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.

Friday, January 6, 2017


You may remember, a few years back (I mean I blogged about it so how could you possibly forget?) the Observer sent Carole Cadwalladr to Paris to interview Frédéric Gros at the time of the publication of his book A Philosophy of Walking.

She was a little a nervous (though as it turned out not nearly as nervous as he was), and she wrote, “I am looking forward to going more slowly. Though I am worried about my footwear. I am wearing Nike trainers. Are they too sporting? Gros seems as if he might be more of a leather brogues sort of man. He makes a jibe at those who try to commodify walking and sell it back to us as ‘trekking.’ Who insist on ‘incredible socks’. And special trousers with too many pockets.” A man after my own heart, obviously.

I was reminded of this late last year when I read a piece in the New York Times Style Magazine (and no, I can’t quite believe I’m writing that) about Simone de Beauvoir who became a walker in the early 1930s after she was posted to Marseille as a teacher.  She was in her early 20s and a long way from Paris and her beau Jean-Paul Sartre.

       To take her mind off things she became a walker.  She walked every day she wasn’t teaching, setting out before dawn, winter and summer, walking at first for a few hours, eventually for nine or ten at a time.  It may have begun as displacement activity but it became according to the woman herself a “mad  enthusiasm.”

But here’s the beauty part.  She wrote, “I didn’t bother with all the preliminaries, and never obtained the semi-official rig of rucksack, studded shoes, rough skirt and windcheater breaker.  I would slip on an old dress and a pair of espadrilles and take a few bananas and buns with me in a basket.”

You know, I don’t think I’d even seen espadrilles until I went to France for the first time, and I did find them genuinely fetishistic.  I think it must have been the symbolic bondage of the ankle straps.  It surely can’t have been the rope soles and the wedgies.

De Beauvoir did most of the walking alone which probably explains why there are no photographs from that period.  Later she rather eschewed the "old dress" look.

Emily Witt who wrote the New York Times piece about de Beauvoir did some walking of her own following in De Beauvoir’s footsteps but she writes, “I did not do my hiking in espadrilles and an old dress.  I had hiking boots, nylon pants and a raincoat and a compass and a map.”  This is a picture of her walking, not very far I suppose since the caption reads “Yaddo artist in residence Emily Witt, a non-fiction writer from New York, leaves a reception celebrating the completion of the new Greenhouse Studios at Yaddo.

Photo by Ed Burke for the Saratogian.
Now, I’ve been reading Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser. One of the characters named Wertheimer is a great walker but only in cities.  He is described by a fictionalized Glenn Gould as “the pavement walker” and  Wertheimer thinks this is fair enough  “I only walk on pavement, I don’t walk in the country, it’s awfully boring and I stay in the hut.”

This hut in fact sounds reasonably comfortable, more of a shooting lodge, but the novel’s narrator writes that in this hut, “he would get dressed as if he were going for a fifty- sixty-kilometer hike – leather hiking boots, thick woolen garments, a felt cap on his head.  But he would step outside only to discover that he didn’t want to go hiking and would get undressed and sit down in the room downstairs and stare at the wall in front of him.”

And later, ”No one pounded the street of Vienna like he did, coming and going in all directions again and again until he was totally exhausted… He wore out tremendous quantities of shoes.  Shoe fetishist were words that Glenn once said to Wertheimer, I think he had hundreds of shoes in his Kohlmarkt apartment and that was also the way he drove his sister to the brink of madness.”

Well this is an odd thing, isn’t it?  Shoe fetishism is a broad church and who’s to say there aren’t some who fetishize walking boots, (men are capable of fetishizing just about anything) but I’m prepared to bet there aren’t many.  Things get even more interesting when we learn, in an interview in the Believer with Bernhard’s brother, that Bernhard had a “shoe tic.”  Yes I want to know more about that too.

Glenn Gould is not a completely open book to me but I do know that the first of the 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould has a long, long shot of him walking across a snowy waste; a kind of inversion of the shot in Lawrence of Arabia where Omar Sharif rides across the desert.

Anyway … when I went to do my Ramblings radio show for the BBC I gave considerable thought to what I should were on my feet.  I settled for these things:

They’re Sketchers and they contain memory foam, and they claim to be the “most comfortable shoes in the world,” which is frankly asking for trouble, but at least they looked vaguely subversive, and not at all like “proper” walking shoes.

After we’d done the recording, the producer told me she was worried when she first saw me turn up in those shoes, as if I might not be a serious enough walker to cover the six of seven miles the show required.  I might have said that was the whole point.  I might have told her that I’d contemplated turning up in patent dress shoes.  Even so I did eventually throw away those Sketchers.  They really weren’t comfortable at all.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


Saw this today while walking on Franklin Avenue, Wednesday January 4th 2017, less than three weeks before the next inauguration.  Good to know that some people are still hopeful.  At least, that's one way of interpreting it.

Sunday, January 1, 2017


On the morning of December 27th on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and McCadden Place there was a young black man, standing very straight and still, and saying “Fuck” loudly, repeatedly, rhythmically.  The street was too crowded for people completely to avoid him, but the many passersby, mostly tourists, were doing their very best to pretend he wasn’t there.

The young man was holding a stack of CDs.   It’s the kind of thing quite a few scammers do on Hollywood Boulevard, and being of sound mind I’ve never got involved, but I gather the drill is they “give” you a CD, sometimes even sign it for you, then ask for a “donation.”  Declining this turns out to be much harder than you’d expect.  Even so, it struck me that yelling fuck at passersby, in fact possibly at the whole world, was not the very best way to draw people into your CD scam – unless it’s a hip-hop thing.  Below is a man with a better technique.

There was plenty of other action on the post-Christmas, pre-New Year Boulevard that day.  It is, of course, a common complaint that Los Angeles lacks street life, yet here you could find the homeless, the drug-addled, people dressed up as Batman or Minnie Mouse, guys drumming on empty buckets, panhandlers - at least one of them in a wheelchair exposing his stump: all of these people more than willing to extract a little gelt from the tourists.

The tourists in turn appeared to be in a constant state of confusion, asking themselves questions (I imagine), some more Existential than others – “Why are we here?  What are we doing?  What are we supposed to be looking at?  Did we really come all this way just to go shopping at The Gap?”  In despair some of them end up walking round the Madame Tussaud’s waxworks.  Because yes, this is a walking street – as Johnnie Walker was there to remind us.

And of course people were taking lots of photographs, of the stars in the sidewalk, of each other, and of course of themselves.  For these folks there was a stern warning stenciled on the ground.

I didn’t see anybody taking much notice.  And even if it were true I don’t imagine the American people would want to give up their selfies any more than they want to give up their guns. 

Monday, December 26, 2016


As I walk around the streets close to home, it seems that the old neighborhood doesn’t change much from day to day, and sometimes it’s easy to think it doesn’t even change so very much from year to year.  Certainly some of the neighbors put out the same decorations every Christmas.  I don’t blame them since I, of course, don’t put out any decorations at all.  I mean there are plenty in the house but not outside for passing gawkers/walkers.

One of the things my kind of casual local walking does is make you more observant of small changes.  So, the photograph above was taken yesterday, on Christmas Day, and any fool could tell that things weren’t quite as they’d been in previous years.  For one very obvious thing, it has been rather wet in Hollywood this last week or two, wet enough that your poodle decoration would definitely need some protection from the elements.   I took the photograph above, and knowing that I’d taken a similar photograph a couple of years back, when I got home I did some compare and contrast.

I saw they’d painted the mailbox for one thing (maybe I noticed that because I know my own mailbox needs repainting).  Also they’d got some new and more plentiful Christmas lights.  And some work had been done on the tiny patch of, for want of a better word, garden: goodbye to the agaves, hello to some things in pots that I can’t name.

Also the fine old car (was it a Buick?) that had been sitting in the driveway next door for a good long time, and looked like it was never going to move, has moved - to be replaced by a Mercedes.  Some would say that’s a step in the right direction.  Me, I’m not so sure.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


I’ve often wondered if I could have been a spy.  Not the James Bond type wrestling with supervillains in underground lairs, but more like George Smiley, teasing out inferences and confessions by the practice of “tradecraft.”  The kind of spy who goes for a walk in the local park and has a “chance meeting” with some disaffected underling from the Russian embassy.  Information and a slim envelope of money are exchanged, we both go on our way, but the course history has been changed, that sort of thing.

This has been on my mind because a little while ago I was staying in somebody’s spare room, and being unable to sleep I picked up John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and (as they say) couldn't put it down.  I tried to read le Carré a long time ago, and I found it all a bit slow and talky.  Now, of course its slowness and talkiness are what seem so totally wonderful about it.

There’s a certain amount of walking in the novel, and also in the BBC miniseries, though it's not a direct “opening out.”   Certain conversations that are static in the novel do take place while the characters in the series are walking.  But certain exchanges are, if anything, even more static.

There’s a scene in the book, a flashback, on the cliffs in Cornwall between Smiley and his faithless wife Ann.  We all kind of wish he’d push her off the cliff edge, but that would be unsporting, dishonorable, and above all out of character.  

Walking helps when Smiley’s trying to get information from his fellow spooks.  Like this:
Sensing Jim's antagonism, Smiley opened his door and let the cold air pour in.
'How about a stroll?' he said. 'No point in being cooped up when we can walk around.'
With movement, as Smiley anticipated, Jim found a new fluency of speech.
They were on the western rim of the plateau, with only a few trees standing and several lying felled. A frosted bench was offered, but they ignored it. There was no wind, the stars were very clear, and as Jim took up his story they went on walking side by side, Jim adjusting always to Smiley's pace, now away from the car, now back again. Occasionally they drew up, shoulder to shoulder, facing down the valley.

And walking itself may be part of tradecraft:
In the stairwell, Smiley lightly touched his arm. 'Peter, I want you to watch my back. Will you do that for me? Give me a couple of minutes, then pick me up on the corner of Marloes Road, heading north. Stick to the west pavement.'
Guillam waited, then stepped into the street. A thin drizzle lay on the air, which had an eerie warmness like a thaw… He completed one round of the gardens then entered a pretty mews well south of the pick-up point. Reaching Marloes Road he crossed to the western pavement, bought an evening paper and began walking at a leisurely rate past villas set in deep gardens. He was counting off pedestrians, cyclists, cars, while out ahead of him, steadily plodding the far pavement, he picked out George Smiley, the very prototype of the homegoing Londoner. 'Is it a team?' Guillam had asked. Smiley could not be specific. 'Short of Abingdon Villas, I'll cross over,' he said. 'Look for a solo. But look!'
As Guillam watched, Smiley pulled up abruptly, as if he had just remembered something, stepped perilously into the road and scuttled between the angry traffic to disappear at once.

I do believe I could manage that kind of thing, though perhaps I wouldn’t have 

had Smiley’s chilly, patrician calm. 

At this point in literary history it’s impossible to read the name George Smiley without picturing Alec Guinness: I can’t imagine many people picture Gary Oldman in the movie remake, though I know it got decent reviews.

There are generally reckoned to be three real-world models for George Smiley, all of them walkers to some degree.  On was John Bingham, a spy for 20 odd years, also a novelist, less successful than John le Carré, but then who isn’t?   When his picture appears in print, it’s more often than not this one, showing him walking his dogs.

Another model was the Reverend Vivian Green, le Carré’s tutor at Oxford, and a keen walker, who wrote a book titled The Swiss Alps (1961).

And thirdly Maurice Oldfield, a career intelligence officer who rose through the ranks to become head of MI6 from 1973-8.  I haven’t been able to find any photographs of him walking, though the obituaries tell us he was a farmer’s son in Derbyshire who had to milk the cows each morning before he walked the two miles to school.  There's a great deal more to be said about Oldfield's public and private life, but I think this isn't the place.

Le Carré has said in recent times  “I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities. I write and walk and swim and drink.”  In a piece in the New York Times Dwight Garner wrote, “John le Carré remains obsessed with this terrain. He’s more agile than men 20 years his junior mostly because, when his mornings spent writing fiction are complete, he sets out on arduous hikes. His wife only recently made him curtail these adventures. ‘I now walk the interior, instead of scampering along the cliffs, because she worries about me taking a fall,’ he said. ‘The cellphone reception is almost nonexistent here. If I didn’t die immediately, I’d be stuck for some time.’”

Elsewhere le Carré has said, “Writing is like walking in a deserted street. Out of the dust in the street you make a mud pie.”  I’m not sure that makes it VERY like walking in the street, but ultimately I think that any metaphor you care to use about writing is workable.

While writing this piece I did a bit of research on Alec Guinness and discovered that he was born at 155 Lauderdale Mansions South, Lauderdale Road, Maida Vale, London W9.  For 15 years or so I lived in Maida Vale, less than half a mile from there, and must have walked past his birth place scores if not hundred of times.  I had no idea.  And I don’t know what difference it would have made, and of course he wasn’t there and hadn’t been there for many decades, but somehow I wish I’d known.