Monday, 7 December 2009

The Lost Art of Walking. . .

The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson is a fun and informative read - the kind of non-fiction that I most like; an equal blend of personal musing amidst some interesting and fascinating research.
There are chapters on obsessive and competitive walkers, walking terms, songs about walking, street photographers, walking in literature and in the movies, and discourses on two of the world's great walking cities - London and New York. There's a funny bit about trying to join in and understand a psychogeography festival (he fails on both accounts), and the undertaking of a personal challenge - walking the length back and forth of London's Oxford Street six times in one day starting at 6am and ending just before midnight. In this chapter he evokes Woolf's essay "Oxford Street Tide" and so I dug out my little copy of The London Scene: Six Essays on London Life and read the piece in question, marvelling as Nicholson does, that tortoises were once for sale on the sidewalks. It's interesting that both Woolf in 1931, and Nicholson in the 21st century, make reference to how commercial and crass the street is and point out that real Londoners avoid it. Not "refined" writes Woolf; "too popular" adds Nicholson, especially with the tourists. Well, yes - I always head there at least once when I'm in London. I like going to Selfridges and I rather enjoy the energy and bustle.
I do love this passage where Woolf also sees the hectic street as a type of 3-D orchestral jigsaw:
Parcels slap and hit; motor omnibuses graze the kerb; the blare of a whole brass band in full tongue dwindles to a thin reed of sound. Buses, vans, cars, barrows stream past like the fragments of a picture puzzle; a white arm rises; the puzzle runs thick, coagulates, stops; the white arm sinks, and away it streams again, streaked, twisted, higgledy-piggledy, in perpetual race and disorder. The puzzle never fits itself together, however long we look.
My favourite walking essay by Woolf is "Street Haunting" and I wonder if Nicholson has read it. It's absent from the useful Walking Bibliography he has included at the back of his book.