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

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


While I was in London I walked to Tate Britain, what used simply to be the Tate.  I think I’d noticed before that the west face, as it were, in Atterbury Street is pocked with shrapnel scars, but since I was on my way to see an exhibition titled Ruin Lust, I saw them with new eyes.

I wish I’d loved the exhibition more.  The curator, Brian Dillon, is clearly a good man, but it seemed he was reduced to rummaging around in the gallery’s basement and digging out what he could find.  Of course the Tate has some pretty decent stuff in its basement, and it’s hard to complain about works by Turner, Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, John Piper, Eduardo Paolozzi, et al.

John Piper, St Mary le Port, Bristol, 1940
But am I the only one to be less than fascinated by Jane and Louise Wilson’s photographs of the bunkers of the Atlantic Wall?  Especially since (unless I missed it somehow) they fail to acknowledge that Paul Virilio covered this territory rather more fully in his book Bunker Archeology.  But, of course, Virilio isn’t British so he doesn’t get any of his stuff into Tate Britain.

Virilio writes of the bunkers, “Why this analogy between the funeral archetype and military architecture? Why this insane situation looking out over the ocean? This waiting before the infinite oceanic expanse? Until this era, fortifications had always been oriented towards a specific staked-out objective: the defense of a passageway, a pass, steps, valleys or ports. Whereas here, walking daily along kilometer after kilometer of beach, I would happen upon these concrete markers at the summit of dunes, cliffs, across beaches, open, transparent, with the sky playing between the embrasure and the entrance, as if each casemate were an empty ark or a little temple minus the cult.”  Why indeed?  I think this might have been referenced in the Wilsons' work.

Still, who am I to be critical of the Tate when there was a pile of Nicholson’s Walking in Ruins in the bookshop?

I’m sure there’s no end of shrapnel marks on the buildings of London, but the ones I’m most familiar with are on St Paul’s Cathedral, which escaped a direct hit in the Blitz, but was left with some spectacular scarring. (But see the comment below)

I imagine that by no means all the scars on St Paul’s are from from World War Two.  There are some carved “graffiti” (below), and I suppose that date must be 1702 (though it's a very badly written 7) since that was right in the middle of the construction of the cathedral, and W. Fox was presumably one of the stone masons.

Below is one of my not all that old author pics (photograph by Steve Kenny) sitting on the steps of Sheffield City Hall – and yes those are indeed shrapnel scars in the lump of masonry I'm sitting on.  There was a period of at least six years when I walked past the Sheffield City Hall every day on my way to and from school, and yet I never noticed the scars at the time. New eyes were required.

Also, while I was in England, and definitely inspired by Virilio rather than the Wilson sisters, I went walking on the Naze at Walton, in Essex, looking for bunkers.  It’s one of those places I’d vaguely heard of but knew nothing about.  Naze derives from the Old English word “næss” meaning ness or promontory, but there is also something nose-like about the land formation. 

It was a vital bit of territory during World War Two.  There’s now a World War Two Walk to be done there, though I admit I didn’t follow the route very closely, not least because I couldn’t actually find it.  (True, I didn’t look all that hard).  The Naze Tower, which has been there since 1720, was used as a radar tower during hostilities, and there were bunkers or pillboxes with anti-aircraft machine-guns built along the cliff edge, not “looking out over an oceanic expanse” but across the North Sea to Holland.  I found this particularly fine bunker:

And then this one:

Since the bunkers were designed to withstand aerial bombings it’s perhaps not surprising that they're still standing.  There are some signs of decay.  One of the metal supports on the one above is rusted most of the way through, thanks to the salt air no doubt, and yet the structure itself seems completely sturdy.  It feels more like a monument than a genuine ruin.

And in that first bunker there was evidence of human presence, and indeed of exuberant, untutored, over-optimistic (and misspelled) wall art.  It would no doubt all have been different if Hitler had won.

Monday, March 18, 2013


And speaking (obliquely) of walking and San Francisco … I’ve been reading Paul Virilio’s book Bunker Archeology. Virilio, invariably described as a philosopher, urbanist, and cultural theorist, here writes writing about the French bunkers, part of the “Atlantic Wall,” built under Hitler’s instructions, from Norway to the South of France, during World War Two.  Virilio says that when he was a child in France he never saw the sea because the French coast had been turned into a no man’s land, scattered with defensive structures, in anticipation of an Allied invasion. 

As a grown up, he walked daily along the beach, exploring, photographing and philosophizing about the concrete bunkers that could still be found every few miles.  He concluded that these bunkers were “symbols of the fragility of the Nazi state.  This cryptic architecture became the marker for the evolution of Hitlerian space.”  The notion that bunkers are a sign of fragility is an interesting one, but I wonder if there’s any civilization that hasn’t built bunkers of one kind or another.

It so happens that San Francisco has its own line of bunkers, along with other attendant fortfications, as in fact as does the whole of the American coast: a sort of “Pacific Wall” built to deter enemies coming in across the water, be they real or imaginary, Mexican, Japanese, or Russian.  It’s tempting to see this as simple American paranoia, but in fact in fact the first San Francisco bunkers were built by the Spanish.

The San Francisco bunkers are on the west coast of the peninsula, all along the side of the Presidio, once an impenetrable military base, now a public park.  I decided I’d walk the length of the Presidio, from the southwest corner, take the path that goes past various bunkers, battlements and batteries – Battery Chamberlin, Battery Crosby, Battery Godfrey, Battery Boutelle, et al -and end up somewhere under the Golden Gate Bridge.  That’s not a huge distance, not more than a couple of miles, though with plenty of up and downs and detours, including the Battery to Bluffs Trail, if you choose to take them.

I’d been told that this area is known in some quarters as “bad boy beach,” a hot bed of gay sex, but I couldn’t see any evidence of this.  Maybe it was too cold.  I did see a couple of professional dog walkers at the southern end, and increasing numbers of more or less serious walkers, and even runners, as I got further north, but in general the stretch was thinly populated.

Of course the ocean is the attraction for a lot of people, and there’s a pretty fabulous view of the bridge for most of the way, and yet the bunkers still felt like the real attraction, and I didn’t see any anybody resisting the urge to walk among them, going up and up and down the steps, climbing the parapets, walking on the roofs, on what would have been the impenetrable face they toward the enemy.

I’m still trying to work out exactly what’s so great about these bunkers, and perhaps all bunkers; I think it’s because that they’re so uncompromising, they’re absolutely functional, built exactly the way they need to be built, without decoration or aesthetic consideration, they don’t look like any other kind of building, they’re completely themselves and yet when you want among them it’s as moving as walking in the ruins of ancient Greece.

There are still several thousand World War Two pillboxes scattered around Britain, there were originally 28,000 of them apparently.  When I used to live East Anglia, in Suffolk, I’d always come across a pillbox or two when I was walking, nothing as grand as those in the Presidio,  and not nearly as photogenic as Virilio's, but they were appealing for many of the same reasons.  The coast itself had bunkers bunkers too – I used to poke around in one close to the Sizewell power station - looking out across the North Sea, ready for a German invasion just as the Germans behind the Atlantic Wall were ready for an Allied invasion.  Last time I was in England I walked by, and even into this, very fine example in Hartford End, Felsted; above and below.