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, March 27, 2018


I am, or at least used to be, a bit of a scavenger when I walk.  I’m well aware of the eco tourist mantra “Leave only footprints, take only photographs” which the interwebs attribute to Chief Seattle of the Suquamish tribe.  However, since his dates are 1786 – 1866 it seems unlikely he’d have given all that much thought to photography.  There is one, and only one, known photograph of him, from 1865.

I have no argument with the chief, or anyone else about this.  Obviously I’m not in favor of driving a truck into the Mojave desert and loading it up with native flora and fauna, but if you’re walking in some scrubby bit of territory, outside any kind of designated park or preserve, and you find a horse bone or a bit of inscrutable machinery lying in your path, well I don’t think it’s the crime of the century to pick it up and put in your backpack and take it home with you.

And when you’re walking in the city I think it’s perfectly ok to pick up just about any old thing that’s lying in the street – books, toys, a loud speaker.  You could claim you were picking up litter, beautifying the environment.

But then the question arises of what you actually do with all this disjecta when you get it home.  For years I’ve been accumulating stuff and putting it on shelves in a little room off the garage.

And I suppose there was always some idea in the back of my mind that I might become a junk sculptor like Noah Purifoy, or one of those curator-artists like Mark Dion, both of whom I admire greatly.

But the years go by and the sculpture doesn’t get made, and yes I suppose any accumulation involves a kind of curating but I don’t see the good folks from the Pitt Rivers museum knocking at my door, asking me to install a display of the Nicholson collection, and so recently I’ve been thinning the archive, perhaps better described as throwing away junk, which is, in general, a remarkably pleasurable experience. 

At the same time (and I’m not sure if this is part of the same impulse or its opposite) I’ve been photographing the stuff before I throw it away.   As you see.

But then just a few days back I was out walking and I saw a machete on the ground at the side of the street.  Obviously it had been left there by a worker who’d forgotten it when he was packing up, and yes it’s obviously wrong to steal a man’s tools, but equally the man couldn’t have valued the machete all much or he wouldn’t have left it behind.  And so despite my resolution not to pick up more stuff I really did want that machete.  And the only reason I didn’t take it was because I’d have had to walk down the street with it in my hand, and I thought that by the time I got home somebody would have seen me and called the cops to report a dangerous armed lunatic in the neighbourhood.  So I left it where it was and I had to make do with a photograph. 

But I kept thinking about it and the next day I went for a walk down the same street and the machete had gone.  I hope it went to somebody who needed it more than I did, not hard since I didn’t really need it at all.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018


It being a Sunday afternoon, I combined my afternoon drift with a visit to Skylight Books to see Lynell George read from her book After/Image.  And to get a signed copy, of course. Lynell George is a flâneuse, a pedestrienne, and above all a woman who walks and looks and takes photographs and writes about it.  Also an Emmy winner.  Cool.  

As is the way of these things, I opened the book at random and found a reference to Dorothy Parker describing Los Angeles as “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.”  This is apparently a well-known sneer but I’d never heard it before.  You’d think I would have.  And, as Lynell says in her book, some of us don’t think that’s such a terrible thing.  One of the 57 books I regularly think about writing but probably never will is titled In Defense of Suburbia.

I’ve been trying to find the source of that Dorothy Parker quotation, and as far as I can tell there isn’t one.  Adrienne Crew president of the LA Chapter of the Dorothy Parker Society and a tour guide says in a blog post, “I am asked on a regular basis if Dorothy Parker actually said that Los Angeles is ‘72  suburbs in search of a city.’  The answer is...probably not. 
“The quote has been attributed to Dorothy Parker but it's really a paraphrase of Aldous Huxley's bon mots found his 1925 book, Americana. He wrote that Los Angeles was "nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis" and he was probably quoting someone else who initially said Los Angeles was seven or six suburbs in search of a city. The witticism expanded from there. At times it was attributed to H.L. Menken, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott and Dorothy Parker.  Most likely it was Mencken who used the phrase in an essay published in the April 1927 issue of Photoplay magazine after visiting Los Angeles for three weeks in 1926.” 
         And yes, it does sound like the kind of thing you might say after three weeks.

I don’t know if Dorothy Parker got around much when she worked in LA but the only places she lived were Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, thereby leaving her some 70 suburbs short.  This is her, perfectly nice suburban bungalow on Norma Place.

But I did wonder about the basic premise:  just how many suburbs are there in LA?  Wikipedia has a “List of districts and neighborhoods of Los Angeles” which numbers just under 200, but by no means all of them are suburbs. “The Old Bank Distrct” for instance is just the area where the banks are in downtown, and therefore part of the “urb.”  And some of the places I’ve never heard of such as  the “Platinum Triangle.”

As a local, I could probably tell you the difference between Hollywood, East Hollywood, Hollywood Hills, Hollywood Hills West, and Hollywood Dell, though I’m sure you wouldn’t thank me for it, and suburban though they may all be, I’m pretty sure they don’t constiture four separate suburbs.  Still, with bit of casuistry, I think you probably could identify 72 distinct and separate suburbs in LA, if that’s your pleasure.


While I was in the bookstore I saw this intruiguing volume by Ed and Deanna Templeton titled  Contemporary Suburbium.   The suburb in question is Huntington Beach, and the book is one of those concertina jobs and I was tempted to but a copy, but I had already spent my book dollars for the day.  Next time.


Some of the suburban stuff I saw on my walk looked like this:


And this – Jesus and the Gnomes (which could easily be the name of a band from Huntington Beach):


And I couldn’t help thinking they were raising expectations a little too high at the Dresden:







Monday, March 19, 2018


So here’s another thing that happened.  I went to the see the newly refurbished Beverly Hills Cactus Garden (note for pedants, it’s more correctly a xerophile garden – there are plenty of plants in there that aren’t cacti).  

Also, as I remembered it, it wasn’t a place that was likely to benefit much from refurbishment – surely the whole point about cacti is that you just leave them alone and let them do whatever it is they want to do.  Still, it was a walk, even though I knew it wasn’t going to be much of one, since the place just isn’t very big.  


The real joy of the Beverly Hills Cactus Garden, refurbished or not, is that it’s a chunk of desert that sits right there alongside Santa Monica Boulevard – the old Route 66 – you walk among the opuntia and the pachypodia as the traffic flies by.


You know me, I can look at cacti all day, every day, but once you’ve walked back and forth a few times you’ve pretty much “done it.” If you think, oh maybe I’ll sit on a bench and soak up the vibe for a while, well you’re out of luck.  There are no benches and although you can sit on a wall, you’re not going to be comfortable lingering for very long.  This is no doubt deliberate. I suppose they want to keep out the riff raff, the homeless, and in fact just about anybody with time on their hands.

And so being in need of a bit more of a walk I took a stroll around the neighborhood.  I always say that I'm surprised they even let me in to Beverly Hills.  And I saw a house with a fabulous patch of color in front of it, with a gardener standing in the middle of what turned out to be a sea of flowering ice plants.

I took a picture and the guy saw me, and he shouted to me, quite cleverly I thought, “Hey, am I doing something wrong?”
And I said, “No, looking at that garden I’d say you’re doing something absolutely right.”
This both amused and wrong-footed him.
“Because the other day,” he said, “I was working, and this guy from the power company came by and he took my picture with his phone.  And I said to him, ‘Hey, why did you take my picture?’ and he said he hadn’t taken my picture but I saw him take my picture.”
         He seemed more indignant about being lied to than about the picturing-taking itself.
So I said, “Well yes, I suppose I did take your picture but really it was the garden I was photographing.  It looks fantastic.”
And of course since he was the man who looked after the garden, he was obviously pleased and flattered by this, and of course I did actually mean it, and also from the way I was talking I was obviously not threatening.
So we had a conversation about gardens, and he said the ice plants didn’t usually flower at this time of year, but there’d been rain and then a very hot spell and this had confused the plants and they’d burst into flower.  Usually July and August were the times when those particular ice plants looked their best.

I said I’d like to come back then and take another picture and he said, “If I’m here and you take my picture I’m going to want paying.”  I said I thought that sounded very reasonable.