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.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


I’m always a sucker for those “then and now” photographs, that show places as they are now, compared with how they used to be.  Of course it helps if they’re of a place you know, and have walked around.  The example below is of Sheffield, the city where I was born and grew up, and walked around a lot, although mostly without enough paying much attention, it seems to me now.

But maybe you don't have to really know the place.  I only know Paris as an occasional visitor, but I’m fascinated by the work of Christopher Rauschenberg who’s done small wonders photographing the same streets that Eugene Atget photographed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.  
          It’s worth noting that the current Wikipedia entry describes Atget as a flaneur.  Equally, it’s worth noting how very few walkers appear in Atget’s photographs, a consequence of his using antiquated equipment and long exposures times.  If people didn't hold still they became invisible.

 Rauschenberg’s photographs appear alongside Atget’s in a book titled Paris Changing: Revisiting Eugene Atget's Paris. Not least of the wonders is that some places seem to have changed so little.

Here in Los Angeles there’s quite an industry of exploring and excavating what is, after all, a comparatively short history.  The Rodney King Riots provide one rich source of material.  The photographs below show Washington Boulevard at Norton Avenue and are credited to Ted Soqui and Corbis.  I find myself powerfully drawn to an establishment called Fish 2Go

 This kind of project reaches an apotheosis with Ed Ruscha’s Then and Now.   It’s a book, yet simultaneously much more than a book, documenting two journeys along the complete length of Hollywood Boulevard, one in 1973 the other in 2003, photographing every building along the way.  Admittedly the photographs were taken from the back of pickup truck rather than while walking, but you can’t have everything.  As a book it looks like this:

As a gallery installation like this:

This kind of thing was on my mind because I’d been looking at a photograph of Ingrid Bergman, taken by Bill Ray for Life magazine in 1967.  Captions tell us she’s walking up Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles, between 3rd and 4th Street.  Now I’m guessing this is just a photo op. I’d be surprised if she’d walked very far in those sandals – and the shopping bag is a prop surely: where would she have shopped, where would she be taking her shopping?

Even so, I set off to walk in her footsteps.  And frankly I got to Olive Street and I was lost, or at least severely disoriented.  Chiefly this is because the Omni Hotel has been built on, and to some extent over  Olive Street, so that the section between 3rd and 4th Street has become a kind of tunnel.

As for that patch of waste land off to the left in the Ingrid picture – a razed bit of Bunker Hill - that’s still there, now greener and better looked-after but also behind a fence, and patrolled by a security guard who, at least when I was there, glared out at anybody who looked in.   The land slopes down, on the opposite corner, to an entrance of the Pershing Square metro station, which is actually some way from Pershing Square proper. 

In the 1970s Ingrid Bergman lived in London.  The online caption for the picture below says she’s here walking along New Cavendish Street, but I’m not quite convinced of that.

And here she is in Rupert Street Market – no shopping bag this time, when you’d have thought she might need one.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Iain Sinclair, talking at a dinner given by The Idler magazine in November:

It’s about wandering. It’s not a kind of idle wandering; I gave up on the term flâneur a while back. I went for fugan instead, like the mad walkers of the 19th century who took off on enormous journeys across France. There was a plumber from Bordeaux who walked out the door one day and finished up in Moscow. Then some dreadful writers took up with it and within a few months, the middle classes were all on the road pretending to be fugues. I feel a bit like that now with this whole walking fetish. Now everywhere you go, you find people doing strange conceptual walks, taking photographs of road signs and trying to get arrested in the car park of IKEA.”


Incidentally, careful readers have questioned that usage of "fugan" and "fugues" - I kind of questioned it too, and looked up "fugan" on the interwebs and completely failed to find it, or indeed any word to describe someone in a fugue state, and I certainly couldn't find "fugues" as a plural for people experiencing fugue states.  Fugees, perhaps?  That surely isn't where the band got the name, which is supposedly from refugees, but maybe that's not so very wide of the mark.

Friday, November 10, 2017


I was walking in El Cerrito, which you may or may not know, is a very “suburban” suburb in the East Bay, across the water from San Francisco, a couple of BART stops north of Berkeley.  I know we’re all supposed to hate the suburbs but I never do.  I find them endlessly fascinating in subtle, sometimes minimalist, ways.  Here you can define yourself as a maverick by what you grow in your front garden 

or what kind of door you have on your garage.

El Cerrito was founded in 1906 by people who’d fled San Francisco because of the earthquake, though the majority of the homes I saw look as though they were built in the 1940s or 50s, modest but not poor, the architecture not all that exciting, but the houses are well kept and with the occasional bit of eccentricity here and there.

My destination, to the limited extent that I had one, was Downhome Music (“serving you with roots music since 1976”) – 

but it wasn’t open yet when I got there, so I had a not especially ambitious walk around the neighbourhood, and I came cross this paving stone:

I don't know if you can read it very well, but it says that Credence Clearwater Revival came from El Cerrito which was a surprise to me.  I'd always assumed without giving it any thought, or caring about it much, that Credence were southern boys, but what did I know?   The Fogerty boys did indeed grow up in El Cerrito, though they were born in Berkeley.

Still, the biggest name in El Cerrito music is Metallica.  They lived there between 1983 and 1986 in a house at 3132, Carlson Boulevard, known as the Metallica Mansion, and it was there, mostly in the garage, that they composed the two albums Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets.  The garage has been demolished but in 2016 the city proclaimed the band as a “cultural institution,” and they had a ceremony down at the house. 

In fact, without knowing it, I did come within a couple of blocks of the house, and if I had known, I’d definitely have gone and had a look at it, though I imagine the current inhabitants get a bit fed up with that kind of thing.

The suburbs of course, especially on a weekday are remarkably free from other people, even other walkers, which means you can have a good nose around, and take some photographs, and nobody bothers you, or even notices you.

You know, the streets of El Cerrito were empty enough that even wild turkeys could stroll around without being bothered.  I rather like that in a suburb.

In due course, Downhome Music opened and in due course I bought an album by Juke Boy Bonner, a man from Texas but with at least some connection to El Cerrito.  The album was Life Gave Me a Dirty Deal (which apparently it really did) on Arhoolie Records, a label founded in El Cerrito in 1960.  There’s a song on the album titled “ Stay Off Lyons Avenue” which contains some advice about walking, although actually in Houston:

“You wanna walk around on Houston’s streets
You like to be real wise
And stay off of Lyons Avenue street
And don’t go down on Jensen nowhere

Because you’re living on luck and a prayer.”