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 Sheffield. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sheffield. Show all posts

Thursday, August 20, 2015

MAPLESS



I grew up partly on the Longley Council Estate in Sheffield.  When I look at maps of the place these days it seems that the urban planners must have been familiar with very modern and/or very ancient designs for cities.  It wasn’t exactly Bauhaus because it was all essentially single family houses, nor was al-Mansur’s circular city, but those geometrical designs didn’t come out of nowhere.



         I can’t remember precisely when I first saw a map of my neighborhood, but I know it was after I’d been walking the streets for some years and thought I knew the layout of the place pretty well.  At ground level however, I had no sense of those geometrical designs, those semi-circles and spokes.  I was surprised but also somehow enlightened.   I can’t say this was when or why I first developed a liking for maps, but develop a liking for maps I certainly did.


Longley wasn’t the worst place to live, and you definitely didn’t worry about walking the streets there, but we had bad neighbors in the house next door and that had a lot to do with why my parents eventually moved out.


The father next door was a glowering and occasionally violent presence – a hod carrier by trade.  There were two children, a boy and a girl.  The boy was a year or two younger than me, and a poor, timid little thing, not very bright, and it occurs to me now that he was very possibly knocked about by his father. 
         After we’d left Longley my mother still got reports from other (perfectly decent) neighbors.  The boy next door left school young, without any qualifications, was unemployed and probably unemployable.  The way my mother put it, “All he does is mooch around the streets all day,” presumably drifting around thosee semi-circles and spokes.


         “Mooch” is an interesting word, and my mother used it a lot, and always to mean walking aimlessly, loitering, doing nothing much, though the sense of being a scrounger or a good for nothing was probably there too.  I’m not sure if she knew the Cab Calloway song “Minnie the Moocher.”  I’d guess she probably did, though I imagine she didn’t know that in the song to “mooch” is to be a drug addict.  Perhaps our wandering neighbor lad eventually went that way too.


“Minnie the Moocher” was recorded in 1931 and to modern ears it sounds as much of a drug song as, say, the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.”  Some of the lyrics run 
She messed around with a bloke named Smoky
She loved him though he was cokey
He took her down to Chinatown
And he showed her how to kick the gong around


To kick the gong is to take opium.  In 1932 Calloway sang a kind of a sequel, titled “Kickin' The Gong Around,” in which Smoky Joe searches for Minnie in an opium den: and finds her.  What’s of particular interest to scholars of walking, is that Calloway performs the song in the movie The Big Broadcast and does a kind of dance, maybe more of an exaggerated walk, which is a very early precursor of the Michael Jackson moonwalk, though I gather it was called “backsliding” at the time.



Calloway was also responsible for the  “Hepster’s Dictionary” –  teaching squares how to be groovy.  I’m not sure how seriously anybody took this at the time, not very I think.  Today it seems a mixture of language that’s either entirely obvious, as in “the joint is jumping,” or elaborate constructions that would be just too much trouble to use.  “Have you got the line in the mouse?" (Do you have the cash in your pocket?).  The word “mooch” doesn’t appear in the version I’ve got there were different various “editions.”

But the term “map” does appear in this form:
Sadder than a map (adj.) -- terrible. Ex., "That man is sadder than a map."

I just don’t get that.  What does it mean?  How sad is a map anyway?  Is a map, in fact sad in any way whatsoever?  Is there some hipster meaning of  “map” that we non-hipsters are missing?  Is it possibly the sense that only a real loser would walk the streets consulting a map?  (Compare and contrast with the Thomas Wolfe story “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn”).  I really have no idea, and I’d be grateful for any enlightenment anybody cares to throw my way.

I have no idea how Calloway felt personally about maps or about walking, but thanks to this handy map you could (circa 1932) have walked to his club in Harlem:



Thursday, July 24, 2014

WALKING WITH WALTER



Sometimes I fret that I don’t love Walter Benjamin quite as much as I ought to.  Sure, I dip around in The Arcades Project from time to time, and of course there’s some good stuff in there, but then there are paragraphs like this one:
‘The ‘colportage phenomenon of space’ is the flâneur’s basic experience.  Inasmuch as this phenomenon also – from another angle – shows itself in the mid-nineteenth-century interior, it may not be amiss to suppose that the heyday of flânerie occur in the same period.  Thanks to this phenomenon, everything potentially taking place in this one single room is perceived simultaneously.  The space winks at the flâneur: What do you think may have gone on here?  Of course, it has yet to be explained how this phenomenon is associated with colportage.”


Pellucid?  You think?  Having looked it up previously, I know that a colporteur was an itinerant seller of books and pamphlets, often of a religious nature, and clearly a profession that required a lot of walking, but still, what’s your man actually banging on about here?  



The notes in my edition of The Arcades Project tell me, “Last three sentences adapted from the protocol to Benjamin’s second experience with hashish,” which explains something and nothing.

Opening the book more at or less at random I just found this paragraph in the section “Painting, Jugendstil, Novelty” - “No decline of the arcades, but sudden transformation.  At one blow, they became the hollow mold from which the image of ‘modernity’ was cast.” 



Well I do wish Walter could have been with me the other day.  I was strolling around in downtown Los Angeles, and frankly it was too damn hot to do much serious walking, and although I like downtown a lot, I don’t have much reason to go there very often, and consequently my knowledge of it is patchy.  So I was reasonably surprised to find an honest to goodness arcade running from Spring Street through to Broadway, between 5th and 6th Streets.  Obviously I walked along it.  It looked like this:


It had an air both of not quite gentle decay and not especially energetic refurbishment.  There are some new loft-style apartments in the upper reaches, I understand.


The place, I also learned, is known both as the Broadway Arcade and the Spring Arcade, and variations and combinations of those names, and before it became an arcade (in 1924) it was a “real” street. 


The L.A. Conservancy website tells me, “The Arcade Building is actually two twelve-story towers connected by a skylit, three-level arcade … The exterior features intricate Spanish Baroque terracotta arches that rise up over the arcade entrances … The arcade itself measures 826 feet by 26 feet and originally housed sixty-one shops. It is covered with a glass-roofed skylight in imitation of the Burlington Arcade in London. The Venetian-style bridge that spans the center of the arcade was a later addition.”
Well, I know the Burlington Arcade in London somewhat, and believe me, the one in Spring Street, Los Angeles is an extremely inaccurate imitation.  But in truth neither of them is really much a place to go for a real walk.






 Even worse was the arcade I knew best when I was growing up in Sheffield (it may have been the only one in the city at the time – it’s certainly gone now): Cambridge Arcade.  It was very short indeed, and although I walked through it often enough there was never much reason to go there.   There was a barber, but he wasn’t very kid-friendly, at least not to me, and at the top end there was Sugg’s, which sold sports equipment, and The House of Barney Goodman, who was reckoned to be the best tailor in Sheffield, and where my dad got his suits when he felt flush.  
          To be honest, I never really got the sense that I was walking through the hollow mold from which the image of ‘modernity’ was cast.


But as I thought about it, a lot of memories came back, and I remembered there was always a blind man at the entrance to the arcade, standing there selling, I think, shoelaces and boxes of matches.  So I dug around online and blow me down (as my dad might have said with at least some degree of irony) here’s a picture, pretty low quality alas, but exactly as I remember it, showing Sugg’s, Barney Goodman’s and even (especially) the blind man. 


Walter Benjamin would have had a lot to say about it.