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.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

GHOST WALKS




It was late Saturday afternoon, and I was sitting on a bench in the cactus garden, outside our house on the lower slopes of the Hollywood Hills, and my wife was inside and the radio was tuned to National Public Radio and suddenly she stuck her head out the door and said “You’d better get in here, there’s going to be an English psychogeographer talking on the radio.”  I can’t swear how many other Hollywood homes that happened in, but I’ll bet not so very many.


Now, my wife is not easily impressed, and I long ago gave up trying to impress her, but when I replied, “Who? Iain Sinclair?” I did earn myself a gold star in her eyes, for intuition if nothing else.  Sinclair was talking about his book Ghost Milk, which has just been published in the United States, and in his beautifully soft, well-modulated voice he was spewing forth elegant bile about the evils of the London Olympic games.


Now interestingly, I see that the English edition of Ghost Milk was subtitled “Calling Time on the Grand Project,” but the US edition is subtitled “Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympic games,” a problematic subtitle I’d say, given that we’re already well past the eve, but I'm no publisher.

Anyway he duly talked about the Olympic site as a “future ruin,” and I was reminded of something I’d read just a few days earlier in a piece on Brian Dillon’s website. The site is named Ruins of the Twentieth Century and the particular post I was thinking of was “Adventures in Architectural Hell” a review of two books A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain By Owen Hatherley, and A Guidebook for the Urban Age By PD Smith.


In his review Dillon writes about getting off the train at Stratford station in the middle of the Olympic park.  He says, “It feels as if you’ve detrained into a high-tech, functional ruin, a genuinely thrilling (though likely inadvertent) hint at the classically inspired sporting rigours ahead.”

Future ruin, functional ruin these are wonderfully evocative terms, and ones I intend to use.  Of course neither Sinclair nor Dillon, is entirely averse to a good bit of ruin.  Nor am I.


It seems to me there are certain problems with the idea of a future ruin, since ultimately surely all buildings, all cities, all landscapes are destined to be ruins one way or another, and some of us will take great pleasure in walking through them.  Anish Kapoor’s magnificent giant sculpture at the Olympic park looks like a ruin already.  The idea of a functional ruining is much more paradoxical and intriguing.


I remember when I first walked the streets of Manhattan in the 1970s; the place did indeed seem ruined, and large swathes of it undoubtedly were, and since the city was more or less bankrupt you could certainly argue that it wasn’t truly functional.  On the other hand, when I started going there regularly, and eventually living there in the late 1990s the place was less conspicuously ruined, and was certainly functional, and yet a walk through the Port Authority bus station or around the piers or parts of the east village, showed that plenty of ruin remained.  And of course many New Yorkers much preferred it that way: they didn’t want to live Disneyland.  They didn’t even want to live in a clean, safe, well-ordered American city.


Incidentally, Brian Dillon is one of the authors of a book titled Walking in My Mind,  that accompanied an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery.  Of course, the mind is a place where some of us do a lot of our walking anyway, and at least most of us who live, think, converse, get around, have minds that are more or less functional.  But most of us have no doubt that that one day in the future our minds will be absolute ruins, places we can do no walking whatsoever.



Thursday, July 26, 2012

A LESS THAN PROUSTIAN WALK



Funny what you remember.  Above is a photograph featuring my regular, if increasingly occasional, walking companion Steve Kenny.  We’re in the middle of a walk in Dunwich, in Suffolk, sometime in the early 2000s I think.  Those are the ruins of Dunwich Abbey in the background.

Steve and I have walked a lot of many miles together over the years, in town and country, and invariably we talk as we walk. Needless to say I don’t remember any of our conversations verbatim, but I know the kind of things we’ve talked about, and like to think I remember some of them in detail.  And my recollection is that on that day in Dunwich Steve was telling me about an idea he’d had for a sitcom that involved superheroes and people who worked in local government.


He now tells me he has no memory whatsoever of this sitcom idea of his.  However, he does remember a horse and a small boy. The story, as he tells it, is that there was a horse in a field next to the Abbey ruins - we petted it and it seemed friendly enough.  This, in fact, I do now remember, though probably wouldn’t have without Steve’s prompting. And apparently I said that despite "making friends" with the horse, I felt I could still eat it.  Steve said that he couldn't (unless in great extremity, of course) as he felt there was now a bond between us - however slight and recently created.  I don’t actually remember this conversation, but it sounds very much like the kind of things each of us might have said.


And now the part I don’t remember at all.  According to Steve,  “A couple came along with a young boy – they let him give some grass to the horse.  He was too young (a toddler) and was doing it all wrong.  I had an urge to intervene but of course, I didn't – we'd already started to move on.  It was almost inevitable - the horse nipped the boy’s fingers - the couple were surprised but not as surprised and distraught as the boy, who was probably scarred for life (I was thinking mentally - but perhaps physically as well) - the horse had big teeth, he had little fingers. Did I blame myself or the stupid couple - perhaps both?  I couldn't escape the feeling that the horse had done it deliberately - perhaps you were right to want to eat him.”   To be fair to myself, I didn’t say I particularly wanted  to eat him, simply that I felt I could, if the circumstances presented themselves. 

As I go through life, and as I walk through the world I generally resist the urge to turn 

my experience into anecdote, but this is a pretty good anecdote.  The only problem is, it 

doesn’t feel like “my” anecdote.  I don’t doubt that it happened exactly as Steve described – I don’t for a moment think he’s inventing it - and that I was there and was at least a passive witness to events.  The problem is simply that this seems to be Steve’s walking anecdote rather than mine, which is why I give him full credit. I wonder if Marcel Proust would have had any such scruples. 



Proust did write, “But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

Of course, I don’t have any recollection of how the horse smelled, any more than of how he tasted.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

THE DIRTY BOULEVARD


Being a pedestrian of international stature (he says self-mockingly, though in fact not quite so full-on ironically as you might imagine), once in a while I do get photographed by some really good photographers.  The latest is David Westphal who photographed me for the jwm magazine, that’s the in-house mag of the Marriott Hotel group, so my image will be an adornment to hotel rooms the world over for the next three months or so, which would appeal to anybody’s vanity.

But of course vanity means that you actually worry about looking good.  That being the case, I’m always a willing model if not a very natural or comfortable one.  In general it’s easier when I’m doing something, and since walking is one of the things I apparently to do best, it made sense to take some pics of me in mid-stride.

David asked if I knew a good location where I might walk and where he might do the shoot.  I suggested Griffith Park, up by the old batcave, with the possibility of a view of the Hollywood sign in the background.  Cheesy but effective.  And one of the great attractions from my point of view was that on a weekday afternoon I reckoned there wouldn’t be many people around, so the potential for embarrassment and self-consciousness would be much reduced.  David said that sounded great, but in truth, somehow I didn’t really think it would be that simple.

Come the day of the shoot David had had a better idea.  He thought it would be really great if we took some pictures slap bang in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard, sometimes with me walking, sometimes with me standing still as pedestrians swarmed around me.  Now I dare say Naomi Campbell would have stamped her little foot and refused, but I am no Naomi Campbell, as you may have realized, and in any case this sounded like a decent idea for a picture, so I went with it.  I’m not sure I really had a choice.

And rather a peculiar thing happened.  I’m not saying I look especially good or at ease in the pictures, but in the event I felt remarkably unembarrassed and unselfconscious during the shoot.  I guess it has something to do with the nature of Hollywood Boulevard.  First of all, whatever you’re doing there, however odd, there are always going to be plenty of people doing much odder things: a man dressed in a SpongeBob SquarePants costume, some guy forcing his CD into the hands of unwilling tourists “Well you gotta take it now ‘cause I’ve signed it for ya,” a male/female busking duo who seemed to be making up their songs as they went along, at one point launching into the lyrics, “Lick, lick that jellybean, lick it lick it till I scream.”  The chaos was oddly liberating.

Needless to say, again unlike Naomi Campbell, I didn’t have image approval, which is why they didn’t use the pic at the top of this post.  You might argue that this isn’t actually a picture of me walking, but it’s the one I liked best.  It has so much going for it: a tyrannosaurus, a bunch of overdressed hipsters, and the author, staring into distance, not exactly relaxed, and by no means above it all, but detached and aware and observant.  That sounds quite a lot like me.  They used this one instead, which again doesn't actually show me walking, but is still a great picture, even if it makes me look a little over-chunky -  vanity, indeed.


The piece is written by James Bradley, who runs a Brooklyn record store (yes really) named Soundfix and he also plays alto sax saxophone under the name Beauclerk. “Low-resonance, high-discomfort ambient drifter Beauclerk is a one-man drone menace, mixing glory and danger via saxophone and a Line 6 pedal,” says the Village Voice.   


The jwm piece features a playlist of music that a pedestrian might listen to when walking the streets of Los Angeles.  I’ve done these lists before and it’s very hard to stop yourself being “hipper than thou,” and I can’t swear that a list containing John Cage and Christian Fennesz entirely escapes that accusation. 

And of course my original list was longer.  I’m not complaining: I understand the realities of putting together a magazine, but as a little bonus, let me recommend one song that ended up on the cutting room floor:  




Johnny Tyler and His Riders of the Rio Grande, ”It Ain’t Far To the Bar (But It’s Such a Long Road Back).”  The story of all our lives.

James Bradley’s Soundfix website is here:

Beauclerk is here:

David Westphal’s website is here:
The jwm magazine is here, though my computer found some of the bells and whistles a little too fancy to deal with easily, yours is better no doubt:

Monday, July 16, 2012

WALKING IN THE FUTURE REDUX


And speaking of walking in the future, as I was a few posts back, a reader pointed me in the direction of the movie The Book of Eli.  It was a movie I’d never really fancied, partly because it sounded a bit “spiritual” (which in fact it is) and because Denzel Washington, as Eli, looked so gosh darned noble in all the stills, (although of course I do know that Denzel has a lot of trouble NOT looking noble, whatever part he’s playing).



 But now I’ve seen it and I’m glad I did.  The movie is set in a future so bright that everybody has to wear shades whenever they step outside, because “the war tore a hole in the sky”.  This of course makes everybody look very cool, or very cool and noble in Denzel’s case.


And yes indeed, as ever, there is plenty of futuristic, over-dressed walking.  Eli has been walking west across America for 30 years, and when somebody asks, "How do you know you're walking the right way?" he replies "Faith."

If you’re especially alert to spoilers, this may tell you pretty early on that Eli is in fact blind, so presumably he doesn’t actually need the shades, and the blindness certainly doesn’t inhibit his fighting skills, though it may explain why it’s taken him so long to walk across America.  If you ask me, having blindness as a movie’s major plot twist is a bit of cheat, but I know some people think it’s a brilliant device.


Anyway, the walking gets a good deal more decorative when Eli has Mila Kunis as a fellow traveler.  And the movie kicks up to a whole other level whenever Gary Oldman appears on screen, playing Carnegie, a scenery-chewing villain and (as it happens) crazed bibliophile.  I think we've all been there and done that.


Now frankly I’d be happy to watch Gary Oldman chew scenery from now till the Rapture, and although he doesn’t do much walking in the movie, he looks very cool indeed on the occasions when he does.  In fact Gary Oldman looks very cool indeed, pretty much all the time.  Just how many people could get away with walking down a fashion runway dressed like this? And it's not even in the future.  



Tuesday, July 10, 2012

WALKING THE SUBLIME


Because a little John Ruskin goes a long way, I included only a short quotation from him about Turner in my last blog post.  Now I realize I might have quoted a little more, for reasons that I think will become obvious.

The longer quotation runs as follows:  “he (Turner) has admitted into his work the modern feeling of the picturesque, which, so far as it consists in a delight in ruin, is perhaps the most suspicious and questionable of all the characters distinctively belonging to our temper, and art. 
     “It is especially so, because it never appears, even in the slightest measure, until the days of the decline of art in the seventeenth century.  The love of neatness and precision, as opposed to all disorder, maintains itself down to Raphael's childhood without the slightest interference of any other feeling; and it is not until Claude's time, and owing in great part to his influence, that the new feeling distinctly establishes itself.”


Well, are we sure about this?  The Claude in question is, of course, Claude Lorrain, originally Claude GellĂ©e, a French Baroque painter, c 1600 to 1682, one of those artists that it’s very difficult for a modern sensibility to embrace.  His well-ordered, idealized, “noble” landscapes, often bathed in a golden glow with a few “picturesquely” placed peasants seem, regardless of what Ruskin says, rather too neat and precise.  To a modern eye, at least mine, the presence of ruins actually comes as a welcome element of appealing disorder.


But I assume Claude himself would have felt that way at all.  He lived most of his productive life in Rome and was, according to the biographies, a great walker around Rome and its hills.  Then, as now, the people of Rome walked, and went about their daily lives, surrounded by ruins.


Julian Bell in the London Review of Books, reviewing an exhibition of Claude’s work at the Ashmolean in 2011 writes, “Claude would walk out of town and along the Tiber. The drawings in the show include discoveries made by pen and brush while looking at riverbanks, farmsteads, ruins and trees. They have a happy urgency, driven by a longing to memorise fleeting tonal relations so that, back in the studio, an invented arrangement of planes could be modulated until it looked like a scene observed.”  By which I think he means that Claude walked out, looked around him, liked what he saw, but thought he could improve on it.  He’d have loved Photoshop.  OK, hold that thought.


Recently I’ve been enjoying a website titled BLDGBLOG run by Geoff Manaugh, a writer and editor who sometimes seems to be described as a “futurist.” The website professes to be concerned with “Architectural Conjecture: Urban Speculation: Landscape Futures,” but it’s a lot more fun than that might sound.  There’s a book too, titled The Bldg Blog Book, which I have bought for cash money.  The website is here:


Manaugh isn’t engaged with walking per se, but when people talk about the future and reconfiguration of cities it’s a topic that tends to come up.  There’s a laceratingly hilarious piece on the blog when he goes to an event discussing “great streets” and becomes increasingly enraged “because the moderator turned the whole thing into a kind of ‘what's your favorite street in LA?’ quiz.”  And having ventilated mightily on his own website he admits, “Not that I chimed in; lamely, I left the minute it ended and walked home to eat some dinner.”  A man after my own heart.


Anyway, on the blog and in the book there’s an interview with Simon Norfolk, who is a war photographer, though hardly in the tradition of Robert Capa or Don McCullin. He’s concerned, at least in part, with the aftermath of war, in ruined landscapes, blasted infrastructures, and more or less destroyed buildings, and he does manage to find some gorgeous, if obviously problematic, beauty in these subjects.  He says he’s concerned with “the military sublime.”


Part of the interview runs as follows:

BLDGBLOG: Your photos are usually unpopulated. Is that a conscious artistic choice, or do you just happen to be photographing these places when there's no one around?

Norfolk: Well, part of this interest of mine in the sublime means that a lot of the artistic ideas that I'm drawing on partly come out of the photography of ruins. When I was in Afghanistan photographing these places – photographing these ruins – I started looking at some of the very earliest photojournalists, and they were ruin photographers: Matthew Brady's pictures of battlefields at Gettysburg, or Roger Fenton's pictures from the Crimea. And there are no dead bodies. Well, there are dead bodies, but that’s very controversial – the corpses were arranged, etc.
     "But a lot of those photographers were, in turn, drawing upon ideas from 17th century and 18th century French landscape painting – European landscape painting. Claude Lorraine. Nicolas Poussin. Ruins have a very particular meaning in those pictures. They're about the folly of human existence; they're about the foolishness of empire. Those ruins of Claude Lorraine: it's a collapsed Roman temple, and what he's saying is that the greatest empires that were ever built – the empire of Rome, the Catholic church – these things have fallen down to earth. They all fall into ivy eventually.
     "So all the empires they could see being built in their own lifetimes – the British empire, the French empire, the Dutch empire – they were saying: look, all of this is crap. None of this is really permanent: all of these things rise and fall. All empires rise and fall and, in the long run, all of this is bullshit."


 Well, I don’t know if Claude would have put it quite like that.  And John Constable certainly wouldn’t, and didn’t.  He said that in Claude’s landscapes "all is lovely – all amiable – all is amenity and repose; the calm sunshine of the heart." Because I tend to share Norfolk’s sensibility, I agree it would be really nice to think that even as Claude was selling idealized landscapes to rich clients, and making himself rich in the process, he was an anti-Imperialist avant la lettre, but I’m not sure he really was.


Manaugh asks Norfolk why there are so few people in his photographs and he replies,  “I think people kind of gobble up the photograph. They become what the photograph is.”   I understand his point but I think he protests a little too much: some of his pictures do indeed include people, and they’re often the ones I like best.  And the fact is I like Simon Norfolk's work very much indeed.

Claude apparently had no such agonies about including people in his images. His landscapes are usually populated to a greater or lesser degree.  Sometimes the people are just another compositional element but by no means always, as in The Walk to Emmaus.  That’s Jesus walking in the middle.



Simon Norfolk, in a different interview that can be found on his website, does however, say something about walking that I absolutely treasure, "Walking a Kabul street can be like walking through a Museum
 of the Archaeology of War - different moments of destruction lie like sediment on top of each other."  I wonder if Claude would have even known what he was talking about.  I hope so.

Simon Norfolk’s website is here:



Tuesday, July 3, 2012

LINES WRITTEN A GREAT MANY MILES FROM TINTERN ABBEY


The idea behind walking through LA’s downtown adjacent to the SCI Arc building was to look at some interesting post-industrial desolation before it gets gentrified out of all existence.  And in fact it’s probably too late already.  The transformation process is well advanced: factories are being turned into luxury lofts, coffee roasters are springing up like mushrooms.  The area is actually referred to on certain street signs as the Art District, and I like art well enough, but designating an area of the city as “arty” seems somehow incredibly dodgy.


Sure, there’s some spectacularly good street art around, including the piece above, but there is something a little schooled about most of it, not that I necessarily yearn for ugly, unschooled street art.


Be that as it may, between the pockets of gentrification there’s still some pleasant grit and neglect to be found. And not least of the joys of walking around there, was that on most streets there were very few other walkers.  It was perfectly possible to imagine some of the empty streets as pockets of post-apocalyptic abandonment, which is always a pleasure.



The odd thing, or maybe it wasn’t odd at all, was that most of this abandonment looked pretty damn good.  It had a certain enduring noble, it was photogenic, it looked a lot like a movie set.  But then, gosh darn it, came the terrible realization that some of these places actually WERE movie sets.  Of course they hadn’t been built as such, but that’s what they had now become.  In fact the cooler, more elegantly rugged the structure, the more likely it was to have a sign on it saying “Film Site Rental,” with a number to call.



This cast a strange suspicion of inauthenticity over everything.  The railway crossing sign below might have been real - there were certainly active railway lines running through the streets at one time - but didn’t it look just a little too perfectly antique?  Couldn’t it have been manufactured by some Hollywood prop maker?


And below here, a railway siding running to a disused trackside building.  The building was very handsome, a fine, honest bit of workaday industrial architecture.



But wait a minute, one's appreciation might not have been spoiled but it was certainly changed by the presence of a sign that read “Set Dress Truck Only.”  There was no room for real trucks, only movie trucks. 




It wasn’t quite a simulacra, but it no longer seemed to be exactly a “real” example of post-industrial desolation either, which seemed a shame.  It wasn’t that the building was unpicturesque, or that it was too picturesque, but rather that it was too knowingly picturesque.


In Of the Turnerian Picturesque John Ruskin writes, “he (Turner) has admitted into his work the modern feeling of the picturesque, which, so far as it consists in a delight in ruin, is perhaps the most suspicious and questionable of all the characters distinctively belonging to our temper, and art.”  That's Turner's Tintern Abbey above, painted in 1794.

Of course Ruskin never visited Los Angeles, nor did he ever see a movie.  But he was a great fan of architecture and he wrote, “When we build, let us think that we build for ever.”  He was also a great walker who wrote, “Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you,” which sounds very similar to what you hear said on certain movies sets as the sun goes down and they start "losing the light."  



That's Ruskin in the picture above, the man in the middle with the walking stick

Monday, July 2, 2012

GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK

A belated, but no less welcome, review of The Lost Art of Walking has just appeared on the walkingworld.com website.


It’s a good, positive review not least because it compares me favourably with Robert MacFarlane (that’s him above).  He’s described as “a tad over-wrought” – whereas I am “down to earth and certainly funnier.”

Where the review goes off the rails:  “The book (mine) is kicked off by his (i.e. me) going out for a walk, not in some far-off wilderness but in the ordinary streets around Hollywood, where he falls and ignominiously breaks his leg.”

Fall - yes, ignominious – certainly, but guys – it was my arm not my leg.  Bit of a difference, and it is on the third page of the book.

Still, the review, and indeed the website, is to be found here:


http://beta2.walkingworld.com/Articles/Newsletter/Newsletter-archive/June-2012.aspx