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 Edmund white. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Edmund white. Show all posts

Monday, September 26, 2011


So I have been to New York, I have appeared at the Brooklyn Book Festival and I have done a fair amount of walking.  In fact I walked from the hotel on 39th Street in Manhattan, across the Manhattan Bridge and the East River, into Brooklyn to Borough Hall where the event was taking place; a modest four and a half miles or so.

The best thing about the Manhattan Bridge is that it gives you a fairly close view of the Brooklyn Bridge and a fairly distant one, over the rooftops, of the Williamsburg Bridge.  The worst thing about it is that although there are allegedly separate paths across the bridge for walkers and bikers, bastards on bikes still belt along the walkway.  On a different occasion they would have felt the rough edge of my tongue, and possibly my elbow, but who wants to get into a fight on the way to a literary panel?

Teju Cole, Sergio Chefjec and I were “moderated” by Edmund White.  His introductory remarks went something like this:
EW: It seems there are a great many books that involve walking, in fact I once wrote one myself.  It was called ... oh, what was it now ...?
(Longish Pause)
GN: (Helpfully)  The Flaneur?
EW: Well yes, there is that one, but I wrote another one as well ...

It says much for Edmund White’s twinkly charm that this came across as warmly human rather than simply befuddled.  He did a fine job of moderating, though he did have a disarming tendency to say things like, “So Geoff, tell us about Iain Sinclair and Psychogeography.”  I did what I could.

He also encouraged me to tell the story about Erik Satie and the streetlamps, and I obliged.  Satie was a great walker as well as a great composer.  Every day he left his home in the suburb of Arcueil and walked to his studio in the center of Paris, then at night walked back again: six miles in each direction.  He did a lot of composing on his nocturnal homeward walks.  He would create music in his head, then stop from time to time under a convenient streetlamp and write it down in a notebook.  But then, during the First World War a lot of Parisian streetlamps were turned off, and his productivity was much reduced.  The gaps between sources of light were too great.  By the time he got to an illuminated streetlamp much of the music had evaporated from his head.

This allowed Edmund White to tell his own story about picking up a “boy” in a gay bar and as they walked home the boy would talk quite happily for a while but then regularly fall into complete silence.  White eventually worked out that the boy was deaf and he was lip-reading.  This was fine when they were near a streetlamp, but as they went into the dark areas between lights he fell silent because he couldn’t see what White was saying.

By then we’d discovered that the book he couldn’t remember the title of was City Boy subtitled “My life in New York during the 1960s and 70s.”  AIDs was unknown and he was an "apostle of promiscuity", living on steak, amphetamine, alcohol and cigarettes, while enjoying "industrial quantities of sex."  Partners were invariably picked up on the street. “We had to seek out most of our men on the hoof,” he writes.

Back in the mid 1970s I was living in London, doing my first real job, and I had a friend who was studying drama at the Webber Douglas Academy.  He had the the most active gay sex life (sex life of any sort) that I’d ever heard of.  Every day as he walked to and from classes at drama school, a walk of not more than fifteen minutes, he would unfailingly pick up a sex partner, sometimes more than one.  At the time this seemed both impressive and improbable.  And of course, as we now know, extremely risky.  My friend was most definitely not having safe sex. 

But that problem still lay in wait.  At the time I was just fascinated to know how he did it.  He was a fairly ordinary-looking man, and to a heterosexual eye didn’t even seem all that conspicuously gay.  What was the secret of his “success”?  He said it was all to do the eye contact, with the way he looked at other men.  For a long time I had to take his word for it.

And then there was an occasion when I needed to move a large oil painting I owned, maybe four feet square, from my old flat to a new one.  I was too poor, and too mean, to hire a van, so Martin offered to help me carry it through the streets.  We walked, one of us at either end of the painting, him in front, me bringing up the rear, so that I had a view of him as we walked.  And I saw that he kept giving the “look” to men we passed. 

It didn’t seem at all sexual to me.  It looked threatening and aggressive, as if spoiling for a fight, and I’d have thought quite likely to get you beaten up in that “Who do you think you’re looking at?” kind of way.  But apparently not.  When we got to journey’s end he assured me this was the look that worked so well for him, and if he hadn’t been with me and carrying a painting he could certainly have scored a couple of times in the course of the walk.  The men he’d looked at had looked back.

Oh how I wished these techniques were available to the heterosexual male.  In general, with very few exceptions, I really don’t think they are, but I do have friends of friends who knew Tyrese (later Tyrese Gibson) in the period when he was somewhat known as a successful male model but before he became an actor and starred in movies such as 2 Fast 2 Furious.  I have it on reasonable authority that he spent most of his spare time wandering the streets of New York picking up women or every kind.  He made out like a bandit, as they say.  I’m not sure what kind of “look” Tyrese used as he walked the streets. Maybe the one below.