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In Correspondence with Will Self

[WRITER, PEDESTRIAN]
“SHOULD WE PERHAPS NOT SIMPLY ACCEPT THAT ALL WE ARE DOING IS GOING FOR A WALK?”
Similarities between sex and walking:
Basic, simple, and repetitive
Capable of great sophistication and elaboration
Sources of pleasure that can feel like hard work
by Geoff Nicholson
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

In Correspondence with Will Self

[WRITER, PEDESTRIAN]
“SHOULD WE PERHAPS NOT SIMPLY ACCEPT THAT ALL WE ARE DOING IS GOING FOR A WALK?”
Similarities between sex and walking:
Basic, simple, and repetitive
Capable of great sophistication and elaboration
Sources of pleasure that can feel like hard work
by Geoff Nicholson
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

In Correspondence with Will Self

Geoff Nicholson
19 Snaps

I had always thought of myself as a “good walker.” I walked farther, more tirelessly, more willingly than most people I knew. If I went out walking with friends, they’d be ready to go back long before I was. I didn’t have Will Self among my friends, but I knew he was part of the Iain Sinclair psychogeography brigade, breezily undertaking thirty-mile walks, leaving unwary companions limping and bloody. So perhaps I wasn’t as good a walker as I thought.

While living in London and New York, two of the great walking cities, I’d walked every day as a way of getting around, and as a means of urban exploration. Later, when I settled in L.A., a city where nobody walks, I continued to walk as best I could, but it was an effort, a deliberate decision to go against the prevailing culture. It seemed unnatural, an act of protest or eccentricity, but I wasn’t protesting anything and didn’t want to be willfully eccentric. I just wanted to walk. And so I found myself wondering why I wanted that, what walking meant to me, what it meant in history and in the contemporary world. These questions ultimately led me to write a book titled The Lost Art of Walking.

Of course I knew I didn’t have this territory all to myself. There was, for instance, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, and Joseph Amato’s On Foot, but these seemed to be academic in a way I knew my own writing wouldn’t be. However, when I learned that Will Self was walking and writing, and publishing the results in the Independent and in a book called Psychogeography, I felt worried that we might be treading on each other’s toes.

I didn’t know Will Self before we had this epistolatory exchange, but book reviewers had compared our novels. Received wisdom had me as a warm, humane satirist whereas he was the glacial, snarling, druggy mad dog of English letters. The two of us communicated, knowing that we were talking in public. We both consider ourselves, in part, entertainers, and we tried to amuse each other and our putative audience.

I led the way in these exchanges, and god knows Will Self has more deadlines to meet than I do, but he matched me for diligence and enthusiasm. I would send off emails which I hoped would provoke a response, and I’d get one back within half a day. There was nothing glacial or mad or druggy about my correspondent, but Will has a reputation for baroque vocabulary, and he lived up to that. I learned a new word from this exchange—verglas. Look it up: I had to.

—Geoff Nicholson

I. SEDATED WALKING, PROGRAMMATIC WALKING

Hi Will,

In the same week that my publisher agreed to commission The Lost Art of Walking, I set off for a long walk around the Hollywood Hills, not too far from where I currently live. I’d been walking for about half an hour when, for no reason I could see, I stumbled, fell over, and broke my arm in three places.

Once I’d been operated on, had metal pins put in my forearm, and while I was still in a cast and sling, I thought I’d better start walking again. And I did— being suitably medicated with (prescription) opiates. Naturally I thought of [Thomas] De Quincey, and about you, and I also thought of an old girlfriend of mine who liked to walk around London having taken LSD. She said she observed things—architectural details, street furniture, things in people’s windows—that she’d never notice without the benefit of psychedelics.

My own, limited experience of walking in the city while tripping (in the LSD sense) was that it was horrible. I imagined I could read the minds of all the people walking toward me in the street, and they all had profoundly ugly minds. When I talked to Iain Sinclair about this, he said he thought I was very wise to avoid mind-expanding substances while walking, since there was something monstrous lurking just below the surface of the city, and getting in touch with it was to be avoided. I take his point re: psychedelics, and yet wandering around London and even more so New York, a couple of drinks to the good, seems to me one of life’s great pleasures. Guy Debord [walker, situationist, definer of psychogeography], as far as I can see, was pissed almost continuously.

So, since I think you know infinitely more about addiction than I do, I was wondering if you had any thoughts on being addicted to walking as opposed to being addicted to anything else, possibly even to writing. I know that I feel bad if I haven’t walked for a while, and also if I don’t write for a while.

What say you?

Geoff

*

Well, Geoff,

My drinking and drugging days certainly saw plenty of walking: on acid, on dope (which I smoked, more or less continually, for over twenty years), on coke (a notable coked-up midnight troll included passing the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, with its facade featuring bas-reliefs of the Linnaean chain of being, and becoming convinced that it was a small-scale model of all organic evolution), and even on opiates. Although, mostly, one walked through the city to score (absurd now, but in the late 1970s and early ’80s, in London, it was actually difficult to get your hands on junk) and then sat still.

Initially, I’ve been scathing about the idea of walking-as-addiction: walking is expansive—addiction contracts; walking is about oneself-in-the-world, addiction about retreat from the world; walking—or at any rate, the kind you and I do—is about being open to vicissitude, losing control—addiction is a highly controlling undertaking: an attempt to modulate the psyche (and the body) and hence all experience—and so on. However, I have to concede that the 4/4 rhythm, the sense I have on long walks—both urban and rural—of being rather disembodied: a head floating above the ground; the meditational aspect, whereby I allow my mind to “slip its gears”—all of these do seem akin to the kind of altered experience I sought in drugs. The bizarre thing is that while walking can produce these effects more reliably, I don’t feel driven to it too compulsively… yet.

Best,
Will

Hi Will,

I agree with you about the disembodied, meditative aspect of walking. I often find, especially if I’m walking a long way, that I start out very thoughtful and attentive, observing things, having lofty thoughts, making sentences in my head, but then after a few hours I’ve stopped all that. I’m just putting one foot in front of the other, just walking. I think this a good thing.

Sebastian Snow, who’s one of my favorite walking writers—mildly demented old Etonian who walked the length of South America, 8,700 miles from Tierra del Fuego to the Panama Canal—says in his book The Rucksack Man, “By some transcendental process, I seemed to take on the characteristics of a Shire, my head lowered, resolute, I just plunked one foot in front of t’other, mentally munching nothingness.” I like that.

And this is one of the problems I’ve always had with walking in overprogrammatic ways—you know, walking the entire length of Broadway, or back and forth over every bridge that crosses the Thames, or every street in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Sure, you can do it, but at some point you find yourself wondering whether it actually needs to be done.

I remember an interview of yours where somebody asks you what’s the difference between a psychogeographic act and a stunt. And you reply, “I’m too old for stunts.” Surely not, Mr. Self

Geoff

 

Geoff,

I very like the “munching on mental nothingness” line, and it does apply to me perfectly well, too. I liken it—again—to meditation: I set off thinking programmatically—or perhaps only troubled by what they call, in German, “the ear worm,” perhaps some ghastly mid- ’70s pop ditty the lyric of which I can’t chak, or maybe a more rarefied composition of lines, tropes, and imagery, drawn with great intent from what I see and hear and smell and feel. However, in the fullness of time the steady beat of the feet usually manages to subdue all this. I pursue very high mileages for this reason: twenty-five, thirty—even thirty-five miles in a day. Up at these high mileages (like, I would imagine, high altitudes, although such a notion is inimical to me: I adore mountaineering literature, but only read it when I’m lying in a hammock in the delta), I find that I become—like your Old Etonian—absorbed into the landmass, feeling its contours as you might those of a body one is seeking carnal—or, at any rate, sensuous—knowledge of. As to the gestural—yes, I am too old for walking lobsters on a leash through the Tuileries, or negotiating Florence by dice, or finding my way around Berlin using a map of Hartford, Connecticut. I distrust the idea that the society of the spectacle can be torn down in this fashion—although I do believe long-distance walking can undermine it. I cleave to airport walks for this reason: walking to the airport, taking a flight, then walking at the other end. Not only does this negate the way prescribed folkways banalize the sublimity of international jet travel, but because the physical perception of distance is so much more vivid than the mental, it actually feels as if Manhattan has been rammed into the Thames Estuary: in place of the special relationship, a hideous miscegenation of cities.

I also agree with you as to the sense of purposelessness engendered by these gestural walks—or stunts. But, I ask you, might the need to feel our peregrinations have a purpose be part of our problem? In other words: should we perhaps not simply accept that all we are doing is going for a walk?

Best,

Will

II. TRESPASSING, FUNCTIONAL WALKING

Dear Will,

I was some way into writing my book before I became aware of your Psychogeography columns in the Independent, and of course I didn’t dare read any of them. Even so, somebody sent me a copy of your piece “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” which bears (let’s call ’em) parallels to a piece I published in a very obscure literary magazine that I’m absolutely sure that neither you, nor anybody else, ever read. My piece was called, wouldn’t you know it, “A Long Walk in Hollywood.” God knows the writing life is hard enough without worrying about this stuff.

What I suspect this may be about is that English men of a certain literary bent—you, me, Aldous Huxley, Rayner Banham, to name very few—we all respond to many of the same things about Los Angeles—its essential strangeness, how it doesn’t match with any of our English expectations of what a city is and does.

And yet we try out our English sensibilities and habits on the city, including walking, and we find that they fit rather well: suburbs, well-tended gardens, lots of small, quirky shops, a surprising number of decent bookstores. Sure, you have to do some driving—but, you know, try living in a small English town without a car these days.

And if L.A. isn’t the most walkable of cities, it’s all part of the perverse English nature to do what isn’t expected, walk where we’re not “supposed” to walk. Try walking past the Scientology Celebrity Centre if you really want to experience the evil eye from a security guard. Of course I walk past it all the time since it seems to annoy them so much.

I come originally from Sheffield, adjacent to the English Peak District, and walkers there still like to think of themselves as part of a great radical tradition that found its apotheosis in the Kinder Scout mass trespass, hundreds of walkers asserting their right to roam over land that was used just once a year by the wicked landowner for his grouse shoot.

I know you used to walk with your father when you were a kid, and so did I. My dad was one of those guys who thought that KEEP OUT and NO TRESPASSING signs applied to everybody except him. One of the more intense and excruciating moments of my childhood was walking with my dad and wandering past keep out signs onto somebody’s private land and being chased off by a man on a horse who said, “How’d you like it if I came and rode my horse in your garden?” Since we lived in public housing at the time—a row house with a minute front garden—I found this rather delicious.

Have you done any interesting trespassing?

Best,

Geoff

 

Geoff,

Well, I take your point about Englishmen d’un certain age, although I am an Anglo-American myself— American enough, and raised enough in the States not to feel any visceral strangeness about the urban topos there, whether it’s L.A. or Chicago (where I recently walked from the Loop to the nearest Wal-Mart, an economic traverse, if you like—it was nine miles).

I so identify with you and your experiences of your father. Surely this is the primary ambulatory relationship? My dad was relatively timorous, although a lion when it came to trespassing, standing on the edge of cliffs—the higher and more vertiginous the better—and licensing laws.

But recently I’ve been walking with a still more insouciant trespasser, the artist Antony Gormley. When Antony sees a KEEP OUT sign, he charges toward it. We went for a walk across Foulness Island in the Thames Estuary, which has been an army artillery range since 1916 and can only be reached by boat, then traversed by a couple of rights-of-way. Our objective was “the broomway,” an ancient medieval causeway that is only accessible at low tide, since it heads out from the island onto the esturine mud, then runs for six miles upstream until coming ashore at Southend.

Needless to say the start of it was festooned with STOP! GO BACK! notices, warning of instant dicorporation from unexploded ordnance if you dared to go farther. Antony was not to be warned off: “Oh, they’re just saying that,” he bellowed, and ramped on across the mud. It was one of the eeriest and strangest walks I’ve ever taken—out there in brown verglas, the great stacks of the power station at Canvey Island rising up out of the haze as, like ambulatory ships, we slopped our way upriver.

Whenever I tell people I’m going to walk somewhere utilitarian—like an airport, or even a long- distance walk that seems quite prosaic to me, they always ask: “Is it for charity?” Do you get the same response? And how do you respond to such inanity?

Cheers,

W

 

Fellow ambulator, Will,

“Are you doing it for charity?”—I think it brings us back to what you were saying an email ago about walking just for the simple hell of it rather than to chart zones on atmospheric unity. (Have I got the right Debordian usage there?)

Of course for an author there’s another wrinkle to this. So many terrible situations become much more tolerable if you know you can write about them afterward, and a walk that’s too easy and pleasant, and done for no “good” reason, just may not provide enough gutsy raw material. So what was the point of doing it?

I guess Werner Herzog’s walk from Munich to Paris—depths of winter, 1974 (written about in Of Walking in Ice), was the supremely “useful” walk. He did it to save the life of Lotte Eisner, “walking in full faith believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.” And she did. She didn’t die until 1983. She edited Paris, Texas, a movie with two of cinema’s greatest walking scenes.

I have a personal functionalist Herzogian humiliation. I wanted to get Herzog to say something flattering about my book that could be emblazoned across the jacket (“Walking is virtue—Nicholson is a god among walkers” type of thing), and I knew that sending a copy to his production office wasn’t going to work, so I found his home address, and I took it over there in person, on foot, and dropped it in his mailbox with a humble and (I thought) winning letter, in full faith that having walked all the way from my house to his (thirteen miles round trip, including a jaunt up and down Laurel Canyon Boulevard—a nightmare for a walker, steep gradient, blind curves, no sidewalk, and fast- moving drivers who never in their wildest dreams expect to see some idiot pedestrian in the road)—I’d get what I wanted. My full faith was misplaced. No word as yet from Mr. H.

I once asked Iain S. what he thought was the worst place to walk in London—he reckoned the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

Any improvement on that?

Geoff

 

Ha! Small world, Geoff,

On my 120-mile circumambulation of Los Angeles, the only really dicey moment—I simply don’t count being dicked by gun crews in South Central, this is standard— came on Laurel Canyon Drive. Foolishly, I had ventured up through the park to Mulholland Drive on the (nonpedophile) assurance that there would be a sidewalk on Laurel Canyon. When I got there, there was nothing but the Divine Right of Drivers in full spate, and darkness was falling fast. I set off down the canyon, but about halfway to Sunset Boulevard seriously feared for my life (I was having to cross from side to side to avoid being invisible to drivers on the bends), and ended up cowering in a carport.

I was saved by a Virgil, in the form of a guy in silk shorts and a trim goatee who emerged from nowhere, walking insouciantly down the gutter of the roadway. He told me he walked up and down all the time to his house, and that sometimes in the dead of night he went down on his extra-length skateboard. As Burroughs observed: “You wade through shit—and then there’s a Johnson.”

I agree: some purpose is required for a long walk, and what better purpose than having to do something functional. On my L.A. walk I went to meet with Michael Lynton at Sony Pictures in Culver City. It took me a day to walk there from Hollywood, and then a day to get back. So what if the meeting was only half an hour long.

Your Herzogian experience sounds… well, rather romantic, frankly. Difficult to imagine Aguirre turning from the wrath of God to blurb a book.

Vale!

W.

III. SEX-WALKING

Will,

I’ve been thinking about what you said somewhere back there about feeling the landscape’s contours as you might those of a body. There was a time when I was trying to “sex up” my book by writing about the connections between walking and sex.

In the days when I had a real job and worked in an office, I lived for the lunch hour, when I could get out and walk the streets and look at all the women who were also walking the streets in their lunch hour. Once in a while some looked back, but I don’t flatter myself that anyone ever thought I had a sexy walk. In his book The Flaneur, Edmund White says that in Paris, heterosexuals cruise each other just as much as homosexuals: I’ve yet to be convinced. (Incidentally, my spell-check suggests Flamer as a correction for Flaneur.)

Gay cruising sounds really difficult and time-consuming to me: walking up and down at a park or dockside or somewhere, eyeing each other, making some kind of complex negotiation based on body language or eye contact or whatever. The walking is definitely a part of the seduction process, but I suppose it’s not part of actually having sex. So I began making a list of the ways that walking was like sex and ways it wasn‘t.

Essential similarities: They’re both basic, simple, repetitive activities that just about everybody does, and yet they’re both capable of great sophistication and elaboration. They can both be sources of fantastic pleasure, but there are times when they can both feel like hard work. They’re both things that some people like to do alone, that some like to do with just one other person, and that others like to do in groups of various sizes. And some people like to wear special clothing while they’re doing it. And then, essential differences: One: although I’m sure you can catch various diseases while you’re walking, they’re different from the sort you can catch while having sex. Two: whereas walking is the kind of activity that can be happily and legally undertaken in public with a dog… At that point I abandoned my ruminations; this seemed too flippant even by my standards. I score pretty high on flippancy.

So, if you have some final thoughts about the sexuality of pedestrianism, something suitably steeped in sensual gravitas, that might be a perfect way to bring this correspondence to a close.

Yours,

Geoff

 

Ah, yes, Geoff—

Walking and sex. In my youth the madman lolloped ahead, his drool spattering the thighs of oncoming walkers, and I daydreamed of random acts of al fresco lovemaking. But I am old, Father Geoff, and nowadays I have to tug the fucker along by his chain, and he only ever drools on me.

Well, I am being a little disingenuous when I suggest that I’m entirely beyond such things—but not altogether. Recent comments, in conjunction with promoting my Psychogeography book, and that were also made at an “in conversation” Iain Sinclair and I undertook at the V&A in London, led to something of a backlash: these were to the effect that while plenty of women are dedicated walkers, the conjunction between less innate interest in the minutiae of spatial orientation and the quite understandable anxiety that can afflict women walking alone in strange places has meant—I think—that the kind of stuff we do is more of a male preserve. The obvious examples of women walker- writers were slung back at me—but I can’t help but believe that these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

And perhaps that’s where the desexing of walking exists for me: since I am, de facto, heterosexual, an extempore—or even planned—ambulatory sexual encounter is not likely. And to cruising, I don’t agree—I think it sounds like enormous fun, and quite understand that even with greater liberalization, gay people—men in particular!—still feel the urge to go out, have a walk, and score. Bliss!

Very best,

Will

 

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