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, November 11, 2013


Buster Keaton’s Go West was on TV last night, and I think you probably know that I have a minor Keaton obsessive, minor not in its intensity but in the sense that I know what true obsession is like, and I’m sure there are many far, far more obsessed than me.  The image above claims to be from the movie, but I suspect it's a publicity shot rather than a still.  It is, in any case, just wonderful.

Go West strikes me as an infinitely clever and infinitely subversive film.  It subverts the very notion of “going west,” and it especially subverts that familiar, cloying Chaplinesque sentimentality.  Yes, Keaton plays a deeply sad and sympathetic character named Friendless (there’s a reference to D.W. Griffiths’ Intolerance there), and he does eventually find love, but it’s not with a woman, it’s with a cow.

Buster Keaton was one of the most physically supple and eloquent men ever to walk in front of a movie camera, and there’s a scene quite early in the movie where he decides he needs to become a cowboy, so of course he has to get the walk right, and in a scene that doesn’t last more than a couple of minutes he adopts the gait of a “genuine” and (within the fiction of the movie) utterly bconvincing westerner.  Of course, this being a comedy, he also falls over in the process.

At the end of the movie he dresses up as a devil – we’re told his costume is bright red, though since the movie is in black and white we have to take this for granted.  The notion is that steers will follow anything that’s red, and the idea is that he’ll become a kind of Pied Piper, leading a stampede of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles.  Movie history has it that the scene never quite worked, that he couldn’t actually get the cattle to stampede and follow him, and some scenes had to be speeded up or shot on a back lot.  This is a shame, but of course, even Keaton’s misfires seem pretty wonderful to some of us.

I can’t help wondering whether Keaton’s devil costume was some kind of precursor of Where The Wild Things Are, but I dunno.  Dave Eggers could probably tell us.


The last time I flew from LA to New York I sat next to a photographer on the plane.  I could tell he was a rough, tough, angry man just from the violence with which he rammed his camera bag under the seat in front of him.  Since it was going to be a long flight I thought it would be advisable to sooth the man’s savage breast; and would certainly be better than inflaming it. 

In general I like photographers, and as a walker I especially like street photographers.  They do a lot of walking and they take a lot of photographs of other people walking.  Well, it turned out that the man I was sitting next to was a special kind of street photographer – he was a paparazzo.  He told me this with a certain challenging pride, as if to say, “You got a problem with that?”

And the truth is, I have no problem with that whatsoever.  Hell, if I’m walking down the street and I see a celeb, and I have my camera handy, well I too become a kind of paparazzo; as a slightly haunted Patti Smith could tell you.

Anyway, my photographer pal had been in LA specifically to photograph a certain action star, who I’d have thought was a bit second division, but presumably I was wrong because surely paparazzi don’t fly two and a half thousand miles to photograph anybody second division. My man had learned where the star was shooting his latest film and had immediately hopped on a plane.

The star, who I’m not going to name, there being libel laws and such, behaved very badly, according to the photographer.  The star was sitting in a parked car on a street in LA, surrounded by a film crew of course, but the law in LA is that if they film on a public street, then the street has to remain open to the public. So my photographer had simply walked down the street and started taking photographs of the star in the car, and the star had started giving him hell, telling him he couldn’t take pictures.

And this photographer was a man who clearly didn’t take hell from anyone and he started arguing back, saying (reasonably enough it seemed to me) that he was just a guy walking down a public street taking pictures, and if the star had a problem with that maybe he should get out of the car and they could settle this mano a mano.  It didn’t come to that, and I see the pictures have now appeared on various sites around the web, so I guess the trip to LA paid off.

So about a week ago I was walking around in Los Feliz, one of my usual routes, and I noticed a couple of guys standing around on a street corner.  It wasn’t the kind of corner where guys usually stand around, and as I got closer I saw there were six or eight of them, hefty guys with even heftier cameras: paparazzi, evidently.
 They looked at me, and they obviously weren’t sure what my attitude was going to be, and one of them said cagily, “How ya doin?”  And I said, “Who you photographing?”  And he said, “Gwen Stefani.”  And I said, “Which house?’  “That one” and he pointed to a very elegant mid-century house.  “Cool,” I said.

Well, as the days have passed, I’ve been trying to find those paparazzi shots of Gwen Stefani in Los Feliz.  And the fact is, there are thousands of paparazzi shots of Gwen Stefani, many of them showing her walking, though the kind of shoes she normally wears don’t look as though they’re made for walking very far.

Anyway it took a while but I found the shots that were taken that day – that’s one above.  It seems she was going to her own baby shower, organized by a friend who lived in the house.  Judging by the pictures and the smiles, Gwen Stefani really doesn’t seem to have too much of a problem with paparazzi.  Husband Gavin Rossdale seems to handle it even better.

Friday, November 1, 2013


While I was in upstate New York I walked along the “extended Wallkill Valley Rail Trail,” in and around Rosendale.  I used to spend a lot of time in Rosendale because my girlfriend lived there, and we did often go walking around the area.  It was a while ago, and not all the routes are very clear in my memory anymore, and although I did remember walking along a former railroad line here and there, I certainly didn’t remember it ever being called the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, extended or not. 

I also remembered that on one of ours walks we found some ruins, decaying stone buildings, with the windows and half the roof missing, perhaps originally a site office or workshops, and nearby were various bits of abandoned machinery and pipes. These, like the railroad itself, were remnants of the golden days when Rosendale cement ruled the world, starting at the beginning of the nineteenth century, peaking around 1900, but still in production in a minor way even today.  Rosendale cement is in the Brooklyn Bridge and the base of the Statue of Liberty.  Consequently when walking around the woods you’d often suddenly come across the opening of a former mine, a big, dark mouth in the rock.

Back then you could walk right inside the mine openings, which actually looked very much like caves, and I did.  Being of sound mind I never went very far in, not least because most of them had flooded, but it was good to be able to go just far enough inside to scare yourself.  If anyone ever came to any harm in there I never heard about it.

Far more scary was an abandoned railway trestle that crossed the main street of Rosendale, some 150 feet above road and creek.  I never went up there because it was unfenced and it looked kind of lethal, and (I was told) it was a favorite spot with suicide jumpers, though I now suspect this may have been an urban, or I suppose, rural, myth.

Well it’s all different now.  The trestle is part of the rail trail, a pedestrian walkway.  It’s been tidied up and made very secure indeed.  I’d read an article in About Town magazine (a Mid-Hudson Valley Community Guide) by one Vivian Yess Wadlin that “the trestle has substantial railings that cradle you and yours in safety, actual and psychological.”  And when I got up there I saw it was absolutely true.  The handrail across the top was thick and broad, the uprights plentiful and close together: something with half the heft would be enough to stop you falling off, but its good to feel doubly secure when you’re 150 feet in the air.  They didn’t use to care so much about these things apparently:

It was cool walking up there, but the real task was to find those ruins and mine openings.  It was actually no trouble at all to find the mines, but – will it surprise you? – they’re now are all fenced off.

 And there are signs like this to keep you on the trail:

Now this strikes me as some sort of apotheosis of 21st Century priorities, authority and control.  First of all there’s the primacy of private property.  Then there’s some unctuous plea to protect the wildlife.  Then, as a bit of an afterthought, there’s some bogus health and safety concerns for the individual.  And finally there’s the threat of prosecution, to be shored up the evidence from electronic surveillance.  Authoritarian? You think?

I knew I would have to wander from the straight and narrow in order to find the ruins, and after a while I did find them, or at least some very like them.  In fact I can’t absolutely swear these were exactly the ruins I’d been before.  That tank and its extraneous bits and pieces didn’t look quite like the machinery I recalled. 

And this giant stone chimney, no longer attached to anything, and hemmed in my trees,  was far bigger and more impressive than anything I remembered.  I was pretty sure I was seeing this for the first time.  And I was impressed, and moved.

And I absolutely didn’t recall this vast, substantial, stone edifice.  In fact it contains a series of kilns, and presumably something pretty massive was needed to withstand the extremes of heat and chemical reactions, but surely they didn’t have to make it look so picturesque.

In fact from the back it was crenelated (crenelated!) so that it looked like a castle, English perhaps, though I think more likely to be Irish.   Since Rosendale is in Ulster County I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suspect there may have been a few Irishmen involved in the building trade around those parts.  Whether they knew it or not (and frankly I reckon they did) they managed to create something that a century and half down the line had turned into a very impressive, utterly convincing (if not in any sense genuine) ancient ruin.  I wanted to cheer.  I wanted to blub.

Eventually I got to the trailhead where another notice told me that the old kilns I’d just visited would be the site of the “future rail trail cafĂ©.”  I was ready to blub for quite different reasons.


I went for a walk at the Storm King Art Center, an hour north of New York City, in Cornwall-on-Hudson.  It’s a sort of sculpture park, but since it covers five hundred acres of hills and woods they prefer the term sculpture landscape.  There’s work by Caro, Calder, Moore, Hepworth, and many more, mostly big outdoorsy pieces that can stand up to and react with the weather.

I’d been there a couple of times before, once in the summer when it was so hot and humid that even walking from the parking lot to the first sculpture felt like an ordeal.  And I was once there in winter, when it was very cold and gloomy, much easier for walking but the experience was fairly bleak, not that I’m entirely against bleak experiences.  But all in all I suspect autumn, when the leaves are changing color is the best time to go, and that’s when I was there this year.

It’s an interesting question: do people go to Storm King for the walking or for the art?  Well, both obviously, but certainly they could still do the walking if there was no art there, whereas they couldn’t see the art if they didn’t do any walking, so I suppose the walking “wins.”

Even given that it was a cool autumn day, the place is so big that walking from one exhibit to another can still be quite a hike. And sometimes you’re at the top of a hill and you see a sculpture down at the bottom and you think, “Well yes, I wouldn’t mind going down to have a look at that, but then I’d have to climb all the way up this hill again afterwards.”  And so you decide to give that one a miss.  I’m sure that the true art lover has no such Philistine thoughts. (Yeah, right).

And given the park’s great size, and the broad distribution of the sculptures, you’d think it would be easy enough to avoid other people and find your own space.  But not so.  I was standing, admiring Alice Aycock’s Three-Fold Manifestation (that's it above), when I saw two women a couple of hundred yards away who abruptly changed the direction they were walking, and started powering toward me.  I don’t think it was my own magnetic personality, nor the siren call of the art, I think these two women thought, “That piece over there must be good because that guy’s looking at it.”

I started to edge slowly away, although at the same time I thought that a real art should stand his ground.  The woman leading the charge was a plumpish, pleasant-enough looking middle aged woman, and she was wearing a tie-dye tee-shirt, though frankly she didn’t look like a woman who ordinarily wore tie-dye.  I suspected this was her special day, a chance to let her hair down, and she was wearing it as a special treat.  I started to feel a certain sympathy for the woman.

However when she got within hailing distance, her cell phone went off.  It played “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (really) and she yelled into the phone, “Hey, how ya doin’ Louie?”  I yomped rapidly away.  There was other art to be seen.

There was an exhibition at Storm King of work by Thomas Houseago, an exhibition called “As I Went Out One Morning” – a reference to the Bob Dylan song that I thought nobody liked very much.  I was obviously wrong.  I’ve met young Houseago a few times, he’s a Yorkshireman like myself, though in his case from Leeds (and we folk from Sheffield think they’re a very rum bunch in Leeds).  He’s a loud, cheerful, hairy, argumentative, roaring boy, and he makes the kind of sculpture you might expect; big, rough, muscular, untidy works, many of them figurative though not quite human, looking like half-finished or half-decomposed robots or aliens constructed from junkyard parts.

I like the work a lot and there were two pieces at Storm King I liked especially.  Houseago looks like a man who never simply walks, much less strolls or saunters.  That would be far too gentle, far too undemonstrative.  And it was no great surprise that the two works I liked were, Striding Figure II (Ghost) – that’s it above; and Untitled Striding Figure 1 - that’s it below.

Of course the great thing about any piece of work at Storm King that invokes walking, is that when you look at it you’re pretty much guaranteed also to see some actual people walking as well, sometimes in a rather playful way.  This seems very right, very appropriate, so long as they’re not playing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” on their cell phone.

You weren’t allowed to touch Houseago’s work, understandable enough, but people were finding it very hard to resist.  Some just walked right up and grabbed it.  Attendants told them to stop, but you felt their hearts weren’t really in it.

And here’s an interesting confluence, or perhaps just a funny thing: lately a friend of mine has been in China, posting the occasional snippet of news on Facebook, and it seems the Chinese have a peculiar attitude towards walking or at least towards the English language.  

They have some rather wonderful signs that say “No Striding.”  Of course it would be tempting to ignore the sign and when challenged say, “I wasn’t striding, I was only meandering.”  But my guess is that this distinction might be lost on the Chinese authorities.  Equally, looking at the stick figure on the sign, maybe they actually mean no running.  Semiotics, isn’t a minefield, innit?