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.

Sunday, September 25, 2016


Gang sign?  Illuminati?  Symbol of the coming feline apocalypse?  We may 

never know, or at least not until it's too late.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Look, I know as much about alchemy as the next guy or gal who studied English literature at university: i.e. not very much.  Ben Jonson, John Dee, some references in Shakespeare, a tiny bit of Paracelsus.  It’s not a lot to go on.

But I do like the look of alchemical symbols, or glyphs, which I suppose were/are also astronomical/astrological symbols.  I’m especially fond of mercury:

And also the sun, which usually looks like this:

Although occasionally it looks like this:

Try as I might, I can't find much direct connection between alchemists and walkers. Ben Jonson author of the play The Alchemist seems to have walked from London to Edinburgh between July and October 1618; but of course he wasn’t a real alchemist.

I mention all this because I was walking in West Hollywood t’other day, and wandered into a curious little enclave where there were quirky old Hollywood bungalows right next to brand new, exotic “architectural gems.”  Of course you had to think that a bungalow or two must have been extracted in order that the architectural gems could be shoehorned in – but I did like some of the fancy new architecture, specially this house:

And improbably (wait I'm getting there with the alchemy), I found a roundabout or traffic circle: not unknown in the US but by no means the kind of thing you expect to see every day.  And to make the road layout more comprehensible to drivers, the traffic engineers had created a graphic (you might even say a glyph).  I don’t know if it helped or not but it sure looked alchemical to me:

I remain slightly stunned.

Not so very much later I found myself walking on La Cienaga Boulevard and saw this:

It was, you guessed, apparently the sign for a hair waxing salon, a company called (I’m not making this up) Cocktail Wax - “A fun and sexy alternative to your everyday wax experience!”  I wondered if this was code for some activity I don’t know about, but I suspect that if you don’t know you’re not meant to.

I now discover there’s an alchemical symbol for wax, this:

It's not totally wonderful, but you know, I think on balance I prefer it to the one on La Cienaga.

Thursday, September 15, 2016


 If you’re like me (and I realize you may not be) then you’re probably finding it hard to get very worked up about this all-gender toilet business.

Lord knows a man, or woman, or anyone else, often feels an urgent need to use a toilet when out walking, and when the situation gets urgent enough I really don’t give a hoot what the sign on the door says. 

But there is some wry amusement to be had in watching graphic designers try come up with a symbol that successfully conveys the all-inclusivity of a toilet.

    You and I might think this is an occasion when language would be more useful than a symbol, that the word “toilet” on a door would be enough, but what do we know?

     And what about walkers?  My knowledge of international signs for walkers is patchy but most places I’ve been, pedestrianism is indicated by a distinctly male figure. 

Is this sexism and cisgenderism?  Yes, probably. And in Japan the male figure even has a hat:

Often, even when there are two people on a sign they’re both male:

Although just occasionally you see two children, one of whom appears to be female:

And I did manage to find this one of what appears to be a man and a woman, though that may be jumping to a hasty conclusion - gender identity isn't just about clothing choices:

 In any case, a sign featuring a solo female walker seems unknown anywhere I’ve ever been.  So I’ve had a trawl around the interwebs and found some interesting variations – all the below are taken from the Spiegel website.  Some are very basic; like this one from Guadaloupe:

Or this one from Mongolia:

This one from Majorca has a more detail, though they're still going with the hat:

And this one from Denmark apparently shows Hans Christian Andersen:

This is from Austria, two blokes and a bike:

But finally, (finally!) this one:

with a caption that reads “In the Benelux countries and Austria, pedestrians can find traffic lights that resemble real human forms more than anywhere else. These women are taking a stroll in the Netherlands...”  Yes, women.   

The Dutch – we always knew they were enlightened.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


And here’s another story about walking and alcohol, extracted from a footnote in Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce.  It concerns his father, John Stanislaus Joyce.   In 1902 Joyce pere decided to change the terms of the pension he was receiving from the customs house where he’d worked.  He agreed to receive half of what he was getting, and take the rest as a lump sum to buy a house at 7 St Peter’s Terrace (sometimes said to be in Phibsborough, sometimes in Cabra).  “He celebrated the purchase by getting drunk,” says Ellmann.

What happens next was told to Ellmann by Alfred Bergan and it certainly has the air of a much told tale, and bergan either had a perfect memory for the spoken word, or he put words into John Joyce’s mouth.

Bergan was standing by Nelson’s Pillar one night, waiting for the last tram home, when John Joyce lurched into view.  Thinking the man was in no condition to take care of himself they put him on the tram to Dollymount where they thought he lived, and told the tram conductor to keep an eye on him and make sure he stayed on till the end of the line.  But, of course, the Joyces had moved out of Dollymount just a few days earlier.

Bergan encountered John Joyce a few days later, saw he was limping, and asked him what was the matter.  John Joyce replied. “A night or two ago some blackguards put me on the wrong tram and sent me off to Dollymount.  I had taken a drop too much and did not realize where I was until the tram was approaching Dollymount.” 
It was the last tram of the night, so he was stuck there
“When I realized my position I could do nothing but go over and sit on the sea wall and cry.  I thought of my wife and family and how anxious they would be at my non-arrival home.  After resting on the wall for some time, there was nothing for it but to walk …. The walk from Dollymount to Fairview appeared to me seven miles long, and when I arrived at Clonliffe Road and looked up it appeared to be five miles long.  However, after resting two or three times, I got as far as Whitworth Road, and it appeared to be at least four miles in length.  After struggling along for hours I eventually arrived at St Peter’s Terrace about 5 o’clock in the morning.  I was so exhausted I barely had enough energy to reach up and use the knocker.  The door was opened by my wife and I fell into her arms and believe I fainted.  I was in bed all next day and could not walk as I had a blister on heel as big as a pigeon’s egg.”

Well, another story from history that would have been ruined if the cell phone had been available at the time.  Also a little map work suggests the walk wasn’t quite as long and arduous as it had become in the telling, and retelling, less than five miles, although that’s no doubt plenty when you’ve had a skinful. 

Monday, September 12, 2016


“We are bored in the city, we really have to strain to still discover mysteries on the sidewalk.” – Ivan Chtcheglov.

A couple of sources have directed me to a rather good piece on Londonist.com, under the headline: How Far Can You Walk From Trafalgar Square Without Crossing A Road?  With the subheading Extreme walker Victor Keegan reckons you can journey over 17 miles without setting foot on the bitumen.

Keegan sets off from Trafalgar Square, and by using bridges, underpasses, and the banks of the Thames, manages to avoid crossing roads, and he ends up 17 miles away “somewhere in the Lea Valley.”

Of course at times he’s often walking on pavements (that’s sidewalks for my American readers) that are very adjacent to bitumen, but it’s a great expedition, and we all know the attractions of the “constrained” walk.

Here’s Keegan’s map:

And here’s a link to the piece:

I have nothing but respect for the man, but I fret about that term “extreme walker.”  I think, and hope, it’s the Londonist’s term rather than his own.  It seems to be asking for trouble, like that band called Extreme Noise Terror.  You listen to them and think, “I’ve heard more extreme, more terrifying noise than this.” And so with walking. However extreme your walking, you can be damn sure that somebody somewhere is doing something far more extreme.

Keegan says, reasonably enough, that he doesn’t think his 17 mile constrained walk would be possible in any other city, and I imagine he’s right.  You could certainly clock a fair distance on the west side of Manhattan but I’m not arguing.

In LA I think you’d be lucky to do more than a few hundred yards before you were forced to “set foot on bitumen.” And here where I live on the lower slopes of the Hollywood Hills there are no sidewalks at all (that’s pavement for my English readers).   You step out the front gate and you’re immediately in the road.  The nearest sidewalk – I just measured it - is a little over half a mile away.  True, you don’t cross any roads for that distance but that’s because you’re in the middle of one.  If you had a mind to, you could cover a good few sidewalk-free miles around the area's tight corners and blind bends.

There are a lot of Victor Keegans on the internet but this seems to be the man:

I see he has a blog post titled, “Walking from Trafalgar Square to Margate – without crossing a road.”  That does sound fairly extreme.