Pavement Panto™ – A Beginner’s Guide

pavement panto

Why is it so hard to turn around on the street without indulging in some meaningless ham acting? Here at last is Brit’s complete Beginner’s Guide to the phenomenon known as Pavement Panto™…

Well, he couldn’t keep walking north forever. At the next corner he stopped, looked indecisive, then patted himself all over, pantomiming a search for some small but necessary object. In a large elaborate movement, he snapped his fingers, suggesting the sudden realization that the small but necessary object had been left behind; at home, perhaps. He then turned around and walked the other way.

From “Jimmy the Kid” by Donald Westlake, 1974.


The above quotation was sent to me last week by long-term blog colleague David Cohen as a remarkable example of parallelism. I’ve never read Donald Westlake, but he and I clearly think along similar lines, since he not only uses the verb ‘pantomiming’, but in describing a man’s elaborately-acted U-turn in a street he offers the prime example of a phenomenon for which I some years ago coined the term Pavement Panto™.

I explored Pavement Panto™ in some depth on my old, now dormant Think of England blog, and it’s about time it made a proper appearance on The Dabbler. So here, for your education and entertainment, is a specially-produced Beginner’s Guide….

What is Pavement Panto™? or, How to turn around and walk back the same way you came

Pavement Panto™refers to those contrived actions one performs to mask, disguise or somehow ‘cover for’ any public behaviour about which one feels awkward or obscurely embarrassed, often for an entirely imagined audience.

The simplest example, as per Westlake above, is the business of making a 180 degree turn in the street. Sometimes when walking it becomes necessary to stop, turn, and walk back the other way. This might be because you have walked past the shop you meant to go into, or you’d forgotten where you parked the car. In extreme cases of absent-mindedness you might even have strolled past your own front door. Now for some reason it’s hard to perform this U-turn without covering it with some sort of Pavement Panto™, as if people are watching and judging. One might, for example, stop and pretend to look with interest at a shop window for a few moments, and then, when a reasonable time has elapsed, walk back the other way as if the original direction of the walk and the stop were all ‘part of your plan’.

An alternative technique (and one which I favour) for the U-Turn scenario is to go to the other extreme and over-exaggerate the realisation that you’ve gone the wrong way. I might raise my right arm with forefinger extended in an A-ha! sort of gesture, waggle my wrist as if remembering something vital and then about-turn with military smartness, shaking my head and tut-tutting at my own forgetfulness.

For whose benefit I perform this unnatural and hammy turning routine I cannot say. But somehow it seems necessary to deflate the perceived embarrassment of erring by drawing attention to the error. This is a very curious area of human behaviour, and until I started writing about it on the internet it had never really occurred to me that everyone else might have these same little lunacies. But then my readers began providing their own methods of U-turn mugging, and now I suspect that Pavement Panto™ makes up a huge proportion of the human activity you see every day. Here are some Turning Techniques submitted by correspondents:

The Watch Check Turn (submitted by ‘Ben’)
My favourite action when I need to perform a U-turn on the pavement, is to suddenly look at my watch, pretend to be surprised at how late it is, portray with a facial expression that I don’t have time to do what I was ‘going’ to do and then smartly switch directions.

The Handbag Rummage ( a female-specific U-turn submitted by ‘Monix’ )
 The handbag is a vital piece of Pavement Panto kit for those of us developing age-related forgetfulness. When I realise that I haven’t a clue why I am walking down a particular road, I stop, open my handbag to perform a pretence of searching in vain for something and then head back to where I have obviously ‘left it’.

The Spy’s Shoelace (submitted by Stephen Fawcus)
On the street I find bending down to tie a shoelace then getting up and moving in the opposite direction works well. I think I saw them doing something similar on Spooks

But – and here Pavement Panto™ becomes increasingly absurd – how does one cope with the double u-turn? This is where you think you’re going the wrong way, turn, and then it turns out you were going the right way after all. Such a nightmare scenario requires a high degree of Pavement Panto skill. I would suggest that a way out of the second u-turn is an exaggerated devil-may-care shrug and look that says Nah, I did have to go back that way for an important reason, but to hell with it, I’ll damn well do as I please and go this way.

Of course, in the disastrous event of the triple u-turn, you’d be forced to feign a moral dilemma. I did say to hell with it, but on reflection perhaps I’d better go back that way after all.

This could go on indefinitely, back and forth, elevating Pavement Panto to Shakespearian levels of drama. Probably the only way out of it is the technique recommended by our own Nige:

The Self Headslap
 I find a useful gesture in any circumstances is the Homer Simpson-style brow-smite, with or without audible D’Oh! – if done with sufficient conviction it can convey that your entire life so far has been based on a total misunderstanding and you’re just going to have to start again from scratch – the U-turn is the least of it. Plus you’ll look slightly mad, which helps scare off various kinds of pavement nuisances.


Pavement Panto™ (Primary Class)

The prevalence of Pavement Panto™ raises many interesting questions about social paranoia and self-consciousness. Why do we feel this need to cover our petty and extremely common mistakes? Are we worried that onlookers will laugh at us? Ha ha, look at that idiot, changing direction! Oi, changey-direction idiot, you’re an idiot!

The street U-turn is Pavement Panto™ in its purest form, because :

1) It is such a laboured am-dram rigmarole, such absolute ham acting. In reality, it surely rarely or never happens that you suddenly decide to look at your watch, are shocked, shocked at the time – having been hitherto completely unaware of the hour – and have to completely revise your plans there and then; and

2) It is played out to a completely imagined audience.

The rise of the smartphone has surely done wonders for the Primary Class phenomenon, being the perfect Pavement Panto™ prop. Pretending to answer text messages or browse the internet is an ideal way to mug through such self-conscious experiences as dining out alone or waiting for your wife outside the underwear fitting rooms in Marks and Spencer.

Pavement Panto™ can even take place in the car. In traffic jams I have sometimes been laughing heartily at the radio or singing away lustily to a CD when I think I’ve glimpsed another driver looking at me. My Pavement Panto™ reflex will immediately kick in and I have been known to fake an amusing hands-free telephone conversation, even to the extent of mouthing ‘Goodbye’ and pressing an imaginary hang-up button.

This is clearly nuts. But then, we are nuts, aren’t we?

Pavement Panto™ Secondary Class

Secondary Class Pavement Panto™ is a less pure form of Pavement Panto™, where there really is an audience (as opposed to the imagined or indifferent audience of Primary PP)  and your acting is employed as an escape or masking mechanism.

A good way to see Secondary PP in action would be to go into your nearest town on a Saturday morning and position yourself near a Big Issue salesperson. You could then witness the various facial grimaces, empty-pocket-indicating gestures and mumblings about ‘already having that one’ of the passers-by as they attempted to say No without appearing mean.

Similarly, small awkward shops, particularly quirky boutiques or remote second-hand bookshops, require a bewildering array of PP techniques to remove oneself from the store, under the hopeful gaze of the owner, without making a purchase (disappointed wallet-pocket patting, mumbling about ‘getting some cash’, asking if they ‘are open tomorrow’ etc).

I need not elaborate on the excruciating restaurant business of testing the wine under the gaze of the waiter.




Youth-avoidance techniques
Then there is the business of navigating past young people. If you live in an urban environment, occasionally it becomes necessary to walk through a group of hooded youths. Most of these youths are, we are obliged to say, harmless, misunderstood, basically good kids, hanging out in gangs while they search for an identity et cetera. Some are proper little bastards. But however you feel about hooded youths, the experience of walking alone through a group of them is one of self-consciousness and does call for a bit of Pavement Panto™ (Secondary Class).

There are, broadly, three approaches for the male PP artist:

1. Exaggerated nonchalance. Perhaps a bit of whistling, hands in pockets, jaunty stroll.Oh is there a rabble of aggressive-looking teenagers here? I didn’t even notice. Evening, all. Knowing grin. I’m like you guys, man of the people, man of the street, a bit like Tony Blair, hey ho.

2. No nonsense tough guy.This is more of a fast determined stride straight through the middle, looking neither left nor right, slight frown, jaw set. I’m on important business, possibly secret service or undercover policework-related. Certainly I have a wide range of deadly martial arts techniques in my locker. Your trivial teenage gang is of no interest to me. Fake gum-chewing may be employed.

3. Unstable lunatic. Slight facial or limb twitches, bulging eyes, odd humming and an unearthly, twisted smile can all give the impression that beneath the apparently normal façade lurks a raging, and possibly armed, violent schizophrenic.

I tend to go for approach 2, but approach 3 is the most interesting Panto. According to Jonathan Law, George Melly favoured a version of Approach 3:

On being approached by a gang of teenage troublemakers, he would raise his arms wide in solemn invocation and, basso molto profundo, begin reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards (a trick he had learned from one of his Surrealist chums). The little gobshites couldn’t clear out of there fast enough. Probably works best with a floppy large-brimmed hat.


cash machine

Pavement Panto™ Tertiary Class

In addition to the Primary (imagined audience) and Secondary (real audience) forms of Pavement Panto™, there is aTertiary Class which involves situations where there is a definite audience, but you’re not sure about their degree of indifference.

Take bodily functions. If you sit down in public and your chair makes an outlandish raspberry sound, it is customary to employ a bit of Pavement Panto™ shifting and squirming in an attempt to recreate the noise and thus ‘prove’ that it didn’t emit directly from your person the first time.

Likewise surreptitious staring. You might want to look at a person a little longer than would normally be considered polite (either because they are attractive and possibly semi-clothed, or conversely, interestingly ugly or deformed), in which case a good PP stratagem is the old ‘pretend to be a bit lost and looking for something’ ploy, allowing your gaze to sweep across the object several times.

Jonathan Law cites cash machines as an important stage for Tertiary Pavement Panto-ers to ply their trade:

An important example of Tertiary Class Pavement Panto has to be behaviour in the cash-point queue, as here (a) you are almost guaranteed some kind of an audience and (b) the issues go beyond your general idiocy to questions of personal solvency and/or probity. On the machine’s refusal to issue money at the first attempt (e.g. because you have keyed in the office entry code) it is necessary to go into a complicated piece of mugging making it clear to those behind you that, despite appearances, you are neither a bankrupt nor a crook. This is a tricky one to pull off well, because it has to express not only incomprehension and annoyance but also a serene confidence that everything will be just fine in a minute. (A verbal translation would go something like: “God! Modern technology, eh! Would you believe there’s over£500,000 in there!”) Probably, you are feeling all these things, but the effort ofshowing that you feel them makes you feel slightly fake, and then you worry that the fake feeling is showing in your performance, as indeed is the worry. This, of course, can only get worse at the second and third attempts, and immeasurably worse if the machine should ingest your card. Here the only expression possible is one of Buddhist detachment, unmixed with either alarm or guilt.

And Martpol gave an extraordinary account of the multiple paranoiac layers of madness induced by getting sucked into a Tertiary Pavement Panto™ routine, thus:

Every so often while walking down a perfectly familiar street, I suddenly – seemingly at random – have a feeling of intense self-consciousness. I am suddenly unsure HOW to pass people going the other way. ‘What do I do usually?’ I ask myself. Do I look into the eyes of the people who are passing, or do I look straight past them without even acknowledging their existence except to avoid bumping into them?

So, I do a sort of half-way house. I look straight ahead, with a kind of half sideways glance to the other person at a distance of perhaps six feet. I catch their eye momentarily, as if to say: “Oh yes. I’m a confident, street-tough kind of person who isn’t afraid of human contact, but – importantly – I am NOT a freak who wishes to invade your personal space.”

If this action is performed too soon, it may require the use of a secondary tactic borrowed from Surreptitious Staring, i.e. the sweeping gaze which says, “Oh no, I wasn’t intending to look specifically at YOU.”

But here’s where it all gets rather silly (or more silly). Sometimes, when this particular piece of self-consciousness occurs, the person at whom I attempt to look casually is from a different ethnic group. On these occasions, not only do I worry that I am staring unduly, but I also fret that they will think I’m a racist. “He’ll assume I’m staring at him because he’s black,” I think. “But not only am I a pretty street-smart kind of guy, who is not a freak, I am also a modern cosmopolitan kind of guy who is NOT A RACIST.”

So, I need to add yet another additional tactic: using the short time I have before he passes me, I must stare at someone else too, so that he knows I am providing for equal opportunities in my unusual behaviour. “Even if he thinks I’m a nutter”, I think, “I’d prefer that to being thought a racist.”

Of course, if the second person you glance happens to be in a wheelchair, the whole package of insecurities and social anxieties would just become too much. Not many people can have attempted the Triple Glance Prejudice Avoidance Technique and lived to tell the tale.


We are all quite mad.

Please feel free to submit your own Turning Techniques or other examples of Pavement Panto™ to add to the canon. There’s a doctoral thesis in this for somebody.

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6 thoughts on “Pavement Panto™ – A Beginner’s Guide

    July 14, 2014 at 09:58

    The cabin bag fahrer’s volta.

    Our less uninteresting cities are awash, summer and winter, with weekending cabin bag people, on account of A/…Mr O’Leary and B/…over capacity within the hospitality trade. They have, in true Darwinian fashion, evolved. Usually found in pairs and many further encumbered with back pack they proceed, wheels a’trundling, in quantum fashion, packets of motion, forward leap, stop, consult directions, turn around, find stranger, ask directions, stranger is from out of town. Find bus stop, more people, “bound to know,” last person is boarding bus as backpackers arrive. Look up and down street, up at tall buildings and up at street sign, illegible, passing woman with pram is accosted, replies in Polish. Finally, three hours later find hotel, turns out to be ex hostel for the homeless and is a midden, Congregate on corner and perform “never coming back here mate” ritual, all performed blissfully unaware of the local audience, chuckling and chortling, not the hospitality trade however, busy counting money.

  2. Worm
    July 14, 2014 at 11:47

    It doesn’t happen on a pavement but surely the most visible form of this phenomenon is in football, where players who have slipped over in slightly embarrassing fashion or missed a penalty instinctively always look accusingly back at the ground as if to point out to everybody the treacherous hillock that somehow must have reared up to block their path.

    and somebody could write an entire sociology thesis on the elaborate pissoir panto involved with men using urinals…

    July 14, 2014 at 16:45

    What about cyclist PP artists? Should they not stop and straddle their bikes, look up with exasperation at the roofs of buildings ahead of them, take a swig of water from their designer bottles and then turn around abruptly while scowling at the passing cars whose fault it clearly is?

    July 15, 2014 at 21:08

    What about the Panto where you know that you’re being scrutinized and feel the need to act as if you weren’t? For example, have you ever spent time thinking about how heartily you should greet the police officer/TSA agent/border guard/etc.? Not too brusque, certainly, but not too friendly either. Why do I suddenly start wondering if I’m muttering “bomb, bomb, bomb” under my breath, as I never do otherwise.

    Can you imagine discovering that you’re in the wrong line as you approach airport security? I’d like to think that I’d simply step out of line or suddenly clutch my chest and fall to the ground, but I’d probably actually start muttering “bomb, bomb, bomb.”

    And perhaps the ultimate Panto, the traffic stop panto, in which a person sitting in their car is trying to indicate innocence, contrition, and a certain insouciant “about time they caught me” all to other drives who are engaged in their own panto of: I am definitely not braking sharply to bring myself under the speed limit by the time I pass this cop.

    • Worm
      July 15, 2014 at 22:22

      what you’re describing with the border guard is basically what I understand happens to people with tourettes – its just that when they think those thoughts they are compelled to blurt them out

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