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.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Of making many books about London there is apparently no end.  That’s almost a quotation from Ecclesiastes 12:12, which continues “and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”  And to the mind too you might say, though some books are more wearisome than others, obviously.

A few days back I got an email from Jamie Manners, a friend of a friend who’s been commissioned to write a book about, as he puts it, the “interesting/quirky details in London buildings and places.”  And he asked could I think of any “favourite spots, oddities, places with a good story behind them, or notable features in London buildings that might be good for an entry.”.

A direct question like that is pretty much guaranteed to make my mind a complete blank, and as Jamie himself says “of course, when you look through the 'Secret London/Hidden London' stuff you realise this book has already been written 20 times and people recycle the same stuff (Wellington's horseblock outside the Athenaum, etc). They (the publishers) told me to make sure the City/West End are well represented, but I think it'd be nice to give equal weight to the areas where the people of London actually live nowadays.” 
Well, I like to make friends when I can, so I agreed to do my best, which is what I’m doing now.

When I was writing my novel Bleeding London (which is partly about a man who tries to walk down every street in London) I too went walking in London and I started carrying a camera with me, to record any such quirky details I might see; and I’ve pretty much carried a camera with me on all occasions when walking ever since.  Bleeding London was written in pre-digital camera days and I certainly took far fewer picture then that I do now, but so does everybody.  I wish I’d taken more.

There’s always a problem, of course, with “unknown” bits of any city.  The truly unknown bits are likely to remain that way, and then there are “well-known unknown” bits.  I remembering finding, by chance, the statue of Samuel Johnson’s cat Hodge, complete with oysters, and thought it was a wonder.  But now every damn fool knows where it is.

Sir Richard Francis Burton’s tomb in Mortlake is much less visited than the statue of Hodge, largely because it’s in Mortlake, and it’s very odd and wonderful, but there’s nothing unknown about it.

Digging through my old photo files has revealed some very dull pictures indeed, but one or two still seem sort of interesting.  And I’ve only Photoshopped them a little bit in order to retain that “retro” feel.  I can’t swear that all the things shown are still in existence.  (The photos of the noses and the space invaders aren't mine, as may be obvious, nor Hodge, nor the book maze, but otherwise, sure.)

Above for instance is a picture of what I believe is the narrowest building in London (though the internet shows there’s a lot of competition for that title).  The address is 10 Hyde Park Place, and it seems once to have been just an alleyway between two other buildings that got blocked off and became a building in its own right, just 3 feet 6 inches wide.   It’s also, I learn, now part of the Tyburn Convent next door, and I’ve always liked this outdoor pulpit hanging off the side (below).  I’ve always imagined nuns standing out there, delivering fire and brimstone sermons to the corrupt citizens of London, but I never saw one.

But if you want to be reminded of mortality and end times you might do better with the stone skulls in the gateway to St Olave’s churchyard.

As you see, the church is in a street named Seething Lane, which of course reminds me of the stand up comedian/punk poet active at more or less the time I was taking this picture, named Seething Wells.  He died prematurely (I discover) in 2009.

And above is a sign for the “pledge entrance,” above what must once have been the door to some kind of temperance hall.  It was very near to the flat where I lived in Sutherland Avenue, Maida Hill.  At the time I moved out the area was becoming increasingly Islamic, which might lead to a difference kind of temperance, I suppose.  Though not necessarily.

I always loved the Eduardo Paolozzi sculpture at Pimlico tube station, which I believe is actually used to disguise an air vent from the underground.  I used to have a girlfriend whose flat overlooked the station, and I spent a fair bit of time there.  It seemed the vent was very high-maintenance: there were always guys on ladders doing something or other to it.

But here’s where the memory fails, and where the Internet almost saves it. I knew that the above picture was taken somewhere near London Bridge, but I couldn’t have told you exactly where.  Online evidence shows it was there to draw attention to a sort of museum named “Winston Churchill’s Britain at War Experience” though I don’t think Winston Churchill was much involved with the enterprise.  In any case the Internet also suggests it's now closed.  As a long time Pynchonian, I was pretty excited to see what purported to be a V2 rocket up on the wall of any building in London, though I feel reasonably certain that isn’t an actual V2.  Unlike this one, which you can walk around at White Sands in New Mexico:

Incidentally Jamie’s publisher’s want to call his book The Seven Noses Of Soho, a reference far too oblique for me to catch, but according to Jamie “Apparently, in the 90s these bronze and plaster noses appeared all over walls in the West End and urban myths sprang up that anyone who could locate all "seven noses of Soho" would come into great wealth. There was one on Admiralty Arch and people said it was put there to mock Napoleon, & that cavalrymen would tweak it when they passed under. Eventually an artist came out and said he had put them all up as a protest against CCTV.”  Well, London remains a source of wonder and surprise, and curious artistic enterprise.

I was never aware of those but I did like the Space Invader mosaics that appeared around London at about the same time.  The artist also went by the name of Space Invader.  He’s French, apparently.

I gather he came to Los Angeles (they all do in the end it seems) for the MOCA “ Art in the Streets” show in 2011, and was arrested while putting up a mosaic, but released without being charged.  Hey, LA cops aren’t all bad.

The last time I walked around London was May of last year – seems like only yesterday, and I can’t say I found a lot of full-one quirkiness, but I did find a couple of curiosities that I hadn’t seen before, this statue of Bela Bartok near to South Kensington tube, for instance:

This pointy metal thing to tell you that you’re in Shoreditch:

And this splendidly blank and inscrutable door to the London Fruit Exchange (I mean, surely we've all got some fruit we'd like to swap).  I don’t imagine tourists are flocking there, but it quite made my day.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


Do you ever have one of those moments when you think, “Oh my lord I just made the most amazing discovery”? And then two minutes later you think, “Wait, everybody but me probably knew this already.”  I just had this experience with Raymond Chandler.

“Everybody” knows his passage from “The Simple Art of Murder,” the one that runs “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything …” and so on.

Now (and stick with me on this) I happened to be reading Gore Vidal’s review of  Robert Calder’s  Willie: The Life of Somerset Maugham.  

Maugham trained as a doctor in London at the end of the 19th century, and Vidal says this was “still Dickens’ great monstrous invention,” and then he quotes Maugham, “The messenger led you through the dark and silent streets of Lambeth, up stinking alleys and into sinister courts where the police hesitated to penetrate, but where your black bag protected you from harm."

Much of the world, and certainly much of the literary world, seems to have fallen out of love with Maugham (to be fair, Gore Vidal seems never to have been much enamored) but I think that’s rather a good sentence.  It’s from Liza of Lambeth, Maugham’s second-written, first-published novel, from 1897, when Maugham would have been 23 or so.

Vidal writes, “Maugham raised the banner of Maupassant and the French realists but the true influence on the book and its method was one Arthur Morrison.”

And if you wonder who this “one Arthur Morrison” was (that's him above), it turns out he was the author of a book published three years before Liza of Lambeth, titled (hold on to your hat) Tales of Mean Streets. Did Chandler read Morrison?  Well, it seems perfectly possible, doesn't it?

Morrison went on to write detective novels, his hero was named Martin Hewitt, but Tales of the Mean Streets is a series of short stories, sometimes described as "slum fiction" though there’s plenty of anthropological interest there.  His East End of London doesn’t sound much less daunting than Maugham’s, or indeed Chandler’s Los Angeles.  But I do wonder whether Morrison and Chandler would have had the same understanding of the word “mean.”  Morrison would surely have favored the sense of poor or paltry; Chandler would have favored cruel and nasty; but maybe both senses are there in both.

Well that’s pretty much the extent of my great “discovery” except to note that there’s a certain amount of walking in Morrison’s mean streets.  In a piece titled “A Street” he writes, “When love's light falls into some corner of the street, it falls at an early hour of this mean life, and is itself but a dusty ray. It falls early, because it is the sole bright thing which the street sees, and is watched for and counted on. Lads and lasses, awkwardly arm in arm, go pacing up and down this street, before the natural interest in marbles and doll's houses would have left them in a brighter place. They are 'keeping company'; the manner of which proceeding is indigenous—is a custom native to the place. The young people first 'walk out' in pairs. There is no exchange of promises, no troth-plight, no engagement, no love-talk. They patrol the street side by side, usually in silence, sometimes with fatuous chatter. There are no dances, no tennis, no water-parties, no picnics to bring them together: so they must walk out, or be unacquainted. If two of them grow dissatisfied with each other's company, nothing is easier than to separate and walk out with somebody else.”

It sounds to me as though he’s being unnecessarily mean to his characters.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


I wonder if you’re familiar with a book titled, Inferences From Haunted Houses and Haunted Men, (1901) by the Honorable John Harris.  It’s everything you would want it to be and a little bit more.  Walking, naturally, is one of the ways that men demonstrate their hauntedness.

Harris writes, “One of (Charles) Kingsley's neighbours at Eversley was the late Sir W. (William) Cope. The elder son of this gentleman, when Secretary of Legation at Stockholm, came to a tragic end. He suddenly, when out walking with a friend, although his health had been apparently perfect, began to shout and wave his umbrella. He was put under the care of attendants, as he was considered to be temporarily insane. He jumped out of a window and was killed. Voices insulting or threatening him, and with such scoundrels speech would be of something dreadful, would provoke or frighten the unhappy man.”

Well of course you to have sympathy for the haunted man here,  but I imagine that if I were to walk down the street and suddenly began to shout and wave an umbrella (not the least likely thing in the world) I wouldn’t immediately be put under the care of two assistants.  I suspect that wouldn’t make things any better at all.

Harris also writes, “About two years later a distinguished priest, well known in London, also suddenly waved an umbrella and behaved as if he were angry. But he showed hardly any sign of insanity, and on applying to the proper court for release from supervision, was declared sane by a jury. Strength of mind and religious feeling doubtless saved him from the fate of Mr. Cope. A brave man can resist such an attack under favourable  circumstances.”

Well I like to think I’m brave enough, and strong enough of mind, and that I show hardly any sign of insanity, but I’m not sure that would be enough to save me. “Religious feeling” I'm pretty sure has nothing much to do with it.