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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


I’ve often wondered if I could have been a spy.  Not the James Bond type wrestling with supervillains in underground lairs, but more like George Smiley, teasing out inferences and confessions by the practice of “tradecraft.”  The kind of spy who goes for a walk in the local park and has a “chance meeting” with some disaffected underling from the Russian embassy.  Information and a slim envelope of money are exchanged, we both go on our way, but the course history has been changed, that sort of thing.

This has been on my mind because a little while ago I was staying in somebody’s spare room, and being unable to sleep I picked up John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and (as they say) couldn't put it down.  I tried to read le Carré a long time ago, and I found it all a bit slow and talky.  Now, of course its slowness and talkiness are what seem so totally wonderful about it.

There’s a certain amount of walking in the novel, and also in the BBC miniseries, though it's not a direct “opening out.”   Certain conversations that are static in the novel do take place while the characters in the series are walking.  But certain exchanges are, if anything, even more static.

There’s a scene in the book, a flashback, on the cliffs in Cornwall between Smiley and his faithless wife Ann.  We all kind of wish he’d push her off the cliff edge, but that would be unsporting, dishonorable, and above all out of character.  

Walking helps when Smiley’s trying to get information from his fellow spooks.  Like this:
Sensing Jim's antagonism, Smiley opened his door and let the cold air pour in.
'How about a stroll?' he said. 'No point in being cooped up when we can walk around.'
With movement, as Smiley anticipated, Jim found a new fluency of speech.
They were on the western rim of the plateau, with only a few trees standing and several lying felled. A frosted bench was offered, but they ignored it. There was no wind, the stars were very clear, and as Jim took up his story they went on walking side by side, Jim adjusting always to Smiley's pace, now away from the car, now back again. Occasionally they drew up, shoulder to shoulder, facing down the valley.

And walking itself may be part of tradecraft:
In the stairwell, Smiley lightly touched his arm. 'Peter, I want you to watch my back. Will you do that for me? Give me a couple of minutes, then pick me up on the corner of Marloes Road, heading north. Stick to the west pavement.'
Guillam waited, then stepped into the street. A thin drizzle lay on the air, which had an eerie warmness like a thaw… He completed one round of the gardens then entered a pretty mews well south of the pick-up point. Reaching Marloes Road he crossed to the western pavement, bought an evening paper and began walking at a leisurely rate past villas set in deep gardens. He was counting off pedestrians, cyclists, cars, while out ahead of him, steadily plodding the far pavement, he picked out George Smiley, the very prototype of the homegoing Londoner. 'Is it a team?' Guillam had asked. Smiley could not be specific. 'Short of Abingdon Villas, I'll cross over,' he said. 'Look for a solo. But look!'
As Guillam watched, Smiley pulled up abruptly, as if he had just remembered something, stepped perilously into the road and scuttled between the angry traffic to disappear at once.

I do believe I could manage that kind of thing, though perhaps I wouldn’t have 

had Smiley’s chilly, patrician calm. 

At this point in literary history it’s impossible to read the name George Smiley without picturing Alec Guinness: I can’t imagine many people picture Gary Oldman in the movie remake, though I know it got decent reviews.

There are generally reckoned to be three real-world models for George Smiley, all of them walkers to some degree.  On was John Bingham, a spy for 20 odd years, also a novelist, less successful than John le Carré, but then who isn’t?   When his picture appears in print, it’s more often than not this one, showing him walking his dogs.

Another model was the Reverend Vivian Green, le Carré’s tutor at Oxford, and a keen walker, who wrote a book titled The Swiss Alps (1961).

And thirdly Maurice Oldfield, a career intelligence officer who rose through the ranks to become head of MI6 from 1973-8.  I haven’t been able to find any photographs of him walking, though the obituaries tell us he was a farmer’s son in Derbyshire who had to milk the cows each morning before he walked the two miles to school.  There's a great deal more to be said about Oldfield's public and private life, but I think this isn't the place.

Le Carré has said in recent times  “I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities. I write and walk and swim and drink.”  In a piece in the New York Times Dwight Garner wrote, “John le Carré remains obsessed with this terrain. He’s more agile than men 20 years his junior mostly because, when his mornings spent writing fiction are complete, he sets out on arduous hikes. His wife only recently made him curtail these adventures. ‘I now walk the interior, instead of scampering along the cliffs, because she worries about me taking a fall,’ he said. ‘The cellphone reception is almost nonexistent here. If I didn’t die immediately, I’d be stuck for some time.’”

Elsewhere le Carré has said, “Writing is like walking in a deserted street. Out of the dust in the street you make a mud pie.”  I’m not sure that makes it VERY like walking in the street, but ultimately I think that any metaphor you care to use about writing is workable.

While writing this piece I did a bit of research on Alec Guinness and discovered that he was born at 155 Lauderdale Mansions South, Lauderdale Road, Maida Vale, London W9.  For 15 years or so I lived in Maida Vale, less than half a mile from there, and must have walked past his birth place scores if not hundred of times.  I had no idea.  And I don’t know what difference it would have made, and of course he wasn’t there and hadn’t been there for many decades, but somehow I wish I’d known.

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