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.

Friday, January 19, 2018


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


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:

Friday, January 12, 2018


If you’re like me and you’re walking in West Hollywood and you see a monster truck like the one above your first thought may well be, “I bet the driver of that thing has some issues with small penis syndrome.”   
But wait.  It gets more complicated.  Go round the the back of the truck and you’ll see that this is a commercial vehicle belonging to a company called Vagina Guitars, who make custom instruments. 

Now, you can kind of see their problem, even if it’s a self-inflicted one.  With a name like that there’s a danger your product might be thought of as a bit girly.  You don’t want to drive around in some cute little pink thing, therefore you go for the monster truck, so I guess it is a form of compensation  after all.

          In fact the truck it was parked round the corner from the Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard, which has the Hollywood RockWalk (that’s a registered trademark so be careful), featuring the handprints of a very mixed bag of musicians, mostly but not only guitarists.
Obviously it’s an echo of the handprints in the cement at Grauman's Chinese, on Hollywood Boulevard.  They have foot and shoe prints there too, as well as hand prints.   

But there’s only a single footprint at the Guitar Center. It belongs to Rick Allen of Def Leppard who only has one arm, having the lost the other in a car crash in Derbyshire.  Therefore he placed one hand and one foot into the cement.  

The small child’s handprint belongs to his daughter Lauren.

Monday, January 8, 2018


I’m in the middle of a mild Flann O’Brien obsession. He belongs to the great sodality of the walking drinking writer. The name was an invention, the pseudonym, of Brian O’Nolan, and I don’t think he was deliberately trying to invoke flaneurism, but now that name inevitably does.
Here, one of his narrators in At Swim-Two-Birds, is writing about walking:

“Purpose of walk: Discovery and embracing of virgins 

“We attained nothing on our walk that was relevant to the purpose thereof but we filled up the loneliness of our souls with the music of our two voices, dog-racing, betting and offences against chastity being the several subjects of our discourse.  We walked many miles together on other nights on similar missions - following matrons, accosting strangers, representing to married women that we were their friends, and gratuitously molesting members of the public.  One night we were followed in our turn by a member of the police force attired in civilian clothing.  On the advice of Kelly we hid ourselves in the interior of a church until he had gone.  I found that walking was beneficial to my health.”

Well, who could disagree? 
Can you be a flaneur on a bike?  Almost certainly, as O’Brien suggested in The Third Policeman, although the process was not without its dangers, largely that the rider might become part bicycle. Not that walking is a piece of cake, either.

                  “The continual cracking of your feet on the road makes a certain quantity of road come up into you. When a man dies they say he returns to clay but too much walking fills you up with clay far sooner (or buries bits of you along the road) and brings your death half-way to meet you. It is not easy to know what is the best way to move yourself from one place to another.” 

There is a remarkable bit of film of O’Nolan/O’Brien, in the company of Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin and others celebrating Bloomsday.  Drink appears to have been taken and is affecting the walking style.  

The footage seems utterly ancient, not least because it's silent, but also because of the horse and carriage they’ve hired for the occasion, and then suddenly a Volkswagen Beetle appears:

The celebration is taking place in 1954, a half century after the June 16th on which Ulysses takes place.  You can find the clip here on Youtube:

Wednesday, January 3, 2018


One way or another, it seems that Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) is always with us. I’ve owned a copy of The Book of Disquiet for a good long time, and I turn to it more often than many books on my shelves.  My “reading technique” is to open it at random and read a couple of fragments, a reasonable method it seems to me, and one recommended by the translator – Richard Zenith - though I arrived there under my own steam, since it’s a book of fragments, assembled posthumously from 30,000 items found in two huge wooden trunks belonging to Pessoa.

         I never love the writing as much as I feel ought to, and some would say it’s a consciously unlovable text, but I do enjoy his stuff about walking and (for want of a better term) urban exploration, such as this: “Walking on these streets, until the night falls, my life feels to me like the life they have. By day they’re full of meaningless activity; by night, they’re full of meaningless lack of it. By day I am nothing, and by night I am I. There is no difference between me and these streets, save they being streets and I a soul, which perhaps is irrelevant when we consider the essence of things.”
         The man who walks the street becomes like the street: I like that a lot.

Or this: “More than once, while roaming the streets in the late afternoon I’ve been suddenly and violently struck by the bizarre presence of organization in things.  It’s not so much natural things that arouse this powerful awareness in my soul; it’s the layout of the streets, the signs, the people dressed up and talking, their jobs, the newspapers, the logic of it all.  Or rather, it’s the fact that ordered streets, signs, jobs, people and society exist, all of them fitting together and going forward and opening up paths.”
Or indeed this: “Everyone has his alcohol.  To exist is alcohol enough for me.  Drunk from feeling I wander as I walk a straight ahead.”  Apparently Pessoa liked  actual  alcohol too.

         I knew that Pessoa lived in Lisbon for 30 years of his adult life, and rarely left the place (he’d lived in Durban as a child) but what I didn’t know till recently was that he wrote, though of course didn’t publish, a guidebook to the place, running to 88 pages, written in English and published as Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See.
Writing about that book and Pessoa in general for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Casey Walker, author of Last Days in Shanghai wrote, Pessoa doesn’t ever seem to have had much interest, sexually, in women — or in men — but in all his time lingering in coffee houses and restaurants, in long and solitary walks around the city, he must have learned the places of surreptitious assignation, courtship, and romance … What I want to know is: Where in Pessoa’s Lisbon did people go when they needed to weep for how the world goes? Or where did they go to profess their lasting love? I want to go to these places, too. Perhaps Pessoa considered this knowledge too confidential to consign it even to his manuscript trunk.”
I’m not convinced that a man with no interest in sex would know “places of surreptitious assignation, courtship, and romance” but maybe he did.

Even less did I realize that Pessoa wrote his own version, a fragment naturally, of Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd”  - which by many accounts is the ur text for a certain kind of flaneurism and psychogeography.  Pessoa puts words in the mouth (or at least an internal monologue in the head) of the man of the crowd, and has him narrate,
“I became a man of the crowd. I never trusted myself alone. From night unto morn, and from morn unto night I elbowed speedily through crowds, clinging affrightedly to whom I could. Many thought me a thief. But I pressed my body against their bodies as a child clings to its mother during a thunderstorm. I tried to close up my mind's eye as a child seeks to escape the sight of the lightening; I strove to close my mental ears, as a child seeks by burying its head in its mother's lap to hear not the crash of the thunderbolt. And if there were a short gap in the walkers, I would hurry, run, my arms outstretched, eager for the touch of somebody's frame, my own body eager for a shrinking contact. And always, always, amid the shuffle and the tramp of all footfalls, I shivered to hear that firm, inexorable tread.”
         That doesn’t really match up with my idea of Poe’s man, and in fact it sounds far more like Pessoa than it does like Poe, which may be the whole point.

On the subject of writing itself Pessoa offers this, “While out walking I’ve formulated perfect phrases which I can’t remember when I get home.  I’m not sure if the ineffable poetry of these phrases belongs totally to what they were and which I forget, or partly to what they after all weren’t.”

No use suggesting he could have got himself a moleskine, I expect.