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.

Friday, October 31, 2014


Before we move on from Thomas Bernhard, as if we ever truly can, here’s part of the wonderful, and I think you’d have to say (despite various denials) Beckettian, opening to his novella, or long short story or whatever it ought to be called, Walking (titled Gehen in German) and translated here by Kenneth Northcott: 

Whereas, before Karrer went mad, I used to go walking with Oehler only on Wednesdays, now I go walking--now that Karrer has gone mad--with Oehler on Monday as well. Because Karrer used to go walking with me on Monday, you go walking on Monday with me as well, now that Karrer no longer goes walking with me on Monday, says Oehler, after Karrer had gone mad and had immediately gone into Steinhof. And without hesitation I said to Oehler, good, let's go walking on Monday as well. Whereas on Wednesday we always walk in one direction (in the eastern one), on Mondays we go walking in the western direction, strikingly enough we walk far more quickly on Monday than on Wednesday, probably, I think, Oehler always walked more quickly with Karrer than he did with me, because on Wednesday he walks much more slowly and on Monday much more quickly. You see, says Oehler, it's a habit of mine to walk more quickly on Monday and more slowly on Wednesday because I always walked more quickly with Karrer (that is on Monday) than I did with you (on Wednesday). Because, after Karrer went mad, you now go walking with me not only on Wednesday but also on Monday, there is no need for me to alter my habit of going walking on Monday and on Wednesday, says Oehler, of course, because you go walking with me on Wednesday and Monday you have probably had to alter your habit and, actually, in what is probably for you an incredible fashion, says Oehler.

I did wonder if Bernhard had ever had anything to say about the Wandervogel.  They were an outdoorsy, back to nature, German youth movement, dating from the late 19th century, that certainly favored walking, and by various accounts were precursors of both hippies and the Hitler Youth.  Certainly they greeted each other by yelling “Heil” at each other, and sometimes they wore faux medieval costume while walking over the hills.  No good could come of this, obviously.

As far as I can discover, Bernhard never offered an opinion on the Wandervogel, though I think we can imagine what it might have been.   Since Bernhard was born in 1931 and the Wandervogel were officially dissolved in 1933, he obviously couldn’t have been a member, but in Gathering Evidence: A Memoir (which may or may not be strictly autobiographically accurate) the protagonist certainly joins the Hitler Youth and does pretty well, but as a sprinter rather than a walker.  But he does go for long walks in the countryside with his grandfather.

One of the things about the Wandervogel: as they wandered happily along the mountain track, knapsacks on their backs, they often liked to sing.  (The famous, and famously unbearable, song “The Happy Wanderer” seems to come from a later period, but obviously shares similar impulses).  And as you see, quite a lot of the pictures show the Wandervogel walking along with one or more the members playing guitars. 

Now, I like guitar playing and I like walking, but combining the two strikes me as tricky thing.  I mean you could do it, but surely not for very long.  It’s hard to imagine walking very far at all while shredding on your axe.  And it’s a damn awkward thing to carry if you’re just walking.  No doubt the Wandervogel were made of sterner stuff than I am.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


I’m in the middle of doing one semester’s part-time teaching at Cal Arts (MFA workshop on the novel).  Maybe you’ve heard of it.  They say of themselves, “As an internationally recognized school for the performing and visual arts—film, theater, art, dance, music and writing—the CalArts artistic philosophy places an emphasis on an exploration of new paths beyond conventional boundaries.”  That sounds like me, for sure.

Anyway, Calarts is thirty miles north of Los Angeles, set in the middle of a green, rolling campus and the first time I saw it I thought I, “Wow this place is huge, there’ll be so many opportunities for walking around and drifting and exploring it.”

I’m “mentoring” a couple of students and I have even been known to employ the peripatetic method when discussing things with them. I think they find it winningly eccentric, or at least eccentric. 

But the odd thing and the interesting thing is that once you’ve walked round the campus even once you realize it isn’t nearly as big as you thought it was, and also although it certainly does have elements that are green and rolling, an incredibly high percentage of its acreage is given over to parking lots.  This seems fair enough in one way.   You’re not likely to get there without a car and you have to have somewhere to park the damn thing once you get it there. 

The campus walk will also show you that there really aren’t very many people walking around, and the few that are most likely are walking from the car to their main building or vice versa.  

On my first cursory stroll I did see what looked like an intriguing path, running through a hillside on the edge of the campus, and I saw that some graffiti had been painted on it – a face and a penis – not precisely “beyond conventional boundaries” but hey, street art gets everywhere.

So last week, before I started teaching, I decided I’d try to walk along this path.  The first, and in some ways the last, problem was finding where it started.  I didn’t much want to scramble down the hillside, if only because I thought it’d be a terrible sweat to scramble up again.

I poked, I walked, I ambled around in the scrub and finally found the start of what proved not to be a “path” after all.  It looked like this:

And it wasn’t exactly an optical illusion, more a trick of perspective, the thing I was looking at wasn’t a path at all, it was part of a concrete drainage system. And it wasn’t flat, the way it had looked from the top of the hill, but it ran at an angle, which is no doubt what you need for water runoff along a concrete drainage system.

Well I was glad to have “solved” that problem though as a walking expedition it was a bit of a bust, and of course it meant there were even fewer opportunities for walking the campus than I’d thought.  I went off to teach my class and finally found some walkers; my own students.

Later in the week, after some discussion about Thomas Bernhard, one of them

sent me this passage from Bernhard's Wittgenstein’s Nephew:

“I do not care for walks either, and have been a reluctant walker all my life. I have always disliked walking, but I am prepared to go for walks with friends, and this makes them think I am a keen walker, for there is an amazing theatricality about the way I walk. I am certainly not a keen walker, nor am I a nature lover or a nature expert. But when I am with friends I walk in such a way as to convince them I am a keen walker, a nature lover, and a nature expert. I know nothing about nature. I hate nature, because it is killing me. I live in the country only because the doctors have told me that I must live in the country if I want to survive—for no other reason. In fact I love everything except nature, which I find sinister; I have become familiar with the malignity and implacability of nature through the way it has dealt with my own body and soul, and being unable to contemplate the beauties of nature without at the same time contemplating its malignity and implacability, I fear it and avoid it whenever I can. The truth is that I am a city dweller who can at best tolerate nature. It is only with reluctance that I live in the country, which on the whole I find hostile.”

Here’s a picture of Thomas Bernhard walking, or doing something anyway.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Well, the desert is getting a little cooler and so the Loved One and I went off  for a not especially adventurous weekend in Yucca Valley.  I had no great walking project in mind, but I had simple plan to drive along Skyline Ranch Road (not the worst name for a road) until I found a likely looking place to pull over and park, and then we’d walk for a while.

And that’s exactly what we did.  On the maps Skyline Ranch Road looks pretty much like a real road - and it is at first, but on the ground it rapidly turns into a dirt road, then a dirt road with deep gouges, and then it becomes no road at all.  I liked that very much obviously.

It was late Friday afternoon, the sun was going down, the sky was full of interesting patterns, though with nothing resembling a “sunset” and it was one of those walks, the best sort really, that didn’t have to be some intense cosmic experience: it was just a walk.

We did however come across this very appealing rock formation, which I’m sure is well known to locals, with a tree growing in its midst, with holes and gaps running through it so that the wind howled and moaned.  If you were the kind of kind of person who worshipped landforms you could do much worse than worship this one.

Yucca Valley still has one of my favorite used bookstores, the Sagebrush Press Bookstore, a place ever more crammed with stock, some of it decidedly pricey, some of it not, and I can never go in there without buying a book or three.  This time, among others, I bought a copy of Peter Jenkins’ A Walk Across America published in 1979, a book that I’ve been aware of for years, but have never really settled down with and read.  That night in the motel in Yucca Valley I could do exactly that.

In fact the title is a bit of a misnomer.  The books tell the story of Jenkins’ walk from Alfred, a town in New York State, to New Orleans, an impressive feat for sure (1,273 miles according to Google maps) but not “across” America in the ordinary sense of the word.  Jenkins wrote a second book, with his wife Barbara, titled The Walk West (1981) which covered the journey from New Orleans to Florence, Oregon: which is rather more of a crossing it seems to me. Arthur to Florence – it has a certain understated majesty to it, no?

Reading Jenkins today, he seems in some ways, to be ahead of his time, fretting about what is being done to America by corporate interests, but at the same time he’s part of that long tradition of writers who go off in search of America and themselves, and find them both pretty much wherever they look.

One of the fascinations of the book as far as I’m concerned is that Jenkins' journey took place at very much the same time that I was making my first trans-America trip, from Toronto, Canada (long story) to Santa Barbara, California, and although I was hitchhiking I inevitably did plenty of walking.  Like Jenkins, I experienced much warmth and much generosity from the people I met, such as the boys above, and only the smallest amount of occasional terror, also from the boys above.  This was pretty much the end of the hippie era, but hippie ideals and down home all-American values are by no means entirely at odds.

         In his book, Jenkins does from time to time have a tendency to drift into a kind of all-purpose Zen/National Geographic spiritual wisdom : “My main purpose was to be where I was,” for example, but heck, it was the times.  

          This is what Peter Jenkins looks like these days:

Monday, October 6, 2014


And speaking of black dogs, I’ve been rereading Robert Walser’s short story, sometimes referred to as a novella, “The Walk,” in which, at one point, the narrator encounters a hound:
“To a good honest jet-black dog who lay in the road I delivered the following facetious address: ‘Does it not enter your mind, you apparently quite unschooled and uncultivated fellow, to stand up and offer me your coal-black paw, though you must see from my gait and entire conduct that I am a person who has lived a full seven years at least in the capital of this country and of the world, and who during this time has not one minute, let alone one hour, or one month, or one week, been out of touch or out of pleasant intercourse with exclusively cultured people? Where, ragamuffin, were you brought up? And you do not answer me a word? You lie where you are, look at me calmly, move not a finger, and remain as motionless as a monument? You should be ashamed of yourself!’”
He then adds, “Yet actually I liked the dog.”

Robert Walser (1878 – 1956), was a German speaking Swiss who published quite  widely as a young man, but he was increasingly beset with mental and emotional problems that eventually stopped him writing altogether.  
And although he wrote four novels (or which only three survive), he’s generally regarded, and cherished, as a writer whose creativity came in fragments, sometimes in the form of "microscripts."  He might have been a great blogger.
  He was also a walker, no doubt a flaneur (he certainly wrote like one), and walking features regularly in his work, but it’s “The Walk” that pulls it all together, and is an excellent point of access to his writing, not least because the very idea of a (or the) walk creates a structure, and the story does have something resembling a narrative at least to the extent that things happen one after another.

A man goes for a walk, wearing his “yellow English suit.” He goes to a bookshop, a bank, the tax office, has more or less unsatisfactory encounters; with neighbors, his tailor, a beautiful woman, and indeed a dog.  Parts of it are very funny (I’m reminded of George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody as well as Kafka), but the ultimate effect  is a soft, deep and eventually all-enveloping melancholy.

 “The Walk” was first published in German, as Der Spaziergang  in 1917, and I discover there’s a later, apparently quite different version, though the one I know is the early one as it appears in the nyrb edition of Selected Stories, translated by “Christopher Middleton and others.” 

As I reread “The Walk” I thought it was just great; funny, awkward, profound, gently tragic, and yet I was struck by how little of it I actually remembered from my previous reading.  Of course I’m happy enough to accept that this is because of the failings of my own memory, and yet, I’m relieved to find that W.G. Sebald had some of the same problems.

         Sebald writes about Walser in a chapter of the book A Place In the Country, and describes him as a writer, “whose prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events, and things of which it spoke. Was it a lady named Wanda or a wandering apprentice, Fräulein Elsa or Fräulein Edith, a steward, a servant, or Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, a conflagration in the theater or an ovation, the Battle of Sempach, a slap in the face or the return of the Prodigal, a stone urn, a suitcase, a pocketwatch or a pebble? Everything written in these incomparable books has—as their author might himself have said—a tendency to vanish into thin air. The very passage which a moment before seemed so significant can suddenly appear quite unremarkable.”

         Yes and yes.  And now there’s a new collection of Walser fragments titled A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, translated by Damion Searls, introduction by Ben Lerner.  In it there’s a piece, hardly a story, titled “Two Things” consisting of just two discreet paragraphs, which perfectly demonstrate the way Walser’s prose can evaporate before your mind’s eye.  The second paragraph, in its entirety, runs as follows:
       “I was walking just so and while making my way along just so I ran into a dog, and I paid careful attention to the good animal, by which I mean to say that I looked at it for rather a long time. What a fool I am, am I not? For is there not something foolish about stopping on the street due to a dog and losing valuable time? But in making my way along just so I absolutely did not have the sense that time was valuable, and so, after some time, I continued on my leisurely way. I thought, ‘How hot it is today!’ and indeed it was really very warm.” 
There’s just no getting away from those dogs.

The date of Robert Walser’s death is generally given as Christmas Day, 1956, but I think he must have died earlier than that, for reasons I’ll explain.  He was an inmate at the sanatorium (some describe it as a mental hospital) in Herisau: long country walks were one of his few pleasures.  He evidently died of a heart attack while walking across a snowy field, and his frozen body was found by children who were themselves out for a walk on Christmas Day. But it seems to me, assuming Walser didn’t set off before  first light, and assuming the kids weren’t walking after dark (reasonable though I agree not cast-iron assumptions), and I know it gets chilly in those parts, but still, it seems there wasn’t enough time for a body to go from alive and warm to frozen solid.  In other words didn’t he probably die at least the day before? Not the very biggest deal, but something worth considering.
Either way, it must have been quite a Christmas to remember for the kids.