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, May 23, 2014


Here’s something I didn’t know about walking.  I discovered it in this month’s Vanity Fair, in an article about the photographer Robert Capa, who covered the D-Day landings and created some of the greatest war photographs ever seen, like this one, soldiers from the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division walking, or I suppose wading, on Omaha Beach on June 6th 1944.

In the last days of May 1944 Capa was in London, on call for Life magazine, waiting for the summons to go and meet up with the U.S. army.  The call came and he went down to Weymouth, in Dorset where he was given some necessities; an envelope of francs, a pack of condoms, and a French phrase book that offered suggestions on how he might converse with French girls.  One was, “Bonjour mademoiselle, voulez-vous fair une promenade avec moi?” 

Capa was killed on May 25th 1954, having accepted another Life commission, this time to accompany a French regiment fighting in Indochina.  The were under fire, in particularly dangerous territory, and following his own advice “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,” he got out of the Jeep he was travelling in and started walking up the road to improve his chances of getting a good picture.  He stepped on a landmine, his left leg was destroyed and he was wounded in his chest.  He was dead before they managed to get him to a field hospital.

Capa seems to have been one of those men who felt more alive taking photographs in war rather than peace, but he certainly took at least one great and joyous peacetime walking picture; this one of Picasso and Francoise Gilot (and some other guy) on the beach at Golfe-Juan, August 1948.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


Meanwhile, do remember to wear something appropriate when you walk, especially at night.

Friday, May 9, 2014


Now here’s something interesting, and counterintuitive and ultimately inconclusive.  According to an article by Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times, researchers at Stanford have been studying the connection between walking and creativity.  Most of us walkers would think the connection is straightforward and obvious – but wait …
Stanford undergraduates (admittedly not exactly a random sample of humanity) were taken to a plain room where there was just a desk and a treadmill and there they were given creativity tests, which Reynolds writes, “in psychological circles might involve tasks like rapidly coming up with alternative uses for common objects, such as a button.”
Having taken the tests the students hit the treadmill, walking at a pace they were comfortable with, and they were tested again, while walking.  The tests took about 8 minutes to complete. 
Most of the students did much better on the tests while walking on the treadmill and “were able to generate about 60 percent more uses for an object.”  You might argue that coming up with novel uses for an object isn’t precisely the same thing as writing Ulysses, but let’s accept the premise.  Now it gets interesting.

The researchers subsequently let the students go for a walk in the wide open spaces of the Stanford campus, and of course you might assume that this green and pleasant environment would stimulate the senses and lead to even greater creativity, but they found not.  The increase in creativity was exactly the same whether walking on the campus or on the treadmill.  So, you might conclude, it was simply the walking that caused the increase, that apparently it doesn’t matter where or how you walk. 
But of course the next step is to wonder whether the experiment proves anything whatsoever about walking.  Maybe it’s just about exercise.  Maybe a stationary bike or running up a few flights of stairs would be just as useful in getting the creative juices flowing.  Or was it something inherent in the treadmill?

Meanwhile there’s the above.  The last time I was walking in Wonder Valley in the California desert I did my usual thing of poking around in desert ruins and I found a ruined house, and beside it this abandoned treadmill in the middle of nowhere. 
Now I’m thinking it might be interesting to do some research on whether walking on a treadmill, but in the great outdoors, might be even more creatively stimulating.  And what about walking on a treadmill while watching (or indeed smashing) a TV – what does THAT do for creativity?  There’s never a Stanford researcher around when you need one.

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.