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, February 28, 2012

WALKING WITH WELLS


You’ll find H.G. Wells quoted all over the internet, both on actual quotation websites, and on those dubious “advice to entry-level writers” sites as having said or written, “I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there.” 


It comes from An Experiment in Autobiography though none of the online sources I’ve seen acknowledges this, and he’s saying it in order to bad-mouth the prose style of Joseph Conrad, whom he finds a bit fancy and literary.  The quotation in full is  “I write as I walk because I want to get somewhere and I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there.”




To which the obvious response is surely: well that all depends, doesn’t it? Sure, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, but if the two points are, say, either side of a river, it might be wise to walk along the riverbank to a bridge rather than just plunging straight through the water.  There’s also the matter that one doesn’t need to be some fancypants flaneur to believe that walking isn’t always about getting somewhere quickly and efficiently.  A walk without an obvious goal is sometimes much more enjoyable that going in a straight line from one place to another. 


I’m not even all that persuaded by “straightness” as an absolute virtue in writing, but obviously if you’re going to write about time travel, improbable experiments in vivisection, and a war of the worlds, then a good plain prose style helps a lot with credibility and suspension of disbelief.

In fact there’s some evidence that Wells didn’t always walk quite as purposefully as he claims.  In the last decade of the nineteenth century he was living in Woking, Surrey with his second wife.  His mornings were spent walking, or sometimes cycling, in the nearby countryside: in the afternoons he wrote.  Legend has it that he was walking with his brother on one of these mornings, and they imagined how it would be if Martians suddenly landed on this rural English scene and set about destroying it.  Thus was born The War of The Worlds, a fine book of walking and ruin.



One of the oddest details in the books tells us that the narrator was “much occupied in learning to ride the bicycle” as well as being “busy upon a series of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideas as civilization progressed.”  Well yes, that sounds a full life, doesn’t it, but he still finds time to go walking with his wife  “One night  … I went for a walk with my wife. It was starlight and I explained the Signs of the Zodiac to her.”  No word on whether she thanked him for this.

Anyway, soon enough the Martians arrive, in cylinders, and it takes a while before anything emerges, but then, “And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather.”  Fortunately a member of the English working class is nearby to offer the description, "Boilers on stilts, I tell you, striding along like men."


Well, you probably already know that things don’t go terribly well for mankind.  The Martians take over.  Finding himself stranded in the colonized Martian zone, our unnamed hero spends a lot of time dodging the tripods, holing up in a ruined house, doing an occasional bit of swimming, and a lot of walking through a devastated and depopulated London and its suburbs.  “Scrambling over a ruined wall, (I) went on my way through scarlet and crimson trees towards Kew--it was like walking through an avenue of gigantic blood drops.”  That strikes me as pretty good, and not entirely unfancy or unliterary.



The novel contains a lot of great adventure story stuff and Wells is obviously really on to something with the “aliens in the neighborhood” idea.  It’s all very well for spacemen to battle monsters on distant planets but there’s something far more urgent (and fun) in imagining aliens attacking the local supermarket.  And who hasn’t fantasized about walking through a familiar but ruined world in which you’re the only survivor?

Still, it all turns out all right thanks to our friends the bacteria, the Martians die, civilization returns, and one of the last images in the books has our hero standing on Primrose Hill, where he’s able “to see the people walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the sight-seers about the Martian machine that stands there still.”  Being able to walk freely about the city is an emblem both of freedom and order.

Visitors to modern day Woking city center can do something just a little similar, and walk around a 23 foot high sculpture by Michael Condron of one of the Martian tripods.  Gotta say I’m just a little disappointed that it doesn’t have feet.


It’s always hard to imagine how exactly a tripod walks – does it move just one leg at a time, which seems rather slow and laborious, or does it move one leg and use that as a pivot as it brings the other two forward, which seems like it would cause a lot of instability. 

http://drzeus.best.vwh.net/wotw/ 

Above is a link to a wonderful website, from which I’ve borrowed some of the images in this post, that shows multiple covers for different editions of The War of the World, and it’s interesting how few of the illustrators address the question of how the tripods walk.  Quite a few of those tripods on the covers would be hard pressed to get around at all, while some of them seem to be floating rather than walking.  And a certain of the illustrators have evidently not read the book at all. 


Above is one of my favorites, a 1916 Heinemann edition (it comes courtesy of Andrew Cox) which is true to the spirit of the book, but also seems to be anticipating steampunk.  To me, it also looks like it might have been an inspiration for Guy Maunsell, the designer of the Maunsell Sea Forts, a World War Two defense system in the Thames estuary, and briefly home to a pirate radio station.


I find it very easy to imagine those sea forts uprooting themselves from the seabed and walking into London to destroy humanity.  I do realize that they’re quadrupeds rather than tripods, but surely that would make the walking and the destruction very much easier.


And finally an image that gives me so much pleasure.  If the Martians had really attacked, and if Sherlock Holmes had been a real person, then he'd certainly have been around for it.  And if you're going to show Britain in ruins, why not show Britain's most famous ruin, Stonehenge?









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