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, October 24, 2013


I’ve been in New York, the city and the state, doing some walking among other things.  On the first day there I went to my publisher’s office, a place I’d been before and it’s right there in the middle of town, on 18th Street, and so I had no worries about finding it and getting there on time.  And so, I set off for a meeting, and in due course I got completely and utterly (and inevitably) lost.  I suddenly couldn’t tell whether I should be on east 18th or west 18th, and in any case I had some kind of brain fade and couldn’t tell east from west anyway, and so I got there late and sweaty and panicky, and feeling like a complete rube, who couldn’t find his way around the big city.  This was not precisely the impression I was trying to convey to my publisher.

Of course, when I’m in my walker/urban explorer mode, I think that being lost in the city is a very good thing, but it’s not nearly so cool when you have to be at a certain place at a certain time.  The ­real problem, I told myself later, is that you never get quite as lost as when you’re certain you know exactly where you’re going.  If I’d had any doubts about where I was going, where the publisher’s office was, I’d have double checked the address, consulted a map, taken the map with me, but I had no such doubts, and in the event my unmerited confidence undid me.

I was staying in the apartment where photographer Dudley Reed and his wife Betty live, and the place was full of photographic books, including Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a book I’d read a very long time ago, and I thought I remembered it pretty well, but it seems not.  Or perhaps it’s that I now have a different set of priorities and obsessions, than I did back then when I first read it, and there seemed something very fresh about a couple of paragraphs from the book.

Sontag writes, “…the earliest surrealist photographs come from the 1850s when photographers went out prowling the streets of London, Paris, New York, looking for their unposed slice of life.”
         Then later, “In fact, photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle class flaneur, whose sensibility was so accurately charted by
 Baudelaire.  The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising, the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.”
Interesting and significant, I think, that she doesn’t categorize either the flaneur or the photographer as male, though historically (and with notable exceptions) the majority of both flaneurs and street photographers have been men.

As you wander the streets of New York these days it seems that everybody is taking pictures, women just as much as men.  One or two seem to be “real” photographers, brandishing bulky SLRs, but the majority are using their cell phones.  I don’t know how many of them are looking for the Surrealists’ “chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella,” but I’m sure they’d take a picture of it if they saw one.

And of course a lot of people are looking at their cell phones, texting rather than taking pictures with them, and of course they walk into others, and others no doubt walk into them, which seems a kind of rough justice. They can’t say they haven’t been warned.  The streets of Manhattan now display posters like the one below, which is actually on the side of a public phone booth.  Does anybody use public phone booths anymore?

As it happened, there were was a Banksy street art exhibition going on all over New York while I was there.  One of the pranks involved some guy on the street selling “real” Banksies for the price of fakes - $60 as opposed to the $15,000 or so they’d cost in a gallery.  Of course $60 does seem a bit steep for fake Banksy. 

But knowing that the man himself was in town and in action meant that as I walked the streets of New York I kept seeing Banksy-esque stenciled graffiti, and asking myself is that a real or a fake.  Only a fool would have claimed to know with any certainty.  But I did spot this on 24th Street at 6th Avenue.

Of course I couldn’t have sworn it was the real thing, but I thought it might be, and I definitely thought it was worth a picture; and having got home and done some research it seems that yes, as far as I can tell, I was looking at a REAL Banksy. I walked past it again a couple of days later, and it seemed it was being surrounded by other, much less artful-looking tags and graffiti, which you might think spoiled the effect, though for all I know Banksy might have been doing those too.


Want to hear me talking about the "future of walking"  Well, I mean, it's possible, people have wanted starnger things.  If so you can find me on Andrew Stuck's talkingwalking website, which looks like this:

Geoff Nicholson – walking 5 years from now

Geoff Nicholson
Best selling author of some dozen and more novels including “Bleeding London” in which one character walks every street in London. In 2008 Geoff turned his hand to writing about his life long passion of walking, publishing the acclaimed “Lost Art of Walking“.  Earlier this month a companion volume, “Walking in Ruins”, treats us to Geoff’s reflections on what makes a ruin and what makes them so attractive to him. “Walking in Ruins” makes beguiling reading.  Sheffield-born and bred, Geoff now lives in Los Angeles, California one of the places where you are least likely to see a pedestrian, but this hasn’t discouraged him from daily walks in and around his local neighbourhood. Geoff’s forecast offers an insight into Californian life and comes with a sting in the tail.
Find more information on Geoff_Nicholson  and listen to an interview with him here.
If you have a prediction for walking in the next 5 years, and you want to have it heard then why not call this number +44 20 8144 9554 and tell us your forecast.

And a link to the website homepage is here:



Andie Miller, the author of Slow Motion: Stories About Walking  (which is a very good book), sends me the article below from the website of The Times of Johannesburg, which mentions me in passing, and which is a very interesting piece even without that.  I especially like the suggestion that only a man with a heart of stone can fail to laugh at Werner Herzog's lugubriousness.
The part I find especially fascinating is the sentence that reads, “For me walking is like drinking - it makes me happy but I can do it only when I'm happy already.”  I find that completely unlike my own experience.  Walking when I’m happy is good, of course, but it’s not transformative: I tend to stay happy.  Whereas walking when I’m unhappy is the best way I know to get rid of that unhappiness. 
Ah walkers, damn them: no two of them are ever exactly alike.

Walking for dear life

Darrel Bristow-Bovey | 21 October, 2013 00:30

I received a message this week from a man who doesn't want to be named. He'd read about how much I like walking, and he wanted me to know that his brother is, right now, walking from Durban to Johannesburg.
He isn't necessarily walking in a straight line, and when he gets there he might turn around and walk back. He isn't walking for charity and he isn't dressed in a rhino suit. He won't tweet about it or blog or get interviewed on breakfast television. He doesn't want your attention or your money. He's walking because although he isn't religious or especially superstitious, on some level he believes that if he walks his sister may not die of the illness that is killing her.
I wondered if he had read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. An old man named Harold Fry learns that a friend is on the last lap of cancer and sets off, unprepared, to walk across England to see her. He isn't sure what he'll say when he gets there, but he wants her to know that he is coming. He hopes, if hope is the word, that his walk will keep her alive.
It's an act of faith but not in anything. It's an action to exert what small influence a man can exert over an indifferent universe, which is to say, no influence at all. He walks because it's all he can do, and something might be better than nothing. It's a lovely book and if it goes on a bit towards the end, well, that's the nature of very long walks.
The unacknowledged urtext for Harold Fry is surely Werner Herzog's Of Walking In Ice. In the icy winter of 1974 Herzog received word that the German film historian Lotte Eisner was dying in Paris. Herzog instantly walked to see her. He was in Munich at the time. He walked for three weeks through conditions so cold and grim you'd have to be Werner Herzog to endure it or deserve it.
It would take a hard Wildean heart to read Herzog's frozen prose and hear his lugubrious Wagnerian voice intoning, "A black morning, gloomy and cold, spread like a pestilence. I curse Creation" , without laughing out loud. Herzog walked for three weeks, on foot except when he accepted lifts, single-minded except when he took a detour to see the birthplace of Joan of Arc. Lotte Eisner lived another eight years.
The writer Geoff Nicholson tells how, inspired by this story, he went on pilgrimage to Herzog's home in Beverly Hills to ask him to blurb The Lost Art of Walking. He walked in the faith that if he walked, Herzog would surely agree. Alas, not all walks have happy endings.
I love walking, but not as an act of faith, or even penance. Nicholson also tells about Old Leatherman, an unusually ambulatory gentleman of the highway who between 1858 and 1889 walked a 500km route around precise points of Connecticut and New York State, dressed all in leather. The circuit took 34 days and he walked every day, wordless, never taking a day or an item off.
The odour of unlaundered leather didn't bother him because he was a Frenchman named Jules Bouglay, who loved a woman and worked a year's apprenticeship in her father's leather business to prove his worthiness. Regrettably, he ruined the company, bankrupted Dad and lost his love. He went to America and spent the next thirty-some years walking to expiate his guilt. I like to think he returned at the end to claim her, although he might have had some difficulty proving what he'd been doing all that time. Maybe he should have tweeted about it after all.
I try to walk between 10km and 15km each day - ambling and mooching and occasionally sauntering (from sainte-terre, or "holy ground", initially used to denote pilgrims who walked to the Holy Land, and then, sarcastically, for people too lazy to walk to the Holy Land). Since I started walking seven years ago, I no longer get depressed.
For me walking is like drinking - it makes me happy but I can do it only when I'm happy already. If I have quarrelled or I'm fretful I often set out to walk all day but I become panicky. I feel exposed on foot in the world if my heart is not at ease, as though something terrible and irreversible is about to happen. I become gripped with the breathless fear I sometimes get descending underwater, and I have to hurry home.
So I couldn't do what the brother of my new friend is doing, but my thoughts are with them both. Thoughts don't change anything. Neither does prayer. Neither does walking, but you have to do something.

You can read it on the website by clicking here:

Friday, October 11, 2013


So I was doing a word search for “Pynchon+female+flaneurs” y’know, the way you do, and it turned up a movie review on letterboxd.com, by Chuck Williamson discussing Pont de Nord, a 1982 movie directed by Jacques Rivette, which I’d never heard of.  I think it has the least relevant DVD cover I've ever encountered.

Rivette used to be one of my main men: Celine and Julie Go Boating was the movie that drew me in. I never saw the whole twelve hours of his movie Out 1, but I did make it through the 4 hours of the shorter cut Out 1: Specter.  If I’ve cooled slightly on Rivette it may be partly that so few of his films get wide distribution, also frankly there always seemed a bit too much acting going on in his movies; not helped by the fact quite a few of the movies were about people in theater groups.

Anyway, the Williamson review started like this: “Cervantes by way of Thomas Pynchon, Le Pont du Nord is an improvised game of female flâneurs, urban modernity, panoptic surveillance, and apophenia run amok. It recasts Paris as a labyrinthine game board, a liminal space in the throes of renewal whose razed and roughhewn layout houses an intricately patterned maze.”

Intrigued?  Well I was.  I found a few stills online – two women posing around in Paris, one of them instantly recognizable as Bulle Ogier (a Rivette favorite), the other unknown to me: in fact it was Bulle’s daughter Pascale, though they don’t play mother and daughter in the movie. 

A root around on Amazon suggested Pont de Nord was available on DVD in the UK but not in the US, and although I really wanted to see the movie, I thought it was just going to be one those intense passing urges that the internet fosters then erases.  But I thought I’d check on YouTube, maybe find a trailer or some such, and there was the whole thing.  There are, of course, all sorts of reasons to fret about the royalty-free zone that is YouTube, but I am a weak man – I watched it.

It is amazing and wonderful stuff, full of game playing and psychogeography, and really 90 percent of the film has the two female leads Marie (played by Bulle) and Baptiste (played by Pascale) wandering around Paris, usually together; and if you say that the flaneur has to be a solitary figure, well I’d say you’re being a bit harsh.

 With the occasional exception, the Paris seen in the movie is disorientatingly unfamiliar.  The women walk the underpopulated the edgelands of the city, walking through wastelands, past ruins, past things being demolished, along railway lines, up staircases that seem to lead nowhere in particular.   These two singular (and I think you’d have to say rather actressy) women look around them, look for clues, and why deny it, they also look very good.

 They are essentially homeless women, in that Marie has just been released from prison and has nowhere to go, and Baptiste is a sort of street urchin who seems to be suffering from an unspecified mental disorder.  You can’t help noticing that they and their clothes stay remarkably clean despite them having no obvious arrangements for ablutions or laundry, but it’s not really that kind of movie.

There is a sort of thriller plot: you can get away with a lot if you include a thriller plot.  Pierre Clementi is wonderfully, reliably, creepy as the bad criminal boyfriend, and there’s a lot of stuff with a map, actually two maps, of Paris, showing the city as a (thoroughly incomprehensible) game, with different squares representing tomb, prison, pit, auberge, and so on. This inevitably doesn’t add up to as much you’d like, but somehow you never expect it to.

I couldn’t help thinking I’d have been pretty happy if most of the plot and dialogue had been ditched and I could have watched the two women walking around this unfamiliar, transitional Paris, and I’m sure there must be some avant- garde filmmaker out there who’s made a movie much like that.

But what you do get in  Pont de Nord is a sense of danger, the sense that these two women wandering the city are very vulnerable, that no good is likely to come of it, and certainly that the men in the film are unlikely to be any help.  And in the end, things do turn out very badly, though not in the way you’re expecting.   No spoilers from me.

There’s a good deal of discussion in academic circles about the extent to which female flaneurism even exists.  I only follow some of it.  There is an argument, much of it having to do with masculine sexuality and gaze, and the different ways in which men and women relate to the city, which suggests flaneurism in the Beaudelairean sense is a specifically male response to certain crises in 19th century capitalism.  There is also, naturally, a desire for women to reclaim the territory.

         There’s an interesting 2002 essay by Helen Scalway titled “The Contemporary Flaneuse: Exploring strategies for the drifter in a feminine mode.”  It discusses the difficulties, and “negotiations” demanded of a solitary woman walking in London.  She describes an area close to where I used to live: she describes the horrors of the Westway very accurately.

  She also writes of the area in general, “Aggressively fast boy cyclists on the pavements. - and all the stopped people: unemployed youths, claiming space by their demeanor - probably because they have no space anywhere, really; all the homeless, the beggars, the drugged, drunk, deranged, predatory; other victims of care in the community.”

These things have to be negotiated my male walkers as well, but in a different way no doubt.  Scalway also takes an interesting dig at Iain Sinclair, quoting the opening lines of Lights Out for the Territory, familiar enough to many readers  “The notion was to cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant sign making.”

Yes, there is something unnecessarily “manly” and macho about that wording, isn’t there?  In part I suspect it’s because Sinclair doesn’t want to come across as some, effete middle-class boulevardier, he wants to show how serious he is, a man on a mission, with a special literary project.  In person he doesn’t come over as macho at all.  But sure, I can’t imagine any woman ever putting it quite that way, and Scalway certainly doesn’t. 
Scalway continues, “I think about the manner of my walking. So then how actually, do I walk? It’s a looking for spaces to slip through and round, weaving and threading a path through which opens and closes, darting, dodging and dancing, two-stepping, giving way, persistently returning.
“My passage is not, cannot be, like that of Iain Sinclair’s narrator who freely uses words such as march, stride, slog, swinging out into the main drag, yomp.  The words that come to my mind to describe my movement through the street imply that it's a much more difficult negotiation.”
         I like that, I like that a lot.

Helen Scalway’s website is here: