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, February 18, 2015


I wonder if you’re familiar with a book titled, Inferences From Haunted Houses and Haunted Men, (1901) by the Honorable John Harris.  It’s everything you would want it to be and a little bit more.  Walking, naturally, is one of the ways that men demonstrate their hauntedness.

Harris writes, “One of (Charles) Kingsley's neighbours at Eversley was the late Sir W. (William) Cope. The elder son of this gentleman, when Secretary of Legation at Stockholm, came to a tragic end. He suddenly, when out walking with a friend, although his health had been apparently perfect, began to shout and wave his umbrella. He was put under the care of attendants, as he was considered to be temporarily insane. He jumped out of a window and was killed. Voices insulting or threatening him, and with such scoundrels speech would be of something dreadful, would provoke or frighten the unhappy man.”

Well of course you to have sympathy for the haunted man here,  but I imagine that if I were to walk down the street and suddenly began to shout and wave an umbrella (not the least likely thing in the world) I wouldn’t immediately be put under the care of two assistants.  I suspect that wouldn’t make things any better at all.

Harris also writes, “About two years later a distinguished priest, well known in London, also suddenly waved an umbrella and behaved as if he were angry. But he showed hardly any sign of insanity, and on applying to the proper court for release from supervision, was declared sane by a jury. Strength of mind and religious feeling doubtless saved him from the fate of Mr. Cope. A brave man can resist such an attack under favourable  circumstances.”

Well I like to think I’m brave enough, and strong enough of mind, and that I show hardly any sign of insanity, but I’m not sure that would be enough to save me. “Religious feeling” I'm pretty sure has nothing much to do with it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


And speaking of walking down the street looking at “girls,” I’ll bet you’re familiar with the Jonathan Richman, Modern Lovers song “Pablo Picasso.”  The lyrics run:

Well some people try to pick up girls
And get called assholes
This never happened to Pablo Picasso
He could walk down your street
And girls could not resist his stare and
So Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole

I suspect there’s some truth lurking there amid the absurdity.  There probably was a time when Picasso could pick up girls while walking in any street.  On the other hand he does seem to get called an asshole pretty often these days, for one reason or another.

         Now, here’s a thing. Pablo Picasso certainly wrote some poetry, and if you go online you’ll find a poem of his “A Lonely Road is That I Walked,” a title which has surely lost something in the translation.  It runs as follows:

I walk a lonely road, the one and only one I’ve ever known.

I don’t know where it goes, but I keep walking on and on.

I walked the lonely and untrodden road for I was walking on the bridge

of the broken dreams.

I don’t know what the world is fighting for or why I am being instigated.

It’s for this that I walk this lonely road for I wish to be

So I am breaking up, breaking up.

It is the lack of self control that I feared as there is something

Inside me that pulls the need to surface, consuming, confusing.

being called weird I walk this lonely road on the verge of broken dreams.

And so I walk this lonely road and so just keep walking still

Now, if you’re at all familiar with the band Green Day, you’ll see these words are dead ringers for the lyrics to their (really piss poor if you ask me) song “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”  Did they use Picasso’s lyrics?  Were they inspired by them?  They Internet is silent on the subject.  Or is it some Internet hoax pretending that Picasso wrote lyrics just like Green Day?  I have no idea, but I’d like to know.

Meanwhile I’m glad Picasso didn’t give up his day job.  Here’s a painting better than any of the great man’s words: it’s titled “Couple Walking” (Couple Voyant).

Incidentally, I believe Jonathan Richman wrote the greatest ever lyrics about the difference between walking and driving, in (some versions of) “Radio On,”  better than anything by Picasso, and certainly better than anything by Green Day.

I walked by the Stop n shop

Then I drove by the stop n shop

I liked that much better than walking by the Stop n shop

Cause I had the radio on

Below is Mr Picasso, walking but not picking up many girls.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


I was meeting somebody outside the Hollywood and Western subway station - a fairly unHollywood thing to do.  That's the exterior above, and the interior below.  There have been times when that location has had a bad vibe about it – I’ve been known to refer to it as “disaffected shouty youth corner” since there often seem to be groups of disaffected shouty youth hanging out there. 

On this day things were quiet on the corner itself and although the area isn’t especially pedestrian-friendly there were a lot of people on foot crossing Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue, and being the kind of person I am, while I waited I was people-watching, observing the various gaits, postures and walking styles.

And I saw a very tall, thin, elegant, black-haired woman walking across the street.  She was striking rather than pretty or glamorous, and obviously eye-catching since my eye was definitely caught.  She was wearing very high heels and when she got closer I saw that the tops of her feet were heavily tattooed.  I accept that there are evils lurking in the male gaze, but I am only flesh and blood, and I did find myself gazing.

She obviously noticed me looking, and she looked back, and it was a strange look, very encouraging in a way but somehow I wasn’t encouraged.  It just wasn’t the kind of look  that women use to look back at men, even at men they like.  And I thought, rightly or wrongly, oh no, she’s a professional, my male gaze has been attracted by the promise of commercial sex.  Perhaps not every man on Hollywood Boulevard would have averted his eyes, but I did. 

By now she was fairly close to where I was standing and I looked up again and suddenly saw, and I suppose I could have been wrong again, but I really don’t think I was, that this was actually a dude

My change of assessment from striking woman, to female prostitute to male prostitute had been amazingly swift.  And I couldn’t say that this kind of thing ONLY happens in Hollywood, but it did seem to be the kind of thing that people EXPECT to happen in Hollywood. 

Fans of walking and Hollywood movies may also be aware that in Spike Jonze’s Her Joaquin Phoenix (that’s his back, above) finds the Hollywood and Western subway stop very convenient for the beach, which in reality is some twenty odd miles away, and not currently served by the subway.  Ah, the magic of the movies.

Monday, February 2, 2015


If you have some reputation as a walker, a lot of people assume you can’t or don’t or won’t drive.   In my own case this isn’t true.  As I often say (in fact I’ve said it so often I’m not absolutely sure I mean it anymore), “I love driving.  It’s parking that I hate.”

On the other hand I really do like walking in parking lots (that’s car parks to my English readers).  It feels vaguely transgressive to walk in a place that’s designed for cars not for walkers, although of course people have to walk at least a short distance once they’ve found their parking spot.

And of course most people want that parking spot to be as close as possible to the exit or to the store they’ve parked in front of.  I try to have the best of both worlds by parking in some distant, empty spot so that even though I’ve driven to a place I still get to do a certain amount of walking; a small thing, but my own.

I’ve discussed Ed Ruscha elsewhere on this blog, and I don’t know what his walking habits are, but since he published an artist’s book titled Thirtyfour Parking Lots I think we do know a little about his attitude to parking lots: detached, ironic, blank, subversive, romanticizing the mundane. 

And I did just read an interview with him that originally appeared in Ruscha and Photography.  Sylvia Wolf asks, “Was the idea of mapping a motivating factor in your work?  I see this in Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) and Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967) and Ruscha replies.  “The first pictures I made of the Sunset Strip were taken by walking along the street. Only when I could see that it didn’t produce works that I approved of … did I decide I should maybe try something with a motorized camera.  That’s how that idea was born: with Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles when I realized that I wanted aerial photographs of downtown.  I thought, wouldn’t it be great of they were professional pictures.”  He went up in a helicopter with the photographer Art  Alanis.  He continues, “It was astounding that, for less than five hundred dollars, we went out in a helicopter one Sunday morning – Sunday being the proper day because all the parking lots are empty – and photographed all these works in a matter of maybe an hour and a half or something.  You can cover a lot of ground in an hour and a half in a helicopter.”

To be fair not every one of Ruscha’s lots is completely and utterly empty, a vehicle pops up here and there, but even so they’re some of the most denuded parking lots I’ve ever seen.  You definitely can’t see any people walking in them either but maybe we’d be too high to see them even if they were there.

Empty and abandoned parking lots are wonderfully attractive, and of course perfect for the perverse pedestrian.  It’s even better if the lot is attached to a business that’s no longer functioning.  The cars are gone and nature reasserts itself trough the tarmac.

 Thanks to Google earth the parking lot enthusiast can easily make any number of faux Ruscha images, although generally there are plenty of cars visible.  Here’s the parking structure at the Arclight Theater on Sunset Boulevard:

Here’s the parking lot at my local Vons supermarket:

And here’s lot at the LA Zoo:

I became unwillingly reacquainted with the parking lot at LA Zoo just last week.  I was driving up the 5 Freeway when my car started madly overheating and by the time I got to the exit and found the zoo lot (much emptier than in the pic above) the small quantity of coolant that remained in the reservoir was boiling fiercely.
        I coasted to a halt in an empty part of the lot, and called the AAA who said they’d send out a tow truck.  While I waited I paced up and down the lot, but it wasn’t exactly “real” walking, and then a cop in a truck pulled up to see what I was doing.  He could see that the car hood was up and he seemed pretty sympathetic (I guess cops who work the zoo beat don’t get too embittered) and he said he’d send the AAA man in my direction if he saw him.
         And then, in one of those “Only in L.A. moments” he said, “Wait a minute.  Don’t I know you?  Don’t I know your face?  Are you an actor?”
         I said I wasn’t.
         “Well in that case, did I ever arrest you for something?”
         How we laughed.

The tow truck came, my car ended up in a repair shop in Glendale where it would have to stay overnight, and I had to find a way of getting home, which was about ten miles away.  I knew the route pretty well and had walked every section of it at one time or another and so I set off walking.  And after I’d been going for a short while, in considerable heat, not dressed for it, in shoes that weren’t good for walking, I suddenly thought, “Are you insane?”  And then I saw a bus that said “Hollywood” on the front and I got on.  In fact the bus didn’t go all the way to my part of Hollywood so I still ended up walking a couple of miles, which somehow seemed appropriate, the end of a thoroughly imperfect day.  And of course my car remained, parked (as it were) since it wasn’t going anywhere, in a repair shop ten miles from home.  From above it would have looked much like this (not really impressive enough to be a Ruscha).