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, June 25, 2014


 It’s a curious thing, isn’t it, when you’re when traveling in some strange or unknown place, and you look out of the window of your car or the bus or train, and you see some solitary walker, in some bleak environment, often in the middle of nowhere, even in the middle of the desert.  You know that if you were walking out there you’d be feeling lost or scared or threatened, or in any case completely out of your element, but you assume that the solitary walker you’re looking at doesn’t feel the same way.  He or she may not be actually at home in that desolate spot, but they’re at least in their own landscape.

Of course, when you look out through the window of a plane, unless you’re very close to the ground, at take off or landing, you don’t actually see people walking, but even so you look down from a great height and sometimes you see a city below, and you can be absolutely sure there are pedestrians moving around down there.

And if you’re coming into a city you know, and recently I’ve flown into London and New York, you see the city from on high, and you not only know that there are people walking down there, you know they’re walking where you’ve walked in the past, and where you’re going to be walking again, quite soon, just as soon as you land, get off the plane and get into the city.  Here’s a picture of man walking in London, on Fournier Street:

And here’s a picture of a man walking in New York, on West Houston Street, where the pedestrianized La Guardia Place begins, striding across the “Seed Labyrinth” which is a “public art project” by Sara Jones, sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

The Facebook page says, “Everyone is invited to walk the Labyrinth  …
A Labyrinth is an ancient symbol of wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. The Labyrinth represents a journey to our center and back again into the world. It has only one path, it is unicursal. The way in is the way out. It is a right brain task, the choice is to enter or not, the choice is whether or not to walk a spiritual path.”
That strikes me as going a bit far, and although I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in the mind of that New York walker, I’d guess he’s pretty much unaware that he’s cutting right across a unicursal path.

Immediately to the east of the labyrinth is another art project, the Time Landscape, by Alan Sonfist.  It’s a 25' x 40' rectangular of land, set up in 1978, made to resemble what Manhattan would have looked like before the Dutch settlers arrived in the 17th century.  So it’s filled with native species, beech and birch trees, red cedar, black cherry, mugwort, Virginia creeper, aster, pokeweed, milkweed, catbrier vines, and violets.  I am quoting here, obviously.  I would recognize really very few of these flora, but I’ve nevertheless always thought Time Landscape was a “very good thing.”

I gather that it’s an uphill, not to say Sisyphean, task to keep the Time Landscape free of non-native species, and garden crews have to be in there constantly weeding.  When I was there earlier this month the place did look a bit careworn, and it does seem to have a curious status now as memorial, not so much to 17th century Manhattan, as to 1960s and 70s land art, and there are those who complain that it’s been “museumified,” but although I see their point, I’m still very glad that it’s there.

A little to the north of Time Landscape there are three tall apartment blocks, two of them designated the Silver Towers, containing student housing, the third a co-op for “real people.” Inevitably most of the apartments don’t have any usable outdoor space, nevertheless around the base in certain areas, avid New York gardeners have been at work creating one version of what a 21st century Manhattan time landscape might look like.

Saturday, June 14, 2014


Sometimes walking sticks are allegorical.

Sometimes they're just a dandyish affectation. (Yes, it IS Nic Cage).

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


While I was in London I walked to Tate Britain, what used simply to be the Tate.  I think I’d noticed before that the west face, as it were, in Atterbury Street is pocked with shrapnel scars, but since I was on my way to see an exhibition titled Ruin Lust, I saw them with new eyes.

I wish I’d loved the exhibition more.  The curator, Brian Dillon, is clearly a good man, but it seemed he was reduced to rummaging around in the gallery’s basement and digging out what he could find.  Of course the Tate has some pretty decent stuff in its basement, and it’s hard to complain about works by Turner, Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, John Piper, Eduardo Paolozzi, et al.

John Piper, St Mary le Port, Bristol, 1940
But am I the only one to be less than fascinated by Jane and Louise Wilson’s photographs of the bunkers of the Atlantic Wall?  Especially since (unless I missed it somehow) they fail to acknowledge that Paul Virilio covered this territory rather more fully in his book Bunker Archeology.  But, of course, Virilio isn’t British so he doesn’t get any of his stuff into Tate Britain.

Virilio writes of the bunkers, “Why this analogy between the funeral archetype and military architecture? Why this insane situation looking out over the ocean? This waiting before the infinite oceanic expanse? Until this era, fortifications had always been oriented towards a specific staked-out objective: the defense of a passageway, a pass, steps, valleys or ports. Whereas here, walking daily along kilometer after kilometer of beach, I would happen upon these concrete markers at the summit of dunes, cliffs, across beaches, open, transparent, with the sky playing between the embrasure and the entrance, as if each casemate were an empty ark or a little temple minus the cult.”  Why indeed?  I think this might have been referenced in the Wilsons' work.

Still, who am I to be critical of the Tate when there was a pile of Nicholson’s Walking in Ruins in the bookshop?

I’m sure there’s no end of shrapnel marks on the buildings of London, but the ones I’m most familiar with are on St Paul’s Cathedral, which escaped a direct hit in the Blitz, but was left with some spectacular scarring. (But see the comment below)

I imagine that by no means all the scars on St Paul’s are from from World War Two.  There are some carved “graffiti” (below), and I suppose that date must be 1702 (though it's a very badly written 7) since that was right in the middle of the construction of the cathedral, and W. Fox was presumably one of the stone masons.

Below is one of my not all that old author pics (photograph by Steve Kenny) sitting on the steps of Sheffield City Hall – and yes those are indeed shrapnel scars in the lump of masonry I'm sitting on.  There was a period of at least six years when I walked past the Sheffield City Hall every day on my way to and from school, and yet I never noticed the scars at the time. New eyes were required.

Also, while I was in England, and definitely inspired by Virilio rather than the Wilson sisters, I went walking on the Naze at Walton, in Essex, looking for bunkers.  It’s one of those places I’d vaguely heard of but knew nothing about.  Naze derives from the Old English word “næss” meaning ness or promontory, but there is also something nose-like about the land formation. 

It was a vital bit of territory during World War Two.  There’s now a World War Two Walk to be done there, though I admit I didn’t follow the route very closely, not least because I couldn’t actually find it.  (True, I didn’t look all that hard).  The Naze Tower, which has been there since 1720, was used as a radar tower during hostilities, and there were bunkers or pillboxes with anti-aircraft machine-guns built along the cliff edge, not “looking out over an oceanic expanse” but across the North Sea to Holland.  I found this particularly fine bunker:

And then this one:

Since the bunkers were designed to withstand aerial bombings it’s perhaps not surprising that they're still standing.  There are some signs of decay.  One of the metal supports on the one above is rusted most of the way through, thanks to the salt air no doubt, and yet the structure itself seems completely sturdy.  It feels more like a monument than a genuine ruin.

And in that first bunker there was evidence of human presence, and indeed of exuberant, untutored, over-optimistic (and misspelled) wall art.  It would no doubt all have been different if Hitler had won.

Monday, June 9, 2014


There was an interview (by Billy Heller) with Aretha Franklin in yesterday’s New York Post under the headline “Aretha Franklin’s Secret Life.”  Heller says: I saw you in Newark last year, and I was exhausted watching you perform.  How do you keep in shape?"

Let's leave aside the fact that Aretha’s figure has not always conformed to received notions of “in shape,” not least because of health issues, and let's also assume Heller isn't making some cruel joke, and read her reply. 
She says, “I have a walking regimen – about three times a week, at least a mile or so.  I walk the super Walmarts, the biggest ones.  If people are in the aisle and the store happens to be crowded that day, I got to other aisles.”

Well, as I have often said, there’s no such thing as a “walker's body.”  They/we do come in all shapes and sizes.  I've also long thought there might be a book titled Walking the Great Indoors which would consist of a series of pedestrian expeditions in airports, underground tunnels, railway stations, factories, malls and indeed big box stores.

It’s not easy to find a picture of Aretha walking but here she is at least walking down the aisle in 1978 at her marriage to Glynn Turman.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


One of the minor pleasures and curiosities of being in a “walking city” is that once in a while you see celebs, just walking around.  Although I've seen a few celebs in LA, I’ve never seen any of them walking. Spotting Nick Nolte leaning against his Prius in the parking lot of the Vons supermarket at the corner where Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards meet, is as near as I’ve come.  Though there's obviously evidence here that he can be seen walking sometimes.

When I lived in Park Slope in Brooklyn, I collected a whole set of sightings – John Turturro, Paul Auster, Steve Buscemi et al.

In Paris I once got off the Eurostar train, walked out of the station and there immediately was Jane Birkin, also walking, although in fact I think she was looking for a taxi.

My London sightings included Bob Geldof (more than once), Joe Strummer, Cliff Richards, Julian Cope, Peter Ackroyd; but given how long I lived in London, the sighting were perhaps surprisingly few.

Just once in a while the celeb sees you looking and looks back.  And of course you have to play it cool.  Brief eye contact and an “I know who you are” nod is as much as is required.  I had one of those moments once in Manhattan with Thurston Moore.  He was walking along lower Broadway, having just come out of Dean and DeLuca, and I was on my way in, and we went through the old “look and nod routine.”  It was a small bright spot in my day, though probably not in his.

And now Thurston Moore is living in London, and he’s written a piece for a pamphlet titled On Community, produced by New Humanist magazine in association with the Stoke Newington Literary Festival.

He says of his earlier trips to London, when he stayed in Stoke Newington, “I wanted to be in London and traipse the streets of the Slits, Gang of Four, PiL, the Raincoats but, unlike the minuscule parameters of NYC geography, London was a sprawl the size of a small state. Determined to find action, I'd leave Stoke Newington for Camden Town or Notting Hill by hoofing it to Church Street and waiting for the 73 to get me to Kings Cross and into the city lights.”  Then adds,In hindsight I wish I'd stayed close to Stoke Newington, indeed all of Hackney, and investigated its world.”

I understand what he means.  I once almost lived in Stoke Newington, but in the end decided it was too far away, too far from the center of things.  These days however, Stoke Newington seems to be the center of the London cultural universe, and one way or another I always seem to end up there when I’m in London.  And Abney Park Cemetery seems like the very center of the center.

Indeed, the picture above shows Thurston Moore in the Abney Park Cemetery, and not so long ago, and not for the first time, I found myself walking there with my fellow scribe and drifter Travis Elborough.  And we came across this gravestone:

Literary know-it-alls though we may sometimes appear, we’d never heard of Eric Walrond, though it was hard to resist a book titled Tropic Death.

I now know that Walrond was a respected, if fringe, figure of the Harlem Renaissance.  Tropic Death is a collection of twelve short stories, first published in 1926.  According to his publisher, “This book of stories viscerally charts the days of men working stone quarries or building the Panama Canal, of women tending gardens and rearing needy children. Early on addressing issues of skin color and class, Walrond imbued his stories with a remarkable compassion for lives controlled by the whims of nature.” 

I confess I haven’t read the book.  I have however read an article by Walrond published in the magazine The Messenger in 1924, about walking in Harlem.  “Along the avenue you are strolling. It is dusk.  Harlem at dusk is exotic.  Music.  Song.  Laughter.  The street is full of people – dark, brown, pomegranate.  Crystal clear is the light that shines in their eyes.  It is different, is the light that shines in these black people’s eyes.  It is a light mirroring the emancipation of a people and still you feel that they are not quite emancipated. It is the light of an unregenerate.”

I wonder if Walrond felt any more emancipated in London.  He died there in 1966, having collapsed from a heart attack while walking in the street.