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, August 29, 2015


I like big maps, and I cannot lie, and small ones too, and after my little online ramble with Cab Calloway around 1930s Harlem in the last post, I’ve been finding various fascinating and in some cases utterly inscrutable maps.  Generally I like them better the more inscrutable they are.
          Since New Orleans is on everybody’s mind right now, and although I know this isn't  WHY New Orleans is on everybody's mind right now, I was nevertheless knocked out by the beautiful simplicity of this antique map of the French Quarter:

As an Englishman, of course, the grid is essentially unfamiliar to my experience of walking in cities, or was till I moved to the States, but I do think if you’re going to have a grid it should be as grid-like as possible.

The one above – quite grid-free  - is from Popular Map Reading by E.D Laborde, published in 1928, a kind of textbook, and the image is part of a revision test to see how much you’ve learned about map reading.  Admittedly it’s not much of a walking map, but as a visual object I think it sings.  You could also, quite easily, do a walk inspired by or conforming to it.

           And now this one: 

Naturally, the familiar London Tube map by Harry Beck is much used and abused, subverted and appropriated in all kinds of ways, but this seems more fun than many. The notion that Miami is just a few stops away from Jerusalem would no doubt appear to a lot of people, maybe even William Blake.
         That image actually appears in Wikipedia as an illustration to the entry on Psychogeography, and sure I get the general idea of the map but its deeper meaning remains mysterious, which is no doubt the intention.  Maps mean different things to different people, and some are designed to be meaningless to those not in the know.

And OK, if we’re going the Psychogeography route, above is Guy Debord’s map of The Naked City – Paris, cut up, exploded and messed with.  Good luck finding your way with this one, though that is no doubt the “whole point.”   
          Debord's Naked City map is from 1957.   The American TV series Naked City ran from 1958 to 1963.   Were the creators of these two things aware of each other?  I do hope so. 

And perhaps both parties were aware of Weegee’s book also titled Naked City, published in 1945.

And, since I style myself as the Hollywood Walker I should obviously point out that Weegee also published a book, in 1955, titled Naked Hollywood.   Sometimes it seems like all the great titles have already been used.

And life being as it is, I now discover that a website title http://weegeeweegeeweegee.net has made a map of Weegee’s New York – “A map of locations in New York City where Weegee worked, made photographs, lived and loved... organized geographically... downtown to uptown to the outer boroughs and ending at Coney Island... and/or Jersey City... (An experiment and work in progress.)” as they say.  
          You need to go to the website to be able to click on it, but I still like it as an image in itself:

Thursday, August 20, 2015


I grew up partly on the Longley Council Estate in Sheffield.  When I look at maps of the place these days it seems that the urban planners must have been familiar with very modern and/or very ancient designs for cities.  It wasn’t exactly Bauhaus because it was all essentially single family houses, nor was al-Mansur’s circular city, but those geometrical designs didn’t come out of nowhere.

         I can’t remember precisely when I first saw a map of my neighborhood, but I know it was after I’d been walking the streets for some years and thought I knew the layout of the place pretty well.  At ground level however, I had no sense of those geometrical designs, those semi-circles and spokes.  I was surprised but also somehow enlightened.   I can’t say this was when or why I first developed a liking for maps, but develop a liking for maps I certainly did.

Longley wasn’t the worst place to live, and you definitely didn’t worry about walking the streets there, but we had bad neighbors in the house next door and that had a lot to do with why my parents eventually moved out.

The father next door was a glowering and occasionally violent presence – a hod carrier by trade.  There were two children, a boy and a girl.  The boy was a year or two younger than me, and a poor, timid little thing, not very bright, and it occurs to me now that he was very possibly knocked about by his father. 
         After we’d left Longley my mother still got reports from other (perfectly decent) neighbors.  The boy next door left school young, without any qualifications, was unemployed and probably unemployable.  The way my mother put it, “All he does is mooch around the streets all day,” presumably drifting around thosee semi-circles and spokes.

         “Mooch” is an interesting word, and my mother used it a lot, and always to mean walking aimlessly, loitering, doing nothing much, though the sense of being a scrounger or a good for nothing was probably there too.  I’m not sure if she knew the Cab Calloway song “Minnie the Moocher.”  I’d guess she probably did, though I imagine she didn’t know that in the song to “mooch” is to be a drug addict.  Perhaps our wandering neighbor lad eventually went that way too.

“Minnie the Moocher” was recorded in 1931 and to modern ears it sounds as much of a drug song as, say, the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.”  Some of the lyrics run 
She messed around with a bloke named Smoky
She loved him though he was cokey
He took her down to Chinatown
And he showed her how to kick the gong around

To kick the gong is to take opium.  In 1932 Calloway sang a kind of a sequel, titled “Kickin' The Gong Around,” in which Smoky Joe searches for Minnie in an opium den: and finds her.  What’s of particular interest to scholars of walking, is that Calloway performs the song in the movie The Big Broadcast and does a kind of dance, maybe more of an exaggerated walk, which is a very early precursor of the Michael Jackson moonwalk, though I gather it was called “backsliding” at the time.

Calloway was also responsible for the  “Hepster’s Dictionary” –  teaching squares how to be groovy.  I’m not sure how seriously anybody took this at the time, not very I think.  Today it seems a mixture of language that’s either entirely obvious, as in “the joint is jumping,” or elaborate constructions that would be just too much trouble to use.  “Have you got the line in the mouse?" (Do you have the cash in your pocket?).  The word “mooch” doesn’t appear in the version I’ve got there were different various “editions.”

But the term “map” does appear in this form:
Sadder than a map (adj.) -- terrible. Ex., "That man is sadder than a map."

I just don’t get that.  What does it mean?  How sad is a map anyway?  Is a map, in fact sad in any way whatsoever?  Is there some hipster meaning of  “map” that we non-hipsters are missing?  Is it possibly the sense that only a real loser would walk the streets consulting a map?  (Compare and contrast with the Thomas Wolfe story “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn”).  I really have no idea, and I’d be grateful for any enlightenment anybody cares to throw my way.

I have no idea how Calloway felt personally about maps or about walking, but thanks to this handy map you could (circa 1932) have walked to his club in Harlem:

Thursday, August 13, 2015


I was reading Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, (a subject on which I’ve done a certain amount of research at source).  The book is sort of all right (though not nearly as good as the reviewers seem to say it is, if you ask me), and I came across a passage in which she describes Tennessee Williams in Sicily, in 1954:
“He sat in his friend Franco’s bar till closing time and then walked with him down the main street reassured by the music drifting from a nearby club.  But when he turned for home alone, the club had closed and panic rose in him as he strode faster and faster down a road that that seemed to stretch on endlessly, his chest constricted and his breath coming in gasps.”

Her source for the story is Williams’ own Diary in which he writes, “My chest felt constricted.  I breathed hard and fast.  I wanted to break into a run but didn’t have the breath to.  The street was empty.  Its length seemed to stretch forever.  Every step built up my panic and I seemed to be going further rather than closer to my hotel … Even after I reached the main square, in sight of the Hotel Ternio, my sanctuary, the panic persisted.  In fact reached its climax when I was half way up the gradient, about 50 yds, in length, to hotel gates.  I stopped and leaned against bank and plucked a leaf of wild geranium and tried to admire the stars which are said to calm fear.”
Well, is this an interesting bit of psychogeography isn’t it?  I mean we’ve all looked at certain streets and said to ourselves, “No, I don’t think I want to walk along there.”  And there are always reasons, which may be frivolous or serious, reasonable or irrational.  Not wanting to walk down a certain street because it doesn’t contain an open bar?  Well yes, that’s a rather specialized reason, but I can understand it.

         Williams apparently wrote in his diary the moment he got back to the hotel: “Now in my room, the seconal is taking effect (my second today) and I have my liquor and I am quite calm and comfortable.  But someday, I fear, one of these panics will kill me.”
One thing I know about Tennessee Williams’ writing habits, at least at a certain time in his life, is that when he sat down at his desk in the morning he liked to take a seconal and have a dry martin sitting next to the typewriter.  He didn’t always drink the martini, but he needed to know it was there. 
Of course as the morning wore on, the martini would get up to room temperature and therefore, it seems to me, less desirable, less of a temptation, and maybe that was Williams’ plan.  But I’m not so sure.  The serious martini drinker cares passionately about the temperature: the serious drunk less so.

And one thing I do know about Tennessee Williams’ walking: in 1979 he was walking in Duval Street, the main tourist drag in Key West.   

He and Dotson Rader had emerged from a nearby gay disco, called Monster, and they were walking along singing an old hymn, sometimes known as “He Walks with Me,” sometimes as ”In the Garden,” written by Charles A, Miles in 1913, though both Merle Haggard and Elvis sang versions of it.  The relevant lines were probably:

“And He walks with me, and He talks with me,

And He tells me I am His own;

And the joy we share as we tarry there,

None other has ever known.”

Some might say this combination of the sacred and the profane was just asking for trouble, and certainly a group of young men thought so.  Four or five young men jumped on the Williams and Rader.  People magazine reported, “Rader says he was slugged in the jaw; Williams was knocked down and his glasses broken. ‘Let's run,’ Rader shouted. ‘They may have knives.’ Williams stood his ground. ‘I am not in the habit of retreat,’ he declared.”
Here’s a picture of Dotson Rader with Ruth Ford and Andy Warhol

Later Williams said, "Maybe they weren't punks at all but New York drama critics. That mugging received better and more extensive publicity than anything I ever wrote.”

Here's a picture of Tennessee walking in happier circumstances: