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.
Showing posts with label Dickens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dickens. Show all posts

Monday, December 18, 2017


Did you see this in the London Evening Standard?  Spontaneous human combustion is one of those things that I look into every now and then in a brief intense way and then forget about.  Still, I don’t think I ever heard of anybody combusting while walking.

Man bursts into flames and dies in front of horrified onlookers while walking down London street

Specialist fire investigators found no obvious reason why John Nolan, 70, might have caught alight

         JUSTIN DAVENPORT Crime Editor


John Nolan, 70, caught fire in a street in Haringey and died

Police today appealed for witnesses after a man died after catching fire as he walked down a street in north London 

Passers-by saw John Nolan, 70, ablaze in a street in Haringey in the middle of the day and attempted to put out the flames before calling police and fire crews.

The former construction worker, who was originally from County Mayo in Ireland, was taken to a specialist hospital but died later.

Today detectives said his death was being treated as unexplained. There were no accelerants found on his body and specialist fire investigators could find no obvious reason for Mr Nolan to catch alight.
Mr Nolan, who lived in Haringey, was found in Orchard Place at 1pm on Sunday September 17 after calls from the public.

PC Damien Ait-Amer, who is investigating the death, said: “We have spoken with a number of witnesses who saw Mr Nolan ablaze, but we have yet to establish how the fire started.

“Mr Nolan was a well-liked member of the community and none of our enquiries so far have indicated that he had been involved in a dispute of any sort. Nor does any account given by witnesses suggest that he had been in contact with another person at the time of the fire.” 


Most of the literature will tell you there’s no such thing as SHC, and Charles Dickens often gets the blame for spreading the urban myth.  He seems to have believed in it, not least as a plot device:  in Bleak House  Mr. Krook, a man in the recycling trade, does indeed die that way, though not while walking. This from Dickens’ 1853 preface to the novel.

“The possibility of what is called spontaneous combustion has been denied since the death of Mr. Krook; and my good friend Mr. Lewes (quite mistaken, as he soon found, in supposing the thing to have been abandoned by all authorities) published some ingenious letters to me at the time when that event was chronicled, arguing that spontaneous combustion could not possibly be. I have no need to observe that I do not wilfully or negligently mislead my readers and that before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject. There are about thirty cases on record, of which the most famous, that of the Countess Cornelia de Baudi Cesenate, was minutely investigated and described by Giuseppe Bianchini, a prebendary of Verona, otherwise distinguished in letters, who published an account of it at Verona in 1731, which he afterwards republished at Rome. The appearances, beyond all rational doubt, observed in that case are the appearances observed in Mr. Krook's case. The next most famous instance happened at Rheims six years earlier, and the historian in that case is Le Cat, one of the most renowned surgeons produced by France. The subject was a woman, whose husband was ignorantly convicted of having murdered her; but on solemn appeal to a higher court, he was acquitted because it was shown upon the evidence that she had died the death of which this name of spontaneous combustion is given. I do not think it necessary to add to these notable facts, and that general reference to the authorities which will be found at page 30, vol. ii., the recorded opinions and experiences of distinguished medical professors, French, English, and Scotch, in more modern days, contenting myself with observing that I shall not abandon the facts until there shall have been a considerable spontaneous combustion of the testimony on which human occurrences are usually received.”


Alcohol is often given as a factor in SHC, as in this cartoon - the large sign for Old Tom 

suggests that Pa had been knocking back the gin.  It also suggests he was walking at the 


Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Sometimes I discover walking stuff for myself.  Sometimes people send me things.
I discovered, more or less under my own steam, that Wilkie Collins’ The Woman In White contains a whole lot of walking (no doubt most of the world knew this already) - 197 usages of the word walk and its variants in the book, along with stroll, and the occasional ramble, step, march and stride, and so on.

         Here’s some crucial early walking in the novel: 
“I had now arrived at that particular point of my walk where four roads met—the road to Hampstead, along which I had returned, the road to Finchley, the road to West End, and the road back to London. I had mechanically turned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely high-road … when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.
“I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the handle of my stick.
         “There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her …
“‘Is that the road to London?’ she said.”

What I didn’t know, till I read it in the New York Review of Books, is that Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens walked together at a certain time in their lives.  They co-wrote what became The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, based on a walking tour they did in the north of England.
“These two had sent their personal baggage on by train: only retaining each a knapsack. Idle (that’s the overdeterministic name of one of the apprentcies) now applied himself to constantly regretting the train, to tracking it through the intricacies of Bradshaw's Guide, and finding out where it is now - and where now - and where now - and to asking what was the use of walking, when you could ride at such a pace as that. Was it to see the country? If that was the object, look at it out of the carriage windows. There was a great deal more of it to be seen there than here. Besides, who wanted to see the country? Nobody. And again, whoever did walk? Nobody. Fellows set off to walk, but they never did it. They came back and said they did, but they didn't. Then why should he walk? He wouldn't walk. He swore it by this milestone!”

Things cooled between the two men after Collins’ brother Charley “walked down the aisle” with Dickens’ daughter Kate.  It was not a marriage made in heaven, apparently.

And then fellow walking scribe Anthony Miller sent me a quotation from Robert Mcfarlane that appears in the 2012 documentary titled Patience (After Sebald) directed by Grant Gee,
Macfarlane says, "The British tradition is of walking as recovery and the American tradition is of walking as discovery. That striding forms into the oncoming air of the world, for the Romantic tradition, the British Romantic tradition, is a way to strip away the accretions of civilization, the hawking and hammering of time lived in cities and returning yourself to some original state, I mean, that's Rousseau: It's European as well as it's British. 
“But the American tradition, it's there in the road movie, it's there in the sense that we travel to liberate ourselves, to discover new ways of being, to acquire whole new methods of life that may themselves turn into habits but don't begin as them."

I keep wondering if this is even remotely true.  First of all I wonder if I understand what he means by “recovery.”  Recovery in the sense of getting better again?  As a remedy for illness?  Well maybe, but that seems to be no less British than American – look no further than Cheryl Strayed.

Or does he mean recovery in the sense of repossession or reclamation?  In a literal or metaphoric sense?  Surely only the latter.  You can’t stake a physical claim on the landscape of, say, East Anglia, but you can certainly, metaphorically “make (or remake) it yours.”
As for American walking being a means to discover “new ways of being;” well what’s so American about that?  Isn’t that what the Wordworths and De Quincey and all the rest were trying to do?

Still, maybe we shouldn’t hold MacFarlane to this opinion too firmly.  We all say dubious things when a microphone’s put in front of us.