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 HG Wells. Show all posts
Showing posts with label HG Wells. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


One of the first “grown up” books I ever discovered and read for myself was HG Wells’ The Time Machine.  It was in the local library and it had a shiny silver cover, and it was also short.

I like to think I still remember it pretty well from that first reading, though I have reread it over the years and of course I’ve seen the George Pal movie. (I preferred the book).

         You couldn’t call The Time Machine a book about walking, and yet when the Time Traveller (“for so it will be convenient to speak of him”) makes his second appearance, having been away on his adventures in the fourth dimension, he “walked with just such a limp as I have seen in footsore tramps,” so evidently he’d been doing plenty of walking on his travels.

Much of the book is the Time Traveller’s own account of his adventures, and walking is certainly involved, some ruin too;  “As I walked I was watching for every impression that could possibly help to explain the condition of ruinous splendour in which I found the world—for ruinous it was. A little way up the hill, for instance, was a great heap of granite, bound together by masses of aluminium, a vast labyrinth of precipitous walls and crumpled heaps ...”  Are we in JG Ballard territory yet?

         And apparently the people of Wells's future don’t do much walking: “There were no large buildings towards the top of the hill, and as my walking powers were evidently miraculous, I was presently left alone for the first time. With a strange sense of freedom and adventure I pushed on up to the crest.”

The description of the time machine in the book is, I think, deliberately vague, leaving you free to imagine your own apparatus. I always liked this futuristic bicycle version:

And I found it rather more convincing than the fairground ride kind of thing that’s in the movie, and of course also in the Big Bang Theory:

But now that I think about it, I can’t see any reason why a movie remake couldn’t employ a form of walking machine, perhaps “The Time Treadmill,” especially some futuristic one like this:

Gardens do appear here and there in the novel, and at one point the  Time Traveller observes that, “There were no hedges, no signs of proprietary rights, no evidences of agriculture; the whole earth had become a garden.”

         There’s a JG Ballard short titled the “Garden of Time” featuring Count Axel “a tall, imperious figure in a black velvet jacket, a gold tie-pin glinting below his George V beard, cane held stiffly in a white-gloved hand.”  Every evening he and his wife walk in the garden attached to their villa.  He looks to the horizon and across the plain where he sees  “that the advance columns of an enormous army were moving slowly over the horizon … the army was composed of a vast confused throng of people, men and women, interspersed with a few soldiers in ragged uniforms, pressing forward in a disorganised tide.”

Ed Emshwiller’s illustration for The Garden of Time from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Feb 1962

         This rabble is no doubt symbolic, though there are many kinds of symbolism to choose between, but however you slice it, they’re the forces of anarchy and they can only be kept at bay by plucking one of the “time flowers” that grow in the count’s garden.  Pick one of those and the rabble retreats, at least for a day. 
Perhaps they, and the count and his wife, go back in time, but as with most time travel stories, that doesn’t quite work because if time simply reversed then the time flower would still be there unpicked, and the story’s McGuffin is that there are fewer and fewer of the flowers, that chaos and death are coming, at the hands of the riff raff.

This is a picture of JG Ballard doing something (not exactly walking) in his garden.

And here’s a picture of HG Wells in a garden, and again not walking, but playing “Little Wars,” a game he invented.

And then, and this is the beauty part, I was walking in the 'hood the other day, taking my morning constitutional, and there, lurking in a nearby hedge, was the thing in the picture below.  See: time machines come in all shapes and sizes.  

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


It seems I still haven’t finished with HG Wells and his walking.  I just discovered a passage from Jerome K. Jerome’s My Life and Times:  actually I found it quoted in Michael Moorcock’s recently published anthology London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction.  Jerome had been under the weather and Wells had invited him down to Folkestone for some sea air and a rest.

Jerome writes, “To ‘rest’ in the neighbourhood of Wells is like curling yourself up and trying to go to sleep in the centre of a cyclone. When he wasn't explaining the Universe, he was teaching me new games—complicated things that he had invented himself, and under stress of which my brain would reel. There are steepish hills on the South Downs. We went up them at four miles an hour, talking all the time. On the Sunday evening a hurricane was raging with a driving sleet. Wells was sure a walk would do us good—wake us up. While Mrs. Wells was not watching, we tucked the two little boys into their mackintoshes and took them with us.
      ‘We'll all have a blow,’ said Wells.”

I don’t know that Michael Moorcock was ever all that much of a walker, and at this point in history it's hard to believe anyone could ever walk down the street dressed the way he is in the photograph above.  In any case he certainly isn’t much of a walker now, being a wheelchair user.  Iain Sinclair once told me the story of when he, Moorcock and Alan Moore did an event at the British Library in London.  This is an image from event, which I find enormously pleasing and moving for reasons I still can’t quite put my finger on.

The event was a great success, it was afterwards that the problems started.  Sinclair writes, “nice & tragic image: the meal that followed was quite an adventure, Mike in his chair, Alan blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, talking and rambling through traffic, down the madness of Euston Road - finding nowhere to eat. And, despite all this, the group were invisibles in the city, nobody rushing to salute those culture heroes.”

A damned shame, I'd say.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


You’ll find H.G. Wells quoted all over the internet, both on actual quotation websites, and on those dubious “advice to entry-level writers” sites as having said or written, “I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there.” 

It comes from An Experiment in Autobiography though none of the online sources I’ve seen acknowledges this, and he’s saying it in order to bad-mouth the prose style of Joseph Conrad, whom he finds a bit fancy and literary.  The quotation in full is  “I write as I walk because I want to get somewhere and I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there.”

To which the obvious response is surely: well that all depends, doesn’t it? Sure, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, but if the two points are, say, either side of a river, it might be wise to walk along the riverbank to a bridge rather than just plunging straight through the water.  There’s also the matter that one doesn’t need to be some fancypants flaneur to believe that walking isn’t always about getting somewhere quickly and efficiently.  A walk without an obvious goal is sometimes much more enjoyable that going in a straight line from one place to another. 

I’m not even all that persuaded by “straightness” as an absolute virtue in writing, but obviously if you’re going to write about time travel, improbable experiments in vivisection, and a war of the worlds, then a good plain prose style helps a lot with credibility and suspension of disbelief.

In fact there’s some evidence that Wells didn’t always walk quite as purposefully as he claims.  In the last decade of the nineteenth century he was living in Woking, Surrey with his second wife.  His mornings were spent walking, or sometimes cycling, in the nearby countryside: in the afternoons he wrote.  Legend has it that he was walking with his brother on one of these mornings, and they imagined how it would be if Martians suddenly landed on this rural English scene and set about destroying it.  Thus was born The War of The Worlds, a fine book of walking and ruin.

One of the oddest details in the books tells us that the narrator was “much occupied in learning to ride the bicycle” as well as being “busy upon a series of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideas as civilization progressed.”  Well yes, that sounds a full life, doesn’t it, but he still finds time to go walking with his wife  “One night  … I went for a walk with my wife. It was starlight and I explained the Signs of the Zodiac to her.”  No word on whether she thanked him for this.

Anyway, soon enough the Martians arrive, in cylinders, and it takes a while before anything emerges, but then, “And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather.”  Fortunately a member of the English working class is nearby to offer the description, "Boilers on stilts, I tell you, striding along like men."

Well, you probably already know that things don’t go terribly well for mankind.  The Martians take over.  Finding himself stranded in the colonized Martian zone, our unnamed hero spends a lot of time dodging the tripods, holing up in a ruined house, doing an occasional bit of swimming, and a lot of walking through a devastated and depopulated London and its suburbs.  “Scrambling over a ruined wall, (I) went on my way through scarlet and crimson trees towards Kew--it was like walking through an avenue of gigantic blood drops.”  That strikes me as pretty good, and not entirely unfancy or unliterary.

The novel contains a lot of great adventure story stuff and Wells is obviously really on to something with the “aliens in the neighborhood” idea.  It’s all very well for spacemen to battle monsters on distant planets but there’s something far more urgent (and fun) in imagining aliens attacking the local supermarket.  And who hasn’t fantasized about walking through a familiar but ruined world in which you’re the only survivor?

Still, it all turns out all right thanks to our friends the bacteria, the Martians die, civilization returns, and one of the last images in the books has our hero standing on Primrose Hill, where he’s able “to see the people walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the sight-seers about the Martian machine that stands there still.”  Being able to walk freely about the city is an emblem both of freedom and order.

Visitors to modern day Woking city center can do something just a little similar, and walk around a 23 foot high sculpture by Michael Condron of one of the Martian tripods.  Gotta say I’m just a little disappointed that it doesn’t have feet.

It’s always hard to imagine how exactly a tripod walks – does it move just one leg at a time, which seems rather slow and laborious, or does it move one leg and use that as a pivot as it brings the other two forward, which seems like it would cause a lot of instability. 


Above is a link to a wonderful website, from which I’ve borrowed some of the images in this post, that shows multiple covers for different editions of The War of the World, and it’s interesting how few of the illustrators address the question of how the tripods walk.  Quite a few of those tripods on the covers would be hard pressed to get around at all, while some of them seem to be floating rather than walking.  And a certain of the illustrators have evidently not read the book at all. 

Above is one of my favorites, a 1916 Heinemann edition (it comes courtesy of Andrew Cox) which is true to the spirit of the book, but also seems to be anticipating steampunk.  To me, it also looks like it might have been an inspiration for Guy Maunsell, the designer of the Maunsell Sea Forts, a World War Two defense system in the Thames estuary, and briefly home to a pirate radio station.

I find it very easy to imagine those sea forts uprooting themselves from the seabed and walking into London to destroy humanity.  I do realize that they’re quadrupeds rather than tripods, but surely that would make the walking and the destruction very much easier.

And finally an image that gives me so much pleasure.  If the Martians had really attacked, and if Sherlock Holmes had been a real person, then he'd certainly have been around for it.  And if you're going to show Britain in ruins, why not show Britain's most famous ruin, Stonehenge?