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.

Friday, May 8, 2015


Look, I try to say this all the time, whenever I’m called upon to pontificate about walking and psychogeography and whatnot.  I try to say, “Most of us in the West have some kind of choice about whether or not we walk. It may not exactly be an indulgence, and it’s obviously not a bad thing, but really you know, there are people in this world, most of them women, who have to walk twenty odd miles a day just to get water and they have no choice about it whatsoever.”

Not that this needs any confirming but above is a photograph (I actually first saw it on Cat Power’s Instagram feed) from a recent French marathon.  The runners run, the woman, from Gambia apparently, named Siabatou Sanneh, walks with a jerrycan of water on her head and a kind of sandwich board that says pretty much what I always I says, “In Africa, women travel this distance everyday to get potable water."  The runners also appear to be getting sprayed with water, which hammers home the message even harder.

My French is less than perfect, but I do like the word “parcourir.”  It doesn’t just mean walk or travel, but also, as I understand it, has the sense of to tour, voyage, roam, range.  Also I suppose it’s the root of the word parkour (something I like a lot so long as I don't have to do it), as in the picture below of picture of David Belle, the founder of the parkour movement. 

That’s some fancy walking you’re doing there Dave, why not make it really hard for yourself and keep a jerrycan of water on your head while you’re doing it?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


Well, life being as it is, it seems I may be about to become a talking head.  Over the weekend I was filmed to be part of a documentary titled Walking Fool, directed and starring Mark E. Phillips, produced by John Maslowski   I was there as the bookish, professorial, “walking expert.”  Want to know about the Savannah Theory - I'm your man.  Here are Mark and I faking spontaneity:

Mark is the kind of pedestrian who makes me feel like a complete trifler.  He has made several attempts, only the last one successful, to walk across America.  Cheap technology means that he’s been able to film pretty much all of it.  Editing is currently underway.

I don’t really know Mark at all but having met him briefly, having seen his website and the various clips I’ve seen, he seems to be a man with the kind of sensibility I like, essentially serious (nobody who walk thousands of miles across America is completely frivolous) but he’s also well aware of the unbearable lightness of being.  He ain't no Cheryl Strayed, I'm pleased to say.  Above and below are some of his postings.

Of course he suffered for his art, so that we don’t have to, but it’s seeing that back pack that really makes me feel his pain.  There are times when I that even carrying a camera and some water is an impediment to walking, Mark’s pack sometimes weighed as much as 70 pounds, I’m told.

The idea of course is that the film will be shown at film festivals, win prizes, and then there’ll be a spin off TV show and a web series, and a lot more walking.  I do hope it all happens, and I also hope I don’t end up on the cutting room floor.

The website, with trailer, is here:

Monday, May 4, 2015


There’s a story, told by Alfred Appel, about a student who went to see Vladimir Nabokov when he was teaching at Cornell. Nabokov told the student to look out of the window, and then asked him, “Do you know the name of that tree?”  The student said no, and Nabokov said, “Then you’ll never be a writer.”
What an asshole.
I heard another version where Nabokov is addressing a whole room full of students and asks them to name trees they passed as they were walking to class, but it’s the same story with the same conclusion that they’ll never be writers.

As a matter of fact, these days, when I look out my window I do know the names of most of the trees I can see, but when I was a student I couldn’t tell the difference between one tree and another, couldn’t tell most trees from a hole in the ground.  It’s just not a young person skill.  Nabokov should have known that.  Perhaps he did and was just trying to be provocative.

Of course in Los Angeles these days it’s impossible to walk down the street without worrying about all the trees you see.  We’re in the middle of a drought and trees are dying on us left and right, while at the same time we’re being told to use less water, especially to water our gardens, and it’s all a big quandary. 
So it was a slight relief to be in Berkeley a week or so back where all the greenery looked incredibly lush and healthy.  Gardens were overgrown, big old plants were growing on every street corner.  This picture was taken in Berkeley, though admittedly not on my my most recent trip.

And there was an empty corner lot on Telegraph Avenue, which I’d vaguely seen before without really looking at, but as I walked past it this time it seemed to me that they must be keeping as some kind of urban wildlife reserve, leaving it for nature to take its wayward course.  There were not, to be sure, any trees growing there that needed naming, but there was a lot of grass that looked tall and healthy and I could certainly recognize that there were some exuberant fennel plants growing there.  It seemed a good thing.  I took a couple of photographs.

And then I happened to be walking past it again 2 days later and it was all different.  A crew had been in there and hacked everything back, no more long grass, no sign of fennel, every green thing had been cut down to ground level.  I guess it looked neater.  I am, as you probably know, not a great fan of neatness.

         I’m not sure that Nabokov was either.  He wrote, in Lectures on Literature, “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”  So, not really such an asshole after all.

Friday, May 1, 2015


As some of you will know, I'm the author of a book titled Walking In Ruins.  Sales have been, let's say, modest.  In fact I actually like the cover very much, but maybe it would have done better with an illustration like this:

Monday, April 27, 2015


I was in San Francisco for a couple of days last week, and of course I did some walking while I was there.  I know the city somewhat but I often end up doing the same old things, so this time I (and the Loved One) set out walking to a couple of places I’d never been before, the Peace Pagoda in Japantown and the Villancourt Fountain in Justin Herman Plaza near the downtown waterfront.  Neither is exactly obscure bit they’re not must-see destinations either.

The Peace Pagoda is in the Peace Plaza, part of the Japan Center complex, a cluster of Japanese shops and restaurants.  It was designed by the architect Yoshiro Taniguchi and was a gift presented to San Francisco in 1968 by Osaka, a “sister city” and the place where several members of Acid Mothers Temple come from.

The Peace Plaza is a big open paved space between two malls, and although apparently it’s often the scene of concerts and festivals, not much was going on when I was there: a couple of toddlers running around under close parental supervision and a couple of Asian girls taking selfies with the pagoda in the background.  Well, sure.  I rather liked the Peace Pagoda, for all that it’s part of an ancient tradition, but made of concrete and it also looks a bit World’s Fair, a bit retro-futuristic.  Who doesn’t like that?

And a small, curious thing I noticed around Japantown, there were a number of signs for bars and restaurants that had graphics of martini glasses outside.  And this was something I’d seen before in other parts of the city.  San Francisco seems to have more martini signs than any other city I’ve ever been in, and believe me I notice these things.  Perhaps there’s a small monograph to be written here.  But we didn’t stop for a martini, we went on to the Vaillancourt Fountain.

That empty, unused, paved expanse of the Peace Plaza looked to have a lot in common with the Justin Herman Plaza.  It’s also big and empty and people carefully walk around the edges, leaving the center vacant.  Maybe they’re keeping well away from the Villancourt Fountain, a magnificent, brutal, concrete folly, and a controversial one in certain circles.  One Lloyd Skinner, described as an “art connoisseur” said that the fountain was "Stonehenge, unhinged, with plumbing troubles," but he seemed to think that was a bad thing.

Judging its qualities is currently made harder by the fact that the fountain is now dry.  Huge quantities of water were supposed to crash through the concrete tubes 30,000 US gallons per minute, one reads, and this did, apparently, make a prodigious noise.  But the fountain is expensive to run and in a time of California drought maybe a giant water feature just doesn’t sit well with locals. 

As you see can probably see, the structure contains various ramps and platforms, creating places you could stand and watch the waters from above and even in their midst, but that’s no longer possible.  Even if there were any water, those ramps and platforms are all barricaded off now.

There’s quite  a lot of back story to the fountain.   Designer Armand Vaillancourt, a French Canadian, sprayed “Quebec Libre” on the concrete of the  fountain right before it was opened, and then in 1987 U2 played a concert there and Bono (can that man do nothing right?) sprayed "Rock N Roll Stops The Traffic" on it, which pissed off just about everybody except Vaillancourt who is clearly one of nature’s genuine subversives, and also a very sharp dressed man.  That's him below.

 Anyway there’s no sign of this aesthetic struggle now – and since there’s no water running, and no noise, very few people seem to pay the fountain any mind but this lack of water does mean you can walk right into it.  Kids seem to really like it, as a kind of adventure playground without too much risk of injury.  And I liked it too, and found myself drawn in.  

Of course as you walk under the mighty concrete arms you can’t help thinking that if water were to come shooting out through the cavities at unpredictable intervals, that would be truly adventurous, but the powers that be in SF aren’t quite that subversive.

Anyway, by this time I was feeling in need of the “silver bullet”.  As the signs prove, there are a great many paces to get a martini in this town but I only really considered one of them, John’s Grill, beloved by Dashiell Hammett and making an appearance in The Maltese Falcon.

And you know, I was a little reluctant to go there, a little scared of being disappointed.  John’s was the place where I drank my first ever American martini, and it holds a mythic spot in my life, but what if it didn’t live up to my own personal mythology?  Anyway I risked it.  I was a fool to have worried.  It was about 4.30 on a Saturday afternoon, the place was dark and cool, and by no means empty, but there was only one person sitting at the small bar.  I had my martini, the Loved One had a gimlet – and it was all pretty much perfect.  

Drinking in the afternoon can always be a risky thing, but this time it worked, we walked out of John’s with out spirits lifted and a spring in our step.  We also knew that we were almost certainly walking in the footsteps of Hammett, who was surely one of the sharpest dressed men ever to slouch in front of a typewriter or indeed walk the mean streets.