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.

Saturday, April 29, 2017


Eleanora Sears

Two books have recently come across the transom, one relatively new, one comparatively old.  The first is Lauren Elkins’ Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (2016) and The Wonderful World of Walking by Bill Gale (1979).

I belatedly bought myself a copy of Elkin’s Flâneuse since it’s become obvious that nobody is going to send me a freebie – despite my appearance in the bibliography.  No room in there for Iain Sinclair though – ha! (You realize that’s an ironic “ha!” right?)

I’d been reading the reviews of Flâneuse - and it’s not that I trust reviewers whether they’re praising or condemning a book - but there was something a bit off about many of them.  They were incredibly “supportive.”  They indicated that the book was a “good thing” but very few of them really showed actual enthusiasm or affection for the book.  “Well researched and larded with examples,” said Philippa Stockley in the Evening Standard.  Diane Johnson’s review in the New York Times seemed especially dutiful,  If Elkin’s capsule biographies can occasionally seem a bit potted, they are never uninteresting.”

For my own part I wanted the book to be good – I like walking, I like women, I like women who walk, and I want women to be able to walk wherever they want without being abused or threatened, and all the rest.  Hell, some of my best friends are flâneuses.  And yet I had my doubts.  These doubts were not entirely assuaged by reading the book.

For one thing, there’s a chunk about Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury.  I can see why there has to be, but the truth is that I don’t love Virginia Woolf, men don’t, they just don’t.   I think it’s mostly because her male characters always seem so feeble and awful.  Wouldn’t you throw yourself out of a window rather than be in the same room as Mr. Ramsey of To The Lighthouse fame.  And as for Augustus Carmichael, the visiting poet …

And I know people make claims for Mrs. Dalloway as a great psychogeographic novel, but am I right to be doubtful about this when John Sutherland has made a pretty convincing case that Mrs. Dalloway actually completes her London drift in a taxi? 

Flâneuse also contains a chunk about Sophie Calle who I think is a pretentious phoney, especially that nonsense in Suite Vénitienne of her “following” a man all the way to Venice, while being “followed” by a photographer: but I know other views are possible.  These are not souvenir snapshots of a presence, but rather shots of an absence, the absence of the followed, that of the follower, and that of their reciprocal absence,” says Jean Baudrillard, not wishing to be outdone in the pretentious phoney stakes.

This can be blamed on Lauren Elkin of course, but we’re all on much safer ground with Martha Gellhorn, especially the articles she wrote for Colliers magazine about the civil war in Spain.  “No matter how often you do it, it is surprising just to walk to war from your own bedroom where you have been reading a detective story or a life of Byron, or listening to the phonograph, or chatting with friends.”

I also very much liked Elkin’s description of living in Tokyo, where she didn’t have the very best time.  “What bothered me most was the certainty I felt that there was a great city out there full of places I wanted to discover, but I didn’t know where to look for them.  I didn’t know what there was out there.  I didn’t know where to go, where to walk.”  It’s a feeling many of us have had, in places much less alien than Tokyo.

          I wish somebody had recommended to Elkin “Flesh and The Mirror” a short story by Angela Carter set in Tokyo, "I was crying bitterly as I walked under the artificial cherry blossoms with which they decorate the lamp standards from April to September. They do that so the pleasure quarters will have the look of a continuous carnival, no matter what ripples of agitation disturb the never-ceasing, endlessly circulating, quiet, gentle, melancholy crowds who throng the wet web of alleys under a false ceiling of umbrellas.”  I’m not saying this would have cheered Elkin up much, but it’s a good story.

I assume, on no absolute basis, that Angela Carter was quite the flaneuse when she was in Tokyo, and also in London, and indeed in Sheffield.

The Wonderful World of Walking is (let’s say) a text of its time.  A chapter titled “Walking and Today’s Woman” runs to all of two pages.  But the book does contain accounts of a few walking women, none of them exactly household names, and some completely new to me.

Minta Beach walked from New York to Chicago in 1912.  Minnie Hill Wood walked from Washington to San Francisco in 1916.  Eleanora Sears, an all round sportswoman, set a speed hiking record in 1925, walking the 74 miles between Newport, Rhode Island and Boston in 17 hours.  I imagine none of these women considered herself a flâneuse, and they surely didn’t consider themselves artists, although Minta Beach did publish a book about her walk. 

I did have vague memories of a later walker that Gale writes about: Dr. Barbara Moore.   I just about remember seeing her from time to time on TV when I was growing up in England.  She did a number of long walks, the one I remember best was from Land’s End to John O’Groats – 1200 miles in 23 days, I know now, so that’s over 50 miles per day.   I discover that was in 1960, so no wonder my memories are vague, and apparently that same year she walked from San Francisco to New York, 3,387-mile according to Gale, so a fairly indirect route, and in 86-days, so a fraction under 40 miles a day which seems barely imaginable.

Still there was much I didn’t know about her.  For one thing, although she was British by marriage, she was born in Russia in 1903, migrated to England in 1939, and had a career as an engineer.  So she’d have been in her mid to late 50s when she was doing the walks that made her famous.

I also didn’t know that she was a nutritional crank, a vegetarian, but sometimes also a breatharian, believing people could survive without food altogether.  According to Bill Gale, “A large glass of grass juice was her favorite six course meal in one.” In various interviews she said that people could live to be 150 or 200 years old, and claimed to have cured herself of leukemia, using a special diet.

What I absolutely didn't know, and which Gale doesn't mention, is that she spent the last years of her life fighting legal property battles over the lab she was planning to build next to her house in Frimley, in Surrey, and she was eventually jailed for contempt of court.  She died in a St Giles Hospital, London in 1977, somewhat earlier than she had anticipated.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017


Now that I’m back in Los Angeles, I’ve been walking around looking for signs of Brutalist architecture.  There are certainly plenty of ugly buildings in L.A., some of them brutal with a small b, but I’m not sure how many classify as genuinely Brutalist in the grander sense.

The website for the Royal Institute of British Architects has a section labeled,  What to look for in a Brutalist building,” and goes on to list:
1. Rough unfinished surfaces
2. Unusual shapes
3. Heavy-looking materials
4. Massive forms
5. Small windows in relation to the other parts

No mention there of concrete, which surprised me: Brutalism supposedly got its name from Le Corbusier who spoke of “breton brut” – i.e. raw concrete, and L.A. certainly has concrete buildings.  Various local online pundits also offer lists of Brutalist buildings in L.A..  These vary considerably and include: The American Cement Building:

The La Brea Tar Pits Museum:

The Japanese American Cultural & Community Center:


Even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House.

I’ve walked past, and around, and even inside, all of these at some time or another and I never thought they constituted Brutalism.  They all strike me as rather friendly buildings, but maybe Brutalism gets softened by the California sunshine, the blue skies, the palm trees.

However, I recently a walk I recently did from Hollywood to Larchmont Village (5 or 6 miles round trip) pitched up some examples that might get a person thinking about the real meaning of brutality in these matters.

This apartment block on Bronson Avenue certainly has heavy-looking materials
and strangely small windows in relation to the other parts; no unusual shapes though:

These buildings on Santa Monica Boulevard have no windows at all, but they do have mass, and certainly have heavy looking materials, although one of them is decorated with those elongated stars which would be unthinkable to Brutalist hardliners:

This carpet warehouse on Gower Street looks brutal as all getout, and I believe is made of concrete blocks:

 But I can see that you might argue these things are scarcely architecture at all, they’re just buildings, and not so much brutal but just crude.  However, just above Beverley Boulevard, on Larchmont Boulevard, is the Larchmont Medical Building, built by Welton Becket and Associates, “real” architects too be sure, completed in 1965.

Welton Becket was also responsible for the Capitol Building and the Theme Building at LAX – so not the most committed to Brutalism but I think this building fits the bill pretty well: big, concrete, blockish, the forms not so much unusual as uncompromising, but again rather friendlier than hardcore Brutalism.

I like it a lot. It’s also a place I’ve been to have root canal work, I seem to recall the main entrance lobby being tiled in blood red marble, but my memory made be failing me there.  I was expecting brutality in the dentist's chair, and it turned out to be considerably less brutal than you might imagine.  

Friday, April 21, 2017


It’s a very long time since I first read Albert Camus’s L’Etranger.  It remains the only book I’ve ever read from beginning to end in French:  and it was in a class at school.  Rereading it now I see there is some walking in it, after all Meursault is walking on the beach when he commits the murder. 

Surprisingly perhaps, there are a couple of sentences that I’ve remembered over the years.  They come towards the end of the book when Meursault is in prison. To save everybody’s blushes I’ll quote the Penguin Classics translation by Sandra Smith.
”I realized then that a man who had only lived a single day could easily live a hundred years in prison.  He would have enough memories to keep him from getting bored.”
I still think it’s a great couple of sentences, although now that I think about it I don’t believe that boredom per se would be the biggest problem I’d have in prison.

Anyway, arriving at that sentence again I find that it comes at the end of a longish paragraph in which Meursault does indeed try to find a cure for boredom.  “I finally stopped being bored altogether from the moment I learned how to remember.  Sometimes I started thinking about my bedroom and I would imagine starting at one end and walking around it in a circle while mentally listing all the things I passed.”

Well, knock me down with a feather: you (or at least I) can’t read this without being reminded of Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room (Voyage autour de ma chamber - which I have not read in French), the hero of which does indeed walk around his room looking at his possessions, and then goes on voyages of memory, although of course in this case the objects are actually there there.

Did Camus read de Maistre?  I can’t find any hard evidence that he did - although Camus is not exactly an open book to me. But in the correspondence of Camus there’s this – a postcard from Camus to “JG”
“M. Jacob sent me my horoscope.  I am side by side with people as remarkable as Luther and Xavier de Maistre.”  Online sources in fact suggest they didn’t share anything like the same birthday, but I suppose “side by side” is open to interpretation..

It's not all that easy to find photographs of Camus walking, but there’s this: I think he’s rehearsing a play: