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, March 19, 2014


Do you know this guy’s work: Sohei Nishino?  I didn’t till recently.  He walks around cities taking photographs.  Well, many do, of course, but after he’s walked his chosen city for a few weeks and shot literally thousands of photographs, he assembles the results into a kind of collage, something he calls a Diorama Map.  So far the cities he’s covered include Rio, New York, Berlin, and London. Thus:

The works are huge, this one is 2300 by 1283 mm.  He says he had a particularly hard time walking in London because of the cold, and says the original idea came about when he went on “Ohenro”, a walking pilgrimage that involved him visiting 88 temples, though he says he walked not so much for spiritual enlightenment as for the sake of the journey, which in itself is a spiritual proposition, of course.  He took photographs as he went, as a way of recording the route.  Then he started taking pictures of cities.

“I try not to think about, or research a city before visiting,” he said in an interview with the website The New Wolf. “I want to capture an impression of each city only when I’m there. What I don’t want is to be prejudiced towards it beforehand, to be forced into thinking from someone else’s point of view.
 Normally, when I get to a city I begin by walking around it, spending time familiarising myself with its size. The way I walk depends on where I am, it’s as if I’m absorbing the energy of each individual city.”

He also says in an interview with Foam,My passions are walking, meeting people, and discovering myself through the act of walking.”  Naturally he’s also walked and mapped some Japanese cities, including Tokyo, thus:

Tokyo is one of those places I’ve always said I want to visit, and it's true, but I’m daunted by it.  I’ve bought a few maps and guides, including this one, which despite the title is actually a book, an architectural guide to the city. 

Of course I didn’t expect to be able to understand the language but I wondered whether I’d even be able to make any sense of the maps.  The answer, as you see, yes and no:

I’ve thought that one way to tackle Tokyo would be simply to book into some hotel, then in the morning get up and start walking, more or less randomly for a good few hours, and do that every day, and sooner or later I’d start to feel at home.  Or perhaps I wouldn’t.

Obviously I have no idea what the experience would actually be like, but one of my points of reference is the cityscape photography of Nobuyoshi Araki.  Along with his many photographs of women in bondage, his wife, his cat, his toy dinosaurs, he also photographs streets scenes.  I love those chaotic images, all that clutter and unmatching buildings, the alleyways, the hanging cables ...

Clearly he must have done some walking in order to take those pictures, and I just discovered a book of his titled Tokyo Aruki (since his bibliography runs to several hundred volumes it’s easy to miss one), which translates as Tokyo Walks.  I assume there’s some pun in there on Aruki and Araki, but I don’t know if Japanese puns operate the way English ones do.

I just ordered a copy of the book and I’m told it’s on its way, but for now most of what I know about it comes from a website titled japanexposures on which John Sypal writes about it, and reveals that in the back there are maps showing the routes Araki took when photographing, thereby allowing the reader to follow in his footsteps, and take your own version of his pictures if you like.  I can’t decide whether this a fun idea or just very reductive, I suppose it depends on the spirit in which it’s done.

No doubt you could do something similar with Sohei Nishino’s work, though I suppose in his case the map would have to be as big as the dioramas he makes.  Ultimately of course, in the style of Borges and Lewis Carroll, you might have to make a map that was as big as the city itself.

And incidentally I did just find this quotation from Araki: "Photographing a city that is now my own is bothersome.  To be honest, I don't have any interest in any city besides Tokyo."

Here are the websites referred to above:

Friday, March 14, 2014


For a little while now I’ve had that song “Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley” stuck in my head, the Robert Palmer version, written by Allen Touissant, though Lee Dorsey did a cracking version as well.  The words run:
Sneakin' Sally through the alley
Trying to keep her out of sight
Sneakin' Sally through the alley
When up pops the wife
The sentiments, and even some of the words, are borrowed from Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally.
Well, I saw Uncle John with bald head Sally
He saw Aunt Mary comin' and he ducked back in the alley

 But hey all’s fair in war and appropriation, right? I’m pretty sure that sneaking is a form of walking, ducking perhaps less so, and I have in fact been doing a bit of walking in alleys lately.

In San Francisco I went along Jack Kerouac Alley which runs from Columbus Avenue, home of the Beat Museum, City Lights Books, and any number of Italian restaurants, through to Grant Street, which is part of China Town. 

It’s not a long walk, but there’s a surprising amount to look at, some murals of course, some paving stones with lines of poetry and prose set in them. There was also, when I was there, a man sitting in a doorway with a walking frame in front of him.  He was looking at me with suspicion, and a Chinese man was looking at him with even more.  I of course was looking at the two of them thinking, "There's a picture in this."

The alley also contains some rather spectacularly hand-crafted electrical wiring.  Do the city’s health and safety inspectors say to themselves, “Forget it Jake, it’s the edge of Chinatown.”

The day before I went to San Francisco, I’d been in Berkeley, op cit, where I found and walked along Jeronimus Alley which runs between Virginia and Cedar Streets, between 5th and 6th. 

This was a long alley, several times the length of Kerouac, but here was an interesting thing: down at the southern end which has a lot of anonymous industrial fencing and walls, the graffiti crowd had gone nuts (not necessarily in an altogether bad way, though not the greatest):

But up at the northern end, there was this building, this wall, completely graffiti-free.

Now for all I know, it’s perfectly possible that the wall had been painted just the day before I got there, and maybe by now it's covered with tags and slaps, but I like to think not.  I prefer to imagine that some sort of truce has been arrived at, that even the least sophisticated street artists recognize the joys of a color field when they see one.  I know I could be wrong about that.

And I realized I’ve done a fair amount of walking in alleys in my life.  There’s something about them that draws me in.  Part of it, of course, is that they’re usually free of vehicles and traffic, and a lot of the time they’re pretty free of pedestrians too.  There’s something intriguing and not quite reputable about them (hence the sneaking), and if there’s also sometimes a vague hint of danger or threat, well that’s always good for sharpening up the wits of the pedestrian.

Here’s an alley in Hollywood.  If there’s one thing that can that makes an alley even better, it’s a metal building, especially if it’s Quonset style:

And here’s one in my old home town of Sheffield, right in the city center, little considered and little trod, but I had to go down it.

And here’s one in London.  I went out of my way so I could have the pleasure of walking down a street named Tinderbox Alley, this one is in a suburb rather than a city center.  

I can’t really understand why you’d dump a dead tree, roots and all, in a suburban alley, but at least it’s biodegradable.

And here’s one in Ventura, California, and again it’s the name that makes it.  I sometimes wonder if rest and aspiration are opposites, but maybe not.  Sometimes it’s good to rest before you aspire, and sometimes maybe it’s good to take a rest from your aspirations.

Friday, March 7, 2014


"No one saves us but ourselves.  No one can and no one may.  We ourselves must walk the path."  I didn’t say that.  Buddha did.  But I tend to agree with him.  

Things Buddhist, and indeed Beat, were on my mind last week when I went for a walk in Berkeley, possibly the most Buddhist and Beat place in America.  The plan was not complicated. I intended to walk from the Cactus Jungle to the Allen Ginsburg Poetry Garden.  I knew very little about either place.  I’d discovered them online while looking for “things to do in Berkeley.”

Certainly it seemed odd that there’d be a cactus garden, let alone a jungle, in the temperate, dampish environs of the East Bay, though that only made me more eager to see this one.  Even though I was aware that this wasn’t actually a place to hang out, but rather a commercial enterprise, a nursery selling cacti and succulents, this didn’t make it any less intriguing, and I didn’t know what to expect.

I had a clearer mental picture of what I thought a poetry garden might be. I imagined something like Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta (that's it above), a certain acreage of terrain dotted with lines of poetry, perhaps on plaques or paving stones, or cut into stone or rocks.  Was I asking too much? Possibly.

Before I got to the meat of this walk I had to get to the Cactus Jungle, which was a couple of miles from where I happened to be at the time, on Shattuck Avenue, although of course that formed part of the walk too – the journey is the destination, and so forth - and it didn’t seem daunting.  Most of Berkeley is leafy, flat, quirky and funky in places but essentially quite suburban.  And it had been raining earlier in the day, but that had cleared by the time I set off.

I had to walk past the public library where a large crowd of disheveled men were clustered.  I’m not sure, per Jack Kerouac, that these were genuine dharma bums, but bums they certainly were. It seemed to be a gathering of the tribe, and inexplicable until I noticed the time.  It was ten to one.  The library opened on Sunday at one o’ clock.  The guys were ready to invade, eager to get inside that warm, dry, and bookish environment.

Next was the Berkeley High School, where there was the above, a kind of mural of Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead.  I say “kind of” because it’s not painted on a wall, but on one of those metal boxes that I seem to see more and more of as I walk the streets.  I guess they can’t have much to do with the phone system,  since fewer and fewer people have landlines these days, so I guess it must be to do with cables.  They do provide a canvas for a certain kind of street art, and since they’re ugly to begin with, and don’t appear to belong to anybody, people don’t get too upset when people paint on them.

Opposite the school was the Berkeley Peace Wall, in Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park, over 5,000 hand-painted tiles, mostly with messages in favor of, y’know, peace, and not too far away there was this sign hanging on somebody’s garden fence:

I enjoy a good slogan as much as the next man, but I’m not sure how “imaginatively” the United States might have reacted when, say, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  And was the failure of imagination here on the part of the Americans or the Japanese?  These are big questions and possibly not ones to be answered by a sign hanging on a garden fence.

And of course even in leafy, essentially suburban Berkeley, a man with a taste for edgelands and ruin can find what he’s looking for, the occasional ruined house, and this absolutely wonderful “repurposed building.”  All my life I’ve wanted to live in a metal building, and this one above has the finest patina (call it rust) that I’ve ever seen.

As I often say, edgelands aren’t always necessarily on the edge of things, but the Cactus Jungle was located in the far west of Berkeley. It wasn’t actually on the other side of the tracks, it was on “this” side, but very close to them.

It was starting to rain by the time I got to the jungle, and the staff were huddled, sheltering under canopies and behind plastic sheeting.  This did not look like cactus country.  And although I’m not much of a man for nature notes, I did observe this:  the plants in the nursery were having spring-related growth spurts, well before anything was happening to their brothers down in LA.  I wondered if it was Berkeley’s extra rain that kicked them into action, but more likely it was the expert care and feeding by the folk of the Cactus Jungle.

And so on to the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Garden, another couple of miles, back in the general direction I’d come from.  Along the way there was this domestic cactus garden which seemed pretty darned successful, if not exactly a jungle.

There was this suburban dinosaur:

There was this car – cool enough in itself, though the message “smoke dope” that had been sprayed on the side towards the rear seemed to be overdoing things a little.

Eventually I arrived at the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Garden.  I gotta say I was disappointed and I think Mr. Ginsberg would be too.  Maybe I had indeed expected too much, but what I found was a bleak L-shaped patch of land attached to a school. There was a fancy gate, an Asian-style pool with some small trees and a rather stylish metal bench, but there was very little in the way of poetry, either real or metaphoric, not a line of poetry on a paving stone or a plaque, and certainly nothing carved into a rock.  If you wanted poetry you had to bring it yourself.

Strictly speaking I hadn’t actually brought any poetry with me, but I had brought some poetic prose.  I had a newly acquired (though vintage) copy of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans in my bag.  I’d just bought it in Half Price Books. I took it out and started to read.

And what is a “subterranean anyway” eh Jack?  “They are hip without being slick. They are intelligent without being corny, they are intellectual as hell and know all about Pound without being pretentious or talking too much about it, they are very quiet, they are very Christlike.''  I thought that sounded a lot like me, except for the Christlike part, obviously.