Jonathan Yardley on 'The Lost Art of Walking'

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 9, 2008


The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism

By Geoff Nicholson

Riverhead. 276 pp. $24.95

The gifted, resourceful Geoff Nicholson here conducts the reader on a leisurely, entirely delightful ramble through the history and lore of walking, an exercise that calls to my mind nothing so much as one of the few notable walking songs he fails to mention, the great New Orleans funeral march "Oh, Didn't He Ramble," as immortalized by Louis Armstrong and played by heaven knows how many other musicians, famous and obscure, from the Big Easy: "Didn't he ramble, he rambled,/Rambled all around, in and out of town./Didn't he ramble, he rambled,/He rambled 'til the butcher cut him down" -- fit words to celebrate the life of a guy who forever rambled his way into trouble.

Walking can do that to you: take you to places you don't expect to go, people you don't expect to meet, entanglements you hadn't planned on. To be sure, walking is usually simply to get you from Point A to Point B, but it can be serendipitous as well. Just walking the dachshunds around the block can lead to chance encounters both pleasant (meeting up with a couple of other dachshunds from a few blocks away) and unpleasant (being attacked, fortunately without serious consequences, by two large, unleashed dogs). For many years I walked for exercise, as much as a dozen miles a day, and I still go everywhere on foot unless transporting large objects. The District of Columbia can be a terrific place to walk, with varied topography as well as many lovely natural and man-made vistas, but its motorists too often are utterly disdainful of pedestrians; in a crosswalk you take your life in your hands.

Nicholson does most of his walking in London and Los Angeles, the places where he lives. No one will be surprised that he loves to walk in London, "since London is, in every sense I can think of, well-trodden territory: a place of walkers, with a two-thousand-year-long history of pedestrianism." The mayor's office, he writes, "tells us that seven million walking journeys are made in London every day, and although the majority of these will no doubt be short and mundane (and I do wonder what percentage involve going to or from the pub), that still leaves plenty of more programmatic walking expeditions," one of which ("The Blitz: London at War") Nicholson takes for the sake of research, with interesting results.

Los Angeles would seem to be more problematic than programmatic, but Nicholson is a stout defender of its walking environment and possibilities. He walks both for exercise and as an antidote to depression -- an effective one, he says -- and by contrast to the prevailing wisdom that the city is pathologically hostile to pedestrians, he has managed to do a lot of walking there without being hauled in on charges of vagrancy or worse. "I walked for a while in the footsteps of those two great Angelenos Raymond Chandler and his fictional alter ego Philip Marlowe," he writes, but had little luck "at locating genuine Chandler territory," doubtless because it has been wiped off the map by the ever-evolving city, but he still came away from it convinced that "the city does indeed have a rich tradition of walking: political, literary, artistic, recreational."

He has even walked on Hollywood Boulevard, which "is all about drugs and sex, runaways, people fresh off the bus, boys up to no good, the improbably and ill-advisedly transvestite, the kind of people who need piercing and tattooing parlors and smoke shops, who find themselves sitting on the sidewalk, with a dog on a string, eating pizza and bumming cigarettes, the mad, the lost, the winsomely deranged," and which reaches a transcendently bizarre terminus:

"If there's a journey's end for the Hollywood Boulevard walk, it's Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where people congregate and pay a couple of dollars to have their pictures taken with a look-alike: a Marilyn, an Elvis, a Charlie Chaplin, a man in a Spider-Man suit, a woman dressed as Wonder Woman. Since changing facilities are limited on Hollywood Boulevard, most of the characters arrive already in costume, and in order to avoid commuting, many of them live in the area within walking distance of work. One of the best sights I know in Hollywood is to see Wonder Woman emerging from her apartment block on Las Palmas and striding up to Hollywood Boulevard, getting into character as she goes."

Another of Nicholson's favorite walking places is New York City, which happens to be one of mine as well. It's a city "where you end up doing a great deal of walking even when you don't consciously decide to go walking at all," but it's also a terrific place for planned, or semi-planned, walks. Nicholson mentions that in 1962 John F. Kennedy set off a brief fad for long-distance walks after discovering an executive order by Theodore Roosevelt "stating that any self-respecting U.S. Marine ought to be able to walk fifty miles in twenty hours with full pack." In the winter of 1962-63 I was temporarily out of work thanks to a printers' strike against the city's newspapers, so two friends and I decided to walk Manhattan from tip to toe. Early on a Sunday morning we took the subway to Spuyten Duyvil, at the northernmost end of the island, and proceeded to walk, mostly on Broadway, all the way to Battery Park, where, just to round things off, we rode the ferry to Staten Island -- by then it was dark and late -- and had ourselves a celebratory drink. It was one of the best walks of my life.

Again for purposes of research, Nicholson went to New York -- Brooklyn, actually -- for "something called the Conflux psychogeography festival." Psychogeography, you will not be surprised to learn, is a French invention, "the brainchild of Guy Debord (1931-94) . . . who defined it, in 1955, in a paper called 'Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography' as 'the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.' " Psychogeography as envisioned by Debord involves "abandoning your usual walking habits and letting the environment draw you in, letting your feet take you where they will and where the city dictates," which is reasonable enough so far as it goes, but after a couple of days of psychogeobabble, Nicholson decided that enough was enough:

"It occurred to me, not exactly for the first time, that psychogeography didn't have much to do with the actual experience of walking. It was a nice idea, a clever idea, an art project, a conceit, but it had very little to do with any real walking, with any real experience of walking. And it confirmed for me what I'd really known all along, that walking isn't much good as a theoretical experience. You can dress it up any way you like, but walking remains resolutely simple, basic, analog. That's why I love it and love doing it. And in that respect -- stay with me on this -- it's not entirely unlike a martini. Sure you can add things to martinis, like chocolate or an olive stuffed with blue cheese or, God forbid, cotton candy, and similarly you can add things to your walks -- constraints, shapes, notions of the mapping of utopian spaces -- but you don't need to. And really, why would you? Why spoil a good drink? Why spoil a good walk?"

That's a blow well struck for common sense, but Nicholson is resolutely commonsensical. He delights in the simple truth that "going for a walk" is an invitation to a surprise: "We may not want our walks to be 'adventures' in the most extreme sense -- we can do without pirates, gunplay, caverns measureless to man -- but we do hope to see something new on our walks, even in the most familiar surroundings." Once on a walk in Paris -- talk about great walking cities -- my wife and I encountered, outside Les Galeries Lafayette, a man who had a cat and a dog snuggling each other in a baby carriage, with a hand-lettered sign that read: "Si ces deux animaux peuvent vivre en paix, nous aussi pouvrons le faire," or, "If these two animals can live in peace, so can we." Another time, at Parque Kennedy in Lima, we stopped mid-step in amazement at the sight of a woman walking calmly across the street, stark naked.

Then of course there's walking music, which really is better than car music, which itself is very good. "On the Road Again" is great, sure, but is it better than "I Walk the Line" or "I'm Walkin'" or "Walkin' After Midnight" or "These Boots Are Made for Walkin' " or "Walkin' My Baby Back Home"? Not on your life. As for music of a slightly more elevated character:

"Guillaume Apollinaire tells us that [Erik] Satie did a lot of composing on his nocturnal homeward walks. He would create music in his head, then stop from time to time under a convenient streetlamp and write it down in a notebook. His productivity was greatly reduced during World War One when so many Parisian streetlamps were turned off. It's easy enough to believe that you hear the regular, repeated rhythm of the human footfall in much of Satie's work. He also said, 'Before I compose a piece, I walk around it several times, accompanied by myself.' "

Which leaves me wanting to do two things: (1) listen to "Gymnopédies" and (2) take a walk. ·

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

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