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, December 26, 2016


As I walk around the streets close to home, it seems that the old neighborhood doesn’t change much from day to day, and sometimes it’s easy to think it doesn’t even change so very much from year to year.  Certainly some of the neighbors put out the same decorations every Christmas.  I don’t blame them since I, of course, don’t put out any decorations at all.  I mean there are plenty in the house but not outside for passing gawkers/walkers.

One of the things my kind of casual local walking does is make you more observant of small changes.  So, the photograph above was taken yesterday, on Christmas Day, and any fool could tell that things weren’t quite as they’d been in previous years.  For one very obvious thing, it has been rather wet in Hollywood this last week or two, wet enough that your poodle decoration would definitely need some protection from the elements.   I took the photograph above, and knowing that I’d taken a similar photograph a couple of years back, when I got home I did some compare and contrast.

I saw they’d painted the mailbox for one thing (maybe I noticed that because I know my own mailbox needs repainting).  Also they’d got some new and more plentiful Christmas lights.  And some work had been done on the tiny patch of, for want of a better word, garden: goodbye to the agaves, hello to some things in pots that I can’t name.

Also the fine old car (was it a Buick?) that had been sitting in the driveway next door for a good long time, and looked like it was never going to move, has moved - to be replaced by a Mercedes.  Some would say that’s a step in the right direction.  Me, I’m not so sure.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


I’ve often wondered if I could have been a spy.  Not the James Bond type wrestling with supervillains in underground lairs, but more like George Smiley, teasing out inferences and confessions by the practice of “tradecraft.”  The kind of spy who goes for a walk in the local park and has a “chance meeting” with some disaffected underling from the Russian embassy.  Information and a slim envelope of money are exchanged, we both go on our way, but the course history has been changed, that sort of thing.

This has been on my mind because a little while ago I was staying in somebody’s spare room, and being unable to sleep I picked up John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and (as they say) couldn't put it down.  I tried to read le Carré a long time ago, and I found it all a bit slow and talky.  Now, of course its slowness and talkiness are what seem so totally wonderful about it.

There’s a certain amount of walking in the novel, and also in the BBC miniseries, though it's not a direct “opening out.”   Certain conversations that are static in the novel do take place while the characters in the series are walking.  But certain exchanges are, if anything, even more static.

There’s a scene in the book, a flashback, on the cliffs in Cornwall between Smiley and his faithless wife Ann.  We all kind of wish he’d push her off the cliff edge, but that would be unsporting, dishonorable, and above all out of character.  

Walking helps when Smiley’s trying to get information from his fellow spooks.  Like this:
Sensing Jim's antagonism, Smiley opened his door and let the cold air pour in.
'How about a stroll?' he said. 'No point in being cooped up when we can walk around.'
With movement, as Smiley anticipated, Jim found a new fluency of speech.
They were on the western rim of the plateau, with only a few trees standing and several lying felled. A frosted bench was offered, but they ignored it. There was no wind, the stars were very clear, and as Jim took up his story they went on walking side by side, Jim adjusting always to Smiley's pace, now away from the car, now back again. Occasionally they drew up, shoulder to shoulder, facing down the valley.

And walking itself may be part of tradecraft:
In the stairwell, Smiley lightly touched his arm. 'Peter, I want you to watch my back. Will you do that for me? Give me a couple of minutes, then pick me up on the corner of Marloes Road, heading north. Stick to the west pavement.'
Guillam waited, then stepped into the street. A thin drizzle lay on the air, which had an eerie warmness like a thaw… He completed one round of the gardens then entered a pretty mews well south of the pick-up point. Reaching Marloes Road he crossed to the western pavement, bought an evening paper and began walking at a leisurely rate past villas set in deep gardens. He was counting off pedestrians, cyclists, cars, while out ahead of him, steadily plodding the far pavement, he picked out George Smiley, the very prototype of the homegoing Londoner. 'Is it a team?' Guillam had asked. Smiley could not be specific. 'Short of Abingdon Villas, I'll cross over,' he said. 'Look for a solo. But look!'
As Guillam watched, Smiley pulled up abruptly, as if he had just remembered something, stepped perilously into the road and scuttled between the angry traffic to disappear at once.

I do believe I could manage that kind of thing, though perhaps I wouldn’t have 

had Smiley’s chilly, patrician calm. 

At this point in literary history it’s impossible to read the name George Smiley without picturing Alec Guinness: I can’t imagine many people picture Gary Oldman in the movie remake, though I know it got decent reviews.

There are generally reckoned to be three real-world models for George Smiley, all of them walkers to some degree.  On was John Bingham, a spy for 20 odd years, also a novelist, less successful than John le Carré, but then who isn’t?   When his picture appears in print, it’s more often than not this one, showing him walking his dogs.

Another model was the Reverend Vivian Green, le Carré’s tutor at Oxford, and a keen walker, who wrote a book titled The Swiss Alps (1961).

And thirdly Maurice Oldfield, a career intelligence officer who rose through the ranks to become head of MI6 from 1973-8.  I haven’t been able to find any photographs of him walking, though the obituaries tell us he was a farmer’s son in Derbyshire who had to milk the cows each morning before he walked the two miles to school.  There's a great deal more to be said about Oldfield's public and private life, but I think this isn't the place.

Le Carré has said in recent times  “I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities. I write and walk and swim and drink.”  In a piece in the New York Times Dwight Garner wrote, “John le Carré remains obsessed with this terrain. He’s more agile than men 20 years his junior mostly because, when his mornings spent writing fiction are complete, he sets out on arduous hikes. His wife only recently made him curtail these adventures. ‘I now walk the interior, instead of scampering along the cliffs, because she worries about me taking a fall,’ he said. ‘The cellphone reception is almost nonexistent here. If I didn’t die immediately, I’d be stuck for some time.’”

Elsewhere le Carré has said, “Writing is like walking in a deserted street. Out of the dust in the street you make a mud pie.”  I’m not sure that makes it VERY like walking in the street, but ultimately I think that any metaphor you care to use about writing is workable.

While writing this piece I did a bit of research on Alec Guinness and discovered that he was born at 155 Lauderdale Mansions South, Lauderdale Road, Maida Vale, London W9.  For 15 years or so I lived in Maida Vale, less than half a mile from there, and must have walked past his birth place scores if not hundred of times.  I had no idea.  And I don’t know what difference it would have made, and of course he wasn’t there and hadn’t been there for many decades, but somehow I wish I’d known.

Thursday, December 15, 2016


Another day, another walk in Hollywood, and a day of faces, some looking down, some looking up from the sidewalk.  Some (as it were human) some less so.

A minimalist Lou Reed from his Transformer era.  I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s Lou Reed, but it does look a bit like Michael Bolton:

A comparatively detailed face signed by Klassy:

And then what at first I thought was best of all, a stencil of our soon to be Fearless Leader:

“Pendejo,” as I understand it, means a fool or an idiot, though it also (and simultaneously) means a single pubic hair.  Good knockabout, activist stuff you might think, but it turns out that “Ilegal Mescal” is just a brand of liquor which rather spoils the “guerilla” effect.

And meanwhile high above it all on Hollywood Boulevard, in Thai Town, not so much looking down as looking beyond, four golden statues of Apsoni, a mythical half-woman, half-lion, which appear thoroughly unimpressed by what’s going on below.  We’re all in the gutter, right?

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


So, having done a blog post about Damon Runyon and walking, I thought I should read a biography of the man himself, and I went for Jimmy Breslin’s version, designated Damon Runyon on the title page, Damon Runyon A Life on the jacket.  Hey, I used to be a cataloguer – we cared about these things.  That's Breslin above.

The book was published in 1991, when the term “creative nonfiction” wasn’t used much, if at all, and there are certainly times when I wished Breslin’s writing was just a little less “creative.”  And there is one oddity in the early pages, Breslin describes Runyon as “a thin man who walked on tiny feet, which took a B shoe.”  I think Breslin is trying to tell us something and I think we all know what it is.  I’m not saying he’s wrong, and he did meet the man, but in the photographs I’ve seen of Runyon, his feet don’t look especially small, as here:

On a somehow related note there was a review in the Independent newspaper by my pal and former editor Karen Wright, of an exhibition of paintings by the late Zaha Hadid, best known of course as an architect.

Karen Wright doesn’t think much of the paintings though she’s basically pro-Hadid.  Still, she writes, “I close this review recalling my reaction after visiting Maxxi, her sadly not fully completed building in Rome. When I visited it pre-opening, I noticed the floors designed to let light in with an open grid and realised that Italian women who love their stilettos would be stuck in the holes with their high heels. When I saw her at Soho House I questioned her on this. She drew herself up and looked at me as if I was mad. ‘I do not wear high heels.’ At the opening many women were hopping around clutching their escorts, their heels trapped. Since then the floors have been capped and the idea of allowing light through, which was brilliant in some ways, is gone.”

The Maxxi (above) still looks like a fun place to go walking however, that's it above.  

 Zaha Hadid did design shoes (3D printing was involved in many of them), and it’s true that they don’t have high heels in the usual sense of the word, though it’s hard to imagine anybody actually walking very far in them.

I have not been able to find many pictures of Zaha Hadid walking, though there is this one – she’s apparently on her way to the Sistine chapel:

I also managed to find a picture of her in what, to me, look very much like heels, and I can’t imagine her walking very far in these either.

Does she contradict herself?  Sure, and why not?  No doubt she contained multitudes.