Geoff Nicholson is best known as a writer of fiction who occasionally forays into writing non-fiction books about subjects which interest him – The Lost Art of Walking being one of the latter. This book is both an anthology of walking and walkers, while also being a set of personal stories aobut Geoff’s walking life.
Geoff isn’t one of those serious walkers who kit themselves up with serious equipment and attempt record-breaking distances or timings. But walking is a vital part of his life, even though it often he has “strolled, wandered, pottered, mooched, sauntered and meandered”. He’s certainly done some serious stuff too – a chapter on desert walking describes a more committed type of walking than many of us would attempt, but on the whole, there is more in this book about walking around cities than in the great outdoors.
I’m a bit of a sucker for this type of book. Like Geoff, I’ve walked all my life (in the sense of having gone out deliberately to experience pedestrianism) and agree with Geoff that walking is the best way to experience a city. Geoff is interested in psychogeography which Joseph Hart describes as “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities…just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape”. And I think that’s quite a good description of this book too – the range is vast but certainly focuses on urban walking, the deliberate launching out on a walk through a city with no other purpose than to see something new and to be open to any new insights that come at you along the way.
Of course, the arch-exponent of this type of walking is Iain Sinclair – his book London Orbital for example attempts to describe nothing more exciting than a walk around paths to be found on either side of the M25 motorway. To Geoff’s credit, I think he does a better job at this sort of thing – he has a slightly self-deprecating sense of humour which comes out in his book which makes it rather easier reading than Sinclair’s exceedingly dull tome.
The book covers a vast range of walking topics. There are chapters on particular cities – London, Los Angeles, New York, in which he describes his own urban walks. He includes more thematic chapters such as “Eccentrics, Obsessives, Artists”, and “Music, Movement and Movies”. I particularly enjoyed Geoff’s chapter “Walking Home” which describes his return to his home town of Sheffield where he walks the streets and routes he used to take as a child, and also walks the hill that contributed to his mother’s death from heart failure. I did something similar myself some years ago and well remember the effect of walking down a street in Newcastle where I lived as a child – the distances between home and shops and home and school seemed so short to how I remembered them.
Like Geoff, I have walked London methodically. When I worked there I would frequently walk long distances – if a meeting finished early I’d walk rather than take a tube train or a bus, and at lunchtimes I’d always be exploring corners of the city I’d never have found by any other means. Geoff’s description of walking in London walking gives a good impression of the vast range of localities in this huge city, but I particularly liked his in-depth exploration of Oxford Street during which he made six transits of Oxford Street from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch and back again over the course of a single day. I certainly had various routes which I walked repetitively and over the course of several traverses over them you definitely absorb the distinctive atmosphere, perhaps something to do with the history of the places you pass through.
I preferred the chapters which cover Geoff’s personal experiences, rather than the chapters which seemed more a “walking anthology”, bringing together lots of stories of other people, quite a few of which I was already familiar with. I would have like to see a little more about W G Sebald – he only appears once, and that in reference to a walk in Suffolk, whereas when it comes to psychogeography, surely Sebald documents the effects of walking on the psyche than Sinclair – the walks in Vertigo for example are classics of the genre.
These very minor quibble apart, this is a book which would be of great interest to walkers of all descriptions and I found it inventive and varied, well worth spending a few days with. It will probably inspire you to think a little more carefully about the everyday act of walking and how you can make more of it.