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.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


I remember once reading or hearing an interview with somebody, an actor or actress or model or maybe fashion designer, somebody like that, and he or she said that when they were growing up they liked to imagine that as they walked in the world they were constantly filmed by hidden cameras: yeah, yeah, these days we all are, I know, but these were imaginary and benevolent. 

The result was that when they walked down the street they straightened up, put a spring in their step, tried to move elegantly, to look attractive and vivacious.  Alas there’s no way in the world I’ll ever remember this interviewee’s name, but he or she obviously thought this was very quirky and unusual, whereas I’m not so sure.

There’s an article in the most recent London Review of Books by Tom McCarthy (that's him above), titled “Writing Machines” about notions of “the real” in fiction.  He quotes a (to me anyway) very familiar passage from William Burroughs: “Take a walk down a city street … You have seen a person cut in two by a car, bits and pieces of street signs and advertisements, reflections from shop windows – a montage of fragments … Consciousness is a cut-up; life is a cut-up.”

“He’s right as well,” says McCarthy, and I also concur.  It’s a terrific piece and I agree with 90 per cent of it (so it must be good) but I did carp at something McCarthy then says: “We don’t walk down the street saying to ourselves: ‘As I walk down the street, comma, I contemplate the question of faith, or adultery, or x or y or z.’”

But I’m here to tell him that for for a longish period of my early life, say from the ages of 8 to 13, as I walked in the world I often “heard” a third person narrative voice in my head: though it wasn’t an hallucination, I knew I was constructing it, knew that the voice was my own.   It would be “saying” thing such as “The boy walked down the grey, wet northern street.  Nobody knew him, nobody understood him, he felt he didn’t belong here and he had to get out ...”  I fictionalize of course, which is largely McCarthy’s point about realism, and I exaggerate a little, but only a little.

I suspect my “narrator’s” prose style wasn’t the very best, probably Enid Blyton bleeding into Ian Fleming, since they were the two authors I’d read most of at that time.  I can’t swear that Fleming was much of a walker but Blyton certainly was, favoring the “nature walk.”

When I walk these days I don’t hear the third person narrative voice in my head, but I do sometimes rehearse what I’m going to write when I get home, the voice that I eventually use in this blog.

Above, incidentally, is the cover of Five on a Hike Together (which I don’t remember at all, though I thought I’d read all the Famous Five books).  It looks like something went seriously wrong on this particular nature walk.

Monday, January 5, 2015


Above is a photograph of our scribe walking in Arizona, in the Sonoran desert last month. Actually the area is designated the Sonoran Desert National Monument, though it doesn’t look very different from a lot of nearby territory that isn’t designated.  The best thing about the Sonoran desert, and about much of Arizona, is the presence of saguaros, the archetypical, anthropomorphic cacti.

As I walked I had some idea of finding the perfect saguaro specimen, the most human, the one with arms posed most convincingly at its sides.  This wasn’t so easy.  I’d see one in the middle distance and I’d walk towards it but I’d soon see it wasn’t quite the archetype I was looking for, the angles of the arms would be wrong, or what looked like a two-armed cactus from a distanace turned out to have an extra arm when I got closer.  But then I’d see another, apparently more perfect one, not so far away and I’d walk towards that one, and it too would let me down, and then I’d see another … and so on.

There were other imperfections too.  The chances of finding a saguaro in anything like perfect condition, without scars or wounds or dead patches, was very, very low.  But you know that made them kind of human as well: just like people they get beaten up and damaged by the years, by what we might as well call nature.

And another thing I like about the Arizona desert, actually about deserts in general: the long, long, multi-engined freight trains.   As you’ll find if you walk right up to the tracks, and certainly there’s nothing to stop you walking right up to the tracks, these are vast, thunderous, threatening things, but when you see one of them in the distance, snaking its way through the landscape it seems positively serene.

I was not on a very adventurous walk – I just strolled around for an hour or two, with no end in mind beyond looking at trains and cacti, but as I was heading back to the car I saw this thing:

Tires, chunks of wood, some kind of cord holding it all together: it would be easy to see it as random detritus, or even (at a pinch) desert folk art but in fact I happened to know what it was because I’d read an article a couple of weeks in California Sunday Magazine.

The device was almost certainly used in the process of “cutting for sign,” a tracking method and an old Native American trick.  You smooth out the dirt road with tires (the Native Americans didn’t have these, of course) and then if anybody walks there you’ll know about it. 

I assumed the Border Patrol had been involved, tracking illegal immigrants, although also desert flaneurs like me.  It also occurred to me that we were some fifty miles from the Mexican border, which seemed a bit late in the journey to start tracking anybody.  But of course the walking was the end of the journey, the walkers had made it this far by riding the freight trains. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015


Like me, you’ve probably been hearing a lot recently a lot about Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests – kinetic sculptures that are also walking machines, though both those terms feel somehow reductive.

Here’s Lawrence Weschler in the New York Times magazine:
“Jansen began trying to model the mystery of walking by deploying stick figures … ‘In its essence,’ he said, ‘'walking is simply constantly changing your shape in such a way that you move forward. But how exactly does it work?
“In the midst of these cogitations, as Jansen himself was walking along the Scheveningen shore one day, the thought entered his head that maybe he ‘should pay a visit to the Gamma hardware store and check out their plastic tubing.’”

The rest is a kind of history, involving much trial and error, and an awful lot of mathematics and eventually he made these fabulous creatures and made them walk so that look partly like insects, partly like a synchronized if slightly ramshackle chorus line.  Nothing ramshackle about the Tiller Girls below:

  The great thing is, the Strandbeests don’t actually look like machines, much less robots.  They look - that dubious word – organic, and they certainly have a life of their own, at least when the wind blows.  Jansens actually says. “they walk on the wind.”

         That phrase of Weschler’s “In the middle of these cogitations” is an echo, deliberate I don’t doubt, of Robinson Crusoe.  Crusoe has found the footprint on the beach – a sign of something, though inevitably not of walking, and having run through various unconvincing attempts to explain it to himself, he says, “In the middle of these cogitations, apprehensions, and reflections, it came into my thoughts one day that all this might be a mere chimera of my own, and that this foot might be the print of my own foot, when I came on shore from my boat.”  He’s wrong about that of course.  And I find it interesting that Weschler uses the fancier “midst” while Defoe was happy with “middle.”

There are a lot of still photographs of the Strandbeests around, and there’s even a book with images by Lena Herzog, spouse of Werner, but the stills really don’t convey the strangeness or the wonder of Jansen’s creations. 

Click on the link below to the Strandbeest site and see them for yourself:

Saturday, January 3, 2015


When I was writing The Lost Art of Walking I interviewed a few “street photographers” including Martin Parr and Bruce Gilden.  My simple theory being (simply) that street photographers take a lot of pictures of people walking, and in order to do that they themselves have to do a fair amount of walking too.

One photographer I wanted to interview but didn’t, was Bill Cunningham of the New York Times.  Word on the street, i.e. a couple of people I knew at the New York Times, reckoned that even getting to speak to Bill Cunningham, or at least getting him to speak to me, could be a years long project in itself.  They may have exaggerated, but Richard Press, the director of the documentary Bill Cunningham New York, says much the same.  In the booklet accompanying the DVD (which I watched over the holidays) he says it took him 10 years to make the film: 2 years to shoot it, and before that 8 years to persuade Bill to be filmed.

Every Sunday the New York Time contains two features by Bill Cunningham.  One is Evening Hours, and it’s pictures of New York “Society” people at various events and parties.  The whole thing gives me the heebie-jeebies and I wish it were some kind of lacerating view of the vacuity of “Society,” but it just isn’t.

The other feature is titled On the Street, and consists of photographs of street fashions on the sidewalks of New York.  The people here may be vacuous too I suppose, but the end result is wonderful.  The whole project is obsessive and exhaustive and an act of supreme, sustained observation and visual collecting (maybe even that hideous word “curation”).  One picture of a woman in leopardskin may not mean much; but 30 pictures of women in leopardskin that means plenty.

The documentary shows Cunningham on the street taking photographs (he generally favors photographing women rather than men, but not exclusively) and there’s nothing furtive about it.  He just takes pictures, without permission in most cases as far as I can see, sometimes even chasing people down the street.  Most of his subjects seem happy enough to be photographed: some of them in fact seem to be models, either professional or aspiring.  One or two may look absurd in the photographs, but Bill Cunningham hasn’t made them look that way, they did it all by themselves.

Wathing the film it was hard not to be obliquely reminded of that recent video, made by Hollaback! “a nonprofit dedicated to ending street harassment” showing an actress being hassled as she walks on the streets of New York.  

And I suppose Cunningham does harass some of his subjects.  We all know the horror of the male photographic gaze.  However, the documentary shows that he has enormous charm and warmth, and it probably helps that he’s such a benign and sweet looking old man.  And age may have a lot to do with it.  Certainly he’s the least threatening presence you could encounter on the streets of New York. 

Cunningham alas is not a true flaneur since he rides from place to place on his bike, though he does plenty of walking when he gets “on site.”  And these days he’s sufficiently well known that people take photographs of him as he’s working, maybe they even harass him.  Yes – people walking on the street, take photographs of Bill Cunningham walking on the street, taking pictures of people walking on the street.  I like that: I like that a lot.