Marching to remember

Horse leading paradeTerm 5

Police horses and pearlies, cadets and marching bands all assembled in the Sunday morning cold, alongside veterans, local dignitaries and others wanting to pay their respects. The nearby plaque to those who died in a V1 bomb attack in 1944 was a sombre reminder of why the Remembrance parade starts here.

Adjustment to police cadet capAs I arrived I saw uniforms being adjusted and frantic phone calls made to those cutting it fine for the prompt start. John, the local Pearly King and his son Darren, the Pearly Prince, were both in attendance, sparkling and weighed down in their traditional Cockney suits.

Pearly King and Prince

As the varied groups gathered in formation, I noticed how they held themselves and what their hands were doing. Even before the parade began, body language in uniform was stiff and formal. The Honourable Artillery Company and the army cadets clasped hands behind their backs, while the police cadets held their arms stiffly by their sides, hands curled and closed. Chests were puffed out, shoulders back, legs stiff and breathing restricted. Feet stood close together, boots polished and shiny.

Honourable Artillery Company
Honourable Artillery Company
Army Cadets
Army cadets
Police cadets
Police cadets

Drummers

The drummers were more relaxed as they waited, despite their starring role at the head of the parade. I thought about the heavy drums they held strapped in front of them, and the effect that carrying the weight while playing and marching would  have on their bodies over the next hour or so.

The troops massed into line, an officer barked the command and the parade moved off. Every so often a leader shouted an order to keep the disparate marchers in time.  Each group saluted as they passed the local fire station, with firefighters standing helmeted and to attention outside.

Parade moves off

Rigid military bearing is the opposite of the free open movement I’m working towards with the Alexander Technique, and I was acutely aware of the contrast as the soldiers marched by. I felt uncomfortable as I watched their taut faces and held body language. I felt relieved and breathed more easily when they had moved on.

Honourable Artillery Company marching

Honourable Artillery Company

The parade continued, marching to the drummers’ beat and collecting more officials and children’s groups. We all came to a quiet standstill at the war memorial, where hundreds of people had gathered for an outdoor inter-faith service.

Sea cadets

Brass bandThe crowd hushed as the trumpeter sounded the Last Post and we stood for two minutes in silence. Representatives of local groups and members of the public laid poppy wreaths then the crowd dispersed to warm themselves in the coffee shops nearby.  Poppies

By the water

Canal mural
The hectic shared space of the canal on a local school mural

Term 5

“There are places where we feel calm or that provide us with space to think; places we feel a deep pull towards or that have a physical effect on us when we visit; places where we feel ‘at home’ or that make us feel complete.”

I noticed this quote from the National Trust’s new Places that Make Us report because it echoes the Alexander concept of ‘psycho-physical unity’ – that mind and body work as a whole, and what we do with one affects the other.  If I want space for body and mind then I feel drawn towards water. The most tranquil place is the New River – not a river but an aqueduct engineered to bring fresh drinking water to London in the 17th century.

Here I find quiet and autumn colours, birdlife, dog owners and children being taken to school.  I have a camera in my hand; people are friendly and greet me warmly. No rush, I can sit quietly and enjoy birdsong and silence.  Sometimes a local artist sets up her easel to paint by the old watchman’s hut. The heron stands hidden but wary; I admire its balance and the easy turn of its neck.

Heron, New River

To negotiate the second stretch of water I too have to be alert.  The narrow canal towpath is grittier and more competitive, with differing views on speed, space and entitlement. To manage this I need to think ‘up’ with my Alexander directions, breathe easily, be aware of what’s around me, and take whatever comes in my stride.

Cyclists move fast, heading into work in determined fashion.  Runners follow, chatting in twos, easier to hear as they overtake. Then come dog or casual walkers like me, more at ease, holding our own, ducking lightly under each bridge. It’s too early for anglers to sit safely on the path and no canal boats or canoes are on the move just yet.

London’s housing crisis is here in microcosm – two semi-permanent tents pitched by the towpath and canal boats in use as affordable living space.  One of the striking things in my Alexander life is how often people stop me to ask for directions, responding perhaps to open body language. Sure enough, two stranded tourists want the canalside café. I point to the lock beyond the next bridge and move on.

Canal boatMy third destination is the Thames. Sometimes I walk along the riverbanks or venture onto the muddy foreshore, envying the mudlarks as they dig for finds. Recently I spent a late summer’s day on the river, sailing on a paddle steamer towards the Thames Estuary. The river has tides and timetables that can’t be ignored, but there’s also a calm detachment as the banks and rivercraft drift by. This is the Alexander concept of ‘means whereby’ in action – the journey’s the thing, not the port of arrival. The mood on board is cheerful. We wave at the Southend lifeboat out for a spin, and to cruise ship passengers heading for the Channel.

FM Alexander was clear that body and mind act as one, and I’m slowly integrating the two as I continue my training. My experience also bears out the National Trust’s research that a physical visit to a special place has a long-term emotional and psychological impact. Moving on or near these watery spaces changes my thinking, leaving me energised, calmer, more content and with new perspectives and enlarged horizons. Which special places do you visit, and what effect do they have?

New River reflections

New River, duck on water

Canal boat

Canal boat

Fish bench by the canal

Canal boat cat

Canal boat duck

Notice on a canal bridge

Tower Bridge raised
Tower Bridge lifts up as we sail underneath
Looking back at the London skyline
Looking back at the London skyline
Red Sands Forts in the Thames Estuary
Red Sands Forts in the Thames Estuary, part of Britain’s Second World War defences
Traditional Thames barge
Traditional Thames barge
Returning to London on the Thames at sunset
Returning to London on the Thames at sunset

 

Robot walking

Pedestrian robot
Photo courtesy of Yu Fan Chen, Michael Everett, Miao Liu, and Jonathan P. How at MIT

Term 5

After only a few Alexander lessons I noticed an unexpected side-effect: I could navigate through oncoming crowds with ease. I had a more accurate awareness of my own body, and sensed more quickly how others might move. As time has gone on I tend to hold my own on the pavement more than I did, increasingly sure of the space I’m entitled to, but remaining flexible in how I get by.

This came to mind when reading about an experimental robot at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that has learned to wheel itself past pedestrians without hitting anyone. The engineers broke down the robot’s task into four key areas:

  • Localisation – where are you?
  • Perception – what’s around you?
  • Motion planning – what’s the best way to get to your destination?
  • Control – actually getting there

To deal with the first two, they provided sensors and mapping tools, but motion planning was more complicated.  They wanted the robot to move through a busy indoor space at normal walking speed, while coping with real people who changed direction or stopped unexpectedly. Allowing the robot to calculate all possible destinations for everyone ahead was one solution, but it took too long to be practical.

So the makers tried “Socially Aware Motion Planning with Deep Reinforcement Learning” – a machine learning approach, giving the robot ‘social norms’ about which side to walk or pass, and making it re-assess its route ten times per second.  They didn’t predict too far ahead, and allowed for changes in behaviour at every turn.

Spurred on by this, I went for a walk on a busy street, imagining I was a knee-high robot on wheels.  People moved at different speeds, some had dogs, suitcases, pushchairs, scooters, walking frames.  There were bikes parked and bags of rubbish.  Delivery drivers came at me, couples strolled, children dashed and many had eyes only for phones, unaware of my presence.

The process was complex, as the robot engineers had found. All the time my body/mind was working fast: eyes and ears absorbing information about what was going on around me, feet following as brain calculated which way to go, judging movement, space, speed and balance. Meanwhile I maintained my full height and width, thinking up along my spine and using the natural spirals in my body to gently twist and turn as people came towards me.

Judging from this experiment, it takes much time and programming to learn and replicate human decision-making in movement. I’m interested to see what applications come from this kind of robot walking in future, particularly outside or in busier spaces. For now I have an increased respect for our human capacity to move easily through a crowd – anything but a walk in the park.