Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson

The prospect of a planned, solitary walk can often become off-putting. At first the distance seems daunting, the landscape predictable and the destination uninspiring, so, sitting down, one thinks: what's the point? Better to stay indoors and do something productive, like, say, read a book. But then reading too seems like too much intellectual effort and one has to get out.

For a while I let Geoff Nicholson's The Lost Art of Walking wait because it looked like a solemn work of study; 264 pages on a mundane subject. Moreover, Lost and Art threaten a New Agey cris de coeur from beneath the rails and road of modernity – all very justified, yet depressingly futile. And then there's the subtitle: what does The History, Science, Philosophy, Literature, Theory and Practice of Pedestrianism suggest to you? But then one starts and the doubts fall away. Happy, necessary amnesia is the gift of both walking and reading, and this book is a pleasure to read.

It helps that Geoff Nicholson is almost the perfect walking companion: never boring, cheerfully opinionated but not self-obsessed, and full of engaging examples and personal anecdotes. I say 'almost' because Nicholson is not really a companion; he is the walk, its distance, its landscape and its destination, which is a little odd, so the comparison is not entirely appropriate. The full title is not entirely appropriate either because it suggests an academic procession across the subject rather than what it is: a ramble – an often moving ramble – through various landscapes. The cover design is a better guide to its contents. A review would normally summarise, share some favourite stories and dissent from one or two opinions, but this would miss the nature of the subject. One doesn't criticise cloying mud on a riverside path for not being asphalt, so I won't criticise the careless errors early on – Eliot's poem isn't "The Wasteland", "Oliver Sachs" is not the famous neurologist, it's Sacks; and "Stuart Home" is not the founder of the London Psychogeographic Society, it's Stewart – or gripe about how those with otherwise fine literary judgement inexplicably value JG Ballard's fiction (Ballard's house features in the book), or wish Nicholson had mentioned other novels in which walking is key to its style and content (Bernhard's Walking, Handke's Repetition and, in the London chapter, Josipovici's Moo Pak – the list, after all, may be endless). I want only to point the reader toward the path and recommend one just walks, listens and enjoys the words flying and dissolving in the fresh air.

What I will note is an interesting tension in the book, which may also relate to its apparent lack of interest in literary experiment. Nicholson is unfussy about where he walks and is interested in all ideas about it – he covers Guy Debord's inaugural definition of psychogeography, and then gives Iain Sinclair prolonged respectful attention, yet he is dismissive of the "jejeune philosophising" of the "walking in nature brigade", invariably American New Age mystics writing in Oprah-friendly clichés about "the wonder of creation", how nature "is full of surprises, always changing" and how "the soul is renewed and called to open and grow". "You want to be called upon to open and grow?" Nicholson asks, "Go take a walk through the Isle of Dogs on a Saturday afternoon when Millwall are playing, lady." He decides he lacks the "spiritual gene" because he does not limit his walking to floating through the local wildlife sanctuary. But his earlier impatience with Debord's attempt to unify and communalise what he agrees is unique and ambient experience confirms a love of surprise, a need for change, and a willingness to open himself to both. The New Agers he dynamites in a barrel are, like him, not a brigade but individuals striving to put into words what necessarily escapes them. And what the lady says holds for all landscapes.

How one defines renewal and growth then becomes the important question, a question both begged and resisted by writing. As Nietzsche and Marc Augé have argued, forgetting is as necessary to a healthy life as memory. Walking would then be forgetting and writing memory. Nicholson's fine company thereby has to betray the title's promise of unity in order to do justice to his subject, which he does. Any quibbling can take a hike.


  1. Anonymous6:40 pm

    What role does the subtitle play in the book? On the basis of your review, which I very much enjoyed, the subtitle feels oddly didactic, out of place. Cheers, Kevin

  2. Hi Kevin. You're right to think it *slightly* out of place. However, it does summarise the chapters in general terms - so History might stand for a discussion of the life and work of Sir Richard Burton (which can't help but be fascinating) and Debord & Sinclair would be Philosophy and Theory. Two of those three can be counted as Literature too of course.

  3. Have you ever read Nicholson's fiction? I read a couple of his novels about a decade ago, found them entertaining. I wouldn't normally have thought to mention them to you, but his novel Bleeding London does involve a lot of walking and features the London A-Z prominently, I think.

  4. No, I haven't read any of his fiction. It's the first book of his I'd seen though I recognised him from the author photo. He must have been on British TV a few times.

  5. I'd add to your list of good walking stories Robert Walser's "Der Spaziergang," the walk.

    My friend Zarko Radakovic introduced me to the story, which he then used as the core of a wonderful edition he did of the German literary magazine Nachtcafe on the theme of Wandern.

  6. Of course - I forgot about that one, though the Selected Stories book has been beside my chair for some time now. This wonderful array of Walser book covers - including The Walk - was posted after I had posted the review:

  7. As to walking in Handke's THE REPETITION, let me quote myself from Part II of my developing essay on Reading & Reading Handke, and on Reading Handke on the Dreamscreen: "Living in the St. Monica Mountains, a Peppertree shedding its corns and a huge Juniper its sap onto the tin roof of my totally bucolic loft I was walking ever more slowly on the dirt paths of the chaparral, the surf pounding out the name of the place to me in Chumash: Ma-Li-Bu… a south-facing beach on which the swells all the way from south sea storm were breaking, pounding the beach at long intervals. WUM. BOOM. I read where Handke wrote that he had become “the king of slowness” as he was writing THE REPETITION which I was reading at that time, a memorialization with an imagined second go around of his graduation walk through the Slovenian part of Carinthia into Slovenia all the way to Llubliana, its unobtrusively slow syntax entering, syncing with my becoming a king of slowness, too, a slowness amplified [!] by reading this text. Quite aside what Handke wrote there, his way of writing seemed to affect the pace at which my heart beat, how I walked." Aside the effect of syntax on a reader, Handke evidently needs this to stay healthy, as do I, to work things out, let the mind do the working while you walk, and notice so much more, details. I ran into a crazy little Scotsman in the Baja California peninsula who appeared to have walked the circumference - all the inlets, bays! He was about 2/3rds of the way! A Terrier of a walker that. I did a lot of walking in London at night a long time ago, also the East End, wharves, quite undeveloped at that point, just looked up the Isle of Dogges, can't tell whether I hit that at the time. Different paces at which one walks - SPAZIERGANG, perambulating, is kind of formal event for city folk, middle class? xxx michael r.



Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.