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, February 29, 2016


The Hollywood Walker is away, walking (among other things).



So, this happened. I was invited to a pre-Oscar party given by German Films and the German Consulate General at the Villa Aurore (yep, I’m THAT well connected.  That's it above).  The Villa is a splendid place, right on the edge of the Topanga State Park.  We were told to park in Los Liones Drive, which is the road where the State Park hikers leave their cars, and then board a shuttle bus to get to the Villa.
There were a few hundred guests, and who knows how many hikers: not a single bit of parking was to be had nearby.  I ended up parking a good 20 minute walk away. 

 I’m a walker, right, so I told myself that this was a good thing, but once I’d parked. I had to schlep up a substantial hill to the place where you signed in and got your wristband and then waited for the shuttle.

I’d spruced myself up a little for the event – jacket, proper trousers - and it was a hot day and, walker or not, halfway up the hill I was feeling it.

Now I’m not one usually one of those writers who listens to conversations and writes them down in his notebook – but here I happened to overhear a fellow in shorts doing some mansplaining to the girl he was with, thus “Bowie was Bowie because he WAS the Starman.  And he was so unique.”  That almost made the walk up the hill worth it. 

And at the party there were quite a lot of women in “limousine shoes” – I have no idea how they got there.  I’m pretty sure they didn’t walk up that hill.

Thursday, February 25, 2016


It’s a bad week when we lose both Umberto Eco and Harper Lee.  Maybe it’s because I’m English that I don’t have the affection To Kill a Mocking Bird  that I feel I’m supposed to have. 

A few honest Americans I’ve talked to aren’t sure whether they really like the book or not.  It was drummed into them at an early age that this was such a good book, and such an important book, and they had to like it because.  For many it seems to have been the first "serious" book they ever read. 

Of course most of us in the English speaking world had never heard of Umberto Eco until The Name of the Rose, which first appeared in English in 1983.  It was obviously a very good thing, but also really hard to read.  The movie made everything easier. 

I’m actually much fonder of the essays in Eco’s How to Travel With a Salmon – and elsewhere he did an analysis (and a take down) of James Bond plots that even as a fan of Ian Fleming I find just wonderful.

I can’t swear that either Lee or Eco was a great walker but Lee did write this:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”  That’s a little bit Hannibal Lector isn’t it?  If we have only understand people by climbing into their skin and walking around, we’re never going to understand many people at all. Which is of course a completely reasonable point of view.  Here's Harper Lee on the movie set.

Eco wrote a book titled Six Walks in the Fiction Wood which contains this passage: "There are two ways of walking through a wood. The first is to try one of several routes (so as to get out of the wood as fast as possible, say, or to reach the house of grandmother, Tom Thumb, or Hansel and Gretel); the second is to walk so as to discover what the wood is like and find out why some paths are accessible and others are not. Similarly, there are two ways of going through a narrative text."

That strikes me as just dumb – surely there an infinite number of ways to walk through a wood, and an infinite number of ways to go through a text.  But this is Fine.  This is the joy of literature, right?  We can love and admire writers, and in some metaphorical way walk with them, but we don’t have to agree with them about everything, or in fact anything.

Thursday, February 18, 2016


Typical bloody Birmingham.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


Life, being as it is, I open the latest issue of  the London Review of Books, and there’s Jonathan Meades in full flight, reviewing Hitler At Home and Speer: Hitler’s Architect.  It’s illustrated with this painting by Luc Tuysmans, titled The Walk in English, originally De wanderling in Dutch – Tuysmans is Belgian.

Meades writes, “Luc Tuymans’s painting The Walk shows Hitler and Speer silhouetted in early evening light on the Obersalzberg. The photograph that the painting is based on is mute. Tuymans’s manipulation of it is anything but. His Hitler, the Führer, the guide, is indeed guiding, just. He is stumbling awkwardly towards the last of the light while the upright Speer holds back, following certainly, but cautiously, tentatively, allowing his idol and besotted patron first dibs on divining the future – which may prove to be less golden than the sun’s shafts seem to promise. What if the guide has lost his touch, can no longer read the entrails?”

Well, this is good stuff, of course, and only a fool would get into an argument with Jonathan Meades, but I think I’ve found the original photograph, or a very close variant (on the website reichinruins.com), and I don’t find it mute at all.

  Let’s face it, Ayrian dreams aside, most walkers look good pretty good and picturesque when walking into the sunset.  For that matter most people look pretty good when walking among snow covered peaks.  And I do find it interesting however, that in the painting Speer has grown to be a head taller than Hitler.  Does that make the painting pro-Speer? Meades is virulently anti-Speer, as he's absolutely entitled to be.

Speer, as we know, was quite a walker, and he didn’t let incarceration in Spandau slow him down.  In his native Heidelberg there remains the Thingstätte, an amphitheater which he designed for the Nazi party, built in 1935.  It’s a great place for walking these days apparently.  ”Carry a map and watch for the labeled rocks” is the headline on Tripadvisor.

Friday, February 5, 2016


A man walking down the street – sometimes it’s a woman, but more usually it’s a man – and as he walks he talks, and points at things, and it seems that he’s talking just to you, explaining those things that aren’t obvious, that don’t immediately meet the eye. 
Sometimes this “talking” may be in book form – a text, a narrative, a guide book, and often it’s on video, whether a serious documentary or travelogue or just some wobbly fetish footage shot on somebody’s cellphone and destined for YouTube and an amazingly low number of views.
         And of course this person almost certainly doesn’t know you, may be addressing an imaginary you, a big audience of “yous.”  And there may be a whole army of intermediaries between you and him – publishers, editors, a film crew, programmers.  Some of these intermediaries aim for a much higher degree of invisibility than others.

I’ve been thinking about this while reading two versions of A Survey of London, two very different versions of what are in some ways the same book.  John Stow’s A Survay (sic) of London was first published in 1598, and he revised and expanded it for a second edition published in 1603, two years before his death. I did not, alas, read the version below:

Posthumous editions continued to appear after Stow had departed, often containing maps and illustrations. Some of the editing was wayward, but there was a “perfected” or at least unlikely to be improved upon edition by John Strype, often referred to as "Strype’s Stowe," published in 1720.  It was several times longer than the original, incorporating all kinds of new material, much of it necessitated by changes and growth in London, some of it dictated by Strype’s own personal preferences.

John Stow 1525-1605 was a tailor by trade but more passionately he was a historian, antiquary, collector of books and manuscripts.  And he was also a great walker, an urban explorer, a psychogeographer some centuries avant la letter.  He was therefore an ancestor of a whole tribe of writers and historians and TV presenters who use walking as a mean of investigating the geographic, historic and cultural landscape.

Sometimes this seems a bit old hat.  I think Alan Whicker was the first on-screen walker and talker I ever saw – and he began presenting Whicker’s World in 1958.  And I’m sure there were earlier ones too.  But it’s a tribe that shows no sign of dying out: think Anthony Bourdain, think Mary Beard, think Simon Sharma, think Jonathan Meades.

Edmond Howes, Stow’s literary executor wrote that Stow never rode, but always traveled on foot when he visited historic buildings or sought out historical documents.  William Drummond reports Ben Jonson as saying, “He (Stow) and I walking alone, he asked two criples (sic), what they would have to take him to their order.”  I think Stow protested too much about his poverty: he left his wife and daughters enough money that they could erect this elaborate monument to him in the Church of St John Undershaft in EC2.  Think you or I will get one like that?

Stow’s prose style is chatty and he writes as though you’re “there,” walking along with him. He’s your guide, pointing things out, telling you stories and anecdotes, but he’s not uncritical about what he sees and knows.  Like many an observer he regrets some of the changes. 
“In the East ende of Forestreete is More lane: then next is Grubstreete, of late yeares inhabited for the most part by Bowyers, Fletchers, Bowstring makers, and such like, now little occupied, Archerie giving place to a number of bowling Allies, and Dicing houses, which in all places are increased, and too much frequented.” 
That’s right, you know the neighborhood’s on the skids when the archers move out and the bowling alley moves in.

         John Strype’s edition of Stowe is titled A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, and he adheres to Stow’s notion of exploring the city as though on a walking tour, and he adds a few “perambulations” or circuit walks of his own.

It’s very hard for me to see that word “perambulation” without thinking of Nikolaus Pevsner and his Buildings of England series.  He perambulated all over the country.  Was he consciously echoing Stow and Strype?  He must surely have been aware of the Survey.  In any case, Pevsner’s work, just like Stow’s, is now reedited and revised by subsequent diverse hands. 

I’m one of that generation who finds it impossible to walk round an English church or churchyard without noting and mentally cataloging the features in a Pevsner-esque way  - rhenish helm, blind clerestory, nodding ogee arch – etc.   I’m not sure that this is a necessarily good thing.

Perhaps Jonathan Meades is similarly conflicted.  In his documentary Pevsner Revisited he says that while other disaffected youths were off demonstrating and smashing the state, he was exploring English architecture clutching a volume of Pevsner.

There’s plenty of footage of Pevsner himself walking around looking at buildings, and he was seen on TV once in a while, but he never had the popularity or that “posh but with a common touch” thing that John Betjeman had.  There was a certain rivalry between them, but Pevsner just wasn’t cuddly, he wasn’t televisual, and he wasn’t loved - possibly his German origins had something to do with that.  Betjeman was a London lad, born in Gospel Oak, though that surname is Dutch, originally with two n’s – changed precisely because it sounded German.

And I remember that at some point in my not especially misspent youth, I used to walk the streets of my hometown of Sheffield, fantasizing that an imaginary camera crew was following me as I wandered among the treasures of the Sheffield urbanscape – not that I knew much about the Sheffield urbanscape.
         Now, just occasionally, in my role as walker, writer, pontificator, and god knows I've been called a "cultural critic," I do get called upon to wander around, talk and point at things, usually not in Sheffield.

Sometimes there’s even a camera crew.  It’s never as much fun as I once thought it would be, but I do always try very hard not to look or sound like Alan Whicker.