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.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

SELFLESS WALKING

And here, partly in celebration of publication, and acknowledging publication of Will Self's new book WALKING TO HOLLYWOOD, here's an old favorite, the email conversation he and I did a while back for The Believer.



Dear Will Self,
You don’t know me and I don’t know you, though I think we’ve been in some short story anthologies together and we certainly have some friends and acquaintances in common – Iain Sinclair, JG Ballard, Nicholas Royle, for instance. And now those wise people at The Believer think it would be a terrific idea if you and me had an epistolatory exchange on the subject of walking. I suspect they’re right.
What do you think?
Geoff Nicholson
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OK
W
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Hi Will 
Great. So, to get the ball rolling …
In the same week that my publisher agreed to commission The Lost Art of Walking, I set off for a long walk around the Hollywood Hills – not too far from where I currently live. I’d been walking for about half an hour when, for no reason I could see, I stumbled, fell over and broke my arm in three places.
Once I’d been operated on, had metal pins put in my forearm and while I was still in a cast and sling, I thought I’d better start walking again. And I did – being suitably medicated with (prescription) opiates. Naturally I thought of De Quincey, and about you, and I also thought of an old girlfriend of mine who liked to walk around London having taken LSD. She said she observed things – architectural details, street furniture, things in people’s windows – that she’d never notice without the benefit of psychedelics.
My own, limited experience of walking in the city while tripping (in the LSD sense) was that it was horrible. I imagined I could read the minds of all the people walking towards me in the street, and they all had profoundly ugly minds.
When I talked to Iain Sinclair about this he said he thought I was very wise to avoid mind-expanding substances while walking since there was something monstrous lurking just below the surface of the city and getting in touch with it was to be avoided. I take his point re psychedelics, and yet wandering around London and even more so New York, a couple of drinks to the good, seems to me one of life’s great pleasures. Guy Debord, as far as I can see, was pissed almost continuously.
So, since I think you know infinitely more about addiction than I do, I was wondering if you had any thoughts on being addicted to walking as opposed to being addicted to anything else, possibly even to writing. I know that I feel bad if I haven’t walked for a while, and also if I don’t write for a while.
What say you?
Geoff.
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Well, Geoff, 
My drinking and drugging days certainly saw plenty of walking: on acid, on dope (which I smoked, more or less continually, for over 20 years), on coke (a notable coked-up midnight troll included passing the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, with its facade featuring bas reliefs of the Linnaean chain of being, and becoming convinced that it was a small scale model of all organic evolution), and even on opiates. - Although, mostly, one walked through the city to score, (absurd now, but in the late 1970 and early 80s in London, it was actually difficult to get your hands on junk) and then sat still. I always preferred driving on major hallucinogens - sooo radical. 
However, as I say, these were hardly derives - but purposive journeys to get or take drugs, it's only the last decade that's seen urban walking undertaken for its own sake (there's a piece called Big Dome in my collection 'Junk Mail' that anatomises the stasis of the sedated flaneur). 
Initially, I've been scathing about the idea of walking-as-addiction: walking is expansive - addiction contracts; walking is about oneself-in-the-world, addiction about retreat from the world, walking - or at any rate, the kind you and I do - is about being open to vicissitude, losing control - addiction is a highly controlling undertaking: an attempt to modulate the psyche (and the body) and hence all experience - and so on. However, I have to concede that the 4/4 rhythm, the sense I have on long walks - both urban and rural - of being rather disembodied: a head floating above the ground; the meditational aspect, whereby I allow my mind to 'slip its gears' - all of these do seem akin to the kind of altered experience I sought in drugs. The bizarre thing is that while walking can produce these effects more reliably, I don't feel driven to it too compulsively... yet.
Best
Will
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Hi Will,
Driving under the influence of major hallucinogens – radical indeed!! I once started to write a short story (soon abandoned on the grounds that it was all too Ballardian) about a futuristic theme park called Drink Drive World – where people could get as boozed up as they liked, hop into their cars and then drive around like maniacs and crash into each other. If they were hallucinating too that would really have been the icing on the cake. What role pedestrians might have played in this theme park I never quite worked out.
Seriously I do, of course, agree with you about the disembodied, meditative aspect of walking. I often find, especially if I’m walking a long way, that I start out very thoughtful and attentive, observing things, having lofty thoughts, making sentences in my head, but then after a few hours I’ve stopped all that. I’m just putting one foot in front of the other, just walking. I think this a good thing.
Sebastian Snow, who’s one of my favorite walking writers – mildly demented old Etonian who walked the length of South America, 8,700 miles from Tierra del Fuego to the Panama Canal, says in his book The Rucksack Man - “By some transcendental process, I seemed to take on the characteristics of a Shire, my head lowered, resolute, I just plunked one foot in front of t’other, mentally munching nothingness.” I like that. I think it’s what we all do at a certain point.
And this is one of the problems I’ve always had with walking in overprogrammatic ways – you know, walking the entire length of Broadway, or back and forth over every bridge that crosses the Thames, or every street in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Sure you can do it but at some point you find yourself wondering whether it actually needs to be done.
My own contribution to ironic, or perhaps I mean absurdist, psychogeography was looking at a map of Manhattan and finding that there were certain streets in the West Village that could, with a bit of forced imagination, be seen as plotting the shape of a giant martini glass. My scheme was to walk this route, stopping at various points for a martini or three. Although this was a realizable project, and although I did in fact complete the route, after the third drink the whole enterprise seemed more rather than less absurd.
I remember an interview of yours where somebody asks you what’s the difference between a psychogeographic act and a stunt. And you reply “I’m too old for stunts.” Surely not, Mr Self.
Geoff
PS – according to my publicity folk the proof of The Lost Art of Walking should have arrived at your door today. If so, enjoy.
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Geoff,
Lost Art has indeed arrived, esteemed fellow pedophile, and I look forward  to reading it, although I'm somewhat put off by the 3mph collision of methodologies we're involved in, as I note that some of the walks in your book take place in Los Angeles, and I recently completed a week's walking tour of that city with a view to writing an essay entitled 'Walking to Hollywood'. So, I think I may hold off for a while - for fear of contamination. Jesus! such a big world - so few long distance walkers, you 
wouldn't have thought there was that much danger of us crossing paths.
I very like the 'munching on mental nothingness' line, and it does apply to me perfectly well, too. I liken it - again - to meditation: I set off thinking programmatically - or perhaps only troubled by what they call, in German, 'the ear worm', perhaps some ghastly mid-seventies pop ditty the lyric of which I can't chak, or maybe more rarefied composition of lines, tropes and imagery, drawn with great intent from what I see and hear and smell and feel. However, in the fullness of time the steady beat of the feet usually manages to subdue all this. I pursue very high mileages for this reason: twenty-five, thirty - even thirty-five miles in a day. Up at these high mileages (like, I would imagine, high altitudes, although such a notion is inimical to me: I adore mountaineering literature, but only read it when I'm lying in a hammock in the delta), I find that I become - like your Old Etonian - absorbed into the landmass, feeling its contours as you might those of a body one is seeking carnal - or at any rate, sensuous - knowledge of.
As to the gestural - yes, I am too old for walking lobsters on a leash through the Tuileries, or negotiating Florence by dice, or finding my way around Berlin using a map of Hartford, Connecticut. I distrust the idea that the society of the spectacle can be torn down in this fashion - although I do believe long distance walking can undermine it. I cleave to airport walks for this reason: walking to the airport, taking a flight, then walking at the other end. Not only does this negate the way prescribed folkways banalize the sublimity of international jet travel, but because the physical perception of distance is so much more vivid than the mental, it actually feels as if Manhattan has been rammed into the Thames Estuary: in place of the special relationship an hideous miscegenation of cities.
I also agree with you as to the sense of purposelessness engendered by these gestural walks - or stunts. But, I ask you, might the need to feel our peregrinations have a purpose be part of our problem? In other words: should we perhaps not simply accept that all we are doing is going for a walk?
Best
Will. 
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Dear Will,
Oh god yes - the fear of contamination … I was some way into writing my book before I became aware of your Psychogeography columns in the Independent, and of course I didn’t dare read any of them. Even so, somebody sent me a copy of your piece “Down and out in Beverly Hills” which bears (let’s call ‘em) parallels to a piece I published in a very obscure literary magazine that I’m absolutely sure that neither you, nor anybody else, ever read. My piece was called, wouldn’t you know it, “A Long Walk in Hollywood.” God knows the writing life is hard enough without worrying about this stuff. 
What I suspect this may be about is that Englishmen of a certain literary bent - you, me, Aldous Huxley, Rayner Banham, to name very few – we all respond to many of the same things about Los Angeles – its essential strangeness, how it doesn’t match with any of our English expectations of what a city is and does.
And yet we try out our English sensibilities and habits on the city, including walking, and we find that they fit rather well: suburbs, well tended gardens, lots of small, quirky shops, a surprising number of decent bookstores. Sure you have to do some driving – but, you know, try living in a small English town without a car these days. 
And if LA isn’t the most walkable of cities it’s all part of the perverse English nature to do what isn’t expected, walk where we’re not “supposed” to walk. Try walking past the Scientology Celebrity Center if you really want to experience the evil eye from a security guard. Of course I walk past it all the time since it seems to annoy them so much. I haven’t quite worked this up into a theory but I think there’s something in it.
I come originally from Sheffield, adjacent to the English Peak District, and walkers there still like to think of themselves as part of a great radical tradition that found its apotheosis in the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, hundreds of walkers asserting their right to roam over land that was used just once a year by the wicked land owner for his grouse shoot.
I know you used to walk with your father when you were a kid, and so did I. My dad was one of those guys who thought that Keep Out and No Trespassing signs applied to everybody except him. One of the more intense and excruciating moments of my childhood was walking with my dad and wandering past Keep Out signs onto somebody’s private land and being chased off by a man on a horse who said, “How’d you like it if I came and rode my horse in your garden?” Since we lived in a council house at the time I thought this would have well been worth seeing.
Have you done any interesting trespassing?
Best
Geoff
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Geoff,
Well, I take your point about Englishmen d'un certain age, although I am an Anglo-American myself - American enough, and raised enough in the States not to feel any visceral strangeness about the urban topos there, whether it's LA or Chicago (where I recently walked from the Loop to the nearest Wal-Mart, an economic traverse if you like it was nine miles.) 
I so identify with you and your experiences of your father. Surely this is the primary ambulatory relationship? My dad was relatively timorous, although a lion when it came to trespassing, standing on the edge of cliffs - the higher and more vertiginous the better - and licensing laws. 
The most embarrassing moment in my childhood came when, on a walking tour (my parents were separated and this is how my father's and mine relationship was conducted), we were thrown out of a pub in Padstow, Cornwall, when he'd bought me a whisky (I was 12).
But recently I've been walking with a still more insouciant trespasser, the artist Antony Gormley. When Antony sees a 'KEEP OUT' signs he charges towards it. We went for a walk coss Foulness Island in the Thames estuary, which has been an army artillery range since 1916 and can only be reached by boat, then traversed by a couple of rights of way. Our objective was the 'broomway' and ancient medieval causeway that is only accessible at low tide, since it heads out from the island on to the esturine mud, then runs for six miles upstream until coming ashore at Southend. 
Needless to say the start of it was festooned with STOP! GO BACK! notices, warning of instant dicorporation from unexploded ordinance if you dared to go further. Antony was not to be warned off: 'Oh, they're just saying that,' he bellowed, and ramped on across the mud. It was one of the eeriest and strangest walks I've ever taken - out there in brown verglas, the great stacks of the power station at Canvey Island rising up out of the haze as, like ambulatory ships, we slopped our way upriver. 
Whenever I tell people I'm going to walk somewhere utilitarian - like an airport; or even a long distance walk that seems quite prosaic to me, they always ask: 'Is it for charity?' Do you get the same response? And how do you respond to such inanity?
W
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Fellow ambulator Will (I gotta say I’m a bit worried about using that word “pedophile.” Yes, yes, WE know what it means but do the purple-lipped censors who read our emails?)
And yes, "Are you doing it for charity?" – one of the worst and dumbest questions known to man. I have a number of snarky replies, but I only deliver them in my head. Examples:
“Ah, I see you almost agree with Dr Johnson, nobody but a blockhead ever walked except for money.”
“That’s right – thanks to my charitable walking we’ve pretty much got cancer and AIDs licked.”
I have others: don’t ask.
I think it brings us back to what you were saying an email ago about walking just for the simple hell of it rather than to chart zones on atmospheric unity (have I got the right Debordian usage there?)
Of course for an author there’s another wrinkle to this. So many terrible situations become much more tolerable if you know you can write about them afterwards, and a walk that’s too easy and pleasant, and done for no “good” reason, just may not provide enough gutsy raw material. So what was the point of doing it?
I guess Werner Herzog’s walk from Munich to Paris - depths of winter, 1974 (written about in “Of Waking In Ice”) was the supremely “useful” walk. He did it to save the life of Lotte Eisner, “walking in full faith believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.” And she did. She didn’t die until 1983. She edited “Paris, Texas” a movie with two of cinema’s greatest walking scenes.
I have a personal functionalist Herzogian humiliation. I wanted to get Herzog to say something flattering about my book, that could be emblazoned across the jacket, (“Walking is virtue – Nicholson is a God among walkers” type of thing) and I knew that sending a copy to his production office wasn’t going to work, so I found his home address, and I took it over there in person, on foot and dropped it in his mailbox with a humble and (I thought) winning letter, in full faith that having walked all the way from my house to his (13 miles round trip, including a jaunt up and down Laurel Canyon Boulevard - a nightmare for a walker, steep gradient, blind curves, no sidewalk, and fast moving drivers who never expect in their wildest dreams expect to see some idiot pedestrian in the road) that I’d get what I wanted. My full faith was misplaced. No word as yet from Mr H.
I once asked Iain S. what he thought was the worst place to walk in London – he reckoned the Rotherhithe tunnel. 
Any improvement on that?
Geoff
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Ha! Small world, Geoff. 
On my 120 mile circumambulation of Los Angeles, the only really dicey moment - I simply don't count being dicked by gun crews in South-Central, this is standard - came on Laurel Canyon Drive. Foolishly, I had ventured up through the park to Mullholland Drive on the (non-pedophile) assurance that there would be a sidewalk on Laurel Canyon. When I got there, there was nothing but the Divine Right of Drivers in full spate, and darkness was falling fast. I set off down the canyon, but about half way to Sunset Boulevard seriously feared for my life (I was having to cross from side to side to avoid being invisible to drivers on the bends), and ended up cowering in a carport. 
I was saved by a Virgil, in the form of a guy in silk shorts and trim goatee who emerged from nowhere, walking insouciantly down the gutter of the roadway. He told me he walked up and down all the time to his house, and that sometimes in the dead of night he went down on his extra-length skateboard. As Burroughs observed: 'You wade through shit - and then there's a Johnson.'
I agree: some purpose is required for a long walk, and what better purpose than having to do something functional. On my LA walk I went to meet with Michael Lynton at Sony Pictures in Culver City. It took me a day to walk there from Hollywood, and then a day to get back. So what if the meeting was only half an hour long. 
Your Herzogian experience sounds ... well, rather romantic, frankly. Difficult to imagine Aguirre turning from the wrath of God to blurb a book.
Vale!
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Will,
I’ve been thinking about what you said somewhere back there about feeling the landscape’s contours as you might those of a body. There was a time when I was trying to “sex up” my book by writing about the connections between walking and sex. 
In the days when I had a real job and worked in an office, I lived for the lunch hour when I could get out and walk the streets and look at all the women who were also walking the streets in their lunch hour. Once in a while some looked back but I don’t flatter myself that anyone ever thought I had a sexy walk. In his book The Flaneur Edmund White says that in Paris, heterosexuals cruise each other just as much as homosexuals: I’ve yet to be convinced. (Incidentally my spell check suggests Flamer as a correction for Flaneur.)
Gay cruising sounds really difficult and time consuming to me: walking up and down at a park or dockside or somewhere, eyeing each other, making some kind of complex negotiation based on body language or eye contact or whatever. The walking is definitely a part of the seduction process, but I suppose it’s not part of actually having sex. So I began making a list of the ways that walking was like sex and ways it wasn ‘t.
Essential similarities: They’re both basic, simple, repetitive activities that just about everybody does, and yet they’re both capable of great sophistication and elaboration. They can both be sources of fantastic pleasure, but there are times when they can both feel like hard work. They’re both things that some people like to do alone, that some like to do with just one other person, and that others like to do in groups of various sizes. And some people like to wear special clothing while they’re doing it.
And then, essential differences: One: although I’m sure you can catch various diseases while you’re walking, they’re different from the sort you can catch while having sex. Two: whereas walking is the kind of activity that can be happily and legally undertaken in public with a dog ...
At that point I abandoned my ruminations, this seemed too flippant even by my standards. I score pretty high on flippancy.
So, if you have some final thoughts about the sexuality of pedestrianism, something suitably steeped in sensual gravitas, that might be a perfect way to bring this correspondence to a close.
Soon
Geoff
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Ah, yes, Geoff - 
Walking and sex. In my youth the madman lollopped ahead, his drool spattering the thighs of oncoming walkers, and I day-dreamed of random acts of al fresco lovemaking. But I am old, Father Geoff, and nowadays I have to tug the fucker along by his chain, and he only ever drools on me.
Well, I am being a little disingenuous when I suggest that I’m entirely beyond such things - but not altogether. Recent comments, in conjunction with promoting my 
'Psychogeography' book, and that were also made at an 'in conversation' Iain Sinclair and I undertook at the V&A in London, led to something of a backlash: these were to the effect that while plenty of women are dedicated walkers, the conjunction between less innate interest in the minutiae of spatial orientation, and the quite understandable anxiety that can afflict women walking alone in strange places, has meant - I think - that the kind of stuff we do is more of a male preserve. The obvious examples of women walker/writers were slung back at me - but I can't help but believe that these are the exceptions rather than the rule.
And perhaps that's where the de-sexing of walking exists for me: since I am, de facto, heterosexual, an extempore - or even planned - ambulatory sexual encounter is not likely. As to cruising, I don't agree - I think it sounds like enormous fun, and quite understand that even with greater liberalization, gay people - men in particular! - till feel the urge to go out, have a walk, and score. Bliss!
Hope this is a good end to it all, 
Very best
Will 
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Will,
That’ll do nicely, walk on blissfully till our paths cross again.
Geoff


Copyright Geoff Nicholson/Will Self 2008

SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION

The UK edition of THE LOST ART OF WALKING has now been published by Harbour Books, available wherever it is people buy their books these days.

It looks like this:

It's different in small but significant ways from the American edition: some cuts, some reworking, a couple of new chapters, and a slightly different subtitle.

Partly as publicity for the book there's an online audio interview with me, at talkingwalking.net, which is run by the estimable andrew Stuck, and is a good thing.  It looks like this:


And I believe that if you click RIGHT HERE you'll get to the site.


Monday, September 27, 2010

THE REVENGE OF THE ROOT

A couple more things about walking and San Francisco. First, this place:


It’s a section of Lombard Street, in Russian Hill, known as the crookedest street in the world, eight hairpin bends, necessitated by the 27 degree gradient. It’s a great tourist attraction (and it must be absolute hell to live there).

Quite a few people simply drive their car down it – it’s one way - very slowly and with great care, which is understandable but surely it takes all the fun out of it. Doing it carelessly, at high speed, after a couple of drinks, would surely be the way to get the best out of it. But most people approach it on foot, having arrived by tour bus or cable car.

Some honest souls do walk up from the bottom and then walk down again. A few, I’m sure, do it the other way round. But far more people design a route so they can approach from the top, walk down and then go on their way, which seems a bit like cheating to me. And a considerable number just stand around at the bottom taking photographs of other people walking up or down, which is just sad.


Of course, having some claims to be a walker, I felt I had to walk up. I’d actually walked there from Union Square, but I’m not trying to show off. I intended to count the steps, as I made the ascent, but frankly I got distracted. Actually they’re beautifully easy steps, many of them just half steps so the ascent is made as gentle as possible. But it was a warm day and what with having to avoid all the other people coming down, by the time I got to the top, I’d lost count, didn’t in fact care much about counting at all.

Sources tell me there are 250 steps, which I can believe, though as I say most aren’t very big steps. And of course, being an LA resident, I was reminded of the line in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely after Marlowe’s climbed two hundred and eighty steps up to Cabrillo Street in Montemar Vista, “It was a nice walk if you like grunting,” Marlowe says. I didn’t do much grunting but I did a fair bit of sweating. It was nice to have the descent to look forward to.

Another, recent discovery about walking, with some relevance to San Francisco, although the event itself took place in Bolinas, concerns Richard Brautigan. That’s him and his daughter Ianthe below, in North Beach, San Francisco, photographed by Vernon Merritt III. 


Brautigan, incidentally was a non-driver, a very good thing given how much he drank, but it obviously became quite a problem when he moved to Montana, though that isn’t the story.

Ianthe Brautigan wrote a strange and moving book about her father, titled “You Can’t Catch Death.” In it she tells the story of when he moved to a big, scary, Arts and Crafts house set back in a steep hillside in Bolinas. Huge trees grew around the house and although Brautigan paid to have the dead branches cut off, he wouldn’t let them touch any of the live foliage. Consequently the house became shrouded in gloom and at night it was so dark it was hard to find even the doors of the place.

Then one day, “in broad daylight” Ianthe says, Brautigan was walking from the back door to the front of the house and fell and broke his leg. Ianthe says she expected a dramatic story of how it happened, but Brautigan simply said, “I just tripped on a tree root.” Good for him. As I know all too well, the stories of authors who break their limbs while walking are best kept simple.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

BUSTERED


I was recently in San Francisco, a walker’s town, though only for those who like a bit of intense aerobic exercise as they plough up the killingly steep inclines. I’m not sure I enjoy it exactly but I tell myself it must be doing me good. And of course once you get the lay of the land you do become able to find routes that leave out the worst of the ascents. I'm better than I used to be, but I still find I'm the only person pounding up streets that everybody else is walking down.

One way you can tell San Francisco is a real walking town is because the pedestrians don’t obey the traffic signals. People cross the street any time they can, regardless of whether or not there’s a signal telling them they’re allowed to. I don’t think it’s that San Franciscans take delight in being scofflaws: they’re just using commonsense: walkers are supposed to have plenty of that.

In LA we’re a far more obedient bunch. If the don’t walk sign appears we stand and wait right there on the sidewalk even if there’s no car anywhere in sight. Of course this is partly because we know that LA cops like to hand out tickets for jaywalking but it seems to be more than that. I think Angelinos obey the lights because the lights are part of the traffic system and they know traffic is all powerful, and must come first in LA. This isn’t because we love the system, it’s because we fear it intensely. If we step out of line we’ll be crushed.


Anyway, in San Francisco I walked in the footsteps of Buster Keaton. Thanks to a wonderful book by John Bengtson, called Silent Echoes, this is surprisingly easy to do. It’s even easier in LA, but probably more of that later. Bengtson has done some amazing detective work to track down exactly where Keaton shot his movies, not least that scene in The Navigator (op cit) where Keaton thinks a walk will do him good. The street he walks across, it turns out, is Divisadero, between Pacific and Broadway, in Pacific Heights a very ritzy area, then and now, still full of mansions, though much more tightly packed than in Keaton’s day, and there are some wonderful apartment blocks too.



I walked most of the length of Pacific, which is like the spine of San Francisco, a long thin, rising line, with the land running away steeply on both sides, so that if you look down the side streets you have gorgeous panoramic views of the city in both directions.


But Keaton didn’t show any of this. Because the crossing of Divisadero at that point is a sort of flattened peak, and because of low camera angles, the mansions in the movie appear completely isolated with nothing around them beside. Below is a still - you'll need to click on it to see it properly. This gives the scene a storybook, stage set feel which is appropriate to the story. But what an act of self-denial on Keaton’s part, not to show those fabulous views. It only made me love the man even more.


The mansion that Keaton’s character lived in is gone now, but the house he crossed to and walked back from, his fiancĂ©e’s mansion, is very much still there and major renovations were being done, as they were to quite a few of the houses in the area. I happened to be walking there at the very time Mexico were playing France in the World Cup, and Spanish commentary blared from every construction site. Not a bit of work was being done anywhere. Who could blame them? Mexico won 2-0.

Monday, July 19, 2010

IN THE MIDDAY SUN: A FREEWAY WALK


I swear this really happened. I was walking in Hollywood, heading north on Wilton Place, where it crosses the 101, right before Sunset Boulevard. in sight of The Home Depot. The day was hot, and I wasn’t moving very fast, and I’d slowed even more to look down at the traffic on the freeway below, when a car pulled up beside me and the driver got out and ran round the car to face me.

Now I’ve been in situations similar to this before and generally it hasn’t been the prelude to anything good, but this guy looked benign enough. He said he needed directions. He pointed at his wife who was sitting in the car and said she had some crazy idea that there was a place in Los Angeles where you could walk along and see the names of Hollywood stars set in concrete in the sidewalk. Was there really such a place? He himself seriously doubted it.


I still felt this might turn out to be a set up for something more dubious, but I took him at his word and explained how to get to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Was it easy to find? Yes. Was it easy to park? Not especially. We talked a little more and I decided he was on the level. He had an accent I didn’t recognize so I asked where he was from, and he said Spain. By then he’d worked out that I had a non-American accent too, and I explained I was originally from England. “Ah,” he said, “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”

It’s not every day that you’re walking in LA and somebody quotes Noel Coward at you but then again, if you believe the legend, it’s not every day that anybody walks in LA, period. As is the way with many legends, this one has an army of debunkers, and when I arrived in LA about seven years ago I decided to join them, determined to maintain the serious walking habit I’d developed in London and New York.


Since I ended up living on the lower slopes of the Hollywood Hills, my first, not very well thought out, plan was to walk every Hollywood street in a systematic, regimented way. The gridded layout appealed to the minimalist-slash-conceptualist in me. But problems presented themselves immediately. For one thing, the exact boundaries of Hollywood are a matter of some debate: the tour guides, the cops, the onetime secessionists, all have competing beliefs about where Hollywood begins and ends. One popular notion is that Mulholland Drive is the northern boundary, and although I’ve walked sections of Mulholland, the idea of walking its entire length, with its blind bends and non-existent sidewalks, strikes me as simple insanity.


Another, problem was the 101, the Hollywood Freeway. Since it snakes diagonally across the grid, northwest to southeast, the Hollywood walker encounters it all over the place. You have to go under it or over it, and in the beginning both struck me as equally daunting. I’m no agoraphobe but there are certain bridges that make me feel quite wobbly. That spot on Wilton where I gave directions to the Spanish tourist used to have an incredibly low railing, not more than waist high, and you could easily have vaulted over it, to certain and unheroic death. They’ve now built the Helen Bernstein High School on that street, and a tall section of chain link has been added, so that the kids can’t throw themselves, or more likely each other, over it. The bridge over the 101 at Western still offers agoraphobic thrills however.


Walking under the freeway is no picnic either. The underpasses are usually what Rem Koolhaas has called junk spaces. You know that somebody must have designed, or at least engineered, them, but essentially they seem to be off-cuts of architecture, the bits and pieces that happen to be left over when more urgent structural concerns have been met. And even though there are sidewalks in the underpasses, they’re chiefly made for automobile traffic and it doesn’t seem that anybody ever considered what it might feel like to walk along them: generally unpleasant and sometimes downright scary. I’m aware of just one pedestrian-only underpass, connecting two sections of North Kingsley Drive, in the area between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue. It’s about as pedestrian-friendly as a snake pit: narrow, low-ceilinged, walls thick with textured paint and floor-to-ceiling graffiti. There’s light at the end of the tunnel but you wouldn’t get halfway there before the pursuing zombies had ripped your legs off.


Initially, when I encountered the 101 I was determined not to engage with it, or even see it. The areas around the freeway became blank spaces on my mental map of the city, and blank parts of my walking experience. But after a while I realized that simply wouldn’t do. I was enough of an urban explorer and a contrarian, to think that engaging the very thing you don’t want to engage with, was what the LA walking experience might ultimately be all about. I decided to embrace the freeway.

The first thing to notice is that intense life of one kind or another thrives around the freeway: all those houses and apartment blocks, even motels, that snuggle up to the freeway and have balconies with panoramic views of the traffic. Meanwhile, down at ground level, the off ramp seems a place to do business, not just the guys selling bags of oranges, but others, chilling out, playing guitar, holding up cardboard signs saying they just want to get a little money for a motel room. There’s also vigorous plant life; vines that creep up the concrete pillars and parapets and threaten to make the freeway look like a jungle ruin, even while it’s still in use.


In fact the intersection of straight streets and diagonal freeway creates strange little pockets of unused land, many of them roughly triangular, and greenery thrives there too. Some of them would allow you access to the freeway, but access is usually denied by high fences and locked gates, and although not strictly impenetrable, these things deter the casual trespasser, which is probably no bad thing. It’s probably best not to let pedestrians wander onto the freeways.

On the other hand certain areas are completely accessible. On Van Ness someone has adopted a patch of ground between the off ramp and the parking lot of Tommy’s and turned it into a flowerbed complete with euphorbia and variegated agaves.


Other, larger areas are put to less decorative uses. There’s a large thin slice of downward sloping land on the south side of Sunset next to a Saab garage, that anybody can walk into and obviously many have, me included. In the daytime you’ll usually find nobody home, but there’s always plenty of evidence of habitation, blankets, old clothes, the occasional mattress, even pages torn from a bible, tarot cards, the odd battered teddy bear. The prop department has been busy if not especially inventive.

I sometimes talk to homeless people, much the way that I talk to anybody else out walking. I try not to condescend, try not to turn them into writerly “material” but occasionally I meet someone so compelling and dramatic that I can’t help wondering about, maybe even constructing, a back story. A couple of weeks back I saw two homeless guys lurking in the fenced off area under the freeway bridge at Franklin and Argyle, one of them stripped to the waist with a tattoo of a leafless tree covering the whole of his back. I sopped for a moment, hung about,, wondered if I could naturally fall into conversation with them, but it was hard to know where to start. They were some distance away, the tattooed guy seemed to be washing his armpits. Yelling out, “Hey man, nice tattoo. How do you feel about living under a bridge?” I had a feeling no good could come of that approach. Simultaneously I realized William T. Vollman would have no such inhibitions.

There used to be a nice painting of a robot or space alien up on the stanchion where the two guys were hanging out, but that didn’t stay long either. It soon got painted over, which I suppose is a good thing, though I’d have thought there were more pressing acts of public beautification you might want to perform around LA. Of course the real eyesores, the tags way high up on the parapets, stay where they are, presumably because it’s too difficult to get up and obliterate them.


I’ll leave it to somebody else to define at what point graffiti become a mural, but right there at that crossing of Franklin and Argyle you have some of my very favorite LA murals, adorning the walls of the wonderfully named Hollywood Bowl Self-Storage. There in the gloom under the freeway are giant depictions of, among others, James Dean, Liz Taylor, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind, and there’s also John Wayne and Crazy Horse. The artwork’s a little clumsy, the likenesses are recognizable but the eyes and the facial proportions are significantly off, though I’m not complaining. The paint has recently been refurbished, the colors made brighter and more intense and there have been one or two changes. There used to be a speech bubble coming out of John Wayne’s mouth that said, “The chief up there wants to be president.” That’s gone now, and I can’t decide if it’s been done in the name of political correctness or because the painter is convinced we’re living in Obama’s post-racial America.

I’m not really in the business of recommending walking routes, but I have been known to take people on walks to show them the “other” Hollywood. And if that’s what you want we could start right there by those murals and head up Vine Street on the north side of Franklin. Most people don’t even realize it is Vine at that point, because it’s a steep, narrow, curving street that for a short while runs more or less parallel with the freeway. If you walk up and look back across the lanes of traffic you’ll see the towers of downtown, and if the light is right it looks a lot like a golden city to me.


As Vine flattens out we might take a left into Vedanta Street, home of the onion-domed Vedanta temple which according to the books is sometimes called the “little Taj,” though I’m not sure by whom. The temple looks a fine and spiritual place, but even so it’s jammed up against the freeway, with only a concrete wall (though one free of graffiti) to protect it.

From Vedanta we could make another left down Ivar, Nathaniel West’s old street, which he called Lysol Alley, though he was talking about the section below Franklin, and he certainly had no freeway to contend with. Walking down Ivar takes us through one of those junk spaces I talked about, a curious, lightless, claustrophobic underpass, only slightly brightened by its lining of white tiles that come up to about head height. At least it’s short.

Make a right on Dix Street, and if you’re in the mood we could take another right on Holly Drive which would bring us back under the freeway again, through a much longer, far more gloomy underpass, though one that’s shaggy with overhanging greenery that almost covers up the sprayed words “bullets and octane” which for a while (call me a fool) I thought was someone’s urgent street poetry but of course turns out to be the name of an angry punk-metal band.

If you didn’t want to head up Holly I’d understand, and I’d understand even more if you did want to head up North Cahuenga Boulevard but I’d say wait, we’re saving that for later. I’d recommend we go all the way to Highland, turn right and walk as if we were going to the Hollywood Bowl, but before we get there we’d hang a right on Odin Street. Odin, top deity of Norse paganism, father of Thor, god of war and death, poetry and wisdom: it’s worth walking there just for the name, but in fact it’s one of those underpasses where the necessities of road construction have created a surprisingly attractive, curving space. There’s something cinematic and widescreen about it, its mouth surrounded by palm trees that tower over the freeway, in some cases seeming to grow out of it. Its walls also bear a mural, hard to see because it’s so dark in there, called the Blue Moon Trilogy by Russell John Carlton for the Aids Project Los Angeles. According to a serious-looking metal plaque on the wall, the work’s a triptych, “Eve of Conception,” “Dawning Of A New Age” and “A Glorious Revelation.” This frankly seems a bit grandiose for what are three very modest murals, blue, green and red stripes, triangular shaped pine trees and blue moons that look like stuffed cocktail olives.

When we emerge from the underpass we’ll be on Cahuenga Boulevard which veers ahead of us toward the 101 and the Cahuenga Pass, but we don’t want to go walking up there alongside 12 or 16 lanes of traffic: even I’m not that nuts. Instead we should follow the road around to the right and eventually we’ll be heading downhill to the North Cahuenga Boulevard underpass, which is journey’s end (of a kind).

If you drive through that underpass the experience is nothing at all, but on foot it’s definitely something. The bridge supporting the freeway is broad and gently arched and when you stand under it you see that overhead, the freeway is divided into separate northbound and southbound lanes, with a gap between them, and filling that gap is a long, narrow skylight. This isn’t in the usual sense “stained glass” though there’s certainly plenty of staining; inky blues and earth browns caused by who knows what -- oil, carbon, decomposing vegetation, road gunk, maybe road kill. Even so, the light that filters down is eerily appealing. It’s not exactly like being in a cathedral but you’re definitely standing in a strange, compelling architectural space. People on foot just don’t belong there, which is a large part of the attraction. I can stand there for long periods of time, looking up at the light, hearing the noise of the traffic, basking in the weird, brutal, accidental elegance of it.

I’m not one of those people who revels in Los Angeles’ capacity for apocalypse and my understanding (I mean, I found it online) is that there’s been some “seismic upgrading” of the concrete in the bridge to increase its “flexural capacity,” but even so this is the kind of place you really wouldn’t want to be when the earthquake hits. It’s all too easy to imagine the fragmented glass, the pulverized concrete, the falling cars coming down, and there we are below, defenseless, out of place, a couple of pedestrians who wouldn’t stand a chance.


I’m sure one or two people must have seen me standing there, gazing up, taking photographs, and they’ve probably thought I was a weirdo, but as yet nobody’s ever stopped their car to talk to me. Nobody there has ever accused me of being a mad dog or an Englishman.