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 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.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018


The customary New Year’s day walk, in the Sawtelle district  this time, revealing the 

customary abandoned Christmas trees:

A rather wonderful building on Sawtelle Boulevard – cladding in the front, Brutalist in the back:

I don’t know what goes on onside that brutal building - it's unmarked; and I have even 

less idea what goes on this one:

Some poor huddled cacti yearning to be free at one of the nurseries:

And some fearful, not quite symmetry:

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


I was hunkered down for part of the holiday with the works of Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama, including  “Record No.36” - in Japanese “Kiroku” - the latest in his series of diaristic monographs that date back as far as 1972.  This is from that volume:

Moriyama has been around, in many senses.  Currently aged 79 he’s taken vast numbers of photographs, published a great many books (if not as many as his pal Araki), and also done a great amount of walking.  He may not, strictly speaking, be a street photographer (a term that seems ever more meaningless) but he’s definitely a flaneur.  His photographs are a record of his wanderings and also the reason for his wandering.

And of course sometimes he photographs other walkers.  And of course some of these walkers are women.

I started digging out some writings and interviews with the great man.  There’s this from the afterword to “Record No. 34,” “I am crisscrossing the central Tokyo area taking snapshots in the streets more or less on a daily basis. Within this routine, every once in a while it happens that I am suddenly overcome by a sense of bewilderment, just like a student in his first year at a photography school. What exactly am I trying to see through the finder of my camera? What is that photo that I just shot? It's questions as utterly naïve and elementary as these that occupy my mind in such situations.”

And there’s this from a documentary the Tate Gallery made about him a few years back, “I basically walk quite fast. I like taking snapshots in the movement of both myself and the outside world. When I walk around I probably look like a street dog because after walking around the main roads, I keep wandering around the back streets.”
This is probably his best known picture: of a street dog:

He continues, “My friends or critics are often surprised and ask me why I never got bored walking around for over 50 years. But I never get bored. I often hear it is said that people, even photographers, do their best work when they are in their 20’s and 30’s. I’m 73 now. But I could never see the city with an old man’s eyes, or as if I understood everything.
“Everyone has desires. The quality and the volume of those desires change with age. But that desire is always serious and real. Photography is an expression of those desires
“I have always felt that the world is an erotic place. As I walk through it my senses are reaching out. And I am drawn to all sorts of things. For me cities are enormous bodies of people’s desires. And as I search for my own desires within them, I slice into time, seeing the moment.”

Well, the erotics of walking and the erotics of photography are not exactly the same, but there’s surely plenty of overlap.  Taking pictures of women in the street is currently regarded as a very dodgy activity.  I think it’s still OK to look at people you fancy, so long as you don’t touch or say anything appropriate.  And taking photographs creates its own set of problem.  It’s probably OK if you’re making art, not OK if you go home and lech over the images.  But who can read the intentions of the male gaze?

          I saw recently that the Christie’s website describes photographer Miroslav Tichy as a flaneur, thus: “From the 1950s to 1986, Tichý took thousands of surreptitious photographs in and around Kyjov, in the Czech Republic. With his wild hair and ragged clothes, locals viewed him as a harmless eccentric — but in many ways his art can be seen as a subversive act in response to a totalitarian regime. 

         “In the 1950s, he began to focus on photography, using an array of crude homemade cameras … He built his contraptions from scrap — cardboard tubes, tin cans and the like — sealed with tar, and operated by bobbins and dressmaker’s elastic. He cut lenses from plexiglass — even devising his own telephoto lens.  

“’These chance encounters, fleeting moments captured on film, have a distinctive Baudelairean flair,’ says Christie’s specialist Amanda Lo Iacono. ‘Indeed what we find so captivating about Tichý’s work today is how the artist acted as the quintessential flaneur, whose practice became inseparable from his way of life.’”

Well, you’ve said a mouthful there, Amanda.  Tichy’s “practice” involved wandering the streets, and sometimes hiding in the bushes, taking pictures of women, some of them walking, some of them in various states of undress.  

Geoff Dyer in the Guardian says, “Put as simply as possible, he spent his time perving around Kyjov, photographing women. Ideally he'd catch them topless or in bikinis at the local swimming pool; failing that, he'd settle for a glimpse of knee or - the limitations of the camera meant the framing was often askew - ankle.”

Yes, I suppose flaneurism is what flaneurism does. Likewise perving. But that was in another country, and besides the guy is dead.