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, December 28, 2013


I suppose there are a lot of people who “go for a walk” at Christmas who’d never dream of doing it the rest of the year.  It’s a thing you do on your holidays, it’s a thing you do with the family, or something you do to get away from certain parts of the family, a way to walk off the turkey, if not the devil’s bath.

Walking around Hollywood at Christmas has its appeal.  It’s sunny and mild of course - good walking weather - though the days are short.  And you might think that in Hollywood you’d see all kinds of excessive Christmas lights and decorations, but with a few exceptions it’s all curiously and surprisingly modest.

Yes the Capitol Records building on Vine Street (above) has a sort of tree made of lights up on its roof, but it’s not exactly Vegas, and it’s had pretty much the same look since it was first designed in 1958. True it uses 4,373 bulbs which is impressive in its way, and I like it a lot, but I like it because it suggests an old fashioned, dignified kind of celebration.  You can see more extravagant and baroque lighting rigs hanging off suburban bungalows all over America.

The fact is I always prefer to see the small-time, domestic, personal decorations, put up by people who’ve made just a little bit of effort but not too much.

I’m particularly fond of this one that’s been placed at the top of a lamppost.  Is it Santa, or is it a Cabbage Patch Doll? Or both?  You decide.

And the thing is, you walk past these decorations in the days before Christmas, and however low key they are, however downright pathetic in some cases, there’s always something optimistic and forward-looking about them, looking forward to a happy Christmas.  But after the day itself you see them with new eyes.  However happy the Christmas was, there’s something forlorn and melancholy about the decorations now.

And that applies especially to abandoned and discarded Christmas trees.  You see some of them dumped by the side of the road, all over Hollywood, sometimes just a couple of days after Christmas.  In certain ways I respect the sentiment - once the party’s over, it’s over – but really guys, there’s no need to be nihilistic about it – at least put the  tree in the recycling.

And so I’m very glad that whoever was walking in Hollywood, up by the corner of Highland and Franklin, and found this discarded tree below (still with some decorations on it for Pete’s sake) decided to plant it in the adjacent pile of rubble, so that it stood upright, so that the season of combined optimism and melancholy lasted just that little bit longer.  

On balance, and I hear your arguments against it, I think that’s probably a good thing.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Quite a few people, including some who live here in Los Angeles, have said they don’t “get” the cover of the fall edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books.  That’s it above, and I love it.  The photograph is by Mike Slack.  One person whose opinion in other circumstances I more or less respect said it looked like a furniture catalogue, and now that I look at it more closely I’m not sure whether that chair has been dumped on the sidewalk or whether it’s for sale.  At first I assumed the former but then I saw there’s a little yellow sticker on the back which could be a price tag, so maybe it’s outside a  store waiting to be bought, in which case I got hold of the wrong end of the stick altogether.  Still, I think there are good reasons for my confusion, and indeed for my love of that cover: chiefly my ongoing obsession with feral furniture.

I was going to say that people who don’t “get” the cover should do a bit more walking in L.A.  As I’ve written elsewhere, every time I walk down the street anywhere in L.A., and it doesn’t seem to have much to do with whether it’s a rich or a poor neighborhood, there’s always some “feral furniture” lurking at the curb.  

I know that unwanted stuff gets dumped everywhere in the world but there does seem to be something quintessentially L.A. about throwing out more or less serviceable sofas and chairs and letting them sit out in the sun, providing a place where somebody might sit, in this city that has remarkably few public sitting places.  And if most of the abandoned chairs and couches don’t look quite as good as that one on the cover of the LARB, there have certainly been times in my life when I’ve lived with and sat on far worse things. 

Other stuff is less admittedly less appealing.  It’s hard to love somebody else’s used mattress, and certainly nobody has much use for an old TV.  I mean, I have a couple of dead TVs taking up space in my own garage, and I would like to be rid of them, but I’m not thinking of dumping them out on the street.  And this one - flat screen! - looks as good as the one I'm currently using:

So on Sunday afternoon I went for walk around Atwater Village, and yes feral furniture was on my mind, and indeed on the street.  There was this chair – which had obviously seen better days but didn’t seem completely unusable.

There was this TV, and yes it’s a TV that’s beyond redemption, but see how the wreckage is cheered up by the presence of a yucca plant sprouting up through the ground.

And then there were these really quite cool speaker cabinets, and yes sure, it would be better if they had speakers in them but still they’re very nicely positioned in front of that car, colored an orange seldom seen in nature.

And then I thought that taking pictures of household detritus in this suburban neighbourhood might have been construed by the locals as a weird thing to be doing, so I put my camera away and almost immediately spotted a feral cat grooming itself right in the middle of the street. 

By the time I’m got the camera out again the cat had stopped its grooming and was just sort of posing (above) and then finally it wandered away (below).  I guess L.A. isn’t the worst place to be feral.

Mick Slack incidentally is a top photographer, not obsessed with feral furniture per se, but clearly a man who does a good amount of walking and keeps his eyes open for intriguing, defining curiosities.  You can see more of his work at:

You could even buy one of his books.  I did.  

And then I just found this artist’s statement by him: 

“If I have a method, it’s basically to wander aimlessly, preferably on foot, using the camera as an excuse to stop and stare, to push into the visual arrangement of things, for no other purpose than to be doing just that: shutting off my verbal brain, letting the light hit my eyeballs. Over time, pictures (or, lately, image files) stack up and an editing impulse takes over—more of a game with its own purpose. But the first and most important step is always to wander.”

Hell yes, Mike.  Hell yes.  Seems he's been known to take the occasional cat picture too.

Friday, December 13, 2013


The other day I happened to find an account of Horace Walpole’s walking style, as described by his friend Laetitia-Matilda Hawkins, “He always entered a room … knees bent, and feet on tiptoe, as if afraid of a wet floor.”  This drawing from 1765 is by one Lord Massereene.

Now it so happens that I was recently discussing the walking style of Captain Barclay, the great early 19th century competitive pedestrian, as described by Walter Thom in the book Pedestrianism.  Barclay, says Thom, had “a sort of lounging gait, without apparently making any extraordinary exertion, scarcely raising his feet more than two or three inches above the ground …  His style of walking is to bend forward the body, and to throw its weight on the knees … Any person who will try this plan will find, that his pace will be quickened, at the same time he will walk with more ease to himself, and be better able to endure the fatigue of a long journey, than by walking in a posture perfectly erect, which throws too much of the weight of the body on the ancle-joints.”  Well if you say so Walter, this is Barclay, though evidently not employing the described walking method:

And naturally that reminded me of Boswell’s description of Dr. Johnson, “His figure was large and well formed, and his countenance of the cast of an ancient statue; yet his appearance was rendered strange and somewhat uncouth, by convulsive cramps … So morbid was his temperament, that he never knew the natural joy of a free and vigorous use of his limbs: when he walked, it was like the struggling gait of one in fetters ..”  And also “When he walked the streets, what with the constant roll of his head, and the concomitant motion of his body, he appeared to make his way by that motion, independent of his feet.”

And somewhere in my head I have a description of somebody who (I thought) Johnson described as being so fat he could walk down both sides of the street at the same time.  I thought it might have been the Earl of Sandwich but a good dig both online and off suggests I was wrong about that. I can’t find any reference whatsoever.

However, such is the nature of internet “research” that I kept coming across a man named Bobby Wingate who was arrested in 2012 and charged with “walking down the wrong side of the road.”  Now this is clearly one of those stories where you feel there’s a lot more going on than you know about, but there seems no doubt that Wingate was walking down the street in Jacksonville, Florida last December when a cop in a patrol car stopped and asked to talk to him.  Was racial profiling involved?  Yeah, I assume so.  But Wingate declined to stop, saying he was in too much of a hurry.  Now I try to keep my dealings with cops to a minimum but I know enough to realize that telling a cop you’re too busy to talk to him is a really bad tactic, whatever race you are. 

Anyway, reports suggest the cop didn’t like that answer, so he got out of the car, punched Wingate, “engaged” his Taser, which I guess means he didn’t use it, then charged Wingate with “resisting arrest without violence and walking down the wrong side of the road.” 

This is Bobby Wingate in that very street.  It looks like the street doesn’t have a sidewalk so there could conceivably have been an issue that you should walk facing the oncoming traffic, but I’m guessing there aren’t very many arrests for that kind of thing, even in Florida.

When the case came to trial the cop said he wasn’t sure what side of the road Wingate was walking on, and the judge threw out the case.  Gawker ran the headline “Florida Man Literally Arrested for Walking While Black.”  News video shows that Bobby Wingate has an easy, fluid walking style.

He has since filed a civil suit against the Jacksonville sheriff’s office – good luck with that one, Bobby.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013


I just bought a copy of Wim Wenders’ book Once. It’s essentially a book of photographs, though some of them have quite lengthy captions, and sometimes the photographs look like illustrations of the text, and there are one or are pieces of text that have no photograph at all.  The words are laid out so they look like poetry.   I don’t know why he laid them out so they looked like poetry; but hey Wim, you’re the boss.

One of the pieces describes driving to Barstow with Dennis Hopper to visit Nicholas Ray, who was there acting in Hair: the movie was released in 1979. Wenders’ text runs:

Dennis knew Nick from a long time ago,
when Nick had given him a small part
in “Rebel Without a Cause.”
Dennis became friends with James Dean…
During that night in Barstow
The conversation inevitably turned to James Dean
And Nick declared to us:
“I taught him how to walk.”

I find that history hasn’t been kind to Rebel Without a Cause. I have trouble suspending my disbelief.  Dean is supposed to be some crazy mixed up kid but he looks, and indeed walks, like a guy in his twenties, which of course he was when he made the film.

Be that as it may, Dean obviously looked great when he walked and he knew it.   There’s the iconic picture of him walking in Times Square in 1955 (below), by Dennis Stock:

And there’s this one too, by Roy Schatt, taken on 68th Street, in 1954. 

Rain or shine, the cigarette remains a cool walking accessory.