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 19, 2015


The big reason I was in England was for an exhibition at London's City Hall, based on my novel Bleeding London.  Faithful readers will recall the character Stuart London who walks, or at least says he walks, every street in London. The Royal Photograph Society, in the person of Del Barrett, had organized what you might call a crowdsourced exhibition for which volunteers had gone out and taken photograph of every street in the city. 

This amazingly, improbably, they’d succeeded in doing – that’s 58,000 streets, 58,000 photographs, and a preliminary display of 1200 images was on display at London’s City Hall (and as I write still is).  The plan is that at some point in the future there’ll be a gigantic exhibition of all the photographs in a vast warehouse somewhere in London, and there’ll be an online archive as well.

The launch party/private view coincided with a strike of London tube drivers so attendance was a bit thinner than it might have been otherwise.  But as you see, one of the great attractions of the party space was the floor - a gigantic map of London, which allowed you to feel as though you were a giant walking across, and stamping on, its suburbs and center.

A couple of days after the party Jen Pedler, who’s a walking guide as well as a photographer, conducted “Stuart’s First Walk” – a nice five mile meander based on a description in the book of my character’s first foray into tramping all the streets of London.  He (and I) chose North Pole Road, in W10, as the starting point, simply because of the name.  
         “He knew he had to begin somewhere and he knew that in one sense, any place was as good as another, but he scanned the index of his A-Z looking for a street name that sounded appropriate. His eyes fell on a line that read North Pole Road. Next day he went there and started his walk.”

In the beginning Stuart just walks for the sake of it, but then he starts keeping a diary because he realizes he’s forgetting what he’s seen, and I do know the feeling, although as I proved, writing things down is no absolute guarantee that you’ll remember them.  Photographs surely stick in the mind a bit better.  In my occasional wearying attempts to turn Bleeding London into a screenplay I’ve always said to producers that in a movie version Stuart should be keeping a photo or video diary rather than a written one; but that has always been the least of the problems.

And so we guided walkers went walking along North Pole Road, following in Stuart London’s, and to some extent my, old footsteps. Full, unsurprising, disclosure: I by no means walked every street in London while writing the book.  This is the joy of writing fiction – you can make stuff up, though of course we all know that writers of non-fiction make stuff up too.  But there were some days when I pretended to be Stuart, walked where he walked, and certainly the book contains descriptions of things I actually saw while walking in London, not least in North Pole Road.

Jen Pedlar - by Steve Reed
Of course having the author himself on a walking tour based on his book was a curious thing, not least for the author. Someone had said to Jen that it would be like walking with Dickens, and yeah, sure that’s EXACTLY what it was like.  Jen had considered having me read out various passage as we waked, but in the event she decided against it, for which I was truly grateful.  I suspect it would have been excruciating for all concerned, but especially excruciating for me.

Since the book was published (oh good god) eighteen years ago, and I’m not a great re-reader of my own work, I was pretty vague about some of the things ‘d seen and described in the novel.  Other things, of course seemed clear as day.  Things in North Pole Road however, fell chiefly into the former category: without the book I’d have remembered hardly anything at all.

Of course some things had changed – the pub that had once been called the North Pole and then the New North Pole had been converted into a Tesco Express after much local protest, apparently.  But there was still plenty that hadn’t changed much at all.  There was still a florist and hairdresser as mentioned in the book, there was still Mick’s Fish Bar and also the newsagent which in the book I called Varishna’s which I now know was a misspelling.

And we walked beyond North Pole Road, seeing some things I remembered and rather more things I’d forgotten.  We walked by Wormwood Scrubs – the prison and the piece of land with the same name.

We went up Scrubs Lane, along the Harrow Road, across the Grand Union Canal and eventually past Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, to Ladbroke Grove.

I guess the most Proustian moment came in the Harrow Road.  There’s a moment in the book when Stuart sees “a tyre centre whose frontage had a mural depicting members of staff.” I’d forgotten all about this, and Jen who’d done a reccie of the route, hadn’t been able to find it either, and yet suddenly there it was, and all we Bleeding Londoners stood outside in quiet wonder, celebrating, taking photographs, while the guys who worked there, the current employees not depicted on the mural, looked on in suspicion.

photo by Steve Reed

And of course there was some stuff that surely couldn’t have been there back in the day: – this gloriously misspelled estate agent sign, for instance, gave me particular pleasure:

It’s always a hard work to walk in a group – the good thing about being with a bunch of photographers is that you can wander off by yourself and look at little curiosities and take pictures and everybody else understands – it slows the walk down but it also sharpens up your perceptions as you try to find new things to photograph, avoiding the more obvious stuff that everybody else is photographing. 

In the novel Stuart walks past the Kensal Rise Cemetery, but doesn’t go inside, I suspect because its paths don’t constitute actual London streets.  We had no such inhibition.  And while we were there Gareth Philips took this fairly fab photograph of the author.  (I confess I’ve messed with it a little). If I made record albums it would surely be on an album cover.

Photo by Gareth Phillips
You might argue about whether this is a pic of the author, or a pic the author being his character.  I’m pretty happy either way.  And maybe it’s both.  But I was reminded of this picture of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, authors who I don’t in other ways really resemble much:

They’re acting out a scene from their collaborative novel And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, a kind of absurdist Dashiell Hammett pastiche.  I’m not sure that anyone has ever looked better, or greyer, or more sinister in his author pics than Mr. Burroughs.  He sure was photogenic, even when he wasn’t – if you know what I mean.

Jen Pedlar’s website is here: http://footprintsoflondon.com/guides/jen-pedler/

Steve Reed’s blog is here: http://shadowsteve.blogspot.com

The RPS site is here: http://www.bleedinglondon.co.uk

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