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.

Monday, August 27, 2012


You know, the older I get, the more and more I love John Cage; his music, his philosophy, his Zen attitude.  Also, judging by the photographs, he smiled and laughed more than any serious artist I’ve ever seen.

If you go to youtube you can see him performing “Water Walk” on the tv game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” which does in fact have moments of vague insult and agony, but Cage holds up very well, as in fact you’d expect him to, and when the tv host asks him to explain that title “Water Walk”, he says “because it contains water and because I walk during the performance.”

Elsewhere on youtube, and in other places too, you can find him reciting a text sometimes known as “At the Middle” and sometimes as part of “Lecture on Nothing” and it is certainly included in “Silence.” In any case, below is not precisely that text: I have “appropriated” it for my own dubious pedestrian ends, replacing his word “talk” with my word “walk.”  I hope and trust Mr. Cage would not have objected.  My typographical layout is considerably more orthodox than his usually was.

Here we are now at the beginning of the fourth large part of this walk.  More and more I have the feeling that we are getting nowhere.  Slowly, as the walk goes on, we are getting nowhere and that is a pleasure.  It is not irritating to be where one is.  It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else. 

Here we are now a little bit after the beginning of the fourth large part of this walk.  More and more we have the feeling that I am getting nowhere.  Slowly, as the walk goes on, slowly, we have the feeling we are getting nowhere.  That is a pleasure which will continue.  If we are irritated it is not a pleasure. 

Originally we were nowhere; and now, again, we are having the pleasure of being slowly nowhere.


I regularly say that LA is a tough town for tourists, especially European tourists.  They’re used to going to Paris or Amsterdam or even New York, and when they’re there they do a lot of walking, expect to do a lot of walking, moving more or less effortlessly, from hotel to art gallery to restaurant to park, and so on, supplemented by public transport if necessary.  This is the holiday experience.  And then they come to LA where none of this applies.

That’s why so many LA tourists end up in Santa Monica or Venice, where walking is a reasonable thing to do, and a perfectly good way of getting around.  Santa Monica has 3rd Street Promenade, Venice has its Ocean Front Walk, sometimes called the boardwalk though it’s a long time since there were any boards there, with its hippies, panhandlers, incense-sellers, body builders, street performers, and artists.  (I was tempted to put that in inverted commas  - “artists” – but hell, who am I to be a snot?)

Actually, the Venice ocean front was the scene of one of my more excruciating walking experiences.  Back in the day, my then girlfriend and I, on a two week break from London, came to Venice and rented one of those four wheeled tandems, and we set off from the rental store at the south end of the boardwalk, and pedaled a couple of miles north - at which point we had a flat tire.

Even at the time, and many times since, I thought we should just have stayed on the tandem, ridden the damn thing back to the rental place, and if we’d shredded the tire and destroyed the wheel, well SFW?  But they had my credit cards details and we’d no doubt have got stung with a punitive charge, so we did what was probably the best thing.  We WALKED the tandem all the two couple miles back to the rental store.  This would have been a little annoying in most circumstances, but essentially no big deal.  However on the ocean front in Venice, there seemed to be a million people, all of them staring at us, all of them deeply fascinated, the best of them saying, “Oh, bummer, man.”   But others saying, “What happened, man?” as if there might be some metaphysical explanation, others saying we should make sure to get a refund (I’d already thought of that, oddly enough), and several who claimed sufficient bicycle repair skills that they could fix it there and then if we pulled over and gave them a little time.  We declined.  It was, I think, the longest two miles I’ve ever walked, by no means the most arduous, but as I say, the most excruciating.

Well, as an Angelino, I have now learned pretty much never to go to Venice, but I was summoned there recently by Loretta Ayeroff, she of California Ruins fame, because she was participating in the Hammer Museum’s Venice Beach Biennial (that’s a geographical art pun). The idea was that “real” artists (inverted commas acceptable here, I think) would show their work alongside the boardwalk artists.  So Loretta had a small exhibition space, actually a rectangle of tarmac next to the beach.  This picture is by Sol Terringer:

Loretta had lived in Venice in the 1970s, and had taken pictures there including a set of people walking – she was now offering prints at $35 a pop - an unbelievably good price for a signed, numbered photograph by any photographer and absolutely amazing for an Ayeroff.  However, business was both stressful and bad.  I’m tempted to say she “couldn’t give them away,” but she did at least give one away – to me.  It looks like this:

I love this picture.  It shows people walking and of one person being (as it were) walked. Loretta says she thinks the two guys are Vietnam vets, which sounds perfectly likely.  I also found myself reminded of Midnight Cowboy – Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, one messed up guy looking after some even more messed up guy. 

You know, of course, that Hoffman put a stone in his shoe so he was forced to limp and didn’t have to “act” it – some seem to think this is another example of Hoffman’s vanity and absurdity but it actually sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Anyway, in order to people interested in her wares, Loretta started running a competition to see if anybody could recognize exactly where the photographs were taken.  I was happy enough to join in.  I didn’t for a moment expect to find the one story building on the left; that was surely long gone. But I did have vague hopes of spotting the large nondescript black on the right. I schlepped up and down looking at buildings, looking at change and decay, and indeed at some rebuilding and refurbishment, and I was damned if I could see anything that reasonably looked like that setting.  I tried to talk myself into believing I could see some resemblance here and there, but in all honesty I found nothing.

By then I’d had enough, I decided to walk back, go say farewell to Loretta and leave, but I arrived at her show area, and she’d obviously been exhausted by the zoo that was Venice and there was no sign of her.  Something quite symbolic there I think.

Loads more Ayeroff here:

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?