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.

Monday, December 29, 2014


Over Christmas my Facebook pal, Susannah Forrest, horsewoman, author of If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession, and also (unlike most of my Facebook friends) somebody I’ve actually met in the real world, posted that famous quotation from Camus: “Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” 

As you may be able to see above, it was from a site named Saddles for Soldiers, and in this case was actually referring to walking with a horse – great advice I’d think, and I imagine you definitely wouldn’t want to be walking behind one.

I found it quite difficult to find a picture of Camus walking, but imagine my joy at discovering this one, with a horse, in which I’m not sure that he’s following his own advice, but maybe he thought it didn't apply to horses.

In any case that Camus quotation got me thinking about The Instructions of Shuruppak, a Sumerian text from about 2,600 BC, and one of the oldest known texts in the history of the world.  Naturally I wondered if it had anything to say about walking.  It does, kind of.

It advises, “You should not buy a prostitute: she is a mouth that bites. You should not buy a house-born slave: he is a herb that makes the stomach sick. You should not buy a free man: he will always lean against the wall. You should not buy a palace slave girl: she will always be the bottom of the barrel. You should rather bring down a foreign slave from the mountains, or you should bring somebody from a place where he is an alien; my son, then he will pour water for you where the sun rises and he will walk before you.”

See – not beside, because he isn’t a friend, and not behind because you don’t want him wandering off when you’re not looking, but in front of you so you can keep your eye on him.  Timeless advice, I’m sure.

And that got me thinking about the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a much more recent text than The Instructions of Shuruppak, and actually a whole group of texts, written by different hands over a period of at least a thousand years.  The best bit, I think, are the spells designed to help the soul as it passes through the underworld.  It includes a spell for ensuring an eternal supply of food and beer, and also one about walking.  It doesn’t say anything about walking in front or behind or beside, but it does say this: "You will enter the house of hearts, the place which is full of hearts. You will take the one that is yours and put it in its place, without your hand being hindered. Your foot will not be stopped from walking. You will not walk upside down. You will walk upright.”  Which I would think is very, very handy.

Sunday, December 28, 2014


On Christmas Day afternoon the Loved One and I went for a walk – nothing major – just a couple of miles or so, 45 minutes up and down and around the hills of the neighborhood.  We didn’t encounter a single moving car.  For that matter we didn’t meet many moving, or walking, people, though we did eventually cross separate paths with two couples and one family group complete with oldsters, children and dogs.  Every one was amazingly friendly.

This, I suppose, is the way it goes at Christmas.  Even people who never put one foot in front of the other for the rest of the year decide this is the time when they need to get out, with or without family, and show what they’re made of, in the name of good cheer, or possibly to work up an appetite.

It seems that President Obama feels somewhat the same.  The White House website tells us “In keeping with the President's vision to make the Obama Administration as accessible as possible, the White House is inviting the American People to sit back, relax, and follow along on his 2014 Hawaii Vacation.”  And so (whether we’re American people or not) we can sit back, relax and watch him walk.

Above for instance, “Obama and family go hiking in Hawaiian island of Oahu.” This looks like a very, very extended family.  There seem to be dozens of them (including one or two body guards I assume), and also it seems there were dozens of photographers too.  This is actually a screen cap, and on the video you can hear shutters clicking off screen like a thousand noisy insects.

No doubt there were fewer photographers (possibly just one) and far, far fewer family members, on the President’s first morning in Hawaii, when he was able to pose for this picture “President Obama enjoyed a relaxing sunrise walk on 
Kailua Beach” the White House site tells us.  Is he really going to walk and swim and read?  A busy sunrise, for sure.

I don’t know what Obama got for Christmas, perhaps it tells us somewhere on the website, but I’ll bet he didn’t get one of these, which I did:

It’s an antique plate with an image of Felix the Cat – admittedly it looks like the caption says “Felix the Gat” but I can live with that; a creature who walks alone and doesn't seem all that cheerful about it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


We know that walking is often used as a tactic of political protest.  The image above shows a walk in Bangor, designed to preserve a bus service, so there may be one or two unintentional ironies there, but the principle remains.

There was even a walk of protest in Hollywood last week, to protest police brutality. The walk ended in a “die-in” at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue (above), where the protestors lay down in the road, which I guess is kind of the opposite of walking, but in any case it all seems to have been peaceful enough. And of course a few celebs got in on the act.

Where I grew up, close to the Peak District in Derbyshire people still talk about the Kinderscout Mass Trespass of 1932 as though it too happened just last week.  It was certainly monumental in establishing the right of access to land all over the UK, and it shows the power of walking, especially the power of walking where certain people think you shouldn’t.

And then I saw this oddly moving piece in the LA Times about how things have been going in Hong Kong - not a walk of protest, but a stroll. (The full story has now slunk behind the pay wall and I can’t even find who the writer was, a woman I think and apologies to her for not giving credit, but this opening gives the flavor.)

“For decades, pro-democracy demonstrators here have tried marching. And for more than two months now, they have camped outside government headquarters. In recent days, as they face ouster from their encampments, they’ve begun a new tactic: strolling for democracy.
After dusk, throngs of demonstrators, self-styled shoppers all, pace the thoroughfares across several neighborhoods in the city’s Kowloon district, putting police on edge.
The strolling concept took shape Wednesday in Mong Kok, the bustling shopping district where authorities had just forcibly dismantled long-standing protest encampments.
Hours after the clearance was completed, demonstrators returned to flood major intersections, attempting to build barricades and retake lost territory. When police interceded too quickly for them to succeed, the demonstrators, said they were there to shop …”

Well I suppose shopping can often a highly specialized form of walking.  When you can combine it with trespassing, it may be considerably more.

Sunday, December 7, 2014


Above is one of the more richly hilarious headlines I’ve seen in a while: ‘Wild’ Effect Inspiring People to Find Themselves.  The ‘Wild’ in question is, of course, the Reese Witherspoon movie, based on the Cheryl Strayed memoir of that title, concerning her 1,100 mile walk along the Pacific Crest Trail (which actually runs 2,650 miles).

Naturally the headline also provokes some richly jaundiced views in this reader.  First, that people need to see a Hollywood blockbuster movie before it crosses their mind to go walking. 

Secondly, that it only occurs to them to walk in the same place that Strayed/Witherspoon walked.

Thirdly, more generally, it’s a funny thing about people who go walking in order to find themselves: they always do.  For some it may take a while but others find themselves pretty much wherever they look, sometimes time and time again.

If the image accompanying the headline is any indication, some people are also finding themselves while walking in a crowd.

Below is a still of Witherspoon from the movie.  You can tell she’s looking hard because of that questing look on her face.

 And here’s a photograph of Witherspoon walking in a more customary place for Hollywood actresses to walk.  I don’t know if she’s found herself.  I don’t know if she’s even taken a good look.