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, May 11, 2015


Photo by Victor Cabelero, via Twitter

Having been a talking head last weekend, I was an “expert” panelist this weekend, at LitFest Pasadena.  The title of the panel was simply “LA On Foot” something I do feel reasonably able to talk about, although in many ways sitting on a panel feels like the opposite  of walking.  Since I live 15 miles from Pasadena some driving was required, and of course I thought about walking there and back, but it seemed a bit much for a Saturday afternoon.

Chairing the panel was Stephen Reich who is, among other things,  one of the producers of a show titled City Walk “the only television series that journeys by foot across the country for a ground's eye view of urban America. Experience the vibrant streets and sidewalks of Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco, Portland, Las Vegas, Denver, and Washington D.C. while discovering stunning architecture, magnificent monuments, serene parks, and communities transformed by a new breed of pedestrians who march to the beat of a different drummer.”  Well yes.

On the panel were James T. Rojas, an urban planner, who made the fascinating point that Latino immigrants are accustomed to having large public squares to walk in back home, and so when they arrive in LA many of them turn their front gardens into a miniature version of the public square complete with benches and a fountain, though I suppose the opportunities for walking are considerably reduced.

Also on the panel was Lynell George, a fine journalist who among many other things runs a photoblog titled wanderingfoot (which I must admit I first read as wandering fool) with some pretty fab pictures, such as these:

In a piece for “Which Way LA” she wrote “So first with just a notebook, later with a camera, I began to walk Los Angeles—its grittier neighborhoods, cul-de-sacs and alleyways—in the early less-cluttered hours to see what I might find. Often, hiding in plain sight, I’ve found souvenirs of the last century—backyard incinerators, rusting hulks of past industry, hand-painted ghost signs hawking nickel movies or the promise of ‘Nice Rooms.’”
Sounds like psychogeography, right?  Though that deadly word wasn’t mentioned in the course of the session in Pasadena.   I have learned this is a word that makes 99 percent of people in the world glaze over with mystification (at best).

It being a literary panel, Steve asked us whether we had a favorite literary piece about walking, and I mentioned Jim Harrison’s “Westward Ho” – a novella about a man who walks across LA, from Cucamonga to Westwood.  Harrison writes that this is a 47 mile walk. 
A few people in the crowd thought this sounded like an impossible walk, and also that the distance was more that 47 miles.  I was in no position to argue, but when I got home it checked it on MapQuest, and they (or at least their algorithm) reckon it’s a doable walk, if a few miles longer than described by Jim Harrison.  

I know that Harrison is at least something of a walker – that’s him below with Gary Snyder.

Of course when you're on these panels you usually come away wishing you’d said something other than what you did say, but I had a strangely different experience this time.   At one point I found myself saying, “We all want to be safe when we walk and the more people walk the safer we’re all likely to be.”  It sounded true, and a perfectly reasonable thing to have said, but you know, it just didn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d usually say.

Some links right here:

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: