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, February 28, 2012


You’ll find H.G. Wells quoted all over the internet, both on actual quotation websites, and on those dubious “advice to entry-level writers” sites as having said or written, “I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there.” 

It comes from An Experiment in Autobiography though none of the online sources I’ve seen acknowledges this, and he’s saying it in order to bad-mouth the prose style of Joseph Conrad, whom he finds a bit fancy and literary.  The quotation in full is  “I write as I walk because I want to get somewhere and I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there.”

To which the obvious response is surely: well that all depends, doesn’t it? Sure, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, but if the two points are, say, either side of a river, it might be wise to walk along the riverbank to a bridge rather than just plunging straight through the water.  There’s also the matter that one doesn’t need to be some fancypants flaneur to believe that walking isn’t always about getting somewhere quickly and efficiently.  A walk without an obvious goal is sometimes much more enjoyable that going in a straight line from one place to another. 

I’m not even all that persuaded by “straightness” as an absolute virtue in writing, but obviously if you’re going to write about time travel, improbable experiments in vivisection, and a war of the worlds, then a good plain prose style helps a lot with credibility and suspension of disbelief.

In fact there’s some evidence that Wells didn’t always walk quite as purposefully as he claims.  In the last decade of the nineteenth century he was living in Woking, Surrey with his second wife.  His mornings were spent walking, or sometimes cycling, in the nearby countryside: in the afternoons he wrote.  Legend has it that he was walking with his brother on one of these mornings, and they imagined how it would be if Martians suddenly landed on this rural English scene and set about destroying it.  Thus was born The War of The Worlds, a fine book of walking and ruin.

One of the oddest details in the books tells us that the narrator was “much occupied in learning to ride the bicycle” as well as being “busy upon a series of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideas as civilization progressed.”  Well yes, that sounds a full life, doesn’t it, but he still finds time to go walking with his wife  “One night  … I went for a walk with my wife. It was starlight and I explained the Signs of the Zodiac to her.”  No word on whether she thanked him for this.

Anyway, soon enough the Martians arrive, in cylinders, and it takes a while before anything emerges, but then, “And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather.”  Fortunately a member of the English working class is nearby to offer the description, "Boilers on stilts, I tell you, striding along like men."

Well, you probably already know that things don’t go terribly well for mankind.  The Martians take over.  Finding himself stranded in the colonized Martian zone, our unnamed hero spends a lot of time dodging the tripods, holing up in a ruined house, doing an occasional bit of swimming, and a lot of walking through a devastated and depopulated London and its suburbs.  “Scrambling over a ruined wall, (I) went on my way through scarlet and crimson trees towards Kew--it was like walking through an avenue of gigantic blood drops.”  That strikes me as pretty good, and not entirely unfancy or unliterary.

The novel contains a lot of great adventure story stuff and Wells is obviously really on to something with the “aliens in the neighborhood” idea.  It’s all very well for spacemen to battle monsters on distant planets but there’s something far more urgent (and fun) in imagining aliens attacking the local supermarket.  And who hasn’t fantasized about walking through a familiar but ruined world in which you’re the only survivor?

Still, it all turns out all right thanks to our friends the bacteria, the Martians die, civilization returns, and one of the last images in the books has our hero standing on Primrose Hill, where he’s able “to see the people walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the sight-seers about the Martian machine that stands there still.”  Being able to walk freely about the city is an emblem both of freedom and order.

Visitors to modern day Woking city center can do something just a little similar, and walk around a 23 foot high sculpture by Michael Condron of one of the Martian tripods.  Gotta say I’m just a little disappointed that it doesn’t have feet.

It’s always hard to imagine how exactly a tripod walks – does it move just one leg at a time, which seems rather slow and laborious, or does it move one leg and use that as a pivot as it brings the other two forward, which seems like it would cause a lot of instability. 


Above is a link to a wonderful website, from which I’ve borrowed some of the images in this post, that shows multiple covers for different editions of The War of the World, and it’s interesting how few of the illustrators address the question of how the tripods walk.  Quite a few of those tripods on the covers would be hard pressed to get around at all, while some of them seem to be floating rather than walking.  And a certain of the illustrators have evidently not read the book at all. 

Above is one of my favorites, a 1916 Heinemann edition (it comes courtesy of Andrew Cox) which is true to the spirit of the book, but also seems to be anticipating steampunk.  To me, it also looks like it might have been an inspiration for Guy Maunsell, the designer of the Maunsell Sea Forts, a World War Two defense system in the Thames estuary, and briefly home to a pirate radio station.

I find it very easy to imagine those sea forts uprooting themselves from the seabed and walking into London to destroy humanity.  I do realize that they’re quadrupeds rather than tripods, but surely that would make the walking and the destruction very much easier.

And finally an image that gives me so much pleasure.  If the Martians had really attacked, and if Sherlock Holmes had been a real person, then he'd certainly have been around for it.  And if you're going to show Britain in ruins, why not show Britain's most famous ruin, Stonehenge?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Like many people, I try to model myself on Demi Moore, and if nitrous oxide is good enough to make her forget her worries, then it’s good enough for me.  My particular worry was that I was going to the dentist to have some awkward fillings replaced and since my man is of the new, caring breed of dentist, he suggested some nitrous would help me float away as he was doing all kinds of horrible things to my lower right molars.

The nitrous helped at least little, enough that afterwards I floated out of there not feeling quite competent to drive home, so I decided I should walk it off, and wander around the neighborhood streets for half an hour or so.

My dentist’s office is on Wilshire Boulevard, and I’d been thinking about Ray Bradbury being picked up and interrogated by the cops for walking on Wilshire, though I can’t say that’s entirely why I decided to walk along 8th and 9th Street instead.  And in fact I did see the cops pull somebody over on 8th Street – but he was in a car, so I guess that doesn’t count.

Anyway, I’m here to tell you that nitrous oxide makes for a very interesting walk.  I felt fine, if a little floaty, but everything around me seemed simultaneously very chaotic and also deeply fascinating; the sky, the palm trees, the building my dentist’s office was in, the cacti in people’s front yards, the parked cars, the gingerbread house roofs. Sometimes I can experience this without nitrous oxide, but I certainly hadn’t been experiencing it that day before I went into the dentist.

And then suddenly around a corner and there at the end of somebody’s driveway a kind of hallucination: mountains, a moat, a fantasy castle.  Hey man, this is good stuff!

And one thing I noticed was that a lot of the streets around my dentist’s office share names with various pop or rock acts - Burnside as in (R.L. - who sings "Walkin' Blues"), Cochran (as in Eddie – singer of “Walk the Dog”), Detroit (as in Marcella of Shakespeare’s Sister – “I walk past posters selling simple sex ooh!” from “Dirty Minds”). There were also a couple of near misses Cloverdale - not a million miles from Coverdale (David of Whitesnake “Walking In The Shadow of the Blues”) and Dunsmuir, (somewhat like John Densmore of the Doors – “And then he walked on down the hall”).

Even at the time it did occur to me that if your knowledge of pop music is wide enough you can probably think of somebody with just about any name, and most of them will have performed a song with walking in the title or the lyric.  Still, at the time, it seemed somehow very significant.

Eventually I felt fit enough to drive.  I finished the walk, went back to the car, got in, started the engine, and what do you think was playing on the radio?  “Careless Whisper” by George Michael.  Yep, the nitrous was good and gone.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


It probably amazes me even more than it does you, but there was an occasion last year when I found myself at a party, sitting at a table between Werner Herzog and T-Bone Burnett.  Or to put it another way, between the man who wrote Of Walking In Ice and the man who put together the soundtrack for the movie Walk The Line.

Herzog’s work I knew reasonably well, Burnett’s not so much, although I was aware he’d been part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review and was involved with the music for O Brother Where Art Thou.  He seemed a cheery man, rather more so than Mr. H, and when I got home I did some research on him.

I found an interview with Los Angeles magazine in which he said that after more than twenty-five years of living here, “I love Los Angeles, even though in some ways I feel like I barely know it.  Hollywood I felt like I knew before I even got here.”  Which is a feeling a lot of us have.

I also found a great song of his titled “Hollywood Mecca of The Movies.”  I’m sure you can find it on youtube, or you could even buy it.   It’s a pretty great song: big spacious percussion, lean guitar by Marc Robot, and Burnett delivering more or less spoken lyrics that include the lines:

It's a mortal cinch, No resilience
We didn't build this place to last forever
What A Town, What A Great Town

Only afterwards did I learn that Hollywood Mecca of the Movies was also the title of a book by Blaise Cendrars, originally a series of newspaper articles written in 1936 for the newspaper Paris-Soir.  The song is way better than the book, if you ask me. Though when it comes to snappy dressing, I think M. Cendrars is probably the winner.

Cendrars was in town for just two weeks, seems to have met almost nobody, and ended up relying on every cliché in the book.  Maybe he felt like he knew the place before he even got here.   The sun shines but everyone’s unhappy, Hollywood is an “illusion factory,” writers are treated with contempt, talent scouts are “birds of prey.”  And, all too inevitably, he writes a chapter titled “In Hollywood, anyone who walks around on foot is a suspect.”  (Can anyone walk around other than on foot? Though I suppose we might have to blame the translator for that one.)

He describes staying in the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, from which he goes for a walk after midnight.  A large black car pulls up, two cops jump out and grab him by the arms.  They ask his name.  For unimaginable reasons he says Roosevelt though they don’t seem to object to that.  I would have.  Then they bundle him into the car and deposit him “a few hundred feet ahead of my hotel.” 

Next morning he tells the story to his friends who explain that it happened “because it never occurs to them (the cops) that one might walk in a city like Hollywood, where there are more cars than people!”  They also say he was lucky the cops didn’t beat him up, which is the only part of the story that seems remotely credible to me.

John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin has a similar story, but I think he got picked up because he was jaywalking as opposed to simply walking; jaywalking being a concept pretty much unknown in Britain.  

And of course there’s the short story by Ray Bradbury titled “The Pedestrian” about some future non-walking society in which our hero wanders the streets at night and is picked up by a robot police car and sent to the “Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies.”  Bradbury claimed he wrote the story after being stopped and interrogated by cops as he was walking innocently on Wilshire Boulevard.

How refreshing then to come to John Mayall, he of Bluesbreakers fame.  Mayall was, I suppose still is, an Englishman who went native in LA in the late 1960s.  His album Blues From Laurel Canyon contains the song “Walking on Sunset.”  Again, you could buy it if you wanted.  It has some pretty ropey lyrics, including:

The cops are in the cars but they never bothered me
A new magic world where I never felt so free
I'm walking on sunset, well I'll never reach the end
I'm walking on sunset, everything is like a friend.

Well this strikes me as, at best, a slightly naïve response – I have seen many things on Sunset that didn’t look remotely like a “friend,” still at least he’s not  just repeating the received opinions about walking in LA.  Good for him.  Good for all of us.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Unlike a lot of walkers I am not especially anti-car.  Oh sure, when they almost run me down then I feel outraged and antagonistic toward the drivers, but I feel just as outraged and antagonists towards pedestrians who try to shoulder me off the sidewalk.

When I first moved to Los Angeles certain people back in England asked me why, what was the attraction?  I always thought it was one of those “If you have to ask then you’re never going to know” type questions, and I replied (only a little flippantly), “Well, if you like quirky architecture, exotic flora and fauna, and cool cars, where else are you going to go?”  This, admittedly, did not convince anybody who wasn’t already prepared to be convinced.

Wherever I walk I always look at the environment around me, and since I do much of my walking in cities, and most of that in LA, I inevitably see a lot of cars.  Since they’re there I figure I might as well appreciate them. Shiny new cars don’t do much for me, but give me a car with a certain amount of patina and a hint of ruin, and I’m in aesthetic heaven.  Hell, I’m even likely to take a photograph.

There was one day after I’d spent a weekend looking at a lot of art by Richard Prince – the stuff with with cars and body panels – when suddenly there seemed to be Richard Prince works of art on every street corner.  This is surely one of the defining qualities of great art, that there are times the when whole world looks like it’s been created by the artist. 

Still, when I first arrived in LA, however committed I was to walking, it became obvious that I really couldn’t live here without a car.  I didn’t want a brand new car, and I didn’t want to deal with a used car salesman, so I developed a plan.  I would walk the streets of LA and the right car would present itself to me.   I’d be walking along and I’d see a car with a “for sale” sign in the window and that would be “my” car.  Which is why I ended up as the owner of a 1966 Dodge Dart that was parked in the street half a mile away from where I live.

In fact there was one car dealer’s lot that did vaguely attract me.  It was called B&M Auto, located right at the place where Sunset and Hollywood Boulevard’s converge.  It was a slightly scruffy, down at heel operation, but they always had some interesting cars for sale, say a Mustang resprayed an improbable yellow, a Jeep Wagoneer, or an E type Jag with a dent in every panel, that kind of thing. 

Of course I wouldn’t have felt completely confident buying an E Type Jag with a dent in every panel from a slightly scruffy, down at heel operation, and I suppose that’s why I didn’t.  But any time I walked around the area I always looked at what they had for sale and I’m not saying I thought it would B&M Auto always be there – there was always a provisional feel about the place - but even so it came as a blow to walk past the lot last weekend and find all the cars gone.  

The office was empty, there was a sign up in the window saying that B&M Auto was no more and that a new tenant had been found for the premises.  There was something deeply melancholy about the change, and the absence.

I don’t want to make too much of the “change and decay in all around I see” business, but I’ve now lived in LA long enough that quite a few things I liked have gone.  Many a soulful building or landmark has been demolished, this Bob’s Big  Boy and the very mid-century Cadillac dealership beyond on Wilshire, for instance.

Just a few weeks back they took away the giant hot dog that stood at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue.  Well frankly that one always seemed doomed.  The surprising thing here was that it lasted so long.  I wonder if somebody bought it to preserve it.  For that matter I wonder if somebody’s going to buy the B&M Auto sign.

So, in a world of civic and architectural uncertainty the statue of Rock and Bullwinkle that stands at 8218 Sunset Boulevard seems a touchstone of stability and continuity.  It’s outside what used to be the Jay Ward headquarters and gift shop, now a dog grooming parlor.  The statue first appeared in 1961 – Jayne Mansfield was there at the unveiling – so it’s been standing over 50 years.  In Hollywood terms that makes it as historic and permanent as the statuary of ancient of Rome.

And you can say this for the custodians of Bullwinkle, they’re not letting him turn into a ruin.  Every now and again bits of him fall off, including his hand at one point apparently, but fortunately LA has the kind of skilled artisans you can call up and ask to come over and repair your Bullwinkle statue.  You try doing that in the Eternal City.