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, August 28, 2018


Sometimes you do your research well in advance, plan your itinerary, and then you do your walking.  Sometimes it’s the other way round – you go for a walk, see lots of stuff, and you get home and thendo the research, in arrears as it were.
A little of both was involved in my recent drift through a very small part of Highland Park in northeast LA. I was part of a reading there at the weekend at a place called Bookshow – a bookshop-cum-tarot-reading salon (yes really).  I had never been to Highland Park and it didn’t really register on my mental map of Los Angeles, which was one of the reasons I wanted to go there.  
Wikipedia said it is “currently inhabited by a variety of ethnic and socioeconomic groups,” which I suspected might be code for “hang on to your wallet, hipster.” But Time out said. “Figueroa Street has found itself as another source of increasing pedestrian activity, thanks to its Metro Gold Line stop,” which sounded better.

         North Figueroa is the main drag through Highland Park, and Figueroa is one heck of a street running for some 20 miles, and from time to time (though not currently) it’s been part of Route 66.  I guess I covered perhaps three of those miles in a meandering sort of way, to warm up for the reading.
         The area was, I think you’d have to say, “diverse.”  On the one hand there were quite a few dodgy-looking places to cash checks and get loans, some garages where you wouldn’t feel all that happy about leaving your car, and the odd Botanica and Ferreteria.  

Then there were hipster bars, record shops and places selling midcentury chairs and coffee tables at eye-watering prices.

And most spectacularly, there was Chicken Boy, who I’d heard about over the years but never seen, and I knew there was quite a backstory.

Chicken Boy – a human with a chicken head. customized from a fiberglass model of Paul Bunyon - first appeared in the 1960s on top of a fried chicken restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.  The restaurant owner died and the model was taken down, and it was acquired by Amy Inouye – a book designer and art director.  It went into storage for twenty odd years, eventually being resurrected on the roof of Inouye’s “Future Studio,” where for planning purposes it’s considered an "art installation," apparently.

It was impressive, but so were the two lions on top of Devon Glass and Mirror.  It’s hard find the angle that gets both lions in the picture.

Research shows that they get painted in different colors from time to time.  It also shows that Devon Glass and Mirror receives some poisonous online customer reviews.

One of the minor things to notice (and these might form part of Nicholson’s ongoing “guide to the ground”) are the mosaics in the sidewalk:

That actually says N. Avenue 60, not N. Avenue Go, which is how I first read it. There are 14 mosaics along this stretch of  Figueroa, and I thought they looked suitably patinaed and historic but I was wrong about that.  They were installed just this year, designed by Wick Alexander, and funded by a $149,000 grant from the Los Angeles City Department of Transportation. They were a long time coming since there were delays with permits and then the tiles had to be tested to ensure they were waterproof and non-slip.  But they got there in the end.

Other things that caught my eye - Frida was there (she gets everywhere):

There were cacti for sale (always a plus in any neighborhood):

And there was this concrete tree by the station:

Yes, yes, I know this is all madly superficial. I shall go back to Highland Park, I swear, and get involved in some deep topography, the way you do.

Thursday, August 23, 2018


There are many days when I wish that John Cage was still with us, for his compositions and his philosophy, and on a day like today, his mycological skills.
         Cage was a mushroom hunter, an activity that requires a fair bit of walking, and he wrote in a somewhat ironic piece published as “Music Lover’s Field Companion,” “I have spent many pleasant hours in the woods conducting performances of my silent piece, transcriptions, that is, for an audience of myself, since they were much longer than the popular length which I have had published.” 

He even taught a class in mushroom identification at the New School in New York which involved taking the class, on foraging expeditions, walking through the woods, but (the school decreed) only those woods accessible on public transport. 

Cage has been on my mind because recently as I’ve walked around LA (a city which has scarcely seen a trickle of rain for the last several months), I keep seeing mushrooms and fungi growing in very unexpected places.  Such as here on somebody’s lawn in Larchmont:

I suppose in this case the lawn has been watered perhaps overwatered through this long dry spell, and so perfect mushroom conditions have been created.

I suppose this must apply in the case below too, in Sawtelle, though this isn’t somebody’s garden but one of those little strips of grass between the road and the sidewalk. I didn’t notice a sprinkler system but I guess there must be one.  And in fact that mushroom was even bigger than it looks in the photo.

And today, on my way to the dentist, I saw this (there were a couple of other very small, less impressive specimens nearby):

Since they’re growing out of a tree I don’t suppose they rely on watering, and the patch of ground the tree did look very dry, though that’s not to say it doesn’t get watered from time to time.  I wish John Cage, or someone, had been there to identify the fungus.  My best guess, from doing a reverse image search, is that it might be a Rhizina undulata, but I wouldn't want to put money on it.

Did you know that in 1959 Cage won $10,000 on an Italian quiz show Lascia o Raddoppia (Double or Nothing) by giving the 24 names of the white-spored Agaricus as described in Atkinson’s Studies of American Fungi.”  Not just that, he listed them in alphabetical order,” which makes him a bit of a show- off, but when you’ve got the knowledge, why not flaunt it?  He used the prize money to buy a piano and a Volkswagen bus Merce Cunningham's dance company.  It wasn’t the sixties, but it was close.  In 1969 Cunningham produced a dance piece titled Walkaround Time.

          Want to see an ancient picture of the Hollywood Walker, somewhere in Scotland, posing with an Amanita muscaria (and his ex-wife)?  Of course you do.

Thursday, August 16, 2018


I’ve been walking, and thinking about obelisks. If you walk a couple of miles, all of them up hill, from where I am now in East Hollywood, you’ll come to the Griffith Park Observatory, and outside it you’ll find this:

It’s sometimes known as the Griffith Observatory Obelisk, sometimes as the Astronomers' Monument, designed by Archibald Garner, completed in 1934 even before the opening of the observatory, about 40 feet tall, with figures of Hipparchus, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Herschel at the base. (I admit that I’d never heard of Hipparchus.)

Those statues and the armillary sphere on top give it a rather more complex design than I think an obelisk should have, though I’m not knocking it.  But if you head down the road to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery you’ll find (what seem to me at a least) purer examples of the breed, such as this one marking the grave of Griffith J, Griffith, the very man that Griffith Park is named after.

Further south still, on the University of Southern California campus, you’ll find a line of comparatively short obelisks, each about nine feet tall, which mark the involvement of students and faculty in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

So clearly Los Angeles has its shared of obelisks even if it’s not exactly famous for them. London on the other hand, has loads, as I found out recently. 

The "biggie" of course is Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment (above), a genuine Egyptian obelisk, and that’s a whole obsession in itself, especially how they got it to England: in an iron tube that was 90 feet long – the obelisk itself being about 70 – and they built an ocean-going vessel around it so it could towed all the way from Egypt.  Complications, some of them lethal, ensued.  

I didn’t know any of this story until very recently, and asking around my acquaintances, many of whom like to think they’re pretty knowledgeable, none of them did either.

Once you start keeping your eyes open for obelisks, London seems to be full of them, and again some look more perfect examples than others.  I saw obelisks in Chelsea:

West Hampstead:

Saville Row:

In an antique shop in Mayfair

In Bunhill Fields, an obelisk monument to Daniel Defoe, but Iain Sinclair has claimed Bunhill Fields so fervently I dare hardly set foot there.

And outside of London too, such as this rather wonderful one in Mistley, in Essex. Those are the Mistley Towers behind it, and there’s an inscription on the obelisk commemorating a local woman named Jane Death.  I kid you not.

I also realized that I’d photographed obelisks in the past, while out walking, without really thinking about it much.  This one in Bristol:

There is also this especially fine obelisk on a crazy golf course in Great Yarmouth.

And I know that years ago I was in Washington DC and definitely saw the Washington Monument.  This is the tallest obelisk in the world, 555 feet high, completed in 1844 – there is much discussion about whether or not slave labor was used.  In any case, I only saw it from a distance, and I was young and unimpressionable back then.  There is also an argument that it isn’t a true obelisk, which should be made from one piece of stone – impossible given the size, and also given that there is currently an elevator inside.

And if you’re a conspiracy theorist you’ll be thrilled to see this:

And finally (at least for now, I mean this obsession is only just starting, I haven’t even started on Athanasius Kircher) there is this by the great illustrator Tom Gauld.

It’s a myriorama “inspired by the works of Laurence Sterne, and I’m actually not sure If that walking figure is Sterne or Tristan Shandy, but that’s very definitely an obelisk.  Now, there is no mention of an obelisk in Tristram Shandythough there’s plenty of walking, nor is there an obelisk mentioned in A Sentimental Journey,so this may be an indication of Mr. Gould’s own obelisk obsession.  

         I have, however found a reference to an obelisk in Sterne’s writing.  It appears in Sermon XVIII titled “The Levite and his Concubine” and runs as follows:
“Certainly there is a difference between Bitterness and Saltness, that is, between the malignity and the festivity of wit, the one is a mere quickness of apprehension, void of humanity, and is a talent of the devil; the other comes  from the Father of spirits, so pure and abstracted from persons, that willingly it hurts no man : or if it touches upon an indecorum, 'tis with that dexterity of true genius, which  enables him rather to give a new colour to the absurdity, and   let it pass. He may smile at the shape of the obelisk raised to another's fame, but the malignant wit will level it at once with the ground, and build his own upon the ruins of it.”
         Wit, obelisks, ruins – my kind of sermon.

Friday, August 10, 2018


I’ve been back in LA, from England, for about a month now, and in truth I haven’t been doing very much walking. When the temperature reaches 90 every day (and yesterday it was 97 – that’s 36 degrees for lovers of Centigrade) it rather takes the spring out of your step.

But I haven’t been completely sedentary, and sometimes you just have to get out there,  sweat it out, and walk the hot streets. and while I’ve been doing it I’ve thought to myself, yep, I’m back, this is all very, very LA.

The classic Volkswagen beetles:

 The palm trees (and also, the giant euphorbia and the hard to fathom parking sign):

The cacti:

The stone lions

The bears:

The curious skies:

Yep, all very LA indeed, but hold on there you psychogeographers, I found examples of all these things in England. 

The classic Volkswagen beetles:

The palm trees (Is this the result of global warming? I don’t think there used to be so many palm trees in England):

The cacti:

The stone lions:

The bears:

The curious skies:

Globalizaton, innit?  Possibly.