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, July 26, 2017


Mention of Hull brings us pretty much inevitably to Phillip Larkin.  There’s the Larkin Trail in Hull these days, in three sections, only two of them easily walkable.  The Website says,  "To follow in Larkin's tracks is to take not only a literary journey, but also journeys through diverse landscapes and rich architecture and, seeing the city through a poet's eyes, to gain a philosophical view of the place where Larkin lived and worked for three decades."

 There’s also the above statue, by Martin Jennings, of Larkin in Hull station.  It’s supposedly inspired by Larkin’s poem “The Whitsun Weddings” so I suppose he’s hurrying to leave Hull, which may or may not be significant.

Walking crops up fairly often in Larkin’s works, but it’s seldom, if ever, a joyous or uncomplicated subject for Larkin, but then what is?  Generally it’s a marker for something much bigger that itself. This line from “New Year Poem” – “From roads where men go home I walk apart” – which somehow reminds of the line Sheldon Cooper says in The Big Bang Theory – “Like the proverbial cheese, I stand alone”

There’s this from “Poetry of Departure”
So to hear it said
He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;

And there’s this from “Dockery and Son” which I suppose is, in part, a railway poem:
I fell asleep, waking at the fumes
And furnace-glares of Sheffield, where I changed,
And ate an awful pie, and walked along
The platform to its end
And there’s this from a wonderfully gloomy letter from to his lover, Monica Jones, “I seem to walk on a transparent surface and see beneath me all the bones and wrecks and tentacles that will eventually claim me: in other words, old age, incapacity, loneliness, death of others & myself...”

Larkin and Jones

But for many in Hull, and possibly elsewhere as well, Larkin may be most famous for the poem “Toads.”  The toad is initially the poet’s daily work which squats upon him but in the end he decides

… something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

Now, hunker is an interesting word.  It’s a synonym for the haunch, of course, so to hunker down is to squat on your haunches, which is in keeping with the sense of the poem.  But, if online dictionaries are to be believed, hunkering is also a synonym for walking, as in: “Slang: to lumber along; walk or move slowly or aimlessly.”
Was Larkin aware of this?   Who knows?  Poets are tricky people when it comes to the overtones and undertones of language. 

Nor can we be absolutely sure how Larkin would have felt about the celebration in his nameLarkin with Toads, Hull’s largest ever public art project.”  Originally set up in 2010 it was revived in 2015 and featured 40 extra large “artist-decorated” (how long have you got to pick the bones out of that one?) fiberglass toads positioned in and around the city.  
They formed a “walking trail” of course.

Thursday, July 20, 2017


Since I’ve been thinking about walking in gardens, I inevitably thought about walking in parks, which inevitably meant I returned to Travis Elborough’s book A Walk in the Park  – now out in paperback - and I find this passage:
“There are few sights in England that can quite equal the absurd charm of the imitation Khyber Pass in Hull’s East Park. This slice of South Asia in the East Riding sits just a short stroll away from an animal house that is home to alpacas from Peru and a lake where oversized swan pedalo boats bob about. The park was planned and opened to honour Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 and the pass was dreamed up by its supervisor Edward Peak and fashioned in artificial rock and material foraged from the Hull Citadel, an old fort that had once defended the town’s port.”

Now it so happens that I know a couple of people with Hull connections and they were familiar with East Park, and had even been walking there, but perhaps inevitably they’d never heard of this Khyber Pass replica, despite the presence in the park of this informative sign:

I think you’d have to say that as replicas go it’s not the most faithful recreation you’ve ever seen, especially since it involved the copy of an Arab doorway from Zanzibar, which doesn't seem to have a whole lot to do with the Khyber Pass.

The actual Khyber Pass looked like this back then,

And it looks like this now:

And I began to wonder how easy it would be to walk through dislocated or simulated geographical features of the world.  The boundary wall of Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester has been in the news lately - a Brutalist bit of concrete that locals refer to as the Berlin Wall.  It doesn’t look so bad to me but it’s apparently “much hated” by locals, and the news is that there are now plans to demolish it.

There used to be the Garden of Allah here in Los Angeles, though not a garden at all, but a hotel on Sunset Boulevard run by one Alla Nazimova (real name Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon), and occasional home to the likes of Errol Flynn, Dorothy Parker, Scott Fitzgerald et al.  It was demolished in 1959, but a replica has been being built at Universal Studios, Florida, and is used as a media center.

There is also the Garden of Gethsemane in Tucson, which contains sculptures of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion which (unless my biblical knowledge is even sketchier than I think it is) did not take place in said garden.

The “real” Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem (its original location is disputed, so this may itself be a replica)  looks like this:

There’s also London Bridge in Havasu City, Arizona, which Mr. Elborough has written about at length, but that’s a transplant of the thing itself, not a replica.  The Shoreline walking trail will take you right under it, through Rotary Park.

So I emailed young Elborough and asked him if he thought there was any meaningful distinction to be drawn between what constitutes a park and what constitutes a garden.  He offered this, “I think more generally public gardens tended be bequests of existing private gardens - though not always - and usually smaller and horticultural, lacking sports fields etc. but god knows!”  That’s good enough for me, for now.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017


Does anybody not love the songs of Cole Porter?  Well, some no doubt, but not many, surely.  “Let’s Do It,” “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “Love For Sale,”  “You’re the Top,” “Did you Evah,” to name just a few that I happen particularly to love.

Porter even mentioned walking once in a while, perhaps most famously in these lines:
“The night is young, the skies are clear 
So if you want to go walking, dear, 
It's delightful, it's delicious, it's de-lovely.”

That, of course, is from “De-lovely” – a word and a title that’s always rubbed me up the wrong way.  Porter’s use of language is generally so great, but here it seems a bit twee, if you ask me, and yet also (damn it) incredibly memorable.
In a different song Porter wrote,
“I’d walk a mile for that schoolgirl complexion,
Palmolive does it every time.”

That’s from “It Pays to Advertise.”  And in “When my Baby Comes To Town” you’ll find this:
“Yes, daily she takes a walk
And you should see those natives gawk”

And yes, Porter understood that New York was a walking city, this from “Longing for Dear Old Broadway”
“I’d love to walk
Start for New York
Back where the lobsters thrive.”

Porter himself was quite a walker for the first part of his life.  From his time at Yale onwards he’d regularly go off on walking vacations, and as he became rich and famous, his companions were rich and famous too.  One of them, Moss Hart, describes Porter as “an indefatigable sightseer, a tourist to end all tourists.  Everything held an interest for him.  No ruin was too small not to be seen, particularly if it meant a long climb up a steep hill.”

Things changed dramatically in 1937.  Porter had recently returned to New York after a walking vacation in Europe (the picture above is from that trip and shows Porter with Howard Sturges and Ed Tauch).  Porter was spending time  upstate, and riding a horse, which stumbled and fell on him, crushing both his legs; forever changing, and by many lights ruining, his life.
The doctors recommended amputating his right leg, and possibly the left as well, but Porter, supported by his wife (recently estranged, now reconciled) and his mother, refused, and after a seven month stay in hospital he returned to some semblance of his old life, which included what many of us would still think was an awful lot of traveling.

It’s hard to say whether Porter was altogether right to refuse amputation.  He could still walk but only with difficulty, using a cane and a leg brace, and over the next twenty years he had 30 agonizing operations on his legs.  One of these involved breaking femurs again and resetting them.
         Along the way he gave names to his legs, women’s names it might be noted: Josephine was the left leg, just about tolerable; Geraldine was the right — “a hellion, a bitch, a psychopath.”  

For all his resistance, Geraldine nevertheless had to be amputated in 1958.  Porter was devastated, said he felt like “half a man” and never wrote another song.  There was some serious self-medication with alcohol and narcotics, which created problems of their own, and he made a fairly nasty end.  He was given a false leg and struggled to use it, though there were times when he had to be carried around by his valet. Porter died of kidney failure on October 15, 1964, in St John’s Hospital, Santa Monica.

I once went to a talk given by Ian Dury – he of “Reasons to be Cheerful” – and this was after he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Quite apart from that, he was a man who had his own problems with walking, as a result of childhood polio.

Dury expressed some surprise that Porter, of whom I think he was a fan, had continued to write cheerful, optimistic, upbeat songs even after his accident.  Dury thought the accident and the pain would have moved Porter to write melancholy songs of pain and loss.

I’d have thought Dury’s own experience would have taught him that creativity doesn’t necessarily work that way. I can’t find much about walking in Dury’s work, though there is the Dury’s song “Spasticus (Autisticus),” an anti-pity-for-the-disabled song, which was banned by the BBC, in the days when the BBC cared about such things.  The relevant couplet runs,

I'm knobbled on the cobbles
Cos I hobble when I wobble”

That’s not exactly Cole Porter-style word play (you can’t help thinking hobble and wobble should be reversed, but that’s the way they appear on the single, and the way Dury sings them on the one live YouTube version I’ve found) but it ain’t at all bad.