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.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


As regular, or even irregular, readers will know, and not only from my previous post, I still have quite an affection for the old Volkswagen Beetle, and at this point in history that may be part of my ongoing affection for many dying (though not quite dead) forms: the printed map, vinyl, the novel, unshaven pudenda.

When I came to live in Los Angeles – about a decade ago now – there were still a lot of Beetles on the street, more than you ever saw in London, and way more than you saw in New York, the places I lived immediately before coming here.  It had a lot to do with the bad winters in those places, I’m sure.

And so when I arrived here, determined not to be part of the cliché that nobody walks in LA, I’d go walking, if not exactly randomly then certainly without much purpose, just looking at things, and I’d make a note of how many VW Beetles I saw.  Sometimes I even photographed them.  And when I got home I’d think, “OK, today’s was a 3 Beetle walk.  Yesterday’s was a 5 Beetle walk” and so on.   Unsophisticated stuff I know:  Walter Benjamin would have been saddened.

The number of Beetles in LA has declined significantly in the last decade, though there are still a surprising number, especially given that (unless they’re imported from Mexico) even the most recent of them is a over 30 years old.  I’ve always been most fascinated by the ones that have the most patina, that show the most signs of wear, age and ruin, but the truth is, I no longer look at (or for) Beetles quite as obsessively as I once did when out walking.

Last week my pal Anthony Miller and I went for a walk in the wild east part of LA’s downtown and although we weren’t strictly in search of Beetles, we came across rather more than we expected.  We stated at Sci Arc (that’s the Southern California Institute of Architecture), a college housed inside a quarter-mile long former freight depot, a building big enough that you do plenty of walking while you’re inside it, especially if you’re there looking for an exhibition and are too guyish to ask anybody for directions.

The exhibition sounded intriguingly inscrutable, and its title was “Ball-Nogues Studio: Yevrus 1, Negative Impression.”  The description read as follows:

        “Constructed from non-architectural artifacts, Yevrus 1, Negative Impression is a disposable architecture of literal references that calls into question the contemporary architectural vogue for digital complexity and abstraction. The cast impressions of 1973 Volkswagen Beetles and speedboats unite to form a strong structural whole that serves as a lookout tower in the SCI-Arc Gallery.
        "After studying a variety of objects within the Los Angeles suburban-scape, the designers selected the individual components for their iconic and structural potential, as well as their availability. Once chosen, the parts were digitally scanned in three dimensions and cast in biodegradable paper pulp using a proprietary technique the studio refers to as a "Yevrus"—the word "Survey" spelled backwards. With this work, the first in a series of experimental Yevrus projects, Ball-Nogues rethinks the purpose of the site survey. No longer seen as a simple tool for construction and engineering, the survey becomes an instrument for finding form, seeking structural stability and realizing iconic meaning.”

I’ll forgive you if you didn’t read all the way to the end of that, but there was a very cool image (below) that advertised the exhibition.  I imagined that the thing in the picture had actually been built as a life-size set, so that we could walk into it and around it, like a kind of Ed Kienholz art installation.

As we walked across the vast sea of parking lot that surrounds Sci Arc I couldn’t help noticing a glistening silver Beetle over across the other side.  It operated as a beacon.

And when we got up to it, we saw it wasn’t just painted silver, it was actually wrapped in some kind of silver foil, in order that (we concluded) a mold or several molds could be made, without sticking to the car itself.  That’s one of the molds sitting next to the Beetle, on the right.

 Encouraged, in we went, walked around in an aimless way for a while, and eventually stopped being guyish and asked directions from a man who looked a lot like an architect (black roll neck, spiky grey hair, ornate specs and a German accent) and so we found our way to the exhibition space.  And that’s when we discovered that thing in the picture was actually just a picture.  There was no walk-in Ed Kienholz-style set.  Were we disappointed?  Yes, but we cheered up at the site of the pod in very middle of the space.

Now, that pod, as perhaps you can see, is partly made of casts taken from a VW Beetle, the one outside presumably, colored some very interesting shades, assembled, and lit internally by fluorescent tubes.  It was by no means what we came for, or had expected, but there was no denying it was kind of cool.

So then, afterwards, when we went walking “properly,” we saw this very clean convertible on the street:

And there was this one apparently being used as part of a photoshoot: 

Looking for Beetles was not the main purpose, or even the highlight, of our afternoon, but somehow our perambulation had become a kind of Beetle walk.  Not one of the great ones; essentially just a 3 Beetle walk, unless you counted the casts, and I think it was probably best not to.

And above is a photograph of my fellow walker, Anthony Miller, looking Jonah-like, as if he's inside the whale, if there had been fluorescent tubes in there, and if the whale had been shaped like a Volkswagen.  Very little room to walk in there.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


If you type “walking” and “city” into a search engine you’ll most likely come up with lists of the world’s supposedly great walking cities – San Francisco, Boston, London, Paris, etc.  I suppose this is what most people are looking for.

But shortly after those “walking cities” you get references to “The Walking City,” something conceived by Ron Herron, in 1964 when he was part of Archigram, a group of avant-garde, speculative “futurist” architects based around the Architectural Association in London.  It was the name of their magazine too.

Herron’s idea, simultaneously quite absurd and utterly appealing, was of a city made up of separate structures, pods rather than what we think of as buildings, and these pods would have legs, and they could stroll around the world, or at least around whatever landmass they happened to be on, moving from one environment to another as conditions demanded, joining up with and separating from other similarly pods as they went, constantly forming and reforming themselves into fresh groupings and communities.  This would probably have played havoc with the kids’ schooling, but after all it was only speculative.

Anab Jain, who is founder and director of something called Superflux, and for some reason is quoted all over the net,  writes, “The citizen is therefore a serviced nomad not totally dissimilar from today's executive cars.”  (Might want to run that through the grammar check, but we get the idea.)  To which I would respond, well, yes and no.  If you ask me it’s actually more similar to a man in a car towing a caravan, or a man sleeping in the back of his Volkswagen Beetle, which doesn’t seen inherently futurist; but more of that later.

As all this indicates, Herron’s idea wasn’t actually of a whole city that walked, but rather of individual components that walked in order to create cities.  For a genuine walking city we might look to Zodanga, as it appears in the movie John Carter,  he “of Mars” fame, based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels.

This is not an area where I claim any great expertise, but as I understand it this version of a walking city was invented by the movie makers.  In Burroughs’ novels Zodanga was a conventional, land-rooted city with 75 feet high walls, though in different books it did pop up in different and contradictory locations.  This seems to have been the result of careless writing rather anything else.  Putting the city on legs and making it mobile was an explanatory in-joke for John Carter fans, which box office receipts suggest is a fairly limited constituency.  Did the writers and designers of the movie know about Ron Herron’s Walking City?  Well, I’ll just bet they did.

Ditto the writers of the Simpsons.  In the end, my favourite moving, if not actually walking, city is the Simpsons’ Springfield.  In the episode Trash of the Titans, the environment has become so polluted, thanks to Homer, that the whole city has to be moved some miles down the road to a new location so its citizens can start polluting anew.  I can't find an image of Springfield in motion, but here's one of the dump.

Springfield is transported on trucks rather than on its own legs, and of course a city on wheels has certain disadvantages compared with a city on legs, essentially that it  needs a road, or at least a smoothish track, to move on.  And of course this is a problem with all wheeled vehicles.  Fortunately, to remedy this various “futurists” or customizers have imagined a Volkswagen Beetle with legs, and have gone so far as to actually build a few of them.  Here's one in Nevada (if my memory serves), with your blogger underneath.

OK, such Beetles aren’t actually functional, and they don’t actually walk anywhere, they’re essentially works of the imagination, but you know so is Zodanga, so is Ron Herron’s Walking City.  Some of us can live with that.

The Archigram archive can be found here:


Sunday, June 10, 2012


Now, I am not for a moment suggesting that Berholt Brecht was some kind of hypocritical leftwing blowhard, but I have been reading his Journals, and he certainly is damn annoying.

He moved to LA in 1941, and you’d have thought he might at the very least be somewhat happy to be there, and out of Europe, but hell no – he makes all the usual jejune complaints about LA – it’s artificial, it doesn’t have seasons, people are materialistic. Ho hum.

There are in fact one or two things that he finds “rather amusing” – California oak tress, lemon thickets, the occasional gas station, but complains “all this lies behind plate glass.”  By which he means that he sees it all through the window of a car "going to Beverley Hills": he actually lived in Santa Monica, in this house, so you can see how he suffered.  

The blindingly obvious response is, well if you object so strongly to seeing things through plate glass, why not get out of the damn car and walk?

But just when you think yes, possibly he is some hypocritcial leftwing blowhard you might turn to “A Worker Looks at History” written in 1936, which contains the lines:

     I hear Mexicans are taking your jobs away.
     Do they sneak into town at night,
     and as you’re walking home with a whore,
     do they mug you, a knife at your throat,
     saying, I want your job?

This is a sentiment that ought to find plenty of traction in Los Angeles today.

Monday, June 4, 2012


Last week I went for a walk in Runyon Canyon Park – what used to be the Huntington Hartford Estate, a name that means less to most people than I think it should. George Huntington Hartford (he never used that first name), was one of those great, tragic American heirs who lost a fortune and himself.  

His family owned the A and P grocery chain.  He was nine when his father died, at which point his trust fund was worth $1.5 million a year, and when his uncle died, admittedly a few decades later, he became worth half a billion dollars or so, which he proceeded to lose.  Mostly it went on bad business deals, but he undoubtedly had an extravagant amount of fun along the way, as a writer, publisher, art collector, producer of movies and stage plays, including a theater production of Jane Eyre starring Errol Flynn, at a time when Flynn was some years past his peak.

The 130 acres of canyon that became the Huntington Hartford Estate, were and indeed still are, just a couple of blocks north of Hollywood Boulevard.  Huntington Hartford bought them from John McCormick, the Irish tenor, who had built a mansion, guest houses and a terraced garden on the property.  It’s not clear whether Hartford ever really intended to live there.   He had Frank Lloyd Wright design him a Play Resort and Sports Club which would have looked as though three flying saucers had colonized the Hollywood Hills (an appealing enough idea), but a tidal wave of local opposition put an end to the plans, and although he kept the property (Errol Flynn stayed in one of the guest houses) by the end of the fifties he was ready to give the estate to the city, which promptly declined the offer. 

Furious, Hartford sold the estate at a cut price to one Jules Berman, a man who made his fortune by importing Kahlua, and who promptly demolished most of the buildings on the estate to make way for a more orthodox housing development.  No properties standing on the land meant no property taxes to pay, although some sources say that at least one of the guests house was still there at the end of the 1980s.  Berman couldn’t get his plans approved either, and in the end he too offered the land to the city, which this time accepted the gift.

I’d been in certain bits of the park before, had certainly appreciated the “beware of rattlesnake” signs, but I never thought that Runyon Canyon was my kind of walking territory.  Sure, it offers some interesting challenges, rugged, steep, bleakly hot at times summer, and in return it does give you some great views over Los Angeles, but most of the people don’t seem to go there for the walking.  They go there to jog, to run, to exercise, and all too many of them go there to display themselves, to preen, to show off their perfected bods, the men rather more exhibitionistically than the women.  I really don’t need that when I walk.

But this time I was walking there for a very good reason.  I’d had lunch with the wonderful photographer Loretta Ayeroff, who is a fan both of walking and ruins.  One of her series of photographs is titled Off Wilshire referring to the area of LA she lived at the time, when her daughter was newly born.  Every day she’d go for a walk around the neighborhood, baby strapped to her back, camera in hand, photographing quirky, undramatic, but very telling and sometimes mysterious details. 

She also did another great series in the 70s and early 80s titled California Ruins, extraordinary photographs of ruined places that included Alcatraz, some sinister military bunkers in Marin county, the Los Angeles’ Pan Pacific Auditorium before it burned down.  There were shots of gold mines, restaurants, the dinosaurs in Cabazon, and this particular image that I find incredibly and inscrutably moving.

         The title is "Huntingdon Hartford Estate," and since we'd had lunch on Sunset Boulevard it wasn’t going to be much of a stretch to walk up the hill, into Runyon Canyon, to try to find those steps again.  We went in the gate at the south east corner, not expecting much, not sure that we'd find them at all, and immediately, there they were, bang in front of us, the steps, the ones in the photograph.  They were so conspicuous, and so easy to find, that at first neither of us could quite believe it was the right place, and in a way we didn’t want to.  We had wanted it to be harder, more of a search, more of a quest. 

In one sense the steps hadn’t changed at all (I suppose the more low-lying and ground-hugging a structure is, the less likely it is to be ravaged by destructive forces whether natural or human), but everything around them was transformed.  Where there had been leafless, wintry trees there was now lush foliage, century plants, and huge gnarled cacti rising well above head height.  Here’s Loretta, in situ.

         We pressed on, not very far, until we saw something in the bushes, nothing very identifiable, perhaps the end of a wall, a chunk of fallen masonry, but definitely something.  We went through bushes and branches, and found a long low, raised concrete slab, a foundation, with a substantial fireplace and a chimney made of rough stone.  We assumed it must be the remains of one of the guest houses.  Had Errol Flynn slept here?

     The painting on the chimney seems strangely sophisticated in some ways, like a hastily conceived totem pole, less sophisticated in others.  Somebody had written “Beer” on the side in thin formless capitals, and beer had clearly been on the mind of many previous visitors.  There were cans strewn around, and fast food wrappers, and a couple of sleeping bags, though these didn’t look like they’d been used recently.   There were condoms too – unused, still in their faded yellow wrappers – the LifeStyles brand.  Beer, sleeping bags, condoms; the Hollywood lifestyle indeed.

         We pressed on up the hill, on our way to the ruined tennis court, and then to Inspiration Point, and we noticed that a group of half a dozen people had gathered and were looking at something very fascinating on the ground.  We joined them.  There, slithering across the dry dusty path, was a five-foot long snake.  Someone said “It’s a rattlesnake” but it quite obviously wasn’t – there was no rattle.  And eventually a consensus was reached that it was a fine rat snake, not the tamest or least snappy of creatures, but nothing that would kill you.  

What is a garden, or indeed a canyon, without a serpent?  What is an estate, or indeed a walk, without a ruin?

More details about Loretta Ayeroff and her work can be found here:


 Just in case you doubted that Fiona Apple is a self-dramatizing, self-aggrandizing twerp (and I know you didn’t really doubt it for a minute) there she was in yesterday’s New York Times, with journalist Jon Pareles as her enabler, describing how she dealt with the profound angst she experienced when the record company delayed the release of her album.

Pareles writes, “She started to walking up and down a hill near her home in Venice, California ... for eight hours a day, day after day, until she could barely walk, until she was limping, and then until she could not walk at all.  Her knees required months of therapy.”  Then Pereles quotes the women herself, “Something about that was a rite of passage.  I think it’s really healthy to lose things or give things up for a while, to deprive yourself of certain things.  It’s always a good learning experience because I felt it really was like, ‘I must learn to walk again.’”

And yes, they actually let this woman out on her own.

Compare and contrast with the walking wounded of Afghanistan.  The story is that at a time when NATO troops are about to withdraw from that country, the Afghan army and police have started to get their act together and have even found a local hero in this man:

The above photograph by David Gill has apparently stirred great feelings of patriotism and heroism.  It shows an Afghan commando – his name seems to be Hamidullah – after he’s been involved in an eighteen-hour gun battle on the streets of Kabul.  He’s wounded in the leg but he’s on his feet, he’s walking, having stood up to the insurgents.  Well, we know that pictures never tell the whole story, and that social media tell even less, but apparently on Twitter and Facebook there is enormous support for the local forces and many wishes that they will defeat the “enemies of Islam,” whoever they might be right now.

I wonder what that wounded soldier will have to give up, how many months of therapy he’ll need or get. I wonder whether he’ll find the whole thing “a good learning experience.”