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, September 20, 2014


Before I was “settled,” I lived all over the place in London, including once, briefly, in Stamford Hill, then and now a prosperous suburb with a large Jewish population that at some point had included Marc Bolan, (originally Feld).

I didn’t know that at the time, and only discovered it when avant-garde composer John Zorn released a sort of tribute album Great Jewish Music: Marc Bolan as part of his Radical Jewish Culture series.  I’m not sure that Bolan's Jewishness plays much of a part in songs such as “Get it on” much less (pedestrian allusion coming up) “Beltane Walk:”

Walking down by the westwind

I met a boy he was my friend

I said boy we could sing it too

And we do

Give us love

Give us little love

Give us little love from your hearts
And then we'll walk.

The place I lived in Stamford Hill was not conspicuously prosperous, nor conspicuously Jewish.  I had a nasty room in a nasty shared flat, one of three in a nasty house, with just one nasty bathroom for all of us.  Knowing that Marc Bolan had lived nearby wouldn’t have made me very much happier.

One of the supposed advantages of Stamford Hill was that it was on the Tube, and most of the accommodation I could afford was not.  But whenever I managed to find a place in a neighbourhood served by the Tube there was always at least a mile-long walk to the station, and that was the case here, plus my flat was at the top of the Stamford Hill, while the Stamford Hill station was at the bottom.

These days I tend to think that a mile-long walk at the beginning and end of each day is a very good thing, but back then I was filled with resentment.  A mile-long slog up a hill, after work, to get to a nasty room in a nasty flat didn’t make my heart sing.  I moved on as soon as I could, though not in fact to anywhere much better.

And now, even as I suspect there may be more to the story than has been reported, I’m cautiously prepared to join in the general and predictable “outrage” that posters have appeared on the streets of Stamford Hill saying, "Women should please walk along this side of the road only," while presumably, though perhaps not necessarily, saying the same thing in Hebrew.

According to the Independent newspaper these posters were put up by “an orthodox Jewish group” in preparation for a Torah Procession. One Chaim Hochhauser, from the Stamford Hill Shomrim Group, (shomrim being a kind of heavy-duty and apparently very successful neighborhood watch group), said it had contacted the organizers to inform them that the posters "lacked explanation in the English text, and therefore could have offended people who don’t understand the Hebrew wording and the logo.”

The implication here of course is that if people did understand the Hebrew wording then they wouldn’t be offended; a proposition that I doubt.  And is this really a question of offence and understanding?  Isn’t the issue that a religion which dictates where and when women can walk, even in a procession, is, you know, questionable.  I mean, why weren’t there signs that said, "Men should please walk along the other side of this road," though I admit that would only have been very slightly better.  The local council, in its wisdom, had the posters swiftly removed.

Above, for comparison, is a picture of a Torah Procession from Ahavat Olam in Miami, Florida.  It doesn’t seem as though G-d has much problem with men and women walking on the same side, or apparently right in the middle, of the road, although I would be the first to admit that Stamford Hill is not Florida.

And for those of you who missed the allusion in the title of this post, it's Reeves and Dave and Gary, "The King of Stamford Hill" - it's a bit potty-mouthed I'm afraid, but it's good.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Well here’s a thing.  Amazon, in all its algorithmic wisdom, sends me a reading suggesting:

Yes, I suppose that if I were looking for something in their Travel and Holiday Books store, then I just possibly might be interested in buying a copy of my own book, The Lost Art of Walking.  Then again, I could perhaps just walk across the yard to the shed of shame (per Michael Moorcock) and pick out a copy so I could re-read it “placidly, a quiet smile playing about my lips”  (per S.J. Perelman) .

Or not.


There’s surely a book to be written (not by me) about Jorge Luis Borges and walking.  As a young man he explored the streets of Buenos Aires on foot and if the picture above is anything to go by, he cut quite a dapper figure.  He’s up there with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Victoria Ocampo on la Rambla de Mar del Plata. in 1935.

Borges was extremely quotable on the subject of walking, thus:
“I walk slowly, like one who comes from so far away he doesn't expect to arrive.”
“I cannot walk through the suburbs in the solitude of the night without thinking that the night pleases us because it suppresses idle details, just as our memory does.”
“Which one of us has never felt, walking through the twilight or writing down a date from his past, that he has lost something infinite?”

In a book titled Georgie & Elsa: Jorge Luis Borges and His Wife – The Untold Story, Norman di Giovanni, writes about walking with Borges in the streets of Buenos Aires.
“We would begin our stroll down the Avenida Belgrano, a wide, busy, modern thoroughfare, trying to speak over the roar and fumes of the traffic. The ubiquitous snub-nosed buses crawled along in step with us, throbbing and belching their murderous black exhaust in our faces. Borges never seemed to notice. He was too busy discussing the word music of Dunbar, Coleridge, or the Bard himself.”
Sometimes they went through the back streets
         “The only trouble with making our way on these back streets was the narrowness of the pavements; the two of us could not comfortably walk abreast, which meant that with Borges clinging to my arm I had to proceed half a step ahead of him in a crabwise manner … It was in the course of these daily walks that Borges gossiped to me about all and sundry – and it was not always benign.”

         Borges was blind by then, which was why he clung to di Giovanni’s arm.  Sources seem to differ on when he completely lost his sight, but it seems to have been around age 55.  From then on he needed somebody to help him walk.  And he never learned braille, so he also needed somebody to read to him.  I’m not sure whether walking or reading would have been the greater loss, but Borges never seems to have had much trouble finding people to help him with either.

The Elsa in that book title was Borges’ first wife, Elsa Astete Millán, and Di Giovanni didn’t think much of her, nor did Borges by the end, but there are certainly pictures of them walking together and Borges doesn’t look completely miserable.  The marriage lasted about three years.

Borges’s second wife, María Kodama, 40 years younger than him, didn’t think much of di Giovanni.  When she took control of the Borges estate in 1985 she ensured that the di Giovanni translations went out of print, representing both a professional and a financial loss for di Giovanni.  One can only imagine what it would be like for an old blind man with a wife four decades younger, but  there are quite a few photographs of the two of them walking together and they don’t look completely miserable either.

Certainly Borges cut a much less dashing figure as he got older.  That dead stare and those unaligned eyes give him a lost and uncertain look.  And I’ve been thinking lately he’d have looked much snappier if he’d worn some stylish shades. I’ve never seen a photograph of him wearing a pair, and obviously in the ordinary sense he didn’t need them, but it would certainly have made him look more the boulevardier.

There is however a curious reference to dark glasses in his 1943 short story "The Secret Miracle,"
Toward dawn, he dreamed that he was in hiding, in one of the naves of the Clementine Library. What are you looking for? a librarian wearing dark glasses asked him. I'm looking for God, Hladik replied. God, the librarian said, is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand volumes in the Clementine. My parents and my parents' parents searched for that letter; I myself have gone blind searching for it.”
         He should have gone for a walk instead.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


I suppose I was slightly surprised to learn that, at this point in his life, Barack Obama is already working his way down a bucket list.  I mean, once he leaves office he’ll be able to do anything and everything he wants, so why not wait till then?

Still, when you have a spiritual vortex on your list, i.e. Stonehenge, and you happen to find yourself in England for a NATO summit, I can see that you might decide to make a detour, and use all the facilities of the president’s office in order to go for a walk there.  It would be a great photo op if nothing else.  And so it proved.

The best thing (and the least convincing thing) about the pictures of Obama walking at Stonehenge is that he seems to be completely alone there.  We know this can’t really be the case.  The visit was unexpected apparently, so they hadn’t closed the whole thing down, and therefore you know there must be large numbers of common or garden tourists lurking just out of the frame.  For that matter we also hear that he was being shown around by a curator, who did in fact make it into one or two photographs.

And then, being a man of the people, Obama had a "chance meeting," over the barbed wire fence surrounding the site, with a passing family.  And this is where it all falls apart.  We see now that although the Pres. has managed to appear to walk alone around Stonehenge, there’s no way he can engage with the public unless his secret service men are close at hand.  A good walk spoiled some might say.