April 28. Casual walking out of a house, down the street, into a park or out to the countryside, has long-been the most practised and least studied form of recreation.
For most people in most times, it was the basic form of relaxation. Until the twentieth century, domestic over-crowding meant that it was often the only means of escaping the press of people and finding some privacy. Because it was essentially unstructured and unrecorded, it has rarely received the attention of historians. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, to which I referred on April 24, is, like a handful of other such books, essentially an account of literary walkers, from Rousseau and Wordsworth onwards. The one exception is the now elderly account by Maurice Marples, Shank’s Pony (1959).
In Britain, however, one of its most common forms, walking the dog, has long been counted. During the nineteenth century an increasingly firm distinction was drawn between walking with a dog, and dog-walking. Next to the immobile pedestrian, the greatest fear of polite town dwellers was the uncontrolled dog. It was at best a source of noise, pollution, and unwanted physical contact for other pedestrians, and at worst a threat to life through the widely-feared disease of hydrophobia, or rabies. Taxing dogs, which began in 1796, was a means of policing their mainly urban owners. Rural working dogs were exempt. Following reforms to the cost and efficiency of taxation in 1867, reliable records were kept. By 1877, there were nearly 1.4 million licensed dogs in Britain, mostly in towns and cities. At least as many owners again were believed to be avoiding the tax. By the second half of the twentieth century the figure had reached four million, doubling again before the licence fee was finally abolished in 1987.
In most countries in the coronavirus lockdown, some kind of exemption has been allowed for exercising a pet. Last week a story went viral of an Italian woman who had been fined for exceeding the time limit for this activity. Her excuse was that the pet was not a dog, but a tortoise, and there was a photograph to prove it.
Initially I had much sympathy for the woman. In my adult life the only pet that I have owned myself, as distinct from the family cat, was a tortoise, named Herodotus, or Hod for short, after the first historian. It always seemed an appropriate companion for an historian, or indeed anyone engaged in the slow business of writing a full-length book. At this time of the year Hod would be trundling about the garden, eating buttercups and clover as he recovered his strength after the winter’s hibernation.
But then again, a tortoise really does, in Kipling’s terms, walk by itself. Cats are in fact always aware of human company and generally seek to be close to it. But a tortoise is entirely indifferent. That is what makes it so relaxing a pet. No complex emotional interactions. Our cat would walk surprisingly long distances with us when we were out on an expedition. Not Hod. It is not so much about mobility. On a hot day, especially if there is a tortoise maid in the offing, a tortoise can manage a turn of speed. Rather it is a matter of independence. There is just no way in the world you can get such an animal to follow you down the street.
I am afraid the Italian police had the right of it.