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 Lost art of walking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lost art of walking. Show all posts

Sunday, August 14, 2016


Is there any more depressing way of being described than as “Geoff Nicholson, 63”?  (Well yes of course there is, Geoff Nicholson 64, Geoff Nicholson 65, and so on, but you know what I mean).  That’s how I was described by the Sydney Morning Herald in a rather good piece by Peter Monroe about walking.  It can be found below.

Shrewd observers and flaneuses will note that the piece is illustrated with images of the winsome Tara Wells, 39, and I’m sure that will be perceived as a bit dubious in some quarters; male gaze and whatnot.  But personally I’m prepared to accept that most of the world (me included) would rather look at pictures of her than at pictures of a 63 year old geezer.

It’s a funny thing, when I read my own words after an interview.  They always sound like something I would have said, but I can never quite remember having said them that way: something to do with the spoken versus the printed word, I’m sure.  But in general I’m content to do an interview and find that I don’t come out sounding like a complete dick: this one just about passes the test, IMHO. 



Peter Munro

At 8pm on a frosty night in autumn, Leonard Mead goes walking. His route runs down silent streets and empty footpaths, past homes lit from within by television screens. It's quiet out – he wears sneakers so as not to startle the neighbourhood dogs. In 10 years of strolling by night and day, tallying thousands of kilometres on his feet, he has never met another person walking.

This last, lonely walker was imagined by science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, in a dim future when walking is forbidden and pedestrians are considered criminals. His 1951 short story The Pedestrian depicts a misty evening when Mead is arrested by police for just walking – with no particular purpose or destination in mind. "Walking for air. Walking to see," he says, before being locked inside the sinister-sounding "Psychiatric Centre for Research on Regressive Tendencies".

Bradbury's story was set in 2053 and seems aeons away from our own time. But already, people who walk are relative curiosities. Less than one in five Australians aged 15 and over walked for exercise in 2013-14 – the latest available ABS figures – down from 24 per cent in 2011-12 (even then, it remained our most popular physical recreation activity). The number of walkers dropped by more than 700,000 over that time – from about 4.2 million to 3.5 million.

While we might still walk short distances to the bus stop and train station, the notion of walking for sheer pleasure is emerging as something strange or startling. Committed walkers such as Tara Wells, of Caringbah, in Sydney's south, are increasingly thin on the ground.

    Tara Wells spent her honeymoon walking in Sydney. Photo: Peter Rae

"People have become disconnected to walking for the sake of it, possibly because of laziness and apathy," she says. "These days, it is easy to go your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned car to your air-conditioned workplace and not even notice what you've been missing because your life is so full otherwise.

"When I take the time to get out there at the pace of the walker,  I feel much more connected to myself, the people around me and the world in which we are living."

Walking is in decline worldwide. The proportion of young Australians who walk, ride or scoot to school dropped 42 per cent between 1971 and 2013, according to Active Healthy Kids Australia. In the United States, there has been a comparative long-term slide of 35 per cent in school children taking "active transport" – it's similarly down 23 per cent in the United Kingdom and 12 per cent in Canada.

Walking has suffered most in countries that are heavily reliant on cars. Passenger vehicle ownership in Australia increased from 153 cars per 1000 people in 1955 to 568 in 2013. Multibillion-dollar road projects such as Sydney's WestConnex and Melbourne's Western Distributor toll road plan, reinforce the sense that cars are the way to go.

Tara Wells walks whenever she can - it clears her mind, relaxes her and helps connect her with the outside world.  Photo: Peter Rae

Witness the queues of cars at school drop-off and pick-up zones, or the traffic jams in suburban streets on Saturday mornings. Walking is regarded as dead or wasted time in an otherwise busy day. Walking is something older people do. Even the word "pedestrian" designates it as dull and uninspired.

When we do walk, it's typically to the bus stop, train station or car parking station, often while staring at mobile phone screens. For many of us, the notion of walking for pure pleasure might as well be sci-fi. 

Dr Lina Engelen, a research fellow at the Sydney Medical School, within the University of Sydney, recalls regularly walking to school and sporting activities as a child. Parents today are less likely to let children roam free, she says. "We are getting busier and we don't really have time to walk kids to school or to different places," she says.

"And that combines with the idea of our society getting less safe, which it isn't. Fear mongering means people don't let their kids walk themselves and will drive them."

Active Healthy Kids Australia, a collaboration among researchers in physical activity and health, says children used to enjoy a much larger "roaming radius". The group's 2015 report card on active transport – which gave Australia a middling mark of "C" – cited a UK study that children were failing to venture much further than their front yard. The typical distance that an eight-year-old navigates on their own by foot or bike has declined dramatically: from more than 9.5 kilometres in 1919, to 1.6km in 1950, 800 metres in 1979 and 270m in 2007.

The report's authors attributed the growing reliance on cars, in part, to an increase in the distances children travel to school – due to urban sprawl and the preference for private schools over local public schools. But they questioned parents' concerns about stranger danger and road safety – noting that children are more likely to be harmed by someone they know and that rates of pedestrian accidents are low and getting lower.

The slow demise of walking goes beyond the schoolyard. Driving is the dominant mode of transport to work or full-time study for the vast majority of Australian adults. The percentage of adults who instead walked fell from 4.4 per cent in 2000 to 3.8 per cent in 2012, according to the ABS.

Engelen says while the trend of wearing activity trackers, such as Fitbits, may have increased rates of recreational walking, overall "discretionary" walking has been falling for decades – particularly those incidental, short trips to the supermarket, bank or soccer practice.

Many people simply prefer not to walk, she says. "It is seen as just easier and more comfortable to get in the car, especially if it's a rainy or cold day.

"And perhaps walking is not considered as cool as other forms of physical activity. People are more keen to say that they do scuba diving or are training for a triathlon – something that would impress people a bit more than saying 'I walk'. Anyone can do it, so you are not so special."

'It shouldn't be a big deal that you have gone for a walk'

The winter sun is high above Cronulla Beach, in Sydney's south, where even the dogs are blonde. Young mums in bikinis drag double prams across the sand. Leathery men stick mobile phones down their budgie smugglers.

Tara Wells walks by in jeans and pink Converse shoes. She's no Leonard Mead – there are plenty of people out walking today but they're mostly dressed in active wear, intent on working up a sweat.

Wells, 39, has three children under four and finds scant time to exercise. She prefers "incidental walking" – to train stations, the shops or the library. She spent her honeymoon with husband Ian, who runs Sydney Coast Walks tours, walking most of the way from Manly to Bondi.

That's an unusual honeymoon, I say. "Yes," she says.

In 2010, after suffering sudden onset rheumatoid arthritis, she could barely walk and recalls standing at the bottom of a busy train station escalator in anger. "All these people had two perfectly good legs and I couldn't understand why they weren't using them," she says. "I think it's laziness and apathy. I knew that once I got my health under control, which it is now, I would never take my legs for granted."

She says that walking "recharges" her body and mind. "It gets the blood flowing and I feel more connected to myself and to the world. When I walk I can feel the ground under my feet, I can feel the blood pumping through my veins, I can feel the wind through my hair. And all of that helps me remember who I am, rather than just my role as a mum."

Conversations flow better when you're walking, she says. And so we stroll along the foreshore, talking about walking and children and walking with children. We're overtaken by people hurrying by with small dogs – including one in a hi-vis dog jacket.

"What's been lost along the way is just walking for the hell of it," Wells says, watching them go. "It shouldn't be a big deal that you have gone for a walk. I think we have forgotten how easy it is and what your legs are there to do, if only we would use them."

'A way of sharpening up the senses'

Walking is an instinctive process that enhances the body and mind. A Stanford University report in 2014 found walking increases creativity – even when it's on a treadmill. Other studies associate regular walking with a reduced risk of dementia, depression and low self-esteem. 

History suggests that an aimless kind of rambling, with no destination or Fitbit tally in mind, seems best for agitating the mind. Poet William Wordsworth is estimated to have walked almost 290,000 kilometres in his life, much of it about England's Lake District. Virginia Woolf sought inspiration while strolling through London's parks. Charles Dickens walked the streets all night, coming home at sunrise.

British writer Geoff Nicholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, says there's something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that go together. Wandering about near his home in the Hollywood Hills helps him to compose novels or solve plot twists. "For me and for a lot of people it is a way of sharpening up the senses," he says. "If you drive down the street, you see things running by the windscreen – they're here, they're gone. But walking helps you see what's there with greater clarity."

Today, Nicholson, 63, has walked up a hill and down again – taking him about 55 minutes in total. He also likes walking in big cities and discovering "strange little corners and alleyways and detours". "Being alone and not needing a car or bus or any other form of transport other than yourself, makes you self-reliant," he says.

Plodding along has some philosophical good, he says. At some point along the long, lonely road, the walker might become the walk – inseparable from the act of putting one foot in front of the other. It's a "zen kind of thing", he says.

"Not wishing to sound too spiritual, there is that sense of belonging, of oneness," he says. "Sometimes I am just a guy trudging along and wishing I was home. But at its best, the body, mind, soul and landscape all come together and raise you up in some way."

Here's the link to the Sydney Morning Herald: 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Well here’s a thing.  Amazon, in all its algorithmic wisdom, sends me a reading suggesting:

Yes, I suppose that if I were looking for something in their Travel and Holiday Books store, then I just possibly might be interested in buying a copy of my own book, The Lost Art of Walking.  Then again, I could perhaps just walk across the yard to the shed of shame (per Michael Moorcock) and pick out a copy so I could re-read it “placidly, a quiet smile playing about my lips”  (per S.J. Perelman) .

Or not.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


I don’t know if you’ve come across Arianna Huffington’s new book Thrive.  It has an initially baffling subtitle “The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder”  Third metric?  Well, apparently it’s a metaphor based on the milking stool – you need that third leg to have a solid foundation.   Although of course when you’re walking you only need two.  But maybe I'm being too literal.

There’s a chapter in the book titled “Walk This Way” (not a reference to Aerosmith and Run DMC as far as I can tell).  Arianna is a great walker apparently.  When she lived in Los Angeles she got many of her best ideas while hiking.  A lot of the planning for the Huffington Post was done on hikes.  When she was pregnant she walked around the grounds of the LA hotel she was staying in.  And no, I don’t know why she was staying in an LA hotel during her pregnancy.  And no, I haven't been able to find a good picture of her walking.

In that walking chapter she quotes Cavafy, Thomas Jefferson, Hemingway, Thoreau and “British author Geoff Nicholson.”  “Words inscribe a text in the same way that a walk inscribes space,” he says.  “Writing is one way of making the world our own, and … walking is another.”

Naturally I’m not going to argue with that, since I wrote it, but I thought it might be instructive to point out that the quotation in full runs, “Modern literary theory sees a similarity between walking and writing that I find persuasive: words inscribe a text in the same way that a walk inscribes space. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel De Certeau writes, 'The act of walking is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian; it is a special acting-out of the place ... and it implies relations among differentiated positions.' I think this is a fancy way of saying that writing is one way of making the world our own, and that walking is another.”  Arianna must have thought that even mentioning De Certeau was too fancy.  That's him below, walking.

Oh, and if you think I’m being a little presumptuous by referring to Ms. Huffington as Arianna – trust me, we’re on first name terms.  She sent me an advanced proof copy of her book, along with this card:

Online evidence suggests it’s her actual signature.  That’s what I call attention to detail.  I also read on her Twitter feed, and elsewhere, that she describes herself as a “flat shoe advocate” – well nobody’s perfect.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Andie Miller, the author of Slow Motion: Stories About Walking  (which is a very good book), sends me the article below from the website of The Times of Johannesburg, which mentions me in passing, and which is a very interesting piece even without that.  I especially like the suggestion that only a man with a heart of stone can fail to laugh at Werner Herzog's lugubriousness.
The part I find especially fascinating is the sentence that reads, “For me walking is like drinking - it makes me happy but I can do it only when I'm happy already.”  I find that completely unlike my own experience.  Walking when I’m happy is good, of course, but it’s not transformative: I tend to stay happy.  Whereas walking when I’m unhappy is the best way I know to get rid of that unhappiness. 
Ah walkers, damn them: no two of them are ever exactly alike.

Walking for dear life

Darrel Bristow-Bovey | 21 October, 2013 00:30

I received a message this week from a man who doesn't want to be named. He'd read about how much I like walking, and he wanted me to know that his brother is, right now, walking from Durban to Johannesburg.
He isn't necessarily walking in a straight line, and when he gets there he might turn around and walk back. He isn't walking for charity and he isn't dressed in a rhino suit. He won't tweet about it or blog or get interviewed on breakfast television. He doesn't want your attention or your money. He's walking because although he isn't religious or especially superstitious, on some level he believes that if he walks his sister may not die of the illness that is killing her.
I wondered if he had read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. An old man named Harold Fry learns that a friend is on the last lap of cancer and sets off, unprepared, to walk across England to see her. He isn't sure what he'll say when he gets there, but he wants her to know that he is coming. He hopes, if hope is the word, that his walk will keep her alive.
It's an act of faith but not in anything. It's an action to exert what small influence a man can exert over an indifferent universe, which is to say, no influence at all. He walks because it's all he can do, and something might be better than nothing. It's a lovely book and if it goes on a bit towards the end, well, that's the nature of very long walks.
The unacknowledged urtext for Harold Fry is surely Werner Herzog's Of Walking In Ice. In the icy winter of 1974 Herzog received word that the German film historian Lotte Eisner was dying in Paris. Herzog instantly walked to see her. He was in Munich at the time. He walked for three weeks through conditions so cold and grim you'd have to be Werner Herzog to endure it or deserve it.
It would take a hard Wildean heart to read Herzog's frozen prose and hear his lugubrious Wagnerian voice intoning, "A black morning, gloomy and cold, spread like a pestilence. I curse Creation" , without laughing out loud. Herzog walked for three weeks, on foot except when he accepted lifts, single-minded except when he took a detour to see the birthplace of Joan of Arc. Lotte Eisner lived another eight years.
The writer Geoff Nicholson tells how, inspired by this story, he went on pilgrimage to Herzog's home in Beverly Hills to ask him to blurb The Lost Art of Walking. He walked in the faith that if he walked, Herzog would surely agree. Alas, not all walks have happy endings.
I love walking, but not as an act of faith, or even penance. Nicholson also tells about Old Leatherman, an unusually ambulatory gentleman of the highway who between 1858 and 1889 walked a 500km route around precise points of Connecticut and New York State, dressed all in leather. The circuit took 34 days and he walked every day, wordless, never taking a day or an item off.
The odour of unlaundered leather didn't bother him because he was a Frenchman named Jules Bouglay, who loved a woman and worked a year's apprenticeship in her father's leather business to prove his worthiness. Regrettably, he ruined the company, bankrupted Dad and lost his love. He went to America and spent the next thirty-some years walking to expiate his guilt. I like to think he returned at the end to claim her, although he might have had some difficulty proving what he'd been doing all that time. Maybe he should have tweeted about it after all.
I try to walk between 10km and 15km each day - ambling and mooching and occasionally sauntering (from sainte-terre, or "holy ground", initially used to denote pilgrims who walked to the Holy Land, and then, sarcastically, for people too lazy to walk to the Holy Land). Since I started walking seven years ago, I no longer get depressed.
For me walking is like drinking - it makes me happy but I can do it only when I'm happy already. If I have quarrelled or I'm fretful I often set out to walk all day but I become panicky. I feel exposed on foot in the world if my heart is not at ease, as though something terrible and irreversible is about to happen. I become gripped with the breathless fear I sometimes get descending underwater, and I have to hurry home.
So I couldn't do what the brother of my new friend is doing, but my thoughts are with them both. Thoughts don't change anything. Neither does prayer. Neither does walking, but you have to do something.

You can read it on the website by clicking here:

Saturday, October 5, 2013


Somebody somewhere (actually at the Serpentine Gallery in 

London) has the chance to buy a book about walking by 

Geoff Nicholson.

Photo by Travis Elborough

Rubbing covers with Charles Saachi - ouch.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Oh and here's a thing to celebrate, and demonstrate my "international" status. While I'm in  New  York, the small format mass market UK edition of The Lost Art of Walking will be published.  Amazon.co.uk seems to have got the info all up the spout and they say it's not published till  October 1st, but they're wrong.  My publisher assures me September 19th is the real publication date.  

It's a slender, handsome volume now, and fits easily in the pocket and can therefore accompany you on your walks over hill and dale, and especially through dark alleys.  In due course it will make a lovely Xmas present too.  The Economist reckons it's "bewitchingly informative."