Will Self

[WRITER, PEDESTRIAN]

in correspondence with

Geoff Nicholson

[WRITER, PEDESTRIAN]

“SHOULD WE PERHAPS NOT SIMPLY ACCEPT THAT ALL WE ARE DOING IS GOING FOR A WALK?”
Similarities between sex and walking:
Basic, simple, and repetitive
Capable of great sophistication and elaboration
Sources of pleasure that can feel like hard work

I had always thought of myself as a “good walker.” I walked farther, more tirelessly, more willingly than most people I knew. If I went out walking with friends, they’d be ready to go back long before I was. I didn’t have Will Self among my friends, but I knew he was part of the Iain Sinclair psychogeography brigade, breezily undertaking thirty-mile walks, leaving unwary companions limping and bloody. So perhaps I wasn’t as good a walker as I thought.

While living in London and New York, two of the great walking cities, I’d walked every day as a way of getting around, and as a means of urban exploration. Later, when I settled in L.A., a city where nobody walks, I continued to walk as best I could, but it was an effort, a deliberate decision to go against the prevailing culture. It seemed unnatural, an act of protest or eccentricity, but I wasn’t protesting anything and didn’t want to be willfully eccentric. I just wanted to walk. And so I found myself wondering why I wanted that, what walking meant to me, what it meant in history and in the contemporary world. These questions ultimately led me to write a book titled The Lost Art of Walking.

Of course I knew I didn’t have this territory all to myself. There was, for instance, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, and Joseph Amato’s On Foot, but these seemed to be academic in a way I knew my own writing wouldn’t be. However, when I learned that Will Self was walking and writing, and publishing the results in the Independent and in a book called Psychogeography, I felt worried that we might be treading on each other’s toes.

I didn’t know Will Self before we had this epistolatory exchange, but book reviewers had compared our novels. Received wisdom had me as a warm, humane satirist whereas he was the glacial, snarling, druggy mad dog of English letters. The two of us communicated, knowing that we were talking in public. We both consider ourselves, in part, entertainers, and we tried to amuse each other and our putative audience.

I led the way in these exchanges, and god knows Will Self has more deadlines to meet than I do, but he matched me for diligence and enthusiasm. I would send off emails which I hoped would provoke a response, and I’d get one back within half a day. There was nothing glacial or mad or druggy about my correspondent, but Will has a reputation for baroque vocabulary, and he lived up to that. I learned a new word from this exchange—verglas. Look it up: I had to.

—Geoff Nicholson

*

Hi Will,

... My own, limited experience of walking in the city while tripping (in the LSD sense) was that it was horrible. I imagined I could read the minds of all the people walking toward me in the street, and they all had profoundly ugly minds. When I talked to Iain Sinclair about this, he said he thought I was very wise to avoid mind-expanding substances while walking, since there was something monstrous lurking just below the surface of the city, and getting in touch with it was to be avoided. I take his point re: psychedelics, and yet wandering around London and even more so New York, a couple of drinks to the good, seems to me one of life’s great pleasures. Guy Debord [walker, situationist, definer of psychogeography], as far as I can see, was pissed almost continuously.

So, since I think you know infinitely more about addiction than I do, I was wondering if you had any thoughts on being addicted to walking as opposed to being addicted to anything else, possibly even to writing. I know that I feel bad if I haven’t walked for a while, and also if I don’t write for a while.

What say you?

Geoff

*

Well, Geoff,

My drinking and drugging days certainly saw plenty of walking: on acid, on dope (which I smoked, more or less continually, for over twenty years), on coke (a notable coked-up midnight troll included passing the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, with its facade featuring bas-reliefs of the Linnaean chain of being, and becoming convinced that it was a small-scale model of all organic evolution), and even on opiates. Although, mostly, one walked through the city to score (absurd now, but in the late 1970s and early ’80s, in London, it was actually difficult to get your hands on junk) and then sat still.

Initially, I’ve been scathing about the idea of walking-as-addiction: walking is expansive—addiction contracts; walking is about oneself-in-the-world, addiction about retreat from the world; walking—or at any rate, the kind you and I do—is about being open to vicissitude, losing control—addiction is a highly controlling undertaking: an attempt to modulate the psyche (and the body) and hence all experience—and so on. However, I have to concede that the 4/4 rhythm, the sense I have on long walks—both urban and rural—of being rather disembodied: a head floating above the ground; the meditational aspect, whereby I allow my mind to “slip its gears”—all of these do seem akin to the kind of altered experience I sought in drugs. The bizarre thing is that while walking can produce these effects more reliably, I don’t feel driven to it too compulsively… yet.

Best,
Will

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Geoff Nicholson’s works of fiction and nonfiction include The Food Chain, Bleeding London, and Sex Collectors. His novel Gravity’s Volkswagen will be published in England later this year. He writes a food blog about the wilder shores of gastronomy at psycho-gourmet.blogspot.com.

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