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.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


There’s a story, told by the man himself, that when Richard Branson (he of Virgin airlines) was a kid, his mother used to push him out of the car and  make him, as he says, “find his own way to granny’s” on foot, which was some five miles away.  It made a man of him, apparently.  Here is walking neither to, nor with, his granny.

This is at least somewhat similar to a walking experience that some of Osama bin Laden’s children must have had.   In an interview with New York Times magazine Julie Sasson, author of Growing Up bin Laden, said,  “Osama (she was apparently on first name terms) had these kicks where he would take the boys out into the desert and have them march long distances and not give them water …
 Omar (bin Laden’s son) said his father just loved walking over those mountains (the Tora Bora). He told me: ‘Once I tumbled off the mountain and thought I was going to be killed. My father remained completely calm. He just stood there, watching me. When I finally got my footing, I looked at him and said, ‘My father, what would you have done if I had been killed?’ And he just said, ‘Well, I would’ve buried you, my son.’ ” 
          Indeed.  What else would a father say?

Growing up in Sheffield, when we wanted to go out walking on a Sunday afternoon my dad would take us to the Peak District (Britain’s first National Park) – rugged terrain but walking rather than climbing country, and certainly less rugged than Tora Bora.  The issue was always that you’d start at the bottom of what seemed to be the highest peak. You’d climb it, but when you got to the top you’d see there was another, higher peak just a little way ahead that had been hidden by the first one.  You’d climb that second one and see another beyond it too.  And so on.  You can pick the metaphors out of that till you’re blue in the face.  My dad, of course would always egg me on, one more peak, and then just one more, then another. What else would a father do?  I suppose that’s a father’s role.

I was  friends with the Evans family in Sheffield.  Their dad was a city architect, the kids were all smart and driven and they’ve all done very well for themselves.  Was it their dad’s influence?  The Peak District’s?  Well, their dad certainly insisted that the kids went walking in the Peak District on Sunday afternoons.  But there was a catch.  Dad had only one leg, and obviously couldn’t go hiking over rough hill and vale, so he would drive the kids to some spot outside Castleton or Hathersage, then drive to a spot some miles down the road, to which the kids had to walk.  I suppose there was always the possibility that they wouldn’t arrive, but evidently they always did.  And, as I say, they’ve done pretty well for themselves; doctor, hospital administrator, senior civil servant, all perfectly content as far as an outsider can tell.

As for Omar, that’s him above, if his memoir is to be believed, he was at least man enough to stand up to his dad.  Osama bin Laden tried to persuade him to become a suicide bomber.  Omar preferred to keep walking.


That title begs a lot of questions doesn't it?   Are "we" so to speak walking "alone together," or are there lots of "us," many individuals each walking separately, each in a different location?  

The writings of Michel de Certeau are not an entirely open book to me, but I do know that he makes a distinction between space and place.  It seems that ethnologists spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff. Here is Marc Auge writing about de Certeau, "Space, for him is a 'frequented place,' 'an intersection of moving bodies': it is the pedestrians who transform a street (geographically defined as a place by town planners) into a space."

It all goes back to Aristotle.  He defines space as the limit of the surrounding body towards what is surrounded. By definition no two people can ever be in the same space at the same time.  In that sense we always walk alone, even when we're with others.

Incidentally, if you type "lesbian walk" into Google - the first citation that comes up is yahoo answers, from the Philippines, with this plaintive question from "Paul":  "They say I'm a lesbian the way I walk. They judge me according to their opinion but I know myself Im a girl? I know that im a 100% girl. Can u help me. Im still single right now just becoz of that"

Most of the answers, reasonably enough, suggest that the girl (if girl it be) doesn't really know what a lesbian is, and insist that you can't read a person's sexuality from the way they walk.  John Travolta (or the Bee Gees who wrote "Staying Alive") might beg to differ.  "You can tell by the way I use my walk, I'm a woman's man, no time to talk."  Discuss.

Friday, July 15, 2011


I don’t know what an entirely random or disinterested walk would be like.  However open we are to new things, we all still walk with preconceptions about what’s interesting, what’s good walking territory, about who we want to walk with.  Which is perhaps only to say that we have preconceptions about what constitutes a “good walk.”  These preconceptions aren’t fixed.  If you suddenly develop an interest in the history of brickwork, then all the brickwork you see around you becomes deeply fascinating.  If you’re thinking of buying a Ford Escort, suddenly you notice a lot of Ford Escorts.  The eye and brain are always selective.  We see what we’re predisposed to see. 

When you arrive in a new place for the first time you (obviously) tend to notice what’s most obvious.  The longer you spend there, the less obvious the “obvious” becomes.  When I first arrived in Los Angeles I looked in awe at all the palm trees.  I’d stare up at them, try to identify the different kinds, take lots of photographs of them when I went out walking.  Of course, most of these trees looked pretty healthy.

As the years have gone, I’ve come to think of the palm tree as just too obvious a signifier of L.A. and Hollywood. I’ve started to think that only an out of towner, a tourist, a rube, would stop and stare at palm trees.  I know they’re there, but in some way I’ve stopped seeing them.

And then, a few days ago, I went to meet Glen Rubsamen, an artist and photographer who lives in Rome but was passing through L.A..  He’s doing a book project on the palm trees of Italy, which are rapidly dying out because of the invasion of the red palm weevil, which moves into the palm trees and destroys them on the grand scale.  It appears there’s not very much anybody can do about it: in any case the Italian authorities aren’t doing anything at all. 

The significance of the Italian palm tree, Glen tells me, is enormously wide ranging and can be traced back through various imperial adventures, from Mussolini all the way to the Roman Empire.  Their dying out seems a very bad thing, and it will certainly change the look of much of Italy, and yet palm trees aren’t “natural” to Italy, certainly not native.  The landscape will (in any literal sense) be more natural without them. 

You can see there are some huge issues at stake here, and I hope I haven’t garbled them too severely.  Glen has taken a series of wonderful and uncanny photographs of dead and dying palm trees.  There’s one above, and another below.  Anyone who lives in Rome inevitably understands the pleasure of ruins, but sickly and decaying trees remain beyond the limits of what most of us consider pleasurable.  You really should check out Glen Rubsamen’s work.  I’d post more of his images but I wouldn’t want you to think I was filching his work to make my blog look good.

So inevitably I’ve been thinking again about the palm trees of Los Angeles, and seeing them with new eyes.  I walked to my meeting with Glen, noticing all the palm trees along the way; the ones in people’s gardens, the ones lining the streets, the ones growing up through the side walk, the ones next to freeway on-ramps, the ones reflected in glass-fronted buildings.  I always knew they were there but now I’m predisposed to see them again.

If you’re a Hollywood Walker, the Hollywood sign can operate in much the same way.  When you first arrive here you’re always looking out for it, then once you know where it is, you start ignoring it, and then you start not seeing it at all.  But coming home from my meeting with Glen, walking along a palm tree lined section of Hollywood Boulevard, I looked up and suddenly saw the sign, framed by a palm tree and beneath it the word “surrender.”  Well, surrender has its appeal.  There’s every indication that the red palm weevil is heading for L.A., and in the end there may not be a whole lot we can do about it, but I don’t think we should surrender without a fight.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


A couple of years back when I was in London I took a literary pilgrimage down to Shepperton, in order to walk along J.G. Ballard’s street and look at his house, which since his death was empty, closed up, with what looked like a dead potted palm inside the front room, pressing against the window, and a sagging Ford Granada in the driveway. 

I had some dealings with Ballard via Ambit magazine, but I wouldn’t claim to have known him at all, and I was certainly never invited down to his house. There’s an account of my walk in the British edition of The Lost Art of Walking.

Because of the kind of book that was, I didn’t include any photographs, but in a blog it seems fair enough.  Fairer still since the house is now up for sale: £320,000 for a modest semi, “in need of work” but perfectly placed for the commuter, with station just a short walk away at one end of the street, two pubs within walking distance, one of them actually halfway along the street, and a nice bit of open space, called Splash Meadow at the far end, a nice place to walk with the occasional low flying aircraft passing overhead.  

Beside that is a golf course where you could have a “good walk spoiled.” And beyond that there's a path with a tangle of overgrown greenery, and eventually this rather retro futurist ramp: 

part of a pedestrian bridge that takes a walker up and across the rush and roar of the M3, which leads into London, and depending on where you were heading, might very well take you via the Westway.

Hey, Mr. Ballard, where did you get your ideas?

Thursday, January 6, 2011


The best story ever about guns, cars and walking appeared in the Los Angeles papers this week.

On New Years’ Day 2011, a 21 year old man, name of Dennis Vilchis
found himself in Hawthorne, trying to cross the street near the
the intersection of Prairie Avenue and El Segundo Boulevard.
He reckoned he had the right of way, the driver of a car felt differently.

So naturally enough Dennis pulled out a handgun and brandished it.  Brandishing is one of the things people do with handguns.  And to give him some credit he appears to have intended nothing more than a good brandishing, because he then put the gun back in his pants pocket.

At which point the gun went off and he shot himself in the leg and ended up in hospital in a serious condition.

The punchline of the story, as it was told in the LA Times, was that “Detectives are reviewing the incident for possible criminal charges.”

It would be a terrible shame if Dennis found himself in jail and had to explain to fellow inmates what he did to get himself locked up.