Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


A couple of days ago I picked up my old copy of Don DeLillo’s The Names which I read a long time ago, and had only vague (though positive) memories of.  I did know that it was set in Athens, and if I’d been forced to guess I’d have assumed the Acropolis featured in there somewhere since it’s pretty hard to write a novel set in Athens that doesn’t mention it.  I found this picture of DeLillo, sort of walking, though I'd guess some way from Athens:

In the years since I read The Names I’ve written a book titled Walking in Ruins, and how I wish I’d thought of the DeLillo novel while I was writing it.  It would surely have been worth a mention and a quote.  And now, as I open it again, I find this on the very first page:

“For a long time I stayed away from the Acropolis.  It daunted me, that somber rock.  I preferred to wander in the modern city, imperfect, blaring.  The weight and moment of those worked stones promised to make the business of seeing them a complicated one.  So much converges there. It's what we've rescued from the madness. Beauty, dignity, order, proportion. There are obligations attached to such a visit.
            “Then there was the question of its renown.  I saw myself climbing the rough streets of the Plaka, past the discos, the handbag shops, the rows of bamboo chairs.  Slowly, out of every bending lane, in waves of color and sound, came tourists in striped sneakers, fanning themselves with postcards, the philhellenes, laboring uphill, vastly unhappy, mingling in one unbroken line up to the monumental gateway.
            “What ambiguity there is in exalted things.  We despise them a little.”

Between my first and second years at university I went to Greece for a chunk of the summer.  I’m no longer really sure why.  I had some vaguely hippie acquaintances who were living on the island of Samos, and they said I should stop by and see them, but I think they were mortified when I actually showed up.  This was well over a decade before I read, or DeLillo wrote, The Names.

And while I was in Greece, and particularly in Athens, I did do a lot of walking, and I certainly saw a lot of ruins, and I can’t say I found them utterly gripping at the time.  But unlike De Lillo’s hero I did happily walk up to the Acropolis. I think I walked up there more than once: I wasn’t sure what else to do in Athens.  The description of handbag shops and discos seems accurate enough, though I definitely didn’t wear striped sneakers.

And on one occasion while I was there at the Acropolis a man came up to me with a fairly serious-looking movie camera, which was not a common thing at the time, and he put it in my hand and asked me, in very broken English, if I would film him walking among the ruins, walking towards the camera.

I said sure.  I was thrilled.  Unlikely as it now seems, I had some ambitions back then to make movies, though this was the first time I’d actually held a movie camera, and the man showed me the basics of how to operate it, and I asked him if he wanted to me to do anything fancy, panning or zooming or tracking or whatever.  And he said, “No.  You hold still.  I come, I go.”  So I did, and he did, and if this were a novel there's be some exciting second act involving ruins and doctored movie film and international men of mystery.  But in real life we went on our way without any further contact.

Inspired by rereading Delillo I dug out some old slides taken on that trip (seen above and below), and what do you know, it seems I took a photograph of the man before or after I’d filmed him.  I’m left wishing I’d mentioned this in Walking in Ruins, too.

Monday, November 17, 2014


And speaking of streets, in a generic sort of way, here is a wonderful/terrible poem by one Hamish Beamish, titled “Streets”

Grim, relentless, sordid streets!

Miles of poignant streets,

East, West, North,

And stretching starkly South;

Sad, hopeless, dismal, cheerless, chilling


The poem and Hamish Beamish are the creations of PG. Wodehouse in the novel 1927 The Small Bachelor, a novelization of a 1917 musical, “Oh, Lady, Lady!” although a quick look at the cast list of that musical reveals no such character as Hamish Beamish.

Elsewhere in the novel Molly Sigsbee tells her father about a wedding proposal she’s received.

        "Well, anyway, we walked around for a while, looking at the animals, and suddenly he asked me to marry him outside the cage of the Siberian yak."

          Hilarity, of course, ensues.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


I just wrote a piece about a book titled 100 Not So Famous Views of L.A. by Barbara A. Thomason, for the Los Angeles Review of Books.  You’ll find a link at the bottom of this post: it’s an appreciation rather than a full on review.  The book contains 100 paintings of some of the more obscure parts of Los Angeles (though in fact some of them didn’t strike me as all that obscure) and you look at the paintings and you realize at once that there’s something off kilter about them but (in my case anyway) it takes a while to realize what’s making them seem off kilter.  The answer: with a very few minor exceptions there are no people and no cars in these pictures.

This is fascinating in several ways.  As a Los Angeles walker I do tend to notice other walkers, and although I’m not going to pretend that the streets of this city are packed with throngs of enthusiastic wandervogel, the fact is that I’m seldom the only walker on the street, there are usually a few (admittedly sometimes very few) others.

And in my role as hobbyist street photographer, when I take pictures on my walks I generally try to get at least one person in the frame, to add, you know, compositional and human elements.  But having seen Barbara A. Thomason’s book, I now look at the streets of L.A. with slightly different eyes, waiting for that moment when there’s nobody else on the street, or at least when I can take a photograph that makes it look that way.

In fact it’s not all that difficult to take a photograph of an L.A. street without any people, but it’s much harder (damn hard, usually) to take a photograph of an L.A. street without any cars.  And even when I do take such a picture, I know, and anyone who looks at the picture knows, that there are always cars lurking around corners or just out of sight.

And I found myself thinking about the Japanese photographer Mataska Nakano who published a book titled Tokyo Nobody which shows a totally empty Tokyo, without people or cars, though there are a few bikes around.  The book was published in 2000, and the project took over ten years.

I’ve never been to Tokyo, though I plan to go there one of these days, but even just from seeing pictures you know how crammed with people it always is, making Nakano’s work all the more extraordinary.  I’d guess that the photographs were taken very early in the morning on Sundays or public holidays but that doesn’t make them any less extraordinary, and it seems that Nakano wants to keep the mystery of how they were taken.  It’s generally stated by people who know about these things that he didn’t use any manipulation, he just watched and waited with the utmost patience.

 Los Angeles photographer Matt Logue was evidently a bit less patient.  His project and book is titled Empty LA – and I gather that his images are indeed manipulated, at least to the extent that he used super long exposure times so that a person or a car could pass through the scene and not leave a trace. 

 I can see how some people might think this is a kind of cheating, but in the end it’s the image that matters more than the process.  Photographs of completely empty freeways do make the head spin.  You could go to his website and buy his book if you liked (see below).

When I lived in a London I had a friend come to stay with me after he’d just returned from Thailand, and as we walked along what seemed to me averagely busy metropolitan streets he commented on how empty London seemed to him.  Compared with Thailand the streets were deserted. 

Cato Street, by rovingmike
And now, as the Royal Photographic Society’s Bleeding London gets ever nearer completion (a photograph of every one of London’s streets, inspired by my novel Bleeding London), with tens of thousands of the images to be seen online, it’s amazing how many of the participating photographers have chosen to represent the city devoid of people.

Portmeadow Walk, by cmansfield
And maybe this is how we really feel about cities.  We like the life, the action, the population, but when it comes right down to it we’d rather have the city all to ourselves.  Sure. there’s something scary and apocalyptic about being the last soul on earth, but it’s also exhilarating.  The city finally belongs to you and you alone, a single presence, a single viewer, a chance to walk all by yourself.  It might get lonely, but on balance you could probably live with that.  And, of course, as here in L.A., in this picture I took just a few days ago, you might have some animals for company.

My piece on Elizabeth Thomason’s book in the LARB is here:

Matt Logue’s Empty LA website is here:

 You can see some of The Bleeding London images here in this Flickr group: