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 THOMAS BERNHARD. Show all posts
Showing posts with label THOMAS BERNHARD. Show all posts

Friday, March 31, 2017


I’ve been walking again, in London, with my old friend Dr. Martin Bax.  Martin is 84 years old, suffering from dementia, and is sinking fast.  He seems to be in good physical health, lives in his own home, and is well looked after; even so it feels as though his mind and personality are evaporating, as though there’s less and less of the person I used to know, although what remains is still very much the man himself. 
An example:  Martin told me he’d only ever voted once in his long life.  “That’s because I’m an anarchist,” he said.  “Anarchists don’t vote.”
“What do anarchists do?” I asked. 
“They don’t do anything,” he replied.  “That’s the best part about being an anarchist.”

Martin walks every day, more often than not by himself.  He has a new carer who told me she was initially amazed and alarmed by this, and so she did a “risk assessment” which consisted of following him up the road, and concluded that he was a safe enough walker.

Martin only has one walking route these days, along the road where he lives, which has a bit of an upward incline, then at the top of the road he turns left and heads down a considerably steeper hill, heading to a little park, usually deserted next to some allotments, and giving a fine view of Alexandra Palace away on a distant hill. 

          When I’m with him we sit on a bench for a little while, and then go back, the return journey being somewhat harder because of the steepness of the hill.  Martin takes his time, and has certain places where he stops, rests and supports himself, first on a tree and then on a post, always the same ones it seems, and then he soldiers on.  The trip is less than a mile all told and takes a little less than an hour.

      It was spring in London and the city looked great.  As we walked, Martin was fascinated, and so was I, by some markings on the pavements of his neighbourhood.  Somebody had been marking broken or uneven paving stones, and drawing outlines around the base of trees. 

We assumed it was a council worker who’d done it. I thought that wouldn’t be such a bad job, walking around London marking problems on the pavement, although now that I think about it, I suppose it could have been a concerned citizen drawing people’s attention to ground level problems.  Either way it did create a strange and appealing affect, especially for lovers of the terraglyph.

Martin walks slowly, of course, and he says that a time will come when he won’t be able to do the walk at all.  This is surely true, and a melancholy thought.  It would be nice to keep walking to the end.  Some do, some don’t.  

It so happened that while I stayed with Martin, I was rereading Thomas Bernhard’s novella Walking prior to a trip to Vienna.

The piece is only intermittently about walking.  More often it’s about the nature of thought, the nature of madness, the horrors of the Austrian State, the repulsiveness of children, and there’s also quite a lot of stuff about trousers. All this is pretty darn hilarious, although I think it also becomes in the end, somehow, absolutely heartbreaking.

And at one point Bernhard’s book does discuss the relationship between walking and thinking.  Of course it’s done in thoroughly Bernhardian fashion.
“Whereas we always thought we could make walking and thinking into a single total process,  even for a fairly long time, I now have to say that it is impossible to make walking and thinking into one total process for a fairly long period of time.  For, in fact, it is not possible to walk and to think with the same intensity for a fairly long period of time, sometimes we walk more intensively, but think less intensively, then we think intensively and do not walk as intensively as we are thinking …” and so on.
This seems transparently true.  The harder we walk, the harder it is to think.  Would anybody disagree?

And then later, more intriguingly,
“If we observe very carefully someone who is walking, we also know how he thinks.  If we observe very carefully someone who is thinking, we know how he walks … There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking, in the process of which we can easily say that we see how the walker thinks just as we can say that we see how the thinker walks …” and so on. 

          This strikes me as interestingly problematic.  And I’m not sure it’s true at all.  I know some quite elegant thinkers who walk clumsily.  I know some quite elegant walkers who are very clumsy thinkers. Martin’s walking is slow, cautious, plodding but quite determined: he gets where he’s going even if he’s decided he doesn’t want to go very far, and who can blame him. I do wonder what he thinks as he walks.  And I wonder what it would be like to spend half an hour inside his head and see how it feels, how he perceives the world, to see if he thinks at all.  It is, we all know, quite possible to walk without having a thought in your head.

Friday, October 31, 2014


Before we move on from Thomas Bernhard, as if we ever truly can, here’s part of the wonderful, and I think you’d have to say (despite various denials) Beckettian, opening to his novella, or long short story or whatever it ought to be called, Walking (titled Gehen in German) and translated here by Kenneth Northcott: 

Whereas, before Karrer went mad, I used to go walking with Oehler only on Wednesdays, now I go walking--now that Karrer has gone mad--with Oehler on Monday as well. Because Karrer used to go walking with me on Monday, you go walking on Monday with me as well, now that Karrer no longer goes walking with me on Monday, says Oehler, after Karrer had gone mad and had immediately gone into Steinhof. And without hesitation I said to Oehler, good, let's go walking on Monday as well. Whereas on Wednesday we always walk in one direction (in the eastern one), on Mondays we go walking in the western direction, strikingly enough we walk far more quickly on Monday than on Wednesday, probably, I think, Oehler always walked more quickly with Karrer than he did with me, because on Wednesday he walks much more slowly and on Monday much more quickly. You see, says Oehler, it's a habit of mine to walk more quickly on Monday and more slowly on Wednesday because I always walked more quickly with Karrer (that is on Monday) than I did with you (on Wednesday). Because, after Karrer went mad, you now go walking with me not only on Wednesday but also on Monday, there is no need for me to alter my habit of going walking on Monday and on Wednesday, says Oehler, of course, because you go walking with me on Wednesday and Monday you have probably had to alter your habit and, actually, in what is probably for you an incredible fashion, says Oehler.

I did wonder if Bernhard had ever had anything to say about the Wandervogel.  They were an outdoorsy, back to nature, German youth movement, dating from the late 19th century, that certainly favored walking, and by various accounts were precursors of both hippies and the Hitler Youth.  Certainly they greeted each other by yelling “Heil” at each other, and sometimes they wore faux medieval costume while walking over the hills.  No good could come of this, obviously.

As far as I can discover, Bernhard never offered an opinion on the Wandervogel, though I think we can imagine what it might have been.   Since Bernhard was born in 1931 and the Wandervogel were officially dissolved in 1933, he obviously couldn’t have been a member, but in Gathering Evidence: A Memoir (which may or may not be strictly autobiographically accurate) the protagonist certainly joins the Hitler Youth and does pretty well, but as a sprinter rather than a walker.  But he does go for long walks in the countryside with his grandfather.

One of the things about the Wandervogel: as they wandered happily along the mountain track, knapsacks on their backs, they often liked to sing.  (The famous, and famously unbearable, song “The Happy Wanderer” seems to come from a later period, but obviously shares similar impulses).  And as you see, quite a lot of the pictures show the Wandervogel walking along with one or more the members playing guitars. 

Now, I like guitar playing and I like walking, but combining the two strikes me as tricky thing.  I mean you could do it, but surely not for very long.  It’s hard to imagine walking very far at all while shredding on your axe.  And it’s a damn awkward thing to carry if you’re just walking.  No doubt the Wandervogel were made of sterner stuff than I am.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


I’m in the middle of doing one semester’s part-time teaching at Cal Arts (MFA workshop on the novel).  Maybe you’ve heard of it.  They say of themselves, “As an internationally recognized school for the performing and visual arts—film, theater, art, dance, music and writing—the CalArts artistic philosophy places an emphasis on an exploration of new paths beyond conventional boundaries.”  That sounds like me, for sure.

Anyway, Calarts is thirty miles north of Los Angeles, set in the middle of a green, rolling campus and the first time I saw it I thought I, “Wow this place is huge, there’ll be so many opportunities for walking around and drifting and exploring it.”

I’m “mentoring” a couple of students and I have even been known to employ the peripatetic method when discussing things with them. I think they find it winningly eccentric, or at least eccentric. 

But the odd thing and the interesting thing is that once you’ve walked round the campus even once you realize it isn’t nearly as big as you thought it was, and also although it certainly does have elements that are green and rolling, an incredibly high percentage of its acreage is given over to parking lots.  This seems fair enough in one way.   You’re not likely to get there without a car and you have to have somewhere to park the damn thing once you get it there. 

The campus walk will also show you that there really aren’t very many people walking around, and the few that are most likely are walking from the car to their main building or vice versa.  

On my first cursory stroll I did see what looked like an intriguing path, running through a hillside on the edge of the campus, and I saw that some graffiti had been painted on it – a face and a penis – not precisely “beyond conventional boundaries” but hey, street art gets everywhere.

So last week, before I started teaching, I decided I’d try to walk along this path.  The first, and in some ways the last, problem was finding where it started.  I didn’t much want to scramble down the hillside, if only because I thought it’d be a terrible sweat to scramble up again.

I poked, I walked, I ambled around in the scrub and finally found the start of what proved not to be a “path” after all.  It looked like this:

And it wasn’t exactly an optical illusion, more a trick of perspective, the thing I was looking at wasn’t a path at all, it was part of a concrete drainage system. And it wasn’t flat, the way it had looked from the top of the hill, but it ran at an angle, which is no doubt what you need for water runoff along a concrete drainage system.

Well I was glad to have “solved” that problem though as a walking expedition it was a bit of a bust, and of course it meant there were even fewer opportunities for walking the campus than I’d thought.  I went off to teach my class and finally found some walkers; my own students.

Later in the week, after some discussion about Thomas Bernhard, one of them

sent me this passage from Bernhard's Wittgenstein’s Nephew:

“I do not care for walks either, and have been a reluctant walker all my life. I have always disliked walking, but I am prepared to go for walks with friends, and this makes them think I am a keen walker, for there is an amazing theatricality about the way I walk. I am certainly not a keen walker, nor am I a nature lover or a nature expert. But when I am with friends I walk in such a way as to convince them I am a keen walker, a nature lover, and a nature expert. I know nothing about nature. I hate nature, because it is killing me. I live in the country only because the doctors have told me that I must live in the country if I want to survive—for no other reason. In fact I love everything except nature, which I find sinister; I have become familiar with the malignity and implacability of nature through the way it has dealt with my own body and soul, and being unable to contemplate the beauties of nature without at the same time contemplating its malignity and implacability, I fear it and avoid it whenever I can. The truth is that I am a city dweller who can at best tolerate nature. It is only with reluctance that I live in the country, which on the whole I find hostile.”

Here’s a picture of Thomas Bernhard walking, or doing something anyway.