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.

Monday, March 30, 2015


This thing popped up on my yahoo front page:

It was the headline “This Ford GT Has Fewer Than You Walk In A Day” that really caught my attention, obviously. And as you read the article you discover that the car has 2.7 miles on the clock, and is coming up for auction, expected to sell for about half a million dollars.

And I began wondering first of all who the “you” in that headline is referring to, and then I wondered just how many miles does the average person people walk in a day.  I accept that average is a fairly nebulous term here, but still …

My less than exhaustive research suggests that nobody really knows, although there have been plenty of studies that have come up with various contestable answers, many of them involving experiments that involve giving people pedometers. 

Now this strikes me as a, let’s say, flawed methodology.  If you give somebody a pedometer and tell them you’re going to measure how far they walk, you can be sure that people are obviously going to aim for the big numbers and walk a lot more than they usually do.  So … using the (I would say inflated) results, a 2010 study by David R Bassett of the University of Tennessee, concluded that the average American walks 5,117 steps a day.

Of course steps come in various sizes – if they averaged 3 feet each that would 5117 yards or 2.9 miles – thereby in fact proving that yahoo headline to be perfectly true.  However, I’m guessing that when you’re shuffling around the kitchen or the office these steps are considerably shorter.  Similar studies show that the Americans are way behind western Australia (9,695 steps), Switzerland (9,650 steps) and Japan (7,168 steps) per day.

And as for the British, well again, the information is patchy but a 2011 article in the Daily Mail contained such gems as “Britons typically walk an average of two miles a day,” “one in six say they need to put their feet up when they return back at their desk or get home,” “the average Briton becomes exhausted after only walking up the stairs.”

Again the notion of an average Briton is pretty meaningles, but I find all this extremely plausible.  For what it’s worth, my own observations, unscientific  though they are, do suggest that the British probably do walk more than their American counterparts, even given huge variations in and between both groups.

Now, a lot of people assume that because I like walking I must hate cars.  This is not actually true, and is possibly a secret shame.  Of course I don’t have half a million dollars burning a hole in my pocket, but if I did who’s to say I wouldn’t blow it on a ridiculous supercar?   However, I’m pretty sure that in no circumstances would I buy a nine-year-old car with just 2.7 miles on the clock.  In order to stay healthy, cars need exercising just like people.

Friday, March 27, 2015


I came across this quotation from honest Abraham Lincoln.

In fact you’ll find it spread all across the Internet like chicken pellets.  Sometimes it's "backwards" rather than "backward," sometimes it appears as "I am a slow walker, but I never walk backwards."  Whichever way it is, I have yet to find the source where honest Abe said or wrote it, and in some cases he isn’t even attributed.

In any case it strikes me as a pretty dumb thing to say or write, and an even dumber thing to celebrate.  What the hell’s wrong with walking backwards?  I suspect people think it means “never retreat,” but that’s not much better - sometimes retreating is a very wise thing to do. 

And now wonderfully, amazingly, I have found that Mr. Lincoln didn’t always practice what he preached.  Here is a recollection of Lincoln at the 1856 Republican Convention, by William Pitt Kellogg, a lawyer from Illinois:
         “When he came forward to speak of course there was much excitement. … From time to time, as he reached some climax in his argument, he would advance to the front of the platform as he spoke, and with a peculiar gesture hurl the point, so to speak, at his audience, then as the audience rose to their feet to cheer, he would walk slowly backward, bowing …”
          It probably wasn’t a Michael Jackson style moon walk, but it was very definitely a bit of stage craft. He may be doing something similar here in Gettysburg.

In fact there are various sources that say walking backwards is terribly good for you – they’ve even got a name for it retro-walking, which sounds to me like you’d go out strolling in loon pants and tie dye tee shorts, but that’s just me.

According to Severine Koch, PhD, of the social and cultural psychology department at Radboud University, in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, writing in 2009 “backward locomotion appears to be a very powerful trigger to mobilize cognitive resource”.  And it’s easy enough to believe that walking backwards tones up a different set of muscles than walking forward and would probably be good for improving balance and coordination.  The problem is more where you could actually do this backwards walking – not in any place where there are a lot of people, obviously.  They’d think you were an idiot and they’d point and laugh at you, and then you’d walk into them.

Not that this has deterred Mani Manithan (above) who has been walking backwards since 1989 in order to end world violence.  He’s still at it 25 years later and has apparently now forgotten how to walk forwards. Of course he’s doing this in India, where they’re extremely tolerable of eccentric holy men. 
All of which brings us very, very indirectly to Flannery O’Connor.  When she was a child, in Savannah, Georgia, she trained a chicken to walk backwards.  It appeared on a Pathé news reel and now you can see it right there on Youtube:


Thank you Internet, maybe you’re not solely an instrument of the devil.

Flannery O’Connor is often, lazily, described, and occasionally patronized, as a writer of “Southern Gothic,” but it’s all too seldom mentioned just how damn hilarious she is.  In the book Conversations With Flannery O’Connor she says, "When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been an anticlimax.”

O’Connor was afflicted with lupus which eventually killed her, but she didn’t blame lupus for all her problems didn’t.  In 1954 she wrote to Elizabeth Hardwick, “… it galls me to have supported the lupus for four years and then to be crippled with rheumatism (a vulgar disease at best) of the hip.  I am not able enough to walk straight but not crippled enough to walk with a cane so that I give the appearance of merely being a little drunk all the time.”  
In due course she used a cane and then crutches.  She also kept peacocks, though I don’t believe she taught them to walk backwards.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Until a couple of days ago I had never read (call me a Philistine) a single word written by Thomas Wolfe, unless you include the titles of his books.  I mean everybody knows the phrases Look Homeward Angel, though that’s originally from Milton, and You Can’t Go Home Again
And actually that latter has always worried me.  Isn’t the “again” at best superfluous and at worst self-defeating?  I mean if you can’t go home, you can’t go home.  But if you can’t go home AGAIN that kind of implies that you’ve been home at least once before, in which case you CAN go home again, just not right now, or maybe not more than once.

In any case, my non-reading of Wolfe has, in the most minor way, now been corrected.  I have read his short story “Only The Dead Know Brooklyn” from 1935 or so and it’s wonderful.

It’s written in “Brooklynese” which isn’t quite as much of a strain as you think it’s going to be, but the great thing is it’s all about walking and mapping and urban exploration and (oh what the hell, I’m going to say it) psychogeography.  I had no idea.

The narrator writes like this:
So like I say, I’m waitin’ for my train t’ come when I sees dis big guy standin’ deh – dis is duh foist I eveh see of him. Well, he’s lookin’ wild, y’know, an’ I can see dat he’s had plenty, but still he’s holdin’ it; he talks good an’ is walkin’ straight enough. So den, dis big guy steps up to a little guy dat’s standin’ deh, an’ says, “How d’yuh get t’ Eighteent’ Avenoo an’ Sixty-sevent’ Street?” he says.

The “big guy” is going to Bensonhurst for no particular reason except that he likes the sound of the name, and we learn that he’s been all around Brooklyn in this haphazard way, walking, wandering, drinking in bars, and feeling he’ll never get lost because he has a map with him.  The narrator finds this completely incomprehensible.

“… I got a map dat tells me about all dese places. I take it wit me every time I come out heah,” he says.  

And Jesus! Wit dat, he pulls it out of his pocket, an’ so help me, but he’s got it - he’s tellin’ duh troot - a big map of duh whole goddam place with all duh different pahts mahked out. You know - Canarsie an’ East Noo Yawk an’ Flatbush, Bensonhoist, Sout’ Brooklyn, duh Heights, Bay Ridge, Greenpernt - duh whole goddam layout, he’s got it right deh on duh map.

“You been to any of dose places?” I says.

“Sure,” he says. “I been to most of ‘em. I was down in Red Hook just last night,” he says.

“Jesus! Red Hook!” I says. “Whatcha do down deh?”

“Oh,” he says, “nuttin’ much. I just walked aroun’. I went into a coupla places an’ had a drink,” he says, “but most of the time I just walked aroun’.”

“Just walked aroun’?” I says.
“Sure,” he says, “just lookin’ at t’ings, y’know.”

No, the narrator doesn’t know, and he finds the whole enterprise absurd as well as incomprehensible, and also in some obscure way threatening.  He considers himself a real Brooklynite and of course a real Brooklynite would never just wander around, and would certainly never use a map.  So maybe this means that a real Brooklynite never goes anywhere except the places he already knows.  And the narrator here consoles himself with the thought that it’s impossible to know the whole of Brooklyn anyway, so why bother to step outside your own orbit?  Needless to say, this doesn’t only apply to people from Brooklyn.

The story seems to have been at least partly autobiographical, and Wolfe probably saw himself as a version of the big guy wandering around Brooklyn.

In Thomas Wolfe: Memoir of a Friendship, Robert Raynold gives an account of walking with Wolfe.

“ …(Wolfe) had a good way of walking along the street. He swung his long legs easily and his arms no more than needful; he carried his shoulders well; his torso was erect and firm and his head straight with innate dignity … Wolfe walked along the street as if his business were right there; his business was to see, feel, hear, taste and touch and smell the life of the street: he was working as he walked. This gave his face an alert, lively expression, animal in its watchfulness, with his wary lower lip thrust out; then from time to time the gatherings of his senses coalesced in a spiritual perception, and the joy of spiritual apprehension lit up his face – ‘in apprehension how like a god.’

Which suggests that walking with Thomas Wolfe must have been quite a performance, unless (you think?) just possibly Robert Raynolds was laying it on a bit thick.

For what it’s worth, I lived in Brooklyn during my time in New York, though I’m sure I never became a Brooklynite.  And I certainly did plenty of walking, though I think my senses rarely coalesced in a spiritual perception.  However, while I was wandering around, I did take a few photographs that I’m still quite fond of.  This is one of them.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


We went to Lone Pine to do some walking.  Lone Pine is a rustic little town, halfway into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with one stoplight, some motels and an Indian reservation.  

Chances are you’d go there if you were heading for Mount Whitney.  The big attraction is the Alabama Hills: some very fancy rock formations.  The hills were given the name during the Civil War by some Southern sympathizers, after the success of the CSS Alabama as a commerce raider (which is admittedly not so attractive).

Lone Pine also has a Film History Museum, and this is the big thing about the Alabama Hills: they make a great backdrop if you’re making a movie: pretty much any kind of movie.  Imdb lists 344 movies or TV shows with scenes shot there.

They can stand in for anywhere you like, so they appear in Gunga Din, Charge  of the Light Brigade, Bad Day at Black Rock, Tremors, and many, many cowboy movies Including Yellow Sky, with Gregory Peck and Anne Baxter (below):

In recent years they’ve also appeared in Iron Man and Django Unchained.

There’s a book by Dave Holland, titled On Location in Lone Pine, which would definitely help you find where specific movies were shot, though I only found and bought a copy in the Film Museum gift shop after we’d done our after we’d done our walking around.  As it was, we drove up Movie Road, got out of the car and consulted a sketchy map, but let’s face it I’m the kind of man who likes a sketchy map.

But one movie not mentioned in On Location in Lone Pine is Ida Lupino’s 1953 noir extravaganza, The Hitch-Hiker.  I’d seen it before but since there was a DVD for sale in the shop, I bought it and decided to watch it again, which I’ve just done.

The movie is heavy on the noir and frankly a bit light on the plausible motivation, but it’s supremely watchable, not least for the shots of the Alabama Hills, but more for the performances, by Edmond O’Brien as the good guy who picks up the hitchhiker (hitchhiking, after all, being a specialized form of walking), played by William Talman, a man so bad that he has a frozen eyelid and sleeps with one eye open.

Inevitably the guys are mostly in car, supposedly making a 500 drive mile through Mexico (using a sketchy map), but in fact the Alabama Hills really aren’t all that extensive, so you know they must have just driven around and around the scenic parts, never straying very far from town.

But in the end if the car breaks down and they have to walk the last stage of the journey.  Edmond O’Brien has twisted his ankle by this time and is frankly behaving like a bit of a girl.

In fact it’s easy to read a proto-feminist message into the movie – that none of these men is really all that manly, and the bad guy is no man at all without his gun.

Later in the weekend we went in search of a ghost town named Saltdale, and more or less found it.  There really isn’t much that looks like a town anymore but there’s plenty of salt.  It’s a good place to walk, and I think it’d be a great place to shoot a movie.