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.

Monday, September 26, 2011


So I have been to New York, I have appeared at the Brooklyn Book Festival and I have done a fair amount of walking.  In fact I walked from the hotel on 39th Street in Manhattan, across the Manhattan Bridge and the East River, into Brooklyn to Borough Hall where the event was taking place; a modest four and a half miles or so.

The best thing about the Manhattan Bridge is that it gives you a fairly close view of the Brooklyn Bridge and a fairly distant one, over the rooftops, of the Williamsburg Bridge.  The worst thing about it is that although there are allegedly separate paths across the bridge for walkers and bikers, bastards on bikes still belt along the walkway.  On a different occasion they would have felt the rough edge of my tongue, and possibly my elbow, but who wants to get into a fight on the way to a literary panel?

Teju Cole, Sergio Chefjec and I were “moderated” by Edmund White.  His introductory remarks went something like this:
EW: It seems there are a great many books that involve walking, in fact I once wrote one myself.  It was called ... oh, what was it now ...?
(Longish Pause)
GN: (Helpfully)  The Flaneur?
EW: Well yes, there is that one, but I wrote another one as well ...

It says much for Edmund White’s twinkly charm that this came across as warmly human rather than simply befuddled.  He did a fine job of moderating, though he did have a disarming tendency to say things like, “So Geoff, tell us about Iain Sinclair and Psychogeography.”  I did what I could.

He also encouraged me to tell the story about Erik Satie and the streetlamps, and I obliged.  Satie was a great walker as well as a great composer.  Every day he left his home in the suburb of Arcueil and walked to his studio in the center of Paris, then at night walked back again: six miles in each direction.  He did a lot of composing on his nocturnal homeward walks.  He would create music in his head, then stop from time to time under a convenient streetlamp and write it down in a notebook.  But then, during the First World War a lot of Parisian streetlamps were turned off, and his productivity was much reduced.  The gaps between sources of light were too great.  By the time he got to an illuminated streetlamp much of the music had evaporated from his head.

This allowed Edmund White to tell his own story about picking up a “boy” in a gay bar and as they walked home the boy would talk quite happily for a while but then regularly fall into complete silence.  White eventually worked out that the boy was deaf and he was lip-reading.  This was fine when they were near a streetlamp, but as they went into the dark areas between lights he fell silent because he couldn’t see what White was saying.

By then we’d discovered that the book he couldn’t remember the title of was City Boy subtitled “My life in New York during the 1960s and 70s.”  AIDs was unknown and he was an "apostle of promiscuity", living on steak, amphetamine, alcohol and cigarettes, while enjoying "industrial quantities of sex."  Partners were invariably picked up on the street. “We had to seek out most of our men on the hoof,” he writes.

Back in the mid 1970s I was living in London, doing my first real job, and I had a friend who was studying drama at the Webber Douglas Academy.  He had the the most active gay sex life (sex life of any sort) that I’d ever heard of.  Every day as he walked to and from classes at drama school, a walk of not more than fifteen minutes, he would unfailingly pick up a sex partner, sometimes more than one.  At the time this seemed both impressive and improbable.  And of course, as we now know, extremely risky.  My friend was most definitely not having safe sex. 

But that problem still lay in wait.  At the time I was just fascinated to know how he did it.  He was a fairly ordinary-looking man, and to a heterosexual eye didn’t even seem all that conspicuously gay.  What was the secret of his “success”?  He said it was all to do the eye contact, with the way he looked at other men.  For a long time I had to take his word for it.

And then there was an occasion when I needed to move a large oil painting I owned, maybe four feet square, from my old flat to a new one.  I was too poor, and too mean, to hire a van, so Martin offered to help me carry it through the streets.  We walked, one of us at either end of the painting, him in front, me bringing up the rear, so that I had a view of him as we walked.  And I saw that he kept giving the “look” to men we passed. 

It didn’t seem at all sexual to me.  It looked threatening and aggressive, as if spoiling for a fight, and I’d have thought quite likely to get you beaten up in that “Who do you think you’re looking at?” kind of way.  But apparently not.  When we got to journey’s end he assured me this was the look that worked so well for him, and if he hadn’t been with me and carrying a painting he could certainly have scored a couple of times in the course of the walk.  The men he’d looked at had looked back.

Oh how I wished these techniques were available to the heterosexual male.  In general, with very few exceptions, I really don’t think they are, but I do have friends of friends who knew Tyrese (later Tyrese Gibson) in the period when he was somewhat known as a successful male model but before he became an actor and starred in movies such as 2 Fast 2 Furious.  I have it on reasonable authority that he spent most of his spare time wandering the streets of New York picking up women or every kind.  He made out like a bandit, as they say.  I’m not sure what kind of “look” Tyrese used as he walked the streets. Maybe the one below.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Oh and here's a thing to celebrate, and demonstrate my "international" status. While I'm in  New  York, the small format mass market UK edition of The Lost Art of Walking will be published.  Amazon.co.uk seems to have got the info all up the spout and they say it's not published till  October 1st, but they're wrong.  My publisher assures me September 19th is the real publication date.  

It's a slender, handsome volume now, and fits easily in the pocket and can therefore accompany you on your walks over hill and dale, and especially through dark alleys.  In due course it will make a lovely Xmas present too.  The Economist reckons it's "bewitchingly informative."


If you Google “walking,” “New York” and “quotation,” one that regularly pops up is Janice Dickinson’s remark, "I was lusted after walking down the streets of New York."  I can’t tell whether she now thinks this was a good thing or a bad thing, but she seems to have enjoyed it at the time.

Life being like that, on Saturday I’ll be flying two and a half thousand miles to New York to do a bit of walking (and indeed talking).  To be precise I’m going there to be on a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival.  And to be strictly accurate I’m not going all that way solely to be on the panel.  I was planning a trip to New York anyway and it made sense that it would coincide with the gig.  A report will follow.  The details as follow:

1:00 P.M. Walker in the City.  Nigerian author Teju Cole (Open City) British writer Geoff Nicholson (The Lost Art of Walking) and Argentine Sergio Chejfec (My Two Worlds) read from their books and discuss the distance characters cover—geographic and metaphysical—as they walk through and around cities. 
Moderated by Edmund White.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


It’s been a strange week here in Los Angeles.  The temperature hit 100 degrees on Wednesday, and although I may be a mad dog and an Englishman even I know my limits.  In addition to that, I’ve been demolished by some hideous bug I must have picked up on the plane, and even getting out of the chair to walk to the bookcase has seemed like quite an expedition.

So, thus immobilized, I have been reading Joan Didion’s forthcoming memoir Blue Nights, and watching a rough cut of a forthcoming documentary titled Betty Page Reveals All.  You might think that Betty Page and Joan Didion were some way from being soul sisters, and yet, and yet …

It's hard to think of Didion without picturing those famous photographs showing her with her Corvette, and outside her house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood.  She just doesn’t look like a woman who does a lot of walking. 

But she also lived in New York for long periods of her life, and most people in New York are forced to be walkers one way or another.  Her book The Year of Magical Thinking contains a few references to walking in the city in general and Central Park in particular, and she mentions at one point that she stops wearing sandals because they catch in the pavement and starts wearing Puma sneakers instead.  I had never tried to image what these Didion sandals actually looked like, but if I had done I’d have assumed they might be at best “sensible.”  

But now I read in Blue Nights, “I had lived my entire life to date without seriously believing that I would age.  I had no doubt that I would continue to wear the red suede sandals with four-inch heels that I had always preferred.”  If any pictures of these preferred sandals exist I, alas, have never seen them.

Did Joan Didion really walk the streets of Manhattan wearing red suede sandals with four-inch heels?  Or is that further evidence that she didn’t really do much walking at all?  Maybe she just posed around in them.  There are very few women who can walk happily in four inch heels, though Bettie Page was one of them.

In the documentary, someone points out, and footage proves the point, that Bettie Page could walk every bit as easily in high heels as out of them.  There was no wobbling or teetering for Bettie, though there was no shortage of strutting.  True, in the movies she didn’t walk very far, often confined to a very small stage or set, but you felt she could have covered huge distances should the need have arisen.

It may have had something to do with her hips.  They were extremely broad in relation to her waist and maybe that gave her added stability.  She also looks as though she had very strong legs. And she was initially discovered while walking on the beach at Coney Island, though whether in heels, I don’t know.

Joan Didion, to all appearances, does not have broad hips or strong legs, though she has always been light - eighty pounds for most of her life - a little less now, or so she reports in Blue Nights.  I’m told that being light makes walking in heels much easier too.

Bettie Page ended her modeling career abruptly in 1959.  There were good reasons: a Senate Committee was investigating the world of S&M and bondage photographs, she was getting older  - mid 30s - though it seems she’d always lied about her age anyway, and whether cause or effect, she also became a devout Christian.  She “disappeared” and had a hard life that included periods of madness and incarceration.   But she could never leave the pin-up world behind her, or rather it would not leave her, and in the end – with some help from Hugh Hefner – she decided to embrace her cult status, though (with a few late exceptions) she chose not to be photographed.

It was Joan Didion who wrote, in A Book Of Common Prayer, "You have to pick the places you don't walk away from."

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Sometimes you watch a movie and you think, “Wow, this movie has been made with exactly me in mind.”  The corollary may be that sometimes you think you might be the only person who actually wants to see it.   In the case of Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” this isn’t literally true: the Internet reveals a few diehard fans, but there are a great many more who hate it with a hard and gemlike flame. 

If imdb is to be believed, it cost $3.5 million to make and brought in $26,000 dollars on its opening weekend, which will surely come as no surprise to anybody who’s seen it: this is not a movies destined to pack them into the multiplexes.  The most amazing thing may be that the movie ever got made at all.  According to some sources, people “walked out in droves” at early screenings.  I don’t believe I’ve ever “walked out in a drove”

The movie was recommended to me by a reader of “The Lost Art of Walking” - Will Stone, a man who works for the Morning Star – and he thought, rightly enough, that I would be intrigued by a movie, the “action’ of which consists almost entirely of walking in the desert (actually several deserts).

The plot is pretty straightforward.  Two guys – Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who refer to each other as Gerry though that may well not be their "real" names - go for a walk in the desert, going down a “wilderness trail” in order to see “the thing” at the end.   They get lost, try to find their way back – and that’s pretty much it for the next 90 minutes or so. 

There’s a lot of walking and not much talking. The guys have no food or water with them, and they don’t find any, and although it’s not clear how long they’re actually lost, you can’t help thinking they’d be dead, or at least incapacitated, very soon indeed, in which case there’d be no movie.  But that’s an over-literal response.  This desert walk is metaphysical rather than geographical.  One wag on Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “Hiking With Godot.”

They walk in certain desert places that are recognizable to me – Death Valley and the salt flats of Utah.  However, and I only worked this out afterwards from the credits, they actually set out in Argentina, which was where they started shooting the movie, but Van Sant was dissatisfied.  Certainly the desert in the early part of the movie is much less picturesque than that in the States.

The movie is probably genuinely and intentionally “boring,” though I’ve certainly been more bored by movies in which much more happened.  However, since the two stars are Hollywood actors, I kept fearing that they, or Van Sant, or somebody, would lose their nerve and the movie would go all “Hollywood” at the end.  It doesn’t.  Everybody keeps his nerve; more or less.

Another surprising thing is that the movie was “based on a true story,” that of David Coughlin and Raffi Kodikian, two hikers who in 1999 got lost (rather less symbolically, though no less existentially) in Rattlesnake Canyon, part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

Kodikian and Coughlin were actually better equipped than the Gerries of the Van Sant movie. They had three pints of water and a pint of Gatorade, and they did have a map, though it seems they didn’t know how to use it. And they got far more desperate than the Gerries; licking rocks, eating cactus fruit, drinking their own urine. Anyway it all ended very badly in a “mercy killing.”  After 3 days Coughlin was dehydrated and vomiting and begged Kodikian to kill him, which he did. 

According to Kodikian’s journal “I killed & burried (sic) my best friend today. Dave had been in pain all night. At around 5 or 6, he turned to me and begged that I put my knife through his chest. I did, and a second time when he wouldn't die.”  The general opinion of the autopsy reports is that this was very premature.  Both guys were dehydrated, but survivably so, as Kodikian demonstrated.

Kodikian was found guilty of second degree murder, sentenced to 15 years, all but two of them suspended, and he actually served 16 months.  At the risk of a spoiler, this isn’t exactly what happens in “Gerry.”

Having been lost (mercifully, briefly) in the desert I'm not at all smug, and I’m well aware how quickly a casual walk can turn into a nightmare, but the word online is that Rattlesnake Canyon is an amazingly benign piece of territory, an easy trail, with water and toilets nearby, easily walkable with your nine year old grandson.  Interestingly, nobody seems to mention the presence of rattlesnakes.

Of course this apparent benign quality is often part of the problem, and I’m not being metaphysical here. I simply mean that when you know you’re walking somewhere dangerous, you tend to be on your mettle, to be careful, tend not to take chances.  Any damn fool who visits Death Valley, for instance, is surely well aware of the distances, the isolation, the punishing and potentially lethal heat.

Which brings me to the four German tourists who died in Death Valley in the summer of 1996.  There always seem to be quite a few Germans driving around the American deserts, but few of them to do it with such reckless abandon as Cornelia Meyer and Egbert Rimkus, and their two children.  They were on vacation in the States, rented a minivan in Los Angeles and headed for Death Valley.   They disappeared in late July, in a week when temperatures reached over 120 F.

In October that year their van was found in sand in a ravine off Anvil Spring Canyon, probably not a route to tackle in a minivan.  All four tires were wrecked: the van was locked.  Clothes, sleeping bags, rolls of exposed film, and a couple of beers, had been left in the vehicle, but the tourists had taken their personal belongings - such as passports, wallets and air tickets - with them.  They had evidently decided to walk out of there.  There were no tracks showing which way they’d gone, although a beer bottle, similar to the ones in the car, was found half a mile away.  A major search operation began, that included the use of horses and helicopters, but all involved would have known they were months too late, and in the event they found nothing.

And indeed nothing was found at all for the next 13 years until late 2009 when a couple of hikers, actually two members of the Riverside Mountain Rescue team, found skeletal remains and identification, just a few miles from the abandoned van, which only goes to prove that a full scale desert search is not guaranteed to find, much less save, you.

 Reports said the remains were found southeast of Goler Wash, and of course some of us can’t read the name Goler Wash without being reminded of Charles Manson.  The Goler Canyon Road leads to the infamous Barker Ranch where Manson and certain members of his “family” were eventually captured.

A piece appeared online recently about Manson getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  It was a satire, but you couldn’t help thinking there were probably some people in the world who might not think it was such a bad idea.  An unsatirical (as far as I can tell) petition was set up to protest against the star.  I'd have signed it.  I suppose Manson isn’t doing too much walking these days, at least not outside of the exercise yard.  In 1970 he did say, “I am the beast. I am the biggest beast walking the face of the earth.”   But you know that was just self-aggrandizement.

When I tell people that I like walking in the desert, even alone, they sometimes ask, “Isn’t it scary?  Aren’t you afraid you’re going to encounter some Charles Manson type?”  The answer is no, I'm really not scared of that.  And the truth is, you’re far more likely to meet some Charles Manson type on Hollywood Boulevard that you are in Death Valley.  Out there in the desert you have far more to fear from yourself and your own failings. 

Here is a photograph of your blogger, in Death Valley, in the snow, reflecting that sometimes walking may be preferable to driving.