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 Sebald. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sebald. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Sometimes I discover walking stuff for myself.  Sometimes people send me things.
I discovered, more or less under my own steam, that Wilkie Collins’ The Woman In White contains a whole lot of walking (no doubt most of the world knew this already) - 197 usages of the word walk and its variants in the book, along with stroll, and the occasional ramble, step, march and stride, and so on.

         Here’s some crucial early walking in the novel: 
“I had now arrived at that particular point of my walk where four roads met—the road to Hampstead, along which I had returned, the road to Finchley, the road to West End, and the road back to London. I had mechanically turned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely high-road … when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.
“I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the handle of my stick.
         “There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her …
“‘Is that the road to London?’ she said.”

What I didn’t know, till I read it in the New York Review of Books, is that Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens walked together at a certain time in their lives.  They co-wrote what became The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, based on a walking tour they did in the north of England.
“These two had sent their personal baggage on by train: only retaining each a knapsack. Idle (that’s the overdeterministic name of one of the apprentcies) now applied himself to constantly regretting the train, to tracking it through the intricacies of Bradshaw's Guide, and finding out where it is now - and where now - and where now - and to asking what was the use of walking, when you could ride at such a pace as that. Was it to see the country? If that was the object, look at it out of the carriage windows. There was a great deal more of it to be seen there than here. Besides, who wanted to see the country? Nobody. And again, whoever did walk? Nobody. Fellows set off to walk, but they never did it. They came back and said they did, but they didn't. Then why should he walk? He wouldn't walk. He swore it by this milestone!”

Things cooled between the two men after Collins’ brother Charley “walked down the aisle” with Dickens’ daughter Kate.  It was not a marriage made in heaven, apparently.

And then fellow walking scribe Anthony Miller sent me a quotation from Robert Mcfarlane that appears in the 2012 documentary titled Patience (After Sebald) directed by Grant Gee,
Macfarlane says, "The British tradition is of walking as recovery and the American tradition is of walking as discovery. That striding forms into the oncoming air of the world, for the Romantic tradition, the British Romantic tradition, is a way to strip away the accretions of civilization, the hawking and hammering of time lived in cities and returning yourself to some original state, I mean, that's Rousseau: It's European as well as it's British. 
“But the American tradition, it's there in the road movie, it's there in the sense that we travel to liberate ourselves, to discover new ways of being, to acquire whole new methods of life that may themselves turn into habits but don't begin as them."

I keep wondering if this is even remotely true.  First of all I wonder if I understand what he means by “recovery.”  Recovery in the sense of getting better again?  As a remedy for illness?  Well maybe, but that seems to be no less British than American – look no further than Cheryl Strayed.

Or does he mean recovery in the sense of repossession or reclamation?  In a literal or metaphoric sense?  Surely only the latter.  You can’t stake a physical claim on the landscape of, say, East Anglia, but you can certainly, metaphorically “make (or remake) it yours.”
As for American walking being a means to discover “new ways of being;” well what’s so American about that?  Isn’t that what the Wordworths and De Quincey and all the rest were trying to do?

Still, maybe we shouldn’t hold MacFarlane to this opinion too firmly.  We all say dubious things when a microphone’s put in front of us.

Monday, October 6, 2014


And speaking of black dogs, I’ve been rereading Robert Walser’s short story, sometimes referred to as a novella, “The Walk,” in which, at one point, the narrator encounters a hound:
“To a good honest jet-black dog who lay in the road I delivered the following facetious address: ‘Does it not enter your mind, you apparently quite unschooled and uncultivated fellow, to stand up and offer me your coal-black paw, though you must see from my gait and entire conduct that I am a person who has lived a full seven years at least in the capital of this country and of the world, and who during this time has not one minute, let alone one hour, or one month, or one week, been out of touch or out of pleasant intercourse with exclusively cultured people? Where, ragamuffin, were you brought up? And you do not answer me a word? You lie where you are, look at me calmly, move not a finger, and remain as motionless as a monument? You should be ashamed of yourself!’”
He then adds, “Yet actually I liked the dog.”

Robert Walser (1878 – 1956), was a German speaking Swiss who published quite  widely as a young man, but he was increasingly beset with mental and emotional problems that eventually stopped him writing altogether.  
And although he wrote four novels (or which only three survive), he’s generally regarded, and cherished, as a writer whose creativity came in fragments, sometimes in the form of "microscripts."  He might have been a great blogger.
  He was also a walker, no doubt a flaneur (he certainly wrote like one), and walking features regularly in his work, but it’s “The Walk” that pulls it all together, and is an excellent point of access to his writing, not least because the very idea of a (or the) walk creates a structure, and the story does have something resembling a narrative at least to the extent that things happen one after another.

A man goes for a walk, wearing his “yellow English suit.” He goes to a bookshop, a bank, the tax office, has more or less unsatisfactory encounters; with neighbors, his tailor, a beautiful woman, and indeed a dog.  Parts of it are very funny (I’m reminded of George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody as well as Kafka), but the ultimate effect  is a soft, deep and eventually all-enveloping melancholy.

 “The Walk” was first published in German, as Der Spaziergang  in 1917, and I discover there’s a later, apparently quite different version, though the one I know is the early one as it appears in the nyrb edition of Selected Stories, translated by “Christopher Middleton and others.” 

As I reread “The Walk” I thought it was just great; funny, awkward, profound, gently tragic, and yet I was struck by how little of it I actually remembered from my previous reading.  Of course I’m happy enough to accept that this is because of the failings of my own memory, and yet, I’m relieved to find that W.G. Sebald had some of the same problems.

         Sebald writes about Walser in a chapter of the book A Place In the Country, and describes him as a writer, “whose prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events, and things of which it spoke. Was it a lady named Wanda or a wandering apprentice, Fräulein Elsa or Fräulein Edith, a steward, a servant, or Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, a conflagration in the theater or an ovation, the Battle of Sempach, a slap in the face or the return of the Prodigal, a stone urn, a suitcase, a pocketwatch or a pebble? Everything written in these incomparable books has—as their author might himself have said—a tendency to vanish into thin air. The very passage which a moment before seemed so significant can suddenly appear quite unremarkable.”

         Yes and yes.  And now there’s a new collection of Walser fragments titled A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, translated by Damion Searls, introduction by Ben Lerner.  In it there’s a piece, hardly a story, titled “Two Things” consisting of just two discreet paragraphs, which perfectly demonstrate the way Walser’s prose can evaporate before your mind’s eye.  The second paragraph, in its entirety, runs as follows:
       “I was walking just so and while making my way along just so I ran into a dog, and I paid careful attention to the good animal, by which I mean to say that I looked at it for rather a long time. What a fool I am, am I not? For is there not something foolish about stopping on the street due to a dog and losing valuable time? But in making my way along just so I absolutely did not have the sense that time was valuable, and so, after some time, I continued on my leisurely way. I thought, ‘How hot it is today!’ and indeed it was really very warm.” 
There’s just no getting away from those dogs.

The date of Robert Walser’s death is generally given as Christmas Day, 1956, but I think he must have died earlier than that, for reasons I’ll explain.  He was an inmate at the sanatorium (some describe it as a mental hospital) in Herisau: long country walks were one of his few pleasures.  He evidently died of a heart attack while walking across a snowy field, and his frozen body was found by children who were themselves out for a walk on Christmas Day. But it seems to me, assuming Walser didn’t set off before  first light, and assuming the kids weren’t walking after dark (reasonable though I agree not cast-iron assumptions), and I know it gets chilly in those parts, but still, it seems there wasn’t enough time for a body to go from alive and warm to frozen solid.  In other words didn’t he probably die at least the day before? Not the very biggest deal, but something worth considering.
Either way, it must have been quite a Christmas to remember for the kids. 


Friday, November 11, 2011


And speaking of walking and cruising (as I was a few posts back), there’s a curious piece in Alan Bennett’s collection Untold Stories, titled “Common Assault” in which he describes being on holiday in Ladispoli in Italy with his boyfriend and being attacked by a group of local youths, while out walking at night.  It is a serious assault, as well as a common one: metal pipes and head injuries (Bennett’s) are involved.

The local Italian police are no help at all and they assume, quite incorrectly, that Bennett was out trying to pick up young men, and he got what they (the police) thought he deserved.

Bennett is especially affronted by this assumption since, as he says, “I have never been able to cruise and have never had much inclination to do so, though seeing it as a definite shortcoming, one of several masculine accomplishments I have never been able to master ... It was partly that, never feeling I would be much of a catch, I saw no point trawling the streets for someone who might feel differently.  And then, too, I was quite hard to please.”

Well, these all strike me as perfectly good reasons not to go walking the dangerous streets of foreign cities at night looking for sex, though as I saw with my friend Martin, it’s obviously perfectly possible to do it in broad daylight in familiar territory, though I can see that might not be quite as exciting.

There is perhaps also the possibility that the youths attacked Bennett simply because he “looked gay” but since robbery was also involved, they may well have been entirely unprejudiced attackers who’d have robbed anyone out walking who looked vulnerable, gay, straight or bi.

I haven’t been able to find a picture of Alan Bennett walking, though there is this one of him standing in the Yorkshire landscape, and I suppose he must have done at least a little walking in order to get there:

In the course of the book Bennett also offers his opinion on W.G. Sebald.  He is not besotted.  He writes, “… the contrivance of it, particularly his un-peopling of the landscape never fails to irritate.  ‘It was already afternoon, six in the evening when I reached the outskirts of Lowestoft.  Not a living soul was about in the long street.’  In Southwold ‘everybody who had been out for an evening stroll was gone.  I felt as if I were in a deserted theater.’  Maybe East Anglia is like this ... but Sebald seems to stage-manage both the landscape and the weather to suit his (seldom cheerful) mood.”

Well I do take Bennett’s point.  I’ve always wondered what happened on those occasions when Sebald went out for a walk, found the sun shining and the streets filled with throngs of happy people and laughing children.  I suppose the simple answer is that he went home with nothing to write about.  Or he went home and wrote a “fictionalized version” which, of course, as an artist he was perfectly free to do.

My own suspicions about Sebald’s stage-management comes from knowing that he used to drink in a pub Southwold called the Crown.  I only went there a couple of times, and it seemed to be full of full of media folk up from London, drinking Chardonnay, savoring the local Suffolk “fayre” and talking about their latest projects.  Sightings of Melvin Bragg and Michael Palin were reported.  There are plenty of gloomy, chilly pubs in and around Southwold that would surely have been better-suited to Sebald’s professed melancholy.

On the other hand, to give him his due, I think it’s perfectly possible that some of Sebald’s descriptions of the unpopulated East Anglian landscape, and even of Southwold, are literally true, and do stick to the letter of what he saw, of what anybody might see.  These empty places do, of course, make cruising an extraordinarily pointless exercise.

The pictures accompanying this post were taken a few years back on my last night in Suffolk.  I had owned a cottage there and I was finally selling up to live full time in Los Angeles, and I took a final long walk around Southwold, through the town, down the seafront, along the river and back.  The streets and roads, the beach, and certainly the caravan parks, were completely deserted, and I did indeed feel a great wash of yearning, though not entirely unpleasant, melancholy.  I was not, however, for a moment, tempted to go for a drink in the Crown.

As a matter of fact I didn’t find it all that much easier to find a picture of Sebald walking than I did Alan Bennett, though for what it’s worth, here's this one: