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, January 25, 2016



Like a lot of people, I’ve been playing my David Bowie albums since the great man died, especially Scary Monsters.  And no doubt it’s because I make some claims to be a pedestrian that I’ve been fixating on those words, “She could’ve been a killer if she didn’t walk the way she do.”

It’s a great line but does it mean anything? I’m not sure that it does, and I’m absolutely sure it doesn’t matter whether it means anything or not, but I have been wondering what style of walking prevents you from being killer.  I suspect there are no easy answers.
One of the more interesting pieces written after Bowie’s death was by Steven Kurutz, in the New York Times, titled “David Bowie: Invisible New Yorker.”  Apparently there was a time about ten years ago when Bowie and John Guare would get together once in a while to talk about the possibilities of collaborating on a theatrical project.

It never happened, but Guare is quoted as saying, “We would take walks around the East Village and I was always praying somebody would run into us so I could say, ‘Do you know my friend David Bowie?’”  He was understandably disappointed that never happened either.

The article claims that Bowie could pass unnoticed even among the crowds of New York.  Guare again,  “He traveled with this cloak of invisibility - nobody saw him.”   Well, I’m here to tell you: not always.

About 15 years back I was in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, on a Sunday morning, and there, large as life, and very conspicuous, walking through one of the galleries was Mr. Bowie, accompanied by an entourage of half a dozen young men.  They were looking at paintings and every now and again Bowie would say stop and say something about the art, and the young men would hang on every word.  Before long everybody in the gallery was looking at Bowie and it became impossible to look at any of the art on the walls.  Iman and an all-female entourage were in the adjacent gallery but they were much less compelling.

This was on my mind last Sunday as I walked along West Temple Street in Los Angeles, on the way to see a “sound installation" by William Basinksi, in a storefront gallery called South of Sunset.  There was work by Chris Oliveria, and Steve Roden in there too.

Basinski has said in interviews that he changed from clarinet to saxophone because he wanted to be more like Bowie, and as a member of a band called the Rockettes he supported Bowie on the Serious Moonlight tour.  Of course he’s somewhat influenced by Bowie, because what modern musician isn’t, but I think he’s rather more influenced by the people who influenced Bowie: Eno, Steve Reich, John Cage.

Anyway, one has heard grander – and god knows louder - sound installations than the sound at South of Sunset.  Basinski’s music was more than minimalist, being played quietly on distinctly low-fi reel to reel tape recorder, but somehow the extreme modesty of the event was part of its charm.

West Temple is a bit bleak, a bit rough at the edges, but hardly the meanest of streets, and after the gallery I was wandering, taking the occasional photograph, including this one:

As I took the picture, a tough-looking Hsipanic guy who was out washing his car in the street yelled at me “Hey, why are you taking a picture?”  And I said, calmly, “Because I like the mural.”  And he said, not much less aggressively, “Who are you taking the picture for?”  And I said, “For me.”  This, rather unexpectedly, seemed to satisfy him, though it left me thinking there must be some story there I didn’t know about.  Was the guy simply fed up with hipsters photographing his neighborhood, or did he think perhaps I was a man from the city, come to inspect and maybe order the painting over of his mural?  I have no idea.  But when this was over, a much older, very benign-looking Hispanic guy who’d witness the exchange, he to me in a very friendly way, “Yes, it’s a great mural, isn’t it?”
         And I agreed that it was, though I think maybe I like this one better.  I think it’s the juxtaposition of the Virgin Mary and the Bud Light ad.

 In fact I can't even tell you the title of the installed Basinksi piece.  It wasn't this one, but this one's good too. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


And so, I went up to San Francisco and headed for North Beach to walk along Via Ferlinghetti, the street named after Lawrence of that ilk, poet and begetter of the City Lights Bookstore.

It’s a short street and it’s a dead end.  Compared with the orgy of street art in Kerouac Alley, Via Ferlinghetti is an oasis of calm and restraint, and also seriously lacking in glamor, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  It looked like this from one end:

And this from the other:

And like this in the middle:

A stroll along Via Ferlinghetti was not the greatest walking adventure, but on the way there I walked past Kenneth Rexroth Place.  

 I'd never heard of that, and I can’t say that Kenneth Rexroth is an open book to me, but I do know he was a poet and probably a “good thing,” though until I came to write this post, I’d never read any of his poetry – I thought it was time I did.  His poem “The Silver Swan” contains the lines:

… I go out 

Into the wooded garden 

And walk, nude, except for my 

Sandals, through light and dark banded

Like a field of sleeping tigers.

Personally I’d say that if you’re going to walk nude you should probably ditch the sandals, but I can see this is a personal matter. 

 Kenneth Rexroth Way looks like a reasonable place to walk (that's it above) but I don’t suppose many walk there given the heavy gated arrangement (below). 

Go to the website for Zephyr Real Estate and you'll discover there's a two bedroom condo for sale there, for $1,186,00 which for all I know may be a bargain by San Francisco standards. "Walk score of 100!"
And then drifting around the area I came to Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard, named after what they say is the world's longest-running musical revue.  It’s a hard name to live up to, obviously.

The show looks a good deal livelier than the street.

Friday, January 8, 2016


Lawrence Ferlinghetti is much in the news at the moment:  he’s 96 years old and has recently published his travel journals, and his letters to and from Allen Ginsberg. 
So I decided to read his 1958 poem “Autobiography.”  I’m not sure if it’s a very good poem but I like parts of it a lot.  It starts out really well:

I am leading a quiet life   
in Mike’s Place every day   
watching the champs
of the Dante Billiard Parlor   
and the French pinball addicts.   

But then it gets a bit too “poetic” for my tastes – there seems to have been a point in literary history when few Americans could write a poem without name-dropping Ezra Pound.  But the part of “autobiography” I like best, for obvious reasons, runs as follows.

I am leading a quiet life
outside of Mike’s Place every day   
watching the world walk by
in its curious shoes.
I once started out
to walk around the world
but ended up in Brooklyn.
That Bridge was too much for me.   

That’s nice isn’t it?  And funny too – and of course you could walk around the world and still end up in Brooklyn.  And obviously it begs the question of which side of the bridge was he when he found it too much.

I’ve walked in Brooklyn, and certainly walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, and I’ve also walked in the alley than runs behind Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookshop in San Francisco - Kerouac Alley.  Ferlinghetti worked hard to get the name changed.

And Ferlinghetti also has a street named after him, Via Ferlinghetti, less visited than
Kerouac Alley I’m sure, but now on the list of places I have to visit next time I’m in San Francisco.

Mr Ferlinghetti is a much photographed fellow, but the only picture I can find of him actually walking, is this one, where he’s with Jack Hirschman.