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, March 31, 2016


First there was this guy:

And then there was this guy:

And then there were these girls who probably weren’t aware of their filmic predecessors.  And I wonder if they were aware of the timetable and knew when the next train was coming:

And then there were these 5000 people in Tokyo at the end of 2015:

At 8 am on November 16th an overhead cable broke on the Japan Railways Kobe Line between Kobe and Motomachi Stations.  The train service was suspended while a repair crew got to work, and 5,000 or so passengers had to leave the train, and walk along the tracks to the nearest station.

They weren’t in danger, but even so it’s hard to imagine the commuters of most nations remaining so calm, and obeying instructions, and walking in single-file.  And at some point an employee of Japan Railways arrived, to apologize and give a bottle of tea to each person who walked by.  He opened the bottles for them.  I’m not sure why I find this so moving, but I do.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


Here’s Beryl Markham writing in West With The Night, 1942, which is a book about her travels in what was then British East Africa, now Kenya.  “A map says to you, ‘Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not.’ It says, ‘I am the earth in the palm of your hand. Without me, you are alone and lost.’”

Safe to say that Beryl Markham never went to Tokyo, but I just did.  I walked a lot while I was there and most of the time I was carrying and frequently consulting a map.  Unlike Ms. Markham I didn’t feel as though I had the earth in the palm of my hand.  Mostly I felt as though I was carrying a rather useless piece of paper.  Sometimes, of course, I was also consulting a rather useless graphic on a cell phone screen.  True, given the dense population of Tokyo, I was rarely alone, but a lot of the time I was lost.

To be honest, only rarely was I completely and utterly, irredeemably lost.  Most of the time I had some rough, nebulous idea of where I was, and I’m enough of a psychogeographer to find that experience interesting, even desirable, but getting from where I was to where I wanted to be was (let’s say) challenging, and often confusing and ultimately downright exhausting.

      Roland Barthes had something to say about this.  In Empire of Signs he writes, of Tokyo, “This city can be known only by an activity of an ethnographic kind: you must orient yourself in it not by book, by address, but by walking, by sight, by habit, by experience; here every discovery is intense and fragile, it can be repeated or recovered only by memory of the trace it has left in you: to visit a place for the first time is thereby to begin to write it: the address not being written, it must establish its own writing.”

         Not completely sure about that, Roland.  For one thing I would say that by no means every discovery in Tokyo is fragile; many of them are extremely robust, but they’re intense certainly. Still, does Barthes make Tokyo sound like my kind of town.  And it is.

I walked in Tokyo, I walked a lot, in Shinjuku and Akihabara, in Ueno and  Yanesen and Roppongi Hills, and it was very alien in some ways, surprisingly familiar in others.  I mean we’ve all seen those pictures of the big bustling neon lit main streets.  And if we’ve seen the photographs of Araki and Moriyama then we’ve seen the back streets and alleys too. 

These images were accurate enough.  I was rather more enchanted with the alleys than the main streets, and of course we’re always told how safe Tokyo is. I wasn’t taking anything for granted but I was probably less guarded as I walked around the edgelands of Tokyo than I might have been in some other cities.

I took a couple of maps with me, but once I got there I kept picking up dozens of the things.  They seemed to be everywhere.  Some, of course, were just tourist maps whose main reason for existing wasn’t to help travelers go wherever they pleased, so much as direct them to some very specific places, i.e. the businesses that had paid to have advertisements on the back of these maps.  This was a plain enough illustration that maps are always in somebody’s interest, and that these interests may not necessarily be the same as yours, though of course if you’re looking for a sushi restaurant then these interests may coincide.  Here's part of the collection:

There were also a lot of public maps, on street corners, in parks, in stations, even sometimes in the sidewalk.

 And I did find it some consolation that as I walked I saw many locals who seemed as lost as I was.  They too stared at those street corner maps with as much confusion as I did.  I’d also see them staring at maps on their cell phones, sometimes using the cell phone to photograph the street corner map.  It made me feel just slightly less of a buffoon.

There were also these helpful signs directing you to places where you could cross the street.  I’m an observer of these things.  I have photographs taken in Suffolk, in England only a few years back in which the walking man is wearing flared trousers, and here the walking man was wearing a hat:

The parts of Tokyo I was in weren’t absolutely, completely free of graffiti, but by any standard I know they were very limited, and such street art as there was seemed very minor.  I don’t know if this means Tokyo really needs Banksy or whether they’d just throw him in jail. 

But oddly enough those street crossing signs were quite a target for low level doodling and stickering and general abuse.  I haven’t worked out why that is.  Maybe it’s because of the hat.

Tokyo, certainly to a first timer, though I’d imagine to anyone, seems to be a place of strange and complex and often mysterious spaces, some are big and broad and strangely empty, elsewhere there are tiny alleyways and gaps between buildings that are barely wide enough for a human being to walk through, though the cats seems to like those places just fine.

And there are certain spaces, under freeways or bridges or railway lines that do feel strangely different from their western equivalents.   In the west they might be considered non-spaces, but in Tokyo they seem much more part of the fabric of the city.  Maybe that’s because there are so many of them that if you thought of them as non-place then you’d have to think of much of the city as a blank.

I walked reasonably far and reasonably wide, though I could certainly have walked further and wider.  Most of the walking was not quite aimless.  Generally I was trying to get somewhere, say to a gallery or bookshop or bar or restaurant.  More often than not I got there, but not absolutely always.  Still I was well prepared for serendipity, and that I found in spades.

And if nobody was in any doubt that I was a tourist and didn’t belong there, I never sense any hostility, nor frankly much in the way of curiosity about me.  Maybe this was an illusion.  If we accept that the Japanese are a very polite race, maybe they were just too polite to express either their hostility or their curiosity.  Just one old jogger came up to me and me where I was from and how long I’d been in Tokyo, otherwise I was ignored as just another gaijin.  I was prepared to settle for that. 

Since I got back I’ve been reading Barrie Shelton's Learning from the Japanese City.  He writes,To a Westerner, the Japanese maps may be seen to fragment the landscape. The Japanese maps are rather like a cubist painting where one can see on a single surface, many aspects of a three-dimensional object which could not be seen from a single static viewpoint. Considered another way, they may be seen to integrate the landscape for they show it, as it is commonly experienced by the majority of those who move through it. In other words, it is more a product of experience than the Western map which is more one of intellect.”

I think I know what he means, though of course I also think you could argue that one of the main duties of a map is to offer information for people who don’t have experience of moving through a given landscape.  If you “commonly” move through it then why did you need a map?
Shelton also refers to an early eighteenth century map showing the whole of Japan, a map that was 7 inches high and 28 feet long.  I haven’t seen this map and it doesn’t sound as though Shalton has either, but it sounds a wonderful thing.  I wonder if Ed Ruscha knew about this map when he did his Every Building on the Sunset Strip and Then and Now).  In any case, in honor of this concept I did buy the map you see below, by no means as long and thin as the 18th century map, but long and thin enough.  Suitable for framing no doubt, but quite a challenge for the framer.

Monday, February 29, 2016


The Hollywood Walker is away, walking (among other things).



So, this happened. I was invited to a pre-Oscar party given by German Films and the German Consulate General at the Villa Aurore (yep, I’m THAT well connected.  That's it above).  The Villa is a splendid place, right on the edge of the Topanga State Park.  We were told to park in Los Liones Drive, which is the road where the State Park hikers leave their cars, and then board a shuttle bus to get to the Villa.
There were a few hundred guests, and who knows how many hikers: not a single bit of parking was to be had nearby.  I ended up parking a good 20 minute walk away. 

 I’m a walker, right, so I told myself that this was a good thing, but once I’d parked. I had to schlep up a substantial hill to the place where you signed in and got your wristband and then waited for the shuttle.

I’d spruced myself up a little for the event – jacket, proper trousers - and it was a hot day and, walker or not, halfway up the hill I was feeling it.

Now I’m not one usually one of those writers who listens to conversations and writes them down in his notebook – but here I happened to overhear a fellow in shorts doing some mansplaining to the girl he was with, thus “Bowie was Bowie because he WAS the Starman.  And he was so unique.”  That almost made the walk up the hill worth it. 

And at the party there were quite a lot of women in “limousine shoes” – I have no idea how they got there.  I’m pretty sure they didn’t walk up that hill.

Thursday, February 25, 2016


It’s a bad week when we lose both Umberto Eco and Harper Lee.  Maybe it’s because I’m English that I don’t have the affection To Kill a Mocking Bird  that I feel I’m supposed to have. 

A few honest Americans I’ve talked to aren’t sure whether they really like the book or not.  It was drummed into them at an early age that this was such a good book, and such an important book, and they had to like it because.  For many it seems to have been the first "serious" book they ever read. 

Of course most of us in the English speaking world had never heard of Umberto Eco until The Name of the Rose, which first appeared in English in 1983.  It was obviously a very good thing, but also really hard to read.  The movie made everything easier. 

I’m actually much fonder of the essays in Eco’s How to Travel With a Salmon – and elsewhere he did an analysis (and a take down) of James Bond plots that even as a fan of Ian Fleming I find just wonderful.

I can’t swear that either Lee or Eco was a great walker but Lee did write this:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”  That’s a little bit Hannibal Lector isn’t it?  If we have only understand people by climbing into their skin and walking around, we’re never going to understand many people at all. Which is of course a completely reasonable point of view.  Here's Harper Lee on the movie set.

Eco wrote a book titled Six Walks in the Fiction Wood which contains this passage: "There are two ways of walking through a wood. The first is to try one of several routes (so as to get out of the wood as fast as possible, say, or to reach the house of grandmother, Tom Thumb, or Hansel and Gretel); the second is to walk so as to discover what the wood is like and find out why some paths are accessible and others are not. Similarly, there are two ways of going through a narrative text."

That strikes me as just dumb – surely there an infinite number of ways to walk through a wood, and an infinite number of ways to go through a text.  But this is Fine.  This is the joy of literature, right?  We can love and admire writers, and in some metaphorical way walk with them, but we don’t have to agree with them about everything, or in fact anything.