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 27, 2016


A long time ago in London in the very early 1990s, my girlfriend and I were waiting for a bus, in the Strand, at about 10.30 in the evening, and who should come walking along but Dennis Thatcher, heading more or less in the direction of the Houses of Parliament.  Margaret Thatcher was still an MP at that time, though no longer Prime Minister.

Even so it was a surprise to see Dennis walking all by himself, no bodyguard or security detail in sight.   My girlfriend and I sort of looked at him, and he sort of looked at us, but we really didn't acknowledge each other’s existence, although the moment he’d gone my girlfriend and I simultaneously said, “That really was Dennis Thatcher, wasn’t it?”  And there was no doubt whatsoever that it was.

Largely thanks to Private Eye’s portrayal of him as a gin-drinking, golf-playing, saloon bar bore, Dennis Thatcher was largely a figure of fun in Britain during the Thatcher years, but there are much worse things to be.  He was wise enough to keep his mouth shut and stay out of trouble, which seems to me as much as we can or should demand of the spouse of a political leader.

In the United States however things run a little differently.  If you want to be president you have to drag out your spouse at the party convention to make a speech saying what a good egg you are.  When your spouse just happens to be Bill Clinton, well, it’s no surprise than he turns up the rhetoric pretty effectively.  

The home life of the Clintons remains inscrutable, in fact downright unimaginable, to most of us.  And needless to say Bill Clinton’s speech made no mention of jetting around on Air Force One, of hobnobbing with dubious international dignitaries. nor how he and Hillary enjoy the many billions contributed to the Clinton Foundation.  No, folksiness was the order of the day, and what’s more folksy than WALKING? 

First there was the cute meet:

“I saw the girl again, standing at the opposite end of that long room. Finally, she was staring back at me. So I watched her. She closed her book, put it down, and started walking toward me. She walked the whole length of the library, came up to me, and said, "Look, if you are going to keep staring at me, we at least ought to know each other's name. I'm Hillary Rodham, who are you?"

Obviously things went pretty well:

“I asked her to take a walk down to the art museum. We have been walking, and talking, and laughing together ever since.”

Yes walking is apparently one of their things, and yes, judging by the pictures a dog is 

usually involved.   He went on:

“I can tell you this — if you were sitting where I am sitting and you heard what I have heard and at every dinner conversation, every lunch conversation, on every long walk, you would say, "This woman has never been satisfied with the status quo in anything.’”

Some might think that a series of long walks with somebody who’s constantly expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo might be a little wearisome, but Bill’s obviously made of sterner stuff.  And of course he insisted that walking isn’t just the province of rich white folks:

“If you are a young African-American disillusioned and afraid, we saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be. Help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people who wear blue to protect our future.”

Who could disagree?  And I’m not saying it isn’t a damn good speech, and if it helps put Hillary (and him) in the White House, then that’s OK by me.  I’m just not wholly convinced that the two of them really do a whole lot of walking together, unless there’s a photographer nearby.  And I suppose any number of bodyguards.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


If you felt like going for a walk in Los Angeles last Saturday afternoon you would have been well advised not to.  The air quality was (as we say) “unacceptable.” There are so many things about life that are unacceptable but air quality is one of the few that gets an official designation.  Above is how it looked from where I was.  It looked way more dramatic elsewhere.

The sky was that color because of the “Sand Fire” which sounds a little more “end of the world” than it actually was.  It was plenty serious enough – 37,000 acres of forest fire in the Sand Valley, about 30 miles north of the city, up near Santa Clarita, 10,000 people evacuated, 18 homes destroyed (all these figures provisional, of course), but the name invokes something even more extreme: dunes bursting into flame, sand particles turning into molten glass, something like Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness.

The LA Times helpfully ran an article under the headline “Air quality around Sand fire is 'like being around second-hand smoke,' expert says.” Some might have thought it was rather like being around first-hand smoke, but then we’re not all experts.

The man they’d got to pontificate was Mark Morocco, a clinical professor of emergency medicine at UCLA. “The danger posed by the Sand fire depends on how close people are to the flames,” he said.  And did he have advice for walkers?  Well not specifically.  “For everyone, it is best to ‘throttle down on your exercise’ and get to places with better air quality, Morocco said.” 
There was a psychological element too. “'People feel anxious about it when the sky looks like a zombie apocalypse, when the sky is red and these smoke plumes are on the horizon,' Morocco said. ‘If you have anxiety, you’re going to feel worse, or if you have depression, you could actually get depressed.’"  You don’t say, Mr. Morocco.

Fact is, I’ve been watching the skies more closely than usual as I continue to read Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotters Guide.  Of course those weekend air conditions above LA weren’t clouds, which I suppose meant they couldn’t be spotted and named and classified.  But the most interesting section I came across in Pretor-Pinney’s book was about cloud seeding by the Americans during the Vietnam War, “Project Popeye” as it was known, designed specifically to mess up the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  This came as news to me though I’m sure not to many.

--> General Vo Nguyen Giap looking pretty cheerful on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

As I understand it, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was the supply route for men and equipment that ran from North to South Vietnam via Laos and Cambodia.  This was a monsoon region, and when the rains came down. the trail became impassable.  The American military boffins reasoned that the longer the rains went on, the more disruption there’d be.  This was revealed to the American public in an article by Seymour Hersh in the New York Times, July 3, 1973.  For years apparently the American military had been spraying chemicals (silver iodine seems to have been the active ingredient) into the clouds above Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia in order to make rain. 

Frankly, the Ho Chi Minh trail doesn’t look like it was a walk in the park even at the best of times, although you could evidently get an elephant or two along at least part of it on a good day.

Project Popeye seems to have worked pretty well in itself, not that the US won the war or anything.  And then there was also "Project Commando Lava," created by some guys at Dow Chemical.  Aircraft dropped paper sacks filled with a mixture of Trisodium Nitrilo-triacedic acid and Sodium Tripolyphosphate.  When mixed with rainwater this substance destabilized the soil and created “artificial” mud.  In some quarters It gave rise to the slogan "make mud, not war.”

And that is something that the folks around Sand Valley (and elsewhere) will in due course have to worry about.  It’s much the same every year around these parts.  There’s a fire, scorched earth, destabilized soil, then the rain comes and creates mud slides (real, not artificial) even without chemicals.   Anybody might think California was a war zone.

Friday, July 22, 2016


A few days before the 4th of July 1932 a fifteen-year-old boy named Louis Thomas Harden was walking along beside the railroad tracks near Hurley, Missouri.  The local mill pond had recently flooded, and pieces of inscrutable debris were left beside the tracks when the water receded.

Louis was a tinkerer, the kind of kid who made wooden models and built projects out of Popular Mechanics magazine.  So when he found an especially intriguing piece of debris there where he was walking, he picked it up and took it home with him.  The object may have have looked something like this:

Or I suppose this:

On July 4th itself he examined his new find more closely.  It proved to be a detonation cap left behind by a construction crew some distance away, and transported trackside by the flood.  As Louis looked more closely at the object it exploded in his face, and despite some desperate and painful surgery he was left permanently blind.

In due course Louis Thomas Hardin (1916–1999) became Moondog; an all-American original, a composer, musician, and poet, who between the late 40s and the early 1970s could be seen in various locations around Manhattan.  At one point he was a fixture in Times Square, but more often he could be found on 6th Avenue between 52nd and 55th Street.  He looked like this:

Sometimes he played music, just like any busker, sometimes he tried to sell merch, and other times he just stood there looking like a Viking.  I’m sure he was photographed many thousands of times, by gawking tourists as well as by serious photographers.   The classic image shows him as the still point, as the other walkers of New York swirl around him.

I’m always slightly surprised by how many blind people there are walking the streets of Manhattan, especially when you consider how many sighted people claim to be terrified at the prospect. 

I’m sure Moondog had friends and helpers but he obviously did get around the streets under his own steam.  Philip Glass, in his essay “Remembering Moondog” (which is the preface to Robert Scotto’s authorized biography Moondog, The Viking of 6th Avenue) writes, “he was so confident in his walk you wouldn’t think he was blind.  I wondered how, as a blind man, he managed to cross the street without an instant of hesitation until he showed me how he listened to the traffic lights; I had never heard them before in this way.” 

   I don’t suppose Moondog ever had much use for a printed map of New York, but he had a sound map in his head.

Saturday, July 16, 2016


I felt a bit like a mad dog a couple of days ago.  The temperature hit 87 – and I reckon walking gets to be a bit of an ordeal when it’s hotter than 80 – but I’d promised myself a walk, and so a walk I had.  I wasn’t the only man on the street, but there weren’t many of us.

A midday walker (not me)

I was on my way to meet my pal Claire for lunch.  She has acquired a dog, not mad as far as I can tell, but it seems to have changed her life – and it has certainly changed the way she walks - both of which may have been intended.  She looked like this:

In fact my walk to lunch - about 3 miles - wasn’t quite as punishing as I expected. I walked through Los Feliz, an area that manages to be thoroughly suburban but also somehow exotic.  The agaves in front of the Lloyd Wright house were flowering, which look very fine though in fact flowering is a harbinger of doom: they flower and then they die.

Other cacti and succulents, these in a pot by the roadside, looked the worse for wear:

There was topiary:

And whatever this plant is:

And there was this tiled fountain on a street corner, which looked much like a public amenity, though in fact it’s right at the front edge of somebody’s garden.

And finally there was this fairly hilarious sign, one of several I saw, stuck to various uprights around the neighborhood:

I couldn’t tell if it was for real or some kind of performative tease and having been to the website I’m not a whole lot wiser.  Here’s how it looks on the website:

 Chuck seems an amusing enough feller, and I know a guy’s got to try to make a living, but $7 a mile – that’s $21 an hour – I mean, really.  But I do like the line about being forced to face thoughts of the unknown future and my own insignificance in the ever expanding universe.  Actually, you know, that’s pretty much the main reason why I walk.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


I’ve been reading a book titled Hollywood Hell, so that you don’t have to. It was published in 1985, and of course it was the title that hooked me - and maybe the cover, though it's not very representative of what goes on in the book, which is all about waifs and strays and street kids, who get involved in crime and porn.

The hero is one Mack Bolan – sometimes know as the Executioner.  

Not to be confused with Marc Bolan obviously. "You’re not really going out in public in those shoes are you Marc?"

Mack Bolan is the creation of Don Pendleton – and if online sources are to be believe he’s appeared in 600 novels.  Pendleton sold the rights somewhere along the line, and a crew of lesser scribes evidently took over.  

Don Pendleton

Mack Bolan gets around: Cambodia, Soho, Beirut, and does a lot of killing with a very big gun.  To be fair most of the really violent action of Hollywood Hell takes place in Topanga and Pasadena, and the writer (who isn’t named, though somebody called Mike Newton is given “special thanks” on the copyright page) doesn’t put a whole lot of effort into giving a sense of place, but there is one strangely evocative description – of walking in Hollywood – almost certainly on Hollywood Boulevard:

“The hunter (that would be Bolan) parked his rental car upwind, deciding to walk.  He noted there seemed to be no continuity among the people he encountered in this neighborhood of sleazy bars and businesses.  Along the short block’s walk he met a human of every race and gender.
         “Men in stylish business suits looked sheepish or defensive as they caught his eye: the punks, decked out in leather with their spiky hair dyed every color of the rainbow, tended toward defiance seasoned with a dash of apathy.  A macho body-builder type paraded past him, hand in hand with his diminutive bearded lover.
“Across the street a stoned guitarist played for the amusement of some black youths dressed in street-gang colors, and a wino occupied the vacant doorway next to his objective, grumbling fitfully in alcoholic slumber.”

All of which sounds vaguely appealing, like a cultural and ethnic rainbow coalition, where everybody’s learned to just get along, which might be the very reason so many waifs and strays end up on Hollywood Boulevard, although Mack Bolan takes a different view.

I walk along Hollywood Boulevard all the time and of course I see waifs and strays, and sometimes their interactions with cops, which in general seem to be a lot less antagonistic than you might imagine.  I remember seeing one tough-looking kid, maybe in his late teens, being asked by a cop, “How long you been out here?” 
The kid replied, “Been out this time for ten days.  Been on the street since I was 12.”
In Hollywood just about everybody knows how to deliver a good line.

And because I’m one of those scavengers who picks up unconsidered trifles when he walks the street, I found this:

It’s a piece of rather expensive cardboard packaging, dense with layers of writing by different hands, not all the words legible, some of it a birthday greeting to Ringo Starr, some a description of street life of Hollywood waifs and strays.  The best I can make out says: - “I want my best Hollywood house now - my safe place 2 sleep” – “How many guys have my phones” – “Pinup poster girl & everyone keeps stealing my stuff” – there’s also something I can’t quite make out about sleeping outside and finding the sprinklers suddenly turned on.

It’s better written, more moving, more eloquent than anything to be found in Hollywood Hell.

Monday, July 11, 2016


Guy Debord looking for a zone of distinct psychic atmosphere:

Saturday, July 9, 2016


I’ve been trying to find something not too mawkish to say about the photographer Bill Cunningham (op cit in this blog) who died on June 24, aged 87.

I loved his artfully artless photographs.  He worked for The New York Times for about 40 years, and was a cross between a street photographer and a fashion photographer, snapping the fashionable people out in public in Manhattan.  He did some other stuff as well, at parties and balls, but it’s the street stuff that matters.

Cunningham wasn’t one of the great New York walkers (he actually got around by bike mostly) but he was certainly on foot when he took his pictures.   He was certainly a kind of urban explorer, and probably an anthropologist, and maybe even a psychogeographer.

He may not have been looking for, in Debord’s terms, “zones of distinct psychic atmosphere” but he certainly knew where to go to find people who were looking good and wearing fabulous clothes.  And of course he often photographed them while they were walking.

I never saw him when I lived in New York, but I know others who did, some of whom wished he’d take their photograph, but he never did – and I know some snappy dressers.   

He seemed to have had the trick, and maybe we should say gift, of appearing benign and good-natured when he photographed his subjects.  If he wanted to take your picture then you didn’t feel threatened or maligned, you knew you looked good.  Compare and contrast with that other great New York street photographer Bruce Gilden, who creates this effect:.

Even so I’m not sure there are many men who could get away with the kind of thing that’s going on in the picture below:

If most of us tried to photography the feet and shoes of a bunch of women standing on the street in Manhattan, I’m pretty sure the cops would be called.  I think you could probably talk your way out of it, though I wouldn’t advise you to say you were a flaneur, much less a psychogeographer.

Monday, July 4, 2016


So enough about staring at the ground while walking; maybe it’s time to look at the sky.  I’ve always liked skies.  I remember being at college and a group of us had been to a lecture on landscape poetry and at least two of us said, “Nah, I don’t really get landscape, but I get clouds.”  And I’ve always taken a picture or two of interesting clouds while I’m out walking – I suppose many people do.  Like this one:

And so I’ve been reading The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, begetter of The Cloud Appreciation Society.

It’s one of those books that’s such a brilliant idea you wonder why somebody else (as in me) didn’t think of it before.  I’m thinking I’ll write about it at greater length at some point, but for now suffice to say that if nothing else it makes you look at the sky in a new way.

Now, I have been known to complain about the skies of Los Angeles, that they’re too tame and featureless and samey.  Although of course the more you look the more you see, and lately it seems to me that they’ve been a lot less samey, which of course says more about me than it does about them.

So I was out walking in the Nicholson acres a few days ago and I saw a strange circle in the sky.  I knew it wasn’t a cloud, but I didn’t know what it was: a chem trail, an alien signal?

Well no, I soon realized it was a vapor trail.  And the plane filled in the circle so that it what looked like a smiley face, or at least an O with eyes and a mouth, though of course it was upside down from where I was standing.

But the plane hadn’t finished. Next came a letter B, which I thought might be some reference some reference to President Obama.

But then a D appeared.  OBD – there aren’t many words start that way.   Obdurate was the only one that sprang to mind, though that seemed an odd thing to write in the sky.

Anywa,y to cut a long story short, after that there was an A, and then a Y.  But it still took a moment or two to realize what OBDAY meant.  But I eventually worked out that yes, the O was indeed a smiley face, or more precisely a happy face, and B was for birth. So it was saying Happy Birthday.  I suppose you’d have to be impressed if somebody employed a skywriter to celebrate your birthday, but OBDAY still seems a slightly banal thing to write in the sky, or anywhere else.

So I started thinking, what would be a less banal?  Well you see I think words are not the way to go.  One word or even two or three are never going to be very profound.  Love, Peace, Walk Tall, Kilroy was here – it’s just not quite good enough.  So I think I’d go for a symbol, an actual glyph, maybe something from the alchemy – perhaps this symbol for Transformation.

That’d be a nice challenge for a sky writer, and would certainly be an amazing thing to see in the sky while you were out walking.

And as a coda, there was quite a bit of wind high up in the sky on the day the pilot wrote OBDAY.  The letters started to drift and smudge as soon as they’d been done, and after the message was written, and after the wind had done it’s work you were left with a configuration that I think would have perplexed even the keenest cloudspotter.