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.

Friday, December 13, 2013


The other day I happened to find an account of Horace Walpole’s walking style, as described by his friend Laetitia-Matilda Hawkins, “He always entered a room … knees bent, and feet on tiptoe, as if afraid of a wet floor.”  This drawing from 1765 is by one Lord Massereene.

Now it so happens that I was recently discussing the walking style of Captain Barclay, the great early 19th century competitive pedestrian, as described by Walter Thom in the book Pedestrianism.  Barclay, says Thom, had “a sort of lounging gait, without apparently making any extraordinary exertion, scarcely raising his feet more than two or three inches above the ground …  His style of walking is to bend forward the body, and to throw its weight on the knees … Any person who will try this plan will find, that his pace will be quickened, at the same time he will walk with more ease to himself, and be better able to endure the fatigue of a long journey, than by walking in a posture perfectly erect, which throws too much of the weight of the body on the ancle-joints.”  Well if you say so Walter, this is Barclay, though evidently not employing the described walking method:

And naturally that reminded me of Boswell’s description of Dr. Johnson, “His figure was large and well formed, and his countenance of the cast of an ancient statue; yet his appearance was rendered strange and somewhat uncouth, by convulsive cramps … So morbid was his temperament, that he never knew the natural joy of a free and vigorous use of his limbs: when he walked, it was like the struggling gait of one in fetters ..”  And also “When he walked the streets, what with the constant roll of his head, and the concomitant motion of his body, he appeared to make his way by that motion, independent of his feet.”

And somewhere in my head I have a description of somebody who (I thought) Johnson described as being so fat he could walk down both sides of the street at the same time.  I thought it might have been the Earl of Sandwich but a good dig both online and off suggests I was wrong about that. I can’t find any reference whatsoever.

However, such is the nature of internet “research” that I kept coming across a man named Bobby Wingate who was arrested in 2012 and charged with “walking down the wrong side of the road.”  Now this is clearly one of those stories where you feel there’s a lot more going on than you know about, but there seems no doubt that Wingate was walking down the street in Jacksonville, Florida last December when a cop in a patrol car stopped and asked to talk to him.  Was racial profiling involved?  Yeah, I assume so.  But Wingate declined to stop, saying he was in too much of a hurry.  Now I try to keep my dealings with cops to a minimum but I know enough to realize that telling a cop you’re too busy to talk to him is a really bad tactic, whatever race you are. 

Anyway, reports suggest the cop didn’t like that answer, so he got out of the car, punched Wingate, “engaged” his Taser, which I guess means he didn’t use it, then charged Wingate with “resisting arrest without violence and walking down the wrong side of the road.” 

This is Bobby Wingate in that very street.  It looks like the street doesn’t have a sidewalk so there could conceivably have been an issue that you should walk facing the oncoming traffic, but I’m guessing there aren’t very many arrests for that kind of thing, even in Florida.

When the case came to trial the cop said he wasn’t sure what side of the road Wingate was walking on, and the judge threw out the case.  Gawker ran the headline “Florida Man Literally Arrested for Walking While Black.”  News video shows that Bobby Wingate has an easy, fluid walking style.

He has since filed a civil suit against the Jacksonville sheriff’s office – good luck with that one, Bobby.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013


I just bought a copy of Wim Wenders’ book Once. It’s essentially a book of photographs, though some of them have quite lengthy captions, and sometimes the photographs look like illustrations of the text, and there are one or are pieces of text that have no photograph at all.  The words are laid out so they look like poetry.   I don’t know why he laid them out so they looked like poetry; but hey Wim, you’re the boss.

One of the pieces describes driving to Barstow with Dennis Hopper to visit Nicholas Ray, who was there acting in Hair: the movie was released in 1979. Wenders’ text runs:

Dennis knew Nick from a long time ago,
when Nick had given him a small part
in “Rebel Without a Cause.”
Dennis became friends with James Dean…
During that night in Barstow
The conversation inevitably turned to James Dean
And Nick declared to us:
“I taught him how to walk.”

I find that history hasn’t been kind to Rebel Without a Cause. I have trouble suspending my disbelief.  Dean is supposed to be some crazy mixed up kid but he looks, and indeed walks, like a guy in his twenties, which of course he was when he made the film.

Be that as it may, Dean obviously looked great when he walked and he knew it.   There’s the iconic picture of him walking in Times Square in 1955 (below), by Dennis Stock:

And there’s this one too, by Roy Schatt, taken on 68th Street, in 1954. 

Rain or shine, the cigarette remains a cool walking accessory.

Monday, December 2, 2013


Well here’s a sort of interesting thing.  I opened George Orwell’s 1984, more or less at random and found this curious reference to walking.  Winston Smith “had walked several kilometres over pavements, and his varicose ulcer was throbbing. This was the second time in three weeks that he had missed an evening at the Community Centre: a rash act, since you could be certain that the number of your attendances at the Centre was carefully checked. In principle a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed. It was assumed that when he was not working, eating, or sleeping he would be taking part in some kind of communal recreation: to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous.”

I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that this reads like a direct inspiration for Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Pedestrian,” written just a few years after Orwell’s novel, but I’d never been so consciously aware of it till now.  Perhaps everybody else already was.

Orwell continues, “On impulse he had turned away from the bus-stop and wandered off into the labyrinth of London, first south, then east, then north again, losing himself among unknown streets and hardly bothering in which direction he was going.”  

Bradbury’s pedestrian is often assumed to be walking in Los Angeles, though the text doesn't actually specify.  "Sometimes he would walk for hours and miles and return only at midnight to his house. And on his way he would see the cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard where only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind the windows."

I haven't been able to find a photograph of Orwell walking, though I imagine he was part of the generation of Englishmen who did a lot of walking.  I once met a very, very old man in Suffolk who had gone beagling with Orwell, a rather specialized form of walking, admittedly. 

But Orwell did write this, in The Observer in April 1945: “To walk through the ruined cities of Germany is to feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilisation. For one has to remember that it is not only Germany that has been blitzed. The same desolation extends, at any rate in considerable patches, all the way from Brussels to Stalingrad.”

I haven't been able to find a photograph of Ray Bradbury walking either, and I know he did use a wheelchair toward the end of his life, but walkers in LA can visit both Ray Bradbury Square in downtown, and see his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  To experience Orwell's vision you only need walk down any street with a security camera.