London 2016

Last updated: 16 March 2018

Thoughts from a recent trip to London, looking at building, buildings, buildings (more buildings on Flickr). What has changed in the last decade or so, and what does it all tell us about me, Copenhagen, London and life in 2016?

Sunday: Euston Road, Bloomsbury and Midtown

We started out by walking up Hampstead Road from the disused 1907 Euston tube station to Mornington Crescent, the first of many of Leslie Green‘s stations spotted in central London. Despite dying at the ridiculously young age of 33, Green’s impact on tube station design may well equal that of Charles Holden. Then entering ‘forgotten Camden’ (see Tom Bolton’s St Pancras trail) we took in the splendid 1960s St Aloysius RC Church before approaching the three monster stations on Euston Road.

A sort of 19th century Crossrail, the construction process involved in bringing the railways into London extended over the course of 30 years, displacing 30,000 people in the process. St Pancras International was a new one on me, completely renovated from 2001-07 to welcome Eurostar, and now as much shopping destination as station. A symphony in red and white by George Gilbert Scott from 1868, with the kitschy statue to end all kitschy statues in the gallery, its general over-the-topness is not for me.

Much better is King’s Cross, the gateway to the north, where I have taken many a train and met many a parent. It has also changed completely, a 2014 restoration opening up the concourse and revealing Lewis Cubitt’s beautifully simple building from 1852. In contrasting fortunes 1970s style Euston, originally built in classical style by William Cubitt in 1837 but demolished in 1962, is unchanged, with the Euston Arch still found only on pub signs.

Also shined up is the Brunswick Centre from 1972 , an unusual mixed use development with council housing in a ziggurat design alongside a commercial section. Now renamed The Brunswick with repetitive shopping, and still hosting the Renoir Cinema. Of the Bloomsbury squares and gardens we tarried most at Thomas Cubitt’s 1820s Tavistock Square, with its statue of Virginia Woolf set against Denys Lasdun’s 1977 Institute of Education. After that, Charles Holden’s Senate House (1937) seemed almost underwhelming.

Walking down Tottenham Court Road heralded the self-styled Midtown, centred round St Giles Circus and the iconic Centre Point (1966), currently under wraps. Tottenham Court Road tube is transformed, with 2010s style wide open spaces inside (Paolozzi’s 1984 mosaics either in store or in Edinburgh) and Crossrail damage outside. Renzo Piano’s Central St Giles (2010) sets the tone – time will tell how the refurbishment of New Commonwealth House (1939) will fit into this context.

With the rain showing no sign of slackening we then walked through the gloaming down New and Old Bond Streets to Piccadilly, with its splendidly Art Deco Waterstones in the former Simpsons (1936), before taking in Leicester Square and a sumptuous south Indian thali near Warren Street.

Tavistock Square

Virginia Woolf with Denys Lasdun’s 1977 Institute of Education behind

Monday: from Hampstead modernism to the Alexandra Road estate

Hampstead modernism day, starting in Belsize Park at the Lawn Road Flats (1934) then on to Ernö Goldfinger’s house (1938) on Willow Road facing Hampstead Heath. By all accounts a formidable figure and immortalised by Ian Fleming, the house is quite superb, a ‘reintrepretation’ of a Georgian terrace in brick and wood on a concrete foundation.

Up to Parliament Hill for a first look at London’s new skyline and an inspection of dog walking mores in this prime spot. In contrast to Denmark dogs almost entirely off leash – although up to four per person – and having a good time, interacting in an entirely stress free way. A proposed Dog Control Order on a lamp post emphasised there were no plans to force dog owners to put dogs on a lead on any part of the Heath, although they are not allowed in children’s play areas. Icing on the cake: ‘no cycling’ signs throughout.

After lunch we followed the rest of the Hampstead modernism trail, juggling a laptop and the London A-Z. Highlights: New House at 13 Arkwright Road (1939) with its blue porthole, the six houses at Frognal Close designed by Ernst Freud (1937), where a resident asked us if we were architects, and the multicoloured 66 Frognal (1938). Round the corner on Frognal Way, one of London’s most exclusive streets, is Maxwell Fry’s Sun House and Gracie Fields’ rather less titillating house (which she probably never lived in), both from 1934. On a mild Monday afternoon we encountered any number of east European au pairs with their charges as we walked down to Finchley Road to gawk at the prices in estate agents’ windows.

Leaping forward more than 40 years we finished the day at Neave Browne’s Alexandra Road Estate (1978), made up of 520 apartments in three long crescent shaped blocks and bounded on one side by the West Coast Main Line. The first post-war council housing estate to be listed, in 1994, Alexandra Road has had its problems but retains a pleasing green ambience akin to that of a traditional terrace, if not exactly Bath’s Royal Crescent. Looking at features such as staircases and balconies more closely the evolution of brutalism from modernism comes into focus.

Goldfinger's house (1938)

Goldfinger’s house (1938) in Hampstead

Tuesday: the Thames, London Bridge and Bankside

After mopping up some final West End sights time to go south of the river, with a brief jaunt to Vauxhall for the PoMo classic that is Terry Farrell’s MI6 building (1994) and the Vauxhall Tower (180m) on St George’s Wharf, the latter striking the same bum notes as the Strata Tower at Elephant & Castle, neither well designed nor in the right place.

Bypassing the South Bank on this occasion we re-emerged at the for me practically unrecognisable London Bridge, taking in St Olaf House on Tooley Street (1930) before catching Renzo Piano’s Shard (2012, at nearly 310m, the max allowed, the tallest building in the EU; £25 to visit). Then onward to Norman Foster’s bijou City Hall (2002) and More London, our first encounter with the privatised ‘public realm’.

The south bank of the Thames is well laid out for walking, albeit with endless upscale shopping and drinking opportunities on this stretch. The outdated 1980s viewpoints with plaques detailing buildings on the north bank provide some sort of context for the changing skyline and an overview of architectural fashions – what will remain after a further 30 years?

Next, a short stop at Tate Modern, itself undergoing redevelopment with a monster extension due to open in June. The gallery has been open since 2000, but I remember it better as Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station hulk, in operation for a scant 30 years. GGS was also responsible for Battersea Power Station, still ‘under redevelopment’ after being decommissioned in 1983. The Oxo Tower just west of Tate Modern, originally built as a power station but rebuilt as an Art Deco cold store in 1929, has found a new role as Oxo Tower Wharf, with a full raft of shopping, eating, housing and cultural uses.

Then over Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge, a bridge story to rival some of Copenhagen’s, to St Paul’s and Paternoster Square, then onwards to Aldgate, where we were stayed for the next three nights.

London skyline

City skyline from More London

Wednesday: the City and the Barbican

A tortured heap of towers? Foster+Partners’ Gherkin (2003, 180m), aka 30 St Mary Axe and previously the Swiss Re Building, on the site of the bombed in 1992 Baltic Exchange, was in situ the last time I visited London, but it’s Richard Seifert’s 1980 NatWest Tower, now Tower 42, I think of first.

In 2016 though there’s a whole City cluster away from St Paul’s sightlines – notably Richard Rogers’ Cheesegrater (1 Leadenhall; 2013, 225m), across the road from his 1986 Lloyds’ Building, as well as Rafael Vinoly’s infamous Walkie Talkie (2014, 160m; Britain’s most hated buildingstory | Carbuncle Cup) at 20 Fenchurch Street with its Sky Garden (from which you don’t have to look at the thing). Less written about or in your face is the Heron Tower (2011), at 230m the tallest building in the City. Which will last the longest?

What effect is all this having? See climate walk article for starters. Then there’s Crossrail, eliminating numerous blocks, and the general privatisation of public space. Bankrolled by oil money, derided as phallic symbols…but a successful city brand, judging by the number of tourist around in the first week of January. If you enjoy looking up, getting some perspectives on things, it feels well done –  at least if you don’t know what was there before.

On another note, the City is one square mile of prime walking country. Even if you are just popping out for your sandwich/ramen of choice, during office hours the streets are never quiet. Visit the City offers a visitor trail map (“one trail: hundreds of stories”), with a main trail and ‘side-tracks’ for London stories, culture, law and literature, skyscrapers and sculpture, and markets. Each square of the map is approx 400m, or about a five minute walk at a steady 3 mph pace, just feel the walking love…in addition there are 10 city walk leaflets, including a tree trail, and for locals a cornucopia of delights including short lunchtime walks for a quick heritage hit. Apparently Harry Potter tours are a thing, as were James Bond tours around the time of Skyfall, plus anti-capitalism tours such as Occupy London tackling inter alia public realm issues. It never stops…

After all that corporate excess on to old friend the Barbican (story) with its nods to culture (we tracked a lad carrying a tuba across the plaza and back over lunch) and upscale brutalist housing, and the gentrifying 1950s Golden Lane Estate

Gropius shopfront

shopfront designed by Walter Gropius in 1936, at 115 Cannon Street

Thursday: the Olympic Park, Poplar and the East End

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park reopened in Easter 2014. In terms of legacy, without coming over all Twenty Twelve, it shows off a lot of current tropes.

It was rainy and pretty deserted when we visited as part of our packed east London programme, so no time to explore the The Olympic Walk from Sporting Tours of London, good wheeze that. While the revitalised park, “the same size as Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens combined”, seems focused on looking forward, a London 2012 trail guide does offer pointers to what happened where. Designed by the team behind New York’s High Line with waterways, woods and wildlife habitats created on the marshlands, there’s plenty to explore beyond the playgrounds and between the building sites, although this kind of designed experience hides rather than reveals.

The four interactive trails on offer include a guide to the 26 permanent artworks in the park. Biggest is the 114.5m high ArcelorMittal Orbit, Britain’s largest sculpture. You can climb it or abseil down it for £85 (£130 to upgrade to live vid), and a slide will be in action later in 2016. Also offers activities and events. Entry: £12, which feels a bit steep for a view of east London. Rather more pleasing are Ackroyd & Harvey’s 10 History Trees, placed at entry points to the park; in total 4300 trees have been planted in the area.

The Olympic Village, renamed the East Village, is the most developed quarter, a dead ringer for any of Copenhagen’s bland new areas. Scandi style, or just modern style? It certainly didn’t feel like London. Oliver Wainwright in July 2013: “making workable streets from tarmac wastes and weaving housing around velodromes is a difficult and expensive way of producing a good city”. A shopping centre and a new ‘international’ station doesn’t a place make – the arrival of West Ham may be what’s needed. Update: here’s Olly in August 2016.

From Stratford we took the DLR down to Poplar, formed as a district as long ago as 1855 and encompassing areas including Bow, Blackwall and the Isle of Dogs, but from 1965 part of Tower Hamlets. Two town halls remain, both listed: on Poplar High Street (1870) and the Art Deco style New Town Hall on Bow Road (1938), which we missed by turning the wrong way exiting the station.

Poplar plays a key role in the history of social housing in the UK. Between the wars the council built a total of 1500 homes in the area, including the Art Deco Holmsdale House (1938), complete with deck access. In 1951 the first phase of the Lansbury Estate (again; fab article; in 2017 the home of the V&A’s Lansbury Micro Museum) was chosen as the site of the Festival of Britain’s Exhibition of Live Architecture. Alongside is Chrisp Street Market, the first specially designed, covered and pedestrianised shopping centre in the UK with iconic bell tower by Frederick Gibberd, from 2012 a Portas Pilot.

A further round of development took place in the 1960s and 1970s resulting in two ‘streets in the sky’ developments. First, the much written about Brownfield Estate, with fairly unobjectionable low rise punctuated by the cluster of Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower (again; 1967, 84m), accompanied by Carradale House and Glenkerry House, aka the rather more well behaved baby Balfron. Goldfinger and his family stayed in Balfron’s Flat 130 for a whole two months in 1968.

The decision to kick off redevelopment of this concrete monster was made as long ago as 2008, since when some flats have provided live-work accommodation for a posse of artists. Other tenants have gradually been ‘decanted’ elsewhere, with the block to be refurbished for sale on the open market. A certain amount of hooha was caused in October 2014 when the Goldfinger flat was done up Sixties style by the National Trust and opened to heritage fans for 10 days as part of Bow Arts’ Balfron Season. Still awaiting refurbishment it all felt pretty desolate with wind of Himalayan proportions – a major treat for concrete fans.

Nearby is the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens (1972), “an urban solution to an impossible site” and perhaps rather too clever for its own good, due (again) to be pulled down soon – there were CPO notices hanging by the entrance. Expecting something on the scale of Sheffield’s Park Hill, the 214 flats actually felt full of potential, and rather more viable than the Balfron wind tunnel, but is seems it is not to be.

Fascinating round here, so close to 1990s Docklands and so clearly on the cusp of 2010s gentrification, with three hotspots on the London campaigns map and cycle superhighway CS3 passing through. More wandering took us to Bartlett Park with its eponymous Brookside style close, complete with two private land signs and a burnt out church.

As for the rest of the East End, despite having visited London countless times from birth and living there from 1987-93 I had no mental map at all, but can now vaguely place what were formerly merely names, known mainly from the Monopoly board, with any number of leads to follow up. Our final impression was the creeping approach of the City, with Commercial Street gradually crumbling away – our bus to the airport left from beside a hoarding surrounding the one remaining wall of the 1929 Fruit & Wool Exchange.

St Leonard's Road, Poplar

converted church and WW1 war memorial at St Leonard’s Road, Poplar

Our trip summed up: a reminder that humanity comes in lots of different shapes and sizes. People just getting on with their lives, without being channelled into an approved lifestyle. People meeting your eye and not looking away (and talking extremely loudly), creating interaction and even a sense of wellbeing. And trees make a city – everywhere should have a Tree Routes app.

Tidy uptight Copenhagen is in a different place on its gentrification journey, with hipsters largely confined to the city centre and few creatives spotted on Vestegnen thus far. Social housing has been rather better maintained than in the UK, and most new housing is going up on brownfield sites left by the collapse of the harbour and related industries, extending King Canute-like onto reclaimed land. But Amager looks like becoming the first front line, as Ørestad pushes its shiny face into the older neighbourhoods of Sundby and Tårnby (which at a pinch translates as Tower Hamlets), creating some awkward transitions.

And Denmark has a different sense of place, very much of the here and now, with style (aka design) winning over substance. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that this focus on surface is because there are fewer layers left to unpeel? And that some of the attraction for expat Guardianistas and journos is just how these differences play out? Or is it all just another successful city branding strategy?

Reading: Brutalism:Online | Concretopia: John Grindrod’s book, blog & timeline | London’s: footpathstallest buildings | London Deco FlatsModernism in Metro-Land | Modernist BritainMunicipal Dreams | Museum of London: City & Docklands | Spitalfields Life | Walk London | Adrian Yekkes: East End Modernism & More Hampstead Modernism & London Art Deco part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | yet more. Also Homes of tomorrow, audio on Goldfinger’s “utopian drive to build for a better world”, and following the Goldfinger trail

Some East End walks: Alternative LondonBrick Lane and Spitalfields cultural trail | Jack the Ripper tours (at least 10) | The Missing Voice (Case Study B) (Whitechapel) | Memoryscape (inc Royal Docks, Victoria Park) | Soundmap (Brick Lane) | Tower Hamlets walks & trails | A walk through Spitalfields’ stories. See also Richard White’s social walk in QEOP (blog) in May 2015. Update: Diamond Geezer does our Poplar walk as a random station.

Finally, Nairn…two pub walks (London Review Bookshop | Caught by the River), plus Gillian Darley on the bus.


Two TEDs on cities

I’m not a TED type (2016 update: TED and Pecha Kucha presentation formats have passed their best-before dates), but going by the tweets TEDxLondon: City 2.0 on 6 Dec was relatively free of the usual urrgh and so good I Storyfied it – key takeaways below, plus see also reports from two attendees (Urban Times | Rory Bergin):

  • shift into cities and mega-cities driven by baby boomers and millennials –> still don’t buy it IRT CPH
  • Pavegen – “If 100 steps from each of the 500,000 people/day on Oxford St. were on a @pavegen tile, you’d power it for 7 nights” –> generating energy by strolling, more please!
  • both the UK and the US have surpassed the peak of car use –> search n replace Denmark, bike, new ideas needed
  • Biophilic Cities – “cities that care about, seek to protect, restore and grow this nature, and that strive to foster deep connections and daily contact with the natural world” –> trees please
  • guerilla gardening!
  • “do we have time to engage with each other or are we too busy relaxing and sleeping” – IRT public/private space issues
  • social urbanism and what it means to belong: “the interweaving of human urban life is the genius of the metropolis”; empathy and how we create empathy amongst ourselves is the missing link we’ve identified today
  • “‘the invention of the car turned traditional cities inside-out’. What will happen when tech fragments shopping”
  • from ownership to access: we are on the brink of a sharing economy. How will shifts in retail change the shape of our cities?
  • hyperlocal cities where everyone’s a producer and a trader, or aspirational cities where citizens are truly global? –> a hybrid

TEDxCPH: Green natives (Conferize) on 9 Dec looked like a good follow-up. Some doubts caused by the messianic copy but after hunting down further info two of the five speakers sounded interesting. Sod’s Law of event streaming meant that I tuned in just in time for a lengthy break – Danish timekeeping at events is fluffy.

Caught a little of Søren Hermansen (energy magician; Samsø) and all of Søren Ejlersen (Aarstiderne, Haver til maver project with schools, wants the 50% of the Danish population who do nothing to urban farm; “amputated from nature”, “step out of the industrial paradigm”), tuned out during Gry Worre Hallberg (“operates in the intersection of performance art, research, activism and future studies continuously executed in 1:1 co-created experiments”, a bit Burning Man), leaving my two interesting talks.

The first was from Flemming Rafn Thomsen of Tredje Natur, who advocate “a new way of architecture, where cities and its human life are made part of curated and meaningful urban nature…city and country come together in a ‘third nature’ where the classic contradictions between city/nature, transportation/recreation, visible/invisible, /their/ours and problem/resource are dissolved and new urban communities created”. An alternative to BIG, or more of the same?

It was stated that “we’re rocking this thing!” IRT to green, guaranteed to set my teeth on edge. You would think we were already at ‘after optimisation’…

The obligatory TEDx video of the Transition Network epitomised a key issue – #sharingcph is a top down city branding strategy. From where I’m sitting there may be green entrepreneurs who have ‘gone native’ and hokey good works with shiny #some presences, but there’s a lack of genuine and visible bottom up community activity in the land of hygge. At TEDx London empathy was identified as the missing link, echoed in CPH, where people were talked of as if they were a separate species. Danes need to get out of their bubbles and talk to each other – and the rest of the world.

On which note Johanne Mose Entwistle, energy anthropologistblogs at Ingenøren, talked about “the lack of human focus in our sustainability approaches…we need to take into account the human perception of energy and energy consumption before we can change behaviour”. A big +1 for the importance of social norms and values, both of which are not in your control. It’s not all about tech and data, and different interventions are needed – see her slideset.

Most of the speakers had impeccable Danglish skills (a Danish version of The Muppets’ Swedish chef), while Johanne was at native level, rather less distracting. Hence no need for TED’s Open Translation Project on this occasion, but good to know it exists.

I’m not a Conferize fan, and after a quick looked segued over to TweetBinder, which at 23:00 is showing c300 tweets, 89 text only and a stonking 109 RTs. Baa! New: for an alternative views and some great shots of the UN building see Classic CPH’s Ted and I.

There was also a graffiti wall with some sketchnoting going on.

A final postscript on why TED is not for me: “now we have a harp”…

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.