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, March 18, 2015


“There is man in his entirety, blaming his shoe when his foot is guilty.”  
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot.

And thinking of walking in other people’s shoes, Steve Martin was famously in a production of Waiting for Godot, a play with much boot imagery from Estragon who struggles every day with boots that are too tight and hurt his feet.  The beauty of this thought is slightly spoiled by the fact that Martin actually played Vladimir, and it was Robin Williams who played Estragon.  Still …

At this point in literary history anyone who cares about these things probably knows the story of Beckett’s shoes.  It pops up again in the latest New York Review of Books in Fintan O’Toole’s review of Beckett's Echo's Bones.
         O’Toole writes, “Georges Pelorson, who was a close friend of Samuel Beckett’s, recalled a walk they took together in Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1929 or 1930, when Beckett was twenty-three or twenty-four:
“‘After a few hundred yards I noticed Sam was walking almost like a duck. I said to him “What’s the matter with you, are your feet hurting?” and he said “Yes.” “Why, are you tired?” and he answered “No it’s my shoes. They’re too tight.” “Well, why don’t you change them?” I got no answer or rather I got it years later.’
“The answer came when Pelorson met Beckett in Paris with James Joyce. Joyce was wearing ‘extraordinary shoes of a blistering canary yellow.’ Pelorson had his answer to the mystery of Beckett’s sore feet: 
“’Sam was sitting nearby and as I was looking at him all of a sudden I realized that his shoes were exactly the same size as Joyce’s, though evidently his feet were not…’
“In the early 1930s, the young Beckett was trying, with sometimes painful results, to walk in Joyce’s shoes.”

Well this is very odd.  Beckett was a youngish man in the early 1930s, but not that young.   Be that as it may, I have been searching for pictures of both Joyce and Beckett which show them wearing, and preferably walking in, a pair of “blistering canary yellow shoes.”
This isn’t easy, not least because the photographs from that period are likely to be in black and white, and frankly none of them is exactly focused on the footwear.  Still …
Here’s Joyce walking with Nora Barnacle in London on their wedding day in 1931: Joyce’s shoes are very dark and very shiny, as I suppose befits a wedding.

His shoes are similarly dark and shiny in this photographed taken in Zurich in 1938 by James Stephens.

And here he is in Paris in a wonderful but undated photograph walking with that very James Stephens (who’s looking a lot like Buster Keaton, if you ask me) and John Sullivan.  Again the shoes are clearly not yellow.

The best bet, I think, are the photographs of Joyce and Sylvia Beach taken at Shakespeare and Company – its date seems uncertain, sources give as somewhere between 1921 and 1925.  Beckett moved to Paris in 1926, which is promising, though obviously not the “early 1930s” spoken of above.  Joyce’s shoes are certainly pale, but who could swear they were yellow, much less blistering canary?  Joycean scholarship being what it is, I’m sure somebody knows and may even tell me.

As for Beckett, well, here the photographic evidence seems to be a complete a non-starter.  I haven’t found any picture of him wearing any shoes that could possibly be yellow, but then pictures of him as a young man are pretty thin on the ground and certainly don’t show his shoes, although the facial expressions are in keeping with a man experiencing some kind of pain, whether from the feet or elsewhere.

There is this photograph taken by Liam Costello (I confess I don’t know who that is).  Beckett looks youngish, but the photograph is undated, and in any case the shoes are dark and shiny.

         And here’s a picture right from 1934 with Thomas McGreevy, which would again be the right period according to Pelorson, but those aren’t yellow shoes though he does appear to be wearing “skinny jeans.”  And could that coat really be black leather?

In any case, eventually, sanely, Beckett gave up on the whole “tiny shoe” thing.  In this picture he’s wearing what I’ve been told by people who know about these things, are Clarks Wallabees. 

They, or at least one version of them, do in fact come in yellow, though not the blistering canary kind.

Friday, March 13, 2015


Werner Herzog "inspirational"posters.



It’s strange what stays in the mental files and what gets shredded.  I happened to read today that Steve Martin had signed up to appear in the Ang Lee movie of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk  based on the novel by Ben Fountain. "The Catch-22 of the Iraq War" according to at least one source. 

It’s not a walking novel per se but as I understand it the hero and the surviving members of his Bravo Squad who’ve seen a few minutes of spectacular victory in Iraq, are sent on a publicity tour, which among other things requires them to walk out onto the filed at Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.

I don’t know what part Steve Martin plays in the movie, but by free association I remembered a paragraph in his memoir Born Standing Up, about the time he was dating Mitzi Trumbo, the daughter of Dalton, the great screenwriter, and one of the Hollywood Ten who was blacklisted after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Martin writes, “My first glimpse of Dalton Trumbo revealed an engrossed intellect--not finessing his latest screenplay but sorting the seeds and stems from a brick of pot. ‘Pop smokes marijuana,’ Mitzi explained, ‘with the wishful thought of cutting down on his drinking.’  Sometimes, from their balcony, I would see Trumbo walking laps around the perimeter of the pool. He held a small counter in one hand and clicked it every time he passed the diving board. These health walks were compromised by the cigarette he constantly held in his other hand.”

It’s not easy to find a picture of Trumbo walking, and certainly not one of him walking circuits of his pool.  In fact an awful lot of pictures show him in his bath, working.

And then I remembered the introduction to Steve Martin’s 1977 Cruel Shoes, his collection of “short stories.”  

It runs like this:  “You are walking down a country road. It is a quiet afternoon. You look up and far, far down the road you see someone walking toward you. You are surprised to have noticed someone so far away. But you keep walking, expecting nothing more than a friendly nod as you pass. He gets closer. You see he has bright orange hair. He is closer- a white satin suit spotted with colored dots. Closer - a painted white face and red lips. You and he are fifty yards apart. You, and a full-fledged clown holding a bicycle horn are twenty yards apart. You approach on the lonely country road. You nod. He honks and passes.”

And then I remembered this photograph of Steve Martin walking, ad you know I don't think this is digitally enhanced.  I think some assistant had to put those banana skins there, and then had to clear them up afterwards:

And then finally this:

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


This is a good story, maybe even too good, though it’s a true one.

Even if you’re only a fringe member of the “urban explorer community” (and they don’t come much more fringe than me), you still get to hear about cool, ruined places where a psychogeographer might want to walk.  And I’d heard from more than one source about the abandoned federal prison outside of Boron, in the California desert.  The place had been the Boron Air Force Station before it was a prison, and by all accounts it was now some kind of radar outpost, though nobody seemed sure whether it was manned or unmanned.

It’s not exactly a secret location.  Anybody driving up the 395 can see the white radar globe sitting up on top of the hill, and as I found out last Thursday when I made the expedition, there’s a crumbling but perfectly serviceable road leading up to it.

I never get my hopes up too high when heading for places like this.  For one thing I thought the site might be all locked up, and although in general I’m not averse to hopping over a fence or ignoring a few no trespassing signs, I was aware that this was the American military I was dealing with here.

We drove up the road (yes, my lovely wife was with me - I take her to all the best places) expecting to come to a barrier or fence or at least a keep out sign, and we found none of these.  We arrived at a big, wide empty parking lot in front of a building that in other circumstances we might have thought had once been a motel.  We parked and began to wander.  The place looked thoroughly deserted, though a couple of fighter jets were flying in parallel high above us.  We made a couple of weak jokes about drones.

Of course nothing was signposted, but there wasn’t much that looked very prison-like, certainly no cells and no bars, and there were a few buildings that looked like dining or recreation halls.  People had tried to make gardens here and there, there was something that looked like an outdoor stage, there were squash courts.  

I’ve since done some research and found out this was a prison for white collar criminals, or at least for criminals with very, very good lawyers.  Prisoners could have simply walked out if they’d wanted to, but there were few escapees.  They’d have had to face the open desert, and if recaptured they’d have been thrown into real  prison.

There was also a small abandoned and ruined housing development on the site; what had been homes, first for the guys in the air force, and then for prison staff.  Here the old post-apocalyptic movie feel was unavoidable and many before us had been unable to avoid it too, painting various movie-based graffiti around the place.

And it occurred to me that the post-apocalyptic world (should there be one) will be very much as seen in the movies, because that’s how people learn so much of their behavior.  This world would be just like The Walking Dead or Zombieland because people have no other source of reference for post-apocalyptic etiquette.

In general the graffiti around the place were surprisingly restrained, surprisingly low on obscenity.  There were some some fabulous metal buildings and Quonset huts scattered around (I’m sure I must have told you about my love of metal buildings). 

And on the wall inside the one above there was this thing with sunlight shining in through those holes, which may or may not have been bullet holes. 

And as we were admiring this bit of art it seemed that World War Three started.  There was a bang, as loud as any bang I’ve ever heard, coming from all directions at once.  The building shook down to the concrete foundation, and the metal amplified the sound, and if I hadn’t been paralyzed with fear I might  well have thrown myself to the ground.  They were on to us it seemed.  They were using the metal shed for target practice.  We were terrified. But although there was so much noise, we realized more or less immediately that there was no explosion, no destruction: the shed and we were all perfectly intact.  And then a second after that we realized that we hadn’t been struck my some form of dark weaponry, but that one of the jet fighters up above us had just gone through the sound barrier.  It was a sonic boom that had hit us and the building.  A word to the wise here: do not stand inside a metal building when a plane is about to break the sound barrier overhead.  Good advice, I think, though not always easy to apply.

And shortly after that we realized we were not alone in any sense.  We saw a couple of unmarked SUVs driving down the hill, through the site and away.  They may not have seen us, but they’d certainly have seen our car.  We thought maybe they just didn’t care.  And when we got closer to the radar tower we saw, behind some serious fencing, there were a couple of guards in military uniform.  They certainly saw us and I wondered if it might be a good idea to go and talk to them, to show that we were innocents, but we decided against it.  We had been there walking around for an hour and a half, maybe more.  We reckoned it was probably time to leave.

We were nearly back at the car when a small civilian pick up truck came down the hill, and the driver stopped, stuck his head out the window and called to us.
          “You can’t be here,” he said, “This is federal property.  You’re trespassing.”
         “Oh, we didn’t see any ‘no trespassing’ signs.”
         “No, they got stolen a couple of days ago.”
          He didn’t laugh, and neither did we until after he’d driven away.

Monday, March 2, 2015


I can’t remember exactly when I first came across the term “desire lines” – it was a while back certainly, but I do recall that it was both exciting and disappointing.  It was exciting because here was a term describing something I’d noticed but didn’t know there was a name for.  But it was disappointing because I’d somehow thought I was the only one who’d spotted this phenomenon.  It was a downer to realize that my powers of observation weren’t as unique as I’d thought they were.

A desire line, as you may well know, is a walking path created over time by pedestrians, in preference to more formal routes along a sidewalk or paved track.  It generally involves a shortcut, and repeated walking of the line generally leads to a line of bare grass or mud.  Here’s an especially fine example in Atlantic City

And below there’s an image from the website for vanseo design who say  “Don’t fight desire lines. Learn to embrace them.”  I do.  I definitely do.

Once you’re aware of them, you see them everywhere.  Up at the Cal Arts campus where I’m doing a bit of teaching these days there’s a lot of grass, a lot of pedestrian routes, a helluva lot of parking, and in fact precious few desire lines.  You could argue that this is a mark of good design and that the formal paths are laid out very skillfully and already cater for all of people’s walking desires.  But I knew there had to be some somewhere.  In due course I was able to find one, or depending on how you look at it two of them, but it wasn’t until a couple of weeks back when I was taking my Wednesday afternoon pre-class constitutional.

One of the college dorms is set down a slope from the main walking and driving route that runs through the campus.  There are stairs nearby, the steps painted with yellow edges for health and safety reasons, and in fact it’s probably easier to use the steps than to climb up the slope.  Nevertheless, I saw what appeared to be a desire line running up the slope (above and below).

On closer inspection however I saw, and you can see, that it wasn’t a true desire line at all, but a paved path.  My guess is that this had started out as a genuine desire line, a track of bare earth in the grass, and the powers that be had helpfully paved it, with biggish cobbles for extra traction, making the ascent that much easier.  Fair enough, you might say.

But this hadn’t been enough for the Cal Arts pedestrians.  About fifty feet away there was another desire line still extant, shorter, less steep and as yet unpaved. A REAL desire line.  For all kinds of reasons this made me very happy indeed.