Geoff Nicholson's "The Lost Art of Walking" is the English author's genial, eccentric ramble through the practice of pedestrianism.
“The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism”
by Geoff Nicholson
Riverhead, 276 pp., $24.95
It’s too bad walking is associated with the word “pedestrian,” an adjective defined as “commonplace.”
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My own walks generally have been anything but, whether I was happening onto a fatal shooting in Chicago, seeing the Cascades spectacularly bathed in reds on a late afternoon, or passing a David Niven double striding down a Hong Kong sidewalk, smartly dressed in spit-shined leather shoes and light-wool shorts, his chest sun-tanned and completely bare.
British novelist Geoff Nicholson (“Sex Collectors,” “Bleeding London”) seems to find equal surprise in the notion of walking, starting with the infinite English-language expressions for it: “I have sidled, tiptoed, pussyfooted, perhaps even slunk. I have hit the streets, pounded the pavement, worn out shoe leather, taken shank’s pony, hotfooted it, legged it, strode out, loped, paced … I’m sure I’ve strutted, but I’m pretty damn sure that I’ve never swaggered.”
“Ramble” might best describe these ruminations. In one chapter Nicholson walks pedestrian-unfriendly Los Angeles. He retraces fictional detective Philip Marlowe’s peregrinations there, meets actress Cristina Ricci on a quiet street, and passes a panhandler, who answers, “Hey, who do you think you are? Jack Kerouac?”
In another he recalls professional walkers (“competitive pedestrians”), such as Scotsman Robert Barclay Allardice (1779-1854), who most famously won a wager in which he walked a mile in each of a thousand successive hours — just try it.
He takes us to the Australian desert, the streets of Manhattan (fueled by dry martinis) and his north England hometown of Sheffield. That said, I was expecting him to lead us even farther afield. How about, say, Paris, perhaps the best walking city in the world? Or Tokyo? Or Rio? Or Delhi?
But Nicholson is such a genial, inspiring companion that this shortcoming is easily overlooked. And his book is richly laden with literary and historical references, which remind us of our antecedents. It’s comforting to know that however solitary and unique a walk might be, it’s something of a shared experience.