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 edgelands. Show all posts
Showing posts with label edgelands. Show all posts

Sunday, December 4, 2011


As I was walking through the Corralitas Red Car Property I spotted the above chair, not very close to and apparently not belonging to any house.  I wasn’t sure whether it had been deliberately put there by someone who thought this was a perfect place to sit, or whether it had simply been dumped and tossed down the hill.

And it struck me, not exactly for the first time, that as I go walking I often see abandoned chairs or sofas, and once in a while I photograph them, though not always.  It hasn’t quite turned into an art project as yet, though one day it may do.

In fact when I went to walk around the chapel that features in the Cabarat Voltaire video of Sensoria, with my pals Steve and Julia, we found a complete three piece suite left on the forecourt of an empty workshop that was up for rent.  It struck all of us as pretty funny.  How did it get here?  It certainly didn’t look like the kind of thing that would ever have been inside the workshop.  So had somebody gone to the trouble of loading the thing into a van, transporting it here and there placing it on the forecourt?  Would it have been any more trouble to take it to the dump?

In Edgelands, a book which I’m still gamely poking around in, the authors (Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts) write, “The feral car seat is another emblem of edgelands.  Every childhood should have one.  In an age before computer games, sitting in one of these, making engine noises was as close as a child could get to the open road.  Or you could strap the seat to a go-cart and find a slope.  And you can rock them on their metal runners, survey your empire of feral knotweed, balsam poppies and willow herb like an old hillbilly on a wooden veranda.”

Well yes indeed, though as I’ve observed before many of the phenomena the boys identify as features of edgelands are present right in the middle of cities.  That car seat above was located just off Hollywood Boulevard, outside a marijuana dispensary.  The sofa below was on Los Feliz Boulevard, a fairly swanky LA street.

I also see plenty of abandoned televisions and computer monitors when I’m out walking.  This is more understandable in many ways: you can’t just put them in the trash – the garbage men won’t take them.   They need to be “recycled.” When we bought our new TV the delivery men said they’d gladly take the old one away if we paid them fifty dollars.  We decided to save the money and the old TV sits in the junk room and every now and again we think we should do something about it but we never do.  Although the “something” thus far has never involved thinking about taking it out into the street and leaving at the side of the road.

As a man who does a certain amount of walking in the desert, I do of course come across lots of human jetsom, including this TV.

The TV here has been used for target practice, and as an Englishman I find the whole idea of hauling things into the middle of nowhere in order to shoot at them pretty alien, although the evidence is that it strikes many Americans as perfectly standard behavior.

There’s a passage in Rayner Banham’s “Scenes in America Deserta” where he reckons that people in the desert only shoot manmade things.  His observation is that they shoot the hell out of chairs and TVs and road signs, and certainly out of cars, but the things that are native and natural to the desert tend to be left alone.  I’m sure this isn’t literally true, the odd cactus surely gets shot up, but I do suspect he’s on to something.

I don’t think Banham was much of a walker.  All the images I’ve ever see of him, show him in a car or on one those very cool sixties bikes. These days however there are various “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles” tours run by Esotouric, that involve walking as well as bus riding.  “Please be prepared to talk a stroll,” the website says rather gently and plaintively: they’re dealing with Angelinos after all.

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.