The lost art of walking

Updates: hear Geoff’s 5 year walking forecast and catch up with his Talking Walking interview from 2010 – the notes are good value…Walking in ruins (Spectator review | mine), on what makes a ruin and what makes them so attractive to him…on Ramblings, 20 Oct 2016

The lost art of walking: the history, science, philosophy and literature of pedestrianism (2008), by Geoff Nicholson

Reviews: Amazon | A Common Reader |  The Complete Review | Goodreads | LibraryThingNYT | This Space

Geoff blogs at The Hollywood Walker – pics pics pics, see also his Flickr, and website.

The lost art of falling down, when bad things happen to good walkers, some fellow travelers and fellow stumblers

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Lao-tzu

Where – and when – does the first step occur? We’re in motion before we know where we’re going, before we realise we’re on a journey at all.

Geoff falls over in LA, where he seldom encounters anyone walking for the hell of it. Walking has to do with exploration, a way of feeling at home and getting to know a place – a way of marking territory, of beating the bounds.

There was a time when everybody walked – they did it because they had no choice. The moment they had a choice, they chose not to do it.

      • walking as an act of political protest – the march -> the forced march?
      • walking for charity – a bit dubious, why not go ahead and donate?

The health benefits of walking are possibly limited – a 180 lb man walking at four  miles an hour burns up about 100 calories per mile. A pound of fat contains 3500 calories, so to lose a pound of flesh you need to walk 35 miles. Walking 24 miles a day is not much of a problem for a serious walker.

He  goes on to look at etymological considerations and the connection between walking and writing, finishing off with a nod to four fellow stumblers – Aldous Huxley, Thomas Jefferson, JJ Rousseau (hit by a Great Dane) and Oliver Sacks (A leg to stand on).

The textualisation of walking – modern literary theory sees a similarity between walking and writing – words inscribe a text in the same way a walk inscribes space – both are ways of making the world our own. Two examples:

    • Michel de Certeau in The practice of everyday life: “The act of walking…is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian, it is a special acting out of the place”
    • Markus Poetzsch: Walks alone and ‘I know not where’: Dorothy Wordsworth’s Deviant Pedestrianism (presented at The 13th Annual Conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism: Deviance and Defiance, 2005) – a willfull turning away from what is generically or topographically normative – the well trodden path – self conscious nonconformism, foregrounding and ascribing significance to something taken for granted and familiar

Los Angeles: walking wounded with Ray and Phil and others

Geoff becomes an LA walker as a cure for depression, drawing a parallel between the forward movement of prose and similar qualities found in the act of walking. Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, ‘nature’s painkillers’, and walking is just about the only form of exercise Geoff had ever done or enjoyed – not just for 20 minutes three times a week but every day and for hours.

LA is not known as a great walking city, but you can buy maps of movie star homes (not to mention the Hollywood Entertainment District Public Urination Map), and after a while and some perverse, contradictory and laborious walks Geoff starts to get the hang of LA – making the city his own, asserting his own version, marking territory, beating the bounds, drawing his own map.

He follows the footsteps of Raymond Chandler and his alter ego Philip Marlowe, making a list of places based on information from his letters, biographies and anecdotal evidence, and explores the Hollywood Walk of Fame, finishing off with an account of walking artist Mudman.

Eccentrics, obsessives, artists: walks with Richard Long, Captain Barclay et al

Many people find the idea of walking for pleasure, and still more for philosophical, aesthetic or deeply personal reasons (eg Steve Gough, the Naked Rambler), odd if not incomprehensible. Geoff explores ‘sustained eccentric walking’, linking Richard Long‘s A thousand miles, a thousand hours (see HOURS MILES) with Captain Barclay (1779-1854), doyen of pedestrian contests. See the Wikipedia entry for pedestrianism for more on competitive walking in the 19th century and beyond.

In the interests of research he undertakes a 15 miles in 15 hours walk, making a walking log of his progress. Is it contradictory and eccentric to document and memoralise walking – what could be more transitory and ephemeral than a walk? Richard Long (A line… | Gdn | again) makes “interventions’ in the landscape, but more often footsteps are all that is left.

What makes a walk (or walker) eccentric? See Sebastian Snow (8700 miles from Tierra del Fuego to the Panama Canal), John Francis aka Planetwalker, Arthur Blessitt (around the world with a 40 lb cross), Buddhist style prostrations…walking for peace, or any reason is not eccentric – but is it possible to walk for no reason?

More “artists”: see Geoff on walking with Hamish Fulton, plus Hamish on Talking walking, and Hamish’s site

Nicholson’s London, your London, anybody’s London

London is a place of walkers with a 2000 year long history of pedestrianism. No part of London is genuinely unknown, hence your own exploration has to be personalised, increasing your own store of particular knowledge, walking your own eccentric version of the city. London’s streets contain walkers of  every description, pursuing separate destinies, pacing out routes of personal need and desire, based on history, literature or private obsessions. Seven million walking journeys are made in London every day.

In the interests of research (2) Geoff goes on a walking tour (The Blitz: London at War), discovering  that two hours standing around listening to stories, interspersed with short walks, is much harder than walking continuously for two hours. The whole tour covers just under a mile.

Geoff visits Iain Sinclair, the walkers’ walker, a guru for hip literary walkers. The most accessible of Sinclair’s books is Lights out for the territory (“the thick dense allusive prose of his nonfiction isn’t easy reading, but a whole lot easier than the ditto of his fiction”), connecting his personal experiences of walking around the more feral parts of the city with various overlapping historical traditions (the literary, the bohemian, the criminal, the mystical, the alchemical), finding secret histories and alternate mythologies. He brings together the worlds of various Londoners and reveals historical characters you wish you knew more about. Iain has set piece walks, different walks for different questions or problems or ideas, a chain of 50 different walks, and with Geoff he walks from his front door to his front gate.

Geoff imagines a Nicholsonian map showing every step he has ever taken in London. He has a certain number of set London walks, which have got more eccentric and sophisticated, more full of the connoisseurship of walking and London, but has also made some successful shots in the dark, such as a walk to the Hornimann Museum – he promised himself he would go back, but so far never has. The map would show thin spidery traces for routes taken only once, thickening around places visited more frequently and positively “clotted and embossed” along the route from the tube station to the front door.

Geoff decides to do his ‘strange walking project’ on Oxford Street, one of the places where people who live there will go out of their way to avoid setting foot on. It’s too popular, too full of ordinary miscellaneous humanity, unpopular with one set of people because it’s so popular with another. He does six transits of Oxford Street there and back over the course of a day, to see how the street and his walking changed. The street is a mile and a half long, so each round trip takes three miles, giving a total of 18. He sets off at 6am on the sixth day of the six month of 2006, completing his last walk shortly before midnight.

People who have difficulty walking – if walking is bad for your condition, the more walking you do the less you can do in the future. Every mile used up means one less to use, walking yourself to a standstill.

As I tripped out one morning: music, movement, movies

Following Songlines – certain songs can act as self guided walking tours. See Bruce Chatwin – Australian Aboriginals, who of necessity were walkers since they never invented the wheel or domesticated a rideable animal, believed the world was sung into being by ancient spirits, so if you know enough songs you would know the whole world. A song can be both map and direction finder.

Songs about walking include the chanson d’aventure, devised by Provencal troubadors and traditionally beginning with the line “as I walked out one morning” and going on to describe a meeting or unusual sight encountered. A walk is an everyday activity which can reveal adventures and wonders wherever we are, or at least within walking distance.

Moving on, there’s the Walkin’ Blues, utilising the walking bassline (one note played for every beat of a 4/4 bar), which in turn leads to stride piano, where the left hand ‘strides’ up and down, alternating bass lines and chords.

In Country and Western walking is often synonymous with honesty and plain dealing – I walk the line. Walkin’ after midnight is more troubling, with streetwalker implications…

Sadly, at this point the book had to go back to the library. May borrow it again or even buy it.

The remaining chapters, which I have read:

  • A man walks into a bar: New York, the shape of the city, down among the psychogeographers and mixologists (laugh at loud chapter)
  • Some desert walkers, walking in and out of nature, with and without God
  • The walking photograph
  • Walking home and away from home (back to Sheffield, moving chapter)
  • Perfect and imperfect walks, last walks, the walks we didn’t take

Update, Dec 2016: other walking primers include Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: a history of walking (2001) and Melvin Coverley’s duo: Psychogeography (2006) and The art of wandering: the writer as walker (2012; review). I read the former around the same time as The lost art, and have plundered the latter to fill some gaps prior to our forthcoming jaunt to Paris. Being a second run-through and the latest of the four it has space for more on the return of the walker, covering Self, Sinclair, Papadimitriou – and Nicholson. 


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