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.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


I was leafing through an old copy of Esquire magazine - March 1946 if you’re interested - (that's it above) and there amid the many ads for stylish hats and ready-mixed cocktails were a number of ads for shoes.  By far the best was this one for British Walkers.  Those British types know all about walking, y’know.  And in fact I do own a pair of brogues that look very much like this.

Now I enjoy walking more than many people, but even I think this ad is going a bit far. “Naturally walking’s fun!” it announces in the small print, and the shoes provide “Just the walking joy you’ve always longed for.”  Isn’t this overselling the product just a tad?  Could any pair of shoes actually live up to this hype? 

But whether they could or not you’d surely want them to look their best and fortunately there’s another relevant ad, this one for Hollywood Bootmakers Stain Polish – I think I’d go for the “Redwood.”  Who wouldn’t want the soft glow of richly polished leather?  Those Hollywood types know all about looking good, y’know.

So between Britain and Hollywood, it might seem that these ads were talking directly to me (had I been born in 1946, which I was not).  But then, reading the smaller print I see that British Walkers shoes are made in the USA, by JP Smith of Chicago, and that the Hollywood Polish Company is based in Richmond Hill, New York.  Still working out whether this is shameful fakery, or just the way the world works (or, of course, both).

Sunday, August 17, 2014


I’ve been reading and thinking about rooftopping; a highly specialized form of walking, and an essential part of a certain kind of urban exploration.  Like all great ideas it’s essentially very simple, you get up to a high place, usually by some quasi-illegal method, you find some thin girder or ledge or parapet - and then walk along it.  Photography seems always to be involved whether skilled or not: somebody generally takes somebody’s picture up there or maybe somebody takes a selfie.  At their best, the results are equal parts awe-inspiring and terrifying.

It’s a worldwide trend and it can’t be all that recherch√© given how many references there are to it online.  Still, I’m amazed that there are people who can do this stuff, and just looking at the photographs is enough to give me an attack of vertigo.  Below is a picture Tom Ryaboi, the best rooftopping photographer I’ve seen:

I think the guy in the picture is Vitali Raskalov, and I think the picture is taken in Hong Kong, though I stand to be corrected on both counts. Tom Ryaboi’s flickr page is here:  

Certainly some people die while rooftopping, but when you consider how inherently lethal it seems, the numbers appear surprisingly low. Perhaps it’s a self-limiting group.  If you feel safe walking on rooftops you’re probably going to be safe doing it, if you don’t feel safe walking on rooftops you’re probably not going go up there.  I certainly know where I stand – firmly on the ground whenever possible.  I’m definitely not a rooftopper.

And yet, and yet …  Thinking about this has reminded me of an incident from my generally all too well-spent youth.  I was a student at Caius College, Cambridge, and a group of us had been to the late-night bar.  Drink had definitely been taken but not so much as to lose all reason.  We went back to the room belonging to a Scottish lad named Tony Kidd.  His room was on the top floor, actually in the eaves, of a building on Trinity Street; the third floor if you’re in English, the fourth floor if you’re American. It's the building in the picture below with the street sign on it.

And as you can see, there were a couple of windows that opened out onto the roof, and there was a parapet running along the front of the building.  It was summer, the windows were open and I suddenly got the urge to climb out of one of them.  Once on the roof I began walking back and forth from one end of the parapet to the other.  I wasn’t showing off. I didn’t do any fancy antics like balancing on one leg or dancing around.  It was just something I felt I had to do at the time.  I did a few lengths (nobody took a picture) and then I went back inside again.  I think I may have had one more drink and then went home quietly.

         At the time it didn’t seem I’d done anything very extreme or foolish, and by rooftopping standards I very definitely hadn’t, but by my own standards I’d done something scarily out of character. When I thought about it the next morning, the full surprise and horror hit me. Even as I write about it now I can feel the cold sweat gathering and the tide of vertigo washing in.  It’s not so much a case of “What was I thinking that night?” rather a case of “Who the hell was I that night?”

         I’ve remained pretty much myself ever since, not  completely avoiding high places, but only going to them when I was absolutely able to feel safe there.  And to be fair I felt perfectly safe on the parapet in Cambridge while I was up there.   
            Here’s a picture I took from the roof, or rather where the roof once was, of the Old Hardwick Hall, in Derbyshire. 

The view was great, both of the landscape and of the ruined structure of the building.  I was there on the regular tourist visit, there was a firm platform under my feet and there was a rail to hold onto, but the fact is, I still felt a bit wobbly.

Of course some rooftops are far more walkable than other.  One of my pedestrian quirks is that I like to walk in parking lots.  They’re places not made for walkers, where walkers are not wanted or considered, although of course sooner or later everybody has to walk to their car.

         And the other day I parked up on the top of a parking lot here in Hollywood  - one of only three cars there – (wide open spaces – we got ‘em) and I walked around, looked down, took a few pictures.  A female security guard appeared at the other end of the roof, and I thought she was coming across to ask me what I was up to, but it was a hot day, and I was a long way off, and she apparently couldn’t be bothered to walk all the way over to me.  You can just about see her in the picture below.

         This, of course, is not true rooftopping, though I was certainly on a roof, and when I looked down at the building next door there was another guy walking on a rooftop: a working man going about his business (below), whatever that business was.  I guess rooftopping, true or otherwise, comes in many forms.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


I just read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.  My agent recommended it to me.  She said it just kind of drifts along for 250 pages and then it kicks you in teeth in the last chapter.  (She may not have used exactly those words).  Well, my agent is right, although of course if somebody’s told you that you’re going get kicked in the teeth, it’s not quite the surprise it would be otherwise.

The book isn’t specifically about walking, but the all-American heroine and narrator Nora embarks on a long flirtation with a brooding Lebanese professor named Skandar, and walking together figures largely in the seduction process.  (Nora also has a passion for Skandar's wife, though they don't actually get it together physically). Nora and Skandar walk and talk. Skandar says,

“… In our lives, we span many worlds and many centuries, sometimes without taking a step.”
He said this while we were walking, and I laughed and gestured at the Cambridge streets around us and replied, “And sometimes you take many steps and stay in just one world.”

It’s the kind of book in which people say things like that.  However, when things go pear-shaped in the relationship, as we knew they would, she eventually goes alone on a tour of Europe, and in Naples, as she experiences a sudden burst of feeling she says to herself, “Who is he who walks always beside you?  No-fucking body thank you very much.  I walk alone,”  thereby invoking, and subverting, and very possibly insulting, TS Eliot, Ernest Shackleton, William Burroughs, and of course the Bible.  Quite an achievement.

I haven’t been able to find a picture of Claire Messud walking (neither alone nor with others) but here she is standing in her house with some books. We know she has many more elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


I’m grateful to Colin Marshall, writer, explorer, urbanist, podcaster, and much else besides, for pointing me in the direction of the work of the late Christopher Rand, The New Yorker’s “far-flung correspondent” for more than 20 years, sending back reports from Hong Kong, Greece, Puerto Rico, Bethlehem, Bolivia, China, and his hometown of Salisbury, Connecticut, among other locations.  I confess I’d never heard of Christopher Rand.

He was also the author of Los Angeles: The Ultimate City which appeared in 1967, based on articles he’d written for the New Yorker.  Marshall calls him “one of  (the 20th century’s) most unjustly forgotten writers of place.” It must be said that in reviewing the book in Ramparts magazine Richard Ellmann described Rand’s writing as “puerile,” though I think Ellmann was expressing his feelings about the city rather than about the writer.   Kirkus Review described the book as “Well-groomed and readable.”

In the book, and in one of the magazine articles (illustrated with the above Saul Steinberg illustration), having had some dealings with the technology and aerospace industries around LA, Rand writes, “Perhaps the main danger lies on the possibility that … unbridled technology will get us on a wrong path and keep us there.  We are already engaging in technological violence abroad … One can easily imagine our disappointment if our military ventures should turn out less well than our militarists have promised.  And if our militarists are like others, they would then say that our fault lay in our not pursuing the wrong course vigorously enough.”
Rand was hardly the first to have such thoughts but given that this was written in 1967, it now seems downright prophetic.  And a very long way from being puerile, I’d say.

Rand died a year after that L.A. book was published, at the age of 56, and in his New Yorker obituary he was described as “a great walker and a far wanderer,” and continuing, “Over more than 30 years, he traveled to almost every part of the world, doing most of his traveling on foot, in an attempt to learn and know that transcended any effort at mere reporting.”  It also says he once walked a hundred miles in two days in the Himalayas.

Colin Marshall quotes from Rand's Grecian Calendar (1962) “I have walked a good deal for years now. I have theories about why one should do it — that it is good for the health, is conducive to thought, makes one able to observe things close at hand, etc. — and I think all these arguments are sound, but the main point is simply that I enjoy walking; I feel calm and happy while doing it.”
As I said a couple of posts back, I often find that I have very little in common with some other walkers, but that paragraph expresses my own view of walking exactly.

         That New Yorker obituary quotes Rand’s son Richard as saying, “I have memories of him walking around New York, and Greece, and Kashmir.  He would walk slowly, his heels barely touching the ground.  He would move slowly and steadily, looking and listening, sometimes muttering to himself, never altering his pace.”

Elsewhere, in China Hands: The Adventures and Ordeals of the American Journalists Who Joined Forces with the Great Chinese Revolution, another son, Peter writes, “My father was withdrawn and somewhat forbiddingly cerebral. In his teenage years, he used to test his physical endurance by walking shirtless across the countryside in the wintertime in subzero weather. His hilarity more than made up for all that, however. He was a furious Puritan inhabited by a Dionysian soul.”
Of course I’d be very happy to have somebody say that last sentence about me.   But “walking shirtless across the countryside in the wintertime in subzero weather” – well no, I never did that, not even in my teenage years.  Maybe we don’t need to have everything in common with our fellow travelers.

         The article by Colin Marshall that first directed me towards Christopher Rand is here, on the LARB website: