The Lost Art of Walking
hardcover, Riverhead Books
$24.95, 288 pages
In the interest of background, I recently stole a few blissful hours hiding out in the Mansfield library re-reading essays by W.G. Sebald. Specifically I was looking for a particular passage about a memorial grove in England with trees planted to form some kind of picture or symbol when seen from the air. I couldn’t remember what, but I thought the reference would make a nice counterpoint to British author Geoff Nicholson’s attempt, as described in The Lost Art of Walking, to plot a walking route of Manhattan in the shape of a giant martini glass.
Nicholson’s circuit takes him past some famous drinking establishments—the Stonewall Tavern, the Cedar Tavern, haunts of the hard-drinking abstract expressionists—but he ultimately calls it a bust. “The overriding problem,” he laments, “was that walking the streets gave no sense of following the shape of a martini glass. Even though I had it clearly enough in my head, it still didn’t compute. You’d have had to be a bird or a tracking satellite to see what I was doing down here.”
Even so, Nicholson takes a perverse pride in taking walks no one else would think or want to take. Elsewhere in The Lost Art of Walking, he devotes an entire day to six round-trip “transits” of the worst street for walking in London he could think of. “It’s not that [Oxford Street is] notoriously dangerous or ugly or mean,” he explains. “It’s just that it’s full of people that a lot of Londoners don’t want to mix with: tourists, out-of-towners, spivs, pickpockets, kids cutting school, mad shoppers. The real objection is that it’s too popular, too full of ordinary miscellaneous humanity. It’s unpopular with one set of people precisely because it’s so popular with another.”
Embroidering his personal observations with history, philosophy and literary references, Nicholson turns the most intentionally banal walks into peregrinations of wonder for the reader. His Oxford Street outing includes stops with the skinheads and street-corner preachers he encounters, a brief foray into Virginia Woolf—who wrote an essay on the street for Good Housekeeping magazine in 1931—and this: “To walk along Oxford Street is to walk the route of fifty thousand convicted criminals who were executed [nearby] and those who like to watch.”
Nicholson’s walks produce awkward brushes with celebrity: In the Hollywood Hills, he runs into a distraught Christina Ricci searching for her lost teacup pooch on dead-end streets crawling with coyotes. His feet lead him along literary ley lines—trying to locate all of Raymond Chandler’s residences as well as reconstruct walks mentioned in Chandler’s books—as well as “song-line” tours of streets mapped out in popular tunes. There are even pages devoted to imaginary and theoretical walks, like a British woman’s controversial round-the-world walk (which later turned out to be full of sneaky driving), and Nazi architect Albert Speer’s desperate attempt to “walk” from Berlin to Heidelberg by pacing off the equivalent distance in the exercise yard of Spandau Prison. Like W.G. Sebald’s, Nicholson’s prose is packed with information and close observation yet unfolds at a comfortable walking pace, stiffened by irony and bone-dry humor.
The martini-glass walk is Nicholson’s attempt at a “constrained walk,” a grudging tribute to Situationist forefather Guy Debord, who in 1955 coined the term “psychogeography” to describe the specific effects of the geographical environment on the behavior of individuals. Debord advocated dérive, or “drift”—“locomotion without a goal”—as a means of allowing the environment to draw one in. Less passively, he also called for “constrained walks” as a means of imposing on the city a pattern dictated by some restrictive or perverse logic, such as avoiding security cameras or flipping a coin at each corner to determine one’s route. Where Debord really loses hobby-walkers like Nicholson is in his insistence that drift be a group activity, that one’s observations need to be vetted by fellow travelers on the same Situationist wavelength.
As the author delights in pointing out, psychogeography is at once the most self-evident and redundant of walking philosophies: “All [of it] strikes me as perfectly, inarguably true, but also patently obvious to anyone who’s walked through a city, and not quite worth the effort of whipping into a theory.” Debord himself, as Nicholson notes, was also drunk when he did a lot of his writing and drifting, rather less of the latter as alcohol gradually destroyed his health. And it turns out that the philosophical heirs to psychogeography are an even more fatuous lot, devoting week-long conferences to tours of parking lots and, in the organizers’ words, “participatory mapping of personal utopias upon the topography of property development.” Nicholson conducts his martini-shaped walk, fueled by a couple of real-life martinis, as a means of escaping just such a conference.
The Lost Art of Walking covers a good deal of sentimental ground as well, particularly when Nicholson returns to his hometown of Sheffield for a series of walks around old housing developments, up “the hill that killed my mother” and past the public toilet that was the scene of several puzzling encounters growing up. It never gets mawkish or maudlin, always pressing ahead at the pace of walking, the pace of thought.