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, July 26, 2018


Until last month I had only ever once stayed in an airport hotel – it was in Los Angeles when Virgin couldn’t fly us out. At this point I’ve forgotten both the reason and the name of the hotel.

But last month in order to get an affordable flight from Heathrow I had to take off very early in the morning, in fact so early that I doubted I could get to the airport from central London in time. So for the night before the flight I booked into the Hyatt Place Heathrow – very clean, very neat, not quite as soulless as you might expect (though it does look it in the picture below), and pretty cheap for a “London hotel.”

Obsessive and travel-anxious as I always am, I arrived there mid-afternoon and once I’d checked in, despite the place not being entirely soulless, a profound “in transit” melancholy descended upon me.  So I decided to go for a walk.  

I imagined I’d be plodding around the perimeter fences of various ancillary airport buildings - which was OK by me - but this proved not be the case.   A little way down the main drag – which is named Bath Road - there was a stile that led into a wheat field.  And there was a very clear path leading straight across it.  Off I went.

Now it so happened that when I was in London I’d seen an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects, titled “Disappear Here: On perspective and other kinds of space” curated by Sam Jacobs.  

So I knew a thing or two about vanishing points. And this field offered more than one of them.  Cool.

That exhibition title, I assume, must derive from Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero.  The words first appear in this section:
“I come to a red light, tempted to go through it, then stop once I see a billboard sign that I don't remember seeing and I look up at it. All it says is ‘Disappear Here’ and even though it's probably an ad for some resort, it still freaks me out a little and I step on the gas really hard and the car screeches as I leave the light."

The phrase “disappear here” keeps popping up throughout the novel, which seemed a pretty weary trope when I first read the novel in the 1980s and it doesn’t seem any less so now.

But anyway, as I continued to walk through the wheat field I started to hear guns in the distance.  I couldn’t see anybody doing the shooting, and this being England, I assumed it was a farmer using his shotgun, attempting to kill crows rather than me, but when you’re in the middle of a field in the edgelands of Heathrow airport, with no cover for a few hundred yards in all directions, it’s probably best not to take anything for granted.  I rereated. I lived to tell the tale.  You knew that already.

Various people I’ve described this experience to have said how “Ballardian” it must have felt. Well only up to a point.  JG Ballard is on record as saying how wonderful he found the Heathrow Hilton.  In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ballard said,
The Heathrow Hilton designed by Michael Manser is my favourite building in London. It's part space-age hangar and part high-tech medical centre. It's clearly a machine, and the spirit of Le Corbusier lives on in its minimal functionalism. It's a white cathedral, almost a place of worship, the closest to a religious building that you can find in an airport. Inside, it's a highly theatrical space, dominated by its immense atrium. The building, in effect, is an atrium with a few rooms attached. Most hotels are residential structures, but rightly the Heathrow Hilton plays down this role, accepting the total transience that is its essence, and instead turns itself into a huge departure lounge, as befits an airport annexe. Sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being. Within this remarkable building one feels no emotions and could never fall in love, or need to.”

Well again, only up to a point, surely.  People fall in love everywhere.  In any case, the Heathrow Hilton, more architectural than the Hyatt, though it undoubtedly is, costs about three times as much as my room at the Hyatt.  Would the extra expense have defused my melancholy?  You know, I doubt it.

Thursday, July 19, 2018


If you’ve read my novel Bleeding London (and I suppose it’s just possible that some of you have) you may have noticed one glaring error.  I’m not saying it’s the only one but it’s the one I’ve been told about.  I say in the book that Hornsey Lane Bridge, which runs high above Archway Road is a railway bridge – it isn’t and I should have known that.  

The more important thing to know (and this is in the book), is that it’s a famous “suicide bridge” – a place where people launch themselves into space, down to the road and traffic below.

So in a very small literary penance, and many years after the event, I decided I’d walk both across and under Hornsey Lane Bridge  As you walk along it, it really doesn’t seem very threatening or scary. People walk or drive or cycle across it and thoughts of death don’t immediately spring to mind, though you may notice it’s a long way down to the road below.

A bit or research reveals that there have long been plans to build anti-suicide features, including a net, but I didn’t see any sign of that.  Sure there were railings and spikes that would make it harder and more unpleasant to get in position to jump, but I don’t think these things would deter the determined suicidalist.  Then again, I suppose even if they deter one or two casual jumpers, then they’re still doing a job. 

There are also various notices, attached to the bridge with phone numbers that you’re invited to call if you’re feeling suicidal.  Presumably somebody at the other end tries to talk you out of it, though not having called the numbers I can‘t absolutely swear to that.

There were two other remarkable things on the bridge.  First this warning sign telling you to avoid whatever electrical gubbins are beneath that metal cover.  Now, I’m no expert but I’d have thought death by electrocution might be an easier option than death by jumping off a bridge, but this is no doubt debatable.

Secondly, this war memorial commemorating servicemen who attended Saint Alosyius College which is just at the western end of the bridge.  (FYI - the fictional Tony Hancock was named “Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock.")  There’s our Lord upon the cross and nearer ground level there’s a certain amount of foot love going on, which I think might be biblically dubious, but I’m sure some would think it’s the kind of thing that might make life worth living.

Walking down below in Archway Road, and looking up, the bridge was far more impressive than I remembered it, and considerably grander than it seemed when walking across it.  It’s a fine bit of Victorian engineering, it's the work of Sir Alexander Binnie who also designed Vauxhall Bridge.

You're likely to see some other interesting stuff as you walk along Archway Road .  My eye was caught by this house that apparently had to be completely reconfigured to accommodate Archway Road:

And a gun shop. But hey, this is England, they’re not going to sell you anything you’re likely to be able to kill yourself with.

Saturday, July 14, 2018


I’m sure I’ve said it before, probably on this blog, that Virginia Woolf, walker though she may well have been, is not an open book to me.  Nevertheless I happened to come across a paperback copy of her A Writer’s Diary, opened it pretty much at random and immediately found this passage:
Monday October 25th, 1920
“Why is life so tragic: so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss.  I look down; I feel giddy; I wonder how I am ever to walk to the end.”

I thought that was a pretty good find. So imagine my angst on discovering that a version of that quotation is all over the interwebs, often superimposed on some cutesy New Agey background.  

Enough to make you want to walk into a river, almost. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018


I was staying in London for three weeks last month, in West Hampstead, an area where I used to live a long time ago. Even back then I considered myself a pretty good urban walker, and I certainly explored the neighborhood, but walking around there last month it seemed a very different place.  Of course, some of it was because the neighborhood has changed, gentrified I suppose you’d say, although it was never exactly the mean streets.  But maybe it’s also because I’ve become a different kind of walker, more thorough, more observant, and maybe just a little more intrepid.

Take Billy Fury Way, for instance.  Back in the day it was a scary, and I think nameless, alley running alongside the railway line from West End Lane to Finchley Road.  It looked like a place you wouldn't walk unless you wanted to take your life in your hands, and there are still reports of dodgy goings on there. In fact, dedicating the alley to Billy Fury was part of the effort to make it less scary. This happened in 2010.

It seems to me that Billy Fury, real name Ronald Wycherley, had a fairly tenuous connection to West Hampstead, even if he recorded at Decca Studios in Broadhurst Gardens. Nevertheless, a year after the name change, a mural of Billy’s face was painted on a wall at the entrance to his "way," in the hopes of encouraging the better sort of street artists to express themselves nearby.  This was a limited success.  Before too long Billy’s face was tagged and desecrated, and the powers that be painted him over, reduced the wall to a black expanse to save further embarrassment.  I’m sure it needs a lot of repainting and touching up, but at least the entrance was looking more or less unsullied when I pitched up at my digs in West Hampstead.

In my wanderings I also came across Black Path, running along the railway lines tracks in the opposite direction from Billy Fury Way.  It lived up to its name in that the walls and fences along it were painted black, and it seemed remarkably free of graffiti, though again there was plenty of evidence of repainting­ and touching up.

I also discovered Wayne Kirkum Way, the entrance to which is more or less caged, and therefore feels intimidating as much as protective.  Of course I had never heard of Wayne Kirkum but a little research revealed that he was a young lad who’d been killed on the nearby railways line.  This was some 30 years ago, and the internet is inevitably thin on detail.  Hold that thought.

After I’d been staying in West Hampstead for a while, some new, strange, and very specific tags started to appear all over the place, including the spot where Billy Fury’s face had been.  It was no longer a black expanse.

Maybe it was naive of me but I didn’t immediately read RIP as Rest In Peace, but that was certainly what it meant. In due course the story came out in the newspapers.  Three taggers – Trip, Lover, and K-Bag - had died, been hit by a train on the railway line close to Brixton station while plying their art. 

I don’t know if there’s any such think as a “typical” tagger, but these guys didn’t seem to fit the stereotype. Their names were Harrison Scott-Hood – he was Lover, Jack Gilbert was K-Bag, Alberto Carrasco was Trip.  The first two were twenty-three years old, and Trip was the son of the London correspondent for El Mundo - it turned out that he'd been at sixth form college with the daughter of a friend of mine; so not exactly the deprived bad lads from the council estate.  

It’s not hard to see the attraction of walking where you shouldn’t, of committing urban trespass, putting your tag in the riskiest, most inaccessible places.  Still, it seems rather a trivial thing to die for, which of course makes the deaths more, not less, tragic.  One can only imagine what the families are going through.

The graffiti community (for want of a better term) expressed its commiserations all over the city. The picture below was taken at 7.15 on the morning of Tuesday, June 26th.  I walked past it again at 11 am, and the graffiti had been painted over, creating another black expanse.