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, August 20, 2015


I grew up partly on the Longley Council Estate in Sheffield.  When I look at maps of the place these days it seems that the urban planners must have been familiar with very modern and/or very ancient designs for cities.  It wasn’t exactly Bauhaus because it was all essentially single family houses, nor was al-Mansur’s circular city, but those geometrical designs didn’t come out of nowhere.

         I can’t remember precisely when I first saw a map of my neighborhood, but I know it was after I’d been walking the streets for some years and thought I knew the layout of the place pretty well.  At ground level however, I had no sense of those geometrical designs, those semi-circles and spokes.  I was surprised but also somehow enlightened.   I can’t say this was when or why I first developed a liking for maps, but develop a liking for maps I certainly did.

Longley wasn’t the worst place to live, and you definitely didn’t worry about walking the streets there, but we had bad neighbors in the house next door and that had a lot to do with why my parents eventually moved out.

The father next door was a glowering and occasionally violent presence – a hod carrier by trade.  There were two children, a boy and a girl.  The boy was a year or two younger than me, and a poor, timid little thing, not very bright, and it occurs to me now that he was very possibly knocked about by his father. 
         After we’d left Longley my mother still got reports from other (perfectly decent) neighbors.  The boy next door left school young, without any qualifications, was unemployed and probably unemployable.  The way my mother put it, “All he does is mooch around the streets all day,” presumably drifting around thosee semi-circles and spokes.

         “Mooch” is an interesting word, and my mother used it a lot, and always to mean walking aimlessly, loitering, doing nothing much, though the sense of being a scrounger or a good for nothing was probably there too.  I’m not sure if she knew the Cab Calloway song “Minnie the Moocher.”  I’d guess she probably did, though I imagine she didn’t know that in the song to “mooch” is to be a drug addict.  Perhaps our wandering neighbor lad eventually went that way too.

“Minnie the Moocher” was recorded in 1931 and to modern ears it sounds as much of a drug song as, say, the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.”  Some of the lyrics run 
She messed around with a bloke named Smoky
She loved him though he was cokey
He took her down to Chinatown
And he showed her how to kick the gong around

To kick the gong is to take opium.  In 1932 Calloway sang a kind of a sequel, titled “Kickin' The Gong Around,” in which Smoky Joe searches for Minnie in an opium den: and finds her.  What’s of particular interest to scholars of walking, is that Calloway performs the song in the movie The Big Broadcast and does a kind of dance, maybe more of an exaggerated walk, which is a very early precursor of the Michael Jackson moonwalk, though I gather it was called “backsliding” at the time.

Calloway was also responsible for the  “Hepster’s Dictionary” –  teaching squares how to be groovy.  I’m not sure how seriously anybody took this at the time, not very I think.  Today it seems a mixture of language that’s either entirely obvious, as in “the joint is jumping,” or elaborate constructions that would be just too much trouble to use.  “Have you got the line in the mouse?" (Do you have the cash in your pocket?).  The word “mooch” doesn’t appear in the version I’ve got there were different various “editions.”

But the term “map” does appear in this form:
Sadder than a map (adj.) -- terrible. Ex., "That man is sadder than a map."

I just don’t get that.  What does it mean?  How sad is a map anyway?  Is a map, in fact sad in any way whatsoever?  Is there some hipster meaning of  “map” that we non-hipsters are missing?  Is it possibly the sense that only a real loser would walk the streets consulting a map?  (Compare and contrast with the Thomas Wolfe story “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn”).  I really have no idea, and I’d be grateful for any enlightenment anybody cares to throw my way.

I have no idea how Calloway felt personally about maps or about walking, but thanks to this handy map you could (circa 1932) have walked to his club in Harlem:

Thursday, August 13, 2015


I was reading Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, (a subject on which I’ve done a certain amount of research at source).  The book is sort of all right (though not nearly as good as the reviewers seem to say it is, if you ask me), and I came across a passage in which she describes Tennessee Williams in Sicily, in 1954:
“He sat in his friend Franco’s bar till closing time and then walked with him down the main street reassured by the music drifting from a nearby club.  But when he turned for home alone, the club had closed and panic rose in him as he strode faster and faster down a road that that seemed to stretch on endlessly, his chest constricted and his breath coming in gasps.”

Her source for the story is Williams’ own Diary in which he writes, “My chest felt constricted.  I breathed hard and fast.  I wanted to break into a run but didn’t have the breath to.  The street was empty.  Its length seemed to stretch forever.  Every step built up my panic and I seemed to be going further rather than closer to my hotel … Even after I reached the main square, in sight of the Hotel Ternio, my sanctuary, the panic persisted.  In fact reached its climax when I was half way up the gradient, about 50 yds, in length, to hotel gates.  I stopped and leaned against bank and plucked a leaf of wild geranium and tried to admire the stars which are said to calm fear.”
Well, is this an interesting bit of psychogeography isn’t it?  I mean we’ve all looked at certain streets and said to ourselves, “No, I don’t think I want to walk along there.”  And there are always reasons, which may be frivolous or serious, reasonable or irrational.  Not wanting to walk down a certain street because it doesn’t contain an open bar?  Well yes, that’s a rather specialized reason, but I can understand it.

         Williams apparently wrote in his diary the moment he got back to the hotel: “Now in my room, the seconal is taking effect (my second today) and I have my liquor and I am quite calm and comfortable.  But someday, I fear, one of these panics will kill me.”
One thing I know about Tennessee Williams’ writing habits, at least at a certain time in his life, is that when he sat down at his desk in the morning he liked to take a seconal and have a dry martin sitting next to the typewriter.  He didn’t always drink the martini, but he needed to know it was there. 
Of course as the morning wore on, the martini would get up to room temperature and therefore, it seems to me, less desirable, less of a temptation, and maybe that was Williams’ plan.  But I’m not so sure.  The serious martini drinker cares passionately about the temperature: the serious drunk less so.

And one thing I do know about Tennessee Williams’ walking: in 1979 he was walking in Duval Street, the main tourist drag in Key West.   

He and Dotson Rader had emerged from a nearby gay disco, called Monster, and they were walking along singing an old hymn, sometimes known as “He Walks with Me,” sometimes as ”In the Garden,” written by Charles A, Miles in 1913, though both Merle Haggard and Elvis sang versions of it.  The relevant lines were probably:

“And He walks with me, and He talks with me,

And He tells me I am His own;

And the joy we share as we tarry there,

None other has ever known.”

Some might say this combination of the sacred and the profane was just asking for trouble, and certainly a group of young men thought so.  Four or five young men jumped on the Williams and Rader.  People magazine reported, “Rader says he was slugged in the jaw; Williams was knocked down and his glasses broken. ‘Let's run,’ Rader shouted. ‘They may have knives.’ Williams stood his ground. ‘I am not in the habit of retreat,’ he declared.”
Here’s a picture of Dotson Rader with Ruth Ford and Andy Warhol

Later Williams said, "Maybe they weren't punks at all but New York drama critics. That mugging received better and more extensive publicity than anything I ever wrote.”

Here's a picture of Tennessee walking in happier circumstances:

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.