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.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


Here’s a piece from the BBC magazine website, by Finlo Rohrer.  I was interviewed for the piece and am quoted in it here and there, so you know it must be good.

The slow death of purposeless walking
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

 A number of recent books have lauded the connection between walking - just for its own sake - and thinking. But are people losing their love of the purposeless walk?
Walking is a luxury in the West. Very few people, particularly in cities, are obliged to do much of it at all. Cars, bicycles, buses, trams, and trains all beckon.
Instead, walking for any distance is usually a planned leisure activity. Or a health aid. Something to help people lose weight. Or keep their fitness. But there's something else people get from choosing to walk. A place to think.
Wordsworth was a walker. His work is inextricably bound up with tramping in the Lake District. Drinking in the stark beauty. Getting lost in his thoughts.
Charles Dickens was a walker. He could easily rack up 20 miles, often at night. You can almost smell London's atmosphere in his prose. Virginia Woolf walked for inspiration. She walked out from her home at Rodmell in the South Downs. She wandered through London's parks.
Henry David Thoreau, who was both author and naturalist, walked and walked and walked. But even he couldn't match the feat of someone like Constantin Brancusi, the sculptor who walked much of the way between his home village in Romania and Paris. Or indeed Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul at the age of 18 inspired several volumes of travel writing. George Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bruce Chatwin, WG Sebald and Vladimir Nabokov are just some of the others who have written about it.
From recent decades, the environmentalist and writer John Francis has been one of the truly epic walkers. Francis was inspired by witnessing an oil tanker accident in San Francisco Bay to eschew motor vehicles for 22 years. Instead he walked. And thought. He was aided by a parallel pledge not to speak which lasted 17 years.

But you don't have to be an author to see the value of walking. A particular kind of walking. Not the distance between porch and corner shop. But a more aimless pursuit.
In the UK, May is National Walking Month. And a new book, A Philosophy of Walking by Prof Frederic Gros, is currently the object of much discussion. Only last week, a study from Stanford University showed that even walking on a treadmill improved creative thinking.
Across the West, people are still choosing to walk. Nearly every journey in the UK involves a little walking, and nearly a quarter of all journeys are made entirely on foot, according to one survey. But the same study found that a mere 17% of trips were "just to walk". And that included dog-walking.
It is that "just to walk" category that is so beloved of creative thinkers.
"There is something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that goes together. Walking requires a certain amount of attention but it leaves great parts of the time open to thinking. I do believe once you get the blood flowing through the brain it does start working more creatively," says Geoff Nicholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking.
"Your senses are sharpened. As a writer, I also use it as a form of problem solving. I'm far more likely to find a solution by going for a walk than sitting at my desk and 'thinking'."
Nicholson lives in Los Angeles, a city that is notoriously car-focused. There are other cities around the world that can be positively baffling to the evening stroller. Take Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. Anyone planning to walk even between two close points should prepare to be patient. Pavements mysteriously end. Busy roads need to be traversed without the aid of crossings. The act of choosing to walk can provoke bafflement from the residents.
"A lot of places, if you walk you feel you are doing something self-consciously. Walking becomes a radical act," says Merlin Coverley, author of The Art of Wandering: The Writer as Walker.
But even in car-focused cities there are fruits for those who choose to ramble. "I do most of my walking in the city - in LA where things are spread out," says Nicholson. "There is a lot to look at. It's urban exploration. I'm always looking at strange alleyways and little corners."
Nicholson, a novelist, calls this "observational" walking. But his other category of walking is left completely blank. It is waiting to be filled with random inspiration.

Not everybody is prepared to wait. There are many people who regard walking from place to place as "dead time" that they resent losing, in a busy schedule where work and commuting takes them away from home, family and other pleasures. It is viewed as "an empty space that needs to be filled up", says Rebecca Solnit, author
Many now walk and text at the same time. There's been an increase in injuries to pedestrians in the US attributed to this. One study suggested texting even changed the manner in which people walked.
It's not just texting. This is the era of the "smartphone map zombie" - people who only take occasional glances away from an electronic routefinder to avoid stepping in anything or being hit by a car.
"You see people who don't get from point A to point B without looking at their phones," says Solnit. "People used to get to know the lay of the land."
People should go out and walk free of distractions, says Nicholson. "I do think there is something about walking mindfully. To actually be there and be in the moment and concentrate on what you are doing."
Physicists who liked walking
         Werner Heisenberg liked to walk
         The full significance of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle only struck British physicist Paul Dirac when the latter was out for a long walk
         Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner realised the key principle behind atomic weapons on a walk in the snow. Technically, Frisch was not walking but on skis at the time
And this means no music, no podcasts, no audiobooks. It might also mean going out alone.
CS Lewis thought that even talking could spoil the walk. "The only friend to walk with is one who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared."
The way people in the West have started to look down on walking is detectable in the language. "When people say something is pedestrian they mean flat, limited in scope," says Solnit.
Boil down the books on walking and you're left with some key tips:
         Walk further and with no fixed route
         Stop texting and mapping
         Don't soundtrack your walks
         Go alone
         Find walkable places
         Walk mindfully
Then you may get the rewards. "Being out on your own, being free and anonymous, you discover the people around you," says Solnit.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


And who can speak of Arianna Huffington, as I was a few posts back, without thinking of Bernard Levin.  They used to date, back in the day, and Arianna has been known to describe the relationship as a “liberal education.”  Good enough!

These days Levin feels like a sixties character – (though he didn’t die till 2004)  and not the groovy sort.  He was a David Frost alumnus, and a sort of public intellectual (remember them?) but one who had the knack of sounding fairly right wing even while expressing fairly left wing views.

He created various books and TV programs that involved walking. One was Hannibal's Footsteps (1985) in which Levin walked the rout Hannibal supposedly took when he invaded Italy in 218 BC.  

Another was A Walk Up Fifth Avenue (self-explanatory) from 1989.

Levin also wrote a book titled Enthusiasms (1983), and one of his enthusiasms was walking.  He writes about doing a “serpentine” walk along the Thames, crossing the river each time he comes to a bridge.  (The question of how many Thames crossings there are, and how many of them are in “London” is incredibly vexed – just Google it.)   Levin crossed the river 16 times – this was before the Millennium Bridge was built.  His walk covered 14 miles and required him to make 30,000 steps.

He writes, “We who walk for pleasure alone must never allow ourselves to think teleologically; our pleasure is in the walking, and in that alone, and we have no need to seek outside the walking for any justification for it.”

Well I agree of course, I am no teleologist, and I don’t think walking needs any justification, but I do like to look at things while walking (Levin says that he never looks at anything at all) and I think that walking is also an act of exploration and observation, being part of the environment not a thing apart from it.

In A Walk Up Fifth Avenue he also writes of being at the Tiffany Ball (whatever that may be) and afterwards he decided to walk from 59th Street where the event took place at the Plaza Hotel to his own hotel on 76th.   His fellow guests were horrified.  (This must have been an old story from pre-1989, surely.  Things wre getting much better by then).  Still, Levin writes, “Their belief in my insanity was based on an unshakeable belief that what I was proposing to do was unacceptably dangerous. And I was inexcusably irresponsive, even if not suicidal.”  It’s not clear in the book whether he did the walk or not, but either way he lived to tell the tale, which is as much as most walkers hope for.

Teleology aside, Levin was famous for writing heroically long and convoluted sentences.  Harold Evans, who was briefly Levin's editor at The Times, said that his sentences were like walking along the corridors of a Venetian palace: "You know there is something good at the end, but occasionally your feet ache getting there."

Thursday, April 24, 2014


One or two people have drawn my attention to a new book titled A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros, who turns out to be French.  I admit I haven’t read it yet, but it seems to cover the usual suspects: Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Thoreau, et al.  I gather Gros is part of a school of French philosophers (I’d guess de Certeau is top dog among them) who are interested in “le quotidien,” i.e. the philosophy of daily life rather than of grand universal themes (though ultimately I don't doubt that these turn out to be the same); and I suppose walking is about as quotidian as it gets.

Photograph of Frederic Gros by Rannjan Joawn

However, even though I haven’t read the book as yet (I will, trust me) I have read a very winning article in the Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr, who was sent over to France to go walking with Gros, and interview him.  It seems to have been a jolly occasion.  Gros seems modest and willing to be amused.  He talks about "la joie de la marche" and how his teenage children have grown out of it.  Cadwalladr seems feisty and genuinely amusing, and I suspect she makes Gros sound a bit more fun that he actually is.  

She writes, 'I am looking forward to going more slowly. Though I am worried about my footwear. I am wearing Nike trainers. Are they too sporting? Gros seems as if he might be more of a leather brogues sort of man. He makes a jibe at those who try to commodify walking and sell it back to us as "trekking". Who insist on "incredible socks". And special trousers with too many pockets.’

Well, those who know me will be aware that I have a certain amount of scorn for those people who go for an afternoon’s walk in the countryside and dress as though they’re crossing the steppes.  But oh my, what a riot of mirth this apparently harmless topic has caused in the Guardian comments section:

Celtiberico says, of Gros, “He sounds like someone whose walking is restricted to an hour or two in a city park, then - walking across Spain taught me the very significant role of having ‘incredible socks,’ and there is nothing wrong at all with having a couple of extra pockets on your trousers, so that you do not give yourself abraded skin by overstuffing the hip pockets.”

Rochdalelass says, “You're right. What sort of idiot doesn't wear proper supportive walking boots when crossing open moorland and open countryside proper? He'd be complaining after two minutes with twisted ankles and tender soles.

But LeslieButler begs to differ “Oh Come on! ‘Proper supportive boots’ were only invented a few decades ago, and mostly get used for strolls around the park as consumerist statements. Yes they can help a bit, but the great trekkers and pioneers of history tramped moor and mountain in flat shoes or sandles (sic) or less. It's a matter of what you're used to.’

The debate continues.  You can read the terrific Carole Cadwalladr piece here: