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, April 23, 2013


And here’s a thing.  A friend just sent me this inscrutable image, found floating around in the eternal spotless void of the internet:

 It comes with the caption: “Happy Harry Herman, the 77 year old hermit of Hollywood, takes his daily morning walk in Los Angeles.  Throughout the year, he wears nothing else than his loincloth and sandals.  California USA.  Photograph November 4, 1933."

Can this really be a photograph from 1933?   I’d never have guessed so, though I’m prepared to believe that it is – the street looks suitably empty, but a little research, online and off, doesn’t produce any further information.  If you have any, do please share.  Perhaps you can even identify where he is, I can only guess.

And the fact is, this does look like an image created for outsiders.  Anybody who lives in LA knows that although this is a very warm and pleasant city most of the time, it really isn’t so warm that you could go around half naked every day of the year.  You’d freeze on certain days.  Maybe people were made of sterner stuff in 1933, especially the hermits.

Monday, April 22, 2013


Herewith a book review I just did for the San Francisco Chronicle.  Depending on how you get to the website you'll be told you do, or don't, need a digital subscription in order to read it.  This link may work:


But just in case it doesn't, here's the review:

WALKING HOME: A Poet’s Journey
Simon Armitage

Reviewed by Geoff Nicholson

The walking poet and the poetical walker are fine and familiar literary figures, perhaps reaching a high point with William Wordsworth and his “Daffodils,” probably the best known and least understood poem in the English language (spoiler alert – it’s not really about daffodils). 

These days anyone visiting Wordsworth’s Lake District, in the northwest of England, is going to find it extremely hard to wander lonely as a cloud: the whole place is absolutely packed with walkers, if not necessarily poets, and the serious literary wanderer is forced to go elsewhere.  And so in his new book Simon Armitage, best known as a poet, but also a novelist, translator, and essayist, heads for the Pennine Way, a rugged 256 mile trail running along the spine of England. 

This is by no means untrodden territory, but Armitage has a special connection.  He grew up in the village of Marsden, in West Yorkshire, toward the southern end of the trail, a suitable first stop for walkers doing the route south to north, and he remembers as a boy seeing mud-splattered hikers emerging from the hills after completing a single day’s trek.  Some of them gave up at this point, but Armitage is made of sterner stuff, and as he walks the route the “wrong,” or at least less usual, way, north to south, he is literally and metaphorically walking home.

Just to make life more complicated for himself, and more interesting for the reader, his plan is to give a poetry reading at the end of each day’s walk, in a pub or school or village hall or anywhere else that will have him, passing the hat round at the end of his performance and also relying on the kindness of strangers to give him a bed for the night. “So, it’s basically 256 miles of begging,” he says.  This allows him to call himself minstrel (the British edition was subtitled “travels with a troubadour”), although I suspect the original minstrels and troubadours might think it was a bit of a cheat to use the Internet to arrange the trip.

In part then, this is a travel book, describing the environment through which the author walks.  Armitage is a serious writer but not a solemn one.  His descriptions of the bleak landscape is evocative but often very surprising, “we sit down in the middle of one of the meadows, with Melancholy Thistle and Yellow Rattle … and beyond that the open wounds of new quarries and the closed sockets and half-healed scars of old ones.”   The mud of the  Sleightholme Moor is “half a mile of sticky toffee pudding and black treacle”  He also has an eye for the things that many would not consider poetic at all, “a fairground teddy bear used for target practice spews stuffing from an exit wound” or “a farmer in his yard, power-washing a donkey with a high-pressure hose.”  He is too subtle a writer to pontificate about the “state of Britain” but his descriptions of dodgy pubs, shuttered post offices, theme park “heritage” sites, “brutalist, breeze-block barns”, is simultaneously droll, familiar, melancholy and sometimes downright depressing.

Armitage is interested in people as well as places.  Sometimes these are fellow walkers, and at one point he attempts a taxonomy of the those he encounters, with classifications that include “She’s Left Me/I’ll Show Him,” “Midlife Crisis” and “Away with the Fairies.”  His family also joins him for part of the walk.  His young daughter says,  “This is a funny holiday,” and who would argue with her?

         He also describes the people who take him in for the night, good hearted souls every one, although constantly sleeping in strangers’ spare rooms does start to wear thin after a while.  He describes these places as “rooms which are nearly always reliquaries or shrines, museums of past lives or mausoleums devoted to a particular absence,” then he consoles himself by reading the Odyssey. 
          There are also accounts of his poetry readings, the good gigs as well as the bad, and inevitably the latter are much more fun to read about; though in general he finds audiences who are remarkably (and surprisingly) receptive and generous.  There’s a “flashback” to a supremely uncomfortable and hilarious gig he once did in a city-center art gallery when a man in a doughnut costume appeared in the street and leaned against the glass front wall of the gallery.   As the house manager of the event tried to move the doughnut man along he protested, “’Doughnuts can like poetry.”

In the end, road fever sets in, and Armitage concludes that “choosing which poems to read has become like choosing from a set-menu options in a Chinese restaurant, tonight being menus C: ‘The Shout,’ Causeway,’ ‘Roadshow’ … followed by Sweet and Sour Chicken,” He’s being hard on himself, which is exactly what you want in a walker or writer.  He describes some of the different words for the kinds of walking he does: tramping, trudge, grind, slog; but it’s never that way for the reader.  There are certainly times, such as when he’s lost on the moors in the rain and fog, that you’re glad it’s him rather him than you, but there are plenty of other when you simply want to leap out of your chair, follow in his footsteps and start walking.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


For reasons too tedious to explain, but having a lot to do with taking over ownership of a cat, I found myself a couple of weekends ago in Malibu, a ritzy little beach town just up the coast from LA.  Now, I would be the first to admit that I don’t “get” Malibu.  I was told by somebody in the know that it’s the place people move after they make their first serious money in Hollywood.  They move out, get the beach house, the view, the seclusion, then a couple of years later they realize they’re paying way too much money for this place, that they’re out of the action, that they have to drive an hour and a half to get anywhere they actually want to be, and then they move back into a house in the Hollywood Hills.

Whether all that’s true or not, it was certainly a mighty tedious drive to get to Malibu from where I live, so it seemed that having gone all that way I should at least have a walk along the beach.

I didn’t go very far - the cat was calling - but I walked for 40 minutes or so, and hell yes, I could see the attraction of having a Malibu beach house.  In fact the whole stretch looked like an architectural theme park; all manner of quirky, individualistic, slightly over the top beach houses, some of them so close to the beach that any damn fool could ignore the no trespassing signs and walk right up to the front door and poke around, although you could be pretty sure you were being filmed by security cameras.

And eventually I walked past, and in due course poked around (didn’t go inside – though others clearly had done), a genuine Malibu ruin, that looked in fact as though it became a ruin before it was even completed. 

The story as I hear it (and my source may not be 100% reliable), is that a Getty heir began to build a house for his mistress.  Now, I don’t know what constitutes extravagance in the Getty clan but looking around this place it seems as though the architect or the mistress, or both, decided to blow as much of the old man’s money as possible.  There’s enough marble on the outside, to furnish a small showroom, most of it gorgeous, garish, madly expensive, and not quite matching.

Then again, bits of it look kind of tacky.  Are those columns with the rebar bar sticking out of them supposed to look classical?  Are those arches meant to be Moorish? 

Anyway, I’m sure it’s very unfair to judge a  project before it's finished, but it appears that unfinished is how it’s going to stay.  Getty heir and mistress apparently fell out, and both parties just shrugged their shoulders and walked away.    You can do that in Malibu I guess, certainly if you’re a Getty.  But as I say, I’m happy to be corrected on all this.

It was a certain amount of fun poking around the ruin, looking for clues, feeling like a gumshoe.  And let’s face it, it doesn’t take much to make me feel like Philip Marlowe, and although I find it hard to think of either Marlowe or his creator Raymond Chandler as beach boys, the fact is if you live in LA, you’re bound to end up walking on the beach sooner or later. 

I haven’t found much evidence for this in Chandler’s case.  Most of the extant photographs show him in his study, smoking a pipe and fondling a cat.  But there is this rather nice picture of him walking somewhere that could very possibly be a beach, though I wouldn't swear to it: it might equally be a quarry or conceivably a studio backlot. 

And here he is in Palm Springs in the late 50s, by the pool rather than the beach, and very definitely eschewing the hardboiled image.

It’s easier to imagine Humphrey Bogart at the beach, but if you really want a picture of Bogie also letting his image slip just a little there’s this: also Palm Springs as far as I can tell.

But there is one locus where Marlowe, Chandler, and Malibu all come together, and that’s in Altman’s The Long Goodbye; a movie I never quite love as much as everybody else seems to, but it does have the very clever and telling conflation of Marlowe (Elliott Gould)  –  a man of the mean streets – having a case that takes him to the Malibu Colony, an even ritzier enclave within the ritzy little beach town; and has him walking along the beach, giving rise to this fabulous (and I assume entirely constructed) image.