Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Geoff Nicholson's "The Lost Art of Walking"

Geoff Nicholson is the author of many books, including Sex Collectors, Hunters and Gatherers, The Food Chain, and Bleeding London, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Lost Art of Walking runs thus:

was ever recognized by fellow walkers.

“For a period I kept bumping into people somewhere around Shoreditch,” he said, “who were actually walking about with books of mine, doing various projects from the books, but I haven’t of late seen any.”

And did he reveal himself to them?

“A couple challenged me, and one I saw just reading the book and talked to him and pointed something out that he was looking for, and a couple of times on the canal too, a guy on a bike who was cycling through one of the books and ticking things off. He practically ran into me. But I think there are huge numbers of people walking, not my books, but walking and doing their own endlessly strange projects across London.”

I mentioned reading D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” when I was a teenager, and being amazed by the huge distances the hero Paul Morel would walk in order to go and see his girlfriend Miriam. Sinclair’s eyes lit up. Yes indeed, he said.

The fictional Miriam is closely based on Lawrence’s own girlfriend, Jessie Chambers. Morel’s mother says, “She must be wonderfully fascinating, that you can’t get away from her, but must go trailing eight miles at this time of night.”

And she’s right, of course. Miriam is wonderfully fascinating. The evenings together, Paul and Miriam’s, D.H.’s and Jessie’s, were intense and passionate, and one of the passions was for literature. In Jessie Chambers’ memoirs she mentions the books they discussed. Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” was one of them, its title perhaps an inspiration for Lawrence’s own novel.

Iain Sinclair got up, left the room we were sitting in and came back a minute or two later with a small, blue, hardback copy of “Fathers and Sons.” He opened it up and held it out to me. There on the flyleaf was the signature “Jessie Chambers.” This was Jesse Chambers’ own copy of “Father’s and Sons.” This book had belonged to the woman for whom Lawrence was prepared to do so much walking. Iain Sinclair had been given the book by a dealer, as a thank you for carrying a box of books across the street for him.

(Actually it cuts off at the beginning of that last paragraph but I’ve included all of it for the sake of being comprehensible).

Page 99 of my book The Lost Art of Walking finds me in conversation with the great English writer, walker (and sometimes psychogeographer) Iain Sinclair, author of Lights Out For the Territory and London Orbital among other works of fiction and non-fiction.

Sinclair is a crucial, looming presence for anyone who tries to write about walking and/or London. He has a stomping ground that’s very much his own but his influence is ubiquitous for the would-be London literary pedestrian. That’s why I wanted him in the book rather than outside it.

On page 99 we’re talking about DH Lawrence. There was a great temptation for many young English men of a certain generation and class to think of ourselves as Lawrencian heroes. They were sensitive, creative, did a lot of walking, had a tough relationship with their father, but also had a lot of sex. I wanted to be like that and sometimes flattered myself that I was.

When I was seventeen I started dating a somewhat posh girl who lived on the other side of the city: this was Sheffield, England in the seventies. Of course I had no car, and so from time to time, having missed the last bus, I’d walk home across the city: probably five miles of so, and up some very steep English hills.

I was able to console myself by thinking I was treading, metaphorically, in Lawrence’s footsteps. And then my English teacher introduced me to TS Eliot’s poetry especially “Rhapsody on A Windy Night.” As the years have gone by I’ve become far less certain what this poem is “about” but back then it seemed a not too complicated poem about a nocturnal walk across London. Walking home through the night, sharing territory with Lawrence and Eliot I felt my epiphany as walker and aspiring writer was just about complete. I had a lot to learn.

Oddly enough, or perhaps not, this page is actually fairly representative of what I’m trying to do in the book, combining anecdote, factual material, personal experience and literary allusion. Ford Madox Ford had a good point.
Read more about The Lost Art of Walking, and learn about the author and his work at Geoff Nicholson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue