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, December 5, 2016


If you write a blog titled The Hollywood Walker, then there’s some pressure on you to do a fair bit of walking in Hollywood.  And I give in to that pressure, honestly I do; I walk in Hollywood all the time.  But the thing is, and it’s a thing that I’m sure worries a lot of writers and bloggers, and certainly diarists, you get to the stage of thinking, “Is there any point doing if you can’t write about it?”

The answer of course is yes: If a thing’s worth doing it’s worth doing for its own sake.  However obsessive a writer you are, not every thought and deed needs to be set down or described in words.  That’s because not every thought and deed is necessarily of interest to others. (I know some writers feel differently about this.) 

There is, in any case, a dual aspect to walking, at least the kind I do.  Partly you do it for its own sake, and partly you do it because you’re inquisitive, and you like observing and exploring, which is all part of the writerly function, though you don’t have to be any kind of writer in order to be inquisitive, and enjoy observing and exploring.

And this being a digital age, if you have a camera with you when you walk, then you tend to photograph what you see.  Again, this can be a problem: are you going for a walk or are you going on a photographic expedition?  And more than that, does taking photographs get in the way of a good walk?  Simple answer: sometimes yes, sometimes no.

So, after that throat-clearing, scattered above and below are some of things I saw, noted and photographed on recent Hollywood walks, and which I think might be of some interest to other people.

I have been known to complain about the essential monotony of Los Angeles skies, but it’s been raining here lately and there have been some spectacular opportunities for cloud spotters, so no complaints from me at the moment.

Under those less than sheltering skies most of us continue to be troubled, one way or another, about the election results.  A few pro-Hillary signs remain, though I wonder if these signs are a bit like Christmas decorations – how long should they stay before you take them down?  If you leave them up too long don’t they bring bad luck?

The fauna, of course, doesn’t even know we have a new president-elect, and the deer in particular are thriving:

Some of the flora is doing less well.  Is this the world’s saddest cycad?

Elsewhere in the ‘hood, they’re continuing to install new water pipes and that includes replacing fire hydrants, which gives rise to certain small-scale, Christo-esque effects:

The boys' activities still gives rise to inscrutable markings on the ground:

And this has recently appeared, which I think has nothing to do with the water company,and is far cleverer and more ambitious than most things you see painted on the sidewalk:

Meanwhile, the L.A. version of autumn gives us an inadvertent touch of Andy Goldsworthy:

In other places the sidewalks do battle with tree roots – the roots are winning - which definitely doesn’t make it any easier to walk:

But you see, some people love our sidewalks so much they feel right at home sleeping on them, in the middle of a Sunday afternoon in front of a pedestrian crossing, right by a board directing you to an open house for what is most likely a million dollar property (feel the irony!):

There are no doubt places in the world where citizens would either accidentally or, more likely, deliberately walk on a person lying on the sidewalk in front of a pedestrian crossing.  Not here, though. There was also perhaps a slight feeling that maybe somebody was actually making a movie, and filming the guy with hidden cameras.  This is Hollywood after all.

Thursday, December 1, 2016


I’ve been reading some short stories by Damon Runyon.  I’d read some of his work before, but not much, and I think Runyon is one of those authors who suffers because people think they know all about him even if they’ve never read a word: blame Guys and Dolls.

Anyway, as I continue to read my Runyon, I find that he often talks about people “walking up and down.”  And sometimes he obviously means this in a perfectly literal way, and sometimes he seems to mean it in some specialized or metaphoric way that I don’t always understand.

Sometimes it seems to mean going about your business, or it can mean stepping out with a woman.  Sometimes it seems to mean being free – as in you’re walking up and down as opposed to being in jail.  But then there are times when I just don’t know what it means.  See this, from the story “The Brain Goes Home:”
“He is maybe forty years old, give or take a couple of years, and he is commencing to get a little bunchy about the middle, what with sitting down at card-tables so much and never taking any exercise outside of walking guys such as me up and down in front of Mindy's for a few hours every night.”  What exactly does it mean to walk up and down in those circumstances?

Elsewhere in Runyon, walking may be a poetic and melancholy activity.  This is from “The Lily of St Pierre:”
“When a guy has a battle with his doll, such as his sweetheart, or even his ever-loving wife, he certainly feels burnt up inside himself, and can scarcely think of anything much. In fact, I know guys who are carrying the torch to walk ten miles and never know they go an inch. It is surprising how much ground a guy can cover just walking around and about, wondering if his doll is out with some other guy.”

       And of course Runyon, and his narrator, are interested in the way the “dolls” walk as well.  This is from “The Brakeman's Daughter:”
“Well, besides black hair, this doll has a complexion like I do not know what, and little feet and ankles, and a way of walking that is very pleasant to behold. Personally, I always take a gander at a doll’s feet and ankles before I start handicapping her, because the way I look at it, the feet and ankles are the big tell in the matter of class.”

       Most of Runyon’s characters do most of their walking in New York, although there are plenty of exceptions.  Runyon himself seems to have been more of a sitter than a walker, planting himself at Lindy’s Deli and keeping his eyes and ears open. “I am the sedentary champion of the city,” he wrote. “In order to learn anything of importance, I must remain seated. Why I am the best is that I can last an entire day without causing a chair to squeak.”

Finally Runyon the man became very much like a Runyon character.  He has a wife out in the suburbs, but he fell for “a down-on-her-luck Spanish countess from Madrid named Patrice, who was, of course, actually an up-on-her-heels Mexican dancer from Tampico. She was twenty-six years younger than he was, and seems to have led him quite a life.”  That’s Adam Gopnik writing about Runyon in the New Yorker, where he also quotes Jimmy Breslin on the matter.  Patrice “sat with him about as long as the form chart for these things indicated that she would.”  Her full name was Patrice Amati del Grande, and she left him in the final year of his life when he was dying from throat cancer.  Maybe it would have been better if they’d done a little more uncomplicated walking up and down together.

Monday, November 21, 2016


If you’re walking in San Francisco, more or less in the Union Square area, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll walk past Burritt Street, just off Bush Street, and if you keep your eyes peeled you’ll see this plaque:

 This is a real plaque commemorating a fictional murder that takes place in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.  Is it the only plaque of its kind in the world?  I assume not, though I don’t believe I’ve ever seen or heard of another. (Actually since I wrote the above, well-wishers have made me aware of a plaque to Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street).

Now, not so very far from Burritt Street (inside The Mystic Hotel – yes, it’s really called that) you’ll find the Burritt Room and Tavern, which claims to be “heavily influenced by film noir.”

I’m not sure that Dashiell Hammett or any of his characters would have had much time for the Burritt Room’s craft cocktail menu, and gawd knows what he’d have made of the cocktail dedicated to Lemmy of Motorhead, the Ace of Spades:­ “Jack Daniel's Old No. 7, Smith + Cross, Wormwood, Complimentary Cigar Bitters

.”   Nah, I don’t know what “complimentary cigar bitters” are either and I wasn’t motivated to find out. 

Anyway, one of my companions had something called Snake Eyes “Gin, Pear Liqueur, Cactus Syrup, Absinthe, Lemon, Seltzer” (that's it on the left, below) which was declared to be a girly drink, without any bang for your buck whatsoever.  It was a “girl” who said this.  But the martini was perfectly serviceable

And you know me, whenever I wander the streets of San Francisco, even when not slightly bagged, I always seem to see a thousand and one martini signs.  This one, I think is, possibly the least promising I’ve ever seen:

This one is certainly among the best I’ve ever seen, although the place is a dive (in a good way) and I dare anybody to go in there and ask to see their craft cocktail list.

Dashiell Hammett by all accounts was a bad drunk, insulting people, falling down in the gutter, and as far as I can see he wasn’t all that much of a walker (though there are certainly walking tours of Hammett’s San Francisco).  However, I did just find a couple of anecdotes, one about drunkenness, one about walking, in Diane Johnson’s Dashiell Hammett: A Life. 

According to Hannah Weinstein (a political activist, film producer, and one of Lillian Hellman’s best friends) Hammett was once in a restaurant with her in Chicago, and was giving the waiter a hard time.  When the waiter asked what he wanted to order he replied, “How do we know till we’ve tried what you have?”  And then he ordered everything on the menu.  “I could have died of shame,” said Weinstein.

Dorothy Nebel (wife of the author Frederick Nebel) tells the story of Hammett and a group of his drinking pals in a bar in New York discussing the “the indifference of New Yorkers.”  “Someone said he could probably walk down the street naked and no one would turn to look.”  Well, Hammett didn’t try that, but he did reckon that nobody would notice if he walked down the street with an open umbrellas on what was then a beautiful clear evening.
Not the severest test, I’d have thought, but anyway he and his pal Fred walked from from the bar, up Lexington to 42nd Street over to Fifth and back to the bar “and not a single person turned to stare.”

Actually I’m not sure whether this is a mark of indifference or respect.  The typical New Yorker would surely be thinking, “Hey pal if you want to walk under an umbrella when it’s not raining you go ahead, it’s nobody’s business but yours.” Though of course he wouldn’t say it aloud.  In San Francisco it might be different, though I suppose the picture below actually shows a parasol.

Dashiell Hammett had a comparatively short career as a writer of fiction – five novels published between 1929 and 1934, although he wrote a lot of short stories that were repackaged in various forms, not least the Dell “map back” editions: nice pulp covers on the front and maps on the back so you could, if you chose, walk the route taken by Hammett’s characters.  There’ll be plenty of places to stop for a drink, too.

Monday, November 14, 2016


Well it did seem a slightly improbable thing, didn’t it, that you’d be walking in the woods somewhere near the town of Chappaqua in upstate New York, a couple of days after the election, and suddenly you’d find Hillary and Bill Clinton also walking there?

That’s what Margot Gerster said happened to her, and I have no good reason to doubt her, although the claims that this was some kind of PR stunt are, I think, understandable.

Gerster wrote on her Facebook page, “'I've been feeling so heartbroken since yesterday's election and decided what better way to relax than take my girls hiking.
'So I decided to take them to one of favorite places in Chappaqua. We were the only ones there and it was so beautiful and relaxing. 
“As we were leaving, I heard a bit of rustling coming towards me and as I stepped into the clearing there she was, Hillary Clinton and Bill with their dogs doing exactly the same thing as I was. 
“I got to hug her and talk to her and tell her that one of my most proudest moments as a mother was taking Phoebe with me to vote for her. 
“She hugged me and thanked me and we exchanged some sweet pleasantries and then I let them continue their walk.”

Well what else would you do?  But still, a couple of matters arise. First, it must be said that Hillary Clinton is looking surprising cheerful given recent events, and although we do know that walking is very good for depression, I still don’t think I’d be looking quite that sunny immediately after my presidential campaign had floundered on the treacherous rocks of Trumpism.

I also wonder who took the picture.  Was it Bill?  Or was it a bodyguard?  I imagine that even in the woods near Chappaqua, the Clintons travel with a pretty serious security detail.

There’s a lot in the press lately about women walking, not least the book  by Lauren Elkin Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London  The book isn’t published yet in the United States and I’m too mean to buy a hardback copy from England but I’ll get it soon, no doubt.
The author’s website says, “Flâneuse is a cultural history of women writers and artists who have found personal freedom as well as inspiration by engaging with cities on foot, and includes chapters on Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Sophie Calle, and Agnès Varda, among others. The London Evening Standard says, “larded with examples.”

We all know that women face certain, let’s call them challenges, when out walking, especially while walking alone, although walking alone doesn't necessarily solve much.  And in one of those odd, serendipitous moments I happened to be reading a piece in the book Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies,  Francis Wheen’s collected journalism from 1991-2001, in which he discusses Who’s Who and Debrett’s People of Today, and has great fun noting people’s “recreations.”

As someone who has a nodding acquaintanceship with a certain kind of literary “fame,” I wasn’t entirely surprised to find I’d had some small dealings with a couple of the people he mentions in the article, both of them in Who’s Who, both of them women, both of them apparently walkers.

One is Emma Tennant, that's her above, who simply listed “walking around” as a recreation.  It so happens I was once in the frame to write a short story for a collection she was editing.  I don’t think it ever appeared, or if it did I certainly wasn’t in it, but she invited me to her house in Notting Hill for discussions and whisky, and she and I certainly walked the length of her hall, once in each direction.

Rather more fun is Deborah Moggach – and nobody has ever denied that Deborah Moggach is a lot of fun – and she lists one of recreations as “walking around London looking into people’s windows.”  Well yes.  Who doesn’t do that given half a chance?  But how many admit it?

Ms. Moggach and I have definitely walked some short distances on the streets of London together, but we never found anybody’s window to look into.  Shame.

A long time ago I had a friend, Patrick, who was at Cambridge University at the same time as Prince Charles, in the early 1970s.  On one occasion in the early hours of the morning Patrick was walking home from some bacchanal and turned a corner and there heading towards him was Charles, also walking home from some other bacchanal.  They didn’t speak (much less exchange sweet pleasantries) but they acknowledged each other’s existence and the prince gave a shrug and a small jerk of the head indicating a man walking some twenty feet behind him: a bodyguard.  He looked deeply and suitably embarrassed.

This is pretty much the only positive story I’ve ever heard about Charles.  And I just found the picture below, taken in 1970 apparently.  There’s the prince walking with Lord Mounbatten, and behind him are couple of royal subjects.  That’s how young men looked in 1970.  Nobody has ever accused Charles of trying to appear like a man of the people.  Maybe he needed a woman to walk with.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016


And, on the day that the United States of America elects a new president, here’s a photograph taken in London last month at Liverpool Street Station: walkers going about their business as a familiar image and message looms overhead.