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 blitz. Show all posts
Showing posts with label blitz. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


While I was in London I walked to Tate Britain, what used simply to be the Tate.  I think I’d noticed before that the west face, as it were, in Atterbury Street is pocked with shrapnel scars, but since I was on my way to see an exhibition titled Ruin Lust, I saw them with new eyes.

I wish I’d loved the exhibition more.  The curator, Brian Dillon, is clearly a good man, but it seemed he was reduced to rummaging around in the gallery’s basement and digging out what he could find.  Of course the Tate has some pretty decent stuff in its basement, and it’s hard to complain about works by Turner, Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, John Piper, Eduardo Paolozzi, et al.

John Piper, St Mary le Port, Bristol, 1940
But am I the only one to be less than fascinated by Jane and Louise Wilson’s photographs of the bunkers of the Atlantic Wall?  Especially since (unless I missed it somehow) they fail to acknowledge that Paul Virilio covered this territory rather more fully in his book Bunker Archeology.  But, of course, Virilio isn’t British so he doesn’t get any of his stuff into Tate Britain.

Virilio writes of the bunkers, “Why this analogy between the funeral archetype and military architecture? Why this insane situation looking out over the ocean? This waiting before the infinite oceanic expanse? Until this era, fortifications had always been oriented towards a specific staked-out objective: the defense of a passageway, a pass, steps, valleys or ports. Whereas here, walking daily along kilometer after kilometer of beach, I would happen upon these concrete markers at the summit of dunes, cliffs, across beaches, open, transparent, with the sky playing between the embrasure and the entrance, as if each casemate were an empty ark or a little temple minus the cult.”  Why indeed?  I think this might have been referenced in the Wilsons' work.

Still, who am I to be critical of the Tate when there was a pile of Nicholson’s Walking in Ruins in the bookshop?

I’m sure there’s no end of shrapnel marks on the buildings of London, but the ones I’m most familiar with are on St Paul’s Cathedral, which escaped a direct hit in the Blitz, but was left with some spectacular scarring. (But see the comment below)

I imagine that by no means all the scars on St Paul’s are from from World War Two.  There are some carved “graffiti” (below), and I suppose that date must be 1702 (though it's a very badly written 7) since that was right in the middle of the construction of the cathedral, and W. Fox was presumably one of the stone masons.

Below is one of my not all that old author pics (photograph by Steve Kenny) sitting on the steps of Sheffield City Hall – and yes those are indeed shrapnel scars in the lump of masonry I'm sitting on.  There was a period of at least six years when I walked past the Sheffield City Hall every day on my way to and from school, and yet I never noticed the scars at the time. New eyes were required.

Also, while I was in England, and definitely inspired by Virilio rather than the Wilson sisters, I went walking on the Naze at Walton, in Essex, looking for bunkers.  It’s one of those places I’d vaguely heard of but knew nothing about.  Naze derives from the Old English word “næss” meaning ness or promontory, but there is also something nose-like about the land formation. 

It was a vital bit of territory during World War Two.  There’s now a World War Two Walk to be done there, though I admit I didn’t follow the route very closely, not least because I couldn’t actually find it.  (True, I didn’t look all that hard).  The Naze Tower, which has been there since 1720, was used as a radar tower during hostilities, and there were bunkers or pillboxes with anti-aircraft machine-guns built along the cliff edge, not “looking out over an oceanic expanse” but across the North Sea to Holland.  I found this particularly fine bunker:

And then this one:

Since the bunkers were designed to withstand aerial bombings it’s perhaps not surprising that they're still standing.  There are some signs of decay.  One of the metal supports on the one above is rusted most of the way through, thanks to the salt air no doubt, and yet the structure itself seems completely sturdy.  It feels more like a monument than a genuine ruin.

And in that first bunker there was evidence of human presence, and indeed of exuberant, untutored, over-optimistic (and misspelled) wall art.  It would no doubt all have been different if Hitler had won.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


While I was in England I read Simon Armitage’s book Walking Home subtitled “Travels with A Troubadour on the Pennine Way.”  It’s a terrific account of walking the 250 plus miles of the Pennine Way in the “wrong” direction, north to south, the trip made a good deal more arduous (in my estimation) because each night our author gives a poetry reading.  Blimey. I’d have been on my hands and knees by the end of that.

(Photo: Jonty Wilde)

I do maybe half a dozen readings a year (not poetry admittedly), and although I enjoy them well enough, I do find them surprisingly knackering.  The idea of doing one more or less every night for three weeks after a hard day’s walk, sounds like it would become absolute torture.  Or maybe it works another way.  Maybe you’d just go into a fugue state: walking, reading, sleeping; walking reading, sleeping, for as long as it takes.  Although to be fair, Armitage keeps his wits about him throughout the book. Not so much in this picture, perhaps:

There were two things that really surprised me (in a good way) in Walking Home.  One, that Simon Armitage used to have ambitions to be a cartographer.  How often do you hear somebody say that?  Although in his case he did have the benefit of a geography degree.  I too, in idle moments, have thought it might be very cool to be cartographer, although without ever really knowing what that entails, and certainly without having a geography degree.

The second surprising thing is his description of getting lost while walking.  He writes, “I have noticed a very alarming and rapid change in my psychology, as if the claustrophobia and disorientation brings about a particular condition, the symptoms of which include fear, panic, and loss of logical thought, but also less expected and harder-to-define sensations akin to melancholy, including something like hopelessness but also close to grief.”

What interests me about this description is the extent to which I recognize all these symptoms except the very last one. The fear, panic, and loss of logical thought are, I assume, what everybody feels when they’re lost, and that naturally enough leads to hopelessness.  But I pretty much thought I was the only one who experienced melancholy, that sense of “I’m lost and alone in the world, and what else could you expect, and why does it even matter?”  But I’ve never made that final leap to grief.  Perhaps I haven’t been sufficiently lost.

I did, however, get thoroughly lost last month while I was in London, not in any life-threatening way, but because London is a place that I flatter myself I know pretty well, and because I even had a map, it was unusually humiliating. I’ve written elsewhere about being lost (mercifully, briefly) in the Australian desert, and that was certainly scary, but being lost in a place you think you know is actually even more disorienting. 

My plan in London was to do a short walk to see two ruined city churches, St. Dunstan-in-the-East (above) and Christ Church Greyfriars (below) – both more or less destroyed by German bombs in the Blitz, but the ruins preserved as deconsecrated war memorials. The route from one to the other inevitably takes you past St Paul’s Cathedral which miraculously survived the Blitz, though it does have shrapnel scars.

I decided to start at St Dunstan’s, and Monument looked like the nearest tube, so off and I went, came up out of the station – which had the exits marked with street names - and I stepped into the city and I had absolutely no idea where I was.  I couldn’t tell which street was which, which was north or south, east or west, and I set off along Gracechurch Street, and found myself approaching London Bridge which I knew was wrong.  I stopped, turned back, walked for a bit, and felt more lost than ever.

I decided there’d be no shame in consulting the map, which I thought I’d have no need of, but I got it out, and you know as a sometime wannabe cartographer, I reckon I’m pretty good with a map, but this time I couldn’t make any sense of it whatsoever.  I’d look at, think I’d worked it out, start walking in one direction, and a couple of minutes later realize I was obviously heading in the wrong direction again.  This happened time after time.  It became frustrating; it became absurd, though it never quite became comical.

It was infuriating but also, per Armitage, a deeply melancholy experience.  I was lost in some deeper, non-geographical sense. It wasn’t simply that I didn’t know where I was, where I was going, or how I was going to get there to get, but rather that, after a while, I no longer understood why I wanted to go there at all, and in some odd way I felt like I didn’t even know exactly who I was.  Was I losing my mind?  Was the Alzheimer’s kicking in?  It really didn’t seem to matter.

Well inevitably I got over it before very long, found my way, found the churches, had a good (modest) walk.  And I know you could make too much of this, but there was something salutary in the experience of being lost.  As a psychological, existential, maybe even cosmic dilemma, it's actually far more interesting than knowing exactly where you are all the time.  But to appreciate it, it does have to come to an end.  Being lost only makes sense if, in the end, you find yourself again.