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.
Showing posts with label London Blitz. Show all posts
Showing posts with label London Blitz. Show all posts

Thursday, April 12, 2012


I just got an email from a satisfied customer who’d read The Lost Art of Walking, “had a good time with it” and thought I might be interested in her artwork.  She wasn’t wrong.  That's it above and below. Her name is Foster Spragge, which sounds somehow like an anagram, and indeed is an anagram for a great many things including “far gorge steps,” which isn’t entirely inappropriate.

One of her projects is to make “Walking Drawings” that record the walks she’s done, and I’m always fascinated by the question of how we want to remember or memorialize our walking.  I know there are some walkers who don’t want any sort of record, but I think the majority do, whether it’s just making notes, or taking pictures, or marking it on a map, or in extreme cases writing books and blogs.  Of course there are myriad other ways too.

Foster Spragge writes on her blog, “Whilst searching for a venue for the installation of Ticket Cylinder (that’s one of her ‘sculptural’ artworks) I began to Walk & Draw. Mirroring the walking process, tracing a movement while allowing the mind to roam exploring new thoughts. To start each Drawing, the paper is folded so that only part of it can be seen at any one time while working. This stops aesthetic decisions, allowing the drawing to take its own shape. The whole Drawing is not unfolded until the walk is finished. 
 The initial Drawings are filled with an explorative range of marks to represent footsteps. For every step during the walk a pencil mark is made. Each time the path turns the paper is turned the same way.”

Well this all seemed pleasantly obsessive, especially the part about making one mark for each footstep.  It also wasn’t clear to me just how big these pieces of folded paper were.  I imagined she might be strolling around with a piece of paper six feet square.  I wanted too much – they’re just 59 centimeters square.

Even so, as she explained in an email, “Walking though town folding and unfolding is a challenge. What is quite amusing is people often ask me for directions.”  Then when she was doing the Square Mile Walks, a series of drawings made while walking within the square mile of the City of London, never venturing outside the city boundary, “some bikers spied me walking around the edge of Smithfields market while avoiding the rain. They asked me what I was doing, on showing them the Drawing they said I should buy myself a map.”

Well, this is interesting isn’t it?  Obviously some of these drawings don’t resemble maps in any conventional way, but some definitely do.

Above are two drawings, a diptych I suppose, titled South to North, North to South.  They record a series of London walks.  In case the caption comes out too small on the blog, I’ll repeat what Foster writes, “One day I would walk from South to North, then on another piece of paper I repeated the walk, starting where the previous walk ended and retracing my footsteps … The two drawings are therefore the same but in reverse, but not a mirror image of each other.”  

I suppose you might conclude that you can never walk in the same street twice, in the same Zen way that you can never jump into the same river twice.  The street is different from moment to moment.

Now obviously you’d be hard pressed to find your way around London with these drawings, but when you look at them you somehow know that they represent a walk in London.  A walk made in Manhattan or Paris or Colchester simply wouldn’t look like that.

These days we all feel that maps printed, or drawn, on paper are a dying form, as GPS and cell phone technology takes over.  At the same time, if you’re lost in a big city and you see someone carrying a map (or in this case what only appears to be a map) you’re far more likely to approach them for directions than you are to approach someone who’s simply carrying a cell phone.

Foster Spragge’s drawings are on show for a short time at the Westminster Reference Library in London, behind the National Gallery, Orange Street, 28th May to 2nd June.

Her website is here:   http://www.fosterspragge.com/ 

It so happens that I too sometimes walk around Smithfield market, though in a rather less rigorous way that Foster Spragge, and I’ve never been troubled by bikers.  Here’s a picture I took on one of my walks there, a much-photographed tripe dresser wedged between a classical column and a men’s lavatory.  Ah, London.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


I’ve been looking at photographs of people walking in ruins.  The one above is one of the most familiar, taken in the London blitz, a morning after shot.  And if you’d asked me a couple of days back I’d have said it was by Cecil Beaton or Bill Brandt.  It turns out I was wrong about that, as you’ll see.

Without really thinking about it too much, I’d never doubted that it was a bit of a set up, though not a particularly reprehensible one, a morale-boosting image to show Londoners that life was still going on normally even after a night of bombings.  For one thing, I didn’t really believe that milkmen were still sticking to their rounds in the middle of the blitz.  Would there even be any doorsteps to leave the milk on?  And when the milkman came back at the end of the week what were the chances of the customers still being there, what possible likelihood that they’d hand over what they owed?

But it turns out the photograph is even more fake than I thought. The photographer was actually Fred Morley, and it’s widely reported that the “milkman” was his assistant dressed up for the part.  But that raises more questions than it answers.  Because obviously he must have borrowed the coat and the crate of milk from somebody, and if not from a milkman, then who?   So does that mean there really were milkmen making deliveries?  And if so, why not use a real milkman in the photograph?  Couldn’t they find one winsome or perky enough?  Or did the real milkmen think this photography lark was an insult?  But if so, they wouldn’t have lent their jacket and milk would they?  Or were there no real milkmen involved at all, and did the photographer bring the jacket and milk with him as a props?  I should really like to know. 

It’s generally assumed that the firemen working in the background are the genuine article, and I imagine they were extremely pissed off that this photographer and his assistant were free to ponce about taking pictures, while they had real work to do.

When I was growing up in Sheffield in the 1950s and 60s, memories of Sheffield’s own blitz were still fresh in the minds of my parents’ generation. It had been short-lived and limited by London standards – just two raids in December 1940 - but bad enough; almost 700 dead, another 1500 injured, tens of thousands left homeless.

There was a story told in our family that my father, then in his teens, had walked to work the morning after the bombings, stepping over debris and, according to my mother, also over dead bodies.  My father never mentioned it at all, which I’ve always thought gives the story more rather than less credibility. 

There are a lot of extant pictures of the Sheffield blitz, though there seem to be no Sheffield war photographers known by name, no Brandt or Beaton, not even a Fred Morley.  The vast majority of the photographs, like the one below, are simply credited to “Sheffield Newspapers.”

This is the best known, and probably the best, photograph from the Sheffield blitz.  It shows the High Street on fire, a couple of abandoned trams silhouetted against the conflagration.  Other photographs exist of the scene, taken that night and the next morning, but none look as good as this. 

And I've been thinking that for a photograph of ruins to look really good it's a big help to have a figure there somewhere, preferably someone walking, and now I find myself wondering about that solitary figure on the right of the Sheffield blitz picture.  What’s he doing there?  He looks so untroubled.   Where could he possibly be walking to so casually in the middle of an air raid?  And I wonder if he was placed there by the photographer for the sake of the shot.  I wonder if he was the photographer's assistant.
In a post-war article titled “Pictures by Night” Bill Brandt wrote, “In 1939, at the beginning of the war, I was back in London photographing the blackout. The darkened town, lit only by moonlight, looked more beautiful than before or since. It was fascinating to walk through the deserted streets and photograph houses which I knew well, and which no longer looked three-dimensional, but flat like painted stage scenery ...”   I suppose it would have been too dark to show a walking figure.