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, November 25, 2017


Life being the way it is, I went up to Glendale Community College to talk to Claire Phillips’s class about writing in general and my novel The Miranda in particular.  This is Claire Philips.

     As you might expect, my novel contains a significant amount of walking, and also of keeping track of the numbers – miles per day, numbers of circuits completed, that kind of thing.  You'll just have to read it.
     But here’s the curious part – in the Q and A Claire said she saw some parallels between my writing and that of Graham Greene, which, leaving aside the flattery, surprised the heck out of me. 

I’ve read plenty of Graham Greene in my life – it was what English people of my generation did - and although I liked his books well enough, I was never the greatest fan, and I definitely would never thought I was influenced by him.

      I think the jury’s probably still out on that, however as a result, I decided to read Our Man In Havana – one of those books I’d never read but knew a certain amount about – whisky miniatures and vacuum cleaners, a central character named Wormold.  Anyway, I’ve read it now (isn’t the daughter just appalling?).  But perhaps the most surprising thing of all comes on the very first page, in the second paragraph:

Wednesday, November 22, 2017


I wasn’t planning to go to Trona at the weekend, but there I was in Ridgecrest, and Trona is just 24 miles down the road, and I couldn’t resist. 

It’s hard to say exactly what Trona is.   Officially it’s designated as an “unincorporated community” but that doesn’t tell you much.  It’s not a desert ghost town (though it kind of looks like one) because it has a thriving industry – mineral processing – which has been there in some form, booming and busting, since the late 19th century. Today Searles Valley Minerals run the show, extracting soda ash, sodium sulfate, and various kinds of borax and salt from the not quite dry lakebed.

Not a lot of people live there.  Most of the workers at the processing plant commute from Ridgecrest, but there is a small resident population; maybe a couple of thousand.  There’s something oddly suburban about the layout of Trona, a grid of neat streets, individual houses on small plots of land.  Some of the houses are abandoned, some are broken down, a few surprisingly intact. The one below is for sale - priced to move.  

I wouldn’t say that people were necessary proud of their gardens but a certain amount of ingenuity goes into some of them. Like this rock garden:

On a Saturday afternoon in November there were one or two people going in and out of the pizza joint, but otherwise the streets were pretty much deserted: a couple of kids playing football in the middle of the road, and one man walking along unsteadily in the direction of the general store.
      Some citizens had definitely embraced that whole “desert weirdness” thing, sometimes with their hood ornament:

And sometimes with their yard decorations; skeletons still in place even though Halloween was some way behind us:

As you walk around the empty streets you hear dogs barking at you, lots of them.  Sometimes they’re behind wooden fences so you can’t see them, though others are behind chain link and you definitely can.  Sometimes they’re small and yappy, sometimes they're large, angry and drooling.  In some cases their bark may be worse than their bite but I wouldn’t want to put it to the test.

And finally there were cats. I saw a couple of strays walking the streets, timid but free in a way that those dogs weren’t, and as long as the cats stayed out of the canine-infested yards they had the run of the place.  And you remember that thing in Spalding Grey’s Swimming To Cambodia where he can’t bring himself to leave Thailand until he’s had his perfect, transcendent moment? 

Well, in general I’m pretty skeptical about the need to expect, much less force, an epiphany, but I had just such a moment in Trona. 

          I saw just one cat at first, sitting on top of an air conditioner, and then one peering round the side, and then I finally spotted the third, looking out from inside the house, finally the whole trio looking out at me, looking in at them. About as good as it gets.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


I’m always a sucker for those “then and now” photographs, that show places as they are now, compared with how they used to be.  Of course it helps if they’re of a place you know, and have walked around.  The example below is of Sheffield, the city where I was born and grew up, and walked around a lot, although mostly without enough paying much attention, it seems to me now.

But maybe you don't have to really know the place.  I only know Paris as an occasional visitor, but I’m fascinated by the work of Christopher Rauschenberg who’s done small wonders photographing the same streets that Eugene Atget photographed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.  
          It’s worth noting that the current Wikipedia entry describes Atget as a flaneur.  Equally, it’s worth noting how very few walkers appear in Atget’s photographs, a consequence of his using antiquated equipment and long exposures times.  If people didn't hold still they became invisible.

 Rauschenberg’s photographs appear alongside Atget’s in a book titled Paris Changing: Revisiting Eugene Atget's Paris. Not least of the wonders is that some places seem to have changed so little.

Here in Los Angeles there’s quite an industry of exploring and excavating what is, after all, a comparatively short history.  The Rodney King Riots provide one rich source of material.  The photographs below show Washington Boulevard at Norton Avenue and are credited to Ted Soqui and Corbis.  I find myself powerfully drawn to an establishment called Fish 2Go

 This kind of project reaches an apotheosis with Ed Ruscha’s Then and Now.   It’s a book, yet simultaneously much more than a book, documenting two journeys along the complete length of Hollywood Boulevard, one in 1973 the other in 2003, photographing every building along the way.  Admittedly the photographs were taken from the back of pickup truck rather than while walking, but you can’t have everything.  As a book it looks like this:

As a gallery installation like this:

This kind of thing was on my mind because I’d been looking at a photograph of Ingrid Bergman, taken by Bill Ray for Life magazine in 1967.  Captions tell us she’s walking up Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles, between 3rd and 4th Street.  Now I’m guessing this is just a photo op. I’d be surprised if she’d walked very far in those sandals – and the shopping bag is a prop surely: where would she have shopped, where would she be taking her shopping?

Even so, I set off to walk in her footsteps.  And frankly I got to Olive Street and I was lost, or at least severely disoriented.  Chiefly this is because the Omni Hotel has been built on, and to some extent over  Olive Street, so that the section between 3rd and 4th Street has become a kind of tunnel.

As for that patch of waste land off to the left in the Ingrid picture – a razed bit of Bunker Hill - that’s still there, now greener and better looked-after but also behind a fence, and patrolled by a security guard who, at least when I was there, glared out at anybody who looked in.   The land slopes down, on the opposite corner, to an entrance of the Pershing Square metro station, which is actually some way from Pershing Square proper. 

In the 1970s Ingrid Bergman lived in London.  The online caption for the picture below says she’s here walking along New Cavendish Street, but I’m not quite convinced of that.

And here she is in Rupert Street Market – no shopping bag this time, when you’d have thought she might need one.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Iain Sinclair, talking at a dinner given by The Idler magazine in November:

It’s about wandering. It’s not a kind of idle wandering; I gave up on the term flâneur a while back. I went for fugan instead, like the mad walkers of the 19th century who took off on enormous journeys across France. There was a plumber from Bordeaux who walked out the door one day and finished up in Moscow. Then some dreadful writers took up with it and within a few months, the middle classes were all on the road pretending to be fugues. I feel a bit like that now with this whole walking fetish. Now everywhere you go, you find people doing strange conceptual walks, taking photographs of road signs and trying to get arrested in the car park of IKEA.”


Incidentally, careful readers have questioned that usage of "fugan" and "fugues" - I kind of questioned it too, and looked up "fugan" on the interwebs and completely failed to find it, or indeed any word to describe someone in a fugue state, and I certainly couldn't find "fugues" as a plural for people experiencing fugue states.  Fugees, perhaps?  That surely isn't where the band got the name, which is supposedly from refugees, but maybe that's not so very wide of the mark.