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.

Friday, March 31, 2017


I’ve been walking again, in London, with my old friend Dr. Martin Bax.  Martin is 84 years old, suffering from dementia, and is sinking fast.  He seems to be in good physical health, lives in his own home, and is well looked after; even so it feels as though his mind and personality are evaporating, as though there’s less and less of the person I used to know, although what remains is still very much the man himself. 
An example:  Martin told me he’d only ever voted once in his long life.  “That’s because I’m an anarchist,” he said.  “Anarchists don’t vote.”
“What do anarchists do?” I asked. 
“They don’t do anything,” he replied.  “That’s the best part about being an anarchist.”

Martin walks every day, more often than not by himself.  He has a new carer who told me she was initially amazed and alarmed by this, and so she did a “risk assessment” which consisted of following him up the road, and concluded that he was a safe enough walker.

Martin only has one walking route these days, along the road where he lives, which has a bit of an upward incline, then at the top of the road he turns left and heads down a considerably steeper hill, heading to a little park, usually deserted next to some allotments, and giving a fine view of Alexandra Palace away on a distant hill. 

          When I’m with him we sit on a bench for a little while, and then go back, the return journey being somewhat harder because of the steepness of the hill.  Martin takes his time, and has certain places where he stops, rests and supports himself, first on a tree and then on a post, always the same ones it seems, and then he soldiers on.  The trip is less than a mile all told and takes a little less than an hour.

      It was spring in London and the city looked great.  As we walked, Martin was fascinated, and so was I, by some markings on the pavements of his neighbourhood.  Somebody had been marking broken or uneven paving stones, and drawing outlines around the base of trees. 

We assumed it was a council worker who’d done it. I thought that wouldn’t be such a bad job, walking around London marking problems on the pavement, although now that I think about it, I suppose it could have been a concerned citizen drawing people’s attention to ground level problems.  Either way it did create a strange and appealing affect, especially for lovers of the terraglyph.

Martin walks slowly, of course, and he says that a time will come when he won’t be able to do the walk at all.  This is surely true, and a melancholy thought.  It would be nice to keep walking to the end.  Some do, some don’t.  

It so happened that while I stayed with Martin, I was rereading Thomas Bernhard’s novella Walking prior to a trip to Vienna.

The piece is only intermittently about walking.  More often it’s about the nature of thought, the nature of madness, the horrors of the Austrian State, the repulsiveness of children, and there’s also quite a lot of stuff about trousers. All this is pretty darn hilarious, although I think it also becomes in the end, somehow, absolutely heartbreaking.

And at one point Bernhard’s book does discuss the relationship between walking and thinking.  Of course it’s done in thoroughly Bernhardian fashion.
“Whereas we always thought we could make walking and thinking into a single total process,  even for a fairly long time, I now have to say that it is impossible to make walking and thinking into one total process for a fairly long period of time.  For, in fact, it is not possible to walk and to think with the same intensity for a fairly long period of time, sometimes we walk more intensively, but think less intensively, then we think intensively and do not walk as intensively as we are thinking …” and so on.
This seems transparently true.  The harder we walk, the harder it is to think.  Would anybody disagree?

And then later, more intriguingly,
“If we observe very carefully someone who is walking, we also know how he thinks.  If we observe very carefully someone who is thinking, we know how he walks … There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking, in the process of which we can easily say that we see how the walker thinks just as we can say that we see how the thinker walks …” and so on. 

          This strikes me as interestingly problematic.  And I’m not sure it’s true at all.  I know some quite elegant thinkers who walk clumsily.  I know some quite elegant walkers who are very clumsy thinkers. Martin’s walking is slow, cautious, plodding but quite determined: he gets where he’s going even if he’s decided he doesn’t want to go very far, and who can blame him. I do wonder what he thinks as he walks.  And I wonder what it would be like to spend half an hour inside his head and see how it feels, how he perceives the world, to see if he thinks at all.  It is, we all know, quite possible to walk without having a thought in your head.

Saturday, March 11, 2017


And while we're talking of Waugh and walking, seems he wasn't necessarily 

always sympathetic to other promenaders:

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


I’m never sure how I feel about that old psychogeographic strategy of using a map of one place while walking in another.  I mean it seems sort of interesting, but surely once you arrive at the first river or dead end then surely the conceit ends pretty abruptly.  (I could be wrong, this isn’t my area.)

But suddenly I find some psychogeography avant la lettre in a rather surprising place – in Evelyn Waugh’s travel book Labels.  It was his account of the 1929 Mediterranean cruise he took with his wife, who was of course also named Evelyn.  One of the places they visited was Malta, and Waugh bought himself a guide book titled Walks in Malta by one F. Weston.

Waugh reports that he enjoyed the book, “not only for the variety of information it supplied, but for the amusing Boy-Scout game it made of sight-seeing.  ‘Turning sharply to your left you will notice …’ Mr. Weston prefaces his comments, and there follows a minute record of detailed observation.  On one occasion when carrying his book, I landed at the Senglea quay, taking it for Vittoriosa, and walked on for some time in the wrong town, hotly following false clues and identifying ‘windows with fine old mouldings,’ ‘partially defaced escutcheons,’ ‘interesting iron-work balustrades,’ etc., for nearly a quarter of a mile, until a clearly non-existent cathedral brought me up sharp to the realization of my mistake.”

Most of us, without calling ourselves psychogeographers, have done something similar on our travels, looked for the right thing in the wrong place, found we were looking at the wrong page of the map, found we weren’t where we thought we were, and so on.  Sometimes it feels simply annoying, sometimes we see the funny side, like Waugh, and I suppose once in a while we do experience a Debordian derangement of the senses.

The Waugh episode is quoted in Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars.  It’s a good book, but it contains, uncritically, a very odd quotation from Anthony Burgess, “Probably (as Pynchon never went to Valetta or Kafka to America) it’s best to imagine your own foreign country.  I wrote a very good account of Paris before I ever went there.  Better than the real thing.”  This comes from an interview in the Paris Review “The Art of Fiction No 48” and as far as I can tell he’s completely wrong about Pynchon, who had surely visited Malta, and especially the capital Valletta, before he wrote about it in V..  Here is a gloriously uninformative jacket:

And I did find this in the Malta Independent, 13 April 2014, an unsigned and unattributed article which describes a lecture delivered by Professor Peter Vassallo, who hails from Valletta and is described as “an eminent authority on British literature.” The article says, though it doesn’t seem to be a direct quotation from the lecturer, “It is ascertained that Pynchon as a seaman in the US navy was in Malta during the Suez build-up, so the Valletta he portrays is a town he knows well, including and especially Strait Street with its bars, brothels and latrine.”  Did it really have just the one latrine?  Maybe so.  In any case it tends to confirm my feeling that Pynchon did  know his Malta.

For what it’s worth, I too have been to Malta, with my first wife shortly after we were married.  She had lived there for a while because her father had been in the British navy and was stationed there, so she knew parts of the island pretty well.  I had certainly read Thomas Pynchon’s V. at the time, but like an idiot I didn’t let it inform my visit to Malta.  And I don’t remember us having either a map or a guide book, though surely we must have.  

I know we did a lot of traveling on local buses to far-flung bits of the island and then a lot of walking when we got there.  It was very good as I recall.  I can’t remember much about it, but I'm pretty sure we walked up Strait Street.

I took pictures the ones you see here but they seem odd to me now.  I think this was a time when I wanted to take pictures but wasn’t sure what to take pictures of.  I’m struck by how few people appear in these pictures, walking or otherwise.  The streets surely can’t have been quite as deserted as they appeared here but maybe I was a mad dog walking in the midday sun when everybody was sheltering from the heat.  I can't tell you exactly where the pictures were taken but I think most of them were in Valletta.

So now I’ve been rereading parts of V..  We have discussed elsewhere whether Pynchon is much of a flaneur, and the jury is still out, but it’s not hard to imagine him drifting through the streets of Valetta, consulting an old Baedeker as he went; it would have been the Southern Italy volume. 

And there is this passage in V., chapter 11, “Confessions of Fausto Maijstral,” describing Valletta in the blackout during the German bombardment.  I suppose a map’s no use in a blackout even if it’s of the place you happen to be.

“A city uninhabited is different. Different from what a "normal" observer, straggling in the dark - the occasional dark - would see. It is a universal sin among the false-animate or unimaginative to refuse to let well enough alone. Their compulsion to gather together, their pathological fear of loneliness extends on past the threshold of sleep; so that when they turn the corner, as we all must, as we all have done and do - some more than others - to find ourselves on the street... You know the street I mean, child. The street of the 20th Century, at whose far end or turning - we hope - is some sense of home or safety. But no guarantees. A street we are put at the wrong end of, for reasons best known to the agents who put us there. But a street we must walk.”

Thursday, March 2, 2017


 Nobody would pretend that Selma Avenue in Hollywood is one of the great walking streets, nor one of the great places for urban exploration - it runs for about a mile and a half, east/west, between and parallel to Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard.  But it’s not without interest, because nowhere is.

Back in the day Selma used to a be a place where young men, inspired perhaps by Midnight Cowboy, hung out and plied their trade. There’s still a YMCA in the street, but you can’t stay there these days however much fun it might be.  This is John Rechy below on the steps of the First Baptist Church of Hollywood, which has stood on Selma in its present form since 1935.

Currently Selma is the site of all kinds of development and redevelopment, and I dare say a truckload of “gentrification.”  Restaurants close and are replaced by new ones that don’t necessarily look any better than the old ones, but presumably they have a better business plan.  There’s a stylish barber’s shop, a store that sells only vinyl, and there used to be a tent city of homeless people, but they were recently moved on by the cops.

There’s some curious stuff on the sidewalk:

 Some curious window treatments:

And there’s this, which may be the best reason for walking along Selma – an amazing example of scarcely improvable, ramshackle, improvised urban infrastructure.  It may possibly be a Thomasson (op cit) although possibly not because this thing, however ramshackle and improvised, is actually functional.

As I hope you can see in the above pictures (one mine, one from Google), and I know it's not easy, it’s essentially, two telegraph poles stuck together.  There’s one big, tall, fully-formed pole, supporting wires that run high across the street, and then there’s a shorter pole attached to it, accommodating wires that run in a somewhat different direction at a lower level. 

Two big, tall, fully-formed poles might have seemed the way to go but apparently the powers that be couldn’t find an extra pole of the required length.  They ended up with one that was shorter than the other, that wouldn’t even reach from ground level to the required height of the wires running crosswise.

So what would you do?  Well, what they evidently did was attach the short pole to the big pole but they had to hold it three or four feet off the ground.  In order to do that they used brackets and then a length of lumber for support.  But even the length of lumber proved too short and so they put a lump of wood underneath that as a shim.

It’s wonderful.  It works, I guess.  And frankly this is the way I personally do “handyman” projects – ham-fisted but functional.  You might imagine the powers that be in Hollywood would operate with more style and skill.  The fact that they don’t is somehow charming but also unsettling.  Is the whole of Hollywood held together with wire and string?  I think we all know the answer to that one.