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, November 30, 2013


Want to see some pictures of women walking with animals?  Well it could do no harm, could it?  This first one is of Kelly Madison and I’m pretty sure they’re her own dogs.

I once sat next to her and her husband at a dinner.  It turns out they live in Corona, California, where parts of the 1954 version of The War of the Worlds was shot.  Good walking territory apparently.

And OK, I’m a bit late for Thanksgiving but here’s a turkey being taken for a walk (or at least for a photo op) by Lucy Marlow, who appeared most famously in the 1954 version of A Star is Born.  I’m guessing she wasn’t the owner of the turkey.

And here’s Lana Wood, born Svetlana Nikolaevna Zakharenko, and perhaps best known as the sister of Natalie, but also known in some quarters for her role as Plenty O’Toole in the 1971 Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever.  The picture is from Italian Playboy, and as with Lucy Marlow, I'm guessing there isn't a deep and lasting relationship between model and beast. That smile does look a little nervous, but why wouldn’t it be?

The story goes that when Natalie Wood was trying to get parts as a child actress her mother told her how important it was to be able to cry on cue.  She told Natalie to think of the time her dog had been hit by a truck while out walking.  It worked very well apparently.  Here she is in happier days:

Monday, November 25, 2013


I just dug out an old copy of The Paris Review (Winter 1984, issue 94 to be precise) featuring an interview with JG Ballard. The interviewer, Thomas Frick, asks Ballard if he has any advice for young writers.  Ballard replies, “A lifetime’s experience urges me to utter a warning cry: do anything else, take someone’s golden retriever for a walk …”

I don’t know how much of a walker Ballard was.  His house in Shepperton was within easy walking distance of a park (below), two pubs and the railway station, so I imagine he at least walked to these places.  I bang on about this quite a bit in the UK edition of my book The Lost Art of Walking.

Now I discover, that earlier this year Time Out Shanghai organized a couple of Ballard walking tours.  The first one (and I’m quoting here) “traversed the leafy pavements of Panyu and Xinhua Lus to discover Ballard’s former residence and more genteel early years.”  The second took place in “the Longhua area south of Xujiahui where Ballard and his family were interned during the Japanese occupation and which today features swathes of dusty construction.”

I’m a sucker for these kind of literary excursions, though somehow walking doesn’t seem absolutely the right mode of transport for a Ballard expedition.  A Lincoln convertible with suicide doors might be more appropriate.

Ballard has influenced all manner of artists, painters, musicians, including Jake and Dinos Chapman.  Here’s a quotation from one or other of them (unless they’re speaking as one these days) from a conversation with Charlotte Cripps of the Independent.  They’re discussing their work The tragiK Konsequences of driving KareleSSly (2000).  “With its spectre of contorted steel and female genitalia, Ballard’s Crash was my primary motive for taking up driving lessons as an adolescent. I subsequently failed the practical test on three separate occasions, but I did manage to contort an aluminium rear bumper. Female genitalia came much later on in life.”  Really? By the time most of us are old enough to drive I'd have thought female genitalia were much on the minds of many of us, still ...

I love the Chapman brothers work, its weird compulsive obsessiveness, and of course I know they’re not writers, but I can’t help thinking how very different their work might be if the simply taken someone’s golden retriever for a walk.  They did however have a 2006 exhibition at Tate Britain titled When Humans Walked the Earth.  The Tate website says, the work “contests the distinctions we make between man and machine and assumptions about historical progress. Cast in the traditional medium of bronze, these objects evoke the heroic tradition of monumental sculpture. However their scatological imagery, subversive intent and complex associations suggest a sense of impending collapse.”

Yep, it’s not so easy to walk away from the old Ballard influence.

Friday, November 15, 2013


Some suggestion here that I may have been “born” a writer.  Pretty much from the time I could read, I used to “hear” or perhaps “write” a narrative voice in my head as I went about in the world. “The plucky boy walked down the dangerous, litter strewn street, his eyes scanning the roof tops for ruffians, snipers, death rays,” that kind of thing.   Yeah, I never said it was Proust: more Enid Blyton edging into James Bond.  I was a long way from discovering Raymond Chandler.

In reality I was walking down the only intermittently mean streets of Sheffield, but in my head I was walking down the Champs Elysees, Hollywood Boulevard, Broadway, or whatever.  And I sometimes I walked down cities of my own imagination and construction where the streets had names like Cosmic Boulevard or Death Alley, names that were a little over deterministic no doubt, though Sheffield famously once did have a street named Truelove’s Gutter.

So yesterday I went to a radio station in downtown Los Angeles to record a conversation with a producer, who was in fact in Toronto, and who’s making a program about pedestrianism.  And it just didn’t seem right to drive all the way there, park in the lot, do some spiel about walking, and then drive home again, but walking there and back would have involved a 13 mile round trip and that didn’t seem right either, so I drove most of the way, then parked far enough away that I’d have to do a mile walk in each direction to get to and from the studio.  Not the stuff of the very greatest pedestrianism, I know.

There were a couple of streets I could have taken to walk to the studio.  One was Hope Street and one was Grand Street, and both these names sounded a little too … yes, over deterministic.  Did I want to walk there feeling grand, or did I want to walk there feeling hopeful?  So I walked partly down Hope, and partly down Grand, making the crossing through a park, named The Grand Hope Park.  The entrance looks like this:

Now if I had been in any kind of a fiction, I would surely have been a character who had grand hopes, and for the sake of the plot these the grand hopes would have to be dashed somewhere along the line.  Then, depending on what kind of fiction I was in, these grand hopes would be reborn, or they’d be crushed utterly and forever.

Of course, in real life, I didn’t have any such narrative structure (which is why truth is so much less interesting than fiction). The interview went very well, “grand” would be an exaggeration, but it was at least as good as I’d hoped.  Among other things we discussed Felix the Cat and Buster Keaton, and the similarity (or not) between their walking styles.

And then, walking away from the studio I took a slight different route back to the car, and came to a corner, and there staring down at me was a poster (a slap I believe is the technical term) of Felix the Cat by Shie47 – looking more dangerous than I remember, but hey Felix doesn't only keep on walking, he also moves with the times.

Monday, November 11, 2013


Buster Keaton’s Go West was on TV last night, and I think you probably know that I have a minor Keaton obsessive, minor not in its intensity but in the sense that I know what true obsession is like, and I’m sure there are many far, far more obsessed than me.  The image above claims to be from the movie, but I suspect it's a publicity shot rather than a still.  It is, in any case, just wonderful.

Go West strikes me as an infinitely clever and infinitely subversive film.  It subverts the very notion of “going west,” and it especially subverts that familiar, cloying Chaplinesque sentimentality.  Yes, Keaton plays a deeply sad and sympathetic character named Friendless (there’s a reference to D.W. Griffiths’ Intolerance there), and he does eventually find love, but it’s not with a woman, it’s with a cow.

Buster Keaton was one of the most physically supple and eloquent men ever to walk in front of a movie camera, and there’s a scene quite early in the movie where he decides he needs to become a cowboy, so of course he has to get the walk right, and in a scene that doesn’t last more than a couple of minutes he adopts the gait of a “genuine” and (within the fiction of the movie) utterly bconvincing westerner.  Of course, this being a comedy, he also falls over in the process.

At the end of the movie he dresses up as a devil – we’re told his costume is bright red, though since the movie is in black and white we have to take this for granted.  The notion is that steers will follow anything that’s red, and the idea is that he’ll become a kind of Pied Piper, leading a stampede of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles.  Movie history has it that the scene never quite worked, that he couldn’t actually get the cattle to stampede and follow him, and some scenes had to be speeded up or shot on a back lot.  This is a shame, but of course, even Keaton’s misfires seem pretty wonderful to some of us.

I can’t help wondering whether Keaton’s devil costume was some kind of precursor of Where The Wild Things Are, but I dunno.  Dave Eggers could probably tell us.