Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, 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.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

LONDON THEMES


I was in London for one reason or another.  There had been a plan to go for a walk with Iain Sinclair but that fell through because, as he put it, “I did some damage a while back, jumping out of the way of a sudden-turning taxi. All was well. But after coming back from the Hebrides, some of the calf problems returned on London pavements. I need to take a break - and, if possible, see a wonder worker.”  No arguing with that.


And of course I walked anyway, sometimes on my own, sometimes with one or two others, and I looked around, took pictures, and at times observed my fellow pedestrians, most of them just walking as part of their everyday lives and business, others perhaps on some kind of drift or specialized walking project – you can’t always tell with these things, although I did see one or two groups of tourists who were being herded around on organized walking tours – they tended to look simply bemused.


I had the sense in central London of walking around a giant building site, that will become a post-Brexit, giant architectural theme park.  There are cranes and scaffolding everywhere.  And this is in one sense exciting – new forms and new possibilities are coming into being.  There’s an optimism, a confidence, a belief that the city does have some kind of future, even if an uncertain and contested one.


On the other hand, most of us will only ever walk past these glossy new architectural constructions.  They really don’t involve or embrace the “average” Londoner, whatever that is.  We are certainly never likely to live in any of the new super luxury flats.  And I suppose you could argue that this has always been the way of things , as true of Centre Point as of Buckingham Palace: you walk past, you see the exterior, you know in broad terms what you’re looking at, but you don’t get invited inside.  Nobody’s building any people’s palaces.


     Where there’s change there’s also decay.  There was a short period of my life when I worked as a gallery attendant at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank, and every day I’d walk out of Waterloo station and go into a kind of pedestrian tunnel/bridge that ran through the Shell Centre.  


The building is still there, and a little research reveals that it’s still owned by Shell, though I couldn’t see any external sign to that effect.  


But whereas it once looked like a smart, if slightly old-fashioned, 1950s office block, it now looks in significant decline.  Of course some of us enjoy a good bit of significant decline.


And I suppose street art flourishes in these times of transition.  When buildings are being built or demolished, when there are hoardings around them, people don’t get too upset about works of art painted on boards or abandoned walls, although presumably once the sparkling new architectural masterpieces are finished the artists are going to be way less welcome. 


And it may just be me, but I got the feeling there was something a bit last millennium about London’s street art.  I mean Banksy is obviously a good guy, but does his art really need to be protected by large sheets of Perspex?  Isn’t street art meant to be transient and at the mercy of the elements, human and otherwise?  And do I really need to be able to buy a Banksy in an art gallery in the spruced up Shipping Container House?  Well no, I do not and I wouldn’t be able to afford one even if I did.

         On the other hand, it’s hard to walk down Goodge Street and not be somehow moved and uplifted by this depiction of Theresa May, not by Banksy as far as I know, and not under Perspex either.


Thursday, January 25, 2018

WALKING AND LOCOMOTION






As you see, from the above communication, I have been rejected by Nike.  I applied to be a shoe tester.  I filled in a form.  I answered the questions.  I told the truth where I thought that would be an advantage, and told lies when I thought that would.  But it has come to nothing. I have been weighed and found wanting. I shall have to continue to pay for my own shoes.


Why did I apply to become a shoe tester?  Because I just finished reading a novel by Wilhlem Genazino titled The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt.  It’s a good book in which our hero wanders the city having deep thoughts, many of them about women, and all the time wearing shoes that he’s testing for a company.  Eventually he gets screwed over by the company: they offer less money and worse terms, and he’s reduced to selling the shoes he’s tested at a street market.  In fact the lads currently in charge at Nike didn’t offer any payment whatsoever, and if I’d been accepted I’d have had to return the shoes once I’d tested them, at my own expense, so it wasn’t the very best deal in the world. I just wanted to be part of a literary tradition. 


As you see above, the jacket design for The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt, incorporates images by Eadweard Muybridge, this one titled “Plate 49 – Clothed Male Walking, Turning Around Rapidly, Satchel in One Hand, Cane in Other.” 

You might think that’s a rather unnecessarily full description and you might wonder why anybody would bother to specify that he was clothed.  Well, the fact is Muybridge made a total of 781 plates – quite a few of animals of course including horses, and five just of  hands – but most of them show people in motion, a few of them walking.  This is  plate one:



Now Muybridge obviously knew his market. However scientific and artistic his photographs, he realized that the human body is a lot more compelling when it’s naked than when it’s clothed.  Out of that total of 781, 133 are of nude men, 62 of women “in transparent drapery and semi-nude,” 180 of women completely nude and, it being a different era, 15 plates of nude children.  And the appeal of nudity certainly applies when it comes to descending a staircase.



It’s hard to imagine that Duchamp would have been quite as inspired by this image:


as he obviously was by this one:


In any case, a Muybridge image is a very fine thing to have on the jacket of your novel about walking.


      Incidentally, Wilhlem Genazino is also the author of a novel titled Die Obdachlosigkeit der Fische, which (I believe) translates as The Homelessness of Fish,  although as far as I can see there’s no edition in English.  I can’t absolutely swear what it’s about, and Wikipedia with Microsoft translator is only a partial help: “The Osprey, the stability through phone book and the sheep are described in sometimes unexpected twists - of the sheep in the field of view are for example ‘appalling taste kotete buttocks.’”


Yes, that is Bettie Page on the front cover, and as discussed elsewhere in this blog Bettie was a woman who knew how to walk, especially in high heels.  What she has to do with the homelessness of fish I don’t know.   In any case, a Bettie Page image is a very fine thing to have on the jacket of your novel, although it might raise expectations the author couldn’t possibly fulfill.



Friday, January 19, 2018

WALKING AND HIDING

Even before I lived in Los Angeles, I was still an occasional Hollywood Walker.  I used to come as a tourist and I usually stayed in a hotel on Franklin Avenue, and I’d get up in the morning and wander the streets, looking at the houses and the cars and the flora, and it all seemed a kind of fantasy land.  I didn’t take many photographs but on one of my walks I took this picture of a house.


At the time I didn't really consider my motives, but thinking about it now, I reckon I took it because the place struck me as both very typical and very special, thoroughly Californian, without being a cliché of Hollywood architecture, and completely unlike any house you might find in England.  It seemed cheerful and optimistic – I guess that was the color.  It wasn’t exactly modest but it wasn’t a mansion; you could just about imagine yourself living there.

Well, I took the picture and pretty much forget about it for the best part of 15 years, but then the other day I came across it again and I realized that the house really wasn’t so very far from the places I currently go on my neighborhood walks, and so I took my camera and set off with the intention of doing one of those “now and then” comparisons.   I tried to stand in the same spot, and what I saw this:


The house hadn’t disappeared but it had gone into hiding.  I wouldn’t have been sure I even had the right house if it hadn’t been for that curious spherical “streetlamp.” Not to labor the obvious, but there has been some exuberant growth, huge trees that weren’t there at all 15 years go.  Is that intention or just neglect?   And of course the chainlink fence has been changed to wooden slats, and the gate looks like this, indicating that it’s now two homes rather than one, but possibly it always was.


You have to go round the side before you can really see the house at all.  And I must say it looks less special and less optimistic.  There’s been a complete change of color on those shingles, but have they been replaced or have they just faded to their current shade? But then the owners have kept the paint color on the bricks.  Or maybe they've just done nothing,  Things change but sometimes they also endure.


There was a woman in the garden, and in certain circumstances I might have talked to her and told her what I’ve told you, but as it was I didn’t.  She might have thought I was weird.  But I did go home and check out the house on Google, because that's the kind of thing you can do these days, and in this picture, taken in a different season, it’s even more hidden:




Wednesday, January 17, 2018

WALKING IN THE PAST



Back in the day I used to fancy myself as a bit of a “street photographer” (not a lot of a street photographer, just a bit).  I used to walk around in my lunch hour with a camera, and inevitably I’d take pictures of people walking. 


And it’s a funny thing, isn’t it, how the Internet is both so of the moment but also so nostalgic and backward looking.  Beause of social media I constantly see photographs from people’s childhoods and college years, that I’d never have seen pre-Internet.


 And so here are some of the pictures I took back then.



I’m not absolutely sure of the dates – very early 1980s I think.  All the ones above were taken in London.  The ones below were taken in Sheffield: 


and Scarborough: