguise his limp. But some actors can easily affect a certain gait for dramatic affect. Both Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier maintained that once they had got the walk right the rest of the role fell into place. In an adaptation of Ivy Compton Burnett’s ‘A Family and a Fortune’ Guinness had to leave a room to get out into the cold. The way he flung a scarf round his neck and trod stutteringly before leaving told you everything you needed to know about the climatic conditions and preparing to brave them.

Gielgud was once seen coming out of L’Etoile in Charlotte Street. His grey Rolls Royce awaited him. He had to cover about three metres. The only word for what he did is ‘process’. There is a funny scene in ‘Cage aux Folles’ ( the American version is better in this instance ) when one of the guys does the ‘John Wayne Walk ‘ in order to appear a proper heterosexual. He does it perfectly—but somehow it is very camp. At least one burglar  has been arrested because  his distinctive John Wayne style swagger  had been caught on CCTV. Cowboys also walked with bow legs, which is obviously an occupational distinction like that of sailors, with their ‘rolling gait’. The TV detective Hercules Poirot, as played by David Suchet, affected a rather silly short-paced walk  and we all know how John Cleese played the civil servant at the Ministry of Silly Walks. Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) , CIA head in Homeland affects a memorably fast and determined walk with plenty of arm movement.. The actor Richard Beckinsale, well known for his parts in ‘Rising Damp’ and ‘Porridge ‘, used hardly to pick his feet off the ground. He shuffled.

We’d surely all like to know a little more about how certain writers and artists walked. Unlike most ‘ celebs ‘ they are generally invisible to the public, unless they take part in literary conferences, symposia and arts festivals. Does anyone know how Grayson Perry, Tracey Emin or Martin Amis walk ? The novelist Frederick Raphael is very tall and affects what might be called a don’s stoop, though why fellows of Oxford and Cambridge colleges should be more likely to stoop while walking hasn’t been explained. Perhaps it’s just the tall male ones who stoop. A few writers may have had disabilities which affected the way they walked. Bruce Cummings ( aka ‘W. B. Barbellion’) developed disseminated sclerosis early in his life, so his gait must have been unusual. Alex Pope’s scoliosis must also have been reflected in his walk, though there are few, if any, references to it. As for Charles Dickens, the last five years of his life were blighted by the extreme pain he suffered in his left foot through what Dr Chris McManus describes in a recent article in the Lancetas a ‘right parietal temporal disorder ‘, which might have heralded  the stroke which eventually killed him at the age of 58. Many of his friends had diagnosed gout, but the symptoms that affected other parts of his left-hand side, such as his hand and eye, suggest otherwise. The gait of Dickens must have been severely affected by this affliction and indeed those with something similar or who suffered with gout, would have had distinctive ways of walking.

Is there such a thing as a ‘gouty’ walk ? Jules Verne was shot in the leg by his insane nephew. It didn’t help that he was also a diabetic, which meant that wounds took longer to heal. He probably got an infection which left him with a permanent limp. Nearer to out own time, we have learned that Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22, had Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause partial paralysis in a limb. F. D. Roosevelt and Tony Benn also suffered. A Stanford University study identifies eight basic pathological gaits that can be attributed to neurological conditions. These are:-

Hemiplegic gait, Diplegic gait, Neuropathic gait, Myopathic gait ( waddling) , Choreiform or Hyperkinetic gait, Ataxic gait, Parkinsonian gait and Sensory gait.

Fictional characters are often defined by the walk they walked. Arthur Conan-Doyle, a doctor by profession, would surely have been curious about gait. In the Sherlock Holmes stories various individuals betray their personalities through their walks. For instance, in ‘ The Creeping Man’ , the eminent anatomist Professor Presbury, an otherwise healthy and vigorous man in his sixties, is spied descending the stairs of his home like an animal:

‘ He was crawling…He was not quite on his hands and knees. I should rather say on his hands and feet, with his face sunk between his hands. Yet he seemed to move with ease… I was able to step forward and ask if I could assist him. His answer was extraordinary. He sprang up, spat out some atrocious word at me, and hurried on…’

Watson, the doctor, suspects lumbago, which Holmes rejects. It turns out that the professor, having married a much younger woman, wanted to regain his former virility and had turned to injections of a ‘ wondrous strength-giving serum’ derived from a Langur monkey. He was on his way towards turning into a wild ape, with the gait and vicious temper that came with it.


Even Holmes himself, a consummate actor, adopts the gait of the part he plays in order to convince. In ‘ Charles Augustus Milverton ‘, arguably the best of all the stories, the detective turns into a plumber called Escott as a means of impressing a servant girl he wishes to quiz. In the presence of Watson he disappears into his bedroom only to emerge as a ‘ rakish young workman with a goatee beard and a swagger…’


Conan Doyle was naturally an acute observer of people, like his mentor Dr Bell, but he may also have studied writers like Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Leonardo and Balzac, all of whom  were interested in the way humans walked. In his novels Balzac often included references to the way his characters walked. He also wrote a whole study of gait entitled The Theory ofWalking. In this he argued that the walking process is divided into phases and he listed factors that influenced gait. These included personality, mood, height, weight, profession and social class. { RMH]

Balzac pic

Footnote.  1. See The Manc for a demonstration of the Mancunian walk.2. Illustration above (top) is from the film Carrington. 3. Illustration above is Balzac.




2 thoughts on “The Gaits of Memory: the way they walked. Part two

  1. Rawdon Crawley

    “why fellows of Oxford and Cambridge colleges should be more likely to stoop while walking hasn’t been explained.”
    Mediaeval buildings with low doorways, perhaps?
    A friend who lived in York says that he decided to leave when he banged his head on a cross-beam in a mediaeval alley and saw a plaque on the beam saying “In 1477 King Edward IV banged his head on this beam.” He went on, a little groggy, and tripped over a paving-stone. As he pushed himself to his feet he saw a plaque on the ground reading “In 1573 Queen Elizabeth tripped over that paving-stone.”

  2. Jot 101 Post author

    Many thanks Rawdon. You couldn’t make it up. Or could you? Last time I was in York I saw 3 ghost tours criss crossing in the twilight near the cathedral.


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