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.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


In London, I lived for a while in a flat just off Baker Street.  Every time I walked to or from the tube I found myself singing the Gerry Rafferty song “Baker Street,” complete with that famous saxophone hook.  When I was walking with other people we’d sing it in unison, every time.  It got really annoying but we couldn’t stop doing it, at least not till I moved out of the flat.

Then I lived in Maida Vale, and my local tube was Warwick Avenue.  In fact I’d lived there for years before Duffy had a hit with a song “Warwick Avenue,” and I never really liked the song all that much but I know there were many who did, and I was well aware there were people in the world who knew Warwick Avenue much better as a song title than as a geographical location or as a place to live.

Here in L.A. there’s a street called Lexington, an ordinary enough street that I walk down once in a while, and every time I do I start singing those lines, “Up to Lexington 125, Sick and dirty more dead than alive” from the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man.”  I know, of course, that the song refers to Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, not in L.A., but that doesn’t deter me from singing it to myself.  For that matter there’s also a Lexington Street in London.

Thanks to Richard Hawley several Sheffield locations have now been celebrated in song: Coles Corner, Truelove’s Gutter, Lady’s Bridge.  For years I used to walk by Lady’s Bridge, to catch my bus in what had once been Truelove’s Gutter, but was then known as Castlegate.  On my recent trip to Sheffield I spotted this wonderful tiled building, right beside Lady’s Bridge.

Looking at it now, it seems to me that it’s one of the most wonderful buildings in Sheffield, but I scarcely noticed it in all the years when I caught my bus there.  As my pal Steve said, if a building with tiles like that was in Barcelona it would be regarded as an architectural treasure.

But essentially when I think of Sheffield landscapes and Sheffield music, I tend to obsess about “Sensoria” by Cabaret Voltaire. I love that industrial funk, and the lyrics, and especially that line  “In hard times, hard thrills.”  The video was directed by Peter Care, and I assume dates from 1984 when the single was released, though I suppose it could have been slightly later. It looks like this:

I’m not sure I ever saw the video in the 80s when it was actually made, but thanks to youtube it’s now easy access, and although I don’t know exactly where every scene was shot, it seems to be various places in the east end of Sheffield.  Those cooling towers are now long gone, and much missed by some, but for me it’s that strange, ancient little chapel that’s so fascinating.  It’s the Hill Top Chapel on Attercliffe Common.  And since I was in Sheffield for the weekend I decided to seek it out.

The chapel dates from 1629 and it’s had a chequered history, opening and closing as the population of Attercliffe grew or shrank, changing its size and shape, superceded for a while by a much larger church but then that new one was destroyed in the Second World War.  The chapel was declared redundant in 1985 – just after the Cabaret Voltaire video was shot - but then it was later put back into service and is apparently now used for “prayer … day retreats … and RE and local history studies by local schools.”

The place was easy enough to find, but it wasn’t especially welcoming.  There were two locked gates denying access to the church yard, but the surrounding wall was low, there weren’t even any keep out signs, and in any case I understand that trespass is a civil offence in Britain, not a criminal one, and so I popped over the wall for a look.

The first thing that strikes you is that in the video the chapel seems to be absolutely in the middle of nowhere, on a completely desolate, blighted landscape, but now it seems to be surrounded by mature trees.  I suppose they could have grown up since the video was made, but I do wonder if it was clever camera angles that made the place look so isolated and bleak.

In any case it’s not so isolated now.  A great deal of stuff has sprung up around the chapel: the Don Valley Stadium, the Sheffield Arena, an ice rink, the Meadowhall Retail Park, and right behind the chapel is a light industrial estate.

And just to prove that I really went there, above is a picture of me (pal Steve took the picture) outside the chapel, and although I may look as though I’m dancing, a la Cabs, in fact I’m trying to keep my balance having tripped over the edge of a gravestone, although looking at it another way, I suppose that might be considered a form of dance.

Stephen Mallinder, of Cabaret Voltaire, (that's him above, during and after) has now become a very hip academic.  In 2007 he wrote an essay titled “Sheffield is Not Sexy” – and I’m really not sure how many layers of irony there are in that title, if any.  In the essay he reveals that before he was a pioneer of industrial music he was a lover of reggae and soul, and he writes that on his way to school every day he passed the Mojo Club - the legendary and slightly disreputable Sheffield venue, where it seems EVERYBODY played – Howlin’ Wolf, Hendrix, the Stones, the Beatles.  I passed it on my way to school every day too.

Mallinder writes, specifically of soul music, though it surely has a much wider context, “Soul music, through its global dissemination, had created a community that reached from California to South Yorkshire through the shared experiences of consumption and dancing.”  Hey, Stephen, I’m trying to keep up my part of the bargain, living in LA. dancing in the graveyard in Attercliffe, even when I’m only trying to walk.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


So, I have been to Sheffield and walked (very roughly) in a circle as part of the Off The Shelf literary festival, accompanied by an “audience” of 25 or so fellow (paying) pedestrians.  Odd to be paid to walk.  Odder still that people would pay to walk with me. 

The group was limited to that number, which at first I thought was very low, but in the end I reckoned it was about right. The organizers said they could have sold out the event ten times over, which was very flattering, but the idea of walking the streets of Sheffield with 200 plus people in tow sounds like a recipe for absolute chaos.  Keeping twenty odd waifs and strays in line, getting them across roads, stopping them wandering into traffic, keeping them within hailing range, was tricky enough, and I was glad I had a couple of wranglers from the festival, Lesley and Emma, to keep everybody in check (myself included).

Ultimately the task I’d set myself (strange as it might seem) was to do a compare and contrast between Sheffield and Hollywood.  The differences hardly needed to be labored, but finding the similarities was very instructive and actually much easier than you (or even I) would imagine.

The walk began and ended at the Showroom CafĂ© Bar, which happens to be right opposite an endearingly eccentric piece of architecture, designed by Nigel Coates, consisting of four large, metal-clad forms, that are variously described as looking like drums, curling stones or crucibles. 

The building originally housed a rock and roll museum, officially the National Centre for Popular Music, which I visited in the short period it was open.  Understandably, the founders wanted some local flavor, and so the museum contained a lot of memorabilia from local bands.  My memory’s a bit vague but I think there was a guitar that had belonged to Frank White, who was once Joe Cocker’s guitarist, and I’m pretty sure there was another belonging to Richard Hawley.  No doubt local bands such as ABC, the Human League, Cabaret Voltaire  and Def Leppard featured too.  

It was all interesting enough but it always seemed doubtful that hordes of music lovers would beat a trail to Sheffield to look at this stuff.  And so it proved.  The museum closed down after not much more than a year, and now it’s the students’ union for Sheffield Hallam University, and known as The Hub.

I really liked the original building, since it seemed both fun and yet serious, and in that sense it resembles the Capitol Records building in Hollywood.  The lesson I think is that architects can allow themselves to be playful when they’re designing a building that has some connection with entertainment or showbiz.  But when it comes to courthouses and city halls, for example, people demand something more poker-faced.

Sheffield seemed to be in the middle of a street art revival, as I suppose is much of the world.  L.A. is currently awash with the stuff, both in and out of museums.  In Sheffield the most ubiquitous was Kid Acne.  Great name. His word pieces are all over the city, simple messages painted on the boards surrounding empty plots of land:  “That’ll Learn ’em,” “Dust In the Giant’s Eye,” “Tha Knows,” “You’ll Get What You’re Given,” and so on.  He was also having a show in the Millenium Galleries: I was particularly taken with his “stabby women.”

Not least of the problems of street art is that it has to make an immediate impression, but then it can hang around for a surprisingly long time.  Just how many times can you read “That’ll Learn ‘Em” and still think it’s interesting? Colin Drury, a columnist at the Sheffield Star, directed me towards an artist rejoicing in the name of Phlegm, whose work is certainly more complex, and one imagines more enduring, though of course endurance may not be what we’re looking for in street art.

I did manage to find a Sheffield equivalent of the Hollywood Sign (well, sort of), a large banner hung on a wall beside a parking lot, saying “Welcome to Sheffield” though it seemed that whatever direction you were coming from, you’d have been in Sheffield for some time before you received this welcome.

The local people on the walk found this sign every bit as mystifying as I did, and some said they’d never noticed it before, which made me feel pretty good.  I knew it was never going to be easy to show the people who lived in Sheffield something that was new to them.

I also had a spiel about the ways in which, given a little neglect, benign or otherwise, the natural world has a way of reasserting itself in the built environment.  I talked about the way creepers and palm tress spring up around the Hollywood Freeway, and there in Sheffield we saw the way that some unrealized developments had left empty patches of land around the city center, patches on which jungles of greenery were now thriving.

Some of the things we saw en route were genuinely ephemeral.  We walked past the St. Marie’s Cathedral (Temporary), relocated in a storefront while the actual cathedral is being renovated. 

At one point a young man in full vampire drag cycled by us.  We stared at him, he stared at us, then said by way of apologetic explanation, “Halloween.”  We had already guessed.

And it so happened the fair was in town.  There was a helter skelter right in the middle of Fargate, the main pedestrian shopping street, and who can read the words “helter skelter” without thinking of Charles Manson and the L.A. murders committed in his name by his “family”?

Similarly, a little way up the road, outside the City Hall (the place where - a lifetime ago as it now seems - I saw Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and indeed Tony Williams’ Lifetime) they’d set up some vomit-inducing fairground ride called Freak Out, and I can certainly not read the words “freak out’ without thinking of Frank Zappa, the man whose work gave me a crash course in American culture.  His mentions of Howard Johnson motels, rancid Budweiser, Cel-Ray, the El Monte Legion stadium and so on, suggested that there were things to know about America that I wasn’t going to find on a university American studies course.

I was put up in the Hilton hotel in a part of Sheffield I’d never even heard of, a regenerated area now known as the Victoria Quays.  I think this used to be called the Sheffield canal basin, though as I grew up in Sheffield I didn’t even know there was a canal in the city.  The whole area is now wonderfully cleaned up and pleasant and terrific place to do a certain kind of post-industrial walking.

I assume the area got its new name because it’s more or less where the old Sheffield Victoria station used to be.  I certainly went to the station a few times as a kid, at least once in the company of trainspotters.  I never really “got” trainspotting, though I did develop an unprofessional enthusiasm for trains, tracks and railway buildings, which remains with me.

I knew the station had been gone for a good long time, but I even so I walked around the area looking for signs of it.  I could find hardly any, could barely see where it had stood.  The station hotel remains, and I knew it had to be adjacent to that, but it took quite a stretch of the imagination to picture where the station had once been.

The area had changed out of all recognition, but the gentrification wasn’t absolutely complete or permanent.  Little pockets of mess and decay continued to show through, and I wasn’t entirely sorry to see them.  The railway arch below is actually part of a recycling facility, so I suppose you could argue that even this is environmentally friendly.

Although, on my walk, I was happy to talk about the Sheffield I knew growing up, I tried to avoid the “I remember when all this was fields” approach.  However, my old Sheffield pal Steve, who was my tour guide, even as I was a tour guide for other people, next day took me along Prince of Wales Road, a route I used to know pretty well back in the day, and he pointed out that a large number of council houses had now been demolished because of defective mortar, and had never been replaced.  This allowed him to say, “I remember when these fields were all houses.”  We both enjoyed that.

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.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


While I was in New York I went to the High Line, a section of elevated railway that’s now been converted or I dare say “repurposed,” into a pedestrian precinct so that New Yorkers can stroll high above ground level and look down on the poor suckers beneath them.  New Yorkers seem justifiably proud of it, and a lot of people do in fact walk there, but it’s a very specific kind of walking, actually I think a form of promenading.  People walking up and down, savoring the pleasure of walking, looking around them, checking each other out.  Very old school.

Of course, very few of the people walking the High Line are actually going anywhere, using it as a way of getting from A to B.  That’s not surprising.   Citizens who actually need to get from the far western end of, say, 30th Street down to Gansevoort Street and the meat packing district are few and far between.  So the place functions a kind of pedestrian theme park, a piece of reclaimed industrial territory, now decked out with walkways and exuberant landscaping, while keeping some of the old rails still visible.

One great thing, obviously, is that you’re above the traffic, and therefore not confronted by manic drivers or deranged cyclists.  There’s even a section where people sit in a kind of amphitheater and gaze down at the traffic below; a surprisingly pleasurable activity. 

But even so, walking on the High Line isn’t entirely different from walking the sidewalks of New York.  The paths are extremely narrow in places and you can find yourself stuck behind a group of inconsiderate, slow-moving walkers just as you can on the street.

There are also some wooden loungers where people who are less committed to walking can sprawl back and display themselves to passing pedestrians.  Did somebody suggest there might be one or two exhibitionists in New York?  Well why not?  People watching is always fun, and watching people who have actually set themselves up to be watched is a particular form of that fun.

The High Line itself is suitably sylvan and park-like, but inevitably you look past the greenery and the pedestrian oasis, away towards the cityscape of the surrounding area.  There are apartment blocks, new slithers of zesty modern architecture, old industrial buildings and the Hudson River is visible from certain places.

There are inhabitants who were formerly living thoroughly quiet private lives who now find gaggles of people walking past their window and staring in.  No doubt some are royally pissed off about it.  On the other hand, some of the newer developments seem to be designed specifically with passing pedestrians in mind.  In certain places you can look right into some very expensive apartments and see just how much space the inhabitants have got, indeed how much space they’ve wasted – the true sign of Manhattan opulence.

On the two days I went to the High Line, a building was being demolished very close to the southern end of the walkway.  A guy in a demolition machine, one with caterpillar tracks and a single arm with what looked like a giant hole punch on the end, though I believe it’s actually known as a hydraulic hammer, was doing the job all by himself. 

Smashing walls and roof was easy enough but then he encountered metal girders which were much harder to break down, though he always got there in the end.  The whole process delivered quite an ear-bashing to the walkers on the High Line, and clouds of demolition dust rose up and billowed in our direction.  The noise and the dirt were the kind of thing that you might think would threatened to spoil a walk.  But it didn’t.  The walkers I saw absolutely LOVED it.  We all paused in our walking, moved to the side of the High Line, pressed against the railing and stared down in absolute fascination, to see how one man could destroy a whole building. 

It didn’t spoil the walk, it absolutely MADE the walk.  If I were designing a pedestrian theme park I’d make sure there was some industrial-scale destruction going on there; so much more fun than looking at the birds and the plants and the show offs on the wooden sun loungers.


 On Saturday October 22nd at 6 pm I’m leading a walk in Sheffield as part of the Off The Shelf Literary Festival. In order to make life difficult for myself, and I hope to make the walk more interesting, I’ve decided to turn it into a “project” that invokes mapping, memory and “emotion recollected in tranquility” – all the great Romantic pedestrian virtues.

The project is an apparently simple one.  I go for a walk near my current home in Los Angeles.  Then some weeks later, accompanied by festival-goers, I go for a walk in Sheffield, the city where I was born and brought up, and where, in my time, I’ve done a great deal of walking, but which is now partly (and increasingly) unfamiliar to me.

The idea is that the two routes should, in one sense, be as similar to each other as possible: the same length, taking the same amount of time, walking the same “shape” on the map of each city. 

I decided that the two walks should be as “circular” as possible, i.e. beginning and ending in the same place, and attempting to carve a circle through the geography of each place.  You can make up your own mind about the deeper symbolism of this.

So I began with a map of Los Angeles, specifically of Hollywood, and I traced a circle on the map, using the very latest hi tech cartographical methods – I drew round the rim of an inverted martini glass.

Of course you can’t literally walk in a circle on the streets of Los Angeles because much of the city is built on a grid, but I designed a route that was as close to circular as possible.  In fact, as you see below, it wasn’t really very close, or very circular at all, but that’s the nature of the enterprise: the best laid walking plans are always confounded by the situation on the ground.  The map (as they say) is not the territory.  This map, like all the others, is clickable and will then enlarge.

The Hollywood walk is now done, things have been seen, notes have been made, photographs have been taken, some of which are visible below.

The walk was arbitrary to a degree and it isn’t exactly a tourist route, but I thought it best to include one or two places that people are likely to have heard of even if they’re unfamiliar with LA: Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard, Vine Street, and it was a route that from time to time gave views of the Hollywood Sign.  

Having done the Hollywood walk, I traced the shape of that route on a sheet of transparent plastic.

I then placed that sheet over the map of Sheffield, and that will be the route I’ll try to walk there on Saturday the 22nd.

Of course the geography of Sheffield, the layout of the streets, doesn’t conform to the geography of Los Angeles, so the shape of the walk will have to be modified again according to local topography.  The circle becomes ever less circular.  So here’s the route I’m actually proposing for the Sheffield Walk.

The idea, always subject to change and decay, is that as I walk the route in Sheffield I’ll consult the map, the notes, the photographs of my Hollywood walk.  I’ll be able to say things like, “If you were at this point on the route in Hollywood you’d be looking at the Capitol Records building or a marijuana dispensary, or whatever.  And we’ll compare and contrast this experience with conditions on the ground in Sheffield.

I realize that in many ways this is walking made needlessly complicated, perhaps even made absurd, but in the end, on the day, in Sheffield, we’ll simply be going for a walk, seeing what happens, seeing what there is to see.

Below is another map of the Hollywood walk, this time with numbers that correspond to the specific points where I took photographs. 

OK, I admit it, not all the photographs were taken on the very day of the walk, and one of them was “borrowed” from an online source because I couldn’t get a good shot.

1 – Why a lot of people like it in Hollywood: sunshine, palm trees and the Hollywood sign looming in the distance and legal medical marijuana. 

2 – An actual Hollywood walker – pushing (I imagine) a large proportion of his worldly goods in that rather stylish pram.

3- The Capitol Records building – one of Hollywood’s most famous “programmatic” pieces of architecture.  It looks like a stack of 7 inch vinyl singles, if anyone knows what that is anymore.

4 – A graffito painted on a wall under the Hollywood Freeway.  I walk past here all the time, graffiti appear regularly and within days city crews come and paint them over.

5 – Right in Hollywood, right by the freeway, the Vedanta Church, sometimes called the Vedanta Temple, the home of the Vedanta religion in Southern California – Aldous Huxley was a big fan.

6 – The coming together of concrete and greenery.  I always wonder how long it would take “nature” to reassert itself if mankind miraculously disappeared from the face of the earth.  Not long at all, I’m imagining.

7 – Pla-Boy Liquor – I love the name, I love the signs, and this is supposedly where Ed Wood bought booze in the later years of his life.  People who’ve live nearby also assure me it’s one of the more scary, crime-ridden corners in Hollywood.

8 – The question of when graffiti become murals, and when murals become street art is a vexed one, but I think most of us would call this one art, but on the other hand, we now know that every damn thing is art if somebody says it is.

9 – Mannequins in one of the many stores on Hollywood Boulevard designed to satisfy all your stripper needs.

10 – A movie theater in a geodesic dome, and an inflatable Spiderman on the roof.  Does it get more Hollywood than this?