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.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


And who can speak of Arianna Huffington, as I was a few posts back, without thinking of Bernard Levin.  They used to date, back in the day, and Arianna has been known to describe the relationship as a “liberal education.”  Good enough!

These days Levin feels like a sixties character – (though he didn’t die till 2004)  and not the groovy sort.  He was a David Frost alumnus, and a sort of public intellectual (remember them?) but one who had the knack of sounding fairly right wing even while expressing fairly left wing views.

He created various books and TV programs that involved walking. One was Hannibal's Footsteps (1985) in which Levin walked the rout Hannibal supposedly took when he invaded Italy in 218 BC.  

Another was A Walk Up Fifth Avenue (self-explanatory) from 1989.

Levin also wrote a book titled Enthusiasms (1983), and one of his enthusiasms was walking.  He writes about doing a “serpentine” walk along the Thames, crossing the river each time he comes to a bridge.  (The question of how many Thames crossings there are, and how many of them are in “London” is incredibly vexed – just Google it.)   Levin crossed the river 16 times – this was before the Millennium Bridge was built.  His walk covered 14 miles and required him to make 30,000 steps.

He writes, “We who walk for pleasure alone must never allow ourselves to think teleologically; our pleasure is in the walking, and in that alone, and we have no need to seek outside the walking for any justification for it.”

Well I agree of course, I am no teleologist, and I don’t think walking needs any justification, but I do like to look at things while walking (Levin says that he never looks at anything at all) and I think that walking is also an act of exploration and observation, being part of the environment not a thing apart from it.

In A Walk Up Fifth Avenue he also writes of being at the Tiffany Ball (whatever that may be) and afterwards he decided to walk from 59th Street where the event took place at the Plaza Hotel to his own hotel on 76th.   His fellow guests were horrified.  (This must have been an old story from pre-1989, surely.  Things wre getting much better by then).  Still, Levin writes, “Their belief in my insanity was based on an unshakeable belief that what I was proposing to do was unacceptably dangerous. And I was inexcusably irresponsive, even if not suicidal.”  It’s not clear in the book whether he did the walk or not, but either way he lived to tell the tale, which is as much as most walkers hope for.

Teleology aside, Levin was famous for writing heroically long and convoluted sentences.  Harold Evans, who was briefly Levin's editor at The Times, said that his sentences were like walking along the corridors of a Venetian palace: "You know there is something good at the end, but occasionally your feet ache getting there."

Thursday, April 24, 2014


One or two people have drawn my attention to a new book titled A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros, who turns out to be French.  I admit I haven’t read it yet, but it seems to cover the usual suspects: Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Thoreau, et al.  I gather Gros is part of a school of French philosophers (I’d guess de Certeau is top dog among them) who are interested in “le quotidien,” i.e. the philosophy of daily life rather than of grand universal themes (though ultimately I don't doubt that these turn out to be the same); and I suppose walking is about as quotidian as it gets.

Photograph of Frederic Gros by Rannjan Joawn

However, even though I haven’t read the book as yet (I will, trust me) I have read a very winning article in the Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr, who was sent over to France to go walking with Gros, and interview him.  It seems to have been a jolly occasion.  Gros seems modest and willing to be amused.  He talks about "la joie de la marche" and how his teenage children have grown out of it.  Cadwalladr seems feisty and genuinely amusing, and I suspect she makes Gros sound a bit more fun that he actually is.  

She writes, 'I am looking forward to going more slowly. Though I am worried about my footwear. I am wearing Nike trainers. Are they too sporting? Gros seems as if he might be more of a leather brogues sort of man. He makes a jibe at those who try to commodify walking and sell it back to us as "trekking". Who insist on "incredible socks". And special trousers with too many pockets.’

Well, those who know me will be aware that I have a certain amount of scorn for those people who go for an afternoon’s walk in the countryside and dress as though they’re crossing the steppes.  But oh my, what a riot of mirth this apparently harmless topic has caused in the Guardian comments section:

Celtiberico says, of Gros, “He sounds like someone whose walking is restricted to an hour or two in a city park, then - walking across Spain taught me the very significant role of having ‘incredible socks,’ and there is nothing wrong at all with having a couple of extra pockets on your trousers, so that you do not give yourself abraded skin by overstuffing the hip pockets.”

Rochdalelass says, “You're right. What sort of idiot doesn't wear proper supportive walking boots when crossing open moorland and open countryside proper? He'd be complaining after two minutes with twisted ankles and tender soles.

But LeslieButler begs to differ “Oh Come on! ‘Proper supportive boots’ were only invented a few decades ago, and mostly get used for strolls around the park as consumerist statements. Yes they can help a bit, but the great trekkers and pioneers of history tramped moor and mountain in flat shoes or sandles (sic) or less. It's a matter of what you're used to.’

The debate continues.  You can read the terrific Carole Cadwalladr piece here:


Tuesday, April 15, 2014


So you write a book titled Walking in Ruins, it gets published and all, and then you find “To Fortune” (1648) by Robert Herrick.  Thus:

And the only reason I discovered it now is because there’s suddenly a bIg fuss that it contains the first emoticon, and obviously it kind of does.  But you know, only kind of.

It also seems that Herrick may have been the first man in England to have a 1970s perm and mustache:

Monday, April 14, 2014


When I first moved to LA I always said I’d go for a walk and look at the famous Felix the Cat sign over Felix Chevrolet, at the corner of South Figueroa St and Jefferson Boulevard.  It would be a 16 mile round trip, which isn’t totally out of the question, but it’s a long walk just look at an advertising sign, and one way or another I never did it until this weekend.  And I still didn’t walk there, at least not from home.  I happened to be at USC, talking about walking, and since Felix Chevrolet is right there by the university it wasn’t much of a stretch from the campus to the dealership.

I have a special affection for Felix the Cat, partly because when I was a kid and I was out with my mother, if I slowed down or got distracted she’d say, “Be like Felix, keep on walking.” I knew what she meant, but only lately much later did I know who Felix was, and only long after that did I actually see a Felix cartoon.

Felix as a character, has been around since 1919 when he appeared (though not under that name) in an animated short titled Feline Follies.  It was produced by Pat Sullivan, directed by Otto Messmer.  The people I know who care about these things, are convinced that Messmer was the true begetter, though Sullivan did claim credit, sometimes saying he was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Cat That Walked By Himself.”  I don’t honestly buy this, though this illustration by Kipling himself is pretty wonderful.

My mother, I think, was referring to the song 1923 song "Felix Kept On Walking," music by Hubert W. David and lyric by Ed E. Bryant.  There was a cartoon titled Felix the Cat Kept on Walking which came out in 1925, so the song must in some way have inspired the movie, but perhaps only the title.  In the cartoon he walks to England, where he is chased by immigration officers, then kicked around, and eventually out of the country, by soccer players. 

As the image on the sheet music suggests, Felix wasn’t a very happy cat in this incarnation.  He softened and became more affable (some might say more Mickey Mouse-ish) as the years went by.  He didn’t only appear on screen and in song, but om all kinds of advertising memorabilia including this piece which sold at auction for about 1200 dollars recently.  I've never understood why the feet had to be so square and lump.

He still looks grumpy there, and not at all the way he does on the sign above Felix Chevrolet.  A man with the scarcely improvable name of Winslow Felix, opened Felix Chevrolet in 1921 at (according to some authorities) 12th Street and Grand Avenue in LA (others place it at 11th and Olive, which is certainly close by).  Felix was a friend of cartoonist Pat Sullivan, who in exchange for a car, told him to go ahead and use Felix the Cat in his advertising.

 In 1958 the dealership changed hands, moved to its current location at 3330, S. Figueroa Street, and the sign was installed.  In 2012 the sign was spruced up, and that included restoring the neon which hadn’t been working properly for some time.

Of course Felix is not actually walking on the big sign, he’s just standing there, but at least I was walking when I saw him, even if not very far.