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.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


I’m going to New York next month, and I’ve been looking in to hiring a car in Manhattan.  I’m not planning to drive in Manhattan, but to use the car to drive out of Manhattan and go upstate and do some walking.  Yes, yes the ironies abound, I know. 

The yelp and tripadvisor reviews suggest that car rental firms in New York City are a bunch of knaves or fools.  And all I can say is that if Norman Mailer had had his way it would probably have been a lot worse.  When he ran for mayor of New York in 1969, his plans included free public bicycles, no private cars allowed in Manhattan (he, of course, rather conveniently lived in Brooklyn), and a day a month called “Sweet Sunday” when all mechanical transportation, public or private, and including elevators, (and I suppose bicycles since they’re mechanical) would be banned.  I guess rather a lot of walking would have been involved.  And of course the chances of Mailer actually getting elected were small, though he did win a fairly creditable 5 per cent of the vote.  I can’t say I ever imagined Mailer was much of a walker, and toward the end of his life he certainly had to use two canes, though here he is about to go for a “perp walk.”

The picture below, by Tom Callan, for the Brooklyn Paper, shows Mailer walking along Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights in 1991.

In the movie, Factory Girl, about Edie Sedgwick, there’s a scene where Andy Warhol (played by Guy Pierce) goes to confession and says, “Well, I have this friend, Mark, well he buys all his clothes from Bloomingdales, but because he’s from London everybody on the Cape keeps talking about his fabulous English look, which really is so good.  He was in a party up there last weekend and Norman Mailer walked up and punched him the stomach. And when Mark asked him why he said it was for wearing a pink coat.  I know I should have been happy for Mark that Norman Mailer punched him but all I could think was, will Norman Mailer ever punch me?  I don’t even have a pink coat.”

The episode is essentially true.  The punchee was Mark Lancaster (that’s him above on the right), and it seems to have been a pink shirt, not a coat, and Mailer apparently called him a “pansy effete Englishman” before punching him.  Warhol however didn’t wait to go to confession to deliver his line, he Warhol said it at the time, as a camp put down of Mailer’s “manliness.”  And in fact, I’m sure Norman Mailer would have been very happy to walk over and punch Warhol too: though he saved the stabbing for his wife.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


"I haven't got any special religion this morning. My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don't need any other god.”  The line comes from Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, something he says in reply to a Baha’i missionary who asks him what religion he is.
Do you think Chatwin really said that at the time?  Or did he just think it?  Or did he think it much later and insert it in the book to show how deeply wise and spiritual he was?  I don’t know, but my money’s on the last of these.  I know what writers are like.

I've always felt there was something a bit rum about Bruce Chatwin.  One of the rummest things: he was born in my home town, Sheffield, hard, rough, working class, steel city, but he and his parents didn’t stay long, and if he’d lived there and gone around dressed the way he is in that picture above he wouldn’t have lasted thirty seconds.

When I was writing my own “sort of” travel book titled Day Trips to the Desert (a book that would never have been commissioned if Chatwin hadn’t completely revitalized the British “travel writing genre”) I read Chatwin’s The Songlines as research before I went to Australia, and in due course visited some of the same places he did.  They didn’t resemble his version in any meaningful way. 

         Right in the opening of the book he describes Alice Springs as “a grid of scorching streets where men in long white socks were forever getting in and out of Land Cruisers.”  Well OK, Toyotas were ubiquitous in Australia at the time (and I imagine still are), but there were as many pickups and “Utes” as Land Cruisers, and yes some men in the Northern Territory really did (though I can’t tell you if they still do) wear long white socks with shorts – Barry Humphries mocked them pretty thoroughly back in the day.  But Alice Springs wasn’t a “grid of scorching streets,” it really wasn’t.  It was a very pleasant, and surprisingly green city, looking much like this:

 I didn’t feel personally affronted by Chatwin’s improvisations.  It’s what writers do.  It wasn’t that I thought Chatwin was a fake, but I did find him a bit of a poser.  It didn’t help that wherever he went he always found some spiritual soul brother, who inevitably found his theories of nomadism (or whatever else he had on his mind at the time) far more compelling than I ever did.  It was also pretty annoying that regardless of which godforsaken airport in the middle nowhere he arrived at, there always seemed to be a car waiting, sent by his friend at the embassy or some flunky from the British Council. 

It seems I was ahead of the curve in being annoyed by Chatwin.  Rory Stewart (that's him above) writing in the NYRB blog (the piece is actually part of his introduction to a new edition of The Songlines) says, “It is difficult to believe today, as Chatwin’s contemporaries did, that he was simply an extraordinary man to whom extraordinary things happened. Perhaps critics couldn’t detect his inventions as easily, at the time of their publication, because in the last days of hippies on the overland trail, travels like Arkady’s in Asia, or Chatwin’s with nomads, were conventions of the time, which still seemed to have depth and vitality.”  Well, only up to a point Rory, only up to a point. 

He goes on,  “Today, however, Chatwin’s fictions seem more transparent. We may not be too surprised to discover the journeys with nomads for which he “quit his job,” and which John Lanchester admired, were brief interludes in a period more accurately described as Chatwin getting married and becoming an undergraduate at Edinburgh University. And the passages, suffused with symbolic and literary resonances, that once seemed most impressive, no longer seem the most satisfying. His personality, his learning, his myths, and even his prose, are less hypnotizing.”

Which, of course, all depends on just how hypnotized you were in the first place.  Stewart himself seems to have been utterly mesmerized.  He quotes from his own notebook, “Most of human history was conducted through contacts, made at walking pace…the pilgrimages to Compostela in Spain…to the source of the Ganges, and wandering dervishes, sadhus, and friars, who approached God on foot. The Buddha meditated by walking, and Wordsworth composed sonnets while striding beside the Lakes. Bruce Chatwin concluded from all these things that we would think and live better, and be closer to our purpose as humans, if we moved continually on foot across the surface of the earth.”
     This would apparently have been written in 1997 or so: Stewart would have been 24.  It takes a brave or foolish man to quote from the notebooks he wrote when he was 24.  There seem to be rather few pictures of Chatwin walking, though quite a few of Rory Stewart.

Chatwin’s good friend Paul Theroux seems to have found Chatwin pretty annoying at times too, and has written some lacerating stuff about Chatwin holding forth, claiming to have made certain journeys and scaled certain peaks that he couldn’t possibly have done.  And yet, and yet …

In The Tao of Travel, wherein Theroux has some pretty sharp things to say about travelers who “fake” (or romanticize) their journeys, he also pays Chatwin a great and perhaps surprising compliment. He writes “Chatwin could seem at times frivolous … but without question he was an imaginative writer and one of the great walkers in travel literature.      
“This is not plain in the text of In Patagonia, where a typical sentence is ‘I left the Rio Negro and went on south, to Port Madryn’ – a trek of two hundred miles, but he doesn’t say how he got there … He is an insubstantial presence in his books (‘I am not interested in the traveler’) … but in his letters home he was explicit. “dying of tiredness. Have just walked 150 odd miles,’ he wrote to his wife.

Sometimes a pose requires modesty rather than self-aggrandizement.  Then again, certain men have been known occasionally to lie to their wives.


I only just got round to reading an article I tore out of the paper a couple of weeks back.  It was in the New York Times but it was about walking in Los Angeles, written by David Hochman, and titled “Hollywood’s New Stars: Pedestrians.”  His point was that walking has become cool in some (strictly limited) corners of the Hollywood universe, and of course some celebs are all over it like a cheap leotard. 

Hochman recommends, unironically I think, that meetings should be taken not in an office or over lunch but while walking.  He tells us that Janet Tamaro, who created Rizzoli and Isles “sometimes spends 10 straight hours walking through rewrites (many days her pedometer registers 50,000 steps).” I’m not sure if that’s actual steps pounding the street, or at one those treadmill desks, I suspect it’s the latter, but impressive either way.  Here is Janet Tamaro with Angie Harmon: a couple of very fit looking women.

Actually the most interesting “fact” in the article is that an Australian study has concluded that for each additional hour of TV a person sits and watches each day, the chance of dying rises by 11 percent.   This raises a lot of questions in my pedestrian brain.  I mean, additional to what?  Additional to none?  Surely not, because “chances of dying” are absolutely 100 per cent whether you walk or not.  Chance doesn’t really come into it.  But equally if you suddenly watched 9 and a bit hours of TV a day, would that increase your chances OVER 100% and result in sudden death? I have evidence that it wouldn’t.

There’s a friend of a friend of mine, now in a nursing home here in Los Angeles, who has been unable to walk for the last several years, and I would estimate that he watches TV from his bed for at least twelve hours a day.  He has not died, though he constantly says he wants to.

Anyway, this got me thinking about another article, this one in the LA Times, dated August 5, and headlined “Rise in pedestrian deaths may be due to texting while walking.”  I’ve shared this with a few fellow travellers and the response has been equally split between, “Duh, you think?” and “Hurrah, serves the bastards right.”

To be fair, the article is simply quoting an announcement from Secretary Anthony Foxx of the Department of Transportation who is worried about “distracted walking” in general, and he reckons that texting or listening to music, or even taking drugs, may perhaps all play their part.  That’s why he gets the big bucks.

Alcohol too, naturally, plays its part. I know I’ve banged on about this before, so I’ll bang on about it again, and the article repeats a new version of an old statistic, “Alcohol was involved in half of traffic crashes resulting in pedestrian fatalities, and 37% of pedestrians had a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit, compared with 13% of drivers involved in crashes.”  This is for the whole of America I think, and is certainly not news to me.  Drunk driving is clearly very bad and wrong, and of course illegal.  Walking drunk on the other hand is not illegal, but is far more likely to kill somebody.  Usually the walker, of course.

Monday, August 19, 2013


I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about ruin, war photography and walking, and the way in which the walker so often becomes a compositional element in an image.  Well, it won’t be stopping any time soon. 

Last week, supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi attacked dozens of Christian churches in Egypt, justified on the basis that Christians have in general supported the military takeover.  Last Thursday the Evangelical Church of Mallawi (Mallawi being an Egyptian town, south of Cairo), was ransacked looted and burned.

These pictures by Roger Anis show the ruins and the people walking there, and they strike me as wonderful: informative, moving, infinitely depressing.  But even as we resist the aestheticization of ruin, we also know that if the photographs didn’t contain walkers, they wouldn’t be nearly so effective. 

This brings me, in a bathetic sort of way to the cover of the next Nicholson book, titled, perhaps unsurprisingly, Walking In Ruins.

There’ll be far more plugging nearer the time of publication: October.  I didn’t have a whole lot of input on the cover design but the one thing I was absolutely certain of, I didn’t want the image to show a picture of someone walking in ruins.  I didn’t even discuss it with the designer; he simply got it.