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.

Sunday, September 25, 2016


Gang sign?  Illuminati?  Symbol of the coming feline apocalypse?  We may 

never know, or at least not until it's too late.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Look, I know as much about alchemy as the next guy or gal who studied English literature at university: i.e. not very much.  Ben Jonson, John Dee, some references in Shakespeare, a tiny bit of Paracelsus.  It’s not a lot to go on.

But I do like the look of alchemical symbols, or glyphs, which I suppose were/are also astronomical/astrological symbols.  I’m especially fond of mercury:

And also the sun, which usually looks like this:

Although occasionally it looks like this:

Try as I might, I can't find much direct connection between alchemists and walkers. Ben Jonson author of the play The Alchemist seems to have walked from London to Edinburgh between July and October 1618; but of course he wasn’t a real alchemist.

I mention all this because I was walking in West Hollywood t’other day, and wandered into a curious little enclave where there were quirky old Hollywood bungalows right next to brand new, exotic “architectural gems.”  Of course you had to think that a bungalow or two must have been extracted in order that the architectural gems could be shoehorned in – but I did like some of the fancy new architecture, specially this house:

And improbably (wait I'm getting there with the alchemy), I found a roundabout or traffic circle: not unknown in the US but by no means the kind of thing you expect to see every day.  And to make the road layout more comprehensible to drivers, the traffic engineers had created a graphic (you might even say a glyph).  I don’t know if it helped or not but it sure looked alchemical to me:

I remain slightly stunned.

Not so very much later I found myself walking on La Cienaga Boulevard and saw this:

It was, you guessed, apparently the sign for a hair waxing salon, a company called (I’m not making this up) Cocktail Wax - “A fun and sexy alternative to your everyday wax experience!”  I wondered if this was code for some activity I don’t know about, but I suspect that if you don’t know you’re not meant to.

I now discover there’s an alchemical symbol for wax, this:

It's not totally wonderful, but you know, I think on balance I prefer it to the one on La Cienaga.

Thursday, September 15, 2016


 If you’re like me (and I realize you may not be) then you’re probably finding it hard to get very worked up about this all-gender toilet business.

Lord knows a man, or woman, or anyone else, often feels an urgent need to use a toilet when out walking, and when the situation gets urgent enough I really don’t give a hoot what the sign on the door says. 

But there is some wry amusement to be had in watching graphic designers try come up with a symbol that successfully conveys the all-inclusivity of a toilet.

    You and I might think this is an occasion when language would be more useful than a symbol, that the word “toilet” on a door would be enough, but what do we know?

     And what about walkers?  My knowledge of international signs for walkers is patchy but most places I’ve been, pedestrianism is indicated by a distinctly male figure. 

Is this sexism and cisgenderism?  Yes, probably. And in Japan the male figure even has a hat:

Often, even when there are two people on a sign they’re both male:

Although just occasionally you see two children, one of whom appears to be female:

And I did manage to find this one of what appears to be a man and a woman, though that may be jumping to a hasty conclusion - gender identity isn't just about clothing choices:

 In any case, a sign featuring a solo female walker seems unknown anywhere I’ve ever been.  So I’ve had a trawl around the interwebs and found some interesting variations – all the below are taken from the Spiegel website.  Some are very basic; like this one from Guadaloupe:

Or this one from Mongolia:

This one from Majorca has a more detail, though they're still going with the hat:

And this one from Denmark apparently shows Hans Christian Andersen:

This is from Austria, two blokes and a bike:

But finally, (finally!) this one:

with a caption that reads “In the Benelux countries and Austria, pedestrians can find traffic lights that resemble real human forms more than anywhere else. These women are taking a stroll in the Netherlands...”  Yes, women.   

The Dutch – we always knew they were enlightened.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


And here’s another story about walking and alcohol, extracted from a footnote in Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce.  It concerns his father, John Stanislaus Joyce.   In 1902 Joyce pere decided to change the terms of the pension he was receiving from the customs house where he’d worked.  He agreed to receive half of what he was getting, and take the rest as a lump sum to buy a house at 7 St Peter’s Terrace (sometimes said to be in Phibsborough, sometimes in Cabra).  “He celebrated the purchase by getting drunk,” says Ellmann.

What happens next was told to Ellmann by Alfred Bergan and it certainly has the air of a much told tale, and bergan either had a perfect memory for the spoken word, or he put words into John Joyce’s mouth.

Bergan was standing by Nelson’s Pillar one night, waiting for the last tram home, when John Joyce lurched into view.  Thinking the man was in no condition to take care of himself they put him on the tram to Dollymount where they thought he lived, and told the tram conductor to keep an eye on him and make sure he stayed on till the end of the line.  But, of course, the Joyces had moved out of Dollymount just a few days earlier.

Bergan encountered John Joyce a few days later, saw he was limping, and asked him what was the matter.  John Joyce replied. “A night or two ago some blackguards put me on the wrong tram and sent me off to Dollymount.  I had taken a drop too much and did not realize where I was until the tram was approaching Dollymount.” 
It was the last tram of the night, so he was stuck there
“When I realized my position I could do nothing but go over and sit on the sea wall and cry.  I thought of my wife and family and how anxious they would be at my non-arrival home.  After resting on the wall for some time, there was nothing for it but to walk …. The walk from Dollymount to Fairview appeared to me seven miles long, and when I arrived at Clonliffe Road and looked up it appeared to be five miles long.  However, after resting two or three times, I got as far as Whitworth Road, and it appeared to be at least four miles in length.  After struggling along for hours I eventually arrived at St Peter’s Terrace about 5 o’clock in the morning.  I was so exhausted I barely had enough energy to reach up and use the knocker.  The door was opened by my wife and I fell into her arms and believe I fainted.  I was in bed all next day and could not walk as I had a blister on heel as big as a pigeon’s egg.”

Well, another story from history that would have been ruined if the cell phone had been available at the time.  Also a little map work suggests the walk wasn’t quite as long and arduous as it had become in the telling, and retelling, less than five miles, although that’s no doubt plenty when you’ve had a skinful. 

Monday, September 12, 2016


“We are bored in the city, we really have to strain to still discover mysteries on the sidewalk.” – Ivan Chtcheglov.

A couple of sources have directed me to a rather good piece on Londonist.com, under the headline: How Far Can You Walk From Trafalgar Square Without Crossing A Road?  With the subheading Extreme walker Victor Keegan reckons you can journey over 17 miles without setting foot on the bitumen.

Keegan sets off from Trafalgar Square, and by using bridges, underpasses, and the banks of the Thames, manages to avoid crossing roads, and he ends up 17 miles away “somewhere in the Lea Valley.”

Of course at times he’s often walking on pavements (that’s sidewalks for my American readers) that are very adjacent to bitumen, but it’s a great expedition, and we all know the attractions of the “constrained” walk.

Here’s Keegan’s map:

And here’s a link to the piece:

I have nothing but respect for the man, but I fret about that term “extreme walker.”  I think, and hope, it’s the Londonist’s term rather than his own.  It seems to be asking for trouble, like that band called Extreme Noise Terror.  You listen to them and think, “I’ve heard more extreme, more terrifying noise than this.” And so with walking. However extreme your walking, you can be damn sure that somebody somewhere is doing something far more extreme.

Keegan says, reasonably enough, that he doesn’t think his 17 mile constrained walk would be possible in any other city, and I imagine he’s right.  You could certainly clock a fair distance on the west side of Manhattan but I’m not arguing.

In LA I think you’d be lucky to do more than a few hundred yards before you were forced to “set foot on bitumen.” And here where I live on the lower slopes of the Hollywood Hills there are no sidewalks at all (that’s pavement for my English readers).   You step out the front gate and you’re immediately in the road.  The nearest sidewalk – I just measured it - is a little over half a mile away.  True, you don’t cross any roads for that distance but that’s because you’re in the middle of one.  If you had a mind to, you could cover a good few sidewalk-free miles around the area's tight corners and blind bends.

There are a lot of Victor Keegans on the internet but this seems to be the man:

I see he has a blog post titled, “Walking from Trafalgar Square to Margate – without crossing a road.”  That does sound fairly extreme.

Thursday, September 8, 2016


This, spotted on a building on Sunset Boulevard:

But what happens if you push it recklessly?

Wednesday, September 7, 2016


First: John Hayward (who was wheelchair-bound because of muscular dystrophy, and who was known, not always affectionately, as Tarantula) talking about TS Eliot, quoted by John Malcolm Brennan:
“On the day Time magazine came out with his face on the cover he walked for hours looking for wherever he might find it, shamelessly taking peeks at himself.”
       This is the Time cover, with portrait by Boris Michael Artzybasheff, and yes, that is a martini rising behind Eliot's right ear:

It’s remarkably hard to find a picture of T.S. Eliot walking, but there’s this one from the University of St Andrews, captioned “T. S. Eliot and others in North Street, St Andrews, 1953; photograph by George Cowie.”

Secondly: here’s Mark E Smith writing (or being ghostwritten) in Renegade his amazingly (and perhaps unexpectedly) good, not-quite memoir. It seems he was a walker of the suburbs at the time of making the album Perverted by Language.

“Walking the same places, skint, you see a lot of hidden sores when you’re having an off day.  Your eyes have changed and the simple actions of other people take on a significance that may not be truly there.  These are extreme moments …
“I’d be walking around wondering how I could finance everything and there’s be a fellow in an ill-fitting pair of slacks adding dabs of white paint to the white paint that was already there.”
It’s not too hard to find a picture of Mark E. Smith walking, this one’s by Natasha Bright:

It’s not even hard to find one of him in a wheelchair either:

Much harder to find one of John Hayward, but here is with Rose Macaulay and others.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016


You don’t need to be much of a Joycean (and I’m certainly not much of one) to
know that James Joyce was a good and enthusiastic walker, and yet it still took me by surprise, dipping again into Ellmann’s biography to read the following:  “He brought home from Clongowes, Stanislaus attests, a variety of cups for his prowess in hurdling and walking.” 
Well, I’ve never claimed to have a photographic memory, but even so I thought I might have remembered that.

Stanislaus Joyce

Stanislaus is, of course, Joyce’s brother, and the information comes from his memoir My Brother’s Keeper, where there’s just a little more detail:  “When after four years or so he left Clongowes, we had at home a sideboard full of cups and a “silver” (electro-plate) teapot and coffee pot that he had won in the school hurdles and walking events.” 
Clongowes playing field

I assume this was race walking but I’m not altogether sure.  And we all know that times have changed, but even so I find it hard to imagine a world in which young schoolboys – Joyce was ten years old when he left Clongowes - won silver teapots for walking, even if only electro-plated.

Trying to find out more I have discovered two other surprising, if not wholly relevant, things.  First, there’s an annual event called The James Joyce Ramble, a 10-kilometer race held in Dedham, Massachusetts, an event for runners and walkers alike.

It was created in 1984, by Martin Casimir Hanley who was reading Finnegans Wake and found the book as arduous as running a road race.  Well, you can pay your money and take your choice on that one.  Apparently actors are positioned along the course and recite the works of Joyce as runners and walkers pass by.

The other thing: did you know there’s a street in London called James Joyce Walk?  I didn’t, and I really feel I should have.  It’s in Brixton, just off Shakespeare Road, but it really doesn’t look all that Joycean.

Sunday, September 4, 2016


I’ve been re-reading parts of the book Robert Irwin Getty Garden, and discovered this passage in which Irwin, an “artist who isn’t a gardener” describes walking in the garden with Jim Duggan, a “gardener who isn’t an artist” (that's a quotation from the San Diego Union Tribune).

Irwin says, “Well, one thing that Jim’s been doing as we go through the year (the book was published 2002) is, he lists every single plant.  We’ve been walking through the garden together on an average once every two weeks, and he takes notes, giving each plant a rating, like one star, two stars, up to five stars.  In January, a plant might get one star, then it’s a two star and then it’s a three star and then it’s a four star and then it’s a five star – it stays five stars for whatever, and then it becomes a four and a three and a two and we plan its replacement, and then we take it out.”

Well, what a very singular way of walking through a garden, and what a formidable display of ruthlessness.  It must make you feel like a god, or perhaps like Ernst Stavro Blofeld, as he appears in the novel You Only Live Twice.  

I first read it a long time ago, when I was barely a teenager, and I’m really not sure I ever saw the movie, but I gather that book and film resemble each other only in passing.  What has stayed with me from the book for all these years is the Garden of Death, a place in the grounds of a castle on a Japanese island, a place full of deadly plants where people go to commit suicide.  There’s a pool of piranhas in there too.  The whole thing moved my thirteen year old’s heart in ways I don’t understand even now.

So I just reread You Only Live Twice, and frankly it’s a bit ropey, Fleming’s eleventh and penultimate novel, written at a time when he was ailing.  Bond is in Japan for one reason or another. Blofeld has disguised himself as Dr. Guntram Shatterhand, a man internationally praised for his knowledge of plants but the Japanese authorities find his Garden of Death a bit of an embarrassment (which sounds extremely unlike the Japanese, to me) and so Bond’s mission is to disguise himself as a Japanese deaf mute (!?), get inside the castle and kill Shatterhand.  Spoiler alert - he succeeds.

Walking in the garden is considered a bit of a liability, but Bond’s Japanese connection, Tiger Tanaka, tells him the garden is full of hiding places.
    “Thanks very much,” says Bond.  “In one of those poison bushes or up one of those trees.  I don’t want to blind myself or go mad.”
    “The ninja clothing will give you complete protection.  You will have a black suit for night and a camouflage one for the day.  You will wear the swimming goggles to protect your eyes.”
    Actually it’s not all that easy to see how deadly this garden is.  Sure, Fleming gives us a list of the deadly plants growing there, including castor bean, ipecacuahana, and Mexican wild potato, all of which are certainly dangerous, but it’s not as if a wild potato is going to leap from the ground and force you to eat it, is it now?  
It makes you wonder who the gardeners were, and whether they went around giving plants star ratings.  I’m guessing not.

 In recent years the Aokigahara Forest, also known as Yukai forest “the Sea of Trees,” has been getting a lot of publicity and there are some truly gruesome pictures online. Like Blofeld’s garden, it’s a place where people go to commit suicide; somewhere between 70 and a 100 per year is the accepted number.  People walk in and never walk out, and of course they take their fate in their own hands without having to rely on deadly plants or any Bond villain.  Hanging is the most frequently used suicide method, followed by poisoning and overdose.

 I can’t make up my mind whether this is a good or a bad thing.  In general, I think people have every right to kill themselves, not that “rights” come into it much. I don’t claim to have any expertise in the matter, but of the friends I’ve known who’ve killed themselves, at least two of them did it while out walking.

     There are no gardeners in the Aokigahara Forest as far as I know, though there are volunteer counselors who position themselves in the forest and try to talk potential suicides into changing their mind.   The photographs above and below are by Pieter ten Hoopen who has documented the place in a less grisly fashion that many.  The picture below shows Azusa Hayano, a geologist who has apparently talked hundreds of people out of ending it all.  Of course he’s also found a certain number of bodies.

Well there was none of that a few days ago when I went to the James Irvine Japanese Garden at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in downtown LA, one of those places that’s always on lists of “LA’s best kept secrets” thereby ensuring it’s no longer secret.  James Irvine, or at least his foundation, was the major sponsor, and it was designed by Takeo Uesugi, who for several decades was the go-to guy if you wanted a Japanese garden in southern California: he died in January 2016

You can see into the garden from the street, just about, but it’s sunk down into the earth and there are locked and forbidding gates.  It’s open to the public, but they don’t exactly beckon you in.  You have to go into the community center, and confront a stern Japanese woman who will quite literally look you up and down to make sure you’re worthy, and if you are (it seemed touch and go in my own case, but I just made it), then you sign in, and are allowed go down in a elevator, thread your way along corridors between office doors, and there you are in a Japanese garden surrounded on all sides by the skyscrapers of LA..

It’s not large but it has most of what you want and need in a Japanese garden – there’s a stream, footbridges, some ferns, some redwoods, and a very great number of plants I couldn’t tell you the name of.  I don’t believe any of them were overtly deadly. There wasn’t a lot going, which is want you want in a Japanese garden.  A few people came and went while I was there – but for much of the time I was the only one.

Interestingly there are no benches in the garden, which may have been another attempt to make sure the riffraff don’t linger too long, and it meant that if you wanted to sit you had to find a rock to accommodate your buttocks, or, as in my own choice, you could keep on walking around the paths.