I’m grateful to Colin Marshall, writer, explorer, urbanist, podcaster, and much else besides, for pointing me in the direction of the work of the late Christopher Rand, The New Yorker’s “far-flung correspondent” for more than 20 years, sending back reports from Hong Kong, Greece, Puerto Rico, Bethlehem, Bolivia, China, and his hometown of Salisbury, Connecticut, among other locations. I confess I’d never heard of Christopher Rand.
He was also the author of Los Angeles: The Ultimate City which appeared in 1967, based on articles he’d written for the New Yorker. Marshall calls him “one of (the 20th century’s) most unjustly forgotten writers of place.” It must be said that in reviewing the book in Ramparts magazine Richard Ellmann described Rand’s writing as “puerile,” though I think Ellmann was expressing his feelings about the city rather than about the writer. Kirkus Review described the book as “Well-groomed and readable.”
In the book, and in one of the magazine articles (illustrated with the above Saul Steinberg illustration), having had some dealings with the technology and aerospace industries around LA, Rand writes, “Perhaps the main danger lies on the possibility that … unbridled technology will get us on a wrong path and keep us there. We are already engaging in technological violence abroad … One can easily imagine our disappointment if our military ventures should turn out less well than our militarists have promised. And if our militarists are like others, they would then say that our fault lay in our not pursuing the wrong course vigorously enough.”
Rand was hardly the first to have such thoughts but given that this was written in 1967, it now seems downright prophetic. And a very long way from being puerile, I’d say.
Rand died a year after that L.A. book was published, at the age of 56, and in his New Yorker obituary he was described as “a great walker and a far wanderer,” and continuing, “Over more than 30 years, he traveled to almost every part of the world, doing most of his traveling on foot, in an attempt to learn and know that transcended any effort at mere reporting.” It also says he once walked a hundred miles in two days in the Himalayas.
Colin Marshall quotes from Rand's Grecian Calendar (1962) “I have walked a good deal for years now. I have theories about why one should do it — that it is good for the health, is conducive to thought, makes one able to observe things close at hand, etc. — and I think all these arguments are sound, but the main point is simply that I enjoy walking; I feel calm and happy while doing it.”
As I said a couple of posts back, I often find that I have very little in common with some other walkers, but that paragraph expresses my own view of walking exactly.
That New Yorker obituary quotes Rand’s son Richard as saying, “I have memories of him walking around New York, and Greece, and Kashmir. He would walk slowly, his heels barely touching the ground. He would move slowly and steadily, looking and listening, sometimes muttering to himself, never altering his pace.”
Elsewhere, in China Hands: The Adventures and Ordeals of the American Journalists Who Joined Forces with the Great Chinese Revolution, another son, Peter writes, “My father was withdrawn and somewhat forbiddingly cerebral. In his teenage years, he used to test his physical endurance by walking shirtless across the countryside in the wintertime in subzero weather. His hilarity more than made up for all that, however. He was a furious Puritan inhabited by a Dionysian soul.”
Of course I’d be very happy to have somebody say that last sentence about me. But “walking shirtless across the countryside in the wintertime in subzero weather” – well no, I never did that, not even in my teenage years. Maybe we don’t need to have everything in common with our fellow travelers.
The article by Colin Marshall that first directed me towards Christopher Rand is here, on the LARB website: