Drifting and striding 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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


And speaking of Werner Herzog, as I all too often do, I was, of course aware of his “Minnesota Declaration” which contains the line “Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.”  It’s a good line but it had never really occurred to me to wonder why Herzog was in Minnesota or what he was doing there.  Well, it appears he was at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, on April 30th 1999, speaking about “Lessons Of Darkness,” which is one of the most compelling documentaries I’ve ever seen, showing the ruined, and often burning, oil fields of Kuwait, ignited in the wake of the first Gulf War.

In that Minnesota Declaration Herzog also says, “Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures amid ancient ruins of facts.”  I guess I don’t think taking pictures of ruins is exactly the worst thing in the world.  In Minneapolis I walked through Mill Ruins Park on the banks of the Mississippi.  The ruins belong to a flour mill that burned in 1991, having been abandoned some twenty odd years earlier: other buildings nearby are also abandoned but appear to be in fairly good shape.

Like a lot of people, I’m attracted to ruin, and I certainly enjoyed the sight of the ruined (and now carefully preserved) mill - they’ve turned it into a museum – but in fact I didn’t take any photographs of the burned out mill.  It seemed too obvious.  I photographed the abandoned but intact Gold Medal Flour elevators instead, but I don’t know if that would buy me anything in Mr. Herzog’s eyes.

I wonder if he would agree with W.S. Gilbert (as in “and Sullivan”) who wrote, “There’s a fascination frantic in a ruin that’s romantic”?  I’m guessing probably not. 

Monday, August 29, 2011


I think, though I’m by no means sure, that there’s a novel, the entire “action” of which describes a walk across a room.  The notion is that you can see the universe in a grain of sand, and so a few simple steps may be as revelatory as a journey to the end of the earth.  At least I imagine that’s what the book may be about.  I’ve never read it.  In fact I've never been able to discover the title of the book, and I don’t remember where I heard about it, and for all I know it may not even exist.  At one time I thought it might be Tibor Fischer’s “Voyage To The End Of The Room” but I’ve read that, and it’s not.  In any case I thought it was a much older book than that.  Maybe I just imagined it.  Or maybe some well-informed blog-reader will now tell me the title.

When I was working on “The Lost Art of Walking” I mentioned this unknown book to my American editor, who is by no means the most crassly commercial of men, but even so he curled his lip and said, “And you thought that was a great idea for a book didya?”  Well yes, I did actually. And now I’ve been reading “My Two Worlds” (written in Spanish, as “Mis Dos Mundos”) by Sergio Chefjec, which is essentially a novel about a walk in the park.

I know very little about Mr. Chefjec – online sources tell me he’s a Jewish Argentinean, now teaching creative writing in Spanish at NYU.  He and I are supposedly going to be on a panel together at the Brooklyn Book Festival next month so I thought it could do no harm to read his book.

I certainly don’t know how autobiographical the novel is, but it does contain this remarkable passage, “… one of these ideas, among the first I assimilated so thoroughly as to make it my own, was the idealization, initially during the Romantic Era, then the Modern, of the long walk.  There must have been something wrong with me, because at the point at which I should have chosen a way of life for my future, I found nothing persuasive ... incapable of believing in almost anything ... disappointed beforehand by politics; skeptical of youth culture, despite being, at the time, young; an idle spectator at the collective race for money and so-called material success, suspicious of the benevolence of charity or of self-improvement, oblivious of the benefits of procreation … oblivious as well of the idea of following sports or any variety of spectacle … inept at … physical labor; with no belief in any religious alternative while longing to be initiated into that realm … in short, given such failings, I had no other choice but to walk, which most resembled the vacant and available mind.”

This is not exactly the story of my life (I’m rather more pro-youth culture than our narrator, and I don’t really long to be initiated into the religious realm) but it’s not a million miles away. That passage, and indeed, the rest of the book, reminded me of a whole procession of fellow travelers, fellow writers and fellow walkers: Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, Robert Walser, W.G. Sebald (of course),  Werner Herzog in “Of Walking In Ice.” 

These writers all have a deep strain of melancholy, and I wondered at first if that’s something that many walkers (or at least many walking writers) have in common.   But perhaps it’s more about being Germanic: Sebald and Herzog - German; Walser - German-speaking Swiss; Bernhard and Handke - Austrian.  In fact they’ve all had peripatetic lives and didn’t end up where they started, so perhaps we shouldn’t make too much of it, but in any case it seems a curious set of writers to be reminded of while reading an Argentinean writer.

“My Two Worlds” uses the word “lacustrine,” which I confess I had to look up.  It means “of or relating to lakes”: the park where the narrator walks is lacustrine.  I’m not sure it’s a word I’m going to be dropping into my conversation very often, but it so happens that last week I took a lacustrine walk of my own.  I was in Minneapolis, actually tagging along on my wife’s business trip, and so while she went off and did business things, I did some walking.

The plan was simple enough, to walk from the hotel, through downtown to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (described satisfyingly as “a project of the Walker Art Center”), a walk that I could see from the map would take me through Loring Park, a place with a couple of expanses of water, and indeed a spectacular (if not strictly sculptural) fountain.

The big attraction at the sculpture garden is the lakeside fountain-sculpture “Spoonbridge and Cherry” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen; a 52 foot long spoon, and a cherry weighing 1200 pounds, with water shooting out of the top of the stem.  I’m not absolutely certain that this is the world’s biggest spoon, but if it’s not I’d certainly like to know where a bigger one is located.

There are also plenty of other sculptures by big name, art stars: Henry Moore, Richard Serra, Tony Cragg, Barry Flanagan, Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, among them.

I was there on a weekday and the garden wasn’t crowded, a lot of mothers and children, a few tourists.  We were all “walking” in some sense, but it was the kind of walking that people do when in the presence of art, halting, respectful, attentive, arrhythmic.  Many photographs were being taken, and well-intentioned parents were doing their damnedest to make their kids understand they were in a sculpture garden rather than a playground.  Mixed results there, obviously.

I left the garden and went into the Walker Art Center itself.  It was full of great stuff: an exhibition curated by John Waters, Warhol's "Blow Job" in continuous display, a slideshow of Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” an exhibition titled "Midnight Party" that had a whole room as a cabinet of curiosities.  It was all my kind of thing, and it was terrific.  And yet there was still something melancholic about being by myself in an art gallery.  Again it’s a specialized form of walking, and much harder work than walking purposefully on the street.

And I realized I’d done rather a lot of this kind of thing in my life.  When I was a young man I could never find people to travel with.  It wasn’t that I had no friends, but the friends I had were a stay at home bunch.  I always ended up traveling alone because if I didn’t travel alone I wouldn’t have traveled at all.  And of course this resulted in a lot of walking alone in strange cities, and I’ve always been one of those people who heads straight for a city’s museum of art gallery.  I always found the art consoling even if the experience was a lonely one. And I still sometimes find myself doing much the same today, when I travel alone to do research for a book I’m working on, for instance.

Of course I wasn’t really alone in Minneapolis.  I knew I’d be meeting up with my wife at the end of the day, but the elements of melancholy were still with me.  I left the art gallery and decided to do another circuit of the garden before heading back into town.  

This time I saw a quiet, unflashy piece of sculpture that I hadn’t noticed before.  It was in deep shadow and easy to miss. It was a life-size bronze of a middle-aged man in a raincoat: he looked a little like Nabokov.  The raincoat would have made him overdressed for the day I was there - the temperature was in the eighties - although perhaps he’d have been a bit underdressed for a real Minneapolis winter.  A mother and her little boy were standing beside the sculpture, not really paying it much attention, but the child said, referring to the sculpture, not to me, “Do we know that man?”  The implication being, I suppose, that if we didn’t know him then why had somebody bothered to make a sculpture of him?  His mother assured him that no, “we” didn’t know this man, and that seemed to be explanation enough for the kid.

I read on a nearby plaque that the work was “Walking Man” by George Segal, from 1988.   The Walker Art Center website tells me, “This solitary figure captures an overwhelming sense of the isolation one can encounter in contemporary society,” which strikes me as a bit over deterministic, but I’d agree that there’s something melancholic about the piece, partly caused by the patina and the stains on the surface of the bronze: this is a man who’s been out in the elements for a good long time.  And I think the melancholy is further emphasized by the fact that this is a walking man who isn’t ever going anywhere.  He’s frozen, staying exactly where he is, while the rest of the world walks past, in some cases barely noticing him.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


I don’t know what the two American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were actually doing in Iran when they were arrested there in 2009.  Somehow the answer “Oh, we thought we were hiking in Iraq” doesn’t seem to be a completely satisfactory explanation. 

From what I’ve read and see, Bauer was a freelance photographer and journalist who liked to put himself in risky situations.  He’d made previous trips to Darfur, Ethiopia and Yemen.  Sure, the Iranians love a good American freelancer.  Fattal seems to have been a rather naïve young man with an interest in the “environment.”  Although it looks as though they were both naïve in their different ways.

I understand the joys of a walk on the wild side, and I certainly understand the joys of creative trespass, but a hike on the Iraq-Iran borders still seems to be taking things a bit far.  Of course an eight-year prison sentence seems to be taking things obscenely further.  And it did allow the New York Post to run this less than compassionate headline.

It must have been hard for a tabloid newspaper to resist, but really I think they should have tried to.

Friday, August 19, 2011


I first set foot in New York in the late 1970s.  I was smart enough in certain limited areas, very naïve in others.  I thought the obvious thing to do while in New York was drop in on good old Andy Warhol.  He’d obviously be delighted to make the acquaintance of some complete stranger from England.

A quick look in the Yellow Pages (remember them?) gave me the address of Andy Warhol Enterprises – 860 Broadway I believe, though I found this by Googling rather than because it’s indelibly etched in my memory - and I walked down there, stood outside the building, seriously intending to go in, but ultimately I just couldn’t do it.  I was a wimp, and I chickened out.

In retrospect I’m sure it was for the best.  People who know about these things assure me I’d never have got past reception.  This was well after Warhol had been shot by Valerie Solanas, and strangers were not embraced the way they had been back in the early 60s.  In any case I doubt that I’d ever have been clasped to the Factory bosom.  I had youth on my side, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t have what the Warhol crew was looking for.  I walked away from the building, trying not to feel too much like an idiot.

New York at that time was a bracingly scary place to go walking - muggings, prostitutes in hot pants, dangerous-looking men offering drugs that they might or might not actually have.  A stroll in Central Park was reputed to be a suicide mission.  This, I suppose, was Warhol’s New York, but back then I couldn’t have told you where Warhol lived or ate or hung out.  I certainly had no idea which church he attended, or that he went to church at all. 

Now, all this and more is revealed in Thomas Kiedrowski’s new book “Andy Warhol’s New York City: Four Walks Uptown to Downtown.”  I have found myself wishing I had a time machine so I could take this walking guide and go back the necessary number of decades.  I might still not be welcomed by the Factory crew but at least I’d know where to walk in order to engineer a “chance” encounter with Andy, Edie, Viva, et al.

As modern tourism becomes ever more pervasive and (for want of a better word) inventive, there is a small industry providing walking tours that enable you to see places through the eyes (or at least personal habits) of certain literary and artistic figures.  The overheads must be attractively low.  In Manhattan you can walk with Salinger, in Brooklyn with Walt Whitman. Graffiti walking tours currently seem to be popular.  In London it’s Dickens, William Blake, Sherlock Holmes, and a slew of others. In Paris you can follow the footsteps of Sartre or Toulouse Lautrec, and of any number of American artistic expats. You can certainly walk with Guy Debord, aka Monsieur Psychogeographie: there are details online, though it seems he really didn’t get around all that much.

New York, London, Paris, these cities are big enough that multiple views and versions are possible. New York does not only belong to Salinger, London is not solely Dickensian.  But what about those places with a single, or at least an overwhelming, presence?   Joyce in Dublin, Kafka in Prague, Mark Twain in Hannibal, Dali in Port Lligat.  You wouldn’t want to be the other painter in Giverny, the other literary presence in Faulkner’s Oxford, Mississippi.  If you’re a playwright you surely couldn’t live in Shakespeare’s Stratford.

I admit that I’m a sucker for this stuff.  I’m a man who absolutely had to go to Barstow in the Mojave desert, for no other reason than it’s mentioned in the opening line of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  A long trip was required to Coxwold, in North Yorkshire because that’s where Lawrence Sterne lived, worked and walked. 

I’ve enjoyed myself well enough on my excursions to these places but I do realize that in the end there’s something unsatisfying, and even potentially absurd, about this kind of pilgrimage.  You can’t walk in Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles or on the banks of Thomas Cole’s Hudson River, because these places are inventions, artistic creations.  They exist sure enough, but they exist on the page or on canvas and, of course, in the mind and imagination of the reader or viewer.  Ultimately they’re no more “real” than Calvino’s invisible cities, or the hundreds of locations listed in Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi’s Dictionary of Imaginary Places.

The great places belong to everybody and nobody.  This is their appeal. You don’t have to write a book or create a painting to make a place yours.  Simply walking through it may be enough.

A small name-dropping footnote to Warholesque pedestrianism.  Here in Los Angeles I did briefly befriend Mary Woronov, star of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls among others.  It was no big deal - we didn’t do more than have a few cups of coffee together, and afterwards on one occasion I walked her to her car.  Unprompted by me she said, “Oh, that’s a good walk you have there.  That’s a very nice stride.”  I smiled fit to bust.  I’m not sure I necessarily want that emblazoned on my tombstone, but I’m very glad to have it in my blog.


Thursday, August 18, 2011


There’s a story, told by the man himself, that when Richard Branson (he of Virgin airlines) was a kid, his mother used to push him out of the car and  make him, as he says, “find his own way to granny’s” on foot, which was some five miles away.  It made a man of him, apparently.  Here is walking neither to, nor with, his granny.

This is at least somewhat similar to a walking experience that some of Osama bin Laden’s children must have had.   In an interview with New York Times magazine Julie Sasson, author of Growing Up bin Laden, said,  “Osama (she was apparently on first name terms) had these kicks where he would take the boys out into the desert and have them march long distances and not give them water …
 Omar (bin Laden’s son) said his father just loved walking over those mountains (the Tora Bora). He told me: ‘Once I tumbled off the mountain and thought I was going to be killed. My father remained completely calm. He just stood there, watching me. When I finally got my footing, I looked at him and said, ‘My father, what would you have done if I had been killed?’ And he just said, ‘Well, I would’ve buried you, my son.’ ” 
          Indeed.  What else would a father say?

Growing up in Sheffield, when we wanted to go out walking on a Sunday afternoon my dad would take us to the Peak District (Britain’s first National Park) – rugged terrain but walking rather than climbing country, and certainly less rugged than Tora Bora.  The issue was always that you’d start at the bottom of what seemed to be the highest peak. You’d climb it, but when you got to the top you’d see there was another, higher peak just a little way ahead that had been hidden by the first one.  You’d climb that second one and see another beyond it too.  And so on.  You can pick the metaphors out of that till you’re blue in the face.  My dad, of course would always egg me on, one more peak, and then just one more, then another. What else would a father do?  I suppose that’s a father’s role.

I was  friends with the Evans family in Sheffield.  Their dad was a city architect, the kids were all smart and driven and they’ve all done very well for themselves.  Was it their dad’s influence?  The Peak District’s?  Well, their dad certainly insisted that the kids went walking in the Peak District on Sunday afternoons.  But there was a catch.  Dad had only one leg, and obviously couldn’t go hiking over rough hill and vale, so he would drive the kids to some spot outside Castleton or Hathersage, then drive to a spot some miles down the road, to which the kids had to walk.  I suppose there was always the possibility that they wouldn’t arrive, but evidently they always did.  And, as I say, they’ve done pretty well for themselves; doctor, hospital administrator, senior civil servant, all perfectly content as far as an outsider can tell.

As for Omar, that’s him above, if his memoir is to be believed, he was at least man enough to stand up to his dad.  Osama bin Laden tried to persuade him to become a suicide bomber.  Omar preferred to keep walking.


That title begs a lot of questions doesn't it?   Are "we" so to speak walking "alone together," or are there lots of "us," many individuals each walking separately, each in a different location?  

The writings of Michel de Certeau are not an entirely open book to me, but I do know that he makes a distinction between space and place.  It seems that ethnologists spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff. Here is Marc Auge writing about de Certeau, "Space, for him is a 'frequented place,' 'an intersection of moving bodies': it is the pedestrians who transform a street (geographically defined as a place by town planners) into a space."

It all goes back to Aristotle.  He defines space as the limit of the surrounding body towards what is surrounded. By definition no two people can ever be in the same space at the same time.  In that sense we always walk alone, even when we're with others.

Incidentally, if you type "lesbian walk" into Google - the first citation that comes up is yahoo answers, from the Philippines, with this plaintive question from "Paul":  "They say I'm a lesbian the way I walk. They judge me according to their opinion but I know myself Im a girl? I know that im a 100% girl. Can u help me. Im still single right now just becoz of that"

Most of the answers, reasonably enough, suggest that the girl (if girl it be) doesn't really know what a lesbian is, and insist that you can't read a person's sexuality from the way they walk.  John Travolta (or the Bee Gees who wrote "Staying Alive") might beg to differ.  "You can tell by the way I use my walk, I'm a woman's man, no time to talk."  Discuss.