Geoff Nicholson is the Maharajah of Melancholy. The quality was there in his novels, it was there in his non-fiction book The Lost Art of Walking, and it’s there in the latter’s successor, Walking in Ruins (Harbour Books, £12.50). He savours the comfort to be gained from accepting decay as an inevitable part of life.
Ruins are his muse. So he spends the book doing exactly what its title suggests. Locations include an abandoned Los Angeles zoo, now inhabited by two homeless men, a Sheffield housing estate whose road layout survives even though its houses don’t, and a desert town that’s been, er, deserted. Nicholson keeps finding shoes there, though never a matching pair.
If you share his mindset, you’ll love the philosophical ruminations that result. Can you, for instance, ruin a ruin? John Ruskin preferred dilapidation to the ‘lie’ that is restoration. It’s only when a graveyard falls into disrepair, argues Nicholson, that it ‘really comes alive’.
We also learn that there’s a town in America called Zzyzx, and that Albert Speer thought buildings should be designed with one eye on how they’d look when falling down. He even did Hitler a drawing of a Nuremberg grandstand with its ‘masonry crumbling, its fallen columns covered in ivy’.
At one point Nicholson finds the left-hand half of a ‘Spontaneous Combustion’ sign. ‘Sponta Combu’, he notes, would be a great name for an Indian fusion dish.