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, August 1, 2013


(The post below was written at a moment when I changed the name of this blog - I changed it back pretty quickly for reasons that now escape me - I still think An Anatomy of Walking is a great title for something.)

Eagle-eyed readers, or in fact anybody who’s paying attention, will see that I’ve tweaked the title of this blog, from The Hollywood Walker to An Anatomy of Walking.  I still live and walk in Hollywood, but I started to think that “Hollywood Walker” sounded a bit too glam, a bit too Hollywood, that people might think it was all about movie starts and red carpets, which (with very few exceptions) it isn’t.

 An Anatomy of Walking suggests a much broader remit, and it’s a title that pays homage to my main man, Robert Burton (1577- 1640), the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy.  As a regular pedestrian and an occasional sufferer from the Black Dog, I’ve always found plenty of overlap between walking and melancholy, not least that the former is a pretty good way of getting rid of the latter.  Not infallible, admittedly.

As times goes by, I find that I admire Burton more and more: his obsessiveness, his crazed but thorough scholarship, his all-embracing inclusiveness.  Got a fact?  Got a quotation?  Then put it in the book.  Here was a man who wrote his great work,  published in 1621 under the pseudonym Democritus Junior, and then he spent the rest of his life rewriting and expanding it.  That’s an admirable policy for a writer, I’d say, and I’m sure he would have been an excellent and madly energetic blogger.

I’ve been reading a part of The Anatomy of Melancholy where Burton considers “Terrestrial devils,” who turn out to be great walkers, especially the kind that “frequent forlorn houses” and are for the “most part innoxious.” He says, “These kind of devils many times appear to men, and affright them out of their wits, sometimes walking at noonday, sometimes at nights, counterfeiting dead men's ghosts, as that of Caligula, which (saith Suetonius) was seen to walk in Lavinia's garden, where his body was buried, spirits haunted, and the house where he died … every night this happened, there was no quietness, till the house was burned.”  This seems to involve a slightly specialized definition of “innoxious,” but let’s not quibble.  It’s hard to find a picture of Caligula walking, but there’s this:

  Burton also discusses “ambulones, that walk about midnight on great heaths and desert places, which (saith Lavater) ‘draw men out of the way, and lead them all night a byway, or quite bar them of their way;’ these have several names in several places; we commonly call them Pucks. In the deserts of Lop, in Asia, such illusions of walking spirits are often perceived, as you may read in M. Paulus the Venetian his travels; if one lose his company by chance, these devils will call him by his name, and counterfeit voices of his companions to seduce him.” No, it’s not easy to get a short, pithy quotation out of Mr. Burton. 

The M. Paulus in question is better known as Marco Polo, and the Desert of Lop (seen above) is in China.  Certain scholars have always doubted whether Marco Polo actually went to China at all.   Still, here’s a picture of the extraordinary Lei Diansheng, following in Marco Polo’s footsteps (or not), walking in the Lop Desert, part of his 10-year, 81,000-kilometer journey around China on foot.  I can’t say whether he was beset by “walking spirits,” but he does look a bit haunted.

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