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, July 29, 2015


So I was walking on Hollywood Boulevard, and I went to see an exhibition at the LACE gallery, a “storefront installation” of photographs by Ave Pildas, titled Hollywood Boulevard The 70s.  Pildas worked as an art director at Capitol Records just up the street, and he took thousands of pictures on the Walk of Fame, between 1972 and 1975, although just 50 were on display at LACE. 

Pildas says,  "At that time people were saying the country was tilted to the West and all the crazies rolled towards California. They stopped just short of the ocean and landed in Hollywood."

        I can testify to the essential accuracy of that.  This was the time I first set foot on Hollywood Boulevard: in 1974.  I was a fairly young, though not entirely na├»ve, English hitchhiker, absorbing the very last rays of the hippy sunset, and although there was still a “sex and drugs and rock and roll” vibe to Hollywood, it didn’t feel like any summer of love.  The place was scary.  The people didn’t just look crazy, they looked downright dangerous, and as I remember it, way less benign than the ones who appear in these photographs.  

         I was saying all this to my walking and exhibition-going companion, the photographer Jason Oddy.  Jason has been known to take photographs in the street, though he’s a very long way from being a street photographer. He takes very serious, very beautiful and elegant, and largely depopulated photographs, like this one of Mentouri University, Constantine, Algeria, 2013, from the “Concrete Spring” Series:

We were both struck by this faux Ku Klux Klan photograph in the Pildas exhibition: 

Jason said he didn’t imagine you could get away with that kind of thing on Hollywood Boulevard anymore.  And I said I was kind of surprised you could get away with it even in the early seventies.  These days Hollywood feels like a perfectly safe and civilized place. 

I’m not sure just how much of a walker Jason is, but I dug out an interview with him in which he said that Thomas Bernhard’s novel Correction “is the nearest book I have found to a Bible. This relentless novel addresses every major theme: the trials and torments involved in becoming an authentic, autonomous human being; the problematics of writing; even the meaning and possibilities — as well as impossibilities — of architecture. All of it suffused with the blackest of humour and told in Bernhard’s inimitable, incantatory prose. It’s writing taken to the limit.”

         I’m a fan of Bernhardt too and although I haven’t read Correction I do know that its narrator writes, "A description of the road from Altensam to us in Stocket and a description of the road from Stocket to Altensam, naturally two entirely different descriptions…"  But of course.  Later in the book Bernhard says, “Who had the idea of letting people walk around on the planet, or something called a planet, only to put them in a grave, their grave, afterwards?”  Well, who indeed?

After we’d seen the Pildas exhibition we went for a brief drift, and I was muttering a few platitudes about Hollywood Boulevard being some kind of crucial indicator of the state of Los Angeles, that of course it had once been seedy and dangerous, but it was gentrifying just like everywhere else in LA, and compared with the bad old days it’s positively a haven of calm and safety. 

At which point we were both hit in the face by some kind of liquid, and we looked around and saw a laughing crazy young black man hurrying rapidly away. We could see he had some kind of squirt bottle in his hand, with which he’d no doubt squirted us, but it was all very sudden and we were too slow to think about pursuing him.  And of course we wondered what was in the bottle, and then a guy from a local open-fronted restaurant came up and said, “Did that guy just squirt something at you?” And we said yes, and this guy had been squirted too, and we said to each other, “Do you think it’s water or something worse?” and we more or less agreed that it probably was water, but it took us a while before we were absolutely certain. Obviously we agreed that it could easily have been something much worse.  And maybe back in the 70s it would have been something much worse.  But it did suggest that Hollywood Boulevard hasn’t quite become Disneyland, which on balance is a good thing, I suppose.

Here's a link to the LACE, Pildas Exhibition:

Friday, July 24, 2015


“He walked on in silence, the solitary sound of his footsteps echoing in his head, as in a deserted street, at dawn. His solitude was so complete, beneath a lovely sky as mellow and serene as a good conscience, amid that busy throng, that he was amazed at his own existence; he must be somebody else's nightmare, and whoever it was would certainly awaken soon.”     
Jean-Paul Sartre, The Age of Reason

Thursday, July 23, 2015


As you perhaps know, I run two separate blogs, one about walking, one about food, and inevitably there some convergences from time to time, posts that could fit into either or both places.  This is one of those.

A couple of days ago I had lunch in LA’s Koreatown with my fellow traveler, writer and urban explorer Colin Marshall, who lives in the area.  I combined the lunch with a walk, though I walked by myself since Colin’s a committed cyclist, which I am not, and also because he had to go off and get a haircut.

Will it surprise you that Koreatown is undergoing some serious gentrification? And of course a change in the food culture is always a major indication of that process.  

We happened to go past the Line Hotel (that's it above, and further above)which had become a bit of sixties slum by all accounts, but now it’s a hot and happening “design-forward” destination, containing two (yep count ‘em) restaurants from Roy Choi, the LA wonderboy.  The menu in Choi’s restaurant Pot offers the “Beast Mode Seafood Plateau” - oysters, shrimp, assorted crab, hamachi, uni & scallops for $96 (and yes, there’s probably a second marijuana reference in there), and yes, I understand that Choi gets a certain amount of flak from old school traditionalist Korean eaters.

But we weren’t headed there – we were going to Cassell’s Hamburgers, now inside the restored and refurbished Normandie Hotel.  And in fact some purists are vaguely disturbed that Cassell’s was there at all.  It was established in 1948 a little ways away, and had a see-sawing reputation over the years.  The owner Al Cassell worked there until he was well into his 80s.  

Now it’s under new ownership and has become a kind of minimalist hipster diner, with a studiedly simple menu and a range of craft beers. Colin had the Cobb Salad (it's not as small as it looks below - that's a trick of the wide angle perspective) and I had the Grilled Ham and Cheese sandwich with tomato jam, though afterwards I wished I’d had a burger.  The best thing about the sandwich – some of the cheese is deliberately left sticking out of the sandwich so it gets fried gets fried as the sandwich is cooked.  It’s hard not to love fried cheese.

As tends to happen when a couple of writers-slash-urbanists get together we talked of many things, and I certainly told the old story of how, when I first moved to LA, I really wanted to see the Felix the Cat sign on the Chevy dealership down by USC, and how it was ten years before I actually get there. 

But I didn’t mention, and in fact had pretty much forgotten, that I’d had a similar urge to see (I’m not sure what you’d call it exactly) the ghost or the specter or the simulacrum of the old Brown Derby restaurant.  The original was built in 1926 on Wilshire Boulevard, a “programmatic” building in the shape of a Derby, not that anybody (me included) has a very clear of what a Derby hat looks like anymore.  It was there that Bob Cobb invented the Cobb salad (did I mention something about convergence?)

The building was demolished in 1980 and I knew there’d been some half-hearted attempt to create a Derby-like or maybe Derby-lite element to the mini-mall that replaced.  Yes, I knew all this but I wasn’t thinking about it at all as I walked along Wilshire Boulevard after lunch, and suddenly there it was.

Frankly, it’s more of a dome than a hat: there’s no brim.  It looks pretty odd from ground level and doesn’t look much less odd when you’re standing beside it.  I gather it’s been a bar and a music venue, but it seems to sit empty most of the time, which is surely a shame.  Maybe nobody wants to eat in a building that doesn’t like much like a hat.

In fact as I walked along Wilshire Boulevard there now seemed to be all manner of intriguing restaurants, the HMS Bounty, which is evidently a place to consume food and grog.

OK, its become HMS Bo in this incarnation.

And here was this vastly intriguing sign, advertising some kind of sandwich joint: who wouldn’t be attracted to a hip Benjamin Franklin with a bit of Korean script behind him? Though actually I think he looks quite a bit like Larry David.

It makes you want to have another lunch and go for anther walk.  I almost certainly will.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


The big reason I was in England was for an exhibition at London's City Hall, based on my novel Bleeding London.  Faithful readers will recall the character Stuart London who walks, or at least says he walks, every street in London. The Royal Photograph Society, in the person of Del Barrett, had organized what you might call a crowdsourced exhibition for which volunteers had gone out and taken photograph of every street in the city. 

This amazingly, improbably, they’d succeeded in doing – that’s 58,000 streets, 58,000 photographs, and a preliminary display of 1200 images was on display at London’s City Hall (and as I write still is).  The plan is that at some point in the future there’ll be a gigantic exhibition of all the photographs in a vast warehouse somewhere in London, and there’ll be an online archive as well.

The launch party/private view coincided with a strike of London tube drivers so attendance was a bit thinner than it might have been otherwise.  But as you see, one of the great attractions of the party space was the floor - a gigantic map of London, which allowed you to feel as though you were a giant walking across, and stamping on, its suburbs and center.

A couple of days after the party Jen Pedler, who’s a walking guide as well as a photographer, conducted “Stuart’s First Walk” – a nice five mile meander based on a description in the book of my character’s first foray into tramping all the streets of London.  He (and I) chose North Pole Road, in W10, as the starting point, simply because of the name.  
         “He knew he had to begin somewhere and he knew that in one sense, any place was as good as another, but he scanned the index of his A-Z looking for a street name that sounded appropriate. His eyes fell on a line that read North Pole Road. Next day he went there and started his walk.”

In the beginning Stuart just walks for the sake of it, but then he starts keeping a diary because he realizes he’s forgetting what he’s seen, and I do know the feeling, although as I proved, writing things down is no absolute guarantee that you’ll remember them.  Photographs surely stick in the mind a bit better.  In my occasional wearying attempts to turn Bleeding London into a screenplay I’ve always said to producers that in a movie version Stuart should be keeping a photo or video diary rather than a written one; but that has always been the least of the problems.

And so we guided walkers went walking along North Pole Road, following in Stuart London’s, and to some extent my, old footsteps. Full, unsurprising, disclosure: I by no means walked every street in London while writing the book.  This is the joy of writing fiction – you can make stuff up, though of course we all know that writers of non-fiction make stuff up too.  But there were some days when I pretended to be Stuart, walked where he walked, and certainly the book contains descriptions of things I actually saw while walking in London, not least in North Pole Road.

Jen Pedlar - by Steve Reed
Of course having the author himself on a walking tour based on his book was a curious thing, not least for the author. Someone had said to Jen that it would be like walking with Dickens, and yeah, sure that’s EXACTLY what it was like.  Jen had considered having me read out various passage as we waked, but in the event she decided against it, for which I was truly grateful.  I suspect it would have been excruciating for all concerned, but especially excruciating for me.

Since the book was published (oh good god) eighteen years ago, and I’m not a great re-reader of my own work, I was pretty vague about some of the things ‘d seen and described in the novel.  Other things, of course seemed clear as day.  Things in North Pole Road however, fell chiefly into the former category: without the book I’d have remembered hardly anything at all.

Of course some things had changed – the pub that had once been called the North Pole and then the New North Pole had been converted into a Tesco Express after much local protest, apparently.  But there was still plenty that hadn’t changed much at all.  There was still a florist and hairdresser as mentioned in the book, there was still Mick’s Fish Bar and also the newsagent which in the book I called Varishna’s which I now know was a misspelling.

And we walked beyond North Pole Road, seeing some things I remembered and rather more things I’d forgotten.  We walked by Wormwood Scrubs – the prison and the piece of land with the same name.

We went up Scrubs Lane, along the Harrow Road, across the Grand Union Canal and eventually past Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, to Ladbroke Grove.

I guess the most Proustian moment came in the Harrow Road.  There’s a moment in the book when Stuart sees “a tyre centre whose frontage had a mural depicting members of staff.” I’d forgotten all about this, and Jen who’d done a reccie of the route, hadn’t been able to find it either, and yet suddenly there it was, and all we Bleeding Londoners stood outside in quiet wonder, celebrating, taking photographs, while the guys who worked there, the current employees not depicted on the mural, looked on in suspicion.

photo by Steve Reed

And of course there was some stuff that surely couldn’t have been there back in the day: – this gloriously misspelled estate agent sign, for instance, gave me particular pleasure:

It’s always a hard work to walk in a group – the good thing about being with a bunch of photographers is that you can wander off by yourself and look at little curiosities and take pictures and everybody else understands – it slows the walk down but it also sharpens up your perceptions as you try to find new things to photograph, avoiding the more obvious stuff that everybody else is photographing. 

In the novel Stuart walks past the Kensal Rise Cemetery, but doesn’t go inside, I suspect because its paths don’t constitute actual London streets.  We had no such inhibition.  And while we were there Gareth Philips took this fairly fab photograph of the author.  (I confess I’ve messed with it a little). If I made record albums it would surely be on an album cover.

Photo by Gareth Phillips
You might argue about whether this is a pic of the author, or a pic the author being his character.  I’m pretty happy either way.  And maybe it’s both.  But I was reminded of this picture of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, authors who I don’t in other ways really resemble much:

They’re acting out a scene from their collaborative novel And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, a kind of absurdist Dashiell Hammett pastiche.  I’m not sure that anyone has ever looked better, or greyer, or more sinister in his author pics than Mr. Burroughs.  He sure was photogenic, even when he wasn’t – if you know what I mean.

Jen Pedlar’s website is here: http://footprintsoflondon.com/guides/jen-pedler/

Steve Reed’s blog is here: http://shadowsteve.blogspot.com

The RPS site is here: http://www.bleedinglondon.co.uk