Exclusive: Six Snapshots from the Cultural History of Walking

Geoff Nicholson is a British satirist known for bringing an Evelyn Waugh-brand of dark wit to any subject matter, and his offbeat new book The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism, is no exception. After the jump Nicholson — a writer who composes most of his novels, including Bleeding London which was shortlisted for the 1997 Whitbread Prize, while wandering about town — takes us on a brief (but funny) stroll through the walking history of culture.

1. THE PERFORMANCE WALK
The most extreme walker I know is Mudman, a persona of the artist Kim Jones. In order to become Mudman HE coats his body in mud, pulls a thick nylon stocking over his head, puts on a foam head dress and then straps a large lattice structure to his back, made of wooden slats, tree branches, wax, wire, tape, sponge and whatnot.

Mudman made his first appearances in and around Los Angeles in the mid ’70s but over the years he’s walked all over the world. Sometimes his own feces have been added to the mud, and in Rome he didn’t use mud at all, preferring yogurt and cottage cheese.

Mudman’s most famous art walk consisted of two twelve hour walks along the full length of LA’s Wilshire Boulevard, from downtown to the ocean in Santa Monica. Along the way he had the kind of encounters you might expect; a gas station attendant who wouldn’t let him use the bathroom, a cop who told him to keep moving and an old lady who asked him, “Does your mother know you’re doing this?”

2. WALKING MUSIC
One of the greatest “stride” pianists is Fats Domino, a man who’s written at least three walking songs. The best known of them, called simply “I’m Walking” was, according to legend, written after his car broke down and a fan saw him making his way on foot to the nearest garage and yelled, “Look, it’s Fats Domino walking.” Fats went home and turned his misfortune into a song. I so want this story to be true.

3. CRIP WALKING
Back in the day Crips gang members would make heel and toe or V-shaped movements with their feet to spell out letters and words on the ground, often after they’d committed a crime. One word they often spelled out was Blood, the name of their rivals, and then they’d “erase” the word by scrubbing their feet all over it.

This isn’t a walk that would get you from A to B, but it was certainly a walk that could get you into a lot of trouble if you did it in front of the wrong people: Crips believed it was for Crips only. But eventually it became mainstream. Ice-T Crip-walked on TV, and since then all and sundry have been at it. You can find tutorial videos on Youtube. A lot of dance moves have been added, and it’s now often known as Clown Walking. It’s also been said that it looks like hopscotch on crack.

4: THE FILMIC WALK
Of course people in the movies walk all the time, but Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas contains more memorable walking scenes than any movie I know. In the opening scene Harry Dean Stanton, playing the part of Travis, is seen walking through the bleak Texas desert, not on any recognizable track, coming from nowhere, going nowhere.

Later Travis is trying to escape from the brother who has come to rescue him, and he begins to walk along an endless, dead straight railroad track into an empty, pale blue, featureless, desert landscape. Then later still we see Travis trying to make amends to the son he abandoned four years earlier: the boy is now eight. Travis asks his brother’s maid how he should walk in order to look like a “rich father.” She tells him he must walk with his head up, his body stiff, and with dignity. We can see that Travis isn’t quite able to pull this off, but he and the maid are happy enough with the effect.

There are other walking scenes but in the end it turns into a road movie. Travis buys a cool Ford Ranchero, and father and son drive off in search of Mom, played by Nastassja Kinski. I’d have preferred it if they’d gone on foot.

5. THE REVOLUTIONARY WALK
The Long March remains one of the great national myths of China. Mao Zedung declared “The Long March is the first of its kind. It is a manifesto, a propaganda force, a seeding machine.” Well, only up to a point.

In 1934/5 as 90,000 Red Army troops retreated from Jiangxi to Shanxi province, dwindling by ninety per cent along the way, Mao was one of only two people who did no marching, or walking, whatsoever. (The other was Otto Braun, a Prussian adviser, and an ideological opponent of Mao.) According to Dick Wilson’s The Long March, “He (Mao) would never march, and either rode a horse along the route or else, if it were a long stretch, would be carried on a wooden litter by four carriers.”

Now, that is just no way to start a revolution.

6. THE WALKING PHOTOGRAPHY
It was Eadweard Muybridge at the end of the 19th century, with his “motion studies” and his battery of linked cameras, who made the first photographic investigation of human walking. The results reveal the magical nature of something we take for granted and the revelation is all the greater because the people in the photographs are often completely naked.

Some of the most striking Muybridge images show a naked walking man who from the neck up looks like an ancient patriarch, with wild white hair and beard. From the neck down, however, he looks like a much younger man, with a strong muscular body, and in some of them he’s displaying extremely large testicles. The model is Muybridge himself.

Erwin Faber, who worked with Muybridge, reported that he looked so much like Santa Claus that when he went walking, children would often stop him in the street asking for presents.