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.

Monday, April 13, 2015


One day in June 1935 Andre Breton was walking along the Boulevard du Montparnasse and happened to encounter Ilya Ehrenburg, who was at that point part of the Soviet delegation to the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture (do I see you reaching for your revolver?)

Ehrenburg had recently denounced the Surrealists for their “pederasty, sodomy and onanism” so you might argue that he wasn’t very far off the mark, but Breton was having none of this.  He grabbed Ehrenburg by the lapels and slapped him across the face.  Next day the Soviets threatened to boycott the congress if Breton was a speaker.

The job of sorting out this mess fell on Rene Crevel, who was both a genuine Surrealist and a genuine communist, also, at least, a bisexual. Will it come as a surprise that after a whole day’s wrangling he failed to square the circle between the Soviets and Breton.    It appears that he’d also recently been diagnosed with renal tuberculosis. He left the meeting, took a good long walk through the night and at the end of it returned to his apartment and committed suicide. 

By the end of the war Ehrenburg had other things on his mind than Surrealism.  He wrote the notorious pamphlet Kill“The Germans are not human beings. … If you have not killed at least one German a day, you have wasted that day .... Do not count days, do not count kilometers. Count only the number of Germans killed by you.”

By the time he wrote his memoir People, Years, Life published in English in 1972, he had, apparently mellowed. “When I come to Paris now, I feel inexpressibly sad - the city is the same, it is I who have changed. It is painful for me to walk along the familiar streets - they are the streets of my youth.”  Perhaps not quite painful enough, some might think.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


I’ve been reading an advance copy of Iain Sinclair’s London Overground, an account of a one-day, fourteen hour walk around what’s now widely referred to as the Ginger Like – a circular (or at least more or less joined up) rail network around the middle distance suburbs of Greater  London, places like Rotherhithe, Peckham Rye, West Brompton; all places I’ve been to, but seldom more than once.

Sinclair walks with the engagingly eccentric film maker Andrew Kötting– a man who sounds more fun to read about (or write about) than actually to walking with, but a great character to have in your book.  They enter a “fancy junk shop” in Lavender Hill where Kötting describes Sinclair for the benefit of the shop owner:
“This man’s sources are innumerable.  His erudition is profound.  And truth to tell, a mite tedious.”
Of course it’s Sinclair reporting these words and possibly putting them in Kötting’s mouth; pretty funny either way.

Kötting buys a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here?.  (Sinclair puts in a question mark, the book itself doesn't). Sinclair flips through and finds the quotation “Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road and how life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.” Sinclair says, “I thought the capitalization or ‘Road’ was a little pretentious.”

I’d say my objection was to “life itself is a journey.”   I’d have thought Bruce could have done better than that.

Monday, April 6, 2015


When I first moved to Los Angeles, I wasn’t sure what kind of life I was going to lead here.  It occurred to me that I might become a full-on motorhead.  I was encouraged, in the first couple of months, by meeting, separately, two very different artists and car enthusiasts: Robert Williams and Ed Ruscha.  This is Robert Williams:

In fact I mostly talked to them about each other.  Both had a taste for old cars, preferably 1930s Fords.  Ruscha kept his stock, Williams hot-rodded his.  And I seem to recall that Ruscha told he liked cars, but Williams really liked cars.  Williams knew the parts numbers for gaskets and so on, Ruscha didn’t.

Anyway, I still kind of like cars. but I’ve never turned into a motorhead.  I have decided (arguably in a sour grapes kind of way) that looking at exotic old car is way more fun that owning them.   So, since Robert Williams is currently having a one man exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, titled Slang Aesthetics, I decided walk over there, see the show, and walk home again. 

The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery is in Barnsdall Park, right next to Frank Lloyd Wright’s endlessly decaying, endlessly being restored, Hollyhock House, and if you ask me the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery could use a snappier name.  The Hollyhock Gallery perhaps. The current name sounds kind of “worthy” and Robert Williams’s art is never, ever “worthy.”

It’s a big gallery and a big show, and I always enjoy watching people in art galleries, especially the way they walk, in that measured, respectful, dutiful way. So I was there looking at Williams’ paintings and drawings and occasional sculpture and keeping half an eye on the people in the gallery and suddenly I saw the man himself, with his wife Suzanne, walking across the expanse of the gallery floor. 

We said hello.  He said he’d been trying to get a show in this gallery for 40 years, and we talked very briefly about cars: the man has just acquired a Model T Ford, which he tells me is very tricky to drive, which comes as no surprise.  After we’d talked for a little while, he excused himself and went off to talk to a couple of attractive young women he’d spotted.  He introduced himself and took them on a walk around the gallery.  You can do that when it’s your show.

I was tempted to take a few pics of Mr. Williams in situ but I thought that would have been a bit fan-ish so I didn’t, but I found this one taken at the beginning of the show – he’s there doing a “walk through.”

Now a man who owns hotrods and a model T is probably not going to be a great walker, and Robert Williams’s paintings tend to feature cars, women, curious bits of architecture but I did find this picture (not in the exhibition) from 1970 titled, Psychic Pedestrians On a Spiral Horizon (Barycenter).

       However, the open-minded pedestrian, psychic or not, always finds something on his travels.  To complete the expedition, on the walk home, I did find this nice bit of street art, which delivers a message some of us know isn’t strictly true.

As I took the picture I was hoping that somebody might walk by to give it some human interest.  Nobody did, but I was aware of the woman on the right of the picture who looks as though she’s walking, though in fact I think she works in that shop and had stepped outside for a cigarette and a coffee break. 

But it was only when I got home and downloaded the picture that I noticed that waist of her, and the fact that she’s wearing a corset.  Now I wouldn’t say that nobody walks in LA wearing a corset, but really, very, very few.

Thursday, April 2, 2015


 One of the features of walking in Los Angeles (and I know it’s not unique to LA but it seems both more pronounced and more appropriate here than anywhere else I’ve ever been) is that you’re seldom far from a freeway.  As a serious pedestrian you regularly have to walk over or under one.  Over is generally better, I think, because you can look down and watch the traffic flow, or more likely grind to a halt, “bummer to bummer,” as we like to say.

And as I observe my fellow bridge pedestrians (who admittedly are not huge a number most of the time) I find that they’re divided into two varieties: those who stop for at least a moment or two and look down, and those who stride swiftly across the bridge, keeping their eyes fixed straight ahead of them, as if pretending the freeway isn’t there.

Will it surprise you that I’m one of those who tends to linger, and yes it sometimes feels a bit contrarian to be up there staring down at traffic, but then I think that people are perfectly happy to stand on a bridge that crosses a river and watch the boats go by, so why aren’t they happy watching the cars and trucks?  One answer might be “pollution” and of course I have no rebuttal to that, but you know it’s not like I pull up a deck chair and sit there for hours, basking in the exhaust fumes, I just stop for a minute or two, enjoying the rush and the roar below me.

In fact there are quite a few places in LA where you can stand on a bridge and actually stare down at the river, although unfortunately the Los Angeles River tends to be a dry concrete channel for much of its length; great for car chases and such, but not exactly a roaring cataract.

Still. I do like looking at the river – and I especially like looking at the way the graffiti have been cleaned up – painted over with white oblongs, creating a bizarrely appealing minimalist art work.

And if you’re on a bridge in downtown Los Angeles, chances are you’ll also get a view of a railway line or two.  It’s like looking at God’s model railway.

Elsewhere you can look down and see all kinds of edgeland mess and complication, ruin, reclamation and repurposing, which of course I love.

I was doing this most recently because I wanted to take a look at the Sixth Street Bridge, which runs from downtown to Boyle Heights and is about to be demolished and replaced.  Nobody particularly wanted this to happen: the current bridge isn’t that old, built in 1932, but it’s suffering from “concrete cancer” and will be gradually taken down before it falls down, and a whizzy new bridge, described as a “ribbon of arches” will be put in its place. 

The new one will cost $440 million and according to Councilmember José Huizar, in whose district the project is happening, it won’t just be a way of getting from one place to another, but “a destination itself that people come to visit." 

To that end it will have ten-foot wide walkways and (wait for it) a viewing deck.  Just how many people will want to walk between Boyle Heights and downtown L.A. remains to be seen.  Completion is due in 2018.  How many will want to stand on the viewing platform and look down at the river and the railway line is even less knowable, but personally I think it’s very much to be encouraged.