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.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Sometimes I discover walking stuff for myself.  Sometimes people send me things.
I discovered, more or less under my own steam, that Wilkie Collins’ The Woman In White contains a whole lot of walking (no doubt most of the world knew this already) - 197 usages of the word walk and its variants in the book, along with stroll, and the occasional ramble, step, march and stride, and so on.

         Here’s some crucial early walking in the novel: 
“I had now arrived at that particular point of my walk where four roads met—the road to Hampstead, along which I had returned, the road to Finchley, the road to West End, and the road back to London. I had mechanically turned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely high-road … when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.
“I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the handle of my stick.
         “There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her …
“‘Is that the road to London?’ she said.”

What I didn’t know, till I read it in the New York Review of Books, is that Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens walked together at a certain time in their lives.  They co-wrote what became The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, based on a walking tour they did in the north of England.
“These two had sent their personal baggage on by train: only retaining each a knapsack. Idle (that’s the overdeterministic name of one of the apprentcies) now applied himself to constantly regretting the train, to tracking it through the intricacies of Bradshaw's Guide, and finding out where it is now - and where now - and where now - and to asking what was the use of walking, when you could ride at such a pace as that. Was it to see the country? If that was the object, look at it out of the carriage windows. There was a great deal more of it to be seen there than here. Besides, who wanted to see the country? Nobody. And again, whoever did walk? Nobody. Fellows set off to walk, but they never did it. They came back and said they did, but they didn't. Then why should he walk? He wouldn't walk. He swore it by this milestone!”

Things cooled between the two men after Collins’ brother Charley “walked down the aisle” with Dickens’ daughter Kate.  It was not a marriage made in heaven, apparently.

And then fellow walking scribe Anthony Miller sent me a quotation from Robert Mcfarlane that appears in the 2012 documentary titled Patience (After Sebald) directed by Grant Gee,
Macfarlane says, "The British tradition is of walking as recovery and the American tradition is of walking as discovery. That striding forms into the oncoming air of the world, for the Romantic tradition, the British Romantic tradition, is a way to strip away the accretions of civilization, the hawking and hammering of time lived in cities and returning yourself to some original state, I mean, that's Rousseau: It's European as well as it's British. 
“But the American tradition, it's there in the road movie, it's there in the sense that we travel to liberate ourselves, to discover new ways of being, to acquire whole new methods of life that may themselves turn into habits but don't begin as them."

I keep wondering if this is even remotely true.  First of all I wonder if I understand what he means by “recovery.”  Recovery in the sense of getting better again?  As a remedy for illness?  Well maybe, but that seems to be no less British than American – look no further than Cheryl Strayed.

Or does he mean recovery in the sense of repossession or reclamation?  In a literal or metaphoric sense?  Surely only the latter.  You can’t stake a physical claim on the landscape of, say, East Anglia, but you can certainly, metaphorically “make (or remake) it yours.”
As for American walking being a means to discover “new ways of being;” well what’s so American about that?  Isn’t that what the Wordworths and De Quincey and all the rest were trying to do?

Still, maybe we shouldn’t hold MacFarlane to this opinion too firmly.  We all say dubious things when a microphone’s put in front of us.

Sunday, May 21, 2017


Those vintage purveyors of pulp fiction knew a thing or two about the dangers of being a flaneuse.

What could make the dangers even more compelling? Why, a snake, of course.

Saturday, May 20, 2017


In another country, England, London, the Barbican, a simpler approach applies.  And only to one pedestrian:

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Outside the Beverly Centre, corner of Third Street and La Cienega:

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


Last weekend I went for a walk in the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, a couple of hours from Los Angeles, 25,000 plus acres of desert, though because of snowmelt and underground water parts of it are marsh, wetland, and riparian forest.  It’s not far from Joshua Tree National Park, but Morongo receives a couple of million fewer visitors per year, which some of us think is a definite advantage.

I’d been there once before, and if you’d asked me when that was, I’d have said just a few years back, but a little research reveals that it was over a decade ago in 2006.

At the time I was a great desert enthusiast but a bit new to the game (I’d only recently moved to California) and in many ways I was na├»ve about the desert. I found the Morongo Preserve a bit tame and well-groomed with its designated trails and its boardwalks across the marshland.  Back then I wanted every walk in the desert to be some great, wild, cosmic expedition of self-discovery.  I’ve lightened up a lot since then. 

2006 was an “interesting” year to visit.  In June 2005 there had been a serious fire that started in a house in the unincorporated community of Morongo Valley.  It’s known as the Paradise Fire because the house was in Paradise Avenue; the fire destroyed half a dozen homes and 6,000 acres of the Preserve.
At its worst it looked like this (photo from Friends of Morongo):

Volunteers rallied round and some trails reopened within a few weeks of the fire, though it wasn’t till March 2006 that all of the trails were open again.  And in October of that year, I sauntered along.

As you see in the pictures I took at the time (above and below), there was still plenty of evidence of the blaze, and some startling contrasts between the burned,  blackened trees and the new growth.  According to the Preserve’s website there were signs of growth within a week of the fire being extinguished.

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is one of those places where they let nature take its course, as far as they can, and so the old burned trees are still there today, sometimes with exuberant new growth all around them, and the effect is even more startling than it was over ten years ago; like this Giacometti-style burned tree:

And here – and I didn’t realize I’d photographed it before until I got home and checked the archive – are two photographs of the same dead tree taken a decade or so apart.  The tree is still dead, of course, it’s lost some of its extremities, but it’s still standing, looking resolute and noble (and anthropomorphic), right next to the boardwalk where hikers pass all the time, You can pick your own metaphors out of that one.



Wednesday, May 10, 2017


My Richard Long post brought up a couple of things.  First, Steve Duffy reminds me (and I probably shouldn’t have needed reminding) of Bill Drummond’s Iceland/Richard Long adventures.  If the story is to be believed, and with Bill Drummond it may not be, in 1970 he and his sister tried, but failed, to walk the length of Iceland, North to South.  I’m not sure exactly what route they intended to take, but whichever way they went would have been 550 plus kilometers, and he was only 17 years old at the time, so failure was perhaps to be expected.

In 1970, Richard Long would have been 25 years old and had already done a certain amount of walking and art making – A Line Made By Walking is from 1967, but he wasn’t a household word, even the artiest of households.  A Line Made By Walking looks like this:

 In 1994 Long successfully walked the length of Iceland, taking the same route that Drummond had attempted: Drummond is the source of that bit of information, and I assume Long had never heard of Drummond or his failed walking expedition.

During that Icelandic walk, and afterwards, Long created works inspired by the trip, including a photography and text piece called A Smell Of Sulphur In The Wind.  It looks (or I suppose looked – since we have to use the past tense) like this:

In 1995 Drummond bought the work for $20,000 (the price was in dollars since that’s the international art currency), but three 3 years later he’d gone off it, so he tried to sell it for what he’d paid – and couldn’t find a buyer.   Well, there is such a thing as a gallery mark-up.

Ever the provocateur, in 2001 when he published and publicized his book How To Be An Artist, Drummond tried to sell the work again, this time by cutting it up into 20,000 separate numbered segments (each one approximately 10mm x 4mm) and selling them for $1 each.  You can still buy them for that price at Drummond live events, or you can buy them online, via a third party, for five quid a time, the extra money covering “administration and registration.”

Once the last segment’s been sold, Drummond will supposedly take the $20,000, attempt the walk again and (assuming he succeeds, at least in part) he’ll bury the money in the center of the stone circle depicted in the Richard Long photograph, again assuming it’s still there.

I’m not sure this Bill Drummond project constitutes great art but it does sound like fun, a bit of a lark, and larkishness is in pretty short supply in the art world.  Long is apparently deeply unamused by Drummond slicing up his work. 

I wonder how Long feels about Carey Young who is reworking or reinterpreting (or something) his art in what strike me as some fairly uninteresting ways One piece is titled Body Techniques (after A Line in Ireland, Richard Long, 1974), from 2007.  It looks like this:

Richard Long’s A Line in Ireland looks like this:

Would you like to hear what it says on Young’s website about her piece?  Well of course you would.  Body Techniques (2007) is a series of eight photographs that considers the interrelationships between art and globalized commerce. The title of the series refers to a phrase originally coined by Marcel Mauss and developed by Pierre Bourdieu as habitus, which describes how an operational context or behavior can be affected by institutions or ideologies.”
It’s a striking photograph - she’s in the United Arab Emirates apparently – and I always approve of wearing a suit in the desert, and it’s not hard to “get” the work - Long’s Irish rocks are “natural” while the path Young’s navigating consists of “manmade” discarded concrete.  But you know, where’s the walking?

There’s also Young’s Lines Made by Walking, a 2003, a looped slide projection sequence.  Some of it looks like this:

Again her website describes it in ways I couldn’t possibly manage.  “The viewer sees Carey Young, dressed in a suit, walking backwards and forwards in a crowd of commuters. … This action is repeated this (sic) until we realize that her repeated walking appears, in fact, to be ‘inscribing’ a line in the crowd. The artist appears to be restaging works by the Situationists as much as Richard Long, particularly his ‘A Line Made by Walking’ much as her activity can also be read as that of a the clockwork toy or caged animal pacing in captivity. She appears as if displaced, or within a different temporal continuum: the artist appears to be repeating the workers’ daily journey but at a faster speed. Her struggles to create a space within the crowd could be seen as a deadpan parallel for artistic ‘struggle’. The artwork appears balanced between two states, as confined as the daily monotony of the commuters’ journey and as some kind of free act hidden within monotony, but equally within its own modes of institutionalization.”

Deadpan indeed.  God it must be awful to be a contemporary visual artist.  Part of the gig involves describing, or having other people describe, what you do in language so inert, so exhausted, so pretentious and hollow, that it’s rendered meaningless.  It seems to me that a robust sense of humor, a sense of the absurd, a lack of pomposity, is quite handy when you’re making art.  Bill Drummond has those qualities in spades.  Those same qualities also come in no less when you’re walking, if you ask me.