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, January 24, 2012


Like a lot of walkers I’m a big fan of maps.  When I went abroad for the first time, in my teens, to Nancy in France, to work on a pretty dubious “international youth project,” one of the first things I did was buy a map of Nancy so that I could go walking and know where I was.  The rest of the international youth thought this was very odd of me.  As you see I still have it.

Later, when I first moved to London, straight after college, of course I owned a London A-Z, more of a book than a map, and I carried it with me all the time: I wanted to know where I was, I wanted to know how to get where I was going.  This didn’t strike me as odd in the least.

I was living in London because I’d got my first real job, working for a company named Bertram Rota, that dealt in twentieth century literary first editions, as well as authors’ manuscripts and the occasional item of literary memorabilia.

One of the company directors was George Lawson, a dapper, twinkly man of Scottish origins who was extremely well-connected, and never seemed to do anything that looked like work.  He’d just mess around in the store most of the day, but at some point he’d pick up the phone, call somebody important, and make a fabulous deal that earned the company a small fortune.  He was friends with all manner of people in the art and literary worlds, not least David Hockney, who was a regular visitor to the store, and painted a rather wonderful portrait of George and his boyfriend – the ballet dancer Wayne Sleep.

On one occasion George saw that I kept an A-Z in my bag.  “So,” he said, “do you mean to say that when you go around London you take a MAP with you?”  I said that I did.  He found this both strange and hilarious.  And my reaction at the time was, “Doesn’t everybody?”  Surely, I thought, nobody knows the whole of London, and if you stray anywhere outside your usual orbit you’re going to need a map, aren’t you?  London is this vast and intricate city, how could you get around without one?

I didn’t say that to George, and in retrospect I’m glad that I didn’t, and of course once I’d lived in London for a while I didn’t carry an A-Z with me all the time.  And that’s surely how it always is once you know a city.   I didn’t know every street, didn’t have a complete map of London imprinted in my head, but I’d developed a feel for the place, had a general sense of direction, a sense of how neighborhoods related to each other.  This was based on the experience of walking, of knowing the city on the ground, not on a map, and of course there were occasions when I went to some completely unknown part of the city, in which case I dug out my old A-Z.

The latest copy of the Believer has an interview with Dennis Wood, author of the “Power of Maps” and now “Everything Sings: Maps for A Narrative Atlas.”  He talks about the idea that street signs and names are only for strangers: when a place is part of you, you don’t need a street sign telling you where you are.  He obviously has a point.  Then he says, “You get to a new city and you leave the hotel, you’ve got two hours before something happens, so you just wander around.  You don’t pay any attention to the name of the streets, but you conserve a memory of turning left or turning right, or some landmark.  You don’t need to know the names.”  This is obviously true too, and a familiar enough experience, but there’s a contradiction here, isn’t there?  This is surely an example of a situation where the signs and the street names aren’t for strangers: or at least the stranger in this case isn’t paying any attention to them. 

It also raises the question of how far away from home you have to be before you’re considered as a stranger.  Unless you always stay within an incredibly limited number of streets then sooner or later you’ll find a street sign extremely useful.

Actually, I also wonder how just how many people spend two hours walking the streets around their hotel these days. I do, of course, and obviously I’m not the only one (the Believer has an article by Daniel Handler that says he does it too), but I suspect a lot the people who arrive in a new city and want to get some exercise are more likely to go to the hotel gym or the pool, rather than walking the streets.  So much modern “travel” seems to involve spending time in luxury resorts and spas, being pampered, staying in a bubble, rather than going out and exploring some place you’ve never been before.

Meanwhile, back at Bertram Rota, there was an occasion when we were selling some Somerset Maugham memorabilia, including his walking stick. I imagine it may have been one of many, but it was an impressive thing, embossed with the Maugham “hand of Fatima” symbol to ward off the evil eye. 

George Lawson spent most of one day pretending to have a limp, hobbling up and down the shop, using Maugham’s walking stick for support.  He was very convincing, and customers who knew him showed considerable concern and asked how he’d come to injure himself.  He found this even more hilarious.  I wish I could say that David Hockney had come into the shop in the middle of George’s act, but that really would be too neat.

For one reason or another I’ve been rereading “David Hockney on David Hockney,” his autobiographical book from the 1970s, now subtitled “My Early Years”.  Back then at least he was the kind of man who liked to wander the streets around his hotel, in this case in Santa Monica rather than Los Angeles proper. 

He writes, “I checked into this motel and walked on the beach and I was looking for the town, couldn’t see it.  And I saw some lights and I thought, that must be it.  I walked two miles, and when I got there all it was a big gas station, so brightly lit I’d thought it was the city.  So I walked back …”  I guess if he’d had a map he’d have known better.  

Hockney comes from Yorkshire of course, as do I, and after decades in L.A. he’s back there living in Bridlington (he has his reasons). Bridlington exists in my imagination as a place of utter, rain-drenched gloom, a place of family day trips where we gamely walked up and down the prom, under grey skies, through the drizzle.  We’d driven all that that way, we weren’t just going to sit in the car.

Anyway, David Hockney seems to be very happy there in Bridlington, is painting up a storm, having a major retrospective at the Royal Academy and is in some danger of becoming an English national treasure.  Evidence suggests that he’s doing quite a bit of walking too.  The blog for Time Out, London recently did a piece titled, “Take A Walk With David Hockney.”  Here’s a picture of David Hockney walking past a painting by David Hockney.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


And speaking of Bronson Canyon (as I was when discussing walking to the Batcave a couple of posts back), yesterday afternoon a severed head was found there.

Of course we all occasionally find strange things when we’re out walking.  I once found a large knife by the side of the road, big ugly blade, handle wrapped in duct tape.  It looked a lot like a murder weapon.  I still have it: comes in handy once in a while. 

There’s a Will Self column where he talks about finding a red plastic dildo while on one of his walks, and my friend Joanna Moriarty claims to have found a finely carved wooden dildo while out walking, on vacation in Germany.  She didn’t bring it home with her, which strikes me as a mistake.  Certainly it used to be pretty common to find dirty magazines while out walking, stashed in hedges or behind walls, presumably by people who for one reason or another were unwilling to have them in the house.  That seems to happen a lot less these days: I blame the internet.

And of course you see dead animals all the time.  I was out for a walk one morning in Yucca Valley and I came across this row of dead raccoons.  I don’t know how they were killed: they didn’t seem to have a mark on them, and although I know raccoons can be pests, I’m not sure I could easy kill one.

And of course when you’re out walking in the city you regularly see guys lying around in the street unconscious, and you assume they’re drunk or drugged, but you do sometimes wonder if they might be dead.

This afternoon they found a couple of severed hands and feet to go along with the head in Bronson Canyon, and the current thinking is that the person wasn’t killed and dismembered in the park: the deed was done elsewhere, the park used as a convenient dumping ground.  This is somehow reassuring.

The severed head was found by a couple of professional dogwalkers: dogs just love the scent of human remains it seems, and I suppose that’s why you so often read about bodies and body parts being found by people walking their dogs.  In more out of the way places such finds are more usually attributed to “hikers.”  Just once I’d like to read that “the body was found by a psychogeographer” or “the severed head was discovered by a flaneur.”  I guess I’m just going to have to get out more.

Friday, January 13, 2012


When you got into the sixth form at my otherwise less than enlightened English grammar school, you were allowed to walk outside the school grounds at lunch time:  all kinds of punishments were meted out to younger boys who failed to stay inside the boundaries.

This sixth form freedom felt pretty good, sometimes it felt like a prison break, though I can’t say it was used very excitingly. We went and bought sandwiches at the local shop, and I’m sure some bad lads slipped away to smoke, although to be caught smoking outside the school grounds was every bit as grave an offence as being caught smoking inside the school grounds.

I wasn’t a smoker anyway, and many of my lunchtimes were spent wandering – my mother would have called it “mooching” - around the nearby Botanic Gardens.  Botany and gardens were predictably less than fascinating to a 17 year old boy, but I do remember being intrigued by a large circular pit on the south side of the gardens.  It was maybe 25 feet across, and maybe 15 deep, the walls lined with antique masonry, and there were railings around the top to stop you climbing or falling in.

We called it the bear pit, though I don’t think we actually believed that bears had ever been kept in it.  We were wrong.  I now discover that bears were indeed kept there in the nineteenth century, from 1836 to some time in the 1870s.  Incidentally, bear baiting was outlawed in England in 1835, so I suppose this was built as a kind of retirement home for bears whose baiting days were over.   The pit was closed after a child fell in and was killed.  The Botanic Gardens website doesn’t say whether the child was killed by the fall or by the bears, but you’ve got to hope it was the former.

Some years back, on a return visit to Sheffield, I walked around and around the Botanic Gardens trying to find the bear pit again, and I absolutely couldn’t.  I was torn between thinking that perhaps I’d imagined its existence and there’d never been a bear pit at all, while also thinking on the other hand that perhaps it had been filled in, erased from history in the interests of political, or I supposed zoological, correctness.  I was evidently wrong again.

The bear pit is still there, and has been refurbished as part of the gardens’ entire restoration.  You can now walk into it, and it contains a statue of an improbably benign-looking bear, who remains unmoved however much you bait him.  Actually, to me, he looks more like a man in a bear suit, but in a country where there have been no wild bears for about a thousand years, the sculptor might be forgiven for getting the anatomy a little wrong.

The last wild grizzly bear in California was killed in 1922, some 6 years after the last one in LA county.  Black bears we’ve still got, and at one of the southern entrances to Griffith Park we also have a bear statue.  He too gets anthropomorphized from time to time, for instance being dressed up as Santa Claus or decked out in a Lakers uniform, depending on the season.

For that matter there are even live bears in Griffith Park, since on the north eastern corner it contains the LA Zoo, a place I go once in a while because my wife is an animal lover.  It’s fine as far as it goes, but a visit there seems ever more to resemble a walk around a gigantic food court that happens to have a few animals thrown in – the Gorilla Grill, indeed - but that’s another story. 

Far more intriguing, if essentially animal-free, is the old abandoned zoo nearer to the center of Griffith Park. It’s been listed by the website Weburbanist.com as a place of “Amazing American Abandonment” which strikes me as overstating the case, but undoubtedly it is a great and surprising place to wander around.

As sites of amazing abandonment go, it’s remarkable easy to access.  There’s plenty of parking nearby, a children’s playground, public toilets, and you’ll see people having picnics and playing frisbee right outside, and sometimes even inside, the ruins.  And that’s one of the interesting things: some people in the park simply ignore the old zoo structures, and maybe they don’t even see the cages and the bars and the fake rocks, while others seem completely bewitched by them.

The zoo was actually founded in 1912, but most of the cool features were built by the WPA in the 1930s.  The less cool features make it look like a hideous animal prison.  The authorities address this by posting notices that say, “although these historic enclosures are no longer appropriate for housing animals, they can be home to memories of family visits ..” blah blah.  Of course it’s those words “no longer” that seem especially uncomfortable to a modern sensibility.  Surely, we think, these enclosures were never appropriate for housing animals. The place closed in 1965.

There’s something inscrutable about many of the old structures.  You have to guess what they were and which animals were housed in which: was this a monkey house or an aviary or a cage for big cats?  What animal needed bars as thick as some of these, and were visitors really able to get as close as it now appears? 

In that sense, the experience is not so different from exploring any set of ruins anywhere.  It’s a little like going to Pompeii and trying to work out which was the thermopolium, which was the macellum, though in the case of the old Griffith Park zoo, there’s no map or guide book to direct you, and I haven’t been able to find one, but I’m still working on it.

The most striking and easily identifiable structures in the old zoo are referred to as the bear grottoes, a rather more poetic, in fact euphemistic, way of saying a bunch of pokey, gloomy manmade caves that look like a movie set, and have in fact been used as one.  The great attraction here is that you can actually go inside, climb on the rocks, pad along the shadowy passageways, press your snout against the gates and the bars.  You can have the, admittedly anthropomorphic, experience of feeling what it must have been like to be a caged animal: pretty goddam awful, obviously.

A lot of people have certainly been in there before you.  Certain parts of the grotto interiors have been turned into a kind of graffiti palace, most of it inevitably ugly and depressing, much of it just tagging.  There was even one golden oldie, though it looked pretty fresh, tagged El Barto: Matt Groening must be so proud.

Still, one or two areas are eerily compelling, including the dark, dead end corridor (below), which rests in complete darkness unless you have a flashlight with you, or shoot it with your on-camera flash.  And yes that Frankenstein head at the top really is luminous.

Actually it’s remarkably difficult to find pictures of the zoo before it was abandoned.  This one is from the LA Public library collection, dated July 13, 1959:

The caption reads, "Visits Children's Friend -- Gail Petersen, the 15-year-old Van Nuys student, visits Griffith Park zoo bear she named to win contest which will send her, her parents, and two friends across the polar ice cap to Denmark to visit relatives and tour Europe as guest of SAS [Scandinavian Airlines]."  Clearly this bear is not in one of the grottoes, and even if this shot was setup solely for the benefit of the photographer, you have to think young Ms. Petersen was lucky to go home with a full set of fingers.

You might come away from the zoo thinking, well OK, we’ve made some kind of progress.   We’ve become more compassionate, more caring about our non-human fellow creatures.  Nobody today would ever dream of housing animals in conditions like this. And yet, as I climbed up a set of stairs inside one of the grottoes and looked out through the chain link opening at the top, I spotted a couple of guys hanging out on the other side.  I didn’t think anything of it at first.  I assumed they were just other visitors to the park, which they were, though of a rather specialized kind. 

After I came out of the grottoes I walked around the other side, the service entrance as it were, and there were the two guys again.  I could see them better now, young, healthy-looking, a Rasta and a hippie, and they’d made a camp right there at the rear end of the grotto, they were living there, behind the chainlink, invisible to passersby, though exposed to the view of the occasional pesky, low-level urban explorer who poked around in the bear grottoes.  These zoo structures might not be considered “appropriate” habitation for animals anymore, but obviously they were quite appealing for certain human beings.