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, November 13, 2014


I just wrote a piece about a book titled 100 Not So Famous Views of L.A. by Barbara A. Thomason, for the Los Angeles Review of Books.  You’ll find a link at the bottom of this post: it’s an appreciation rather than a full on review.  The book contains 100 paintings of some of the more obscure parts of Los Angeles (though in fact some of them didn’t strike me as all that obscure) and you look at the paintings and you realize at once that there’s something off kilter about them but (in my case anyway) it takes a while to realize what’s making them seem off kilter.  The answer: with a very few minor exceptions there are no people and no cars in these pictures.

This is fascinating in several ways.  As a Los Angeles walker I do tend to notice other walkers, and although I’m not going to pretend that the streets of this city are packed with throngs of enthusiastic wandervogel, the fact is that I’m seldom the only walker on the street, there are usually a few (admittedly sometimes very few) others.

And in my role as hobbyist street photographer, when I take pictures on my walks I generally try to get at least one person in the frame, to add, you know, compositional and human elements.  But having seen Barbara A. Thomason’s book, I now look at the streets of L.A. with slightly different eyes, waiting for that moment when there’s nobody else on the street, or at least when I can take a photograph that makes it look that way.

In fact it’s not all that difficult to take a photograph of an L.A. street without any people, but it’s much harder (damn hard, usually) to take a photograph of an L.A. street without any cars.  And even when I do take such a picture, I know, and anyone who looks at the picture knows, that there are always cars lurking around corners or just out of sight.

And I found myself thinking about the Japanese photographer Mataska Nakano who published a book titled Tokyo Nobody which shows a totally empty Tokyo, without people or cars, though there are a few bikes around.  The book was published in 2000, and the project took over ten years.

I’ve never been to Tokyo, though I plan to go there one of these days, but even just from seeing pictures you know how crammed with people it always is, making Nakano’s work all the more extraordinary.  I’d guess that the photographs were taken very early in the morning on Sundays or public holidays but that doesn’t make them any less extraordinary, and it seems that Nakano wants to keep the mystery of how they were taken.  It’s generally stated by people who know about these things that he didn’t use any manipulation, he just watched and waited with the utmost patience.

 Los Angeles photographer Matt Logue was evidently a bit less patient.  His project and book is titled Empty LA – and I gather that his images are indeed manipulated, at least to the extent that he used super long exposure times so that a person or a car could pass through the scene and not leave a trace. 

 I can see how some people might think this is a kind of cheating, but in the end it’s the image that matters more than the process.  Photographs of completely empty freeways do make the head spin.  You could go to his website and buy his book if you liked (see below).

When I lived in a London I had a friend come to stay with me after he’d just returned from Thailand, and as we walked along what seemed to me averagely busy metropolitan streets he commented on how empty London seemed to him.  Compared with Thailand the streets were deserted. 

Cato Street, by rovingmike
And now, as the Royal Photographic Society’s Bleeding London gets ever nearer completion (a photograph of every one of London’s streets, inspired by my novel Bleeding London), with tens of thousands of the images to be seen online, it’s amazing how many of the participating photographers have chosen to represent the city devoid of people.

Portmeadow Walk, by cmansfield
And maybe this is how we really feel about cities.  We like the life, the action, the population, but when it comes right down to it we’d rather have the city all to ourselves.  Sure. there’s something scary and apocalyptic about being the last soul on earth, but it’s also exhilarating.  The city finally belongs to you and you alone, a single presence, a single viewer, a chance to walk all by yourself.  It might get lonely, but on balance you could probably live with that.  And, of course, as here in L.A., in this picture I took just a few days ago, you might have some animals for company.

My piece on Elizabeth Thomason’s book in the LARB is here:

Matt Logue’s Empty LA website is here:

 You can see some of The Bleeding London images here in this Flickr group:

Monday, November 10, 2014


And speaking of limps, I just saw an interestingly odd movie titled Act of Violence.  It’s a very noir movie, set in and around Los Angeles, shortly after World War Two – it was released in 1948 - and although it has some standard nourish elements, not least car chases, there are some interesting walking elements too.

As IMDB more or less has it: “An embittered, vengeful POW (played by Robert Ryan – he’s the guy with the limp – that’s him above, crossing the street) stalks his former commanding officer (Van Heflin, who’s trying to live a new and decent life in the California hinterlands – a fictional town called Santa Lisa) who betrayed his men's escape attempt from a Nazi prison camp.”  Meaty stuff.

It’s directed by Fred Zinnerman and based on a story by Collier Young, who was married to Joan Fontaine and Ida Lupino, among others, so you know he wasn’t afraid of strong women. He also created Ironside, a hero who it must be said didn’t do a lot of walking.

Act of Violence has scenes set all over the place, including Big Bear and Glendale (the Glendale station stands in for Santa Lisa), but it’s when Van Heflin goes to downtown L.A. for some kind of trade conference, and falls in with some bad seeds, that things get really psychogeographic.

We see the mean streets of Bunker Hill, the Angel’s Flight Railway, the 3rd Street Tunnel (that's it above I think – though, if you told me it was the 2nd Street Tunnel I wouldn’t argue with you).  The city looks magnificently menacing and magnificently unfamiliar, and no place for anybody to go walking at night.

Noir though the movie may be, the poster, is definitely colorful.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


 The other night I watched again (in a half-hearted way) the movie of Misery.  As many will know by now, James Caan plays the writer; Kathy Bates plays his deranged greatest fan, and she works all kind of mayhem on his legs, which were in any case broken in a car crash.  She has her reasons.

Well it all turns out for the best, except that the writer is left with a limp and has to use a walking stick when he goes to meet his agent, played far more convincingly than you might expect by Lauren Bacall, who is not most people’s idea of a literary dame.  Caan is less convincing I think because in general he (or maybe his persona) looks like a man who’s never actually read a book, much less written one.  

But the limp is convincing enough, which isn’t always the case with actors.  John Mahoney, who used to play Frasier’s dad, is a fine actor but I always thought he had least convincing screen limp I ever saw.  He just seemed to do a few shuffling steps while moving his cane, never actually using it for support. 

On his website he fielded questions from fans:
Kathy Smith asks: "Do you ever forget to walk with a limp on the set of Frasier? Or do you find that when you stop filming you still do it?"

John Mahoney: "Every once in a while I do, sometimes I forget to use my cane, especially if you are doing a scene and sitting down. Sometimes I jump up and walk away, the audience loves it, they love screw ups."
How we laughed. 

I know that Martin Crane is supposed to be a former cop who got shot in the line of duty, and the interwebs tell us that he got shot in his left leg, but from watching the show I’d never worked out which leg was affected.

I was always more convinced by Hugh Laurie playing Gregory House, though I know not everyone was, and the convincingness of his limp was apparently in some danger of becoming all too authentic.  A headline in the Daily Mail a few years back read, “The limping Dr House has wrecked my knees, says Laurie.”  This was an exaggeration, of course.  The article quoted Laurie as saying “The show might last through to series seven, eight or nine but I don’t know if I will because I’m starting to lose my knees. It’s a lot of hip work. There are things going badly wrong. I need to do yoga."

Somehow Hugh Laurie always struck me as the kind of man who might do yoga anyway.

At least in Midnight Cowboy, Dustin Hoffman made his limp convincing by making it “real.”  He put a stone in his shoe that meant he couldn’t help limping.  It seems like the perfect solution, and one that other actors might like to try.

Or, like Hopalong Cassidy, they could solve the whole problem by riding a horse.