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.

Friday, May 27, 2016


There’s a story, maybe it’s a fable, maybe it’s even in the Bible (in which case I suppose it’s a parable), about a man who goes around, walking in the usual way, looking at this, looking at that, just generally looking in all directions at whatever grabs his attention.

And one day he happens to look down and he sees money lying on the ground.  It has to be a shiny coin of some value for the story to work, so let’s say it’s a silver dollar.  He picks it up and changes his life.  From then on whenever he walks he only looks at the ground, hoping to find more money.

And he goes around like that for years, always looking at the ground when he walks, but he never finds any more silver dollars.  And then one day he’s walking along and he sees something shining in the gutter and he thinks, “OK, at last, more money!”  But it isn’t a silver coin, it’s a fragment of broken mirror and when he looks down at it he sees a reflection of the sky up above his head, and then he looks up at the sky itself and he sees it looks wonderful, and he realizes what he’s been missing all these years.


Well, I certainly look around at thing as I walk.  I like to think I look in all directions (though not all simultaneously, of course), and sometimes I do look notice things on the ground.  I think I have found the odd bit of money here and there, but not much, and I’m sure I must have seen a few mirror fragments.  But it hasn’t changed my life.

And lately, I’ve been noticing things painted on the pavements and sidewalks where I’m walking.  Some of it’s street art, and some of it’s done by guys who work for the utility companies, and the latter is usually much more inscrutable and enigmatic.

Of course on Hollywood Boulevard you have to look down at the ground if you want to see the Walk of Fame and the stars set in the concrete, that celebrate showbiz people.  But a couple of miles east of the Walk of Fame, I found this star that celebrates self-loathing. 

It’s a Hollywood thing, I’m sure, but by no means only a Hollywood thing.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


I went to see High-Rise – the Ben Wheatley movie of the JG Ballard novel, published in 1975 – anarchy and social upheaval in a 4O floor, one thousand unit apartment block somewhere in London.  It’s as good a movie as anyone has any right to expect, and an awful lot better than most of us Ballard fans feared. 

It would be pointless to claim it’s any kind of walking movie but there is some interesting walking in it.  The movie’s protagonist, Dr. Robert Laing, (I think Ballard may have had trouble with character names) does a fair amount of walking within the building.  Laing is played by Tom Hiddleston of course, who beforehand struck me as an unlikely Ballardian hero but he's pretty great here.

In one dream sequence he half-walks, half-dances, with a group of air hostesses (or whatever we’re supposed to call them these days).  

He walks around his apartment.  He walks around the supermarket.  He walks across the car park – full of 1970s cars (though not in the picture below) - which is pretty much the only time we see him walking outside the building, as I recall. 

And at a couple of points he walks in the rooftop garden, which belongs to the top dog architect who designed the building, named Royal – did I mention that I think Ballard may have had trouble with character names?

Thanks to Mike Bonsall’s brilliantly obsessive concordance of the works of Ballard I can tell you that the word “walked” appears 34 times in the novel of High-Rise, “walk” occurs 6 times, “walking” 3 times, “walking-stick” just once.

The high-rise of the novel is set in London, two miles west of the City, “along the river,” on the north side, which by my calculation would place it somewhere around the Palace of Westminster, though of course we don’t look to novelists for geographical accuracy.

The movie for all its temporal accuracy – everything looks amazingly 1975 – is set in even more of a geographical no man’s land, and it doesn’t come as a huge surprise to find that much of the film was shot in Northern Ireland, for good solid tax reasons. 

That walled roof garden that’s supposed to be 40 stories up in the air, even with some CGI work still looks very much like a real, ground level garden, and yes it turns out to be the walled garden at Bangor Castle.

Incidentally, Ballard’s old mucker Michael Moorcock seems to have been mildly obsessed with the roof garden at Derry and Toms in Kensington – which became Biba for a while (Biba closed in 1975!).  It pops up more than once in the Jerry Cornelius novels. I’m guessing that Wheatley is playfully alluding to that, but I wouldn't swear to it. 

         Ballard was supposedly inspired by Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in Notting Hill – 31 stories – 217 flats – though for the purposes of High-Rise the Balfron Tower constructed a few years earlier might be a better model. Goldfinger actually did live there, just like Royal in High-Rise, although by all accounts having Goldfinger for a neighbor would have been pretty intimidating.  

Jeremy Irons as Royal is considerably less scary.

But one thing both the Trellick and the Belfron had - in common with a lot of other 1960s and 70s council blocks - was what we used to call (if we hated them) deck access or (if we liked them) “streets in the sky.”  The flats had front doors that opened into shared external access corridors, along which people could, and had to walk, at least somewhat like a real street. 

Of course these decks might be haunted by roaming bad elements, threatening passersby, banging on doors, settling fire to piles of rubbish etc., but that’s how it is with street life. And that's how it is with High-Rise even though the building doesn’t have external decks.  The interior space is claustrophobic, oppressive, cinematically under lit. 

And afterwards coming out of the movie, it felt good to be able to walk in the open air, in streets on the ground rather than anywhere else.

And walking up Sawtelle Boulevard I saw there’s been some kind of English, or more specifically London, invasion.  There are apartment blocks, with names such as Camden Town, Soho Square, St John’s Wood.  Admittedly they’re fairly low-rise and don’t look inherently threatening, but after the movie all apartment blocks seem potentially sinister.

A look at the developers’ website (it’s premierleagueinc.com - an English football reference - what’s that about?) doesn’t do much to calm the nerves.  Here you’ll find all kinds of greenwash, and inert and empty language of the kind Ballard reveled in.  They “strive for aesthetics and functionality.” They have “cutting edge design and efficient use of space.”  The units are “pre-wired for today’s technological needs.”  And so on.  I can’t help thinking that the inhabitants will be sitting on their balconies roasting their dogs in no time at all.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


Just click on the link below for some two-fisted fiction from Geoff Nicholson, at 

hollywooddementia.com, for those who like that kind of thing, and yeah, sure, it's about 

walking (kind of).


Friday, May 13, 2016


Can this be true? We’ve always known that Charles Dickens was a very enthusiastic (probably obsessive) walker, sometimes by day and sometimes all night, since he suffered from insomnia.  Even so I was amazed, belatedly, to read an essay by Peter Ackroyd titled “All the time in the world – writers and the nature of time,” in which he says Dickens “insisted on walking for as much time each day as he wrote.”

Really?  Literally insisted?  Did he actually calculate how long he’d worked each  day and then insist  on walking for exactly the same number of hours?  It does seem strange, but I’m not saying he didn’t.

There is an extant interview with an unnamed somebody who took dictation for Dickens.  It appeared in the Louisville Commercial and then in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in 1882.  Part of it runs like this:
“‘You were an amanuensis of Charles Dickens, were you not?’
‘Yes, I did shorthand work for Mr. Dickens for eighteen months. I did not take dictation for any of his novels, only his fugitive pieces. He dictated to me most of his articles in All the Year Round. He was a very clever gentleman to those under him. He always treated me very well, indeed. Most people seem to think Dickens was a ready writer. This is by no means the case. He used to come into his office in St. Catherine Street about eight o’clock in the morning and begin dictating. He would walk up and down the floor several times after dictating a sentence or a paragraph and ask me to read it. I would do so, and he would, in nine cases out of ten, order me to strike out certain words and insert others. He was generally tired out by eleven o’clock, and went down to his club on the Strand. “

Well, that would work, wouldn’t it – three hours work, lunch, three hours walking.  But did he then go back and work for a few hours more, which required a few more hours walking?  Maybe.

All those “writing habits of famous authors” websites will tell you that Dickens  walked for three hours a day, but he must surely have walked more hours than that.  You’ll also find sources that say he walked 12 miles a day, some say he often walked twenty.  You do the math.

History.com tells us “He kept to a military-strict schedule, always writing in his study between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. before striking off on three-hour walks.”  Which would presumably leave him two hours short by Ackroyd’s account, unless he made it up later.

Ackroyd is, or at least was, a walker.  Recent interviews have described him as wheezing when he walks, and one describes him as having a torn ligament.  Still 2014 piece in the Financial Times,  he’s quoted as saying, “My hobby was always walking. That’s what I did most of. Experiencing the sensation and the atmosphere of it and getting the pavement underneath your feet is very good therapy.”
    The author of the piece, Hannah Beckerman, wonders were he finds time for such therapy, given that he’s always writing three projects at any one time biography in the morning, history book in the afternoon, fiction in the evening.   His answer: “If you cut up your day well enough, it’s perfectly possible to do anything.”  No doubt.

Ackroyd and I did share an American agent for a while.  She didn’t have many tales of his walking, though there were a few of him falling over drunk and being bundled into taxis.  There was also talk that he’d reformed.

I’m not very good at cutting up my day.  There are some days on which I do very little work at all – because of a combination of sloth and self-doubt - which means there are days when I actually spend more time walking that I spend writing.   But I don’t insist on it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


 It’s a good few decades since I first read the opening lines of the “Proteus” chapter in Ulysses, the chapter in which Stephen Dedalus walks along Sandymount Strand.   I read the words "Ineluctable modality of the visible," reached for the dictionary and looked up the meaning both of ineluctable and modality, and I think I was at least very slightly wiser afterwards.

Now I know, or at least I’m given to understand, that this is a reference to Aristotelian notions of form and substance, that what the eye sees is not inherent in the thing seen.  At one point Stephen closes his eyes and wonders if the world still exists, to which the all too obvious answer is “Duh.”

At the very least I suppose those words mean that we can’t escape the visual, though I’m not sure why we’d want to. 

And of course there’s a double bluff going on here, in that Joyce’s novel is transforming a visual experience (though obviously not only a visual experience) into a verbal one, into a text.  And I often think, as I walk in the world, that the separation between the verbal and the visual is largely a false one.

I’m a writer and I love words, but a lot of the time I write about what I see. And occasionally I take a photograph to capture details that I might otherwise forget, even as I accept that taking the photograph changes the nature of forgetting and remembering.

  But the fact is, the world I see when I’m walking is full of language, visible language, words in a landscape. Cities seem to be full of fragmented poetry and prose, right there on the wall or the floor, and very occasionally up in the sky.    

This isn’t why I walk, but it definitely makes the experience of walking all the more worthwhile.  Sometimes I wonder if language is ineluctable.