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, December 27, 2017


I was hunkered down for part of the holiday with the works of Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama, including  “Record No.36” - in Japanese “Kiroku” - the latest in his series of diaristic monographs that date back as far as 1972.  This is from that volume:

Moriyama has been around, in many senses.  Currently aged 79 he’s taken vast numbers of photographs, published a great many books (if not as many as his pal Araki), and also done a great amount of walking.  He may not, strictly speaking, be a street photographer (a term that seems ever more meaningless) but he’s definitely a flaneur.  His photographs are a record of his wanderings and also the reason for his wandering.

And of course sometimes he photographs other walkers.  And of course some of these walkers are women.

I started digging out some writings and interviews with the great man.  There’s this from the afterword to “Record No. 34,” “I am crisscrossing the central Tokyo area taking snapshots in the streets more or less on a daily basis. Within this routine, every once in a while it happens that I am suddenly overcome by a sense of bewilderment, just like a student in his first year at a photography school. What exactly am I trying to see through the finder of my camera? What is that photo that I just shot? It's questions as utterly naïve and elementary as these that occupy my mind in such situations.”

And there’s this from a documentary the Tate Gallery made about him a few years back, “I basically walk quite fast. I like taking snapshots in the movement of both myself and the outside world. When I walk around I probably look like a street dog because after walking around the main roads, I keep wandering around the back streets.”
This is probably his best known picture: of a street dog:

He continues, “My friends or critics are often surprised and ask me why I never got bored walking around for over 50 years. But I never get bored. I often hear it is said that people, even photographers, do their best work when they are in their 20’s and 30’s. I’m 73 now. But I could never see the city with an old man’s eyes, or as if I understood everything.
“Everyone has desires. The quality and the volume of those desires change with age. But that desire is always serious and real. Photography is an expression of those desires
“I have always felt that the world is an erotic place. As I walk through it my senses are reaching out. And I am drawn to all sorts of things. For me cities are enormous bodies of people’s desires. And as I search for my own desires within them, I slice into time, seeing the moment.”

Well, the erotics of walking and the erotics of photography are not exactly the same, but there’s surely plenty of overlap.  Taking pictures of women in the street is currently regarded as a very dodgy activity.  I think it’s still OK to look at people you fancy, so long as you don’t touch or say anything appropriate.  And taking photographs creates its own set of problem.  It’s probably OK if you’re making art, not OK if you go home and lech over the images.  But who can read the intentions of the male gaze?

          I saw recently that the Christie’s website describes photographer Miroslav Tichy as a flaneur, thus: “From the 1950s to 1986, Tichý took thousands of surreptitious photographs in and around Kyjov, in the Czech Republic. With his wild hair and ragged clothes, locals viewed him as a harmless eccentric — but in many ways his art can be seen as a subversive act in response to a totalitarian regime. 

         “In the 1950s, he began to focus on photography, using an array of crude homemade cameras … He built his contraptions from scrap — cardboard tubes, tin cans and the like — sealed with tar, and operated by bobbins and dressmaker’s elastic. He cut lenses from plexiglass — even devising his own telephoto lens.  

“’These chance encounters, fleeting moments captured on film, have a distinctive Baudelairean flair,’ says Christie’s specialist Amanda Lo Iacono. ‘Indeed what we find so captivating about Tichý’s work today is how the artist acted as the quintessential flaneur, whose practice became inseparable from his way of life.’”

Well, you’ve said a mouthful there, Amanda.  Tichy’s “practice” involved wandering the streets, and sometimes hiding in the bushes, taking pictures of women, some of them walking, some of them in various states of undress.  

Geoff Dyer in the Guardian says, “Put as simply as possible, he spent his time perving around Kyjov, photographing women. Ideally he'd catch them topless or in bikinis at the local swimming pool; failing that, he'd settle for a glimpse of knee or - the limitations of the camera meant the framing was often askew - ankle.”

Yes, I suppose flaneurism is what flaneurism does. Likewise perving. But that was in another country, and besides the guy is dead. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017


I was at a party a couple of nights back and got talking to guy who’d grown up in Hollywood in the early nineties.  He went to Hollywood High, alma mater of Keith Carradine, Linda Evans, Fay Wray and Terry Richardson – to name a broad selection.

And the guy said that any time you walked in Hollywood in the early 90s you were always in danger of turning a corner and realizing you’d set foot in the “wrong” street, and then you’d be confronted by junior gang members who demanded to know what you were doing on “their” street.  The answer, “I’m just walking home from school,” wasn’t a good enough answer.

Of course, he said, you learned the rules pretty fast one way or another, learned where you could walk and where you couldn’t, but there was always this lurking anxiety that you might get it wrong.  
And some people think that Hollywood has become too safe and gentrified, eh?  Yeah, don’t you just hate it when there are no gang members confronting you on the street?

I’m not naïve enough to think that Hollywood is now an entirely safe haven of peace and tranquility, but as you walk around you don’t worry much about straying into enemy territory.  And of course it being Christmas and all, Hollywood looks pretty festive right now.  Even if the inhabitants behind this particular window haven’t quite got into the Christmas spirit yet:

Monday, December 18, 2017


Did you see this in the London Evening Standard?  Spontaneous human combustion is one of those things that I look into every now and then in a brief intense way and then forget about.  Still, I don’t think I ever heard of anybody combusting while walking.

Man bursts into flames and dies in front of horrified onlookers while walking down London street

Specialist fire investigators found no obvious reason why John Nolan, 70, might have caught alight

         JUSTIN DAVENPORT Crime Editor


John Nolan, 70, caught fire in a street in Haringey and died

Police today appealed for witnesses after a man died after catching fire as he walked down a street in north London 

Passers-by saw John Nolan, 70, ablaze in a street in Haringey in the middle of the day and attempted to put out the flames before calling police and fire crews.

The former construction worker, who was originally from County Mayo in Ireland, was taken to a specialist hospital but died later.

Today detectives said his death was being treated as unexplained. There were no accelerants found on his body and specialist fire investigators could find no obvious reason for Mr Nolan to catch alight.
Mr Nolan, who lived in Haringey, was found in Orchard Place at 1pm on Sunday September 17 after calls from the public.

PC Damien Ait-Amer, who is investigating the death, said: “We have spoken with a number of witnesses who saw Mr Nolan ablaze, but we have yet to establish how the fire started.

“Mr Nolan was a well-liked member of the community and none of our enquiries so far have indicated that he had been involved in a dispute of any sort. Nor does any account given by witnesses suggest that he had been in contact with another person at the time of the fire.” 


Most of the literature will tell you there’s no such thing as SHC, and Charles Dickens often gets the blame for spreading the urban myth.  He seems to have believed in it, not least as a plot device:  in Bleak House  Mr. Krook, a man in the recycling trade, does indeed die that way, though not while walking. This from Dickens’ 1853 preface to the novel.

“The possibility of what is called spontaneous combustion has been denied since the death of Mr. Krook; and my good friend Mr. Lewes (quite mistaken, as he soon found, in supposing the thing to have been abandoned by all authorities) published some ingenious letters to me at the time when that event was chronicled, arguing that spontaneous combustion could not possibly be. I have no need to observe that I do not wilfully or negligently mislead my readers and that before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject. There are about thirty cases on record, of which the most famous, that of the Countess Cornelia de Baudi Cesenate, was minutely investigated and described by Giuseppe Bianchini, a prebendary of Verona, otherwise distinguished in letters, who published an account of it at Verona in 1731, which he afterwards republished at Rome. The appearances, beyond all rational doubt, observed in that case are the appearances observed in Mr. Krook's case. The next most famous instance happened at Rheims six years earlier, and the historian in that case is Le Cat, one of the most renowned surgeons produced by France. The subject was a woman, whose husband was ignorantly convicted of having murdered her; but on solemn appeal to a higher court, he was acquitted because it was shown upon the evidence that she had died the death of which this name of spontaneous combustion is given. I do not think it necessary to add to these notable facts, and that general reference to the authorities which will be found at page 30, vol. ii., the recorded opinions and experiences of distinguished medical professors, French, English, and Scotch, in more modern days, contenting myself with observing that I shall not abandon the facts until there shall have been a considerable spontaneous combustion of the testimony on which human occurrences are usually received.”


Alcohol is often given as a factor in SHC, as in this cartoon - the large sign for Old Tom 

suggests that Pa had been knocking back the gin.  It also suggests he was walking at the