Geoff Nicholson is the author of more than 25 books, including his celebrated non-fiction work The Lost Art of Walking (2008) and his novel Bleeding London, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize in 1997.
His latest book, which he is crowdfunding through Unbound, is about walking and mortality. Walking On Thin Air is a memoir of sorts that consists of 99 vignettes about topics including John Cage’s woodland walks to collect mushrooms, a consideration of walking stick users (Winston Churchill, Tom Waits, Virginia Woolf), Jean Genet’s love for an ill-fated tightrope walker, a walk in Los Angeles with Mary Woronov (the Warhol Superstar), a walk with Werner Herzog. The book also addresses, often in a sceptical or subversive way, topics such as walking for physical and mental health, what it means to walk in or out of nature, walking and creativity, walking and spirituality. And, for reasons that will become clear, walking and extinction.
A couple of years ago Nicholson had CMML – Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow, diagnosed. It’s described in the literature as a “rare type of blood cancer” – ‘not rare enough, obviously’, Nicholson writes. ‘This isn’t a book about cancer per se, but inevitably my condition informs the walking I do, and affects the way I think about walking in general, and this finds its way into the book. I haven’t stopped walking and don’t intend to, but cancer has made every walk seem more urgent and, in a strange way, more vital.’
In this extract from the book, Geoff explores the joy (and snobbery) around maps.
I find, without any scientific data, that people who like walking tend to like maps, though I’m not sure the reverse is true. When I went abroad for the first time, on my own, in my teens, to Nancy in France, to work on a dubious ‘international youth project,’ one of the first things I did was buy a map of Nancy so that I could go walking and know where I was. ‘Je voudrais une carte de Nancy,’ I said to the assistant in the local shop, and was understood, which has pretty much been the high point of my French conversational career. The rest of the international youth on the project thought that buying a map was a very odd thing to do. I didn’t try to explain it to them.
Later, when I first moved to London, not long after leaving college, of course I owned a London A-Z, more of a book than a map, and I carried it with me all the time: I wanted to know where I was, I wanted to know how to get where I was going and how to get home. This didn’t strike me as odd either.
I was living in London because I’d got my first real job, working for a company named Bertram Rota that dealt in twentieth century literary first editions, as well as authors’ manuscripts and the occasional item of literary memorabilia.
One of the company directors was George Lawson, a dapper, twinkly man of Scottish origins who was extremely well-connected, and never seemed to do anything that looked like work. He’d just stroll around the shop most of the day, but at some point he’d pick up the phone, call an important client, and make a fabulous deal that earned the company, and him, a small fortune. I’ve always aspired to this way of working. He was friends with all manner of people in the art and literary worlds, including David Hockney, who was a regular visitor to the shop, and painted a rather wonderful portrait of George and his boyfriend of the time, the ballet dancer Wayne Sleep.
On one occasion George saw that I kept an A-Z in my bag. ‘So,’ he said, ‘do you mean to say that when you go around London you take a MAP with you?’ I said that I did. He found this both strange and hilarious. And my reaction at the time was, ‘Doesn’t everybody?’ Surely, I thought, nobody knows the whole of London, and if you strayed anywhere outside your usual orbit you were going to need a map, weren’t you? London is so vast and intricate, with so many obscure corners, how could you get around without one?
I didn’t say that to George, and in retrospect I’m glad that I didn’t, and of course once I’d lived in London for a while I didn’t carry an A-Z with me all the time. And that’s surely how it always is once you know something of a city. I didn’t know every street, didn’t have a complete mental map of London imprinted in my head, but I’d developed a feel for the place, had a general sense of direction, a sense of how neighborhoods related to each other. This was based on the experience of walking, of knowing the city on the ground, not on a map, and of course there were occasions when I went to some completely unknown part of the city, in which case I always dug out my A-Z again.
Dennis Wood, author of the Power of Maps and Everything Sings: Maps for A Narrative Atlas was interviewed by The Believer magazine. He talked about the idea that street signs and names are only for strangers: when a place is part of you, you don’t need a street sign telling you where you are. He obviously has a point. Then he says, ‘You get to a new city and you leave the hotel, you’ve got two hours before something happens, so you just wander around. You don’t pay any attention to the name of the streets, but you conserve a memory of turning left or turning right, or some landmark. You don’t need to know the names.’
This is obviously true too, and a familiar enough experience, but there’s a contradiction here, isn’t there? This is surely an example of a situation where the signs and the street names aren’t for strangers: or at least the stranger in this case isn’t paying any attention to them.
It also raises the question of how far away from home you have to be before you’re considered as a stranger. Unless you always stay within an incredibly limited number of streets then sooner or later you’ll find a street sign extremely useful.
Actually, I also wonder how just how many people spend two hours walking the streets around their hotel these days. I do, of course, and obviously I’m not the only one, but I suspect a lot of the people who arrive in a new city and want to get some exercise are more likely to head for the hotel gym, pool or spa, rather than walking the streets. They don’t know what they’re missing. Or maybe they do.
Meanwhile, back at Bertram Rota, there was an occasion when we were selling some Somerset Maugham memorabilia, including his walking stick. I imagine it may have been one of many, but it was an impressive thing, embossed with the famous Maugham ‘hand of Fatima’ symbol to ward off the evil eye.
George Lawson spent most of one day pretending to be lame, hobbling up and down the shop, using Maugham’s walking stick for support. He was very convincing, and customers who knew him showed considerable concern and asked how he’d come to injure himself. He found this even more hilarious.
Hockney was a regular visitor to the shop and we had a large pile of his David Hockney on David Hockney on the table as you walked in the door. That was his autobiographical book from the 1970s, now subtitled ‘My Early Years’. Back then at least, he was the kind of man who liked to wander the streets around his hotel, in one case in Santa Monica California, which he describes in the book.
He writes, ‘I checked into this motel and walked on the beach and I was looking for the town, couldn’t see it. And I saw some lights and I thought, that must be it. I walked two miles, and when I got there all it was was a big gas station, so brightly lit I’d thought it was the city. So I walked back …’
I think that if he’d had a map he’d have known better.
In 2000 I published a novel titled Bleeding London: it remains one of my greatest hits. Among many other things it contains a character named Stuart London who sets out to walk down every street in London. Yes, names are destiny. He carries an A-Z with him, blacking out the streets once he’s walked them, so he ends up with a completely obliterated (and essentially useless) map. I like to think that the current state of mapping either on your phone or by printing off pages from Google maps, makes this notion more rather than less poignant
The book was considered a success (these things are always comparative). A couple of years later Time Out ran a piece titled ‘London’s Most Erotic Writers’ and I came in 19th on the basis of Bleeding London, which I thought wasn’t bad, considering that Walter, author of My Secret Life came in number one, and Shakespeare came in number seven. And I was chuffed to find I was ten places ahead of my old hero JG Ballard.
Over the years various people have wanted to ‘do something’ with my novel, turn it into a movie, or TV series, or comic book. I’ve always said, ‘Great, go ahead,’ but nothing has ever come of it; it has steadfastly remained a book. So when I got an email from somebody named Del Barrett of the Royal Photographic Society saying she wanted to curate a photographic exhibition based on Bleeding London, I again said sure, go for it, but never really expected to hear from her again.
Oh me of little faith. Not so very much later I was there in a pop up gallery in Pimlico for the official launch of ‘Bleeding London: the Exhibition,’ which according to the press release was ‘the most ambitious photo project that the capital has ever seen – to photograph every street in London. Based on the Whitbread short-listed novel, Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson, we are challenging Londoners and visitors to follow in the footsteps of Stuart London and cover the entire A-Z.’
The standard A-Z has 73,000 entries, though only about 58,000 of those are streets. That was a number that sometimes made the project seem utterly insane. At other times however, I thought oh well, let’s imagine the RPS can round up 1000 committed photographers, that’s only 58 streets each, and these guys can take a couple of hundred pictures in a day, so that seems perfectly doable.
Wanting to be involved, and determined to show willing, while I was in London I walked all the streets in a single square of the A to Z as determined by Del Barrett, covering part of Lewisham. And frankly it was absolutely knackering, mentally as much as physically (although the expedition only took a little more than three hours), as I walked up Algernon Street and tramped along Marsala Street and flogged along Shell Street and meandered the length of Vicar’s Hill (among many others) and finally ended up in Loampit Vale, taking photographs as I went.
Back in those days I sometimes, but my no means always, carried a camera with me when I went walking, but if I took half a dozen photographs in the course of an afternoon I thought that was plenty. How things change. Like everybody else I now have a camera of one kind or another with me pretty much all of the time, and like everybody else I take far too many pictures.
The interesting thing about the Bleeding London photo project was that it created the impetus, the necessity, of finding something to photograph in every single street. You could argue that there was something very democratic about this process, maybe something very Zen. Every street becomes equal, you have to find something of interest, something ‘worth’ observing and photographing regardless of where you are and regardless of what the streets are like.
It wasn’t always easy. On my afternoon of photography certain streets seemed to offer multiple attractions, some seemed a bit dull, and offered nothing whatsoever at first glance. The job therefore was to look harder, to see through the perceived dullness and find the things that are worthy of attention. And although the majority of the streets were suburban and very quiet (I like suburban streets very much), there were some oddities, the detached sidecar from a motorbike that looked like a rocket ship from an old fairground ride, a Zombie Outbreak Response Vehicle, among them.
Inevitably not every picture I took was massively interesting, and there was a certain reliance on my own set of clichés: show me a corrugated metal fence or a semi-derelict garage and I’ll snap away with intensity. And sometimes – and this was a curious and unexpected thing – the street signs themselves were as fascinating and picturesque as anything in the street.
All in all it was a strange mission, involving a curious sort of discipline. It was definitely a walk with a purpose, but by no means a walk from A to B (let alone from A to Z). It represented a way of exploring the territory, making it (in a very limited sense) my own, exhausting it even as I exhausted myself. There’s quite a lot about this kind of thing in the novel.
I kept thinking I was involved with a sort of minimalist or conceptualist art project, something Sol LeWitt would have approved of. I don’t claim that Sol LeWitt is a completely open book to me, but I do know that he said, ‘When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.’ Who wouldn’t want that?
In due course there was an exhibition at London’s City Hall, of photographs inspired by my novel. Amazingly, improbably, they’d succeeded – 58,000 streets, 58,000 photographs, and a preliminary display of 1200 images was shown in the exhibition. The further plan was that at some point there’d be a gigantic exhibition of all the photographs in a vast warehouse somewhere in London, and there’d be an online archive as well, but you know, the best laid plans …
To tie in with the exhibition, there was a walk conducted by Jen Pedler, who’s a walking guide as well as a photographer, titled ‘Stuart’s First Walk’ – a nice five mile meander based on a description in the book of my character’s first foray into tramping all the streets of London. He (and I) chose North Pole Road, in W10, as the starting point, largely because of the name.
‘He knew he had to begin somewhere and he knew that in one sense, any place was as good as another, but he scanned the index of his A-Z looking for a street name that sounded appropriate. His eyes fell on a line that read North Pole Road. Next day he went there and started his walk.’
In the beginning Stuart just walks for the sake of it, but then he starts keeping a diary because he realizes he’s forgetting what he’s seen, and I do know the feeling, although as I proved, writing things down is no absolute guarantee that you’ll remember them. Photographs surely stick in the mind a bit better. In my own occasional wearying attempts to turn Bleeding London into a screenplay I’ve always said to producers that in a movie version Stuart should be keeping a photo or video diary rather than a written one; but that has always been the least of the problems.
And so we guided walkers went with Jen Pedler along North Pole Road, following in Stuart London’s, and to some extent my, old footsteps. Full, unsurprising, disclosure: I by no means walked every street in London while writing the book. This is the joy of writing fiction – you can make stuff up, though of course we all know that writers of non-fiction make stuff up too. But there were some days when I pretended to be Stuart, walked where he walked, and certainly the book contains descriptions of things I actually saw while walking in London, not least in North Pole Road.
Of course having the author himself on a walking tour based on his book was a curious thing, not least for the author. Someone had said to Jen that it would be like walking with Dickens, and yeah, sure that’s EXACTLY what it was like. Jen had considered having me read out various passage as we walked, but in the event she decided against it, for which I was truly grateful. It would have been excruciating for all concerned, but especially excruciating for me.
The walk took place (OMG) a good eighteen years after the book was published, and I’m not a great re-reader of my own work so, I was pretty vague about some of the things I’d seen and described in the novel. Other things, of course, seemed clear as day. Things in North Pole Road however, fell chiefly into the former category: without the book I’d have remembered hardly anything at all.
The pub that had once been called the North Pole and then the New North Pole had been converted into a Tesco Express after much local protest, apparently. But there was still a florist and hairdresser as mentioned in the book, and there was still Mick’s Fish Bar and also the newsagent which in the book I called Varishna’s which I then learned was a misspelling.
And we walked beyond North Pole Road, seeing some things I remembered and rather more things I’d forgotten. We walked by Wormwood Scrubs – the prison and the piece of land with the same name. We went up Scrubs Lane, along the Harrow Road, across the Grand Union Canal and eventually past Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, to Ladbroke Grove.
I think the most satisfying moment came in the Harrow Road. There’s a moment in the book when Stuart sees ‘a tyre centre whose frontage had a mural depicting members of staff.’ I’d completely forgotten about this, and when Jen had done a reccie of the route, she hadn’t been able to find it either, and yet suddenly there it was, and all we Bleeding Londoners stood outside, staring in quiet wonder, celebrating, taking photographs, while the guys who worked there, the current employees not depicted on the mural, looked out at us with suspicion.
‘Walking On Thin Air: 99 Steps On The Road to Oblivion’ by Geoff Nicholson is being crowdfunded through Unbound. To help bring this book to life, preorder it here. Caught by the River readers get a 10% discount by entering code CBTR10 at the checkout.