Like a lot of walkers I’m a big fan of maps. When I went abroad for the first time, in my teens, to Nancy in France, to work on a pretty dubious “international youth project,” one of the first things I did was buy a map of Nancy so that I could go walking and know where I was. The rest of the international youth thought this was very odd of me. As you see I still have it.
Later, when I first moved to London, straight after college, of course I owned a London A-Z, more of a book than a map, and I carried it with me all the time: I wanted to know where I was, I wanted to know how to get where I was going. This didn’t strike me as odd in the least.
I was living in London because I’d got my first real job, working for a company named Bertram Rota, that dealt in twentieth century literary first editions, as well as authors’ manuscripts and the occasional item of literary memorabilia.
One of the company directors was George Lawson, a dapper, twinkly man of Scottish origins who was extremely well-connected, and never seemed to do anything that looked like work. He’d just mess around in the store most of the day, but at some point he’d pick up the phone, call somebody important, and make a fabulous deal that earned the company a small fortune. He was friends with all manner of people in the art and literary worlds, not least David Hockney, who was a regular visitor to the store, and painted a rather wonderful portrait of George and his boyfriend – the ballet dancer Wayne Sleep.
On one occasion George saw that I kept an A-Z in my bag. “So,” he said, “do you mean to say that when you go around London you take a MAP with you?” I said that I did. He found this both strange and hilarious. And my reaction at the time was, “Doesn’t everybody?” Surely, I thought, nobody knows the whole of London, and if you stray anywhere outside your usual orbit you’re going to need a map, aren’t you? London is this vast and intricate city, how could you get around without one?
I didn’t say that to George, and in retrospect I’m glad that I didn’t, and of course once I’d lived in London for a while I didn’t carry an A-Z with me all the time. And that’s surely how it always is once you know a city. I didn’t know every street, didn’t have a complete map of London imprinted in my head, but I’d developed a feel for the place, had a general sense of direction, a sense of how neighborhoods related to each other. This was based on the experience of walking, of knowing the city on the ground, not on a map, and of course there were occasions when I went to some completely unknown part of the city, in which case I dug out my old A-Z.
The latest copy of the Believer has an interview with Dennis Wood, author of the “Power of Maps” and now “Everything Sings: Maps for A Narrative Atlas.” He talks about the idea that street signs and names are only for strangers: when a place is part of you, you don’t need a street sign telling you where you are. He obviously has a point. Then he says, “You get to a new city and you leave the hotel, you’ve got two hours before something happens, so you just wander around. You don’t pay any attention to the name of the streets, but you conserve a memory of turning left or turning right, or some landmark. You don’t need to know the names.” This is obviously true too, and a familiar enough experience, but there’s a contradiction here, isn’t there? This is surely an example of a situation where the signs and the street names aren’t for strangers: or at least the stranger in this case isn’t paying any attention to them.
It also raises the question of how far away from home you have to be before you’re considered as a stranger. Unless you always stay within an incredibly limited number of streets then sooner or later you’ll find a street sign extremely useful.
Actually, I also wonder how just how many people spend two hours walking the streets around their hotel these days. I do, of course, and obviously I’m not the only one (the Believer has an article by Daniel Handler that says he does it too), but I suspect a lot the people who arrive in a new city and want to get some exercise are more likely to go to the hotel gym or the pool, rather than walking the streets. So much modern “travel” seems to involve spending time in luxury resorts and spas, being pampered, staying in a bubble, rather than going out and exploring some place you’ve never been before.
Meanwhile, back at Bertram Rota, there was an occasion when we were selling some Somerset Maugham memorabilia, including his walking stick. I imagine it may have been one of many, but it was an impressive thing, embossed with the Maugham “hand of Fatima” symbol to ward off the evil eye.
George Lawson spent most of one day pretending to have a limp, hobbling up and down the shop, using Maugham’s walking stick for support. He was very convincing, and customers who knew him showed considerable concern and asked how he’d come to injure himself. He found this even more hilarious. I wish I could say that David Hockney had come into the shop in the middle of George’s act, but that really would be too neat.
For one reason or another I’ve been rereading “David Hockney on David Hockney,” his autobiographical book from the 1970s, now subtitled “My Early Years”. Back then at least he was the kind of man who liked to wander the streets around his hotel, in this case in Santa Monica rather than Los Angeles proper.
He writes, “I checked into this motel and walked on the beach and I was looking for the town, couldn’t see it. And I saw some lights and I thought, that must be it. I walked two miles, and when I got there all it was a big gas station, so brightly lit I’d thought it was the city. So I walked back …” I guess if he’d had a map he’d have known better.
Hockney comes from Yorkshire of course, as do I, and after decades in L.A. he’s back there living in Bridlington (he has his reasons). Bridlington exists in my imagination as a place of utter, rain-drenched gloom, a place of family day trips where we gamely walked up and down the prom, under grey skies, through the drizzle. We’d driven all that that way, we weren’t just going to sit in the car.
Anyway, David Hockney seems to be very happy there in Bridlington, is painting up a storm, having a major retrospective at the Royal Academy and is in some danger of becoming an English national treasure. Evidence suggests that he’s doing quite a bit of walking too. The blog for Time Out, London recently did a piece titled, “Take A Walk With David Hockney.” Here’s a picture of David Hockney walking past a painting by David Hockney.