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, April 21, 2015


“How true it is that if men strive to walk in the way of truth and uphold righteousness, fame will follow of itself.” 

The above is a line from Basho’s text, generally known as The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  It was on my mind over the weekend because I saw Gary Synder do a poetry reading at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, where he referred to Basho’s work as The Narrow Trails to the Back Country, which sounds like a translation of a very different color.

Snyder was born in 1930 and after Lawrence Ferlinghetti he is, I think, the last of the Beats, and I confess that I regarded this reading as something of a “last chance to see.” I also didn’t know what shape he’d be in; to which the answer, I now know, is “Probably better shape than you and me.”  I think he’s probably the best poetry reader I’ve even seen and heard.  And I don’t think I’m just being sentimental towards the old guy.

Snyder makes an appearance in Iain Sinclair’s book American Smoke.  Sinclair goes to visit him in at his 100 acre estate in the Sierra foothills, north of Nevada City (Allen Ginsberg and Dick Baker were co-owners at one time, but he bought them out),  Sinclair describes Snyder as a poet, bioregionalist, teacher  … skier, climber, trail walker.

One of Snyder’s poems is titled “A Walk.”  It’s easily available in its entirety online, but it begins like this:

Sunday the only day we don't work:
Mules farting around the meadow,
                            Murphy fishing,
The tent flaps in the warm
Early sun: I've eaten breakfast and I'll
                              Take a walk
To Benson Lake. Packed a lunch,

Sinclair suggests that the younger Snyder may have been a little less lovable than the current one appears to be.  From the 1950s onward he made trips to Japan to study Zen Buddhism.  Sinclair writes.
The novice monk insisted that his future wife clear her credit-card debt, which had climbed to $1000, before she travelled out to join him. On arrival, she discovered a list Snyder had compiled, numbering her faults and the ways she could improve. The big difference in Japan, Snyder explained, was the necessity of having the right manners.
          “His fourth wife, Carole Lynn Koda, was Japanese-American. But in Japan, she got everything wrong. ‘I walked too fast,’ she said. ‘I swung my arms too much. My stride was too long. I looked at people in the eye. That marked me out as American right away.’”

         My life being the glamorous rollercoaster it is, I got to meet Gary Snyder back stage (meet as in a chance for me to shake his hand and say, “I really enjoyed your reading”).  And I was, I admit, star struck. My mouth and my brain weren’t very well connected and I found myself rambling on about the Iain Sinclair piece.
“Oh yeah,” said Snyder, “that was a funny piece”
 I think he meant it in a good way.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


I always feel ambivalent about visiting the sites of murders, death houses, scenes of long ago violent crimes.  Partly it’s because of my inherent squeamishness.  If there actually is some remaining malevolent aura there, I’d rather not be around it.  And just as important, I don’t want to revel in and be entertained by the deaths of others, nor to make light of pain, whether that of victims or survivors. 

Yet I know one can protest too much about these things. There’s no denying the frisson that comes with walking through, say, Dealey Plaza in Dallas, or for that matter past the Bloody Tower in London.  I think the frisson is imaginative rather than supernatural, but nonetheless real for that.  One way or another a kind of shamanism is involved, raising the spirits of the dead, but equally a kind of dubious tourism is involved too

I don’t feel a whole let less ambivalent, though in a different way, about visiting the homes where my “heroes” once lived, even if I seem to have done plenty of it.  In recent years I’ve found myself visiting JG Ballard’s house in Shepperton, HG Wells’s in Woking, Raymond Chandler’s many Los Angeles homes. 

Of course when I say “visiting” I simply mean that I walked down the street and stood around outside the building.  I don’t go in for knocking on doors to interview the current inhabitants, although I know some who do.  My friend Anthony Miller, aka the Dark Sage of Sawtelle, recounts disturbing the tenants of Thomas Pynchon’s old apartment in Manhattan Beach, and found the occupant, a surferish dude, amazingly hospitable.  He invited him and let him look around.  A Swiss film crew had been there not long before, the one that made Thomas Pynchon: A Journey Into the Mind of P.

The objection here is not that it’s intrusive, but rather that it’s no big deal.  These are homes much like any other.  Everybody lives somewhere, lives don’t vary nearly as much as some people like to think, and houses and appartments are not always totally fascinating.  And in my experience there’s seldom any kind of lingering aura, even if there may occasionally be a plaque.

Having said all that, and with all my reservations, when I recently connected a couple of dots of information than had been floating in my head for a while, and realized that the childhood home of Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, was in the same street where the Manson murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianco took place, well, you couldn’t call yourself a psychogeographer if you didn’t take a walk down that street, could you?

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band were really the first act that completely excited me in my difficult but dull youth.  They seemed subversive, poetic, avant-garde, extremely cool – all the things I wanted to be.  These days it seems to me that there were times when Beefheart put rather too much effort into buffing his image as the unschooled, sui generis genius born out of nothing, but I’ve had a few decades to think about that.  At the time the freaky image was part of the attraction, and no doubt in some sense necessary for the grand project. 

Of course we also tended to think he was some crazy guy straight out of the Mojave desert: we knew that he came from Lancaster where he was best friends, later less so, with Frank Zappa.  But before he was a desert rat he lived in Los Angeles, at 3467 Waverly Drive, in the northeast corner of Los Feliz, a thoroughly pleasant suburban enclave right below Griffith Park; a great place to bring up kids then and now, you might think.

We also know that while he was at that address he was schooled, at least to the extent of attending art classes at the Griffith Park Zoo, where he was taught by a Portuguese artist named Agostinho Rodrigues.  When he was 10 years old Little Don Vliet (he wasn’t even van Vliet at that time, much less the Captain) won first prize in a 1951 sculpture competition run by the parks and recreation department, and made it into the local paper with his model of a polar bear.  The contest was monthly, and I don’t know how big the class it was, so winning it may not have been the greatest honor, though his polar bear looks just fine.

There are a few pictures of the lad from this period but I’ve never seen any of the family’s house, so I don’t know if the current 3467 Waverly Drive looks anything like the way it did back in 1951.  As far as that goes, I don’t know whether Don’s parents had the whole house or just part of it.  I’d assume the latter.  In the current configuration 3467 is the right half of the house, 3469 is the left half, and I think there are more than two dwellings in there.  When you peer round the side it looks as though the building’s been extended to make a small apartment block, though I’d guess the changes have been made post-1951.  

Waverley Drive is a long street but the young Don surely walked its length, in which case he’d have gone right past the LaBianca house.  At that time it would have been owned by the previous LaBianca generation, Antonio, who founded Gateway Markets and the State Wholesale Grocery Company.  It wasn’t till 1968 that the son Leon, who by then was running the family business,  bought the house from his mother and moved in with Rosemary his second wife. 

Photographs of the couple suggest they weren’t much influenced by alternative culture, but Lord knows there were some divergent energies abroad in Los Angeles at the time.  Even in this quiet suburban enclave, the LaBiancas’ neighbor, one Harold True, had thrown an “LSD party”, and some of the Manson family attended.  The day after they’d committed the Tate murders up on Cielo Drive, Manson instructed his followers to kill again.  They might easily have selected a different house and different victims, and if things had played out just a little differently the LaBiancas wouldn’t even have been home.  They they’d been to pick up Rosemary’s daughter Suzanne from Lake Isabella and had thought of staying there overnight but decided to come back late Saturday night rather than the following morning.

Manson had found the Tate killings needlessly chaotic, and to show his followers how it was done, he went into the house and tied up the LaBiancas with the minimum of fuss, so that the killings could be done in a nice orderly fashion.  I’ve done my best not to become a Manson obsessive, but if you need a full account of the events, I reckon Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter is still the best.

Photographs from the time show the La Bianca house to have been remarkably accessible and vulnerable – a long straight driveway, no gates, the house visible and inviting at the top of the hill, yet a fair way from the street.

Some things are noticeably different at the house these days; the street number’s been changed for one thing, though that’s hardly bought them much privacy.  There’s now a gate across the entrance to the property, and you can see that a large separate garage with a second curving driveway has been built between the house and the street, at the very least providing protection from prying eyes, though not inevitably from Google. 

It still looks like a very nice house in a very nice neighborhood.  Would I personally want to live in it, given its history?  I suppose not, but if there price was right; everything’s negotiable. 

Charles Manson famously said to an interviewer:

My eyes are cameras. My mind is tuned to more television channels than exist in your world. And it suffers no censorship. Through it, I have a world and the universe as my own. So...know that only a body is in prison. At my will, I walk your streets and am right out there among you.

Captain Beefheart once sang:

my baby walked just like she did
walking on hard-boiled eggs with a --
there's a --she can steal them 
oh, I ain't blue no more, I saidlord,

Words to live by.

Monday, April 13, 2015


One day in June 1935 Andre Breton was walking along the Boulevard du Montparnasse and happened to encounter Ilya Ehrenburg, who was at that point part of the Soviet delegation to the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture (do I see you reaching for your revolver?)

Ehrenburg had recently denounced the Surrealists for their “pederasty, sodomy and onanism” so you might argue that he wasn’t very far off the mark, but Breton was having none of this.  He grabbed Ehrenburg by the lapels and slapped him across the face.  Next day the Soviets threatened to boycott the congress if Breton was a speaker.

The job of sorting out this mess fell on Rene Crevel, who was both a genuine Surrealist and a genuine communist, also, at least, a bisexual. Will it come as a surprise that after a whole day’s wrangling he failed to square the circle between the Soviets and Breton.    It appears that he’d also recently been diagnosed with renal tuberculosis. He left the meeting, took a good long walk through the night and at the end of it returned to his apartment and committed suicide. 

By the end of the war Ehrenburg had other things on his mind than Surrealism.  He wrote the notorious pamphlet Kill“The Germans are not human beings. … If you have not killed at least one German a day, you have wasted that day .... Do not count days, do not count kilometers. Count only the number of Germans killed by you.”

By the time he wrote his memoir People, Years, Life published in English in 1972, he had, apparently mellowed. “When I come to Paris now, I feel inexpressibly sad - the city is the same, it is I who have changed. It is painful for me to walk along the familiar streets - they are the streets of my youth.”  Perhaps not quite painful enough, some might think.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


I’ve been reading an advance copy of Iain Sinclair’s London Overground, an account of a one-day, fourteen hour walk around what’s now widely referred to as the Ginger Like – a circular (or at least more or less joined up) rail network around the middle distance suburbs of Greater  London, places like Rotherhithe, Peckham Rye, West Brompton; all places I’ve been to, but seldom more than once.

Sinclair walks with the engagingly eccentric film maker Andrew Kötting– a man who sounds more fun to read about (or write about) than actually to walking with, but a great character to have in your book.  They enter a “fancy junk shop” in Lavender Hill where Kötting describes Sinclair for the benefit of the shop owner:
“This man’s sources are innumerable.  His erudition is profound.  And truth to tell, a mite tedious.”
Of course it’s Sinclair reporting these words and possibly putting them in Kötting’s mouth; pretty funny either way.

Kötting buys a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here?.  (Sinclair puts in a question mark, the book itself doesn't). Sinclair flips through and finds the quotation “Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road and how life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.” Sinclair says, “I thought the capitalization or ‘Road’ was a little pretentious.”

I’d say my objection was to “life itself is a journey.”   I’d have thought Bruce could have done better than that.