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.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


We know that walking is often used as a tactic of political protest.  The image above shows a walk in Bangor, designed to preserve a bus service, so there may be one or two unintentional ironies there, but the principle remains.

There was even a walk of protest in Hollywood last week, to protest police brutality. The walk ended in a “die-in” at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue (above), where the protestors lay down in the road, which I guess is kind of the opposite of walking, but in any case it all seems to have been peaceful enough. And of course a few celebs got in on the act.

Where I grew up, close to the Peak District in Derbyshire people still talk about the Kinderscout Mass Trespass of 1932 as though it too happened just last week.  It was certainly monumental in establishing the right of access to land all over the UK, and it shows the power of walking, especially the power of walking where certain people think you shouldn’t.

And then I saw this oddly moving piece in the LA Times about how things have been going in Hong Kong - not a walk of protest, but a stroll. (The full story has now slunk behind the pay wall and I can’t even find who the writer was, a woman I think and apologies to her for not giving credit, but this opening gives the flavor.)

“For decades, pro-democracy demonstrators here have tried marching. And for more than two months now, they have camped outside government headquarters. In recent days, as they face ouster from their encampments, they’ve begun a new tactic: strolling for democracy.
After dusk, throngs of demonstrators, self-styled shoppers all, pace the thoroughfares across several neighborhoods in the city’s Kowloon district, putting police on edge.
The strolling concept took shape Wednesday in Mong Kok, the bustling shopping district where authorities had just forcibly dismantled long-standing protest encampments.
Hours after the clearance was completed, demonstrators returned to flood major intersections, attempting to build barricades and retake lost territory. When police interceded too quickly for them to succeed, the demonstrators, said they were there to shop …”

Well I suppose shopping can often a highly specialized form of walking.  When you can combine it with trespassing, it may be considerably more.

Sunday, December 7, 2014


Above is one of the more richly hilarious headlines I’ve seen in a while: ‘Wild’ Effect Inspiring People to Find Themselves.  The ‘Wild’ in question is, of course, the Reese Witherspoon movie, based on the Cheryl Strayed memoir of that title, concerning her 1,100 mile walk along the Pacific Crest Trail (which actually runs 2,650 miles).

Naturally the headline also provokes some richly jaundiced views in this reader.  First, that people need to see a Hollywood blockbuster movie before it crosses their mind to go walking. 

Secondly, that it only occurs to them to walk in the same place that Strayed/Witherspoon walked.

Thirdly, more generally, it’s a funny thing about people who go walking in order to find themselves: they always do.  For some it may take a while but others find themselves pretty much wherever they look, sometimes time and time again.

If the image accompanying the headline is any indication, some people are also finding themselves while walking in a crowd.

Below is a still of Witherspoon from the movie.  You can tell she’s looking hard because of that questing look on her face.

 And here’s a photograph of Witherspoon walking in a more customary place for Hollywood actresses to walk.  I don’t know if she’s found herself.  I don’t know if she’s even taken a good look.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


I was walking in Miami at the weekend.  I hadn’t gone there to walk, and I can’t imagine that anyone ever does: it’s the heat and humidity you know, and on one day the rain, and the howling wind that made the palm tress flap like the hair of a lead singer in a certain kind of grindcore band. 

I was there for the Miami Book Fair, yes I’m “big” in Miami, and I wasn’t the only big thing.  Take this tennis ball for instance:

And the giant plant pots below.  I’m sure you’re familiar with the “Pot of Basil” in the Decameron: high-born Isabella falls in love with Lorenzo, one of her brothers' servants. The bros find out, kill Lorenzo and bury him. Isabella digs him up, cuts off his head and sticks it in a pot of basil.  With plant pots like this you could accommodate the whole corpse.

Even the street art was big, especially this thing on the side of the Ace Hardware store. 

It’s an ambitious work to be sure and it can’t have been easy to work at that scale, but obviously there were some problems with the feet.  Painting feet is hard.

And did I walk among ruins in Miami?  I most certainly did, sir.  Not just this gas station:

 Or this elegant crumbling wall, which was probably my favorite:

But especially I walked around the ruins of the old Miami Herald building.

Yes, there were a few fences and some parts of the ruins looked very unstable, but there wasn’t much to deter even the most casual urban explorers. 

And anyone would be encouraged by this sign posted nearby:

If that signs means what I think it means, it appears that you can walk through the ruins to your heart’s content right up to the moment when a cop tells you to stop.  Can that be right? And I didn’t see a great many cops policing these ruins.  But there on the water front, I did see this unambitious but apparently heartfelt graffito. 

Given the liberality of the no trespassing sign this didn’t seem like much of an achievement, but maybe it was something much worse that someone had not been caught doing.  Hey, I know what goes on in Miami - I’ve seen the TV show.  And just in case you were wondering, no,  I didn’t see anybody walking around Miami who looking anything like this:

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.