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 16, 2018


I’ve been walking, and thinking about obelisks. If you walk a couple of miles, all of them up hill, from where I am now in East Hollywood, you’ll come to the Griffith Park Observatory, and outside it you’ll find this:

It’s sometimes known as the Griffith Observatory Obelisk, sometimes as the Astronomers' Monument, designed by Archibald Garner, completed in 1934 even before the opening of the observatory, about 40 feet tall, with figures of Hipparchus, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Herschel at the base. (I admit that I’d never heard of Hipparchus.)

Those statues and the armillary sphere on top give it a rather more complex design than I think an obelisk should have, though I’m not knocking it.  But if you head down the road to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery you’ll find (what seem to me at a least) purer examples of the breed, such as this one marking the grave of Griffith J, Griffith, the very man that Griffith Park is named after.

Further south still, on the University of Southern California campus, you’ll find a line of comparatively short obelisks, each about nine feet tall, which mark the involvement of students and faculty in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

So clearly Los Angeles has its shared of obelisks even if it’s not exactly famous for them. London on the other hand, has loads, as I found out recently. 

The "biggie" of course is Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment (above), a genuine Egyptian obelisk, and that’s a whole obsession in itself, especially how they got it to England: in an iron tube that was 90 feet long – the obelisk itself being about 70 – and they built an ocean-going vessel around it so it could towed all the way from Egypt.  Complications, some of them lethal, ensued.  

I didn’t know any of this story until very recently, and asking around my acquaintances, many of whom like to think they’re pretty knowledgeable, none of them did either.

Once you start keeping your eyes open for obelisks, London seems to be full of them, and again some look more perfect examples than others.  I saw obelisks in Chelsea:

West Hampstead:

Saville Row:

In an antique shop in Mayfair

In Bunhill Fields, an obelisk monument to Daniel Defoe, but Iain Sinclair has claimed Bunhill Fields so fervently I dare hardly set foot there.

And outside of London too, such as this rather wonderful one in Mistley, in Essex. Those are the Mistley Towers behind it, and there’s an inscription on the obelisk commemorating a local woman named Jane Death.  I kid you not.

I also realized that I’d photographed obelisks in the past, while out walking, without really thinking about it much.  This one in Bristol:

There is also this especially fine obelisk on a crazy golf course in Great Yarmouth.

And I know that years ago I was in Washington DC and definitely saw the Washington Monument.  This is the tallest obelisk in the world, 555 feet high, completed in 1844 – there is much discussion about whether or not slave labor was used.  In any case, I only saw it from a distance, and I was young and unimpressionable back then.  There is also an argument that it isn’t a true obelisk, which should be made from one piece of stone – impossible given the size, and also given that there is currently an elevator inside.

And if you’re a conspiracy theorist you’ll be thrilled to see this:

And finally (at least for now, I mean this obsession is only just starting, I haven’t even started on Athanasius Kircher) there is this by the great illustrator Tom Gauld.

It’s a myriorama “inspired by the works of Laurence Sterne, and I’m actually not sure If that walking figure is Sterne or Tristan Shandy, but that’s very definitely an obelisk.  Now, there is no mention of an obelisk in Tristram Shandythough there’s plenty of walking, nor is there an obelisk mentioned in A Sentimental Journey,so this may be an indication of Mr. Gould’s own obelisk obsession.  

         I have, however found a reference to an obelisk in Sterne’s writing.  It appears in Sermon XVIII titled “The Levite and his Concubine” and runs as follows:
“Certainly there is a difference between Bitterness and Saltness, that is, between the malignity and the festivity of wit, the one is a mere quickness of apprehension, void of humanity, and is a talent of the devil; the other comes  from the Father of spirits, so pure and abstracted from persons, that willingly it hurts no man : or if it touches upon an indecorum, 'tis with that dexterity of true genius, which  enables him rather to give a new colour to the absurdity, and   let it pass. He may smile at the shape of the obelisk raised to another's fame, but the malignant wit will level it at once with the ground, and build his own upon the ruins of it.”
         Wit, obelisks, ruins – my kind of sermon.

Friday, August 10, 2018


I’ve been back in LA, from England, for about a month now, and in truth I haven’t been doing very much walking. When the temperature reaches 90 every day (and yesterday it was 97 – that’s 36 degrees for lovers of Centigrade) it rather takes the spring out of your step.

But I haven’t been completely sedentary, and sometimes you just have to get out there,  sweat it out, and walk the hot streets. and while I’ve been doing it I’ve thought to myself, yep, I’m back, this is all very, very LA.

The classic Volkswagen beetles:

 The palm trees (and also, the giant euphorbia and the hard to fathom parking sign):

The cacti:

The stone lions

The bears:

The curious skies:

Yep, all very LA indeed, but hold on there you psychogeographers, I found examples of all these things in England. 

The classic Volkswagen beetles:

The palm trees (Is this the result of global warming? I don’t think there used to be so many palm trees in England):

The cacti:

The stone lions:

The bears:

The curious skies:

Globalizaton, innit?  Possibly.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018


Nobody seriously doubts that there’s a vital connection between walking and poetry.  Not even me, although I do sometimes struggle to grasp what most contemporary poetry is “for.”

There is, I'm told, a rather good book on the subject, edited by David Kennedy, titled Necessary Steps: Poetry, Elegy, Walking, Spirit. It contains an essay by Jeremy Noel-Tod , Walking the Yellow Brick Road: A Pedestrian Account of J. H. Prynne's Poems.”

As some of you may know, JH Prynne, or Jeremy as I always called him, was my Director of Studies at university, and he taught me a great deal about poetry.  His own poetry is not a walk in the park by any means, but I do occasionally read his work as a kind of intellectual and linguistic cage-fighting. But here’s what I think are some pretty great lines by Prynne from the poem the “Holy City”

There’s no mystic moment involved just
           that we are
       is how, each
       severally, we’re
       carried into
the wind which makes no decision and is
a tide, not taken. I saw it
       and love is
when, how &
       because we
       do: you
could call it Ierusalem or feel it
as you walk, even quite jauntily, over the grass.
When I was prose editor at Ambit magazine, great swathes of poetry arrived as submissions on a daily basis, far more than the prose, and I was very glad indeed that I didn’t have to deal with all those poems.

Still, here’s one poem that Ambit published, and I remember it fondly, by James Laughlin, founder of New Directions Publishing, as well as a poet.

I’m pretty sure Jeremy Prynne would not approve of James Laughlin’s work, I think he'd find it lacking in rigor, although they were both admirers of Ezra Pound – back in the days which such a thing was much more permissible than it is now.  Here's a poem by Pound.

Ione, Dead the Long Year 
Empty are the ways,
Empty are the ways of this land
And the flowers
Bend over with heavy heads.
They bend in vain.
Empty are the ways of this land
Where Ione
Walked once, and now does not walk
But seems like a person just gone. 

And here's old Ezra walking.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018


 I’ve been reading the obituaries of Christopher Gibbs (that's him above), once described by James Delingpole as “the great civilising influence of the high 1960s counterculture. He got the formerly loutish Rolling Stones into velvet suits, Islamic art and stately homes; he thought up the album title Beggars Banquet; he stood up for his friends Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull after the infamous Redlands drugs bust; he designed the film sets for Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance, inventing the elegantly dilapidated interior style later known as 'shabby chic'.”

Well, that’s a full life isn't it?  He also was an old Etonian (expelled – as was the style at the time) and, if you ask me, just one more of those figures who gives the lie to the notion that “the Sixties” in England, however defined, was a working class phenomenon.

In an interview with House and Garden he once said, “'I like people to collect and buy things which have a strong personal flavour of someone gone by. For example, walking sticks. You can walk into a frightfully ugly house and the most strongly personal and tangy corner of it is the walking-stick stand in the hall. Its sticks have been given by people to each other, they chronicle events.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever walked into a house that had a walking stick stand in the hall, (maybe my former parents in law?), but I know what he means and I like it a lot.  Walking adds patina to just about anything.

His obit in the London Times said, “His final destination was Tangier, where he established an elegant home and garden on one of the mountain slopes overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. One visitor described him there as ‘wearing wonderful kaftans’, adding: ‘And he looked like Moses walking in the olive garden — very peaceful.’"  This is him below in that phase, though I never imagined Moses as a blond.

I do not have an olive garden, and I don’t wear kaftans, but I do have a single olive plant in the garden (it’s not quite a tree) and I walk by it every day and sometimes I think I should be doing something about more to/about/for it.  So I consulted the internet about the care and pruning of olive tress.  One of the best sites I found said, “Do nothing for the first fifty years.” Yes, I can handle that.

Yep, that’s me above and my olive plant, and yes I’m holding up an olive it produced.  Do I resemble Moses?  You decide.

Thursday, July 26, 2018


Until last month I had only ever once stayed in an airport hotel – it was in Los Angeles when Virgin couldn’t fly us out. At this point I’ve forgotten both the reason and the name of the hotel.

But last month in order to get an affordable flight from Heathrow I had to take off very early in the morning, in fact so early that I doubted I could get to the airport from central London in time. So for the night before the flight I booked into the Hyatt Place Heathrow – very clean, very neat, not quite as soulless as you might expect (though it does look it in the picture below), and pretty cheap for a “London hotel.”

Obsessive and travel-anxious as I always am, I arrived there mid-afternoon and once I’d checked in, despite the place not being entirely soulless, a profound “in transit” melancholy descended upon me.  So I decided to go for a walk.  

I imagined I’d be plodding around the perimeter fences of various ancillary airport buildings - which was OK by me - but this proved not be the case.   A little way down the main drag – which is named Bath Road - there was a stile that led into a wheat field.  And there was a very clear path leading straight across it.  Off I went.

Now it so happened that when I was in London I’d seen an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects, titled “Disappear Here: On perspective and other kinds of space” curated by Sam Jacobs.  

So I knew a thing or two about vanishing points. And this field offered more than one of them.  Cool.

That exhibition title, I assume, must derive from Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero.  The words first appear in this section:
“I come to a red light, tempted to go through it, then stop once I see a billboard sign that I don't remember seeing and I look up at it. All it says is ‘Disappear Here’ and even though it's probably an ad for some resort, it still freaks me out a little and I step on the gas really hard and the car screeches as I leave the light."

The phrase “disappear here” keeps popping up throughout the novel, which seemed a pretty weary trope when I first read the novel in the 1980s and it doesn’t seem any less so now.

But anyway, as I continued to walk through the wheat field I started to hear guns in the distance.  I couldn’t see anybody doing the shooting, and this being England, I assumed it was a farmer using his shotgun, attempting to kill crows rather than me, but when you’re in the middle of a field in the edgelands of Heathrow airport, with no cover for a few hundred yards in all directions, it’s probably best not to take anything for granted.  I rereated. I lived to tell the tale.  You knew that already.

Various people I’ve described this experience to have said how “Ballardian” it must have felt. Well only up to a point.  JG Ballard is on record as saying how wonderful he found the Heathrow Hilton.  In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ballard said,
The Heathrow Hilton designed by Michael Manser is my favourite building in London. It's part space-age hangar and part high-tech medical centre. It's clearly a machine, and the spirit of Le Corbusier lives on in its minimal functionalism. It's a white cathedral, almost a place of worship, the closest to a religious building that you can find in an airport. Inside, it's a highly theatrical space, dominated by its immense atrium. The building, in effect, is an atrium with a few rooms attached. Most hotels are residential structures, but rightly the Heathrow Hilton plays down this role, accepting the total transience that is its essence, and instead turns itself into a huge departure lounge, as befits an airport annexe. Sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being. Within this remarkable building one feels no emotions and could never fall in love, or need to.”

Well again, only up to a point, surely.  People fall in love everywhere.  In any case, the Heathrow Hilton, more architectural than the Hyatt, though it undoubtedly is, costs about three times as much as my room at the Hyatt.  Would the extra expense have defused my melancholy?  You know, I doubt it.