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.

Friday, July 15, 2011


I don’t know what an entirely random or disinterested walk would be like.  However open we are to new things, we all still walk with preconceptions about what’s interesting, what’s good walking territory, about who we want to walk with.  Which is perhaps only to say that we have preconceptions about what constitutes a “good walk.”  These preconceptions aren’t fixed.  If you suddenly develop an interest in the history of brickwork, then all the brickwork you see around you becomes deeply fascinating.  If you’re thinking of buying a Ford Escort, suddenly you notice a lot of Ford Escorts.  The eye and brain are always selective.  We see what we’re predisposed to see. 

When you arrive in a new place for the first time you (obviously) tend to notice what’s most obvious.  The longer you spend there, the less obvious the “obvious” becomes.  When I first arrived in Los Angeles I looked in awe at all the palm trees.  I’d stare up at them, try to identify the different kinds, take lots of photographs of them when I went out walking.  Of course, most of these trees looked pretty healthy.

As the years have gone, I’ve come to think of the palm tree as just too obvious a signifier of L.A. and Hollywood. I’ve started to think that only an out of towner, a tourist, a rube, would stop and stare at palm trees.  I know they’re there, but in some way I’ve stopped seeing them.

And then, a few days ago, I went to meet Glen Rubsamen, an artist and photographer who lives in Rome but was passing through L.A..  He’s doing a book project on the palm trees of Italy, which are rapidly dying out because of the invasion of the red palm weevil, which moves into the palm trees and destroys them on the grand scale.  It appears there’s not very much anybody can do about it: in any case the Italian authorities aren’t doing anything at all. 

The significance of the Italian palm tree, Glen tells me, is enormously wide ranging and can be traced back through various imperial adventures, from Mussolini all the way to the Roman Empire.  Their dying out seems a very bad thing, and it will certainly change the look of much of Italy, and yet palm trees aren’t “natural” to Italy, certainly not native.  The landscape will (in any literal sense) be more natural without them. 

You can see there are some huge issues at stake here, and I hope I haven’t garbled them too severely.  Glen has taken a series of wonderful and uncanny photographs of dead and dying palm trees.  There’s one above, and another below.  Anyone who lives in Rome inevitably understands the pleasure of ruins, but sickly and decaying trees remain beyond the limits of what most of us consider pleasurable.  You really should check out Glen Rubsamen’s work.  I’d post more of his images but I wouldn’t want you to think I was filching his work to make my blog look good.

So inevitably I’ve been thinking again about the palm trees of Los Angeles, and seeing them with new eyes.  I walked to my meeting with Glen, noticing all the palm trees along the way; the ones in people’s gardens, the ones lining the streets, the ones growing up through the side walk, the ones next to freeway on-ramps, the ones reflected in glass-fronted buildings.  I always knew they were there but now I’m predisposed to see them again.

If you’re a Hollywood Walker, the Hollywood sign can operate in much the same way.  When you first arrive here you’re always looking out for it, then once you know where it is, you start ignoring it, and then you start not seeing it at all.  But coming home from my meeting with Glen, walking along a palm tree lined section of Hollywood Boulevard, I looked up and suddenly saw the sign, framed by a palm tree and beneath it the word “surrender.”  Well, surrender has its appeal.  There’s every indication that the red palm weevil is heading for L.A., and in the end there may not be a whole lot we can do about it, but I don’t think we should surrender without a fight.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


A couple of years back when I was in London I took a literary pilgrimage down to Shepperton, in order to walk along J.G. Ballard’s street and look at his house, which since his death was empty, closed up, with what looked like a dead potted palm inside the front room, pressing against the window, and a sagging Ford Granada in the driveway. 

I had some dealings with Ballard via Ambit magazine, but I wouldn’t claim to have known him at all, and I was certainly never invited down to his house. There’s an account of my walk in the British edition of The Lost Art of Walking.

Because of the kind of book that was, I didn’t include any photographs, but in a blog it seems fair enough.  Fairer still since the house is now up for sale: £320,000 for a modest semi, “in need of work” but perfectly placed for the commuter, with station just a short walk away at one end of the street, two pubs within walking distance, one of them actually halfway along the street, and a nice bit of open space, called Splash Meadow at the far end, a nice place to walk with the occasional low flying aircraft passing overhead.  

Beside that is a golf course where you could have a “good walk spoiled.” And beyond that there's a path with a tangle of overgrown greenery, and eventually this rather retro futurist ramp: 

part of a pedestrian bridge that takes a walker up and across the rush and roar of the M3, which leads into London, and depending on where you were heading, might very well take you via the Westway.

Hey, Mr. Ballard, where did you get your ideas?

Thursday, January 6, 2011


The best story ever about guns, cars and walking appeared in the Los Angeles papers this week.

On New Years’ Day 2011, a 21 year old man, name of Dennis Vilchis
found himself in Hawthorne, trying to cross the street near the
the intersection of Prairie Avenue and El Segundo Boulevard.
He reckoned he had the right of way, the driver of a car felt differently.

So naturally enough Dennis pulled out a handgun and brandished it.  Brandishing is one of the things people do with handguns.  And to give him some credit he appears to have intended nothing more than a good brandishing, because he then put the gun back in his pants pocket.

At which point the gun went off and he shot himself in the leg and ended up in hospital in a serious condition.

The punchline of the story, as it was told in the LA Times, was that “Detectives are reviewing the incident for possible criminal charges.”

It would be a terrible shame if Dennis found himself in jail and had to explain to fellow inmates what he did to get himself locked up.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Readers of my book The Lost Art of Walking will remember my story about going walking in a wood with my dad and being accosted by the land owner.  I've found something oddly similar, and truly wonderful, in a short story by PG Wodehouse, who was also an enthusiastic walker.  The story is The Autograph Hunters.

A couple of paragraphs run as follows:

"On the afternoon of the twenty-third of the month, Mr. Watson, taking a meditative stroll through the wood which formed part of his property, was infuriated by the sight of a boy.
"He was not a man who was fond of boys even in their proper place, and the sight of one in the middle of his wood, prancing lightly about among the nesting pheasants, stirred his never too placid mind to its depths."
Safe to say that my dad and I weren't "prancing lightly about among the nesting pheasants" - my dad was a serious Yorkshireman, after all - but a part of me wishes we had been.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


In the current New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates quotes Adam Thirwell quoting Guillaume Apollinaire.  Apollinaire says, “When a man wanted to imitate walking, he invented the wheel, which does not look like a leg.  Without knowing it, he was a Surrealist.”  That's Apollinaire above.

Alternate translations substitute “resolved” for “wanted to” but either way this notion strikes me as just plain silly.  The person who invented the wheel surely wasn’t trying to imitate walking.  He or she was trying to improve on walking, trying to invent something that could do various things that legs didn’t and couldn’t possibly do. 

Equally, it always has to be remembered that the wheel can’t do one very basic thing that a leg, or at least a pair of legs, very obviously can – the Dalek problem – how to conquer the universe if you can’t use stairs.

Still, what’s most interesting about Apollinaire’s remark is that it seems to prefigure Marshall McLuhan’s description of the ways in which technologies are extensions of man: the camera an extension of the eye, the computer an extension of the central nervous system, and so on.  But, says McLuhan, the technology isn’t neutral: it changes us.  We design new tools, and then the new tools redesign us.  McLuhan also talks about amputations as well as extensions.  Our eyes see with less precision when we have a camera to do our seeing for us: the culture of walking withers as the cultural of the wheel thrives. 

But you known I’m not absolutely sure that new technologies necessarily lead to complete amputation, of even necessarily to atrophy.

Take the example of synthetic materials: once they’d been invented there was never again any absolute need for natural materials.  We could all dress in nylon, drink from Styrofoam cups, sit on plastic furniture, and sometimes we do those things, but not all the time.

In the same way, you might say that after the invention of the bicycle there was no need for anybody to walk, and after the invention of the car there was no need for anybody to use a bicycle.  But the issue is that that human needs are peculiar, contradictory and not quite rational things.

Of course I’m not going to walk five miles to buy a new washing machine and carry it home on my back, but walking a mile or two to buy a magazine or a cup of coffee strikes me as completely reasonably, if obviously not always necessary.  I’m not imitating the wheel: I’m walking for the sheer hell and pleasure of it.

It seems that walking was often on Apollinaire’s mind, especially in relation to his lover Marie Laurencin.  One of his poems is “Le Pont Mirabeau,” written after they’d broken up, that being the bridge he had to walk across to get to Marie’s place.  Another is called simply “Marie,” and the last lines run

Je passais au bord de la Seine
Un livre ancien sous le bras
Le fleuve est pareil à ma peine
Il s'écoule et ne tarit pas
Quand donc finira la semaine.

Which translates, fairly freely, as

I walked on the banks of the Seine
An ancient book under my arm
The river resembles my pain
It runs but it never runs dry
When will it be the weekend again.

Here’s Rousseau’s portrait of Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin: