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, August 29, 2016


When I first arrived in Los Angeles it seemed to me that neon was everywhere. Somehow you feel safe walking at night when there’s neon around, glowing above your head. I’m not sure that you are, but it feels that way.

One Sunday afternoon, in those early LA days, I even visited the Museum of Neon Art which at that point was in a bleak stretch of downtown, on a block where I was the only walker.  The museum closed down not long thereafter.

I tend to think of neon signs being especially used by bars, restaurants and motels, and maybe the auto trade, but the image below shows there was a time when it could be used for just about anything.

Anyway, I settled down in L.A., and then I stopped noticing the neon.  Did it go into decline, or did I just become immured to it?  Both, I think.  But lately I seem to see an increasing amount of neon.

And now the Museum of Neon Art has reopend in shiny new premises in Glendale (so not really LA, if we’re being pedantic).  I’d been meaning to go for a while but finally got there at the weekend.

It wasn’t so very long since I last went to Glendale but boy, it’s changed.  Even a few years back much of Brand Boulevard was a reasonable approximation of a classic main street:

But now it’s rapidly turning into one giant corporate mall.  Arguably this could be said to have made the place more “pedestrian-friendly,” though personally I found it about as friendly as a pit full of komodo dragons. The fact that the temperature in Glendale is generally five to ten degrees F hotter than Los Angeles is no great encouragement to walkers either.

Well the Museum of Neon Art is great, which is to say that the neon exhibits there are great: classic, nostalgic, witty, well-crafted, smart, optimistic. Here are a few of them:

Of course I wanted more, and there is room for the exhibition space to expand, but I wanted much, much more, I wanted to be able to walk among thousands of exhibits arranged over hundreds of acres.   Of course I wanted too much, but it was the museum that put the idea into my head.

I also came out of there with an urge for a drink and some economy meat, although that may not have been entirely because of the neon.

 In fact there’s a newish, hipsterish bar that’s opened in my neighbourhood, The Know Where, well within walking distance.  I’d probably have gone there in any case, but it was definitely that neon sign that first drew me in.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Can’t help thinking that the guys involved in replacing the pipes in my street may have lost their way.  Yes, we know it’s all a mystery down there but spraying question marks on the ground looks a bit like admitting defeat.

Monday, August 22, 2016


A lot of writers drink, a lot of writers walk.  Are there many people who walk and write and drink?  Some obviously: Guy Debord, Edgar Allan Poe, Harry Crews, Malcolm Lowry and Jack Kerouac maybe: but I’m not sure how many, and it’s an awfully boyish crowd to be sure.  And what about the druggy walker/writers?  Once you’ve said De Quincey and Will Self, who else is there?  And is sensory derangement good for walking?  I dunno, but I’m working on it.

In the meantime, a small story about walking and drinking, and of course writing, from the great Sebastian Snow, author of The Rucksack Man, a book which describes his walk from the bottom to the top of South America: Tierra Del Fuego to Panama.  It didn’t kill him, but it’s hard to say (per Nietzsche) that it made him much stronger.  He experiences a fair amount of derangement in the book, but most of it isn’t of the alcoholic kind.

“Well, I had made it, I’d traversed the continent of South America on foot and crossed the Darien Gap.  The end was hazardous, ghastly, a grueling nightmare where Death stalked.  Only willpower kept me going.  Under weight by about five stone, two sprained ankles, both swollen and discoloured, my feet and ankles covered with gore, blood and bites, a mass of suppurating sores, stung by a hornet on the neck, bitten by a scorpion, nipped by a vampire bat, ticks under the skin.  I looked in the mirror and saw what days in the jungle could do.”

Somewhere outside of Pasto, in the south of Columbia, he writes, “I encountered three young Colombian men who told me that they had not a peso between them and had been walking for five days without food.  I was very sympathetic.”  He gives them money for food, and buys them new shoes.   “Although I felt quite quixotic towards their evident plight I could not believe they had been tramping for five long days without a bit to eat.  It was just not feasible, I thought, especially as all three looked in very good shape.”
      They start walking together but they young men aren’t very good walkers, certainly not by Sebastian Snow’s standard.  The youngest of them starts complaining about his feet almost immediately, although of course if you believed his story he’d already been walking for 5 days.  Snow puts him on a bus and pays for his ticket to Cali.  A day later the second Columbian starts “hobbling badly, in spite of or despite the new shoes I had so stupidly bought him.” I wonder if it’s “because of,” but in any case, he too gets put on a bus.
“The last, Sancho Panza, however, bravely soldiered on but it was not very long before he took to taking buses and meeting me in the evenings at the places I had appointed.  In the end I reluctantly had to sack him for taking to the bottle in a big way; all, of course, at my expense.” 
     Some of us might think the whole episode was something other than quixotic.

And once we start talking about “quixotic” travellers we’re right there with William Wordsworth in The Prelude Book 5, and the dream (had by Wordsworth or by a friend, depending on which the draft of the poem you read) in which the dreamer encounters a man crossing the desert on a dromedary.   Was Sebastian Snow familiar with this?  I think there’s a reasonable chance.

Some of the relevant lines run as follows:
Full often, taking from the world of sleep
This Arab phantom, which I thus beheld,
This semi-Quixote, I to him have given
A substance, fancied him a living man,
A gentle dweller in the desert, crazed
By love and feeling, and internal thought
Protracted among endless solitudes;

But now hold on there.  You and I might think this fellow is just some imaginary Romantic Bedouin, but according to recent scholarship – Kelly Grovier is the scholar in question - this poetic image was a “coded tribute” to a real person, a man named John “Walking” Stewart, an Englishman who in 1765 started walking home back from Madras, where he was working with the East India Company.  Supposedly he walked all across Persia, Arabia, Africa and through every European country.  It took him the best part of 30 years.  He met Wordsworth in Paris, and was befriended by Thomas De Quincey in London, where he eventually settled. 

         Now, “Walking” Stewart was clearly one helluva guy, and Kelly Grovier is more of a scholar than I am, but all I can say is that if I were writing a poem containing a coded tribute to a great walker I’d have him walking, not riding a camel.

         Anyway, Stewart became quite the man about London, and was often seen walking the street.  He lived to the age of 75, and right now I have no information about his attitudes toward sensory derangement, but on 20 February 1822, the morning after his 75th birthday, he was found dead in his room with an empty laudanum bottle beside him.

     De Quincey wrote an actual, as opposed to a coded, tribute to him in the London Magazine, which I think is very fine.  It starts like this:

There are several kinds of pedestrians, all celebrated and
and interesting in their way. …
The Walkers, indeed, like the lichens, are
a vast genus, with an endless variety of
species; but alas! the best and most singular
of the tribe is gone! … “

Walkers as varied as lichens: there are some 17,000 recognized lichen species: I like that a lot.

Saturday, August 20, 2016


Three Olympic cheers for Wang Zhen, Liu Hong, and Matej Toth, gold medal winners in Rio for, respectively, the 20 km men’s, 20 km women’s, and 50 km men’s race walking events.

 And if you’ve not heard much about them from your Olympic news source I can’t say I’m very surprised.  Here in the States it’s been extraordinarily difficult to find coverage of any events that the US isn’t likely to do well in, and there was just one American race walker, John Nunn, who seems to have an interesting enough backstory – he runs a “gourmet cookie” business with his daughter - but he came 43rd in the final so he isn’t being celebrated as much of a hero.

In fact the one person who has been getting some coverage is poor (but heroic) Yohann Diniz of France who had some terrible bowel malfunction during the 50 km race.  Early reports said he “soiled himself,” which would have been bad enough.  However, later reports said it wasn’t poop running down his legs, but blood.  The current story is that it was both.  Still, he sponged himself down and carried on, then he collapsed but he got up and carried on again, finishing the race in 8th place.  Hell that’s what I call walking!!

In fact it seems to have been a punishing race around - 48 competitors finished, 19 dropped out along the way, and were 13 disqualified.

Of course one of the main reasons walking doesn’t get much coverage is because people think it looks kind of absurd, which is unfair, but not entirely unjustified.  The nature of the sport guarantees a certain inelegance.  The heel and toe business, the feet not allowed to get airborne, is part of it, and then there’s the odd rotation of the hips. Most of us rotate our hips about four degrees when we walk, race walkers rotate theirs about 20 degrees, so that the extra rotation gives them longer strides.

Back in the day, when I was growing up in Sheffield there was an annual twelve mile Star Walk.  The Star was, and is, the local newspaper.  It was one of those events that we used to go out and watch, even if the rest of the year we never gave a thought to race walking.  Some competitors used to take it very seriously:

Somewhat less so over the years:

Wednesday, August 17, 2016


In case you’ve been wondering about terragylphs and how the work is going in my street to replace the ancient water pipes, well, recently various words, numbers and and squiggles have appeared. 

I assume the guys will indeed be cutting in due course, although not yet.  Work seems to be progressing slowly but obviously well enough that mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti just held a press conference up at the other end of the street to celebrate the fine work the lads were doing, here and elsewhere and to announce a new General Manager for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, David Wright.  That’s him on the left, and for out of towners, that’s Garcetti on the right, looking mayoral.

I walked up there to see what was going on. It wasn’t exactly a media circus but a fair amount of press was in attendance, as well as some political flunkies and people from the LADWP, and of course the guys doing the work.  I think it was also meant to be a great photo op: a large pipe being lowered into a hole, but in the end I think it probably wasn’t as visual as they’d hoped.

As far as I could see there were only about three people there who actually lived in the neighborhood – and being one of them, I found myself being interviewed by a local TV station, I couldn’t tell you which one.  If I’d known, I’d probably have washed my hair.  Anyway I think I said all the right things: there had been many leaks, many cracks in the road, the whole area was subject to subterranean movement, the men doing the work were a great bunch of guys and so forth.

Final question from the interviewer, “And do you do any walking in the neighborhood?”
“Honey, I’m the author a book titled The Lost Art of Walking, and I write a blog ...”
     I’m not sure she was actually impressed by this, but nevertheless I was then filmed walking down the road trying to look natural.  I kind of hope I never see it.

At one point the mayor held up a map, which is always good:

And for a substantial amount of time, he stood next to the LADWP mascot – a man in a foam rubber costume shaped like a drop of water.  The magic of Hollywood.

Monday, August 15, 2016


In Everything that Rises: a book of convergences, Lawrence Weschler posits the idea that there are meaningful connections to be found in images from incredibly diverse sources that somehow resemble each other - “uncanny moments of convergence, bizarre associations, eerie rhymes, whispered recollections—sometimes in the weirdest places.”  Some days this sounds interesting to me, other days it just sounds bleedin’ obvious.

 So, for instance, Freddy Alborta’s famous photograph “Che Guevara’s Death,” from 1967:

 looks like Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson” from 1632: 

There’s no denying that the two images do resemble each other, but isn’t it perfectly likely that Alborta had seen “The Anatomy Lesson” and he was reminded of its composition, consciously or subconsciously, as he took the picture?  But even if it didn’t, what exactly does this resemblance mean?  And in what sense is it a “convergence”?  What exactly is coming together?   

Other pictures were certainly taken of that scene with Che, some of them rather less Rembrandt-ish:

That may be a discussion for another time and place, but I did just notice (having known with the images separately for some time) a resemblance, hardly random, and hardly all that surprising, between these two images of Jerry Cornelius (as played by Jon Finch in The Final Programme) and JG Ballard (in Harley Cokliss's 1971 short Crash) walking alongside wrecked cars. 

Both images then reminded me of scenes from Jean Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil.

And then I was reminded of a shot from Derek Jarman’s Jubilee:

Which in turn reminded me of Wim Wenders’ The American Friend

I think you could argue that things here are diverging rather than converging, but that’s OK: free association seems as valid, and as meaningful, as any imagined convergence.  But hold on there.
I’m not sure that Weschler is, or that JG Ballard was, much of a walker, but I do know that Weschler is the author of another book titled, Robert Irwin Getty Garden about the gardens at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.  The book contains transcripts of conversations Weschler and Irwin (the garden’s designer) had on a series of walks through the garden, discussing the philosophical and practical decisions that went into the design.
It is a fabulous garden by any standard – wild and fanciful in some ways, very formal in others.

I don’t think it’s a garden where people do much serious walking, but there is a pretty great (if obviously unwalkable) cactus garden:

I don’t know if JG Ballard would have enjoyed the Getty Garden.  Some evidence suggests he wouldn’t. There’s an interview by Graeme Revell that appears in “Re/Search 8/9: J. G. Ballard,” from 1984, in which he discusses the symmetry of the French garden - JGB: - Which I always find nightmarish for some reason, those formal French gardens. One would think all that intense formality would be the absolute opposite of madness. The gardens were obviously designed to enshrine the most formal, rational and sane society to ever exist during the Age of Reason. Why they should immediately fill me with notions of psychosis, I don't know.
“Have you ever been to Madingley Hall near Cambridge? It's a big Elizabethan mansion, and a couple of years ago some friends took me out there. Behind this large house, which is used for conferences and academic meetings and the like, were notices everywhere requesting silence. We walked into this large, very formal French garden with beautifully crisp hedges, like great green sculptures, everywhere; very severe, rectangular, rectilinear passways - like diagrams - on the ground. Profoundly enclosed, very silent. I nearly went mad....”

As fate would have it, some of us have seen, or at least seen photographs of, JG Ballard’s front garden, images like this one:

Not much formality there and not much wildness either.  I suppose if you live in suburbia you do have to worry just a little about what the neighbours think, however much of a wildman you are in your writing.  You couldn’t have much of a walk in it, obviously.  \

 I wonder if Ballard would have been happier walking here, at the VW Slug Bug Ranch in Conway, Texas.  I think I would.