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, August 10, 2015


The British Literary Review asked me to review two books, one by Simon Armitage, one by Iain Sinclair.  Which I did, and it hasn't appeared yet so I guess it's been spiked.  Not that they'd told me anything, nor mentioned a kill fee.  So here it is anyway:

Simon Armitage, Walking Away
Iain Sinclair, London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line

Some of us find it remarkably difficult simply to go for a walk.  We need an excuse, a project, a literary precedent.  We don’t want our wanderings, or our accounts of them, to be simply strolls in the park. And so in these two volumes by Iain Sinclair and Simon Armitage, both great walkers, and writers of prose and poetry, they set about making life hard for themselves as they walk.
          Sinclair, the Welsh-born, Dublin-educated Londoner, undertakes a one-day 35 mile walk around the territory now served by London’s Ginger Line – a circuit of overground railway that casts a loop of economic revival and (that dirtiest of words) gentrification around the capital.  He walks with the filmmaker Andrew Kotting, a thoroughly Sinclairian character, “the darkness inside (him) is a form of tremendous energy; stray humans encountered on our walk are buffeted, pitched against fences, left breathless in his wake.” 
          Meanwhile, Simon Armitage - Yorkshireman, geographer, former probation officer - walks along a section of the South West Coast Path through Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, about 250 miles in three weeks.  The book is a kind of sequel to Walking Home, his account of hiking the Pennine Way, for which he used the same modus operandi, playing the troubadour: a daily walk of up to 15 miles, then in the evening a poetry reading and a reliance on the kindness of strangers to give him a night in a borrowed bed. 
          Although Armitage sometimes walks alone, more generally he finds walking companions, most of them strangers he meets along the way, though one or two are friends and acquaintances, pop up from time to time, and an old mucker who rejoices in the name of Slug, “an exotic and unknowable creature whose actions I can never predict.”  Personally I think there’d be some fine entertainment in seeing Kotting and Slug hit the road together.  Whether Sinclair and Armitage would be sympathetic walking companions I’m not so sure.
         In some ways Sinclair’s book feels like business as usual – another of his London-based walking expeditions - but it’s well worth remembering just how strange and unfamiliar Iain Sinclair’s London once seemed, the city described in a baroque literary style, with an unlikely range of references that began with Bunyan, Defoe and Blake, and ran through to Burroughs and Ballard.  These iconic figures have now been incorporated into the mythology of anyone who walks the streets of London and calls himself a psychogeographer.  On this latest outing Sinclair also focuses on, among others, Angela Carter, Freud and Bob Carlos Clarke.  It’s easy enough to detect something alchemical in all this, the contestant working and reworking of similar ingredients in different quantities and combinations.  Those of us who are Sinclair fans certainly think base materials are regularly transmuted into something more noble.

         Armitage’s account is an easier read and he’s certainly a gentler, if no less acute, observer.  His evocations of the spare bedrooms he stays in are no less telling than his descriptions of landscape.  He also seems to be a man to whom amusing things happen.  A woman in the audience at one of his readings announces that she once met a poet in Canada.  Armitage says. “It might have been me – I’ve been to Canada.”  The woman replies, "No, I slept with him, so I would have remembered." I can’t imagine this has ever happened at a Sinclair reading, though I may be wrong. 
          On the other hand Armitage sometimes mentions in passing a figure you’d like to know more about, say William Stukely, the eighteenth century author of Itinerarium Curiosum, a self-styled authority on Stonehenge, and a man who theorized that the centre of the earth was made of water (p125), and you know that Sinclair would have given a half a chapter to the guy. 
          Both writers have a story to tell, a journey to describe, but they’re also poets who make language strut and march to their own needs and purposes.  Here’s Armitage encountering damp cobwebs in the woods, “they are delicate cats’ cradles strung between oak trunks, some precious and golden where sunlight breaches the canopy and falls across the fine threads and intricate dew-jewelled designs.” (p 107)  Compare and contrast with Sinclair’s description of tropical fish “Zen blobs of non-being, barely materialized wafers of cosmic drift matter.” (p15) Armitage feels like your poetic best mate, Sinclair remains your weird, raffish, poetical uncle. 
          And of course both writers suffer for their art, which is exactly as we want it to be.  One of the greatest pleasures of any kind of travel writing is that the authors suffer on our behalf.   By the end Armitage who has suffered with bad hips and a bad back along the way declares, “I won’t be doing any more long walks.”  Sinclair is evidently made of sterner stuff, by no means pain-free but enduring “as we puffed and panted up the tragic dunes of ages and alienation.”  It may be worth noting that Sinclair is some twenty years older than Armitage.

         There’s a tendency, when reading these two books in tandem, as I’ve just done, to become a champion for one style of walking and writing at the expense of the other, but it strikes me there’s no need to make such a choice.  There are as many ways of walking and writing as there are walkers and writers.  We should be content to go at least some distance down the road with all of them.

Sunday, August 9, 2015


I’ve been reading a book by Robert Shoemaker titled The London Mob.  It’s a good, serious but fun book, not least because it points the reader, and modern walker in the direction of various texts that he or she might otherwise not know about.  Among these are Daniel Defoe’s Some Considerations Upon Street-Walkers. With a Proposal for Lessening the Present Number of Them.  And a poem by John Gay titled “Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London,” written in 1716.  I wish I’d known about them sooner.

The Defoe text describes the problems he’s experienced while walking “upon important business” from Charing Cross to Ludgate:
“I have every now and then been put to the halt: sometimes by the full encounter of an audacious harlot, whose impudent leer shew’d  she only stopped my passage in order to draw my observation on her; at other times, by twitches of the sleeve, lewd and ogling salutations; and not infrequently by the more profligate impudence of some jades, who boldy dare to seize a man by the elbow, and make insolent demands of wine and treats before they let him go.”

Now, I haven’t led an especially sheltered life, and I’ve certainly done plenty of walking around Charing Cross but nobody has ever demanded “wine and treats” from me.  A bit of me almost wishes they had.

         The Gay poem, an imitation of Juvenal (inevitably), gives bits of handy advice about walking in London.  The include: don’t wear black, don’t wear stylish shoes, keep an eye on the weather, and be especially cautious at night. Also keep an eye out for dodgy women, obviously, and make sure that nobody steals your wig.

Where the Mob gathers, swiftly shoot along,

Nor idly mingle in the noisy Throng.

Lur’d by the Silver Hilt, amid the Swarm,

The subtil Artist will thy Side disarm.

Nor is thy Flaxen Wigg with Safety worn;

High on the Shoulder, in a Basket born,

Lurks the sly Boy; whose Hand to Rapine bred,

Plucks off the curling Honours of thy Head.

         Now I assume that John Gay probably was a wig wearer, at least some of the time, but the best known portraits of him show him wearing a turban arrangement that I’d have thought would be just asking for trouble if you dared to wear it while walking the streets of London.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


So I was walking on Hollywood Boulevard, and I went to see an exhibition at the LACE gallery, a “storefront installation” of photographs by Ave Pildas, titled Hollywood Boulevard The 70s.  Pildas worked as an art director at Capitol Records just up the street, and he took thousands of pictures on the Walk of Fame, between 1972 and 1975, although just 50 were on display at LACE. 

Pildas says,  "At that time people were saying the country was tilted to the West and all the crazies rolled towards California. They stopped just short of the ocean and landed in Hollywood."

        I can testify to the essential accuracy of that.  This was the time I first set foot on Hollywood Boulevard: in 1974.  I was a fairly young, though not entirely na├»ve, English hitchhiker, absorbing the very last rays of the hippy sunset, and although there was still a “sex and drugs and rock and roll” vibe to Hollywood, it didn’t feel like any summer of love.  The place was scary.  The people didn’t just look crazy, they looked downright dangerous, and as I remember it, way less benign than the ones who appear in these photographs.  

         I was saying all this to my walking and exhibition-going companion, the photographer Jason Oddy.  Jason has been known to take photographs in the street, though he’s a very long way from being a street photographer. He takes very serious, very beautiful and elegant, and largely depopulated photographs, like this one of Mentouri University, Constantine, Algeria, 2013, from the “Concrete Spring” Series:

We were both struck by this faux Ku Klux Klan photograph in the Pildas exhibition: 

Jason said he didn’t imagine you could get away with that kind of thing on Hollywood Boulevard anymore.  And I said I was kind of surprised you could get away with it even in the early seventies.  These days Hollywood feels like a perfectly safe and civilized place. 

I’m not sure just how much of a walker Jason is, but I dug out an interview with him in which he said that Thomas Bernhard’s novel Correction “is the nearest book I have found to a Bible. This relentless novel addresses every major theme: the trials and torments involved in becoming an authentic, autonomous human being; the problematics of writing; even the meaning and possibilities — as well as impossibilities — of architecture. All of it suffused with the blackest of humour and told in Bernhard’s inimitable, incantatory prose. It’s writing taken to the limit.”

         I’m a fan of Bernhardt too and although I haven’t read Correction I do know that its narrator writes, "A description of the road from Altensam to us in Stocket and a description of the road from Stocket to Altensam, naturally two entirely different descriptions…"  But of course.  Later in the book Bernhard says, “Who had the idea of letting people walk around on the planet, or something called a planet, only to put them in a grave, their grave, afterwards?”  Well, who indeed?

After we’d seen the Pildas exhibition we went for a brief drift, and I was muttering a few platitudes about Hollywood Boulevard being some kind of crucial indicator of the state of Los Angeles, that of course it had once been seedy and dangerous, but it was gentrifying just like everywhere else in LA, and compared with the bad old days it’s positively a haven of calm and safety. 

At which point we were both hit in the face by some kind of liquid, and we looked around and saw a laughing crazy young black man hurrying rapidly away. We could see he had some kind of squirt bottle in his hand, with which he’d no doubt squirted us, but it was all very sudden and we were too slow to think about pursuing him.  And of course we wondered what was in the bottle, and then a guy from a local open-fronted restaurant came up and said, “Did that guy just squirt something at you?” And we said yes, and this guy had been squirted too, and we said to each other, “Do you think it’s water or something worse?” and we more or less agreed that it probably was water, but it took us a while before we were absolutely certain. Obviously we agreed that it could easily have been something much worse.  And maybe back in the 70s it would have been something much worse.  But it did suggest that Hollywood Boulevard hasn’t quite become Disneyland, which on balance is a good thing, I suppose.

Here's a link to the LACE, Pildas Exhibition:

Friday, July 24, 2015


“He walked on in silence, the solitary sound of his footsteps echoing in his head, as in a deserted street, at dawn. His solitude was so complete, beneath a lovely sky as mellow and serene as a good conscience, amid that busy throng, that he was amazed at his own existence; he must be somebody else's nightmare, and whoever it was would certainly awaken soon.”     
Jean-Paul Sartre, The Age of Reason