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.

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:

Thursday, November 8, 2018


Lawrence Weschler would probably call this a convergence.  I’m not sure what it is, but it doesn’t seem entirely a coincidence.

As we mark the 100 year anniversary of end of the First World War (“So then we all lived in peace, did we dad?”), I saw this painting by John Singer Sargent titled “Gassed,” painted in 1919. 

It’s owned by the London Imperial War Museum, which describes it thus:  

“A side on view of a line of soldiers being led along a duckboard by a medical orderly. Their eyes are bandaged as a result of exposure to gas and each man holds on to the shoulder of the man in front. One of the line has his leg raised in an exaggerated posture as though walking up a step, and another veers out of the line with his back to the viewer. There is another line of temporarily blinded soldiers in the background, one soldier leaning over vomiting onto the ground. More gas-affected men lie in the foreground, one of them drinking from a water-bottle. The crowd of wounded soldiers continues on the far side of the duckboard, and the tent ropes of a dressing station are visible in the right of the composition. A football match is being played in the background, lit by the evening sun.”

I kept looking and looking at this image, and admittedly I was only looking at a jpg – the painting is mighty big – 

but it took me a very, very long time to see that football match.  It’s there but the resolution is low enough that anyone might be forgiven for not spotting it:

The painting apparently, and clearly, references “The Parable of the Blind” by Breughel the Elder, 1568, which I absolutely believes shows no football match.

I was then reminded of “Blind Field Shuttle” a performance work by the artist Carmen Papalia, who is blind, and who leads people on walks as they follow behind him, hands on the shoulder of the walker in front, their eyes held shut. I’d have thought blindfolds would have make the work better, but probably there are health and safety  issues. The event, which obviously changes all the time, sometimes looks like this: 

And  then, out of nowhere, (and of course I realize that with the Internet, there’s no such place as nowhere, and perhaps there’s no such thing as a convergence, and certainly no coincidence, and no doubt it’s all algorithms) this image appeared on my Facebook, plugging Google. 

There’s no blindness, no hands on shoulders, and of course no gassing, and yet there does seem to be some resemblance or echo or something.  I’m still not sure if I ought to be outraged by this.

Saturday, November 3, 2018


The London Eye:

The London Arse: