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.

Saturday, January 14, 2017


Thomas Bernhard writes, or rather has one of his characters think, “There is nothing more dreadful than having to go walking on one’s own on Monday.” I have yet to take a view on this.

I went walking on my own on Friday the 13th – it didn’t seem especially dreadful, but as I wandered the streets I did see that the spirit of Christmas had well and truly receded.

Of course the world is divided between those never want to take down their Christmas tree at all and those want to get rid of it while the turkey’s still lukewarm.   Having grown up only having "fake" Christmas trees, I felt a great need for a "real" one, and had them for a few years but you don't exactly need to be Al Gore to think there's some conservationist issue at stake here.

But why do people just leave them out on the street?  I can see that the same question could be asked about old TVs and armchairs, but you can’t easily get a TV or an armchair into the average garbage can, whereas the ubiquitous green recycling bins of LA, could accommodate most domestic Christmas trees without much of a problem.

Somebody – the garbage men, I suppose - does take the trees away sooner of later, because there won't be any Christmas trees lying on the streets of Hollywood come July, but it takes a while and I suppose they’re delivering some kind of punitive, Scrooge-ish message, “Look what a bunch of littering scumbags your neighbors are!”  It works pretty well.

And of course there are those who think that while they’re putting the Christmas tree out on the street they might as well throw out the cat’s climbing tree as well.  Sad!

Friday, January 13, 2017


As I said in a previous post, Glenn Gould is by no means an open book to me but I do know that in 1967 he made a radio documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation titled “The Idea of North.”  It featured overlapping voices talking about the far north of Canada.  In the introduction Gould says of the Canadian north,  "I've read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. Yet like all but a very few Canadians I've had no real experience of the North. I've remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid.”  Good stuff, yes?

A few years later there was a PBS/CNC film directed by Judith Pearlman that, with much adaptation, used that radio program as a soundtrack.  You can find it on YouTube easily enough.  We see a certain amount of walking in the film, featuring Gould and others, although we do see rather more of people on trains.  

Now, it so happens that I’ve been reading Merlin Coverley’s new book South which is indeed about the idea, or ideas, and certainly the lure and competing notions of, the South; from south London, to the American South, to South America, to Antarctica.  A look at the names in the index gives an indication of the range:  Borges, Scott and Amundsen, Kerouac, Sir John Mandeville, Captain Cook,  Darwin, DH Lawrence and Angela Carter among them.

It’s by no mean a book about walking, but walking will keep lifting its pedestrian head, and the character who really caught my attention was John Muir, the Scottish-born, American naturalist and walker, and again a man who is not an entirely open book to me.  That's him below in Yosemite.

Coverley is chiefly interested in Muir’s 1867 walk from Kentucky to Florida, what became the book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, though this wasn’t published until 1914, the year of Muir’s death.  Coverley says, “It begins with Muir in an exultant mood, as guided only by the compass, he walks literally out of his front door and heads southwards.  He quotes Muir “My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest and least trodden way I could find … Folding my map, I shouldered my little bag and plant press and strode away among the old Kentucky oaks.
To which I think one might reasonably respond, “Plant press?”  And yes indeed Muir was a great presser of plants.  Here is a stunningly low res picture of that press, from the National Parks Service website. 

There are also some much better images of the results, pressed plants that Muir made into Christmas presents, thus:

It seems to me that fewer and fewer walkers carry flower presses with them these days, which is possibly a shame.

Muir is one of those people that serious walking folks love to quote.
“In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.” 
         “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” 
And here he is on children, “Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights.”  Not exactly Sesame Street, is it?
This all seems perfectly reasonable to me – and you know I’m no nature-hater - but it also seems to me that this applies equally to walking down Oxford Street or along Broadway or down the Champs-Élysées.  Wherever you walk you receive more than you seek, you always go out but really you’re going in, and if you’re looking for life and death you’ll find them easily enough wherever you set foot.

John Muir was founder and first president the Sierra Club from 1892 to 1914.  The club’s current mission statement is, "To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives."  He was also one of the earliest supporters and activists for creating American Nation Parks.  Here he is with Teddy Roosevelt: 

Now … when I first seriously ventured into the American desert to do some more or less serious walking I took with me this book, published by the Sierra Club:

I have continued to walk (and I dare say adventure) in the California Desert but I haven’t used the book much lately – it’s quite big and heavy, and it covers a huge area, so I’ve tended to buy and use smaller, more local guides when I go adventuring.  But since I’m now planning another smallish desert trip, I took another look at it.  And I saw right away that when I first got the book all those years I turned over the corners of various pages indicating places I was thinking about walking, and they’ve stayed turned over ever since.

And it’s an odd thing, all the places I had in mind featured sand dunes.  The Algodones dunes, the Eureka dunes, the Cadiz dunes, the Dumont dunes, the dunes in Death Valley – which I guess is fair enough.  If you’re a desert newbie, as I was, you’re likely to think that sand dunes are synonymous with deserts.  They most definitely are not, and yet I suppose they do remain the most recognizable and archetypal desert feature.
In fact, over the years I’ve been to all those dunes that I earmarked, and dog-eared, in the Sierra Club guide, but when I think of the American desert these days, then dunes seem a bit too obvious.  I tend to think they’re just for the tourists and the day trippers which is probably very snobby of me.  But wait.

The picture above taken in, oh good lord, the late 1980s, shows me walking off across the desert, heading for the Panamint dunes, which are that pale blur you see to the left of me in the far distance.  

I got there. I even got to the top.  And hell yes, now that I look at these pictures again I start thinking that maybe dunes aren’t ONLY for the tourists after all.

John Muir seems not to have been all that much of a desert-lover though he did move to the Mojave towards the end of his life for the sake of his daughter’s health.  He stayed outside of Daggett (a pretty rough mining town) on a ranch belonging to fellow nature writer Theodore S. Van Dyke, and there Muir met John C. Van Dyke, Theodore’s brother.  They did not get on very well apparently.

John C. Van Dyke wrote one of the great books about the desert (IMHO) although current scholarship believes a lot of it was "made up," called simply The Desert.  It contains this passage: “The fancy has pictured one thing: the reality shows quite another.  Where and how did we gain the idea that the desert was merely a sea of sand?  Did it come from the geography of our youth with the illustration of the sandstorm, the flying camel and the over-excited Bedowin.”
      Well, only to a certain extent.  In my own case it came rather more from the movie Vanishing Point.

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.