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 Paul Theroux. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Paul Theroux. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


"I haven't got any special religion this morning. My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don't need any other god.”  The line comes from Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, something he says in reply to a Baha’i missionary who asks him what religion he is.
Do you think Chatwin really said that at the time?  Or did he just think it?  Or did he think it much later and insert it in the book to show how deeply wise and spiritual he was?  I don’t know, but my money’s on the last of these.  I know what writers are like.

I've always felt there was something a bit rum about Bruce Chatwin.  One of the rummest things: he was born in my home town, Sheffield, hard, rough, working class, steel city, but he and his parents didn’t stay long, and if he’d lived there and gone around dressed the way he is in that picture above he wouldn’t have lasted thirty seconds.

When I was writing my own “sort of” travel book titled Day Trips to the Desert (a book that would never have been commissioned if Chatwin hadn’t completely revitalized the British “travel writing genre”) I read Chatwin’s The Songlines as research before I went to Australia, and in due course visited some of the same places he did.  They didn’t resemble his version in any meaningful way. 

         Right in the opening of the book he describes Alice Springs as “a grid of scorching streets where men in long white socks were forever getting in and out of Land Cruisers.”  Well OK, Toyotas were ubiquitous in Australia at the time (and I imagine still are), but there were as many pickups and “Utes” as Land Cruisers, and yes some men in the Northern Territory really did (though I can’t tell you if they still do) wear long white socks with shorts – Barry Humphries mocked them pretty thoroughly back in the day.  But Alice Springs wasn’t a “grid of scorching streets,” it really wasn’t.  It was a very pleasant, and surprisingly green city, looking much like this:

 I didn’t feel personally affronted by Chatwin’s improvisations.  It’s what writers do.  It wasn’t that I thought Chatwin was a fake, but I did find him a bit of a poser.  It didn’t help that wherever he went he always found some spiritual soul brother, who inevitably found his theories of nomadism (or whatever else he had on his mind at the time) far more compelling than I ever did.  It was also pretty annoying that regardless of which godforsaken airport in the middle nowhere he arrived at, there always seemed to be a car waiting, sent by his friend at the embassy or some flunky from the British Council. 

It seems I was ahead of the curve in being annoyed by Chatwin.  Rory Stewart (that's him above) writing in the NYRB blog (the piece is actually part of his introduction to a new edition of The Songlines) says, “It is difficult to believe today, as Chatwin’s contemporaries did, that he was simply an extraordinary man to whom extraordinary things happened. Perhaps critics couldn’t detect his inventions as easily, at the time of their publication, because in the last days of hippies on the overland trail, travels like Arkady’s in Asia, or Chatwin’s with nomads, were conventions of the time, which still seemed to have depth and vitality.”  Well, only up to a point Rory, only up to a point. 

He goes on,  “Today, however, Chatwin’s fictions seem more transparent. We may not be too surprised to discover the journeys with nomads for which he “quit his job,” and which John Lanchester admired, were brief interludes in a period more accurately described as Chatwin getting married and becoming an undergraduate at Edinburgh University. And the passages, suffused with symbolic and literary resonances, that once seemed most impressive, no longer seem the most satisfying. His personality, his learning, his myths, and even his prose, are less hypnotizing.”

Which, of course, all depends on just how hypnotized you were in the first place.  Stewart himself seems to have been utterly mesmerized.  He quotes from his own notebook, “Most of human history was conducted through contacts, made at walking pace…the pilgrimages to Compostela in Spain…to the source of the Ganges, and wandering dervishes, sadhus, and friars, who approached God on foot. The Buddha meditated by walking, and Wordsworth composed sonnets while striding beside the Lakes. Bruce Chatwin concluded from all these things that we would think and live better, and be closer to our purpose as humans, if we moved continually on foot across the surface of the earth.”
     This would apparently have been written in 1997 or so: Stewart would have been 24.  It takes a brave or foolish man to quote from the notebooks he wrote when he was 24.  There seem to be rather few pictures of Chatwin walking, though quite a few of Rory Stewart.

Chatwin’s good friend Paul Theroux seems to have found Chatwin pretty annoying at times too, and has written some lacerating stuff about Chatwin holding forth, claiming to have made certain journeys and scaled certain peaks that he couldn’t possibly have done.  And yet, and yet …

In The Tao of Travel, wherein Theroux has some pretty sharp things to say about travelers who “fake” (or romanticize) their journeys, he also pays Chatwin a great and perhaps surprising compliment. He writes “Chatwin could seem at times frivolous … but without question he was an imaginative writer and one of the great walkers in travel literature.      
“This is not plain in the text of In Patagonia, where a typical sentence is ‘I left the Rio Negro and went on south, to Port Madryn’ – a trek of two hundred miles, but he doesn’t say how he got there … He is an insubstantial presence in his books (‘I am not interested in the traveler’) … but in his letters home he was explicit. “dying of tiredness. Have just walked 150 odd miles,’ he wrote to his wife.

Sometimes a pose requires modesty rather than self-aggrandizement.  Then again, certain men have been known occasionally to lie to their wives.

Monday, July 29, 2013


It’s happened before (more or less) so I wasn’t completely surprised when it happened again over the weekend.  I was walking along the San Clemente Pedestrian Beach Trail, about 60 miles south of Los Angeles.  I would have preferred to walk on the beach, but the tide was in, and there wasn’t much beach to walk along, and in certain places there was none at all. 

San Clemente Pedestrian Beach Trail is quite narrow, pressed in against the railroad track, and I encountered a certain number of other pedestrians along the way.  And one of them stopped and looked at me searchingly and said, “You’re a famous Hollywood actor, right?”
         “No,” I said, “but I get that a lot,” which I understand is what actual famous Hollywood actors say when they want to deflect attention.  However, I was, and still am, left wondering which particular famous Hollywood actor this man thought I looked like.

There was an occasion some years back when I was walking down the main street of Beacon, in upstate New York, (I don't remember it being quite ruined as it looks in the picture above but it was certainly the same era) and a man stopped me and said, “Has anybody ever told you, you look just like Dave Stewart of Eurythmics?” Of course, in this case he evidently didn’t think I actually was Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, but I said no, nobody ever had told me that, and the simple truth is that I don’t think I look anything like Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, nor would I wish to.  I mean, I have a beard, but that’s about it.  Still, the man in Beacon didn’t intend it as an insult.

I was in San Clemente because I’d just come down from visiting the Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded by the Spanish in 1776 (a year when things were getting a bit lively over on the other coast), and the mission is the place the swallows return to every year.  I had gone there to walk among the ruins and the cacti, two of my current obsessions.

 These days the mission, though certainly ruined in places, is also thoroughly preserved, perhaps too much so.  There were long periods when it looked more like this:

 I think I’d have been more impressed back then, though of course the cactus gardens wouldn’t have been in place.

The railroad line cuts right through San Juan Capistrano and I suppose there’s a right and a wrong side of the tracks, though San Juan Capistrano is such a wealthy little enclave, that even on the wrong side there’s a tea house and a petting zoo. But if you’re looking for cacti, there’s this utterly amazing specimen which I’ve now visited a couple of times.   (Actually, now that I agonize about it, I wonder if it’s actually a euphorbia).

It’s  inside the boundaries of the Ito Nursery, which doesn’t seem to do a lot of business in cacti, which I think is a shame.  I’d happily pay good money for a cutting from this monster.  Was the cactus a ruin?  No, far from it, despite being in a neglected and unwatered section of the nursery: I guess that’s why I like cacti, and indeed euphorbia.

In the motel that night I found myself reading The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, a quirky and excellent book, partly an anthology of extracts by other authors, partly a collection of “amazing facts” and mini-essays by Theroux himself.  Inevitably there’s a section about traveling pedestrians, titled “It is Solved By Walking.”  The usual subjects are present – Rousseau and Wordsworth, Muir and Thoreau, Chatwin and Herzog.  But there was one name that I wasn’t familiar with: Xuanzang (my ignorance knows few bounds).

 Xuanzang (I now know) was the 7th century Chinese monk and scholar, who thought that the Buddhist texts available to him in China were badly translated, so he traveled to India and beyond to get closer to the source, and to bring back  some texts in the original language for more accurate translation.  He traveled 10,000 miles in seventeen years, much, though not all, of it on foot.

He visited the ruins of Gandhara (now in Pakistan), “there were more than a thousand monasteries but they are now dilapidated and deserted and in delicate condition.”  And he visited Taxila, which currently looks like this:

He also visited, and was awed by, the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, now in Afghanistan, one of which once looked like this:

They were dynamited and destroyed in March 2001 after the Taliban declared that they were idols.  As Theroux puts it “to the cries of ‘Allah is great.’”  The current Afghanistan government has pledged to restore the statues, but I can’t help thinking they may find themselves with other, more pressing priorities.

Inevitably I didn’t see any Taliban equivalents in Southern California, however, while walked along the San Clemente Pedestrian Beach Trail I did see some signs of ruin, or at least a house that may be just a couple of winters away from becoming one.  Some of the houses in San Clemente are built on the cliff top, and the cliff is eroding, with this result:

I like those big, serious industrial supporting columns and they’re obviously doing their job, but you see the area to the left, where a giant slab of rock has fallen away like a collapsing sandcastle.  Look on my works, ye mighty, and move inland.