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.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


I just read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.  My agent recommended it to me.  She said it just kind of drifts along for 250 pages and then it kicks you in teeth in the last chapter.  (She may not have used exactly those words).  Well, my agent is right, although of course if somebody’s told you that you’re going get kicked in the teeth, it’s not quite the surprise it would be otherwise.

The book isn’t specifically about walking, but the all-American heroine and narrator Nora embarks on a long flirtation with a brooding Lebanese professor named Skandar, and walking together figures largely in the seduction process.  (Nora also has a passion for Skandar's wife, though they don't actually get it together physically). Nora and Skandar walk and talk. Skandar says,

“… In our lives, we span many worlds and many centuries, sometimes without taking a step.”
He said this while we were walking, and I laughed and gestured at the Cambridge streets around us and replied, “And sometimes you take many steps and stay in just one world.”

It’s the kind of book in which people say things like that.  However, when things go pear-shaped in the relationship, as we knew they would, she eventually goes alone on a tour of Europe, and in Naples, as she experiences a sudden burst of feeling she says to herself, “Who is he who walks always beside you?  No-fucking body thank you very much.  I walk alone,”  thereby invoking, and subverting, and very possibly insulting, TS Eliot, Ernest Shackleton, William Burroughs, and of course the Bible.  Quite an achievement.

I haven’t been able to find a picture of Claire Messud walking (neither alone nor with others) but here she is standing in her house with some books. We know she has many more elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


I’m grateful to Colin Marshall, writer, explorer, urbanist, podcaster, and much else besides, for pointing me in the direction of the work of the late Christopher Rand, The New Yorker’s “far-flung correspondent” for more than 20 years, sending back reports from Hong Kong, Greece, Puerto Rico, Bethlehem, Bolivia, China, and his hometown of Salisbury, Connecticut, among other locations.  I confess I’d never heard of Christopher Rand.

He was also the author of Los Angeles: The Ultimate City which appeared in 1967, based on articles he’d written for the New Yorker.  Marshall calls him “one of  (the 20th century’s) most unjustly forgotten writers of place.” It must be said that in reviewing the book in Ramparts magazine Richard Ellmann described Rand’s writing as “puerile,” though I think Ellmann was expressing his feelings about the city rather than about the writer.   Kirkus Review described the book as “Well-groomed and readable.”

In the book, and in one of the magazine articles (illustrated with the above Saul Steinberg illustration), having had some dealings with the technology and aerospace industries around LA, Rand writes, “Perhaps the main danger lies on the possibility that … unbridled technology will get us on a wrong path and keep us there.  We are already engaging in technological violence abroad … One can easily imagine our disappointment if our military ventures should turn out less well than our militarists have promised.  And if our militarists are like others, they would then say that our fault lay in our not pursuing the wrong course vigorously enough.”
Rand was hardly the first to have such thoughts but given that this was written in 1967, it now seems downright prophetic.  And a very long way from being puerile, I’d say.

Rand died a year after that L.A. book was published, at the age of 56, and in his New Yorker obituary he was described as “a great walker and a far wanderer,” and continuing, “Over more than 30 years, he traveled to almost every part of the world, doing most of his traveling on foot, in an attempt to learn and know that transcended any effort at mere reporting.”  It also says he once walked a hundred miles in two days in the Himalayas.

Colin Marshall quotes from Rand's Grecian Calendar (1962) “I have walked a good deal for years now. I have theories about why one should do it — that it is good for the health, is conducive to thought, makes one able to observe things close at hand, etc. — and I think all these arguments are sound, but the main point is simply that I enjoy walking; I feel calm and happy while doing it.”
As I said a couple of posts back, I often find that I have very little in common with some other walkers, but that paragraph expresses my own view of walking exactly.

         That New Yorker obituary quotes Rand’s son Richard as saying, “I have memories of him walking around New York, and Greece, and Kashmir.  He would walk slowly, his heels barely touching the ground.  He would move slowly and steadily, looking and listening, sometimes muttering to himself, never altering his pace.”

Elsewhere, in China Hands: The Adventures and Ordeals of the American Journalists Who Joined Forces with the Great Chinese Revolution, another son, Peter writes, “My father was withdrawn and somewhat forbiddingly cerebral. In his teenage years, he used to test his physical endurance by walking shirtless across the countryside in the wintertime in subzero weather. His hilarity more than made up for all that, however. He was a furious Puritan inhabited by a Dionysian soul.”
Of course I’d be very happy to have somebody say that last sentence about me.   But “walking shirtless across the countryside in the wintertime in subzero weather” – well no, I never did that, not even in my teenage years.  Maybe we don’t need to have everything in common with our fellow travelers.

         The article by Colin Marshall that first directed me towards Christopher Rand is here, on the LARB website: 

Thursday, July 31, 2014


Two small observations while walking on Hollywood Boulevard recently.  You might remember that a couple of posts back I was bemoaning the fate of the Blu Monkey Lounge (above).  It had lost its intense blueness, and the word “monkey” had disappeared from its neon sign.  Well the monkey is back!!

Evidently the Blu Monkey management had taken down a part of the old sign prior to replacing it with a new one.  Why do I find this so encouraging?  It makes me want to cheer.

Across the street, not very far from the Blu Monkey, there was this sign that I hadn’t noticed before though it might have been there for a while.  It belongs to something called future memories, a gallery or art space, I think.

The sign doesn’t lie of course, not in the literal sense anyway.  There are various ways of defining what a desert is, mostly based on rainfall, temperature, and evaporation rates, and Los Angeles doesn’t meet any of the criteria.  I would be perfectly happy to live in the desert, but the fact is we Angelenos don’t.

Whether it’s a metaphysical desert, nah that’s a tired old cliché and it doesn’t really work.  You might as well say it’s a jungle: at least that might be a place to find monkeys.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Sometimes I fret that I don’t love Walter Benjamin quite as much as I ought to.  Sure, I dip around in The Arcades Project from time to time, and of course there’s some good stuff in there, but then there are paragraphs like this one:
‘The ‘colportage phenomenon of space’ is the flâneur’s basic experience.  Inasmuch as this phenomenon also – from another angle – shows itself in the mid-nineteenth-century interior, it may not be amiss to suppose that the heyday of flânerie occur in the same period.  Thanks to this phenomenon, everything potentially taking place in this one single room is perceived simultaneously.  The space winks at the flâneur: What do you think may have gone on here?  Of course, it has yet to be explained how this phenomenon is associated with colportage.”

Pellucid?  You think?  Having looked it up previously, I know that a colporteur was an itinerant seller of books and pamphlets, often of a religious nature, and clearly a profession that required a lot of walking, but still, what’s your man actually banging on about here?  

The notes in my edition of The Arcades Project tell me, “Last three sentences adapted from the protocol to Benjamin’s second experience with hashish,” which explains something and nothing.

Opening the book more at or less at random I just found this paragraph in the section “Painting, Jugendstil, Novelty” - “No decline of the arcades, but sudden transformation.  At one blow, they became the hollow mold from which the image of ‘modernity’ was cast.” 

Well I do wish Walter could have been with me the other day.  I was strolling around in downtown Los Angeles, and frankly it was too damn hot to do much serious walking, and although I like downtown a lot, I don’t have much reason to go there very often, and consequently my knowledge of it is patchy.  So I was reasonably surprised to find an honest to goodness arcade running from Spring Street through to Broadway, between 5th and 6th Streets.  Obviously I walked along it.  It looked like this:

It had an air both of not quite gentle decay and not especially energetic refurbishment.  There are some new loft-style apartments in the upper reaches, I understand.

The place, I also learned, is known both as the Broadway Arcade and the Spring Arcade, and variations and combinations of those names, and before it became an arcade (in 1924) it was a “real” street. 

The L.A. Conservancy website tells me, “The Arcade Building is actually two twelve-story towers connected by a skylit, three-level arcade … The exterior features intricate Spanish Baroque terracotta arches that rise up over the arcade entrances … The arcade itself measures 826 feet by 26 feet and originally housed sixty-one shops. It is covered with a glass-roofed skylight in imitation of the Burlington Arcade in London. The Venetian-style bridge that spans the center of the arcade was a later addition.”
Well, I know the Burlington Arcade in London somewhat, and believe me, the one in Spring Street, Los Angeles is an extremely inaccurate imitation.  But in truth neither of them is really much a place to go for a real walk.

 Even worse was the arcade I knew best when I was growing up in Sheffield (it may have been the only one in the city at the time – it’s certainly gone now): Cambridge Arcade.  It was very short indeed, and although I walked through it often enough there was never much reason to go there.   There was a barber, but he wasn’t very kid-friendly, at least not to me, and at the top end there was Sugg’s, which sold sports equipment, and The House of Barney Goodman, who was reckoned to be the best tailor in Sheffield, and where my dad got his suits when he felt flush.  
          To be honest, I never really got the sense that I was walking through the hollow mold from which the image of ‘modernity’ was cast.

But as I thought about it, a lot of memories came back, and I remembered there was always a blind man at the entrance to the arcade, standing there selling, I think, shoelaces and boxes of matches.  So I dug around online and blow me down (as my dad might have said with at least some degree of irony) here’s a picture, pretty low quality alas, but exactly as I remember it, showing Sugg’s, Barney Goodman’s and even (especially) the blind man. 

Walter Benjamin would have had a lot to say about it.