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 Pevsner. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pevsner. Show all posts

Thursday, April 14, 2016


I’ve been reading Susie Harries’ book Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life – it’s dead good.  Of course, the books in Pevsner’s Buildings of England contain “perambulations,” self-guided routes that enable you to walk round a place and look at the architecture Pevsner found worthy of attention.  So it’s no surprise to anybody that he was a great walker.

Even so I was quite tickled by the above photograph in the book, which is captioned,  “The Professor in Mufti: Pevsner with Lola and two of their grandchildren on holiday in the Tyrol, 1961.  In Who’s Who he listed his recreation as ‘twelve-mile walks’.”

When Pevsner first wrote about the buildings of London he divided the place into two volumes, one for Westminster and the City, and one for the rest.  This caused some amusing consternation among the staff at Penguin.  Editor Alan Glover (who according to Harries and other sources had once worked as a tattooed man in a circus) wrote, “I can only say that if I were walking from Charing Cross to the Bank making a rapid study of architecture I should be a bit disturbed at having to carry one fat volume in my right-hand trousers pocket and another fat volume in my left, and as you may have observed I am not over-particular about the set of my trousers.”

Friday, February 5, 2016


A man walking down the street – sometimes it’s a woman, but more usually it’s a man – and as he walks he talks, and points at things, and it seems that he’s talking just to you, explaining those things that aren’t obvious, that don’t immediately meet the eye. 
Sometimes this “talking” may be in book form – a text, a narrative, a guide book, and often it’s on video, whether a serious documentary or travelogue or just some wobbly fetish footage shot on somebody’s cellphone and destined for YouTube and an amazingly low number of views.
         And of course this person almost certainly doesn’t know you, may be addressing an imaginary you, a big audience of “yous.”  And there may be a whole army of intermediaries between you and him – publishers, editors, a film crew, programmers.  Some of these intermediaries aim for a much higher degree of invisibility than others.

I’ve been thinking about this while reading two versions of A Survey of London, two very different versions of what are in some ways the same book.  John Stow’s A Survay (sic) of London was first published in 1598, and he revised and expanded it for a second edition published in 1603, two years before his death. I did not, alas, read the version below:

Posthumous editions continued to appear after Stow had departed, often containing maps and illustrations. Some of the editing was wayward, but there was a “perfected” or at least unlikely to be improved upon edition by John Strype, often referred to as "Strype’s Stowe," published in 1720.  It was several times longer than the original, incorporating all kinds of new material, much of it necessitated by changes and growth in London, some of it dictated by Strype’s own personal preferences.

John Stow 1525-1605 was a tailor by trade but more passionately he was a historian, antiquary, collector of books and manuscripts.  And he was also a great walker, an urban explorer, a psychogeographer some centuries avant la letter.  He was therefore an ancestor of a whole tribe of writers and historians and TV presenters who use walking as a mean of investigating the geographic, historic and cultural landscape.

Sometimes this seems a bit old hat.  I think Alan Whicker was the first on-screen walker and talker I ever saw – and he began presenting Whicker’s World in 1958.  And I’m sure there were earlier ones too.  But it’s a tribe that shows no sign of dying out: think Anthony Bourdain, think Mary Beard, think Simon Sharma, think Jonathan Meades.

Edmond Howes, Stow’s literary executor wrote that Stow never rode, but always traveled on foot when he visited historic buildings or sought out historical documents.  William Drummond reports Ben Jonson as saying, “He (Stow) and I walking alone, he asked two criples (sic), what they would have to take him to their order.”  I think Stow protested too much about his poverty: he left his wife and daughters enough money that they could erect this elaborate monument to him in the Church of St John Undershaft in EC2.  Think you or I will get one like that?

Stow’s prose style is chatty and he writes as though you’re “there,” walking along with him. He’s your guide, pointing things out, telling you stories and anecdotes, but he’s not uncritical about what he sees and knows.  Like many an observer he regrets some of the changes. 
“In the East ende of Forestreete is More lane: then next is Grubstreete, of late yeares inhabited for the most part by Bowyers, Fletchers, Bowstring makers, and such like, now little occupied, Archerie giving place to a number of bowling Allies, and Dicing houses, which in all places are increased, and too much frequented.” 
That’s right, you know the neighborhood’s on the skids when the archers move out and the bowling alley moves in.

         John Strype’s edition of Stowe is titled A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, and he adheres to Stow’s notion of exploring the city as though on a walking tour, and he adds a few “perambulations” or circuit walks of his own.

It’s very hard for me to see that word “perambulation” without thinking of Nikolaus Pevsner and his Buildings of England series.  He perambulated all over the country.  Was he consciously echoing Stow and Strype?  He must surely have been aware of the Survey.  In any case, Pevsner’s work, just like Stow’s, is now reedited and revised by subsequent diverse hands. 

I’m one of that generation who finds it impossible to walk round an English church or churchyard without noting and mentally cataloging the features in a Pevsner-esque way  - rhenish helm, blind clerestory, nodding ogee arch – etc.   I’m not sure that this is a necessarily good thing.

Perhaps Jonathan Meades is similarly conflicted.  In his documentary Pevsner Revisited he says that while other disaffected youths were off demonstrating and smashing the state, he was exploring English architecture clutching a volume of Pevsner.

There’s plenty of footage of Pevsner himself walking around looking at buildings, and he was seen on TV once in a while, but he never had the popularity or that “posh but with a common touch” thing that John Betjeman had.  There was a certain rivalry between them, but Pevsner just wasn’t cuddly, he wasn’t televisual, and he wasn’t loved - possibly his German origins had something to do with that.  Betjeman was a London lad, born in Gospel Oak, though that surname is Dutch, originally with two n’s – changed precisely because it sounded German.

And I remember that at some point in my not especially misspent youth, I used to walk the streets of my hometown of Sheffield, fantasizing that an imaginary camera crew was following me as I wandered among the treasures of the Sheffield urbanscape – not that I knew much about the Sheffield urbanscape.
         Now, just occasionally, in my role as walker, writer, pontificator, and god knows I've been called a "cultural critic," I do get called upon to wander around, talk and point at things, usually not in Sheffield.

Sometimes there’s even a camera crew.  It’s never as much fun as I once thought it would be, but I do always try very hard not to look or sound like Alan Whicker.