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.

Saturday, October 8, 2016


You know me, I like maps, and I like people (in the appropriate doses).   And more often than not I carry a map with me when I’m walking somewhere.  And as I also meander through the interwebs I often find myself downloading images of people and maps, and how the two relate to each other.

Fact is, people carrying and consulting maps can signal all kinds of different things.  Sometimes it indicates being lost: if you weren’t lost why would you need a map?  You don’t have to answer that. 

People look at maps and scratch their heads look frustrated, look like losers.

But then again consulting a map may indicate that you’re footloose, happy to explore new places, happy not to know exactly where you are, happy to light out to new territories, just so long as they’ve got a map.

Which may be similar to an interest in and engagement with the world, much loved by politicians of many stripes.

And pointing at a map is always an indication that you mean business.

Because yes, sometimes maps are very serious business indeed.  Guys (I'm sorry, it does tend to be mostly guys) study them, lean across them.  There may well be some frowning and chin scratching “We got us a problem to solve here boys.”

And sometimes they’re not serious at all.  Of course weather forecasters stand in front of maps all the time, and often hilarity ensues.

And of course map hilarity may ensue for all kinds of different reasons.

A lot of people like to use maps as a backdrop: as though a map itself delivers gravitas.  Sometimes it does.

Sometimes less so.

Sometimes scarcely at all.

Monday, October 3, 2016


I was in Baltimore for a wedding, so I decided to visit Edgar Allan Poe’s house at 208 North Amity Street, the way you would.  Naturally I walked there.

I didn’t, and of course still don’t, know Baltimore.  I haven’t even watched the TV series The Wire – but I’m told there’s a scene where one of the characters says, “Yeah, so we out on Carrollton, this ol' white motherfucker and his wife roll up, he's like, ‘Young man, you know where the Poe House is?’  I'm like, ‘Unc, you kiddin' me? Look around, take your pick.’”  This obviously has to be said in an accent where “poe” and “poor” are pronounced the same way. 

I didn't know about this when I set off walking, and that may have been just as well. For that matter I hadn’t read the Yelp reviews of the Poe House, many of which seem to have been written by paranoids and wimps:
Here’s one JD from New York: “warning: do not go! this is a small old house located in the middle of the ghetto, most dangerous neighborhood of the state.  we were followed three blocks from the museum by some of the people from the 'hood', probably to rob us as we were told by locals. this was in the afterboon!  we never made it - we luckily made it to a safe street with a concerned samaritan who escorted us out of the hood.”  (A lot is sics required in there).

Oh please!  If you want to see a ghetto, I can show you a ghetto, and this isn’t one.  Fact is, the Poe house is in the middle of a project – and (at least as it appeared to a man walking through on a Friday morning) a pretty decent one.  The houses I saw along the way all looked well kept; there were a few bits of neglected waste ground, but no wrecked cars, no conspicuous vandalism, and remarkably few graffiti.  This looked like a place where not very well off people led perfectly decent lives.  Why should this surprise anybody?
Still, it’s got to be said, that as I walked west from downtown it wasn’t long before I was definitely the only white man on the street.  Did I feel threatened?  No.  Did I feel out of place?  You bet.  And it definitely didn’t feel the place to start taking photographs like some rubber-necking tourist: I’ll leave that to the Google boys:

     The Poe house was built in about 1830, and is small, as 1830 houses tend to be.  Despite its name, it was actually rented by Maria Clemm, Poe’s aunt, who moved there in late 1832 or early 1833.  Maria, a woman of 43, lived there with her ailing mother, her 10 year old daughter Virginia, and of course Poe who was then aged 23 and soon developed a passion (chaste or otherwise) for Virginia.

Poe moved out of the house in the autumn of 1835, and Maria was left unable to pay the rent.  In due course she and Virginia moved to Richmond to live with Poe.  Poe and Virginia were subsequently married, when she was 13.  Don't ask.

There isn’t really too much evidence of Poe in the house – a chair, some prints, a telescope.  There’s one attic bedroom restored to look authentically lived in, though it’s not known whose bedroom this actually was.  The house is well worth seeing but it probably won’t delay you long, and then you can plunge out into the mean streets of Baltimore again.

Most likely you’ll want to walk back via the Westminster Burial Ground to look at Poe’s graves, yep two of them, a modest one in the back (that's it above) where he rested for 25 years or so, before being moved to a prominent spot with a monument that can easily be seen from the street.  
I'm not sure whether it would be good to have two graves, or whether it would just be confusing.

 It rained pretty much all the time I was in Baltimore.  That, and the distractions that go  with being at a wedding, meant that no great amount of pedestrianism  was undertaken.  I never thought it would be.  But I did enough walking to spot some nice semi-ruins - these not in the projects but in the relatively posh area of Mount Vernon:

Some great brickwork and ghost signs:

This splendidly lean building:

And these two diagrammatic walkers hellbent on a collision course:

Here’s a Poe walking story.   
      After “The Raven” was published in January 1845 in the New York Evening Mirror and became an incredible popular success, Poe would find himself pursued by gaggles of small children following him along the street flapping their arms like the raven, and he’d play along and turn around and playfully shout “Nevermore!” and the kids would run away giggling.  This seems so completely unlikely, so completely unPoe-like that it must surely be true.  This however happened in New York, not Baltimore.  Shame.

Sunday, September 25, 2016


Gang sign?  Illuminati?  Symbol of the coming feline apocalypse?  We may 

never know, or at least not until it's too late.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Look, I know as much about alchemy as the next guy or gal who studied English literature at university: i.e. not very much.  Ben Jonson, John Dee, some references in Shakespeare, a tiny bit of Paracelsus.  It’s not a lot to go on.

But I do like the look of alchemical symbols, or glyphs, which I suppose were/are also astronomical/astrological symbols.  I’m especially fond of mercury:

And also the sun, which usually looks like this:

Although occasionally it looks like this:

Try as I might, I can't find much direct connection between alchemists and walkers. Ben Jonson author of the play The Alchemist seems to have walked from London to Edinburgh between July and October 1618; but of course he wasn’t a real alchemist.

I mention all this because I was walking in West Hollywood t’other day, and wandered into a curious little enclave where there were quirky old Hollywood bungalows right next to brand new, exotic “architectural gems.”  Of course you had to think that a bungalow or two must have been extracted in order that the architectural gems could be shoehorned in – but I did like some of the fancy new architecture, specially this house:

And improbably (wait I'm getting there with the alchemy), I found a roundabout or traffic circle: not unknown in the US but by no means the kind of thing you expect to see every day.  And to make the road layout more comprehensible to drivers, the traffic engineers had created a graphic (you might even say a glyph).  I don’t know if it helped or not but it sure looked alchemical to me:

I remain slightly stunned.

Not so very much later I found myself walking on La Cienaga Boulevard and saw this:

It was, you guessed, apparently the sign for a hair waxing salon, a company called (I’m not making this up) Cocktail Wax - “A fun and sexy alternative to your everyday wax experience!”  I wondered if this was code for some activity I don’t know about, but I suspect that if you don’t know you’re not meant to.

I now discover there’s an alchemical symbol for wax, this:

It's not totally wonderful, but you know, I think on balance I prefer it to the one on La Cienaga.

Thursday, September 15, 2016


 If you’re like me (and I realize you may not be) then you’re probably finding it hard to get very worked up about this all-gender toilet business.

Lord knows a man, or woman, or anyone else, often feels an urgent need to use a toilet when out walking, and when the situation gets urgent enough I really don’t give a hoot what the sign on the door says. 

But there is some wry amusement to be had in watching graphic designers try come up with a symbol that successfully conveys the all-inclusivity of a toilet.

    You and I might think this is an occasion when language would be more useful than a symbol, that the word “toilet” on a door would be enough, but what do we know?

     And what about walkers?  My knowledge of international signs for walkers is patchy but most places I’ve been, pedestrianism is indicated by a distinctly male figure. 

Is this sexism and cisgenderism?  Yes, probably. And in Japan the male figure even has a hat:

Often, even when there are two people on a sign they’re both male:

Although just occasionally you see two children, one of whom appears to be female:

And I did manage to find this one of what appears to be a man and a woman, though that may be jumping to a hasty conclusion - gender identity isn't just about clothing choices:

 In any case, a sign featuring a solo female walker seems unknown anywhere I’ve ever been.  So I’ve had a trawl around the interwebs and found some interesting variations – all the below are taken from the Spiegel website.  Some are very basic; like this one from Guadaloupe:

Or this one from Mongolia:

This one from Majorca has a more detail, though they're still going with the hat:

And this one from Denmark apparently shows Hans Christian Andersen:

This is from Austria, two blokes and a bike:

But finally, (finally!) this one:

with a caption that reads “In the Benelux countries and Austria, pedestrians can find traffic lights that resemble real human forms more than anywhere else. These women are taking a stroll in the Netherlands...”  Yes, women.   

The Dutch – we always knew they were enlightened.