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 22, 2013


I’ve been thinking about Immanuel Kant, author of The Critique of Pure Reason, and Charlton Heston, star of The Omega Man.

 Immanuel Kant, 1724 – 1804, lived his whole life in Konigsberg, in Prussia, what is now Kaliningrad, in Russia. He was man of rigorous habits and walked every day as he thought and philosophized.  So regular were these walks that people said you could set your clock by the time Kant strolled past, even though there seems to be no absolute agreement about exactly where he walked.

In the early 2000s an artist named Joachim Koester created The Kant Walks, doing his best to plot and then walk Kant’s route or routes. The proposition was made trickier given that large parts of the city were destroyed by Allied bombing at the end of World War Two, and the center was never rebuilt.  Koester took some gorgeously bleak photographs along the way.

Koester writes, “… Kant’s walk is often invoked but rarely specified.  A walk is like a manual, a way to engage in space, a recipe to follow but also to improvise with, allowing for drifting, losing oneself.”

And so, at the end of last week I found myself in downtown Los Angeles drifting and improvising, trying to follow in some of the footsteps of Charlton Heston, as taken in the The Omega Man, based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend.  Charlton, playing Robert Neville, is nearly but not quite the last man on earth, but most of the ones that remain are zombie-ish vampire types.  I admit I get slightly lost on the detail.

Tracking Charlton Heston is certainly easier than tracking Kant, not least because one or two online movie obsessives have already done some of the spade work.  Everyone says how much downtown LA has been revitalized but there are still some amazing pockets of neglect and desolation.  I happened to walk along Skid Row, and amid the many homeless people there was an old black man with dreadlocks who was carrying a hammer, and thought that the tarmac of the road needed a lot of hammering, which he duly delivered.

Above is Charlton Heston walking along Santee Street, and below is the street as it is is today.  Some buildings are gone, some spruced up, but the basic structure is perfectly recognizable from the movie. This is the building at the end of the street that Heston's walking towards.

 Then there’s the Olympic movie theater where Heston goes repeatedly to watch Woodstock (your guess is as good as mine). 

Not sure if the resolution's good enough, but there's a fallout shelter sign to the right of the theateris frontage.  The place is now a store selling elaborate decorative furnishings - complete with a sign that says everything must go – but the place where movie titles could de displayed is still intact.

And here, not very far away, is a remnant from a now closed down jewelry store, once so successful they could even replace the sidewalk.  I'd definitely have had that in the movie.

 And then, completely untouched as far as I could tell, exactly as in the movie, although with new buildings in the distance, is the Water and Power building at First Street and Hope.

It’s hard to see the building from many of the surrounding streets because it’s right behind Gehry’s Disney Hall, and of course in the normal run of events, you’re not likely to go there unless you have some business concerning water and power.  However, and this is truly a wonder, the building is surrounded by water – it’s MOATED – with a bridge, though not a drawbridge as far as I could tell.

At the end of the afternoon I went into the Last Book Store, a huge and I hope not doomed enterprise, and found a used copy of The Image Of The City by Kevin Lynch, a 1960s city planner, and a pioneer of one psychogeography according to some sources, a book which contains this terrific passages:  “It must be granted that there is some value in mystification, labyrinth or surprise in the environment ... This is so, however, only under two conditions.  First, there must be no danger of losing basic form or orientation, of never coming out … Furthermore, the labyrinth or mystery must in itself have some form that can be explored and in time be apprehended.  Complete chaos without a hint of connection is never pleasurable.”  Something I suspect that we could all agree on, Imannuel Kant and Charlton Heston, included.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


It’s got to be difficult to be French, hasn’t it?  What do they call “film noir” for instance?  “Black Cinema” just doesn’t cut it.  And you can see why they’d want to reclaim the term for the French movie industry, but when the French try to make a native film noir, it always ends up looking, forgive me, a little too French.

This crass overgeneralization comes as a result of having watched Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 movie Le Samouraï over the weekend.  It has Alain Delon, with fedora, trench coat, gun, and occasionally white gloves, being extraordinarily insouciant and Gallically engaging, but also utterly unconvincing as an assassin.  You’re not sure if you want to hit him or kiss him – I’ll bet he gets a lot of that.

Even David Thomson, in the handy little booklet that comes with the DVD, has his reservations. He calls the movie great but says it’s “poised on the brink of absurdity, or a kind of attitudizining male arrogance.”  Some of course might say it’s gone over the brink.  But it does have a fair amount of elegant walking in it.

The movie is famous, at least in some quarters, because of a brilliantly original chase scene, not involving cars but using the Paris Metro.  In a book titled Atlas of Emotion Giuliana Bruno makes a great deal of this subway chase.  She writes, “from the ruins of film noir, a story about mapping emerges ... Here, we engage in the very flux of psychogeography.  Our hero knows his city “intimately”; that is, he knows all its inner workings.  He has internalized the subway map … So familiar is streetwise Delon with this map that he can move jointly with it.”

Well yes, OK, sort of.  Ms. Bruno is also responsible for a book titled Streetwalking On a Ruined Map – which is a title so wonderful that I’m not sure any book could ever possibly live up to it.

It’s pretty hard, for me anyway, to watch Le Samouraï and not think of Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville, made a couple of years earlier, which is also “poised on the brink of absurdity” but it helps a lot that Eddie Constantine looks more like a bullfrog than a pretty boy.  It’s a long time since I saw it, and I wish I remembered it better, and to be honest I can’t tell you whether it involves much walking or not.  But if the stills are to believed there’s certainly some film noir strutting and posing, and I dare say some attitudizining male arrogance.

And finally a more or less current picture of M. Delon.  Still walking, still French, but just a little less insouciant.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


I seem to have seen more than the usual numbers of trailers for the new movie Gangster Squad, which may mean that the movie’s very good, or it may mean it’s very bad – large amounts of bought publicity attach to both.  Either way, there seems to be something all too familiar about the way it’s being sold: lots of images of dangerous looking men walking (or I dare say striding or strutting) across the screen or into the camera.

We’ve seen a lot of this before haven’t we?  If we’ve seen Mulholland Falls we’ve already seen Nick Nolte, who actually appears in Gangster Squad, doing something very similar indeed.  
          If you saw any of these guys walking down the street towards you, you’d cross the street to avoid them right?  The fact that they’re cops, that they’re morally ambiguous, but they’re more or less on our side, really doesn’t make any difference, does it?

Gangster Squad is based on a “true” story - which somebody, somewhere, decided long ago was a selling point for a movie – and it deals with the take down of gangster Mickey Cohen.  There’s no denying that Cohen was a very bad guy, but as a walker, above on the right, he just didn’t have that dangerous, threatening stride.

Compare and contrast with the Kray brothers.  If you saw these two psychos walking towards you, you wouldn’t just cross the street - you’d leave the neighbourhood.

Certain kinds of rock band have always liked to employ a dangerous strut, or swagger, as well as a bit of moral ambiguity.  For me there’s always been some serious disconnect between the image and the reality of the Clash, but there’s no denying they looked and dressed the part, above.

And finally this image, by Terry O’Neill, of Chairman Frank Sinatra, accompanied by admittedly fringe members of his “board.”  To some eyes, this picture shrieks “links to organized crime,” though defenders say no, no, he’s actually with his stunt double, his bodyguard, his personal assistant and the film set's head of security, who was an ex-cop.  The fact these guys just happen to look like mobsters is  a complete accident.
And even if Sinatra’s guys are complete softies, the image still delivers the same message: “I’m walking here, get out of my way.”  And you can see in the picture that everybody has.
         “Your way Frank, sure.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


If I look up from my desk and peer across the room, my eyes inevitably fall on a poster of one of my favourite images by one of my favourite photographers.  It’s Garry Winogrand’s image of two women at LAX airport walking toward what’s known as the Theme Building.  It looks like this:

In fact Winogrand took a great many of my favourite photographs.  He was, you’d say, a street photographer (one of those terms that seems to mean less and less the more you say it), and in the course of his work he did a lot of walking and photographed a lot of other walkers.  He’s usually associated with New York, but he took a lot of pictures in LA too.

He even took some in London.  The received wisdom is that his London photographs weren’t as good as his American ones, that his great skill was seeing a familiar environment with fresh eyes: when confronted by an unfamiliar environment this freshness disappeared and he was reduced to taking pictures of guardsmen or men in bowler hats.  Still, I’m very taken by the odd familiarity and strangeness of this one, titled Woman Entering a Cab, London:

 Winogrand did like shooting women in the street, so to speak, which in these days of the demonized male gaze seems a dodgy activity at best, but hell he had nothing on Miroslav Tichý.  I love Geoff Dyer’s description of Tichý’s working method,  “he spent his time perving around Kyjov, photographing women.” Well yes indeed.  I suppose Winogrand’s method was less pervy because it was less sneaky, though I know there are those who’d find this an overfine distinction.

Street photography has been much on my mind lately, having been hunkered down with Reuel Golden’s London: Portrait of a City, a grand photobook, showing London, its people and inevitably its walkers, from Oswald Mosley to the Kray Twins.  Full disclosure: I am mentioned approvingly therein. One picture that particularly stays with me, is the one below by Cecil Beaton, not really pervy I suppose, since it’s obviously a set up with a model, and because the photographer’s perviness was directed elsewhere.

I like taking pictures, I do it all the time, and I’m a good enough photographer to know I’m not a very good photographer. But once in a while I take a photograph that makes me happy.  Here is the best walking I've taken in a very long time, but Garry Winogrand,  I know it ain’t.