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 Werner Herzog. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Werner Herzog. Show all posts

Friday, March 13, 2015

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Andie Miller, the author of Slow Motion: Stories About Walking  (which is a very good book), sends me the article below from the website of The Times of Johannesburg, which mentions me in passing, and which is a very interesting piece even without that.  I especially like the suggestion that only a man with a heart of stone can fail to laugh at Werner Herzog's lugubriousness.
The part I find especially fascinating is the sentence that reads, “For me walking is like drinking - it makes me happy but I can do it only when I'm happy already.”  I find that completely unlike my own experience.  Walking when I’m happy is good, of course, but it’s not transformative: I tend to stay happy.  Whereas walking when I’m unhappy is the best way I know to get rid of that unhappiness. 
Ah walkers, damn them: no two of them are ever exactly alike.

Walking for dear life

Darrel Bristow-Bovey | 21 October, 2013 00:30

I received a message this week from a man who doesn't want to be named. He'd read about how much I like walking, and he wanted me to know that his brother is, right now, walking from Durban to Johannesburg.
He isn't necessarily walking in a straight line, and when he gets there he might turn around and walk back. He isn't walking for charity and he isn't dressed in a rhino suit. He won't tweet about it or blog or get interviewed on breakfast television. He doesn't want your attention or your money. He's walking because although he isn't religious or especially superstitious, on some level he believes that if he walks his sister may not die of the illness that is killing her.
I wondered if he had read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. An old man named Harold Fry learns that a friend is on the last lap of cancer and sets off, unprepared, to walk across England to see her. He isn't sure what he'll say when he gets there, but he wants her to know that he is coming. He hopes, if hope is the word, that his walk will keep her alive.
It's an act of faith but not in anything. It's an action to exert what small influence a man can exert over an indifferent universe, which is to say, no influence at all. He walks because it's all he can do, and something might be better than nothing. It's a lovely book and if it goes on a bit towards the end, well, that's the nature of very long walks.
The unacknowledged urtext for Harold Fry is surely Werner Herzog's Of Walking In Ice. In the icy winter of 1974 Herzog received word that the German film historian Lotte Eisner was dying in Paris. Herzog instantly walked to see her. He was in Munich at the time. He walked for three weeks through conditions so cold and grim you'd have to be Werner Herzog to endure it or deserve it.
It would take a hard Wildean heart to read Herzog's frozen prose and hear his lugubrious Wagnerian voice intoning, "A black morning, gloomy and cold, spread like a pestilence. I curse Creation" , without laughing out loud. Herzog walked for three weeks, on foot except when he accepted lifts, single-minded except when he took a detour to see the birthplace of Joan of Arc. Lotte Eisner lived another eight years.
The writer Geoff Nicholson tells how, inspired by this story, he went on pilgrimage to Herzog's home in Beverly Hills to ask him to blurb The Lost Art of Walking. He walked in the faith that if he walked, Herzog would surely agree. Alas, not all walks have happy endings.
I love walking, but not as an act of faith, or even penance. Nicholson also tells about Old Leatherman, an unusually ambulatory gentleman of the highway who between 1858 and 1889 walked a 500km route around precise points of Connecticut and New York State, dressed all in leather. The circuit took 34 days and he walked every day, wordless, never taking a day or an item off.
The odour of unlaundered leather didn't bother him because he was a Frenchman named Jules Bouglay, who loved a woman and worked a year's apprenticeship in her father's leather business to prove his worthiness. Regrettably, he ruined the company, bankrupted Dad and lost his love. He went to America and spent the next thirty-some years walking to expiate his guilt. I like to think he returned at the end to claim her, although he might have had some difficulty proving what he'd been doing all that time. Maybe he should have tweeted about it after all.
I try to walk between 10km and 15km each day - ambling and mooching and occasionally sauntering (from sainte-terre, or "holy ground", initially used to denote pilgrims who walked to the Holy Land, and then, sarcastically, for people too lazy to walk to the Holy Land). Since I started walking seven years ago, I no longer get depressed.
For me walking is like drinking - it makes me happy but I can do it only when I'm happy already. If I have quarrelled or I'm fretful I often set out to walk all day but I become panicky. I feel exposed on foot in the world if my heart is not at ease, as though something terrible and irreversible is about to happen. I become gripped with the breathless fear I sometimes get descending underwater, and I have to hurry home.
So I couldn't do what the brother of my new friend is doing, but my thoughts are with them both. Thoughts don't change anything. Neither does prayer. Neither does walking, but you have to do something.

You can read it on the website by clicking here:

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


If I have a reservation about Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry,” (discussed elsewhere on this blog) it’s that he, or his cinematographer, makes the desert look a little too picturesque.  Of course, I’m not going to deny that the desert is visually beautiful, that’s what first attracted me to it, and of course I love a broad stretch of unspoiled, pristine desert as much as the next man, and I’m very glad indeed that Death Valley or Joshua Tree survive as preserved patches of territory that are as close to “virgin” as we’re ever likely to see, and of course they are meticulously “managed.”.  But the fact is, I also love a spoiled, less than pristine stretch of desert.

And when it comes to on-screen depictions of the desert I’m drawn to Werner Herzog’s “Fata Morgana,” his early “documentary” that traces an inscrutable journey down through the Sahara desert.  Certainly the film does have some gorgeous desert imagery, including this shot of a little boy walking his fennec fox on a leash across the sand dunes.

But “Fata Morgana” also shows the desolate edges, the areas scarred by human activity, not least military and industrial.  Herzog is smart enough not to simply revel in the beauty of ugliness, and I think he’s not indulging in the pleasure of ruins either, but he does show us that the wrecked and the damaged may be every bit as compelling as the pristine.

My own attitudes have changed over time.  When I first started visiting deserts I wanted them clean and empty and devoid of human presence (well, any human presence except mine, naturally).  And of course I still like those grand vistas of Joshua Tree and Death Valley, and I regularly go and walk in them, but on the way there I know I’ll pass through some scrubby, frayed bits of desert, the outskirts of towns like Barstow, Boron or Baker, and I’ll be drawn to deserted motels, abandoned houses, evidence of human presence as well as absence.

This has been on my mind a lot recently.  I’ve been reading a book titled Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, a couple of British poets who go wandering around what the subtitle calls “England’s true wilderness,” the non-spaces that fail to appear either on topographical or mental maps: sewage works, parking lots, airports, scrap yards, and so on.

They write, “Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully managed wilderness and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists … complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard.”

This is great stuff and certainly it doesn’t apply only to England.  And I don’t the guys are just being perverse, like going to the Sistine chapel and admiring the floor.  One of the most basic functions of writing is to point out things that otherwise might have been missed, and these guys do it royally.  

The book also it made me realize that I have spent large chunks of my life walking in and admiring edgelands.  For instance I love great Victorian railway architecture, the stations, the bridges, the engine sheds, but I’m actually more at home wandering along disused railway lines admiring those strange little shacks and huts that grow up alongside them.

And one of the things I’ve realized is that not all edgelands are at the edge.  Sometimes there can be junk spaces right in the middle of things.  My favorite non-space in that sense is shown in the picture above, an alley right in the heart of Hollywood, that runs off Las Palmas Avenue, just below Hollywood Boulevard.  It may have a name but I can’t find it on any of the maps I’ve got.  It goes down the side of Miceli’s Italian restaurant, but as the sign indicates, it belongs to somebody else “Supply Sergeant” which is an army surplus store nearby.  And of course the absolute joy of it is the precision with which somebody has measured, recorded, and sign-painted the dimensions of this otherwise thoroughly nondescript space.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


And speaking of Werner Herzog, as I all too often do, I was, of course aware of his “Minnesota Declaration” which contains the line “Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.”  It’s a good line but it had never really occurred to me to wonder why Herzog was in Minnesota or what he was doing there.  Well, it appears he was at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, on April 30th 1999, speaking about “Lessons Of Darkness,” which is one of the most compelling documentaries I’ve ever seen, showing the ruined, and often burning, oil fields of Kuwait, ignited in the wake of the first Gulf War.

In that Minnesota Declaration Herzog also says, “Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures amid ancient ruins of facts.”  I guess I don’t think taking pictures of ruins is exactly the worst thing in the world.  In Minneapolis I walked through Mill Ruins Park on the banks of the Mississippi.  The ruins belong to a flour mill that burned in 1991, having been abandoned some twenty odd years earlier: other buildings nearby are also abandoned but appear to be in fairly good shape.

Like a lot of people, I’m attracted to ruin, and I certainly enjoyed the sight of the ruined (and now carefully preserved) mill - they’ve turned it into a museum – but in fact I didn’t take any photographs of the burned out mill.  It seemed too obvious.  I photographed the abandoned but intact Gold Medal Flour elevators instead, but I don’t know if that would buy me anything in Mr. Herzog’s eyes.

I wonder if he would agree with W.S. Gilbert (as in “and Sullivan”) who wrote, “There’s a fascination frantic in a ruin that’s romantic”?  I’m guessing probably not. 

Monday, August 29, 2011


I think, though I’m by no means sure, that there’s a novel, the entire “action” of which describes a walk across a room.  The notion is that you can see the universe in a grain of sand, and so a few simple steps may be as revelatory as a journey to the end of the earth.  At least I imagine that’s what the book may be about.  I’ve never read it.  In fact I've never been able to discover the title of the book, and I don’t remember where I heard about it, and for all I know it may not even exist.  At one time I thought it might be Tibor Fischer’s “Voyage To The End Of The Room” but I’ve read that, and it’s not.  In any case I thought it was a much older book than that.  Maybe I just imagined it.  Or maybe some well-informed blog-reader will now tell me the title.

When I was working on “The Lost Art of Walking” I mentioned this unknown book to my American editor, who is by no means the most crassly commercial of men, but even so he curled his lip and said, “And you thought that was a great idea for a book didya?”  Well yes, I did actually. And now I’ve been reading “My Two Worlds” (written in Spanish, as “Mis Dos Mundos”) by Sergio Chefjec, which is essentially a novel about a walk in the park.

I know very little about Mr. Chefjec – online sources tell me he’s a Jewish Argentinean, now teaching creative writing in Spanish at NYU.  He and I are supposedly going to be on a panel together at the Brooklyn Book Festival next month so I thought it could do no harm to read his book.

I certainly don’t know how autobiographical the novel is, but it does contain this remarkable passage, “… one of these ideas, among the first I assimilated so thoroughly as to make it my own, was the idealization, initially during the Romantic Era, then the Modern, of the long walk.  There must have been something wrong with me, because at the point at which I should have chosen a way of life for my future, I found nothing persuasive ... incapable of believing in almost anything ... disappointed beforehand by politics; skeptical of youth culture, despite being, at the time, young; an idle spectator at the collective race for money and so-called material success, suspicious of the benevolence of charity or of self-improvement, oblivious of the benefits of procreation … oblivious as well of the idea of following sports or any variety of spectacle … inept at … physical labor; with no belief in any religious alternative while longing to be initiated into that realm … in short, given such failings, I had no other choice but to walk, which most resembled the vacant and available mind.”

This is not exactly the story of my life (I’m rather more pro-youth culture than our narrator, and I don’t really long to be initiated into the religious realm) but it’s not a million miles away. That passage, and indeed, the rest of the book, reminded me of a whole procession of fellow travelers, fellow writers and fellow walkers: Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, Robert Walser, W.G. Sebald (of course),  Werner Herzog in “Of Walking In Ice.” 

These writers all have a deep strain of melancholy, and I wondered at first if that’s something that many walkers (or at least many walking writers) have in common.   But perhaps it’s more about being Germanic: Sebald and Herzog - German; Walser - German-speaking Swiss; Bernhard and Handke - Austrian.  In fact they’ve all had peripatetic lives and didn’t end up where they started, so perhaps we shouldn’t make too much of it, but in any case it seems a curious set of writers to be reminded of while reading an Argentinean writer.

“My Two Worlds” uses the word “lacustrine,” which I confess I had to look up.  It means “of or relating to lakes”: the park where the narrator walks is lacustrine.  I’m not sure it’s a word I’m going to be dropping into my conversation very often, but it so happens that last week I took a lacustrine walk of my own.  I was in Minneapolis, actually tagging along on my wife’s business trip, and so while she went off and did business things, I did some walking.

The plan was simple enough, to walk from the hotel, through downtown to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (described satisfyingly as “a project of the Walker Art Center”), a walk that I could see from the map would take me through Loring Park, a place with a couple of expanses of water, and indeed a spectacular (if not strictly sculptural) fountain.

The big attraction at the sculpture garden is the lakeside fountain-sculpture “Spoonbridge and Cherry” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen; a 52 foot long spoon, and a cherry weighing 1200 pounds, with water shooting out of the top of the stem.  I’m not absolutely certain that this is the world’s biggest spoon, but if it’s not I’d certainly like to know where a bigger one is located.

There are also plenty of other sculptures by big name, art stars: Henry Moore, Richard Serra, Tony Cragg, Barry Flanagan, Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, among them.

I was there on a weekday and the garden wasn’t crowded, a lot of mothers and children, a few tourists.  We were all “walking” in some sense, but it was the kind of walking that people do when in the presence of art, halting, respectful, attentive, arrhythmic.  Many photographs were being taken, and well-intentioned parents were doing their damnedest to make their kids understand they were in a sculpture garden rather than a playground.  Mixed results there, obviously.

I left the garden and went into the Walker Art Center itself.  It was full of great stuff: an exhibition curated by John Waters, Warhol's "Blow Job" in continuous display, a slideshow of Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” an exhibition titled "Midnight Party" that had a whole room as a cabinet of curiosities.  It was all my kind of thing, and it was terrific.  And yet there was still something melancholic about being by myself in an art gallery.  Again it’s a specialized form of walking, and much harder work than walking purposefully on the street.

And I realized I’d done rather a lot of this kind of thing in my life.  When I was a young man I could never find people to travel with.  It wasn’t that I had no friends, but the friends I had were a stay at home bunch.  I always ended up traveling alone because if I didn’t travel alone I wouldn’t have traveled at all.  And of course this resulted in a lot of walking alone in strange cities, and I’ve always been one of those people who heads straight for a city’s museum of art gallery.  I always found the art consoling even if the experience was a lonely one. And I still sometimes find myself doing much the same today, when I travel alone to do research for a book I’m working on, for instance.

Of course I wasn’t really alone in Minneapolis.  I knew I’d be meeting up with my wife at the end of the day, but the elements of melancholy were still with me.  I left the art gallery and decided to do another circuit of the garden before heading back into town.  

This time I saw a quiet, unflashy piece of sculpture that I hadn’t noticed before.  It was in deep shadow and easy to miss. It was a life-size bronze of a middle-aged man in a raincoat: he looked a little like Nabokov.  The raincoat would have made him overdressed for the day I was there - the temperature was in the eighties - although perhaps he’d have been a bit underdressed for a real Minneapolis winter.  A mother and her little boy were standing beside the sculpture, not really paying it much attention, but the child said, referring to the sculpture, not to me, “Do we know that man?”  The implication being, I suppose, that if we didn’t know him then why had somebody bothered to make a sculpture of him?  His mother assured him that no, “we” didn’t know this man, and that seemed to be explanation enough for the kid.

I read on a nearby plaque that the work was “Walking Man” by George Segal, from 1988.   The Walker Art Center website tells me, “This solitary figure captures an overwhelming sense of the isolation one can encounter in contemporary society,” which strikes me as a bit over deterministic, but I’d agree that there’s something melancholic about the piece, partly caused by the patina and the stains on the surface of the bronze: this is a man who’s been out in the elements for a good long time.  And I think the melancholy is further emphasized by the fact that this is a walking man who isn’t ever going anywhere.  He’s frozen, staying exactly where he is, while the rest of the world walks past, in some cases barely noticing him.