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.

Thursday, June 29, 2017


When I first moved to Los Angeles there was a book in all the bookstores titled The Secret Gardens of Hollywood  by Adele Cygelman, and I looked at it and did think of buying it because I like gardens and I like secrets, but it was $45 and so in the end I didn’t, but that title stayed on my mind.

Then, as I walked and explored the city, I soon learned that a very high percentage  of gardens in these parts are in fact “secret” gardens, at least to the extent that they have high walls and tall hedges, fiercely impenetrable gates, and they turn their backs on the world, creating a private space that can’t be seen by the passing polloi: that would be me.

This applies more to the hills than to the flatlands, and more to the rich than the poor, and there are exceptions in all directions, but the general principle remains sound, I think.  There’s even a thing that the local garden nurseries call a Hollywood hedge – like this:

And here's one in my own neighborhood:

But another thing, and in a sense it’s the same thing, a great many properties have a thin sliver of land that’s outside the fence or hedge, and the proud home owner doesn’t think much about it, certainly doesn’t think of it as part of the garden, and so it gets ignored and neglected, and “nature” takes over.  

On the other side of the gate or wall or hedge, there’s order, and outside there’s chaos.  Both obviously have their place and their attractions, but as a walker you see far more chaos than you do order.  You can pick the symbolism out of that one till the cows come home.

Mr Brad Pitt lives on the other side of this mess:

Thursday, June 22, 2017


My friend Tammy sent me an article from the BBC titled “What you can learn from Einstein’s quirky habits,” subtitled “More than 10 hours of sleep and no socks – could this be the secret to thinking like a genius?”  - To which Betteridge’s law of headlines (and I suppose subtitles) surely applies: Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.  It was one of those “geniuses do the darnedest things” type of article, but it was sent to me because of old man Einstein’s walking habits.  This is him in Princeton:

The article ran, “Einstein’s daily walk was sacred to him. While he was working at Princeton University, New Jersey, he’d walk the mile and a half journey there and back. He followed in the footsteps of other diligent walkers, including Darwin who went for three 45 minute walks every day.”

I must say I first read that as Darwin doing forty-five walks of 3 minutes each which would have been really off the wall, but he wasn’t quite that eccentric.  In fact three walks a day doesn’t strike me as eccentric at all, though it may suggest he had a lot of time on his hands.

Darwin’s son Francis drew up a timetable describing his father’s typical day in middle age and later.  One walk before breakfast, one before lunch “starting with visit to greenhouse, then round the sandwalk, the number of times depending on his health, usually alone or with a dog,” then another at 4 pm  “usually round sandwalk, sometimes farther afield and sometimes in company.”  There was also a fair amount of work, rest, and having his wife Emma read to him.

So yes 3 walks of 45 minutes, more or less, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer.  The “sandwalk” also referred to as Darwin's “think path” was, and I believe still is, a gravel track around Sandwalk Wood a piece of land Darwin rented then owned, adjacent to his house. Darwin walked circuits on the path. Today it looks like this:

The sandwalk is only a quarter of a mile round trip, so you could get around it quite a few times in 45 minutes, and apparently Darwin set up a pile of stones at a certain point on the circuit so that he could kick away one of them each time he passed.  That way he wouldn’t have to interrupt his thinking by counting the number of circuits he’d done, although you might also ask why he needed to count circuits at all. 

I’d have thought somebody would have taken a photograph of Darwin walking but if they did I can’t find one, though there is this fine one of him on a horse:

As for Einstein, the BBC article continues, “No list of Einstein’s eccentricities would be complete without a mention of his passionate aversion to socks. ‘When I was young,’ he wrote in a letter to his cousin – and later, wife – Elsa, ‘I found out that the big toe always ends up making a hole in a sock. So I stopped wearing socks.’”

Now you and I may have thought that shoes without socks was just an annoying hipster affectation, and definitely no good for walking, but wait, there’s more in the article,  “Later in life, when he couldn’t find his sandals he’d wear Elsa’s sling backs instead.” Now this is way more than eccentric, if you ask me.

As you see in the picture above he is indeed wearing what appear to be women’s shoes, although not sling backs, and whether they’re his wife’s or his own or somebody else’s I can’t say.  And at other times …

Monday, June 19, 2017


There’s a commercial currently running on American TV for the Ford Edge – a vehicle about which I have no opinion for or against.  The narrative of the ad has a guy missing his wife, who appears to be away on a business trip, so he gets in his car and  drives a long way, possibly a thousand miles, to surprise his wife in her hotel room.

Anyway, a banal enough story.  Things are improved somewhat by the music – the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” a good song to be sure, but did nobody at Ford or their ad agency ever listen to the effin lyrics?

But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
To be the man who walked a thousand miles
To fall down at your door

It’s about walking, you clowns!  Not about driving an effin Ford Edge or anything else!
Hold that thought.

A few years back me and my Yorkshire psychogeographic pal Steve went from his house in Sheffield to Saltaire (in a Skoda rather than a Ford) to see the David Hockney gallery there, in Salt's Mill.  

And afterwards we wandered the streets of the town and went down by the river and into the park, and as we were walking Steve came down with something very unpleasant, a stomach thing, I think. But he was very stoic, and then we drove home to Steve’s house – more like 50 miles than 1000.

And when we got home, Steve’s stoicism slipped and he submitted to whatever was ailing him.  Meanwhile, it just so happened that the Proclaimers were playing in the Sheffield Botanic Gardens – a place I used to walk many a lunchtime when they let us out of the big bad grammar school I went to.

There was a bit of a sunset that night in Sheffield and from Steve’s backyard you could watch the sky and listen to the music drifting across the hills, and soon enough it came

But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more

By which time Steve looked as though he’d struggle to walk from one side of the yard to the other.

Monday, June 12, 2017


We Hollywood walker types are intrigued by street signs involving pedestrians, and I happened to be reading an article in the New York Times by Mokoto Rich about the “Daunting economic woes” of South Korea.  And one of the photographs illustrating the article showed university students in Seoul “where job prospects are a concern.”  This one

And I saw, rather small, in the picture there was a yellow triangular sign, too small to make out very clearly but it definitely showed a walking man and a car, and there was some kind of curvy symbol between them, apparently emerging from the car.  I thought it looked like the car was farting on the man – or I supposed, more realistically, showering him with exhaust fumes.  But I showed it to my companion and she reckoned it looked as though the car was shouting at him.

We were both wrong, as you see above: the “curvy symbol” indicated a collision between man and machine, and what we hadn’t noticed in the picture because it was too small, was that the pedestrian was staring at his cell phone.  The sign is simply telling pedestrians not to get so engrossed in their phones that they bump into cars.  A message we can all get behind surely.  Though of course, if you were totally engrossed in your phone you wouldn’t have seen the sign,even if it were on the ground, as below, but this is the paradox with which distracted pedestrians, and drivers, have to live.

Denounce me as a libertarian if you like, but it seems to me that people should take responsibility for their own lives, and if they’re really too stupid not to have worked out that walking while messing with a phone is dangerous, then I suspect no amount of signage is likely to help. 

The Koreans also have the sign above: I think the idea is that you place your feet on the footprints and stand there playing with your phone – much to the annoyance of passersby as they swarm around you, I assume.

And there is the one above that strikes me as vaguely insulting: two old geezers holding hands.  I imagine it’s supposed to be sweet but it strikes me as condescending (and ageist) because it’s not warning old people about cars, it’s warning car drivers about old people, with their walking sticks and their handbags, as though they’re too feeble to look out for themselves.  There are a great many old people to whom this does not apply.

Which brings me to the life and death of Seuk Doo Kim (above), a 78 year old hiker, of Korean origin, who planned to climb Mount Baldy 1000 times.  Now Mount Baldy has always struck me as sheer hell; a 10,000 foot peak in California’s San Gabriel Range, a punishing ascent to be sure, but whenever I’ve seen pictures it’s always looked overpopulated.  Still, to each his own.  And in fact he walked plenty of other places too.  

Seuk Doo Kim, known as Sam, didn’t make it to 1000 ascents.  He’d done about 800 when he fell to his death from a trail on the northwest side of the mountain.  By all accounts Sam was ‘irrepressible,” talking exuberantly to anybody he met, helping lost hikers, handing out food, posing for selfies.  The LA Times quoted him as saying, “My shortcut is the Holy Spirit.”  I don’t suppose the Koreans, or anybody else, have a sign for that.