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, July 24, 2014

WALKING WITH WALTER



Sometimes I fret that I don’t love Walter Benjamin quite as much as I ought to.  Sure, I dip around in The Arcades Project from time to time, and of course there’s some good stuff in there, but then there are paragraphs like this one:
‘The ‘colportage phenomenon of space’ is the flâneur’s basic experience.  Inasmuch as this phenomenon also – from another angle – shows itself in the mid-nineteenth-century interior, it may not be amiss to suppose that the heyday of flânerie occur in the same period.  Thanks to this phenomenon, everything potentially taking place in this one single room is perceived simultaneously.  The space winks at the flâneur: What do you think may have gone on here?  Of course, it has yet to be explained how this phenomenon is associated with colportage.”


Pellucid?  You think?  Having looked it up previously, I know that a colporteur was an itinerant seller of books and pamphlets, often of a religious nature, and clearly a profession that required a lot of walking, but still, what’s your man actually banging on about here?  



The notes in my edition of The Arcades Project tell me, “Last three sentences adapted from the protocol to Benjamin’s second experience with hashish,” which explains something and nothing.

Opening the book more at or less at random I just found this paragraph in the section “Painting, Jugendstil, Novelty” - “No decline of the arcades, but sudden transformation.  At one blow, they became the hollow mold from which the image of ‘modernity’ was cast.” 



Well I do wish Walter could have been with me the other day.  I was strolling around in downtown Los Angeles, and frankly it was too damn hot to do much serious walking, and although I like downtown a lot, I don’t have much reason to go there very often, and consequently my knowledge of it is patchy.  So I was reasonably surprised to find an honest to goodness arcade running from Spring Street through to Broadway, between 5th and 6th Streets.  Obviously I walked along it.  It looked like this:


It had an air both of not quite gentle decay and not especially energetic refurbishment.  There are some new loft-style apartments in the upper reaches, I understand.


The place, I also learned, is known both as the Broadway Arcade and the Spring Arcade, and variations and combinations of those names, and before it became an arcade (in 1924) it was a “real” street. 


The L.A. Conservancy website tells me, “The Arcade Building is actually two twelve-story towers connected by a skylit, three-level arcade … The exterior features intricate Spanish Baroque terracotta arches that rise up over the arcade entrances … The arcade itself measures 826 feet by 26 feet and originally housed sixty-one shops. It is covered with a glass-roofed skylight in imitation of the Burlington Arcade in London. The Venetian-style bridge that spans the center of the arcade was a later addition.”
Well, I know the Burlington Arcade in London somewhat, and believe me, the one in Spring Street, Los Angeles is an extremely inaccurate imitation.  But in truth neither of them is really much a place to go for a real walk.






 Even worse was the arcade I knew best when I was growing up in Sheffield (it may have been the only one in the city at the time – it’s certainly gone now): Cambridge Arcade.  It was very short indeed, and although I walked through it often enough there was never much reason to go there.   There was a barber, but he wasn’t very kid-friendly, at least not to me, and at the top end there was Sugg’s, which sold sports equipment, and The House of Barney Goodman, who was reckoned to be the best tailor in Sheffield, and where my dad got his suits when he felt flush.  
          To be honest, I never really got the sense that I was walking through the hollow mold from which the image of ‘modernity’ was cast.


But as I thought about it, a lot of memories came back, and I remembered there was always a blind man at the entrance to the arcade, standing there selling, I think, shoelaces and boxes of matches.  So I dug around online and blow me down (as my dad might have said with at least some degree of irony) here’s a picture, pretty low quality alas, but exactly as I remember it, showing Sugg’s, Barney Goodman’s and even (especially) the blind man. 


Walter Benjamin would have had a lot to say about it.


WALKING VIRTUALLY


And here’s a thing.  I got an email from Don Pollins, “near Washington DC.”  He’d just read the part of my book The Lost Art of Walking where I spend a day walking back and forth from one end of London’s Oxford Street to the other. Given the wonders of Google Street View he was able to follow in my footsteps (“virtually” and of course now some years after the event), and he came up with this wonderfully telling image. 


I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of store Walk was, but it turns out, not all that surprisingly, to be (or rather to have been) a shoe store.  Obviously that branch above has gone out of business, and poking around on Yelp I see it got some pretty poor reviews, mostly based on the crappiness of the staff.  It’d be nice to think that was the reason it closed.  And it may be that the whole chain has gone out of business.  I’m not sure.  It’s really, really hard to Google a store that’s simply called Walk.  Maybe that’s why they went out of business.

But I know there was at least one other branch on Oxford Street because when I did the walk that I write about in the book, I took this picture, clearly a different store from the one on Street View:


The digital info attached to the image tells me it was taken at 6.41am on July 18th, 2006, which sounds about right, though I’m never sure how accurate that info is.  And here’s another picture I took that day:


It was taken at 9.53 am, apparently, in Frith Street, just off Oxford Street.  I took it because I saw the number 666, but I don’t suppose the bar was actively involved in Satanism.  It was called 6 Degrees, and somebody in the bar clearly had a number of large “6 degrees” stickers and put three of them in a row on the glass doors.  Perhaps they were mocking Satan - always a high-risk activity.  6 Degrees, I discover, has now closed down too.

Monday, July 21, 2014

WALKING WITHOUT FELLOW TRAVELERS



Shared enthusiasms make for unlikely and sometimes uncomfortable bedfellows.  I like to walk.  But so did Bruce Chatwin and Albert Speer.  I’m not sure that really makes us three soul brothers. 

So in general when I come across an article about walking I usually read it, but I don’t necessarily expect that I’m going to be engaging with any fellow travelers.  This is wise.
I was directed to an article in the English Daily Telegraph, headlined, “Walking can make storytellers of us all” with the sub “Author Linda Cracknell explains how walking connects her to the landscape and inspires so much of her work.” I’m not familiar with Linda Cracknell or her work, though no doubt she’d say the same about me.  Apparently she wrote a book called Doubling Back and helpfully quotes one of her good reviews in the article, and to be fair it does sound sort of interesting.
Nevertheless, the piece opens with the words, “In 1976 I arrived alone in Boscastle for a week’s painting holiday with the sullen steps of a post-glandular-fever, first-time-in-love 17-year-old. ‘I’ve got here but feel terribly lonely and depressed,’ I complained to my diary on the first night.
Yep, she’s quoting her diary from 1976, so you know this isn’t going to go well.  She bangs on about her Ordnance Survey map and about “Tom, a bespectacled literature-lover staying at my guesthouse told me that Thomas Hardy had come here as a young architect.”
And so it goes on, until we discover, without huge surprise, that Linda Cracknell is a teacher of creative writing.  This is a picture of her apparently holding two halves of a potato (don’t ask).


 And she’s got some advice: “Here’s something you can try yourself when walking. Summon a character into your mind. Before you set out, invent a few characteristics for them, including what shoes they wear, why they’re in this place and what they carry in their pockets: a clue to hidden purposes. Then walk, making observations through the filter of their emotions and motivations. I hope you will find that asking “What if?” when engaging with a place through the senses and the rhythm of footfall is a kind of play that makes storytellers of us all.”  Did somebody mention “a good walk spoiled”?
 I’m not sure that walking does make storytellers of us all, but even if it did the real issue is surely whether it makes good storytellers.  W.G. Sebald was a walker.  Art Garfunkel was a walker (possibly still is).  Both also told stories of one sort or another.  But what does this actually tell us about them, or about walking, or about writing, or storytelling, or anything else really?
I could go on.  I won’t.


Meanwhile I got sent details of “Urbanscape + Ruralsprawl,” an event scheduled for Friday August 1st, in Edinburgh, described thus:  “Join us for a walk around Summerhall (which apparently is the former Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies – (hey I’m not making this up) to explore its surroundings as well as its many corridors, cupboards and lecture halls; some of them still undiscovered.” The rubric goes on: “Deveron Arts will lead a two hour performative walk with artist Tim Knowles and Ania Bas, who have been undertaking both urban and rural walking in the UK and elsewhere.”  I was rather enjoying the notion of walking in cupboards, and it looks like a great place from the photograph, but I lost it with the word “performative.”  Kids; juggling - that’s a performance, singing Pagliacci – that’s a performance.  Walking: that’s just walking.


Maybe all this is only to say there are as many ways of walking as there are walkers.  We do what we do, we do what we can.  We can’t all be Chatwin or Sebald or Speer. 
Then a few days back the BBC discovered (and I did think I’d seen this before somewhere) a document published by Her Majesty’s Government titled “Rules for Pedestrians.” 
There are 35 of them, and some of them frankly seem pretty sensible. “if you have to step into the road, look both ways first. Always show due care and consideration for others.” “Where there are no controlled crossing points available it is advisable to cross where there is an island in the middle of the road.”
Who’s going to argue with that?  Though I think you might argue that if you hadn’t already worked out this stuff for yourself, a government publication mightn’t be enough to convince you.  At no point does Her Majesty’s Government advise that when walking you should be “engaging with a place through the senses and the rhythm of footfall.”  At no point does it suggest that you do anything performative.  Sometimes even governments aren’t all bad.


Here are some links:

Linda Cracknell here:

Performative walking here:

The British Government here:



Tuesday, July 15, 2014

L.A. BLEU





I’ve come a little belatedly to a book by Catherine Corman titled “Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imagined City.”  I like it a lot, but then I would.  I’ve never met any writer in Los Angeles who didn’t actively love Raymond Chandler, and not many photographers either.

There’s always a “visual” element in Chandler’s work, by which I mean that you “see” the world through his, or Marlowe’s, eyes.  And there have been various books on Raymond Chandler’s LA, generally well-meaning tomes with some slightly so-so photographs of the city, but Catherine Corman is the real deal.  For one thing, she’s Roger Corman’s daughter, so her LA pedigree is unimpeachable, and she can certainly do the noir look herself when she puts her mind to it.


Daylight Noir consists of 50 or so  moody, arty, square-format, black and white photographs, mostly architectural in some sense, some of them showing very specific LA locations, some of them kind of generic.  And attached to each is a quotation from Chandler.  Again, some of which are very recognizable, some less so.


The book has an introduction by Jonathan Lethem (a seal of approval for sure)  in which he says, “If architecture is fate, then it is Marlowe’s fate to enumerate the pensive dooms of Los Angeles, the fatal, gorgeous pretenses of glamour and ease, the bogus histories reenacted in the dumb, paste-and-spangles cocktail of style.’  Yes, Jonathan, but what if architecture ISN’T fate?


But anyway, it’s surely a good sign that Catherine Corman’s book sent me back to rereading Chandler’s novels, keeping an eye out for architectural detail.  Of course in The Big Sleep we all remember the hall of the Sternwood mansion, the entrance doors big enough to let in a troop of elephants, and the stained glass showing a knight rescuing a damsel in distress (that’s got to be pretty colorful, right?). 



At the back of the house there’s a “wide sweep of emerald grass and a maroon Packard,” and when Marlowe gets into the greenhouse where he meets the General,  “The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tanks.”  I’m seeing a fair amount of color, aren’t you?

         
And when Marlowe gets to Geiger’s house, oh boy, there’s a thick pinkish Chinese rug, a broad low divan of old rose tapestry with some lilac-colored silk underwear strewn across it, a couple of standing lamps with jade-green shades, and a yellow satin cushion.  Carmen Sternwood is there, sitting naked on a fringed orange shawl.  OK, maybe that’s décor rather than architecture, but nevertheless this is some very colorful nor.



         Now obviously I wasn’t around in Chandler’s time, but as I walk around LA these days it looks like the most intensely colored cities I’ve ever been to.  Sure the color may be only skin (or stucco) deep, and sure there may be some dark things happening behind those cheerfully colored walls, but that's the nature of the beast, right?



One of the architectural touchstones from my earliest days of walking around in LA is the Blu Monkey Lounge on Hollywood Boulevard.  When I first saw it, it looked like this:


It seemed intriguing, secretive, vaguely sinister, a dive bar where bad things might happen. A little research suggested it was in fact just a loud bar with DJs and expensive drinks, not exactly a rarity in Hollywood, and not really my kind of place.  A little while late it looked like this:


I guess it was in some transient state as all the buildings around it get gentrified,
demolished or refurbished.  Maybe it was just being repainted.  Anyway, the last time I saw it, it looked it was like this:


You’ll notice that the word “monkey” has disappeared from the name. And I guess that stucco is still a kind blue, but it doesn’t yell “blue” the way it once did.  Isn’t it aquamarine, or maybe turquoise?  The Case of the Absent Monkey?  Well, maybe there is something noir-sounding about that after all.


Catherine Corman's website is right here:
http://www.catherine-corman.com