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.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


For a while now I’ve been really enjoying the website I’m Just Walkin’ run by Matt Green (that’s him above with the camera - pic is from the NY Times) who previously walked across America from Rockaway Beach in New York, to Rockaway Beach in Oregon.  I think his title maybe a reference to the Sonic Youth song “The Wonder,” the lyrics of which run “I’m just walkin’ around, Your city is a wonder town,” though I’m not sure about that.

Green’s current grand project is to walk every street in all of New York’s five boroughs.  He’ll be the first to do this, I think.   A few people have definitely walked ever street in Manhattan, but as far as I know he’s the only one to have gone for the whole bagel.

The online project is largely visual – he takes photographs of the interesting things he sees as he walks, and much of it is the kind of thing that interests me when I walk: architectural curiosities, quirky signs, graffiti, eccentric gardens, soulful old cars, “portals of the day.”  But the site isn’t merely “Hey look at this cool stuff,” it’s also very well researched.  Many of the photographs come with very knowledgeable captions or links that reveal amazing snippets of the history of the city.  If you want to call this “deep topology,” you'll get no argument from me.

Green charts his progress as he goes.  The Google map on the website shows the city increasingly covered by spidery red lines, indicating the streets he’s already walked down.  So far Staten Island is looking a little thin but no doubt he’ll get there soon enough.

Anyway, a little while back the featured portal of the day was the above quasi-geodesic entrance to a children’s playground in a park in Queens, named for Louis Windmuller, who I admit I had never heard of, but he turns out to be a very interesting man.

Windmuller was a 19th century German immigrant to New York, who did well in banking and insurance, before turning to civic life.  He wrote articles about economics and public affairs, including one titled “The Vexations of City Pedestrians.”  His suggestion was that cars “should be restricted to inclosed (sic) roads of their own, as locomotives very properly are.”

He was also founder of the Pedestrians Club, an organization that almost certainly wouldn’t have welcomed the likes of you or me as members, prestigious enough to merit a news item in the New York Times, of February 7, 1913, which described it as “the most exclusive, distinguished and enthusiastic walking club in America,” dedicated to “furthering the fine art of walking and enjoying it right here in the City of New York.”

Windmuller is described as “the noblest walker of them all” and he’s interviewed in the piece, and he says he walks for 4 hours a day.  However he recommends walking fairly slowly, not much more than two miles per hour, so that you take in more of your surroundings.  He says, “You should see what is about you as you go.  Don’t let the automobiles frighten you.  Learn to dodge, like I have.  They nearly got me once, but they can’t any more, and I am 78 years old.”  

Here's Matt Green's website:

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Here’s something my fellow pedestrians might be interested in - the Sideways Festival, in Belgium.  According to the organizers, others who might also be interested include “peripatetics - roamers - wildcrafters - nightwalkers - lay and experimental geographers - earthworkers - environmental activists - ramblers - sci-art practitioners - urban and rural explorers - asphalt botanizers - trespassers - adventurous kids - psychogeographers - local historians - site-specific performers - travelers - bike messengers - hauntologists – horse riders - anarchitects - heterotopia enactors - naturalists - pedestrians - critical massers - shepherds - pilgrims - traffic transformers - fieldworkers - new topographers - carbusters - romantic geographers - outdoors people - roadside picnicers - public domain campaigners - geomancers - disruptive innovators - joggers - locative media subverters - ecocity visionaries - hikers - trekkers - mythogeographers - soundwalkers - bicycle assemblers - field recorders - shoe repairers - journeyers - liquid urbanists - sightseers - peregrinators - critical cartographers - wanderers - and everybody going out for a stroll once in a while…”  I believe I am quite a few (though by no means all) of those things.

The festival is essentially a four week walk across Belgium from east to west, and it certainly isn’t too late to hop over there and participate in at least some of the events, which include workshops and walkshops, symposia, sound mapping sessions, performance art, and whatnot.

The Sideways website can probably explain it all much better than I can - that's where the photographs in this post come from:

 I know about Sideways because of Andrew Stuck, the begetter of talkingwalking.net and he’s arranged for participants to listen to inspiring podcasts from talkingwalking participants, including one from me (though you'll have to go to Belgium if you want to hear that):

The talking walking website is here:

Sunday, August 12, 2012


I’ve written elsewhere about my own father going to work the morning after the Sheffield Blitz of 1941, walking through ruins, stepping over dead bodies as he went.  The picture above is from the Sheffield Libraries archive but, need I say, that is not my father.

I’m never sure exactly what is we want from war photographs.  We want the “truth,” of course, but we know that truth is war’s first casualty. We also know that certain war photographs are in fact “set ups,” sometimes in a “good cause,” sometimes not.  And equally we do know that many war photographers have a good-enough and trained-enough eye that even in the midst of chaos their photographs can be surprisingly formal and well-composed.

When it comes to photographing the aftermath of war, photographers are inevitably confronted by ruins: piles of rubble and masonry which in themselves may be rather unphotogenic.  In those circumstances, what photographer can resist putting a walker or two in the picture?

The images above and below come from the conflict in Aleppo, and I have been following things there with a special interest.  A long time ago I did an MA in European drama at the University of Essex, along with (among others) a melancholy Syrian named Tarek.  He was specializing in Beckett and had hopes of teaching English literature at Aleppo University.  Occasionally we walked to the campus together, discussing modern European drama rather than the state of things in Syria, which even then seemed a very touchy subject. 

I have no idea of what happened to Tarek, whether he fulfilled his ambitions, and in any case I imagine he’d now be about retirement age.  Of course, I don't seriously expect to see him when I look at the news photographs from Aleppo, but if he is still there now, I feel pretty certain that he’s walking in ruins.

And speaking of modern European drama: those of you have been following the Nicholson “literary career” since its beginning (there may perhaps be three of you) will know that my first serious bit of writing was a play titled Oscar, a two-hander, less than an hour long, but performed in several different productions in Cambridge, Edinburgh and (improbably) Nottingham.  We needed an image for the programme, so our designer dug out something from an underground magazine, and used the image below.

At the time I thought it was wonderful, but I’d more or less forgotten about it, had certainly forgotten the name of the artist.  But recently, for one reason or another, I happened to be looking for images of the ruins of Hollywood, and there it was.  The artist is Ron Cobb, who I'm sure I should have known more about.  The image seems as terrific as ever.  I had imagined that an updated version would have our protagonist carrying a computer rather than a TV, but who’s to say he wouldn’t be carrying a fan, like this man in Aleppo?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


The author Merlin Coverley recently sent me a copy of his new book The Art of Wandering.  It’s subtitled “The Writer as Walker,” which might suggest a book of infinite length, but in fact he brings it in at a trim and attractive 250 pages.  

In it, he speaks well of me and my writing, for which I’m very grateful.  But more than that, I think it’s a good book because it covers all the bases but still has room to include various texts and authors that are unfamiliar, and in some cases completely new, to me.  And this is exactly what you want from a book of this kind: an incentive to run out and buy some new books to further expand the “pedestrianism” section of your library.  Zymunt Bauman’s “Desert Spectacular” in The Flâneur edited by Keith Tester, for example, sounds like it was written with me in mind, though in fact the going rate on Amazon for a hard cover copy is currently $343.93.

Equally you want a book like this to send you back to rereading things you already know, and in this case I’ve found myself pulling out Poe’s “The Man of The Crowd” which is actually one of those shape-shifting stories that seems to be different every time I read it.

Coverley is hardly the first to have stressed the importance of this story in the history of modern, and indeed post-modern fiction, and in the literature of pedestrianism per se.   Baudelaire and Benjamin were big fans. Benjamin Benjamin wrote that the story, “is something like the X-ray picture of a detective story. In it, the drapery represented by crime has disappeared. The mere armature has remained: the pursuer, the crowd, and an unknown man who arranges his walk through London in such a way that he always remains in the middle of the crowd.”

Well, yes and no. In Poe’s story, the unnamed narrator sits in the window of a London coffee house  watching the world go by.   He’s recovering from an illness and finds the spectacle both fascinating and alarming, and is finally struck by a single devilish face belonging to an old man whom he feels compelled to follow.  The pursuit continues for the next 24 hours as the old man walks through London, apparently with purpose, though that purpose becomes increasingly indiscernible.  

It’s a walk on the wild side: “wooden tenements were seen tottering to their fall  … horrible filth festered in the dammed-up gutters … large bands of the most abandoned of a London populace were seen reeling to and fro.”  None of this will seem at all unfamiliar to anyone who visits contemporary London.  The old man has a “wild energy,” and doesn’t slow down.  And neither does the sickly narrator, at least not until as the “shades of the second evening are coming on” he’s finally had enough and gives up the pursuit.  Our narrator concludes, “this old man is the type and the genius of deep crime.  He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd ... I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds.”

For me, it’s one of those stories that keeps slipping in and out of focus.  Sometimes it seems sublimely prescient of most modern literature (think Thomas Pynchon passim), a mystery that refuses to give up its mystery, that refuses even to state what the mystery is, asserting that attempts to make sense of a character, or the world itself, is ultimately futile.  I know there are many supporters for this view of “The Man Of The Crowd.” 

Other times I wonder if Poe didn’t simply paint himself into a corner, realized he couldn’t resolve this story, couldn’t find a “solution” that would be equal to the quest, and so inverted and subverted the narrative: now the mystery is too profound to be understood, or perhaps there is no mystery at all.  And there’s at least some suggestion that the narrator never actually leaves the coffeehouse and that the narrative takes place entirely in is his fevered imagination.

Either way, to decide that the old man is “a man of the crowd who can never be alone,” doesn’t really seem to be saying very much, whereas to describe him as “the genius of crime” just seems like character assassination.  How could you possibly come to such a conclusion when you’ve followed the old geezer for 24 hours and he’s never, so to speak, put a foot wrong.

You could, of course, give Poe the absolute benefit of the doubt and say that this kind of ambiguity, this oscillation between the genuinely and the bogusly mysterious is precisely what he intended.  But was he really that kind of writer?

Finally, Poe holds a special place in the annals of aimless pedestrianism, because of the way he died.  On September 27, 1849, he set off from Richmond, Virginia heading, via Baltimore, for his home in New York: the trip was to raise funds for his magazine The Stylus.  He evidently made it to Baltimore, though whether directly we can’t be sure (he may have visited Philadelphia): but in any case what happened to him once he got there is certainly a mystery, and at this point in history an apparently unsolvable one.  

We do know however than on October 3 he was found in a very bad way, delirious, walking the streets of Baltimore, wearing cheap clothes that were not his own: eventually pitching up outside, then inside, Ryan's Tavern, sometimes known as Gunner's Hall.  Some reports have him sober, others have him in a state of drunken collapse.

He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, and died there on October 7, never having recovered sufficiently to give an account of himself.  Death certificates were not required at that time and place, and the local newspaper The Baltimore Clipper, reported that his death was caused by “congestion of the brain” which may, or may not, have been a euphemism for alcoholic poisoning.  A recent theory suggests Poe actually died of rabies.

Of course, these days everybody “knows” that Poe was a debauched wreck, an authorial image in keeping with his work (though he cleaned up nice for his stamp), but most of this comes from an obituary printed in the New York Tribune, attributed to one “Ludwig,” actually Rufus Wilmot Griswold, once Poe’s friend, then his rival in love and letters, and eventually his posthumous enemy, as well as his posthumous literary executor, N.B.  Among other charges he laid against Poe, was that Poe often walked the streets, either in "madness or melancholy", mumbling and cursing to himself: to which any self-respecting flâneur, or even man of the crowd, would surely respond, “Well who the hell hasn’t?”

H.P. Lovecraft wrote a pretty dreadful poem titled “Where Once Poe Walked.”  It starts:
Eternal brood the shadows on this ground,

Dreaming of centuries that have gone before;

Great elms rise solemnly by slab and mound,

Arched high above a hidden world of yore.

Nuff said, surely.

However, I am rather taken with the above print “Poe Walking High Bridge” by B. J. Rosenmeyer, ca. 1930. Courtesy of the Print Collection, The New York Public Library, 
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
And incidentally I discover that there’s a bust of Poe above a winebar, the Fox Reformed in Stoke Newington Church Street, the former site of a school Poe attended.  I think I’ll have a walk over there when I’m in London, next month.  The art of wandering has not been lost.

Friday, August 3, 2012


I happened to be walking early one morning this week in the streets around the Beverly Center, here in Los Angeles.  I wasn’t looking for the seamy underbelly, since it’s a fairly swank neighbourhood, and I’d have looked in vain, but I was looking for things with a bit of quirkiness or patina.

Quite a few people were leaving their houses and apartments, getting in their cars and going to work.  A young couple fell in step walking behind me, so I didn’t get the very best look at them, but I got a general impression of young, attractive, cleanish cut, and I could hear their conversation quite clearly.

HE: I can’t believe Bobby’s got a job already.  He’s only been in LA like a week.
SHE: He got four casting calls in his first three days!  He’d have got the J.C. Penney job if     he’d been able to ride a motorcycle. He looks like the kind of guy who could ride a  motorcycle.
HE: That’s the thing about Bobby.  He’s so straight, but casting directors always think he’s so gay.

As you may have read elsewhere in this blog I have an ongoing interest in what I call “feral furniture” – couches, chests of drawers, televisions, that have simply been dumped on the street.  Some, of course, look in better shape than others, but I have never seen such a stylish abandoned couch as the one I saw that morning in the environs of the Beverly Center.  It looked like this:

And I was thinking to myself, man, this must be a really classy neighborhood.  The people here throw away furniture that looks cooler and more elegant than any furniture I’ve ever owned.  And then half a block later I came across something else feral, an abandoned toilet tossed into the ivy at the curb, which suggested that some of the area’s inhabitants may be slightly less classy than others.