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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Having got this “haunted house” thing in my head, I dug out a cutting I’d kept from LA Weekly’s annual “Best of LA” issue.  There in the Mind and Body section was a listing for “Best Haunted Hiking,” that read in part, “Where do you go when you want to see a ghost train?  Corralitas Red Car Property sits on land formerly part of the Pacific Electric Streetcar line which cut through Silver Lake on its way to Glendale until it was decommissioned in 1955.  Bordered on both sides by the skeletons of abandoned cars and machinery, the public trail near the old rail is as creepy as it is cool.  Relics of the big red cars are still visible.”

Sounded good to me.  As you see from the map, the Red Car Property is a strange, bent finger of land, than runs between people’s back gardens, and not really very long, less than a mile end to end.  (It's the red bit, I thought it should be clickable but apparently it's not.  Blogger eh?) There have been various attempts to redevelop it, including a plan to build new houses there.  LA is, of course, the home of the impossible real estate plot, but even so it’s hard to imagine how that would work, the land in the corridor is more or less flat but it rises sharply on one side, drops sharply on the other, there wouldn’t see to be room for both houses and an access road.  In any case, so far it’s come to nothing.

I know bits of Silver Lake reasonably well, but not this part.  I used the map and information from a website named www.modernhiker.com.  I gained access at the corner of Alessandro Way and Lake View Avenue, right opposite the Holyland Exhibition which alas was closed when I was there.

Initially the route runs alongside a chain link fence above the freeway, then widens out into open land, a desire line running across the middle, before narrowing again, and remaining unpaved as it takes you between people’s houses and back yards. This land isn’t public, and it certainly doesn’t belong to the properties that line it, but as is the human way, the locals have spread themselves, encroached, extended their gardens, parked multiple cars and trucks on the land.  Someone seems to have made a shrine to a dead pet, at least one hopes it’s a pet.  And nature has played is part too: there are escapee yuccas and cacti cascading down the hillsides.

In various places as you walk along you can see multiple main roads, you’re in sight and loud earshot of the freeways, and you can see mountains and indeed Forest Lawn cemetery in the distance.  It’s a very LA landscape at certain points, at others it feels like you could be in rural Arkansas.

Like I said, it isn’t a very long walk, there and back is just a couple of miles, although it’s easy enough to extend it in various directions.  Journey’s end, such as it is, is an arrangement of concrete blocks set on a hillside above Riverside Drive.  I have read that these are known as the Stonehenge of LA, but I’m not sure to whom.  In fact this City of Los Angeles Historic Landmark # 770, and the concrete blocks were once the footings of the Pacific Electric Red Car Viaduct. 

A website called http://redcarproperty.blogspot.com/ has pictures of the Red Car line, including the viaduct (above), but it takes a pretty enormous feat of the imagination to picture exactly how this fits with the current topography.  As you see, at the time I was there someone was using the footings as bases for art works.

As for the haunted hiking, the ghost train, the skeletons of abandoned cars and machinery, the relics of the big red cars – I didn’t see a damn thing.  Maybe I was distracted or unobservant or preoccupied, but I suppose it’s in the nature of ghosts that they only show themselves to certain people.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Earlier this year the Art in the Streets exhibition at L.A.’s MOCA (the first big show curated there by new director Jeffrey Deitch) was a huge popular success, despite being criticized in some quarters as being too much like a theme park.  

A forgivable sin, I thought.  In order to give the feel of the streets, the gallery contained installations, or you might even call them “sets,” that recreated the feel of walking through graffiti-scarred neighborhoods. 

The best, for my money, was a work titled “Street” (and sometimes known as “Donut Time”) created by Todd James, Barry McGee, Stephen Powers, Devin Flynn, Josh Lazcano, Dan Murphy, and Alexis Ross.  A section of the gallery had been turned into a fantasy urban enclave, litter strewn, tagged, hemmed in by dead ends and chain link fences, complete with a dubious-looking convenience store and tattoo parlour, the whole place duded up with faux advertising signs and neon. The piece had wit and humor, and yet there was something edgy and creepy about the environment.  You had the vicarious thrill of knowing you were safe in an art gallery, while walking through a place that would make you pee your pants if you’d encountered it in the real world.

Less successful, it was generally agreed, was an installation by Neck Face, a recreation of a scary alleyway with a lifesize model of a sleeping bum. It seemed a little too Madame Tussaud’s.  Neck Face was reported by the New York Times as saying his family ran an “unofficial trade constructing haunted houses” – whatever that might mean.

Hollywood is supposedly awash with ghosts, and there’s a brisk trade in tours to visit the sites.  Legend has it that Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift haunt the Roosevelt Hotel, that the ghost of Harry Houdini lurks in the ruins of some house or other (scholars disagree about which one) in Laurel Canyon, and that the wraith of Peg Entwistle still lurks under the Hollywood sign.  Graumann’s Chinese Theatre, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the Vogue Theater, the Queen Mary in Long Beach have all been claimed as places where spirits are want to walk abroad.

Only recently however did I discover that there’s a place in my own neighborhood known locally as the Haunted House (that's it above).  The actual address is 5672 Tryon Road, and its owners seem to have abandoned it about a decade ago, which is surely a mystery in itself.  Who abandons a house in L.A.?  Even if it’s one that looks like it belongs in the swamplands?

It’s at the top of a flight of 150 steps, the kind you get in some parts of LA, here officially named Saint Andrews Walk (no apostrophe as far as I can tell).  This is a pretty swank part of the neighborhood, far swankier than the part I live in.  Across from the steps is a vast, much crenelated house that used to belong to Nicolas Cage.  

But Saint Andrews Walk is less than swank, a place which, according to an article by Adam Kear in a recent Oaks newsletter, “is a favorite hangout for drinking, drugs, and other nefarious activity.  Tagging, litter, and loud late night noise are a continuing problem.”

To be honest I don’t walk down Saint Andrews Walk very often – I’d lived in and walked around the area for a few years before I even knew it was there.  The problem with walking down 150 steps is that at some point you tend to have to walk up them again,  but I do use the stairs once in a while, and I console myself with the knowledge that I can break the ascent halfway up where there’s a level area, a bench and a kind of balustrade. This however seems to be ground zero for bad, and possibly criminal, behavior: arrests have been made. 

I’ve only ever seen a few people hanging out there, and I’ve never witnessed criminality, but there’s plenty of evidence that at other times some drinking, drugging and partying must go on.  Litter gets strewn on the steps, bottles are thrown into neighboring gardens, and there are some low-level graffiti that are very almost certainly not art, though this one might be construed as an example of psychogeographic mapping. 

The bad behaviour all looks fairly small time, but even so it must be hell to have it happening on the other side of your garden fence.  Kear reckons that the “Haunted House” is “the major reason problems on the stairs have continued.  It is a classic case of ‘broken windows’ theory.  It sends a message that no one is watching and no one cares: just inviting criminal activities on the stairs.”  I don’t know enough urban theory to be sure if this is true or not.  But it’s an intriguing idea, isn’t it, that people are so attracted to haunted houses?  You might think that sinister, neglected, ruined, potentially dangerous houses would repel people, but in fact people, people just like us, in fact us, we're inexorably drawn to them.

I’m assuming the people who hang out on Saint Andrews Walk are young, because once you reach a certain age, drink, drugs, partying and other nefarious activities are more enjoyable when done in private.  Tagging and graffiti, on the other hand, are obviously public forms.

When MOCA had its street art exhibition, lots of graffiti appeared in the streets around the museum.  Director Jeffrey Deitch was blamed.  His exhibition was just too darned inspiring.  This seems just slightly unfair.  Would you blame the director of the Van Gogh Museum if somebody looked at the pictures and then cut off his ear?  Well maybe you would.  Anyway, both the graffiti and the outcry seemed entirely predictable.

Now, I discover that Jeffrey Deitch lives right in the area, barely stumbling distance from Tryon Road and Saint Andrews Walk, but his house remains free of grafitti.  It’s free of ghosts too, I think, though Cary Grant was once a resident, and in the picture it does look as though the ghost of Jesus is lurking on the wall behind him.

During the street art exhibition Deitch got into further trouble because he painted over a mural he’d commissioned for the side wall of the gallery, from the artist Blu.   The art was too “political” apparently.  A supporter of Blu claimed to have been at a party in Deitch’s house, and painted this on the bathroom wall:

I suppose its heart is in the right place, but it looks pretty fake to me: that T looks all wrong, just a layer of Photoshop, right?  And the lack of apostrophe?  Well, that could be real or feigned illiteracy - who can tell anymore?  But as a matter of fact I think Jeffrey Deitch would have a much swankier bathroom than the one in the picture.  He commissioned the artist Richard Woods to turn one room of the house into a “super-Tudor Pop environment,” so that he can do his partying in private.  Well you would, wouldn't you?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


 A couple of posts back I wrote about walking along various streets named Lexington, the one in Manhattan being mentioned by Lou Reed as a place to wait for “the man,” where it meets 125th Street in Harlem.

I said that my own wanderings along the Lexington Avenue here in Hollywood had been very tame.  Now I’m not sure if I was lucky or unobservant, or just there at the wrong (or right) time.

There was a murder on Lexington last Thursday night at about ten pm, near to where it crosses Gower Street.  A “sex worker” named Nathan Vickers (that's her above, also known as Cassidy or Cassie), a transgender prostitute, was shot and killed, apparently by a homeless man on a bicycle.  Yep the street folks of LA may not have homes, but bikes and semi-automatic weapons they do have.

The murder was a rarity, and a shock, but according to the LA Times the Lexington/Gower area “has drawn sex workers for more than a decade, most of them transgender women from Mexico and Central America. They are often seen walking small dogs.”  They found someone named Laura who’d been a streetwalker on Lexington for 20 years.

Who knew?  Well plenty of people, obviously, but not me, though when I started thinking about it I realized that Lexington is only one block north of Santa Monica Boulevard which is indeed the place you’d more usually expect to see trannie hookers.

That was where, in 1997, Eddie Murphy picked up transsexual Atisone ‘Shalomar’ Seiuli before being picked up himself by the cops.  His story was that he was fascinated by transsexuals and transvestites, felt bad for them, and he picked them up, talked to them, before giving them money to help them out.  Who am I to doubt the word of Eddie Murphy?

The folks who live around Lexington seem to be less sympathetic. The Times found an anonymous neighbor who said, “I wish to heck that the cops would do something about it.  They are parading notoriously, outrageously, and the cops don't do nothing about it.  There is a good doughnut shop nearby but I am dissuaded from going over there because who wants to be around that?”  You can see his or her point.

Not the least curious thing about living in Hollywood is that you soon get quite used to seeing transgender or at least transvestite prostitutes walking the streets.  More than once, driving to the airport down La Brea, very early in the morning, I’ve seen one or two teetering across the road in their stripper heels.  I try to imagine the night they must have had, then I reckon it might be better not to.

When I lived in New York I would occasionally be at the same parties as Veronica Vera, an interesting woman who’s CV includes being a Wall Street trader and a model for Robert Mapplethorpe.  Somewhere along the line she made an abrupt and canny career move and set up Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys Who Want to Be Girls, a self-explanatory name, though the notion is that she’s there to help out guys who want to express their feminine side, rather than become streetwalkers.

Walking apparently is the hardest part of looking convincingly feminine.  Veronica Vera runs a class called “Amazing Grace: How to Walk, Sit and Pose in High Heels” which apparently is attended by some woman as well as men.  She says, “Men plant their feet firmly on the ground and take control of the earth. Walking in high heels lifts us above.  It fosters a dancing movement that’s a flow rather than a pounce. It’s a little more Zen, and that adds beauty.”   Much needed down on Lexington right now, I imagine.

(Photo by Arkasha Stevenson, for the Los Angeles Times)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


And speaking of melancholy, there was a moment (rather a long time ago now) when I considered writing a book to be titled “The Seaside In Winter.”  The idea was that I’d buy a VW camper and spend the three months of the British winter going around the coast, walking through all the deserted, windswept, out of season holiday resorts, waxing lyrical about the pleasures of abandonment, savoring the bleakness, the loneliness, the intense melancholy that would only end with the arrival of spring.  Unless of course I ended it somewhat sooner than that, by my own hand, because I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I’d be found slumped over the wheel of the van, in a parking lot next to some rotting rollercoaster.  I could see how this would make for a very satisfying last chapter (presumably written by someone else).

Part of the idea was that these seaside resorts, which in the summer are dedicated to leisure and fun, would in the winter reveal their true dark, depressing, despairing nature.  And of course, I would probably have argued that this dark, depressing, despairing nature actually shows through pretty well even in the very middle of summer.

Well the book was just another one of those great tomes that never got written.  And these days I think it was probably good for my mental health that I never even attempted the project.

My family apparently believed in the seaside.  As I grew up there were day trips to Skegness, Bridlington, Cleethorpes, then weeks away in Bognor, Great Yarmouth, even Newquay.  In retrospect I don’t know why my parents bothered.  They never seemed to enjoy themselves very much, and in consequence I enjoyed myself even less.  There was also always the suggestion that they’d come all this way, put in all this effort, just for me; which made the whole thing complete torture.

I think one of the problems was that my parents weren’t great doers.  They didn’t like to do much of anything, and certainly not the kind of things that people typically do at the seaside, whether it be swimming or going on the Ferris wheel, visiting zoos or fun houses or playing crazy golf.  Mostly, as I recall, we just walked up and down the prom, often with my mother complaining there was nothing to do except walk up and down the prom.

I have in fact inherited some of this tendency not to want to do things, though I have fought hard against it.   (You want a round of crazy golf?  Sure, you bet!)  But maybe it’s part of what turned me into a writer – into an observer rather than a participant.  What I do have, which my parents seemed not to, is the ability to take pleasure in small things: I’m more than happy simply to walk up and down the prom.  This is my idea of something to do rather than nothing.

When I stopped going on holiday with my parents they continued to go away to the seaside and I would receive sad postcards, such as the one below, that made me even more glad not to be on holiday with them.

Martin Parr’s book Boring Postcards beautifully captures the agony of the English at play: grey seaside gardens, boating lakes, caravan sites that look like internment camps.  Of course it’s laughable that people would think these were places where you might have fun, but the heartbreaking thing is that at the time we knew no better place to go to have fun.

Since I now live in LA, I supposedly have easy access to the ocean: Santa Monica and the Pacific are just 15 miles away, although on the wrong afternoon it can take considerably longer to drive to Santa Monica than it used to take my dad to drive us to Skegness.  But sometimes I do go to the California coast for a day or a weekend, to Huntingdon Beach perhaps where this picture was taken:

I kid you not, this is a photograph I took myself, it isn’t a postcard.  I actually saw these two people as I was walking on the pier at sunset and it really, really did look that.  Perhaps you would expect nothing else from California, and I’m certainly not going to complain about the “picture postcard” aspect of it, but the fact is, at moments like that I actually experience a profound, nostalgic longing for the bleak English seaside.  You bet I do.  And when I’m back in England it seems to have become a habit to visit some more or less windswept bit of the Essex coast: Canvey Island, Southend, and on my last trip Jaywick.

People have been telling me about Jaywick for years, describing it as weird, gloomy, vaguely threatening, all the things I love.  The place was built in the 1930s as a holiday resort for London’s Eastenders, but according to a recent survey, with the title “Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2010,” Jaywick is now the most deprived place in England.  Of course you can judge these things in various ways.  The survey used statistics for income, employment, health, disability, crime and living standards; and no doubt the place is full of poor, sick unemployed people.  Even so, if the vast numbers of caravans are any indicator, a lot of people still want to be there, at least for part of the year.

I always find caravan sites gloomily appealing, but in Jaywick it’s the houses that are truly compelling.  Partly it’s their smallness.  Some of them are absolutely minute, built as holiday chalets, as places where you didn’t do much more than sleep.  Now people live in them full time.  And some of the dwellings do show signs of desperate living, houses that have been smashed up, in some cases burned out.  On the other hand there’s plenty of evidence of house-proud owners keeping up their homes and gardens in beautifully eccentric ways.  In some cases you can find examples of the two elements right next to each other, which admittedly must be tough on the house-proud.  The received wisdom is that the house wreckers will eventually prevail, but I wouldn’t give up all hope.

The beach and the air seemed clean enough, there’s the promise of “renewal,” and there was even an art exhibition in the Martello tower.  And sure there were some dodgy characters walking the streets: a word to the wise, if you want to keep up a veneer of respectability do not walk down the street with a can of lager in your hand and stop to rifle through every litter bin you pass.  But I don’t know that the Jaywick guys looked any dodgier that the ones I see every time I walk along Hollywood Boulevard. 

If I ended up living in Jaywick I certainly wouldn’t think my life was a disaster.  And the fact is, a lot of people do end up living at the seaside one way or another.   Which brings me, a tad free-associatively, to Aleistair Crowley, who ended up, not in Jaywick, but in Hastings for the last two years of his life, keeping up a surprising thick veneer of respectability.  Iain Sinclair, of course, has a place in Hastings now too.

I must say that to the limited extent I ever think about Crowley at all, I never imagined him as much of a walker.  And yet here he is in Chapter 67 of his Confessions: “When one walks, one is brought into touch first of all with the essential relations between one's physical powers and the character of the country; one is compelled to see it as its natives do. Then every man one meets is an individual. One is no longer regarded by the whole population as an unapproachable and uninteresting animal to be cheated and robbed. One makes contact at every point with every stranger.”  Whether one actually wants to make contact at every point with every stranger, in Jaywick or on Hollywood Boulevard, or in fact anywhere else, remains open to debate.

Friday, November 11, 2011


And speaking of walking and cruising (as I was a few posts back), there’s a curious piece in Alan Bennett’s collection Untold Stories, titled “Common Assault” in which he describes being on holiday in Ladispoli in Italy with his boyfriend and being attacked by a group of local youths, while out walking at night.  It is a serious assault, as well as a common one: metal pipes and head injuries (Bennett’s) are involved.

The local Italian police are no help at all and they assume, quite incorrectly, that Bennett was out trying to pick up young men, and he got what they (the police) thought he deserved.

Bennett is especially affronted by this assumption since, as he says, “I have never been able to cruise and have never had much inclination to do so, though seeing it as a definite shortcoming, one of several masculine accomplishments I have never been able to master ... It was partly that, never feeling I would be much of a catch, I saw no point trawling the streets for someone who might feel differently.  And then, too, I was quite hard to please.”

Well, these all strike me as perfectly good reasons not to go walking the dangerous streets of foreign cities at night looking for sex, though as I saw with my friend Martin, it’s obviously perfectly possible to do it in broad daylight in familiar territory, though I can see that might not be quite as exciting.

There is perhaps also the possibility that the youths attacked Bennett simply because he “looked gay” but since robbery was also involved, they may well have been entirely unprejudiced attackers who’d have robbed anyone out walking who looked vulnerable, gay, straight or bi.

I haven’t been able to find a picture of Alan Bennett walking, though there is this one of him standing in the Yorkshire landscape, and I suppose he must have done at least a little walking in order to get there:

In the course of the book Bennett also offers his opinion on W.G. Sebald.  He is not besotted.  He writes, “… the contrivance of it, particularly his un-peopling of the landscape never fails to irritate.  ‘It was already afternoon, six in the evening when I reached the outskirts of Lowestoft.  Not a living soul was about in the long street.’  In Southwold ‘everybody who had been out for an evening stroll was gone.  I felt as if I were in a deserted theater.’  Maybe East Anglia is like this ... but Sebald seems to stage-manage both the landscape and the weather to suit his (seldom cheerful) mood.”

Well I do take Bennett’s point.  I’ve always wondered what happened on those occasions when Sebald went out for a walk, found the sun shining and the streets filled with throngs of happy people and laughing children.  I suppose the simple answer is that he went home with nothing to write about.  Or he went home and wrote a “fictionalized version” which, of course, as an artist he was perfectly free to do.

My own suspicions about Sebald’s stage-management comes from knowing that he used to drink in a pub Southwold called the Crown.  I only went there a couple of times, and it seemed to be full of full of media folk up from London, drinking Chardonnay, savoring the local Suffolk “fayre” and talking about their latest projects.  Sightings of Melvin Bragg and Michael Palin were reported.  There are plenty of gloomy, chilly pubs in and around Southwold that would surely have been better-suited to Sebald’s professed melancholy.

On the other hand, to give him his due, I think it’s perfectly possible that some of Sebald’s descriptions of the unpopulated East Anglian landscape, and even of Southwold, are literally true, and do stick to the letter of what he saw, of what anybody might see.  These empty places do, of course, make cruising an extraordinarily pointless exercise.

The pictures accompanying this post were taken a few years back on my last night in Suffolk.  I had owned a cottage there and I was finally selling up to live full time in Los Angeles, and I took a final long walk around Southwold, through the town, down the seafront, along the river and back.  The streets and roads, the beach, and certainly the caravan parks, were completely deserted, and I did indeed feel a great wash of yearning, though not entirely unpleasant, melancholy.  I was not, however, for a moment, tempted to go for a drink in the Crown.

As a matter of fact I didn’t find it all that much easier to find a picture of Sebald walking than I did Alan Bennett, though for what it’s worth, here's this one: