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.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


GarryWinogrand, Hollywood Boulevard, 1969, Estate of Garry Winogrand

 Sometimes I wonder what visitors from the future, or possibly from another planet, who arrived in a ruined Hollywood would make of the stars, names, and metallic symbols set in concrete in the sidewalks along the Hollywood Walk of Fame?  It think it’s fair to imagine that these visitors wouldn’t recognize the names in the stars: some of them are unknown to all but the most dedicated film buff even now.  But assuming they did recognize them as the names of the people, would they think these slabs were memorials to our heroes and heroines?

     Or might they think the opposite, that these were the people we held in special contempt, so much so that we walked on their very names, spat on them, spilled food on them, let our dogs (and occasionally our citizens) urinate all over them?  Is it even possible that they’d think these sidewalk slabs were actually gravestones; that James Brown, Myrna Loy, Matt Groening et al were actually buried under the sidewalk?  Actually that idea wouldn’t last very long at all.  Some of these “gravestones” are already in a state of considerable ruin.  You can see there’s no grave, no body under there.

I walk along Hollywood and Vine fairly often, and usually I don’t even see the Walk of Fame stars anymore, but just lately I’ve been noticing what bad shape some of the slabs are in.  I was there a couple of days ago and decided to take note.  Many had gouges, stains and scratches, of course, and there was the odd one with a missing letter or two. 

Tallulah Bankhead was looking a bit rough around the edges, but certainly she was holding up better than Ava Gardner who had a large crack across her middle, and it looked as though there had been some ham-fisted attempts at restoring her.

 Michael Langdon seemed to be just falling apart:

And Elliott Dexter was looking even worse, though I admit I had no idea who Elliott Dexter was till I got home and looked him up: silent movie actor, star of The Squaw Man and Flaming Youth,  made his last movie in 1925.

But worst of all, so much the worst, right at the southern end of the Walk, where Vine Street meets Sunset Boulevard, there was this melancholy item:

You can just about read the first half of his name “Franklin,” and the rest has been removed and replaced by a dollop of tarmac.  A little further research reveals that this is the star of Franklin Pangborn, a successful comedy character actor in his day, who appeared with WC Fields in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break which I know I’ve seen, though not recently, and also, satisfyingly, he appeared in the movie Hollywood and Vine, directed by Alexis Thurn-Taxis (it’s about a dog who becomes a star).  I’d say Franklin Pangborn deserved better.  I’d say just about anybody deserves better.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


When I was a boy, walking the streets of my old neighborhood in Sheffield, I was much troubled by dogs.  I was prepared to be friendly: the only dogs I knew were from cartoons and fiction - Huckleberry Hound, Pluto, 101 Dalmatians - and they were a benign lot, but that was no doubt because they were fictional. The dogs in my real world weren’t benign in the least.  As I walked the local streets I was snapped at and snarled at, and I learned to keep my distance, even as I learned to walk in fear.  Lads who lived in adjoining neighbourhoods said I had it too easy.  Where they lived, the dogs chased you till you dropped, and sank their rabid teeth into you given half a chance.

These days when I walk in LA I never encounter a dog on the street that’s without its owner, and I much prefer it that way, but I hear plenty of howling and barking from behind gates and fences.

Regular readers may remember a few months back I found the above sign in Jaywick, in Essex.  It seemed very desperate, very sad, very English.  But then at the weekend I was walking the streets of Barstow, in California when I found this strangely similar sign.

It’s actually on the fence of a motel – the Desert Inn, a place that looks a good deal more inviting from the front than it does from the back.  Of course, it seems a little unlikely that a wild dog would actually be let loose to roam the space behind a motel but you wouldn’t want to stroll in there and take your chances, would you?  You could even argue that if you really had a dog there’d be no need for a sign at all, although we know that isn’t always true.

Above is my favorite dog warning sign, it’s on a fence on Beachwood Drive and I walk past once in a while and wonder what it means.  The sign is old, the dog seems ghostly, the words “on duty” are barely readable.  Has the dog faded away too?  Has he done his duty and gone to a better place?  Or is he lurking on the other side of the fence, lying low, trying to lull the passing walker into a false sense of security?

Monday, March 26, 2012


I wonder if you’re familiar with Joe Dante’s 1978 movie Piranha.  In the opening scene a couple of young hikers are lost, walking at night in the mountains, and they discover a mysterious military test site that isn’t on their map.  So naturally it’s a case of “Let’s go inside and check it out.”  They climb over a fence, look around, and immediately find a swimming pool, “Hey far out. Let’s get wet.  Last one in is a rotten egg.”  Yep, the girl really says that.  They strip off, and in they go.  “Hey that’s not funny,” says the boy. “You bit me.  You actually bit me.”  But no the girl didn’t bite him of course, it was a piranha, and before long both young hikers have been devoured by our fishy friends.

Well, a lesson learned there, I’d say.  Since seeing that movie I’ve never climbed into a mysterious military test site at night, and I’ve certainly never plunged into a pool without first checking for piranhas.  In fact I can’t remember ever finding a swimming pool full of water while out walking, though I have encountered a few empty ones.

 A few years back I came across the one above, in upstate New York, somewhere near Kingston.  In fact the pool isn’t absolutely, completely empty: a certain amount of slimy rainwater had collected in the bottom, but even without a “pool closed” sign, and even without a fear of piranhas I don’t imagine many hikers were stripping off and leaping in.

Desert swimming pools, such as the one below, encountered while I was walking around the Salton Sea, are far more inviting, though completely dry, and quite a few people had obviously been there before me, though to express themselves via graffiti rather than swimming, it seemed.  I expect they did some skateboarding there too.

For one reason or another I’ve been rereading John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer.”  Of course it’s a story about swimming rather than walking, but as the hero, Neddy Merrill, swims his way home via a line of swimming pools, he inevitably does a certain amount of walking, at one point crossing a major highway.  “Had you gone for a Sunday afternoon ride that day you might have seen him, close to naked, standing on the shoulders of Route 424, waiting for a chance to cross … An old man tooling down the highway at fifteen miles an hour let him get to the middle of the road where there was a grass divider.  Here he was exposed to the ridicule of the northbound traffic, but after ten or fifteen minutes he was able to cross.”

I think “The Swimmer” is as perfect as any short story ever gets.  Nothing similar can be said about the movie version starring Burt Lancaster.  One of the worst scenes, not in the original story, but invented for the movie, has Neddy encounter a small boy who’s tending an empty pool. The boy's parents are away and the pool has been drained for his safety: he confesses he’s not much of a swimmer.  The lack of water threatens Neddy’s project but he and the boy mime a swim while walking across the bottom of pool.  It’s the first time the boy has managed to “swim” a length, and initially he’s delighted, but then he has his doubts.  He says, “I suppose it doesn’t count though because there’s no water.”
     “But for us there was,” Neddy insists. “You see, if you make believe hard that something is true, then it is true for you.”

Well, this is rubbish, isn’t it?  A lad who can’t tell the difference between walking and swimming is obviously going to find himself in serious trouble before very long.  “Oh, right, I’ll just swim along Hollywood Boulevard.  It will be true for me.”

But the fact is, there is something strangely enjoyable about walking across the bottom of an empty swimming pool.  I think it’s that sense of walking in a place that’s usually not available to walkers; not walking on water, but walking under water, walking where the water usually makes walking impossible.

As everybody now knows (I mean, it was a plotline on Seinfield for Pete’s sake) Cheever’s sexuality was a troublesome matter both to himself and to the people around him.  He liked men, but it seems he didn’t actively hate women.  His story “Goodbye, My Brother” concerns both the agonies of sticking to convenient illusions, and the equal agonies of truth-telling, and it has a wonderfully ambiguous final paragraph that concerns walking and water and much else besides.  The final words: “The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming -- Diana and Helen -- and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that in a post-apocalyptic future there will be a lot of walking.  Admittedly, there will be a certain amount of driving around in very cool vehicles, but mostly it’ll be striding along, gun in hand, ready to kill or be killed. And it seems that very few of us will be dressed appropriately. 

There will, of course, be a lot of desert in this future.  If you’re going to make a post-apocalyptic movie, the desert is often the location of choice.  It’s pre-ruined in a way that, say, the Palace of Versailles isn’t.  And you’ve got to imagine it’ll be pretty hot in this desert of the future, but that won’t stop a lot of people from wearing a lot of leather.

You might argue that a Terminator can get away with it because he’s a cyborg and doesn’t feel the heat in the same way that real humans feel.

On the other hand, Mad Max is clearly feeling it in this picture, though you have to wonder if simply pulling one arm off your leather suit is really going to be enough to cool you down much.

If you’re Linda Hamilton you’ll wear an elegant little tank top, showing off your gym-toned arms, but this simply creates a different problem: she’s running a terrible risk of sunburn.  And if you reckon that in general women of the future will wear be wearing less than the men, you're probably right.

Milla Jovovich certainly looks well wrapped up in some respects in Resident Evil: Extinction but not so much that she can't show her stocking tops and thighs.

I’m not sure exactly what these boys from Star Trek are wearing in the episode “Desert Crossing.” It's not leather obviously: could it be polyester?   Clearly they’re sweating like SOBs.  Later in the episode they do strip down, though they don’t actually look much less sweaty or any more comfortable as a result.

And do spare a thought for poor Kyle MacLachlan in Dune.  Well yes, there are reasons to feel sorry all for the actors in that movie, but in the picture below it looks as though his sweat problem is so bad that nobody will come anywhere near him.  Wouldn’t he be much happier in a simple safari suit?

Finally (and I know you could go on about this stuff forever) we come to the movie of The Road.  Now that is one bleak future you’ve got yourself there, but it’s not the desert.  Instead, it’s a cold, grey, polluted world where the sun never shines, and walking is a grim and potentially lethal business.  But say what you like, father and son are certainly dressed for it.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


I’ve been looking at photographs of people walking in ruins.  The one above is one of the most familiar, taken in the London blitz, a morning after shot.  And if you’d asked me a couple of days back I’d have said it was by Cecil Beaton or Bill Brandt.  It turns out I was wrong about that, as you’ll see.

Without really thinking about it too much, I’d never doubted that it was a bit of a set up, though not a particularly reprehensible one, a morale-boosting image to show Londoners that life was still going on normally even after a night of bombings.  For one thing, I didn’t really believe that milkmen were still sticking to their rounds in the middle of the blitz.  Would there even be any doorsteps to leave the milk on?  And when the milkman came back at the end of the week what were the chances of the customers still being there, what possible likelihood that they’d hand over what they owed?

But it turns out the photograph is even more fake than I thought. The photographer was actually Fred Morley, and it’s widely reported that the “milkman” was his assistant dressed up for the part.  But that raises more questions than it answers.  Because obviously he must have borrowed the coat and the crate of milk from somebody, and if not from a milkman, then who?   So does that mean there really were milkmen making deliveries?  And if so, why not use a real milkman in the photograph?  Couldn’t they find one winsome or perky enough?  Or did the real milkmen think this photography lark was an insult?  But if so, they wouldn’t have lent their jacket and milk would they?  Or were there no real milkmen involved at all, and did the photographer bring the jacket and milk with him as a props?  I should really like to know. 

It’s generally assumed that the firemen working in the background are the genuine article, and I imagine they were extremely pissed off that this photographer and his assistant were free to ponce about taking pictures, while they had real work to do.

When I was growing up in Sheffield in the 1950s and 60s, memories of Sheffield’s own blitz were still fresh in the minds of my parents’ generation. It had been short-lived and limited by London standards – just two raids in December 1940 - but bad enough; almost 700 dead, another 1500 injured, tens of thousands left homeless.

There was a story told in our family that my father, then in his teens, had walked to work the morning after the bombings, stepping over debris and, according to my mother, also over dead bodies.  My father never mentioned it at all, which I’ve always thought gives the story more rather than less credibility. 

There are a lot of extant pictures of the Sheffield blitz, though there seem to be no Sheffield war photographers known by name, no Brandt or Beaton, not even a Fred Morley.  The vast majority of the photographs, like the one below, are simply credited to “Sheffield Newspapers.”

This is the best known, and probably the best, photograph from the Sheffield blitz.  It shows the High Street on fire, a couple of abandoned trams silhouetted against the conflagration.  Other photographs exist of the scene, taken that night and the next morning, but none look as good as this. 

And I've been thinking that for a photograph of ruins to look really good it's a big help to have a figure there somewhere, preferably someone walking, and now I find myself wondering about that solitary figure on the right of the Sheffield blitz picture.  What’s he doing there?  He looks so untroubled.   Where could he possibly be walking to so casually in the middle of an air raid?  And I wonder if he was placed there by the photographer for the sake of the shot.  I wonder if he was the photographer's assistant.
In a post-war article titled “Pictures by Night” Bill Brandt wrote, “In 1939, at the beginning of the war, I was back in London photographing the blackout. The darkened town, lit only by moonlight, looked more beautiful than before or since. It was fascinating to walk through the deserted streets and photograph houses which I knew well, and which no longer looked three-dimensional, but flat like painted stage scenery ...”   I suppose it would have been too dark to show a walking figure.