Reviving a lost art
Nicholson's look at life on foot
The bio on the cover of this frequently provocative, usually informative, and always entertaining saunter through the history, culture, and strange obsessions that have evolved right along with our species’ most elemental form of locomotion, announces that Geoff Nicholson divides his time between London and Los Angeles. To an apprehensive Northern California interviewer, the description suggests not a bi-continental but a bipolar life. London after all seems to be a sensible city of walkers and public-transit-takers; Los Angeles is, well, a city overwhelmed by cars and people driven to road rage.
Not to worry, Nicholson assures during a call to his home in what he calls “the lower slopes of the Hollywood Hills.” First of all, since his American wife took a job as an editor in L.A. for Taschen Books, he is now basically an undivided self in Los Angeles. “When we met she was in New York,” the England-born Nicholson, who is the author of some 20 previous works of fiction and non-fiction, says. “I could just about manage the commute between London and New York. But I couldn’t manage the commute between L.A. and London. I’m pretty much here full time now.”
Second, according to Nicholson, there actually are people who walk in Los Angeles. Maybe even a lot of people. These include the actress Christina Ricci, with whom Nicholson took an unintended, socially-awkward, parallel stroll, humorously recounted in the early pages of The Lost Art of Walking. “Walkers in Los Angeles are the politest people in the world,” Nicholson claims, sounding surprised himself. “They step aside for you. In London, people will push you aside if they’re going somewhere. And in New York the pleasure for walkers comes from your displeasure, from your inconvenience.” Or, as he puckishly writes in the book: “New York is a city where the people not only enjoy getting in your way as you’re walking down the street, they’ll actually go out of their way to obstruct your progress. They’ll inconvenience themselves for the greater pleasure of inconveniencing you.”
Hmm. Nicholson is nothing if not opinionated. But his knowledge of the practice and lore of walking is both deep and wide, and it ambles, struts and occasionally tramps or trudges through nearly every sentence of the book. “At one point I did imagine this as a kind of encyclopedic book containing every possible source and every possible mention of walking in the world,” Nicholson says. “But in the end that would have been a book of almost infinite length.”
The pared down version of The Lost Art of Walking is still suggestively capacious. Nicholson examines, briefly, the evolution and physiology of bipedalism. He writes with flare about representations of walking in sculpture, performance art, popular music, photography, movies and books. He casts an amusingly skeptical eye on both the politics and the spirituality of walking. He tells stories from the history of competitive walking. He strolls easily from, say, a tale of being lost in the desert to an account of the first moonwalk to an argument that Buster Keaton is a far better walker on screen than Charlie Chaplin. Holding it all together are Nicholson’s often-debatable opinions and the fact that he is a delightful storyteller.
Nicholson says that his book on walking was inspired by his move to Los Angeles. “I actually quite like driving and I quite like cars. I don’t necessarily see driving and walking in some terrible opposition. But I do like to be a bit of a contrarian, and the idea of moving to L.A. and lighting out for the territory on foot seemed to be a way of stating my independence. It seemed more interesting, in a perverse kind of way, to explore the city that way. For me walking has always been that; whenever I get to a place, I set out on foot and try and find highways and byways and alleyways.”
Thus Nicholson writes frequently here of walks and walkers in Los Angeles, Manhattan and London, places where he has spent a lot of time on foot. “I am mildly obsessed about walking and of course the book is about people who are thoroughly, insanely obsessed with walking,” he says. So, emulating or perhaps competing with Iain Sinclair, whose obsessive walking projects in London are well documented, Nicholson sets himself the task of walking back and forth on Oxford Street for a day. “I asked people ‘what’s the place that you most hate to walk in London?’ And Oxford Street came up. I used to have a job near there and my bank was there, so I had actually spent an awful lot of time walking on Oxford Street, but I shared everybody else’s distaste for it. Despite the fact that everybody hated it, everybody was there. There were millions of people in Oxford Street, all of them hating it, partly because everybody else was there. I believed then that I’d found a project that nobody had ever done.”
In Manhattan, partly inspired by novelist Paul Auster’s New York trilogy, Nicholson’s project became The Martini Glass Walk. “I’m a person who does spend a certain amount of time looking at maps,” he says. “I like looking at the shapes and imagining how to walk from there to there. I was looking for the project that had my name on it. I had learned to drink martinis in Manhattan and looking at the Manhattan map, this shape of a martini glass appeared. You’ve got to use a bit of imagination but it is there. Who is the person who said a map is not the territory? If you were a god or a bird you could look down and see me walking out that shape of the martini glass, but on the ground it doesn’t have that feel at all. That was when the scales fell from my eyes about project walks. They somehow spoil the pleasure of walking.”
Nicholson believes that the activity of walking “ties in with the way my brain works. The rhythm of walking and the rhythm of thinking seem to just go perfectly together. People have told me they feel very vulnerable when they’re on foot. But I feel more comfortable, more at home when I’m walking in a strange place than when I’m driving in a strange place. I’m more a city walker than a bucolic walker, I’m very fond of industrial ruin, as you’ll gather from this book. I don’t live in an area of industrial ruin so I’ll drive there and park and wander around. Wander not walk; there’s a kind of aimlessness about it. And I always find I’m more worried about the car – will it be there when I head back, will it start, will the tires be punctured – than about anything I might meet while on foot. I feel I can deal with anything I meet up with on foot. But a couple of slashed tires? Then I have a problem.”
Continuing, Nicholson says, “The last nonfiction book I wrote was called Sex Collectors. It was about people who collect erotica, for lack of a better word. Quite a few of my novels are about people with obsessions, often obsessions with things – cars, guitars, material things. To be alive in the West in the 21st century is to be concerned with materialism. We’re always thinking about why we have what we have and why we have to have more. We all have an intense relationship with the stuff we buy. But walking is one of those activities that really doesn’t have an end product. You can have a swimmer’s body or a body-builder’s body but nobody wants a walker’s body or even knows what that is. Walkers come in all shapes and sizes. You can do things around walking, including writing a book about it, keeping a walking log or taking pictures. But in the end you have to walk – at least I have to walk – just for the sake of walking.”
May The Lost Art of Walking inspire you to rise from the armchair and light out for the territories of your own mild obsessions. On foot.