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, October 7, 2013


Back in the late seventies, Aloes Books was publishing Thomas Pynchon’s early, at that time uncollected, short stories.   They came as separate pamphlets, and the only place in London I knew to buy them was a bookshop called, if memory serves, Agneau Deux.  There I fell into conversation with the guy behind the counter who had it on reasonable, though apparently very hush hush, authority that Pynchon was actually living in London at that time.  There was a small but significant frisson in knowing that I was walking the same streets as the great “recluse.”

Between 1996 and 2003 I lived in New York (more or less – I mean I actually commuted between London for some of it) and obviously I walked the streets, because that’s what I do wherever I am, and it’s what people do in New York whether they want to or not.  And I did know by then that Pynchon was living in New York too.  His novel Mason and Dixon was in the works, and there had apparently been sightings of him in the corridors of his publisher, Henry Holt.  Word was that he looked pretty much like any other sixty year old novelist.  I guess I had become more cynical or realistic, and the frisson of walking the same streets as Pynchon wasn’t quite what it had been 15 or 20 years earlier.

With the newly published Bleeding Edge Pynchon has written his New York novel (a thing many novelists feel the urge to do) and to some extent his 9/11 novel (a thing that many novelists feel very, very uneasy about).

Of course Pynchon walked the streets of New York: and if we doubted it, there’s a pretty low quality picture (seen above) taken in 1998 by James Bone, then of the London Sunday Times, showing Pynchon and his son walking on the Upper West Side.  The authenticity of the picture is slightly contested, but I’m happy enough to believe it’s Pynchon, the first new picture published in over 40 years.  And yes, he looks pretty much like a 60 year old novelist.

Anyway, the book contains this pretty great description of New York pedestrianism:
“Next day, evening rush hour, it’s just starting to rain … sometimes she can’t resist, she needs to be out in the street.  What might only be a simple point on the workday cycle, a reconvergence of what the day scattered … becomes a million pedestrian dramas, each one charged with mystery, more intense than high-barometer daylight can ever allow.  Everything changes.  There’s that clean, rained-on smell.  The traffic noise gets liquefied … Average pushy Manhattan schmucks crowding the sidewalks also pick up some depth, some purpose – they smile, they slow down, even with a cellular phone stuck in their ear they are more apt to be singing to somebody than yakking.  Some are observed taking houseplants for walks in the rain.”
Gotta say I never saw anybody walking in the rain with their houseplants in New York, but I completely believe it.

Flaneurism is all over Pynchon’s works: it’s pretty much an inevitable part of any detective or “quest” novel.  Still, I do believe that this passage below is the only place in the Pynchon oeuvre (and of course I stand to be corrected) that he uses the word flaneur. One of the characters, Emma Levin, is dating Naftali a former member of Mossad, now working as a security guard for a diamond merchant: (yep Pynchon has kind of gone Jewish for this novel).

         “‘There he is.  My dreamboat.’  Naftali is pretending to lounge against a storefront, a flaneur who can be triggered silently, instantly into the wrath of God.”
         Wouldn’t we all like to that kind of flaneur? 

         Oh, and another thing, if you make it to page 354, there's an appearance by two characters, Promoman and Sandwichgrrl, described as cyberflaneurs.  But really, aren't we all flaneurs in cyberspace

Saturday, October 5, 2013


Somebody somewhere (actually at the Serpentine Gallery in 

London) has the chance to buy a book about walking by 

Geoff Nicholson.

Photo by Travis Elborough

Rubbing covers with Charles Saachi - ouch.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


So there's this, the first review of Walking in Ruins, in the new issue of the Spectator


Walking in Ruins, by Geoff Nicholson - review

Mark Mason 5 October 2013

Geoff Nicholson is the Maharajah of Melancholy. The quality was there in his novels, it was there in his non-fiction book The Lost Art of Walking, and it’s there in the latter’s successor, Walking in Ruins (Harbour Books, £12.50). He savours the comfort to be gained from accepting decay as an inevitable part of life.
Ruins are his muse. So he spends the book doing exactly what its title suggests. Locations include an abandoned Los Angeles zoo, now inhabited by two homeless men, a Sheffield housing estate whose road layout survives even though its houses don’t, and a desert town that’s been, er, deserted. Nicholson keeps finding shoes there, though never a matching pair.
If you share his mindset, you’ll love the philosophical ruminations that result. Can you, for instance, ruin a ruin? John Ruskin preferred dilapidation to the ‘lie’ that is restoration. It’s only when a graveyard falls into disrepair, argues Nicholson, that it ‘really comes alive’.
We also learn that there’s a town in America called Zzyzx, and that Albert Speer thought buildings should be designed with one eye on how they’d look when falling down. He even did Hitler a drawing of a Nuremberg grandstand with its ‘masonry crumbling, its fallen columns covered in ivy’.
At one point Nicholson finds the left-hand half of a ‘Spontaneous Combustion’ sign. ‘Sponta Combu’, he notes, would be a great name for an Indian fusion dish.

Thursday, September 26, 2013


(photo by Michelle Aldrege)

I’ve said this before so it must surely be true: that walking around art galleries and museums is a highly specialized, and often very odd, and sometimes downright absurd, form of pedestrianism.  If we accept that art has replaced religion for a lot of people, then art galleries become sites of non-specific “spirituality.”  Setting foot in the great Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London, or on the spiral slope of the Guggenheim in New York becomes a kind of secular walking pilgrimage.

This was in my mind even before I went to see the James Turrell retrospective currently on at the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art, but Turrell’s works create an even more specialized set of walking-related issues.  Much of his work requires the spectator to walk around a space and an environment, and sometimes that may be a dark, inchoate, Lynchian place; though admittedly some of Turrell’s other work also involves sitting in one place and zoning out, and one  piece in the current show involves lying flat on your back inside a metal sphere.

I’m pretty sure I first saw his work at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1993, which would have been an exhibition titled Air Mass.  I have very little recollection of it.  I seem to recall walking around on the flat concrete roof that they call the sculpture court, though what I was actually looking at has been erased from my memory.  I know there was nothing like the thing below, which featured in a different Hayward exhibition in 2013 titled Light Show.

Then I saw a number of his “skyspaces:” the first at MoMA PS 1 in Queens, the second in a private home in Brentwood, the third in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield.  In each one, the spectator sits on a bench and looks up at the sky through a hole in the roof. 

You see changes in the light and the color of the sky, and more crucially you start thinking about your own perception of these changes, and about perception itself.  I suppose a person could walk around in these spaces but nobody ever seems to, and I suspect the other people in there would be mightily annoyed if you tried it.  Ditto if you take in your ghetto blaster.

The place in Yorkshire is called The Deer Shelter Skyspace, constructed in a disused 18th century deer shelter. I suppose I always knew that deer need shelter, like everybody else, but I had no idea that an 18th landowner would be inclined to build one for them.   The time I was there, it was a windy winter’s day, the sky was gray and you looked up through the aperture and saw birds or leaves or twigs flying across.  There was none of that solid, blue-field, computer screen effect that you get from a California sky, although the pictures on the YSP website show it precisely that way:

A visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park actually can involve a significant amount of walking since it covers 500 acres, with art works scattered throughout.  And when I was there looking at the deer shelter (and I suddenly realize it must have been as long ago as 2005), there was large  Turrell exhibition on there too.  Far and away the most impressive installation was a piece titled Blue Room, a pretty much self-explanatory title.  You stood and walked around in a space that looked exactly like this (that's my pal Steve on the far left):

There is something similar in the LA retrospective, titled Ganzfeld (which actually struck me as slightly over-deterministic title, with its overtones of perceptual psychology, sensory depravation tanks and what not - Blue Room seems to leave the viewer much freer). 

You’re only allowed into the Ganzfeld room as part of a small group, and for limited amounts of time, but the effect really is wonderful.  The room is essentially "featureless," a bit like a cinema, maybe a bit like a certain kind of minimalist architecture, and there’s nothing to “see,” so at first it’s completely and utterly disorienting – you feel like you’re just walking into space, into pure light.   But it’s hard to stand still, you feel compelled to walk around, noticing how the light changes, and how your perception of the space changes, you notice the structure of the room, you pace, you avoid the other people, and of course you can’t help thinking this would be so much better if you were there all by yourself.   Well, I believe Mr. Turrell is still taking commissions if you ask him nicely.  He does after all need the money for his Roden Crater Project.

Back in the 70s Turrell bought an extinct volcano in Arizona, (don’t you wish you could put something like that on your CV)?  The crater is three miles across and is part of Turrell’s 150 square miles ranch.  He’s spent the intervening years converting the volcano into a work of art, what is often described as a “naked eye observatory,” that will eventually have earthworks, tunnels, and sculptural buildings there too.  It sounds as though a lot of walking will be involved.

Obviously people must go there all the time, journalists, filmmakers, the guys who do the earth moving, but it’s not open to the public as yet, and since Turrell is seventy years old, my bet is he’ll die before he “finishes” it.  I imagine he wants it that way.

For now, however, you can walk around a large scale model of the thing (that's it above), in a room at LACMA.  I’m a big fan of all kinds of scale models and dioramas, and if there’s something faintly absurd about walking respectfully around a highly detailed miniaturized version of a lump of the Arizona desert, well, it’s the kind of walking absurdity I absolutely cherish.

Monday, September 23, 2013


As many readers will know by now, I really do like walking in the desert, for all kinds of reasons.  I’m not the world’s greatest animal lover and I certainly don’t go to the desert specifically to look at the wildlife, but even so, if you tread carefully and quietly it’s amazing what you can see. 

Still, it seems you rarely get close enough to take a really nice picture, unless as in the case below your faithful companion actually manages to (very, very gently) pick up the thing. 

That’s a horned toad, and certain species defend themselves by shooting blood from their eyes, but I guess this one was from another species, for which I was essentially grateful, though it must be quite a thing to see.

And recently I came across this from Popular Science, March 1931:

Arthur N. Pack, I discover, was a very serious and highly respected naturalist, but even so, I couldn't, still can't, believe that anybody could see him in this cactus costume without falling about laughing.  And in any case I wasn’t sure how it actually worked.  It struck me that both walking and seeing would be fairly difficult inside of that thing.  I assumed there had to be eyeholes but they’d surely give you a very limited view of the world.  And I had even less idea how you’d wield a camera.

Anyway, the Internet being what it is, I found this article (above and below) about Mr. Peck’s desert walking and photography, in an issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions, As with Popular Science, the magazine seems more interested in the apparatus than the end result: the cutaway image shows you more detail of how it supposedly worked. 

I still think it’d be pretty hard to take pictures from inside a fake cactus, especially since the camera looks to be fixed and immovable, though it does seem that Mr. Pack managed to take some pretty good, intimate photographs of desert critters.  But I absolutely don’t see how he could have taken those photographs at ground level.  Maybe he had a faithful companion, who perhaps dressed as a rock.