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.

Friday, August 19, 2011


I first set foot in New York in the late 1970s.  I was smart enough in certain limited areas, very na├»ve in others.  I thought the obvious thing to do while in New York was drop in on good old Andy Warhol.  He’d obviously be delighted to make the acquaintance of some complete stranger from England.

A quick look in the Yellow Pages (remember them?) gave me the address of Andy Warhol Enterprises – 860 Broadway I believe, though I found this by Googling rather than because it’s indelibly etched in my memory - and I walked down there, stood outside the building, seriously intending to go in, but ultimately I just couldn’t do it.  I was a wimp, and I chickened out.

In retrospect I’m sure it was for the best.  People who know about these things assure me I’d never have got past reception.  This was well after Warhol had been shot by Valerie Solanas, and strangers were not embraced the way they had been back in the early 60s.  In any case I doubt that I’d ever have been clasped to the Factory bosom.  I had youth on my side, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t have what the Warhol crew was looking for.  I walked away from the building, trying not to feel too much like an idiot.

New York at that time was a bracingly scary place to go walking - muggings, prostitutes in hot pants, dangerous-looking men offering drugs that they might or might not actually have.  A stroll in Central Park was reputed to be a suicide mission.  This, I suppose, was Warhol’s New York, but back then I couldn’t have told you where Warhol lived or ate or hung out.  I certainly had no idea which church he attended, or that he went to church at all. 

Now, all this and more is revealed in Thomas Kiedrowski’s new book “Andy Warhol’s New York City: Four Walks Uptown to Downtown.”  I have found myself wishing I had a time machine so I could take this walking guide and go back the necessary number of decades.  I might still not be welcomed by the Factory crew but at least I’d know where to walk in order to engineer a “chance” encounter with Andy, Edie, Viva, et al.

As modern tourism becomes ever more pervasive and (for want of a better word) inventive, there is a small industry providing walking tours that enable you to see places through the eyes (or at least personal habits) of certain literary and artistic figures.  The overheads must be attractively low.  In Manhattan you can walk with Salinger, in Brooklyn with Walt Whitman. Graffiti walking tours currently seem to be popular.  In London it’s Dickens, William Blake, Sherlock Holmes, and a slew of others. In Paris you can follow the footsteps of Sartre or Toulouse Lautrec, and of any number of American artistic expats. You can certainly walk with Guy Debord, aka Monsieur Psychogeographie: there are details online, though it seems he really didn’t get around all that much.

New York, London, Paris, these cities are big enough that multiple views and versions are possible. New York does not only belong to Salinger, London is not solely Dickensian.  But what about those places with a single, or at least an overwhelming, presence?   Joyce in Dublin, Kafka in Prague, Mark Twain in Hannibal, Dali in Port Lligat.  You wouldn’t want to be the other painter in Giverny, the other literary presence in Faulkner’s Oxford, Mississippi.  If you’re a playwright you surely couldn’t live in Shakespeare’s Stratford.

I admit that I’m a sucker for this stuff.  I’m a man who absolutely had to go to Barstow in the Mojave desert, for no other reason than it’s mentioned in the opening line of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  A long trip was required to Coxwold, in North Yorkshire because that’s where Lawrence Sterne lived, worked and walked. 

I’ve enjoyed myself well enough on my excursions to these places but I do realize that in the end there’s something unsatisfying, and even potentially absurd, about this kind of pilgrimage.  You can’t walk in Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles or on the banks of Thomas Cole’s Hudson River, because these places are inventions, artistic creations.  They exist sure enough, but they exist on the page or on canvas and, of course, in the mind and imagination of the reader or viewer.  Ultimately they’re no more “real” than Calvino’s invisible cities, or the hundreds of locations listed in Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi’s Dictionary of Imaginary Places.

The great places belong to everybody and nobody.  This is their appeal. You don’t have to write a book or create a painting to make a place yours.  Simply walking through it may be enough.

A small name-dropping footnote to Warholesque pedestrianism.  Here in Los Angeles I did briefly befriend Mary Woronov, star of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls among others.  It was no big deal - we didn’t do more than have a few cups of coffee together, and afterwards on one occasion I walked her to her car.  Unprompted by me she said, “Oh, that’s a good walk you have there.  That’s a very nice stride.”  I smiled fit to bust.  I’m not sure I necessarily want that emblazoned on my tombstone, but I’m very glad to have it in my blog.


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?