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, May 29, 2014


A couple of small curiosities seen while walking in England.

First, I was staying in London, in Highgate, with my pals Martin and Judy Bax.  It’s a fairly posh, leafy bit of suburbia, so I wasn’t surprised to find that their street was part of a Neighbourhood Watch area, as was proved by signs like this on some of the lampposts.

The image of the meerkat was a new one on me, though I subsequently saw it in other parts of London, and I suppose the idea is that meerkats are sociable and watchful, but they’re also likeable and essentially benign.  They’re not like, say, spies for Big Brother.

At the end of Martin and Judy’s street however there’s the entrance to a tube station, where walkers are being watched by these things.

Now, there’s nothing likeable and benign about these things.  These are serious, heavy duty security cameras, this is surveillance.  Somebody’s got to keep an eye on things, right?  You can walk the street under the friendly gaze of the meerkat, but once you get to the tube station you know you’re really being watched.


And here’s another thing. I went for a walk in London with Richard Lapper, an old school friend from Sheffield, now a journalist with the Financial Times.  He lives in Limehouse, in a former gunpowder warehouse, and he led the way.  I didn’t have a map, which meant that for once, I really didn’t have any idea where I was or where I was going.  There was something rather pleasant about this, since I’m so often the man with the plan.

I know that we were in the Lea Valley for some of the time, and we walked through Victoria Park, and we went by various canals, and we saw the Olympic Stadium from a distance, a few ruined warehouses, and some very fancy-looking apartments, and at a certain point on the home stretch I saw something floating along the canal, and it was this, a cut out letter, an “I.”

This was, for sure, not so very remarkable in itself. However a few years back, I was having a walk with Steve Kenny, another of my old school pals, along the canal in Sheffield, and we happened to see a different letter floating along the top of the water.  In this case, the letter “Y.”

It seems that the universe is sending me a message, one letter at a time.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Back in the day, I wrote a novel titled Bleeding London.   Among many other things it contains a character called Stuart London who sets out to walk down every street in London.  He carries an A to Z with him, blacking out the streets once he’s walked them, so he ends up with a completely obliterated (and useless) map.  Go pick the symbolism out of that one, kids. 

         The book was considered a success (these things are always comparative). Time Out ran a piece titled “London’s Most Erotic Writers” and I came in 19th on the basis of Bleeding London, which I thought wasn’t bad, considering that Walter, author of My Secret Life came in number one, and Shakespeare came in number seven.  And I was thrilled to find that I was ten places ahead of JG Ballard. 

Over the years various people have wanted to “do something” with my novel, turn it into a movie, or TV series, or comic book.  I’ve always said, “Great, go ahead,” but ultimately nothing has ever come of it; it has steadfastly remained a book.  So when I got an email from Del Barrett of the Royal Photographic Society saying she wanted to curate a photographic exhibition based on Bleeding London, I again said sure, go for it, but never really expected to hear from her again.

         Oh me of little faith.  On the 15th of May I was in London for the official launch of Bleeding London: the exhibition, which according to the press release is “the most ambitious photo project that the capital has ever seen – to photograph every street in London.  Based on the Whitbread short-listed novel, Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson, we are challenging Londoners and visitors to follow in the footsteps of Stuart London and cover the entire A to Z.” 

         If the standard A to Z is to be believed, that will involve covering 73,000 streets, an enterprise that sometimes strikes me as utterly insane.  At other times however, I think well, let’s imagine the RPS can round up 1000 committed photographers, that’s only 73 streets each, and these guys can take a couple of hundred pictures in a day, so that seems perfectly doable.  Here’s a picture (by Roger Kelly) of me and the infinitely generous, infinitely tireless (and infinitely able to marshal the troops) Del Barrett, at the launch party.  We're about to start obliterating London.

         Wanting to be involved, and determined to show willing, while I was in London I walked all the streets in a single square of the A to Z as determined by Del, covering part of Lewisham.  The annotations and the wear are all mine.  And frankly it was absolutely knackering, mentally as much as physically (although the expedition only took a little more than three hours), as I walked up Algernon Street and tramped along Marsala Street and flogged along Shell Street and meandered the length of Vicar’s Hill (among many others) and finally ended up in Loampit Vale, snapping as I went.

In fact I often carry a camera with me when I go walking, but if I take half a dozen photographs in the course of an afternoon I think that’s plenty.  Here there was the impetus, the necessity, of finding something to photograph in every single street.  You could argue that there’s something very democratic about this, maybe something very Zen.  Every street becomes equal, you have to find something of interest, something “worth” observing and photographing regardless of where you are.

It wasn’t always easy.  Certain streets seemed to offer multiple attractions, some seemed a bit dull, and offered nothing whatsoever at first glance.  The job therefore was to look harder, to see through the perceived dullness and find the things that are worthy of attention.  And although the majority of the streets were suburban and very quiet (I like suburban streets very much), there were some oddities, this thing, and I can’t decide if it’s a sidecar from a motorbike or a rocket ship from an old fairground ride (I suppose it's the former, but I hope it's the latter),

and a Zombie Outbreak Response Vehicle, among them.

Inevitably not every picture I took was massively interesting, and there was a certain reliance on my own set of clich├ęs: show me a corrugated metal fence or and I’ll snap away with the best.

And sometimes – and this was a curious and unexpected thing - the street signs themselves were as fascinating and picturesque as anything in the street.

All in all it was a strange mission, involving a curious sort of discipline.  It was definitely a walk with a purpose, but by no means a walk from A to B (let alone from A to Z).  It represented a way of exploring the territory, making it your own, exhausting it even as you exhaust yourself.  I write about this a lot in the novel.

And I kept thinking it was like a sort of minimalist or conceptualist art project, something Sol LeWitt would have approved of. I don’t claim that Sol LeWitt is a completely open book to me, but I do know that he said, "When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art."  Who wouldn’t want that? 

I also discover that in his early work, LeWitt was influenced by Eadweard Muybridge’s serial photographs, not least of walkers.  Well yes.

You can find out a whole lot more about the Bleeding London, RPS project right here:

Friday, May 23, 2014


Here’s something I didn’t know about walking.  I discovered it in this month’s Vanity Fair, in an article about the photographer Robert Capa, who covered the D-Day landings and created some of the greatest war photographs ever seen, like this one, soldiers from the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division walking, or I suppose wading, on Omaha Beach on June 6th 1944.

In the last days of May 1944 Capa was in London, on call for Life magazine, waiting for the summons to go and meet up with the U.S. army.  The call came and he went down to Weymouth, in Dorset where he was given some necessities; an envelope of francs, a pack of condoms, and a French phrase book that offered suggestions on how he might converse with French girls.  One was, “Bonjour mademoiselle, voulez-vous fair une promenade avec moi?” 

Capa was killed on May 25th 1954, having accepted another Life commission, this time to accompany a French regiment fighting in Indochina.  The were under fire, in particularly dangerous territory, and following his own advice “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,” he got out of the Jeep he was travelling in and started walking up the road to improve his chances of getting a good picture.  He stepped on a landmine, his left leg was destroyed and he was wounded in his chest.  He was dead before they managed to get him to a field hospital.

Capa seems to have been one of those men who felt more alive taking photographs in war rather than peace, but he certainly took at least one great and joyous peacetime walking picture; this one of Picasso and Francoise Gilot (and some other guy) on the beach at Golfe-Juan, August 1948.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


Meanwhile, do remember to wear something appropriate when you walk, especially at night.

Friday, May 9, 2014


Now here’s something interesting, and counterintuitive and ultimately inconclusive.  According to an article by Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times, researchers at Stanford have been studying the connection between walking and creativity.  Most of us walkers would think the connection is straightforward and obvious – but wait …
Stanford undergraduates (admittedly not exactly a random sample of humanity) were taken to a plain room where there was just a desk and a treadmill and there they were given creativity tests, which Reynolds writes, “in psychological circles might involve tasks like rapidly coming up with alternative uses for common objects, such as a button.”
Having taken the tests the students hit the treadmill, walking at a pace they were comfortable with, and they were tested again, while walking.  The tests took about 8 minutes to complete. 
Most of the students did much better on the tests while walking on the treadmill and “were able to generate about 60 percent more uses for an object.”  You might argue that coming up with novel uses for an object isn’t precisely the same thing as writing Ulysses, but let’s accept the premise.  Now it gets interesting.

The researchers subsequently let the students go for a walk in the wide open spaces of the Stanford campus, and of course you might assume that this green and pleasant environment would stimulate the senses and lead to even greater creativity, but they found not.  The increase in creativity was exactly the same whether walking on the campus or on the treadmill.  So, you might conclude, it was simply the walking that caused the increase, that apparently it doesn’t matter where or how you walk. 
But of course the next step is to wonder whether the experiment proves anything whatsoever about walking.  Maybe it’s just about exercise.  Maybe a stationary bike or running up a few flights of stairs would be just as useful in getting the creative juices flowing.  Or was it something inherent in the treadmill?

Meanwhile there’s the above.  The last time I was walking in Wonder Valley in the California desert I did my usual thing of poking around in desert ruins and I found a ruined house, and beside it this abandoned treadmill in the middle of nowhere. 
Now I’m thinking it might be interesting to do some research on whether walking on a treadmill, but in the great outdoors, might be even more creatively stimulating.  And what about walking on a treadmill while watching (or indeed smashing) a TV – what does THAT do for creativity?  There’s never a Stanford researcher around when you need one.