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 28, 2013


(Photo of and by Colin Fletcher. Courtesy of UCSC Colin Fletcher Archive, MDHCA, Colita Publ.)

I’m a great fan of the late Colin Fletcher, another Brit who, like me, went native in California.  Fletcher is the author of The Complete Walker, a book I initially resisted.  Who needs a handbook to be told how to walk? But Fletcher delivers his information with wit, commonsense and good humor, and completely won me over.  If some of it seems a bit obvious – pack lightly – there are some unexpected delights in there too, including his Second Law of Thermodynamic Walking – “Give your balls some air.”  Fletcher also wrote The Man Who Walked Through Time about hiking the Grand Canyon, and The Thousand Mile Summer  about hiking along the entire eastern edge of California.

Fletcher is pretty much the opposite kind of walker from me.  He’s a fan of the solitary three day hike through the untamed wilderness, whereas I’m more in favor of an eight hour walk through the mean streets of a city, with a dive bar the end.  

Nevertheless, I just found this wonderful passage in one Fletcher’s less well known books (less well known to me, anyway), The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher.  It runs:

“Yes, looking back on my life – on the part of it that was over – there could be no doubt: walking had somehow become one of its underpinnings, shorings, props, whatever you wanted to call it.  In mock-macho mood I’d even said that maybe life was all “wine, women and walking.”  From time to time I had wondered just what I would have done without the walking.  That question was stupid though.  Invalid.  Without the walking, ‘I’ would have been somebody else – would not have evolved into what was currently ‘me.’”

I agree absolutely with every word of that.  I wish I’d said it.  I’m sure I will.

The Colin Fletcher website is right here.  http://www.colinfletcher.com

Monday, March 18, 2013


And speaking (obliquely) of walking and San Francisco … I’ve been reading Paul Virilio’s book Bunker Archeology. Virilio, invariably described as a philosopher, urbanist, and cultural theorist, here writes writing about the French bunkers, part of the “Atlantic Wall,” built under Hitler’s instructions, from Norway to the South of France, during World War Two.  Virilio says that when he was a child in France he never saw the sea because the French coast had been turned into a no man’s land, scattered with defensive structures, in anticipation of an Allied invasion. 

As a grown up, he walked daily along the beach, exploring, photographing and philosophizing about the concrete bunkers that could still be found every few miles.  He concluded that these bunkers were “symbols of the fragility of the Nazi state.  This cryptic architecture became the marker for the evolution of Hitlerian space.”  The notion that bunkers are a sign of fragility is an interesting one, but I wonder if there’s any civilization that hasn’t built bunkers of one kind or another.

It so happens that San Francisco has its own line of bunkers, along with other attendant fortfications, as in fact as does the whole of the American coast: a sort of “Pacific Wall” built to deter enemies coming in across the water, be they real or imaginary, Mexican, Japanese, or Russian.  It’s tempting to see this as simple American paranoia, but in fact in fact the first San Francisco bunkers were built by the Spanish.

The San Francisco bunkers are on the west coast of the peninsula, all along the side of the Presidio, once an impenetrable military base, now a public park.  I decided I’d walk the length of the Presidio, from the southwest corner, take the path that goes past various bunkers, battlements and batteries – Battery Chamberlin, Battery Crosby, Battery Godfrey, Battery Boutelle, et al -and end up somewhere under the Golden Gate Bridge.  That’s not a huge distance, not more than a couple of miles, though with plenty of up and downs and detours, including the Battery to Bluffs Trail, if you choose to take them.

I’d been told that this area is known in some quarters as “bad boy beach,” a hot bed of gay sex, but I couldn’t see any evidence of this.  Maybe it was too cold.  I did see a couple of professional dog walkers at the southern end, and increasing numbers of more or less serious walkers, and even runners, as I got further north, but in general the stretch was thinly populated.

Of course the ocean is the attraction for a lot of people, and there’s a pretty fabulous view of the bridge for most of the way, and yet the bunkers still felt like the real attraction, and I didn’t see any anybody resisting the urge to walk among them, going up and up and down the steps, climbing the parapets, walking on the roofs, on what would have been the impenetrable face they toward the enemy.

I’m still trying to work out exactly what’s so great about these bunkers, and perhaps all bunkers; I think it’s because that they’re so uncompromising, they’re absolutely functional, built exactly the way they need to be built, without decoration or aesthetic consideration, they don’t look like any other kind of building, they’re completely themselves and yet when you want among them it’s as moving as walking in the ruins of ancient Greece.

There are still several thousand World War Two pillboxes scattered around Britain, there were originally 28,000 of them apparently.  When I used to live East Anglia, in Suffolk, I’d always come across a pillbox or two when I was walking, nothing as grand as those in the Presidio,  and not nearly as photogenic as Virilio's, but they were appealing for many of the same reasons.  The coast itself had bunkers bunkers too – I used to poke around in one close to the Sizewell power station - looking out across the North Sea, ready for a German invasion just as the Germans behind the Atlantic Wall were ready for an Allied invasion.  Last time I was in England I walked by, and even into this, very fine example in Hartford End, Felsted; above and below.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


 I was in San Francisco, a great walking city so they tell me, and a few people had said I should go down to the Mission District and walk along Clarion Alley, a short, narrow, traffic-free alleyway running between Mission Street and Valencia Street – both pretty good streets to walk down - the latter the home of all manner of hip enterprises, the former full of old fashioned pork and fish stores.  Clarion Alley, I was told, was a kind of street art paradise, or at least theme park, where some high quality artists had gone hog wild on every surface, with amazing results.  Off I went.

As I walked down there it occurred to me that San Francisco is so awash with street art and graffiti and murals, that the idea of having a special place for it is slightly superfluous.  Still, as a Hollywood walker I was extremely taken with the sight below; not only the art on the surrounding boards but also the name.  There’s nothing like attaching the name Hollywood to your billiard hall to give it a bit of class, though that may not be enough to keep it in business.

But anyway Clarion Alley did prove to be very much as advertised and was full of street art and also full of people looking at the street art, and people photographing the street art, and people having themselves photographed standing in front of the street art.

Most of the art was pretty good, some of pretty great, and most of it excessive and intense and hit you in the eye, and of course much of it was tagged with the marks of much less accomplished wannabes, or maybe just vandals. My favorite by some way was this terrific homage to and recreation of the art of Moebius. 

As regular readers of this blog will know I’m a big fan of what I call “feral furniture,” chairs or beds or TV sets that look as though they’ve escaped from people’s homes and are now living on the street.  There was an armchair where you could sit and have Moebius’s work looming over you.

I gather that the art changes all the time in Clarion Alley, works fall into neglect, disappear, get painted over: all is flux.  But right in the middle of this artistic mayhem were the two garage doors below, absolutely free of art, graffiti or anything else.  

I wonder how often the owner has to go out there and paint the doors to preserve the integrity of this color field.  However often it is, it’s worth it.  Minimalism had never looked so good.