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 Pynchon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Thomas Pynchon. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


I’m never sure how I feel about that old psychogeographic strategy of using a map of one place while walking in another.  I mean it seems sort of interesting, but surely once you arrive at the first river or dead end then surely the conceit ends pretty abruptly.  (I could be wrong, this isn’t my area.)

But suddenly I find some psychogeography avant la lettre in a rather surprising place – in Evelyn Waugh’s travel book Labels.  It was his account of the 1929 Mediterranean cruise he took with his wife, who was of course also named Evelyn.  One of the places they visited was Malta, and Waugh bought himself a guide book titled Walks in Malta by one F. Weston.

Waugh reports that he enjoyed the book, “not only for the variety of information it supplied, but for the amusing Boy-Scout game it made of sight-seeing.  ‘Turning sharply to your left you will notice …’ Mr. Weston prefaces his comments, and there follows a minute record of detailed observation.  On one occasion when carrying his book, I landed at the Senglea quay, taking it for Vittoriosa, and walked on for some time in the wrong town, hotly following false clues and identifying ‘windows with fine old mouldings,’ ‘partially defaced escutcheons,’ ‘interesting iron-work balustrades,’ etc., for nearly a quarter of a mile, until a clearly non-existent cathedral brought me up sharp to the realization of my mistake.”

Most of us, without calling ourselves psychogeographers, have done something similar on our travels, looked for the right thing in the wrong place, found we were looking at the wrong page of the map, found we weren’t where we thought we were, and so on.  Sometimes it feels simply annoying, sometimes we see the funny side, like Waugh, and I suppose once in a while we do experience a Debordian derangement of the senses.

The Waugh episode is quoted in Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars.  It’s a good book, but it contains, uncritically, a very odd quotation from Anthony Burgess, “Probably (as Pynchon never went to Valetta or Kafka to America) it’s best to imagine your own foreign country.  I wrote a very good account of Paris before I ever went there.  Better than the real thing.”  This comes from an interview in the Paris Review “The Art of Fiction No 48” and as far as I can tell he’s completely wrong about Pynchon, who had surely visited Malta, and especially the capital Valletta, before he wrote about it in V..  Here is a gloriously uninformative jacket:

And I did find this in the Malta Independent, 13 April 2014, an unsigned and unattributed article which describes a lecture delivered by Professor Peter Vassallo, who hails from Valletta and is described as “an eminent authority on British literature.” The article says, though it doesn’t seem to be a direct quotation from the lecturer, “It is ascertained that Pynchon as a seaman in the US navy was in Malta during the Suez build-up, so the Valletta he portrays is a town he knows well, including and especially Strait Street with its bars, brothels and latrine.”  Did it really have just the one latrine?  Maybe so.  In any case it tends to confirm my feeling that Pynchon did  know his Malta.

For what it’s worth, I too have been to Malta, with my first wife shortly after we were married.  She had lived there for a while because her father had been in the British navy and was stationed there, so she knew parts of the island pretty well.  I had certainly read Thomas Pynchon’s V. at the time, but like an idiot I didn’t let it inform my visit to Malta.  And I don’t remember us having either a map or a guide book, though surely we must have.  

I know we did a lot of traveling on local buses to far-flung bits of the island and then a lot of walking when we got there.  It was very good as I recall.  I can’t remember much about it, but I'm pretty sure we walked up Strait Street.

I took pictures the ones you see here but they seem odd to me now.  I think this was a time when I wanted to take pictures but wasn’t sure what to take pictures of.  I’m struck by how few people appear in these pictures, walking or otherwise.  The streets surely can’t have been quite as deserted as they appeared here but maybe I was a mad dog walking in the midday sun when everybody was sheltering from the heat.  I can't tell you exactly where the pictures were taken but I think most of them were in Valletta.

So now I’ve been rereading parts of V..  We have discussed elsewhere whether Pynchon is much of a flaneur, and the jury is still out, but it’s not hard to imagine him drifting through the streets of Valetta, consulting an old Baedeker as he went; it would have been the Southern Italy volume. 

And there is this passage in V., chapter 11, “Confessions of Fausto Maijstral,” describing Valletta in the blackout during the German bombardment.  I suppose a map’s no use in a blackout even if it’s of the place you happen to be.

“A city uninhabited is different. Different from what a "normal" observer, straggling in the dark - the occasional dark - would see. It is a universal sin among the false-animate or unimaginative to refuse to let well enough alone. Their compulsion to gather together, their pathological fear of loneliness extends on past the threshold of sleep; so that when they turn the corner, as we all must, as we all have done and do - some more than others - to find ourselves on the street... You know the street I mean, child. The street of the 20th Century, at whose far end or turning - we hope - is some sense of home or safety. But no guarantees. A street we are put at the wrong end of, for reasons best known to the agents who put us there. But a street we must walk.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


“As you walk deeper, you retrace the Rocket's becoming: superchargers, center sections, nose assemblies, power units, controls, tail sections . . .”
       The above quotation (you guessed?) is from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Tyrone Slothrop is walking through the factory where they made V2 rockets, the Vergeltungswaffe 2, Nazi Germany’s super sonic “revenge weapon,” subsequently seized by the Russians and Americans.

I was a little surprised, as I was walking down Tooley Street, in London earlier this year to find that this thing was still in place on the wall above what used to be, and perhaps still is (though their website seems to be in hibernation) a museum called Britain at War.

That rocket (let’s call it that) has been in place for 20 odd years, but I really don’t know what it is.  It’s obviously not a “real” V2.
         There are quite a few of the real things around, though they tend to be in serious aeronautical museums rather than on the wall of tourist attractions.  The nearest I’ve been to one was at the White Sands Missile Range, outside of Alamogordo in New Mexico.  I walked around it, stood beside it, and could probably have reached out and touched it, but since but I was standing on the property of the American military industrial complex I decided against that.

There’s a kind of “rocket garden” at the White Sands Missile Range where you can walk around and look at scary hardware.  Most of the stuff is out in the open air, but the V2 is in a solid substantial building, because it needs protection and preservation.

Not many miles down the road from the missile range is the entirely separate White Sands National Monument, a fabulous, two hundred plus square miles of white desert that are a wonder even to a skeptical old desert rat like me.

White Sands has been on mind lately since I was looking for something else in the Nicholsonian archive and found this photograph taken of me – oh good god – probably 25 years ago.

The thing I’m holding that looks like a bit like a clipboard is in fact some kind of rocket debris that must have found its way into the dunes from the missile range next door, after some kind of explosion or jettisoning operating.
It’s one of the smaller regrets of my life that I didn’t stick this piece of detritus in my hand luggage and take it home, though conceivably it was drenched in rocket fuel and evil chemicals and would have done awful things to me.  And maybe I wouldn’t have got it through airport security – though this was obviously well before 9/11.

I know I’ve bleated on elsewhere about gardens of subversion, places that are less than Edenic, and possibly all the better for that.  And without having more than the average interest in rocketry or space or ballistics I seem to have walked among quite a few flying objects, some identified, some not.  This one in Essex for instance:

The most recent one I went to was in Utah, actually called the Thiokol Rocket Garden, belonging to ATK Thiokol, “Supplier of aerospace and defense products. Munitions, smart weapons, propulsion and composite structures.”  It’s a place designed so that you can walk and sit and have a snack – all of which I did.

Depending on your finer feelings you can regard this place as a garden of death, or a tribute to man’s greatest achievement, or a piece of accidental “land art.”   But my favorite thing about it was this:

Sure, a standard rocket is good enough for me – who needs anything too fancy?

And finally a last word from one of White Sands’ most famous inhabitants, begetter of the V2, and therefore of much else besides, Herr Wernher von Braun, words that form the epigraph to the first section of Gravity’s Rainbow, from an article he wrote titled “Why I Believe in Immortality.”
“Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.” 
         This is him in later life, with a very nice display of model rockets behind him:

And this is him earlier, working on his Dr. Strangelove impersonation.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


I always feel ambivalent about visiting the sites of murders, death houses, scenes of long ago violent crimes.  Partly it’s because of my inherent squeamishness.  If there actually is some remaining malevolent aura there, I’d rather not be around it.  And just as important, I don’t want to revel in and be entertained by the deaths of others, nor to make light of pain, whether that of victims or survivors. 

Yet I know one can protest too much about these things. There’s no denying the frisson that comes with walking through, say, Dealey Plaza in Dallas, or for that matter past the Bloody Tower in London.  I think the frisson is imaginative rather than supernatural, but nonetheless real for that.  One way or another a kind of shamanism is involved, raising the spirits of the dead, but equally a kind of dubious tourism is involved too

I don’t feel a whole let less ambivalent, though in a different way, about visiting the homes where my “heroes” once lived, even if I seem to have done plenty of it.  In recent years I’ve found myself visiting JG Ballard’s house in Shepperton, HG Wells’s in Woking, Raymond Chandler’s many Los Angeles homes. 

Of course when I say “visiting” I simply mean that I walked down the street and stood around outside the building.  I don’t go in for knocking on doors to interview the current inhabitants, although I know some who do.  My friend Anthony Miller, aka the Dark Sage of Sawtelle, recounts disturbing the tenants of Thomas Pynchon’s old apartment in Manhattan Beach, and found the occupant, a surferish dude, amazingly hospitable.  He invited him and let him look around.  A Swiss film crew had been there not long before, the one that made Thomas Pynchon: A Journey Into the Mind of P.

The objection here is not that it’s intrusive, but rather that it’s no big deal.  These are homes much like any other.  Everybody lives somewhere, lives don’t vary nearly as much as some people like to think, and houses and appartments are not always totally fascinating.  And in my experience there’s seldom any kind of lingering aura, even if there may occasionally be a plaque.

Having said all that, and with all my reservations, when I recently connected a couple of dots of information than had been floating in my head for a while, and realized that the childhood home of Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, was in the same street where the Manson murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianco took place, well, you couldn’t call yourself a psychogeographer if you didn’t take a walk down that street, could you?

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band were really the first act that completely excited me in my difficult but dull youth.  They seemed subversive, poetic, avant-garde, extremely cool – all the things I wanted to be.  These days it seems to me that there were times when Beefheart put rather too much effort into buffing his image as the unschooled, sui generis genius born out of nothing, but I’ve had a few decades to think about that.  At the time the freaky image was part of the attraction, and no doubt in some sense necessary for the grand project. 

Of course we also tended to think he was some crazy guy straight out of the Mojave desert: we knew that he came from Lancaster where he was best friends, later less so, with Frank Zappa.  But before he was a desert rat he lived in Los Angeles, at 3467 Waverly Drive, in the northeast corner of Los Feliz, a thoroughly pleasant suburban enclave right below Griffith Park; a great place to bring up kids then and now, you might think.

We also know that while he was at that address he was schooled, at least to the extent of attending art classes at the Griffith Park Zoo, where he was taught by a Portuguese artist named Agostinho Rodrigues.  When he was 10 years old Little Don Vliet (he wasn’t even van Vliet at that time, much less the Captain) won first prize in a 1951 sculpture competition run by the parks and recreation department, and made it into the local paper with his model of a polar bear.  The contest was monthly, and I don’t know how big the class it was, so winning it may not have been the greatest honor, though his polar bear looks just fine.

There are a few pictures of the lad from this period but I’ve never seen any of the family’s house, so I don’t know if the current 3467 Waverly Drive looks anything like the way it did back in 1951.  As far as that goes, I don’t know whether Don’s parents had the whole house or just part of it.  I’d assume the latter.  In the current configuration 3467 is the right half of the house, 3469 is the left half, and I think there are more than two dwellings in there.  When you peer round the side it looks as though the building’s been extended to make a small apartment block, though I’d guess the changes have been made post-1951.  

Waverley Drive is a long street but the young Don surely walked its length, in which case he’d have gone right past the LaBianca house.  At that time it would have been owned by the previous LaBianca generation, Antonio, who founded Gateway Markets and the State Wholesale Grocery Company.  It wasn’t till 1968 that the son Leon, who by then was running the family business,  bought the house from his mother and moved in with Rosemary his second wife. 

Photographs of the couple suggest they weren’t much influenced by alternative culture, but Lord knows there were some divergent energies abroad in Los Angeles at the time.  Even in this quiet suburban enclave, the LaBiancas’ neighbor, one Harold True, had thrown an “LSD party”, and some of the Manson family attended.  The day after they’d committed the Tate murders up on Cielo Drive, Manson instructed his followers to kill again.  They might easily have selected a different house and different victims, and if things had played out just a little differently the LaBiancas wouldn’t even have been home.  They they’d been to pick up Rosemary’s daughter Suzanne from Lake Isabella and had thought of staying there overnight but decided to come back late Saturday night rather than the following morning.

Manson had found the Tate killings needlessly chaotic, and to show his followers how it was done, he went into the house and tied up the LaBiancas with the minimum of fuss, so that the killings could be done in a nice orderly fashion.  I’ve done my best not to become a Manson obsessive, but if you need a full account of the events, I reckon Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter is still the best.

Photographs from the time show the La Bianca house to have been remarkably accessible and vulnerable – a long straight driveway, no gates, the house visible and inviting at the top of the hill, yet a fair way from the street.

Some things are noticeably different at the house these days; the street number’s been changed for one thing, though that’s hardly bought them much privacy.  There’s now a gate across the entrance to the property, and you can see that a large separate garage with a second curving driveway has been built between the house and the street, at the very least providing protection from prying eyes, though not inevitably from Google. 

It still looks like a very nice house in a very nice neighborhood.  Would I personally want to live in it, given its history?  I suppose not, but if there price was right; everything’s negotiable. 

Charles Manson famously said to an interviewer:

My eyes are cameras. My mind is tuned to more television channels than exist in your world. And it suffers no censorship. Through it, I have a world and the universe as my own. So...know that only a body is in prison. At my will, I walk your streets and am right out there among you.

Captain Beefheart once sang:

my baby walked just like she did
walking on hard-boiled eggs with a --
there's a --she can steal them 
oh, I ain't blue no more, I saidlord,

Words to live by.