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Writing about walking
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Walking On Thin Air consists of 99 vignettes: previously unpublished pieces, sometimes linked directly, sometimes connected by free association. Topics include John Cage’s woodland walks to collect mushrooms, a consideration of walking stick users – Winston Churchill, Tom Waits, Virginia Woolf, Jean Genet’s love for an ill-fated tightrope walker, a walk I did in Chiswick, London, to the site where the first V-2 rocket bomb landed, a walk in Los Angeles with Mary Woronov (the Warhol Superstar), another walk (very short indeed) that I did with Werner Herzog.
The book addresses, often in a sceptical or subversive way, topics such as walking for physical and mental health, what it means to walk in or out of nature, walking and creativity, walking and spirituality. And, for reasons that will become clear, walking and extinction.
* * *
I often say that I’ve walked all my life, but I know that can’t be literally true. I also know that, being mortal, sooner or later I’ll stop walking, that there’ll be a last step, for me just as there is for everybody. As my readers will know, I’m a walker who writes and a writer who walks. I’ve never been one of those ‘sacramental’ walkers, like Bruce Chatwin or John Francis (the Planet Walker), though I know there is much that is transcendent about walking. I’m not one of those ‘stunt’ walkers, much as I admire them, walking backwards across America, or walking 1,000 miles in 1,000 consecutive hours. And I’m not exactly a flaneur or psychogeographer like Baudelaire or Guy Debord, though I do a lot of the things that psychogeographers and flaneurs do.
I’ve lived for long periods in Sheffield, London, and Los Angeles, with shorter spells in Cambridge, Colchester and New York. As a tourist and/or working writer I’ve found myself in Munich, Berlin, Paris, Guadalajara, Alice Springs, Tokyo, Morocco, Australia. Wherever I’ve been, I’ve walked, and I’ve usually written about it, though by no means all of this has been published. This book is the place to find all these fugitive gems, written over a period of at least 30 years.
The majority of my walking has been done in cities, but I also love deserts, and my favourite is the Mojave, just two or three hours from Los Angeles. The Mojave contains Death Valley, one of the great places on earth. A few years ago I was walking by the Ubehebe Crater, a half-mile wide, seven hundred foot deep cavity. I wasn’t foolish enough to walk all the way to the bottom of the crater and back, but I decided to walk around the rim, a route described by the National Park Service as ‘moderately difficult due to the initial climb and loose footing.’
I thought I could cope with moderate difficulty. In fact I’d done the walk a few years earlier and found it easy, but on this second occasion it was very hard work indeed. I didn’t give up because you can’t when you're halfway round the rim of a volcanic crater but by the end I was really suffering, sweating, heart pounding, gasping for breath.
I didn’t think too much about it at the time: accepting it as just another symptom of getting older. But a little later I went for a medical checkup in L.A., and the doctor was concerned about my red blood cell count. It was low, he said, not dangerously so, but we needed to keep an eye on it.
A couple of years later, I’d moved back to England and saw a new doctor who decided that my blood cell count now was indeed dangerously low. And he put a name to my condition: CMML - Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow. It’s described in the literature as a ‘rare type of blood cancer’ – not rare enough, obviously.
The doctor, who I still see, told me that my condition is ‘treatable but not curable,’ which I think is a reasonable metaphor for human existence. The prognosis for CMML is mixed. At some point the leukemia will change from chronic to acute, and this can happen after months or after some years. At that point you’re in serious trouble. As I write this, a couple of years after my initial diagnosis, I feel pretty good most days, and I continue to walk, to explore new places and routes, and to think about walks I’ve done in the past.
This isn’t a book about cancer per se, but inevitably my condition informs the walking I do, and affects the way I think about walking in general, and this finds its way into the book. I haven’t stopped walking and don’t intend to, but cancer has made every walk seem more urgent and, in a strange way, more vital.
* * *
The publishing world has changed a lot in the time I’ve been a writer. I’ve been published by large and small publishers, multinationals and one-man bands. They all have their attractions and drawbacks. A subscription-based publishing model is very attractive, a fresh way of doing things, although with precedents back in literary history. It’s also potentially high-risk and nervewracking. It tells the author how many friends and fans he has.
I need the advance support of readers, through pledging and spreading the word, to make the book happen. Only when we hit 100% of the target do we know the book will be made. Anyone who pledges gets a copy of the book when it comes out. You also get your name in the back as one of the supporters. There are other reward packages too.
When the target is reached, it confirms that readers actually want the book, and for a writer there’s enormous satisfaction in that. And given my current circumstances there are more compelling reasons than usual to get this sucker out there as soon as possible.
Proposed book spec: B-format paperback, 272pp; jacket design not final.
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In the post
Writing about walking
Geoff Nicholson is a British novelist and non-fiction writer who has published more than 25 books over the course of his career. Among his best-known works are The Lost Art of Walking (2008), Sex Collectors: The Secret World of Consumers, Connoisseurs, Curators, Creators, Dealers, Bibliographers, and Accumulators of Erotica (2006) and his novel Bleeding London, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize in 1997. He runs a blog called The Hollywood Walker, inspired by his 15 years spent living in Los Angeles. He currently lives in semi-rural Essex.
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Hedy Robertson Jones