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, 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.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


Life, being as it is, I open the latest issue of  the London Review of Books, and there’s Jonathan Meades in full flight, reviewing Hitler At Home and Speer: Hitler’s Architect.  It’s illustrated with this painting by Luc Tuysmans, titled The Walk in English, originally De wanderling in Dutch – Tuysmans is Belgian.

Meades writes, “Luc Tuymans’s painting The Walk shows Hitler and Speer silhouetted in early evening light on the Obersalzberg. The photograph that the painting is based on is mute. Tuymans’s manipulation of it is anything but. His Hitler, the Führer, the guide, is indeed guiding, just. He is stumbling awkwardly towards the last of the light while the upright Speer holds back, following certainly, but cautiously, tentatively, allowing his idol and besotted patron first dibs on divining the future – which may prove to be less golden than the sun’s shafts seem to promise. What if the guide has lost his touch, can no longer read the entrails?”

Well, this is good stuff, of course, and only a fool would get into an argument with Jonathan Meades, but I think I’ve found the original photograph, or a very close variant (on the website reichinruins.com), and I don’t find it mute at all.

  Let’s face it, Ayrian dreams aside, most walkers look good pretty good and picturesque when walking into the sunset.  For that matter most people look pretty good when walking among snow covered peaks.  And I do find it interesting however, that in the painting Speer has grown to be a head taller than Hitler.  Does that make the painting pro-Speer? Meades is virulently anti-Speer, as he's absolutely entitled to be.

Speer, as we know, was quite a walker, and he didn’t let incarceration in Spandau slow him down.  In his native Heidelberg there remains the Thingstätte, an amphitheater which he designed for the Nazi party, built in 1935.  It’s a great place for walking these days apparently.  ”Carry a map and watch for the labeled rocks” is the headline on Tripadvisor.

Friday, February 5, 2016


A man walking down the street – sometimes it’s a woman, but more usually it’s a man – and as he walks he talks, and points at things, and it seems that he’s talking just to you, explaining those things that aren’t obvious, that don’t immediately meet the eye. 
Sometimes this “talking” may be in book form – a text, a narrative, a guide book, and often it’s on video, whether a serious documentary or travelogue or just some wobbly fetish footage shot on somebody’s cellphone and destined for YouTube and an amazingly low number of views.
         And of course this person almost certainly doesn’t know you, may be addressing an imaginary you, a big audience of “yous.”  And there may be a whole army of intermediaries between you and him – publishers, editors, a film crew, programmers.  Some of these intermediaries aim for a much higher degree of invisibility than others.

I’ve been thinking about this while reading two versions of A Survey of London, two very different versions of what are in some ways the same book.  John Stow’s A Survay (sic) of London was first published in 1598, and he revised and expanded it for a second edition published in 1603, two years before his death. I did not, alas, read the version below:

Posthumous editions continued to appear after Stow had departed, often containing maps and illustrations. Some of the editing was wayward, but there was a “perfected” or at least unlikely to be improved upon edition by John Strype, often referred to as "Strype’s Stowe," published in 1720.  It was several times longer than the original, incorporating all kinds of new material, much of it necessitated by changes and growth in London, some of it dictated by Strype’s own personal preferences.

John Stow 1525-1605 was a tailor by trade but more passionately he was a historian, antiquary, collector of books and manuscripts.  And he was also a great walker, an urban explorer, a psychogeographer some centuries avant la letter.  He was therefore an ancestor of a whole tribe of writers and historians and TV presenters who use walking as a mean of investigating the geographic, historic and cultural landscape.

Sometimes this seems a bit old hat.  I think Alan Whicker was the first on-screen walker and talker I ever saw – and he began presenting Whicker’s World in 1958.  And I’m sure there were earlier ones too.  But it’s a tribe that shows no sign of dying out: think Anthony Bourdain, think Mary Beard, think Simon Sharma, think Jonathan Meades.

Edmond Howes, Stow’s literary executor wrote that Stow never rode, but always traveled on foot when he visited historic buildings or sought out historical documents.  William Drummond reports Ben Jonson as saying, “He (Stow) and I walking alone, he asked two criples (sic), what they would have to take him to their order.”  I think Stow protested too much about his poverty: he left his wife and daughters enough money that they could erect this elaborate monument to him in the Church of St John Undershaft in EC2.  Think you or I will get one like that?

Stow’s prose style is chatty and he writes as though you’re “there,” walking along with him. He’s your guide, pointing things out, telling you stories and anecdotes, but he’s not uncritical about what he sees and knows.  Like many an observer he regrets some of the changes. 
“In the East ende of Forestreete is More lane: then next is Grubstreete, of late yeares inhabited for the most part by Bowyers, Fletchers, Bowstring makers, and such like, now little occupied, Archerie giving place to a number of bowling Allies, and Dicing houses, which in all places are increased, and too much frequented.” 
That’s right, you know the neighborhood’s on the skids when the archers move out and the bowling alley moves in.

         John Strype’s edition of Stowe is titled A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, and he adheres to Stow’s notion of exploring the city as though on a walking tour, and he adds a few “perambulations” or circuit walks of his own.

It’s very hard for me to see that word “perambulation” without thinking of Nikolaus Pevsner and his Buildings of England series.  He perambulated all over the country.  Was he consciously echoing Stow and Strype?  He must surely have been aware of the Survey.  In any case, Pevsner’s work, just like Stow’s, is now reedited and revised by subsequent diverse hands. 

I’m one of that generation who finds it impossible to walk round an English church or churchyard without noting and mentally cataloging the features in a Pevsner-esque way  - rhenish helm, blind clerestory, nodding ogee arch – etc.   I’m not sure that this is a necessarily good thing.

Perhaps Jonathan Meades is similarly conflicted.  In his documentary Pevsner Revisited he says that while other disaffected youths were off demonstrating and smashing the state, he was exploring English architecture clutching a volume of Pevsner.

There’s plenty of footage of Pevsner himself walking around looking at buildings, and he was seen on TV once in a while, but he never had the popularity or that “posh but with a common touch” thing that John Betjeman had.  There was a certain rivalry between them, but Pevsner just wasn’t cuddly, he wasn’t televisual, and he wasn’t loved - possibly his German origins had something to do with that.  Betjeman was a London lad, born in Gospel Oak, though that surname is Dutch, originally with two n’s – changed precisely because it sounded German.

And I remember that at some point in my not especially misspent youth, I used to walk the streets of my hometown of Sheffield, fantasizing that an imaginary camera crew was following me as I wandered among the treasures of the Sheffield urbanscape – not that I knew much about the Sheffield urbanscape.
         Now, just occasionally, in my role as walker, writer, pontificator, and god knows I've been called a "cultural critic," I do get called upon to wander around, talk and point at things, usually not in Sheffield.

Sometimes there’s even a camera crew.  It’s never as much fun as I once thought it would be, but I do always try very hard not to look or sound like Alan Whicker.

Monday, January 25, 2016



Like a lot of people, I’ve been playing my David Bowie albums since the great man died, especially Scary Monsters.  And no doubt it’s because I make some claims to be a pedestrian that I’ve been fixating on those words, “She could’ve been a killer if she didn’t walk the way she do.”

It’s a great line but does it mean anything? I’m not sure that it does, and I’m absolutely sure it doesn’t matter whether it means anything or not, but I have been wondering what style of walking prevents you from being killer.  I suspect there are no easy answers.
One of the more interesting pieces written after Bowie’s death was by Steven Kurutz, in the New York Times, titled “David Bowie: Invisible New Yorker.”  Apparently there was a time about ten years ago when Bowie and John Guare would get together once in a while to talk about the possibilities of collaborating on a theatrical project.

It never happened, but Guare is quoted as saying, “We would take walks around the East Village and I was always praying somebody would run into us so I could say, ‘Do you know my friend David Bowie?’”  He was understandably disappointed that never happened either.

The article claims that Bowie could pass unnoticed even among the crowds of New York.  Guare again,  “He traveled with this cloak of invisibility - nobody saw him.”   Well, I’m here to tell you: not always.

About 15 years back I was in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, on a Sunday morning, and there, large as life, and very conspicuous, walking through one of the galleries was Mr. Bowie, accompanied by an entourage of half a dozen young men.  They were looking at paintings and every now and again Bowie would say stop and say something about the art, and the young men would hang on every word.  Before long everybody in the gallery was looking at Bowie and it became impossible to look at any of the art on the walls.  Iman and an all-female entourage were in the adjacent gallery but they were much less compelling.

This was on my mind last Sunday as I walked along West Temple Street in Los Angeles, on the way to see a “sound installation" by William Basinksi, in a storefront gallery called South of Sunset.  There was work by Chris Oliveria, and Steve Roden in there too.

Basinski has said in interviews that he changed from clarinet to saxophone because he wanted to be more like Bowie, and as a member of a band called the Rockettes he supported Bowie on the Serious Moonlight tour.  Of course he’s somewhat influenced by Bowie, because what modern musician isn’t, but I think he’s rather more influenced by the people who influenced Bowie: Eno, Steve Reich, John Cage.

Anyway, one has heard grander – and god knows louder - sound installations than the sound at South of Sunset.  Basinski’s music was more than minimalist, being played quietly on distinctly low-fi reel to reel tape recorder, but somehow the extreme modesty of the event was part of its charm.

West Temple is a bit bleak, a bit rough at the edges, but hardly the meanest of streets, and after the gallery I was wandering, taking the occasional photograph, including this one:

As I took the picture, a tough-looking Hsipanic guy who was out washing his car in the street yelled at me “Hey, why are you taking a picture?”  And I said, calmly, “Because I like the mural.”  And he said, not much less aggressively, “Who are you taking the picture for?”  And I said, “For me.”  This, rather unexpectedly, seemed to satisfy him, though it left me thinking there must be some story there I didn’t know about.  Was the guy simply fed up with hipsters photographing his neighborhood, or did he think perhaps I was a man from the city, come to inspect and maybe order the painting over of his mural?  I have no idea.  But when this was over, a much older, very benign-looking Hispanic guy who’d witness the exchange, he to me in a very friendly way, “Yes, it’s a great mural, isn’t it?”
         And I agreed that it was, though I think maybe I like this one better.  I think it’s the juxtaposition of the Virgin Mary and the Bud Light ad.

 In fact I can't even tell you the title of the installed Basinksi piece.  It wasn't this one, but this one's good too. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


And so, I went up to San Francisco and headed for North Beach to walk along Via Ferlinghetti, the street named after Lawrence of that ilk, poet and begetter of the City Lights Bookstore.

It’s a short street and it’s a dead end.  Compared with the orgy of street art in Kerouac Alley, Via Ferlinghetti is an oasis of calm and restraint, and also seriously lacking in glamor, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  It looked like this from one end:

And this from the other:

And like this in the middle:

A stroll along Via Ferlinghetti was not the greatest walking adventure, but on the way there I walked past Kenneth Rexroth Place.  

 I'd never heard of that, and I can’t say that Kenneth Rexroth is an open book to me, but I do know he was a poet and probably a “good thing,” though until I came to write this post, I’d never read any of his poetry – I thought it was time I did.  His poem “The Silver Swan” contains the lines:

… I go out 

Into the wooded garden 

And walk, nude, except for my 

Sandals, through light and dark banded

Like a field of sleeping tigers.

Personally I’d say that if you’re going to walk nude you should probably ditch the sandals, but I can see this is a personal matter. 

 Kenneth Rexroth Way looks like a reasonable place to walk (that's it above) but I don’t suppose many walk there given the heavy gated arrangement (below). 

Go to the website for Zephyr Real Estate and you'll discover there's a two bedroom condo for sale there, for $1,186,00 which for all I know may be a bargain by San Francisco standards. "Walk score of 100!"
And then drifting around the area I came to Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard, named after what they say is the world's longest-running musical revue.  It’s a hard name to live up to, obviously.

The show looks a good deal livelier than the street.

Friday, January 8, 2016


Lawrence Ferlinghetti is much in the news at the moment:  he’s 96 years old and has recently published his travel journals, and his letters to and from Allen Ginsberg. 
So I decided to read his 1958 poem “Autobiography.”  I’m not sure if it’s a very good poem but I like parts of it a lot.  It starts out really well:

I am leading a quiet life   
in Mike’s Place every day   
watching the champs
of the Dante Billiard Parlor   
and the French pinball addicts.   

But then it gets a bit too “poetic” for my tastes – there seems to have been a point in literary history when few Americans could write a poem without name-dropping Ezra Pound.  But the part of “autobiography” I like best, for obvious reasons, runs as follows.

I am leading a quiet life
outside of Mike’s Place every day   
watching the world walk by
in its curious shoes.
I once started out
to walk around the world
but ended up in Brooklyn.
That Bridge was too much for me.   

That’s nice isn’t it?  And funny too – and of course you could walk around the world and still end up in Brooklyn.  And obviously it begs the question of which side of the bridge was he when he found it too much.

I’ve walked in Brooklyn, and certainly walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, and I’ve also walked in the alley than runs behind Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookshop in San Francisco - Kerouac Alley.  Ferlinghetti worked hard to get the name changed.

And Ferlinghetti also has a street named after him, Via Ferlinghetti, less visited than
Kerouac Alley I’m sure, but now on the list of places I have to visit next time I’m in San Francisco.

Mr Ferlinghetti is a much photographed fellow, but the only picture I can find of him actually walking, is this one, where he’s with Jack Hirschman.