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.

Monday, December 10, 2018


I don’t have any hard and fast “rules” for walking but I do have some habits. And one of them is that if I’m walking and I come across a book that’s been left in the street, I pick it up and read at least some of it, and it’s amazing how often this discarded and randomly picked up books seem to have something relevant to say.

Last week I found a copy of Agatha Christie’s They Came to Baghdad, first published in 1952.  It wasn’t any old edition but the Collins English Readers Edition that you see above - “these carefully adapted versions are shorter than the original with the language graded for upper-immediate learners,” which reduces the length to 100 pages, for which I am grateful, and I have read now every one of those pages.

Is there walking in They Came To Baghdad? You bet.  The plot, I think it’s fair to say, makes no sense whatsoever, but it involves archeology, world domination and a plucky heroine named Victoria who meets some bloke on a park bench in London and decides she has to follow him to Baghdad.  And yes, believe it or not, complications ensue.  Hair dying is also involved.

On the way to Baghdad, Victoria stops in Cairo, “She decided to go for a walk.  Walking, at least, needed no money.”  True that.

And when she gets to Baghdad there’s a somewhat detailed account of a walk she does there, “Baghdad was completely different from her idea of it – people shouting and a main road filled with cars, sounding their horns angrily … Most people wore poor quality Western clothes, bits of old army uniforms; and there were a few figures with long black clothes, their faces covered, who went almost unnoticed … The road was in poor condition with the occasional large hole.”

Agatha Christie was married to an archeologist, Max Mallowan, so she must have known something of what she was writing about, but even so the novel contains what strikes me as one of the strangest sentences I have ever read, “Richard jumped down into the long hole and the two archeologists enjoyed themselves in a highly technical manner for a quarter of an hour.”  Perhaps it was a more innocent age.

Above, I believe, is Agatha Christie at the Nimrud Dig in Syria the 1950s; that was the place where Mallowan made his reputation. 
          The whole city was destroyed by Isis in 2015 on the grounds that the ancient artefacts there were blasphemous. UNESCO declared the distruction to be a war crime.  I look forward to the trial.

Friday, December 7, 2018


I know it’s probably bad and wrong of me to be walking down the street, see this, and be royally amused.

Of course if this had been in a sitcom, the whole row of bikes would have fallen over like dominos, and I suppose there’s something about the stands holding the bikes that prevents that.  
          In general I don’t want my life to be more like a sitcom.  But in this case I’m not so sure.

Saturday, December 1, 2018


I went for a walk in Letchworth Garden City – I had my reasons.  When you get off the train there’s a sign in the station reminding you, if you need reminding, that you’re in the world’s first garden city, though I’d have thought Babylon with its hanging gardens might have been in with a shout.

And if you walk down to the southeastern end of things there’s another signpost hammering home the message. This is the front: 

And this is the back: 

That’s a low relief image of Ebenezer Howard (and not a great likeness, if you ask me), the founder of Letchworth Garden City, and of the garden cities movement in general. 

Now, Howard’s notion of a “garden city” was not as we might imagine it today.  Like so many other people before and since he was worried about urbanization, about people leaving the land and moving to big cities, especially in this case London. 

So he conceived of a much smaller city, adjacent to fields, where people would work the land and then go back to their pleasant, nearby, arts and crafts style homes; which of course did have gardens.

It’s not clear to me how many, if any, agricultural labourers actually moved into Letchworth; the received wisdom was that it was far more a haven for socialists, vegetarians, nudists, teetotalers; New Agers before the term was current.  I’m not sure how many of those are now in Letchworth either.

This picture above taken in 1912 suggests it wasn’t entirely a rural idyll – and those front gardens look extremely perfunctory.  The picture below looks far more as though the inhabitants might, at least, be trying to feed themselves from their own gardens.

 I set myself the task of walking around Letchworth looking at gardens.  I was, for sure, in search of individuality, eccentricity and, OK, a certain kitschness, but all of that was surprisingly hard to find. And yes it was end of November, when few English gardens look their best, even so I really had to search hard to find much of anything out of the ordinary.  But I didn’t fail completely

There were some curious plantings:

Some curious topiary, if that’s the right word in this case:

A decaying chair in the shape of a hand:

And yes, one garden that looked like the householder might be aiming for self-sufficiency:

But the majority were tidy and unexciting – nobody seemed to be expressing themselves through their gardens.  And I wondered if this was a class thing.  Perhaps the upper and lower classes do indeed express themselves through their gardens, either on a large scale or a small,  but the middle classes just keep them neat and tidy, and above all they keep them to themselves.  They don’t want passersby (like me) to know their tastes and their business.  And of course, I was mostly looking at front gardens. It was possible perhaps that there were untold follies and grottos, and for all know hanging gardens, in the back , but somehow I doubted it.

Naturally enough there are public gardens in Letchworth.  There are the Broadway Gardens, a name they got at the time of the Letchworth centenary. For while before that were the John F Kennedy Gardens – a fact memorialized by this block of (I think) granite:

There are also Howard Park and Gardens – which contain an adventure playground, water features, a bowling green and statue of Sappho – not every public garden has one of those.  And for a good while Howard Park and Gardens didn’t have one either.

The statue was presented to the city in 1907 and moved around, ending up in 1939 in the Ball Memorial Gardens. But the statue was stolen in 1998, so what’s there now is a replica, and its been moved round the back of the International Gardens Cities Exhibition, away from prying and criminal eyes.  

Clearly Letchworth contains elements that would have appalled Ebenezer Howard, and I can’t even imagine how he’d feel about some of the businesses on the main drag such as No Morals Tattoos. 

I guess this is known as reaction.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018


 I went to see Gilbert Shelton at the British Library, in conversation with Posy Simmons.  They were mostly there to talk about cats – there’s a new exhibition at the library Cats on the Page.

Of course Shelton was there because of Fat Freddy’s Cat (above), a noble and subversive animal, though not bearing much relationship to any real cat.  Shelton was far more scholarly than I’d expected him to be, and he did say something I absolutely agree with, that cats don’t really have facial expressions – we simply project our feelings onto them.  Cartoon cats of course have the most expressive faces, and indeed gaits, imaginable.

Shelton has always struck me as the most benign and engaging of the underground comix crowd, less consciously transgressive than most.  The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers weren’t as hip as they thought they were, or were trying to be, and that was a source of the comedy, and when it came to subversion, dope smoking and a distrust of the police was about as far as it went.

At one point the onstage conversation turned to the various attempts that have been made to animate the Freak Brothers.  They certainly have a very specific walking gait, which looks just fine in still cartoons but seems a real problem when it comes to animation.  There's this curious teaser floating around on Youtube, which shows you how hard it is to make them walk convincingly, or in fact move at all:

Shelton is about far more than just the Freak Brothers.  I was always taken with Philbert Desenex who walked looking like this:

And then turned into Wonder Warthog who in general does more flying than walking, though not always

And digging around online I can across this Shelton image.  Trangressive no doubt, and also depicting a very fine, if again unlikely, gait.

And if you're interested, this is what Gilbert Shelton looks like these days:

Sunday, November 25, 2018


One of the best things that happened to me while I was living in Los Angeles was that I became a lover of xerophiles – a xerophile-phile , if you like.  A xerophile is an organism that thrives in very dry environments.  This includes (though is by no means limited to) cacti, succulents and my particular favorite - euphorbia.

You see them everywhere as you walk around in Los Angeles.  LA is not by any standard a desert, but xerophiles like the climate there and grow very well indeed.  You see them in a great many gardens, and I got to the stage where I could hardly walk down the street, any street, without stopping staring, sometimes taking photographs, very occasionally making field notes.

Here in London it’s not hard to fine xerophile lovers, but they don’t grow their xerophiles outdoors in the earth.  They grow them in pots that they bring inside for the winter.  

So as I walk around London I don’t see any xerophiles growing in gardens but I see plenty in pots, especially in shop windows.

I’m told that this London cactus thing is a bit of a fad and may soon wear off, so I’ll enjoy it while I can.

But if you really want to walk among xerophiles in London you need to go down to Kew Gardens, to the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

Official Kew photograph.
It actually has ten climate zones, has two areas devoted to carnivorous plants, and contains a Titan Aurum which produces the stench of rotten flesh to attract insects. Hey, you won’t find me making distasteful jokes about England’s Rose. 

Also, as I walk around London I keep seeing signs for Cactus Security (above) who offer "end-to-end security project management."  I'm not sure that cacti make me feel secure, but I suppose the idea is that you wouldn't want to tangle with one:

Monday, November 19, 2018


As I walk around London in mid-November, especially at night (although “night” starts at about half past four), I’m struck by how much of it is lit up.  Some of it is in honour of the approaching Christmas, but by no means all.  County Hall and the London Eye (which if you’re in the right frame of mind can look like the portal to another dimension) are evidently illuminated to compliment and contrast with each other.  They look great.

I’m reminded of a time when I was a student, and I brought a friend down to London from the boonies to show him the sights, even though my own knowledge of the sights was extremely limited at that stage.
The friend was a man of, let’s say, very specific imagination. London disappointed him at every turn because it wasn’t exactly as he’d imagined it. He’d thought the Thames would be much wider, Buckingham Palace far more palatial, and specifically that Big Ben would be much, much bigger.

I think he probably had a point with Big Ben. The name is confusing, chiefly because the bigness originally referred only to the bell inside – which is indeed very big and impressive, but since you can’t see it from outside, it’s easy to understand somebody's disappointment.

Now it so happened that last week I walked over Westminster bridge and back.  I walked south in daylight (pushing through crowds of tourists and selfie-takers) and north in (illuminated) darkness, by which time there were fewer self-takers, but still a surprising number.

Big Ben is currently being refurbished, and not set to reopen to the public until 2021, so the whole thing is wrapped up, like something by Christo, and at night it's all lit up; not exactly like a Christmas tree, but I suspect it’s never looked better:

And then I was in Dalston at the weekend and walked past a furniture shop that had this in the window:

It had no price on it, perhaps in a “if you have ask …” kind of way, but on this occasion it looked surprisingly like the “real thing.”  My friend from the north would still not have been impressed, I’m sure.  But I'm thinking that maybe I should dash back to Dalston and buy it - damn the expense.

Monday, November 12, 2018


“Presently, with an excuse, he left me, asking me to put all my papers together. He was some little time away, and I began to look at some of the books around me. One was an atlas, which I found opened naturally at England, as if that map had been much used. On looking at it I found in certain places little rings marked, and on examining these I noticed that one was near London on the east side, manifestly where his new estate was situated.”

The “he” in that passage – you probably guessed - is Count Dracula, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been on my mind because I was walking again with Foster Spragge, a woman who draws rings on maps. Although perhaps to be more precise she probably uses the rings to create maps of a unique kind, but either way you understand the connection.

Dracula, like many a well-heeled immigrant before and since, moves to England and starts buying up property – a house in Piccadilly and another in Purfleet – that’s the place that’s “near London on the east side,” and that’s where Foster and a group of us walked – from Rainham to Purfleet, both in Essex – a mere five miles, but a vital and final part of Spragge’s 150 mile walk - Drawing Dialogue London Loop.

It was a terrific section of the walk to be on – starting early afternoon and ending at dusk, by which time the light was extraordinary and I was thinking of the opening of Heart of Darkness:

"The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more somber every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun."

Along the way there were giant sheds and giant hogweed: 

Cats (more than just this one):

Outsider art: 

Concrete barges:

And much more besides.

Better scholars than I have asserted that there isn’t and has never been a house in Purfleet that fits the description of Dracula’s property there, named Carfax.  However I did see this place which with some modifications might be turned into a very cool, quasi-industrial home, though I suppose you'd have to work pretty hard to give it the Gothic qualities Dracula was looking for.

In Chelsea the next day I took a walk past Bram Stoker’s former digs at 188 St Leonard’s Terrace.  That didn’t look very Gothic either.  

Zoopla estimates its current price as £9,183,000 which is strangely precise for an estimate, and seems a bit steep even for Chelsea, but what do I know?  

These are the kind of things you think about while walking in Chelsea, actually while walking pretty much anywhere, these days.  Of course that doesn’t necessarily stop you thinking about the Undead.  

This is Dracula walking in the streets of London in the 1931 movie: