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, June 29, 2016


If you go to the Goodreads quotation site, you’ll find this: “Words inscribe a text in the same way that a walk inscribes space. Writing is one way of making the world our own, and . . . walking is another.” – Geoff Nicholson
I’ll gladly stand by this, though I’m actually more or less paraphrasing Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life.  It's hard to find a good picture of de Certeau walking, but here he is apparently standing about in field, and I suppose he must have done at least some walking to get there.  But are you really sure about that scarf, Mike?

Meanwhile a correspondent, Jane Freeman – she’s an artist, you could check her out - draws my attention to a quotation form Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, in which he’s actually talking about essay-writing, but I think it has a wider application: “The reader should be carried forward, not merely, or chiefly, by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind, excited by the attractions of the journey itself. Like the motion of a serpent, which the Egyptians made the emblem of intellectual power; or like the path of sound through the air; at every step he pauses, and half recedes, and, from the retrogressive movement, collects the force which again carries him onward.”

No walking there, obviously, although we know Coleridge was quite the pedestrian – check out “The Devil’s Walk” – written with Robert Southey.  

And did you know that Kate Moss now lives in Coleridge’s old house in Highgate?  No, neither did I.

The Coleridge quotation corresponds somehow with a couple of paragraphs I recently found in John Berger’s Another Way of Telling.  He writes, “The dog came out of the forest is a simple statement.  When that story is followed by The man left the door open, the possibility of a narrative has begun.  If the tense of the second sentence is changed into The man had left the door open, the possibility becomes almost a promise.  Every narrative proposes an agreement about the unstated but assumed connections existing between events …
“No story is like a wheeled vehicle whose contact with the road is continuous.  Stories walk, like animals and men. And their steps are not only between narrated events but between each sentence, sometimes each word. Every step is a stride over something not said.”
      This is Berger walking with Tilda Swinton in Quincy, the town where he lives, in France.

Photo: Sandro Kopp/Berlinale

Monday, June 27, 2016


You know, I’ve never really got on with Henry David Thoreau’s writing.  I mean he’s a walker and I’m a walker, but as anybody can tell you there are as many different kinds of walker as there are walkers.  And really he’s always been the kind of walker who gets on my wick, with this kind of thing:
“To come down to my own experience, my companion and I, for I sometimes have a companion, take pleasure in fancying ourselves knights of a new, or rather an old, order—not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or Riders, but Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class, I trust. The Chivalric and heroic spirit which once belonged to the Rider seems now to reside in, or perchance to have subsided into, the Walker—not the Knight, but Walker, Errant.”  Couldn’t you just tone it down a bit Henry?

On the other hand Thoreau did have a fair bit to say about cats, including, “The most domestic cat, which has lain on a rug all her days, appears quite at home in the woods, and, by her sly and stealthy behavior, proves herself more native there than the regular inhabitants.”  Is this actually true, cat lovers?  It doesn’t sound true.

And of course most famously he also said. “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.”  Which is obviously a metaphor, I suppose, that heaven is on your own doorstep, kind of thing.  I gather there really are really a lot of cats in Zanzibar and I suppose Thoreau knew that, and although personally I wouldn’t go to Zanzibar to count them,  I’d be happy enough to go and look at them and have a walk around them.  They look like this apparently:

But in fact the whole of that Thoreau quotation runs as follows: “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some ‘Symmes' Hole’ by which to get at the inside at last. England and France, Spain and Portugal, Gold Coast and Slave Coast, all front on this private sea; but no bark from them has ventured out of sight of land, though it is without doubt the direct way to India.”

The Symmes here is John Cleves Symmes, who believed the earth was hollow and that there were various, undiscovered entrances – i.e. Symmes Holes, which a person could walk through and be in the hollow, brightly lit interior of the earth.

I’ve been thinking a lot about holes lately.  The other day I found a man spraying what you might call terraglyphs, or in any case strange symbols, on the road surface outside the front gate, tracking the route of the gas lines, he explained.  The symbols looked like this:

Yes, they’re about to start digging up the street and replacing the ancient, endlessly cracking water and sewer pipes.  This is obviously a good thing in the long run, but in the short run it’s going to make walking in the neighborhood a lot harder.  After the gasman had done his work, another guy arrived and he painted some parallel white lines along the length of the street, and it looked as though he was marking out a path or walking route.  Although of course that wasn’t the purpose:

Next day some different guys arrived and they had a big machine, kind of like a massive vacuum cleaner, the kind of thing that might appear in robot wars, and it had blades, which they used to cut along the white lines, and there was some kind of slush or I suppose coolant, or perhaps lubricant, that got sprayed across the street as it went, with an end result that looked like this:

The next step I guess is for a different crew to come and start digging up the whole street.   In fact they’ve done some of this piecemeal over the years, and they go pretty deep – at least a man’s height – the earth may not be hollow but there are obviously some little-explored cavities down there.

 Anyway, since walking in the neighbourhood has become a bit tricky with all these holes and trucks and machines, I went for a walk in downtown.

It was by no means hole-free, they’re digging things up all over the place there too and it wasn’t absolutely cat-free either.  I found this piece of terra-art – Felix painted, or I suppose stenciled, on the ground.  It was the only cat I found.  The only one I needed to count.

Friday, June 24, 2016


I can’t say I’ve ever felt massively “European,” but that’s a very long way from feeling like a little Englander, and the news that Britain will (by some as yet unimagined process) be leaving the European Union feels like a devastatingly bad and stupid decision.  Democracy – it’s a bitch.

So I thought I might turn to a European, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, you know, the solitary walker - for a bit of reassurance.  This is the man who said,  Never did I think so much, exist so much, be myself so much as in the journeys I have made alone and on foot. Walking has something about it which animates and enlivens my ideas. I can hardly think while I am still; my body must be in motion to move my mind."

All of which sounds right on the money.  But reassurance is not to be found.  Look at what Rousseau said in The Social Contract, “The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.”

Sunday, June 19, 2016


I think you probably know that as well as being a fan of walking, I’m also a fan of “street photography” - a term that admittedly seems to be becoming increasingly dodgy. 

Recently I have also become, very belatedly, and in a mild sort of way, rather fond of cats.  And I think my fondness for cats may have something to do with walking – in that you have to “take” a dog for a walk, whereas cats insist on walking by themselves.  My cat may follow me from one room to another, but the idea of “going for a walk” with her seems inconceivable.  This is her:

One of my favorite photographers, Nobuyoshi Araki, is a great deal more than a street photographer, but he certainly takes photographs in the street, and sometimes he takes photographs of the cats he sees while he’s out walking.  He also took an enormous number of photographs of his own cat Chiro.  Like this one:

Araki, I think we can safely say, has published more books that any photographer ever has – certainly 400 plus - and one of them is titled Living Cats In Tokyo (Tokyo Neko Machi).

In some of the pictures the cat is front and center, sometimes the cat is very small and distant and it becomes a matter of “Where’s Felix?”  But they’re all good.

 I can tell you that it’s all too easy to walk around Tokyo with a camera, snapping away, and thinking you’re a bit of an Araki, and certainly the cats in Tokyo present themselves left and right, in endlessly photogenic configurations.

I can’t speak for the whole of the city, but wherever I was, whenever I stopped to look at a cat – I never got as far as petting one - a Japanese passerby would stop alongside me and say “kawaii” (which is one of the ten words of Japanese I know – meaning cute), as did this woman on her bike.

 This Tokyo experience and Araki’s book made me realize that over the years, without thinking about it very much, I’ve taken quite a few photographs of cats while I’ve been out walking.  I make no great claims for these pictures, all I can say is, “Wanna see some pictures of cats?”  I understand that some people like that kind of thing.

Friday, June 10, 2016


You can never tell what response you’re going to get from a blog post.  Mostly you get none at all, but the one I did a couple of weeks back titled The Walk of Self-Loathing - about my fascination with things written and painted on the ground - really seemed to hit the spot with a few readers.

Evidently a lot of people share my fascination.  Jen Pedlar, my London walking guide pal, aka “The Queen of Archway” – says she refers to these marks as glyphs which undoubtedly they are, so I’ve adopted the term terraglyph – glyphs on the ground.  Yes, you may use it, but you should also celebrate the source.

I had a dig through the Nicholson photo archive and found a few more of my pictures, which you see here, and I went out walking and photographed a few more.  Once you start looking there’s no shortage.  Some are art, some aren’t.

And I remembered I did once talk a man in my own street, from the department of water and power, who was painting marks on the road, prior to some roadworks, and I said to him, “Is that where you’re going to dig?” and he said “No, that’s where we’re NOT going to dig.”  The marks indicated where the service lines are, so they have to do the digging around them.

And then Matthew Licht, now in Italy, but long an inhabitant of New York City, reminded me of something he used to see on the road surfaces of Manhattan in the 1990s (although they were in other places too – various parts of north and south America):  The Toynbee Tiles, which looked like this, messages cut out of lino, and stuck to the road.

I’m pretty sure I saw these too when I lived in New York, but it’s possible this is false memory.  In any case I feel a bit ambivalent about them.  Some people find the Toynbee Tiles deeply mysterious and inscrutable and resonant – there have been at least two documentary films about them.  But I don’t quite get it.  I mean, I like them a lot visually but I’m not sure I find them all that mysterious, inscrutable and resonant.  Perhaps I’ve lost my sense of wonder.

I mean they were obviously done by some guy - the best guess is that the guy Severino “Sevy” Verna from Philadelphia – and if he did all the tiles on his own, which seems likely then OK he must have been very active and very obsessive, but I guess I’ve been around long enough not to find obsession in itself all that impressive,
And message just doesn’t strike me as all that fascinating – Arnold Toynbee by way of Stanley Kubrick, telling us to resurrect the dead on Jupiter.  Well OK, go right ahead.

Some of the tiles refer to media conspiracies, which seem less interesting still.  But yes, I do like the way the tiles look, or rather looked, since they’re disappearing fast, if the haven’t gone already.

And then I heard from Megan Hicks who runs a website titled Pavement Appreciation, which describes itself thus “Pavement Appreciation: a step-by-step guide to asphalt graffiti showcases snapshots taken since 1999, mainly in Sydney and other 
parts of Australia, but also in Canada, China, Europe and New Zealand. This website is a component of a postgraduate research project undertaken by Megan Hicks in Sydney, Australia. The creation of the site was supported by a grant from the Macquarie University Postgraduate Research Fund.”  The website’s divided into sections that include “Magic,” “Death,” “Resistance,” etc.
     Asphalt graffiti is a good term too, and again some of these are aware of themselves as “art”, some are not, some are inscrutable, some less so.   Here are three of my favourites.

You can check out the website here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


I like this.  It’s from Sweet William, by Richmal Crompton, who is one of the very few, possibly the only, author I read in my childhood that I can still read today.  It’s from a chapter titled “Pensions for Boys":
     “William walked down the road, whistling his loud untuneful whistle and kicking a suitably-sized stone from side to side.  He wasn’t going anywhere in particular, so it didn’t matter when he got there.  Even if he had been going anywhere in particular it wouldn’t have made any difference.  William considered it waste of time to walk straight along a road.  If there weren’t stones to kick, there were ditches and hedges to investigate, trees to climb …”

It’s the whistling that gets me.  Whistling while walking is supposedly a sign of innocence, but it always comes over as a sign of guilt.  Now I’m not sure if small boys do much whistling anymore, although I know that Bart Simpson does: 

I can’t believe that Matt Groening ever read the Just William books but Bart and William are clearly brothers under the skin.

And they’re both some kin of Felix the Cat, the walking, whistling feline.  I like to think I’m some kin too.