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, May 30, 2012


Walking and eating are only two of my many obsessions, though they’re probably the most harmless.  Thanks to street food and the occasional bit of foraging, they can sometimes be combined.

On the Frieze blog last week Erik Morse was interviewing Danish chef René Redzepi whose Copenhagen restaurant noma regularly tops those “best restaurant in the world” listings.  I know Erik a little and he’s a good man, and we’ve had some stimulating conversations, but I’m glad he’s never formally interviewed me, because he has a tendency to ask an opening question of such devastating complexity and high-mindedness (I mean that as a compliment) that I’m sure my mind would go completely blank.  His first question to Redzepi is below.

Erik Morse: Let us begin with one of the most essential, though largely ignored, prerequisites for the experience of food – namely, walking, both as the cartographic source for and biological reason for eating. I am reminded of the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, who was known to walk extensively through Copenhagen on a daily basis while sampling the city’s pastries. The history of philosophy and the history of cooking once shared an intimate connection with the activity of walking. That said, why is the idea of walking and foraging such an important component for noma?

René Redzepi: Foraging is important to us for many reasons, although I must say that it doesn’t sum up what noma is …

If you’re walking in the city and suddenly find yourself in need of food it isn’t usually much of a problem – if you can’t find a pastry you, at least you can buy a chocolate bar or a piece of fruit, and chances are you’ll be able to find somewhere to sit down and eat if that’s what you want. I always enjoy Iain Sinclair’s descriptions of the greasy spoon breakfasts he has before setting off on his heroic psychogeographic expeditions.  In fact I’m sure I enjoy the descriptions more than I’d ever enjoy the breakfasts.

Out of town you make sure you’ve got something to eat in your backpack, maybe some landjäge – aka “German walking sausage” - but even so it’s always great to come across something growing that you can eat.  Finding a blackberry bush when out walking always takes me back to walking with my dad when I was a kid.  There used to be a vast field of nettles in the meadow behind the house where I lived in Suffolk, and I always imagined I’d go out there and collect some and make nettle soup, but by the time I’d walked into the meadow I was so thoroughly nettled my mind was rather poisoned against the idea of eating the damn things.  My adventures in Essex at the end of last year, finding oysters while walking on the beach, is about as good as foraging ever gets for me, though I’m sure that by René Redzepi’s standards this would be puny stuff.   By Richard Mabey’s standards too.

Mabey’s book Food for Free, was first published in 1972, and it was still selling when I was a bookseller more than a decade later, (so this foraging notion is some way from being a new-fangled idea).  A new edition is scheduled for this year.  I suspect that over the years far more people have bought the book than have ever gone out foraging, but the notion obviously has broad appeal.  In 1973 Mabey published The Unofficial Countryside, a book that’s become a crucial text for a certain kind of British edgeland enthusiast.  Iain Sinclair writes, “Mabey, like a covert infiltrator, makes an engaged pass at the ugly bits, the dirty folds in the map.”  I find myself wondering if there’s any such thing as a non-covert infiltrator, but let’s not carp.

The walking-eating connection has been much on my mind lately because I’ve been reading a new book, A Man In A Hurry: the extraordinary life and times of Edward Payson Weston, the world’s greatest walker,  which was sent to me by Helen Harris, one of its authors, along with Nick Harris and Paul Marshall.

I came across Weston while researching The Lost Art of Walking, and he did seem an amazing character, one of those late 19th early 20th century professional, competitive walkers, who walked the length and breadth of America, and occasionally England, entering races that could be hundreds of miles long, often cheered by vast crowds that Lady Gaga would envy.  Between 1865 and 1879 he walked 53,000 miles, and he kept on walking one way or another until his death in 1929.  I only knew what I’d pieced together from various sources: this, as far as I know, is the first-book length study.

It tells us that when Weston was undertaking a seriously long race, he’d use the first 24 hours to “break the neck” of the walk, hoping to cover 112 miles in that time.  But to accomplish this he’d eat nothing solid, getting by on beef tea, prune tea, coffee, egg yolks, gruel and blancmange.  Once the hard work was done he’d eat a more conventional diet, though one that modern athletes (and walkers) would find pretty heavy - cold beef, mutton chops, potatoes, oranges, lemons, grapes bread and butter and Peek Frean milk biscuits.

Biscuits aside, it seems that Weston also got plenty of energy from chewing coca leaves, which was perfectly legal at the time, and the effects of cocaine were little understood.  But “stimulants” were a mixed blessing for the walker.  In 1885 he competed against Daniel O’Leary – “2,500 miles a day (but not Sunday) in numerous locations until the distance was done.”  By the 44th day they’d both walked more than 2000 miles, but O’Leary was in bad shape, yelling at Weston and pushing him off the track.  Next they were headed for Chicago, but O’Leary didn’t show up and Weston was declared the winner, though he did carry on to complete the full mileage.

Weston said to a reporter, “You see, about a week before we finished the contest, Dan commenced to take stimulants pretty freely.  I don’t mean that he went on a spree.  But the fact is that he was so exhausted that whisky was the only thing which could keep hi up.  Food had no effect on him … It will be a long time before he will be able to do much walking.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


For a while now I’ve been enjoying derelictlondon.com, a website run by Paul Talling featuring thousands of pictures of derelict, abandoned, or wrecked sites around London.  In fact it’s set me wondering whether somebody, possibly even  me, should write a taxonomy of the different forms and manifestations of ruin - the difference between dereliction and abandonment, between a wreck and a ruin and a hulk, and so on.

The website has the feel of a man walking the streets of London, freely though not quite aimlessly, camera in hand, and photographing every crumbling house, weed-choked railway line, graffiti stained wall, smashed window or roof, every closed down pub and shuttered factory he comes across.  The effect is obsessive and passionate, both unsystematic and all-embracing.  Talling is as fascinated by a burned out milk float as he is by a world war two pillbox. 

All these images are his, and yes, I did ask his permission.  He says on the website, “99% of these pictures were taken by myself during many miles of walkabouts around the great capital. After years of traveling via car or public transport I realised just how little I had seen of London ... Apart from a few tip offs most of the locations on this site are on here because I randomly stumbled upon them when walking down the street.”

It would obviously be pointless to complain about the randomness of his images, since that’s the nature of the beast, but I wasn’t sure how this would translate into book form.  But I just got a copy of the book, published by Random House, and I think it’s even better than the website.

A lot of pruning and concentration has gone on.  There’s more emphasis on the text, which contains some real gems of curious information.  That the Rail Freight Marshalling Yard in Feltham was built by German prisoners of war, that the phrase “going to see a man about a dog” comes from a play titled The Flying Scud, which also gave its name to a pub in Shoreditch, now derelict of course.  That there’s now only one public toilet for every 10,000 people in England: bad news for the urban pedestrian.

It all makes me determined that the next time I’m in London I’ll take a walking expedition to Winchester Palace, the Woodford Town football ground, or the Lambeth Hospital, though there’s no guarantee they'll still be around by the time I get there.

Paul Talling leads walking tours of London’s lost rivers - there’s a book as well.  As far as I know he doesn’t do tours of London dereliction, which strikes me as a shame.   The idea of little gaggles of tourists wandering around grim bits of London admiring collapsed cinemas and half-demolished houses, is extremely appealing.   I’d be there like a shot.

The derelictlondonwebsite is here:

Monday, May 21, 2012


I would never say that Tom Waits is a fake: he quite obviously isn’t.  But he is a poser.  He's a man who knows how to adopt a pose and hold it for as long as required, which may be a very short time, say the fraction of a second it takes for a camera shutter to open of close, or for the length of a concert, or (as it is now) the length of a career that’s lasted more than four decades.

The fact is, it’s much easier to pose with a guitar in your hand, or at a piano, on a bar stool, or leaning against an old truck, than it is to pose while walking.  Oh sure some people affect a swagger while walking, or a strut, or a lope, but send ‘em on a good long hike, and ten miles down the road you can be pretty sure their stride will be revealing their true self.

There’s an interview Tom Waits did with the beloved Terry Gross on National Public Radio in 2002 in which she asked him whether, when he started listening to “older music” it affected the way he dressed or spoke or behaved.  Waits replied “Oh yeah, sure. You know I bought an old hat and drove an old car.  Yeah sure. I walked with a cane.  You know, I was going overboard perhaps but ...” And Gross interrupts to ask what kind of walking cane it was, did it have a silver top?  “No, no,” says Waits, “an old man’s cane from a Salvation Army.  Yeah.  And I carved my name on it and everything you know  ... It gave me a walk, I guess.  It gave me something distinctive.  ‘Oh who was that guy in here with a cane?  Did you see that?’ It just gave me something I liked identity wise.”

There was a time a few years back when I was suffering from all kinds of foot problems.  And the real problem was finding a doctor who knew what I was actually suffering from.  I got diagnosed as having tendonitis, bursitis, plantar fasciitis, all good names, all of which essentially mean that you’ve got a pain in your foot.  But none of the quacks I saw (and one of them was an absolute genuine quack) were able to do a damn thing about it.
Things got so bad that I could hardly walk outside the house, so I asked my wife to buy me a walking stick.  She found a place on Hollywood Boulevard that sold walking sticks with handles made of Lucite, with a spider set in them.  She bought me one of those.  It looked pretty sharp, and it was some help in getting around. 

And then after I’d had it about a week I realized the top screwed off, the cane was hollow metal, and there was a swordstick stick hidden inside.  That made it seem even sharper.  It seemed like the kind of cane Tom Waits ought to have used, and I could certainly see the attractions of walking along with a cane that contained a spider and a concealed weapon.  It was the kind of affectation a man might get used to.  But I gave it up once my foot got better (long story, I found the right doctor). I didn’t want to use the stick as part of a pose.  I reckoned that one day I might really need a cane full-time, and I didn’t want to bring it on by using one before I needed to.

There’s another interview with Tom Waits, by Robert Sabbag for the LA Times Magazine, in which he talks about Keith Richards.  Waits says, “He stands at ten after seven, if you can imagine that.”  (I can just about)  “Arms at five o’clock, legs at two o’clock” (and no I can’t imagine that at all) “with no apparatus, nothing suspended.  He’s all below the waist.  And if he doesn’t feel it, he’ll just walk away.”

Well yes, you can believe that.  Of course, some people find it hard to believe that Keith Richards is able to stand, let alone walk, but he still seems well able to put one foot in front of the other.  He doesn’t even need a cane, though he does have Patti Hansen for support.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


                                                                                                              Ed Ruscha

One of the small but significant pedestrian pleasures I sometimes have, is to walk through parking lots (for my American readers) or car parks (for my English ones).  Partly it’s because this is such a satisfyingly long way from being “good walking territory.”  Also because it sometimes feels like trespassing, and I suppose in some cases it actually is, though I can’t say I’ve ever been challenged while walking through a parking lot. 

When I’m driving and have to park in some giant open air lot, I always choose a  spot in a  far distant corner.  Partly because there’s usually more room and it’s easier to park there, and also because it ensures that I do a certain amount (OK an absolutely minute amount) of walking.  While others jockey for a place nearest to the mall or supermarket entrance, there I go striding across the lot, the flaneur of the tarmac.  Also, there’s always a chance of being run down by distracted drivers, which tends to put the walker on his mettle.

Recently I was in Ridgecrest, California, taking a pre-breakfast stroll around the town and came across the rather gorgeous expanse above.   To garble Raymond Chandler, few things look emptier than an empty parking lot.  Chandler said the same thing about swimming pools.  I couldn't resist walking across that wide open space.

When I lived in New York, I often went upstate at weekends, I became especially fond of a parking lot in Rosendale.  It belonged to one of the saddest supermarkets I’ve even seen, so sad that it featured in Martin Parr’s book Boring Postcards USA, where it looked like this:

As you may or may not be able to read, it then went by the name of the Rosendale Food Center.  When I was there it was Sunrise Farms, a pretty awful supermarket where there was always a good chance the meat was going to be off, still at least it was a local store.  And then it closed down.  It was a lot sadder then, and a lot more boring in one way, but at least you could walk across the parking lot without fear of getting run down.

And now I find, lurking on the internet, a picture of yours truly, in a car park in Brooklyn, in the rain, standing on one leg, thus:

Actually I suspect it’s been lurking there for years.  The image is to be found on the website of the Temporary Travel Office, “a quasi-fictional tourist agency” run by Ryan Griffis.  The picture is part of the documentation for an event called “Public Parking: a Tour of Parking Lots and Utopias: Brooklyn, NY.”  I actually mention this expedition in The Lost Art of Walking.  Ryan Griffis seems a thoroughly good man, and the Temporary Travel Office is obviously a Very Good Thing.  Is it just me, or is ironic tourism suddenly a big growth area? 

The Temporary Travel Office is here:

“Public Parking” is here:

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


The Sunday New York Times contained an obituary for the writer David Bowman.  It seems he died in February of a cerebral hemorrhage, but the public announcement is only being made now.  I didn’t know him, but I know several people who did.  I recall reading his novel Let The Dog Drive, and thinking it was pretty good, though in fact I remember almost nothing about it.

Oddly enough, I discover in the obituary that David Bowman once found himself in much the same position toward his book.  In the summer of 1989, having more or less finished writing the novel, he was on vacation in Montauk, on Long Island.  He went for a walk and was hit by a car.  He was in a coma for a month and when he came out of it he was suffering from all but total amnesia.  According to Bowman’s friend Dr. Eric Schneider, “When David first read his manuscript, he didn’t recognize a word of it.  It was as if someone else had written it.”

Well, one way or another, Bowman got his memory back and went on to have a writing career.  He  published only one other novel Bunny Modern, although he apparently finished a new one shortly before his death.  Bunny Modern is a futuristic satire containing nannies whose infant charges are so precious they need to be protected with Glocks and sawn off shotguns.  

This novel is hardly the place to look for a serious meditation on the risks of pedestrianism, but it does contain the lines: “I remember how fathers wandered the streets strapped to their Walkmans; how moms knelt at the household TV, channel-hopping through network product.  My own mother did the network kneel, but my dad never did the Walkman walk.”

I can’t help wondering if there was some connection between the car accident of 1989 and this year’s brain hemorrhage, and I can’t help wondering if Bowman was wearing a Walkman when he was hit by that car.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


It seems I still haven’t finished with HG Wells and his walking.  I just discovered a passage from Jerome K. Jerome’s My Life and Times:  actually I found it quoted in Michael Moorcock’s recently published anthology London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction.  Jerome had been under the weather and Wells had invited him down to Folkestone for some sea air and a rest.

Jerome writes, “To ‘rest’ in the neighbourhood of Wells is like curling yourself up and trying to go to sleep in the centre of a cyclone. When he wasn't explaining the Universe, he was teaching me new games—complicated things that he had invented himself, and under stress of which my brain would reel. There are steepish hills on the South Downs. We went up them at four miles an hour, talking all the time. On the Sunday evening a hurricane was raging with a driving sleet. Wells was sure a walk would do us good—wake us up. While Mrs. Wells was not watching, we tucked the two little boys into their mackintoshes and took them with us.
      ‘We'll all have a blow,’ said Wells.”

I don’t know that Michael Moorcock was ever all that much of a walker, and at this point in history it's hard to believe anyone could ever walk down the street dressed the way he is in the photograph above.  In any case he certainly isn’t much of a walker now, being a wheelchair user.  Iain Sinclair once told me the story of when he, Moorcock and Alan Moore did an event at the British Library in London.  This is an image from event, which I find enormously pleasing and moving for reasons I still can’t quite put my finger on.

The event was a great success, it was afterwards that the problems started.  Sinclair writes, “nice & tragic image: the meal that followed was quite an adventure, Mike in his chair, Alan blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, talking and rambling through traffic, down the madness of Euston Road - finding nowhere to eat. And, despite all this, the group were invisibles in the city, nobody rushing to salute those culture heroes.”

A damned shame, I'd say.