Sunday, November 11, 2007


A week or so ago, Darling Vicarage explored Virginia Woolf’s conception of the city walk. In Mrs Dalloway, the title character, Clarissa, walks “to momentarily relinquish the confines of her domestic and familial responsibilities.” Passing from the domestic interior to the urban exterior, Clarissa becomes “isolated from the milling crowds … she begins to feel anonymous.”

I think we should be careful not to confuse this with psychogeography. The key word here is momentarily ; for Clarissa, an escape from her husband is only a fleeting fancy. Nobody sees her on the city streets. She achieves privacy through being invisible. It is true that psychogeography concerns the encounter between the individual and the crowd, but it also strives for something else which Woolf is not concerned with : a radical political awareness that creates an act of
visionary, revelatory unmasking. The banal sheen with which capital covers the city is stripped away.

Merlin Coverley's book on psychogeography rightly traces the origins of psychogeography further back than
Paris in the 1950s, though this is the time with which it is associated. Although the Situationists placed around it a playfully merciless framework of Hegelian Marxism, it is William Blake and Thomas De Quincey who create the tradition of visionary wandering. Blake's poetry - especially Jerusalem - and Confessions of an English opium-eater typify the possessed quality of the derive. "Trembling I sit day and night, my friends are astonish'd at me," writes Blake in Jerusalem. "Yet they forgive my wanderings. I rest not from my great task!" These are no flaneurs ; the records of their wanderings are desperate ; they stalk the streets, edgily turning corners, hounded in the midst of their pursuit. They do not dawdle idly. To paraphrase Ian Sinclair, they walk with a thesis. They know where they go, but not why or how.

Since the age of the Romantics, psychogeography has taken a number of guises, and has criss-crossed the Channel between London and Paris. Everybody from Verlaine and Rimbaud to Peter Ackroyd is supposed to be a psychogeographer, and even Will Self has his own psychogeographic column in the Evening Bastard. While its quasi-religious aspects have remained (especially among more conservative commentators such as Ackroyd, but also among some left-wing people, whose misplaced political melancholy leads them to conclude that there really is nothing new under the sun), the more concrete act of creating a new city from unearthed clues is often lost.

Psychogeography as a glorified local history trek is obviously reactionary - it
promotes a sense of romantic nostalgia ; its attraction to myth appeals to an illusory "collective consciousness" ; it pays no attention to economic patterns ; it ignores class structures. The Situationists' critique of urban geography is an important corrective, locating the shifting sands of the city's significance along strictly historical lines. But it must be said, the Situationists' larking-about approach ("A friend recently told me that he had just wandered through the Harz region of Germany while blindly following the directions of a map of London") did not produce results. Their attempts to locate a north-west passage through the city seem to have come to nothing. For them, the theory of psychogeography was hindered by the rationalisation of Hausmann's Paris.

This ought to tell us something : that a rethink of psychogeography in the city is overdue. J.G. Ballard, a psychogeographer who has flipped the genre on its head, explains its outdatedness.

I regard the city as a semi-extinct form.
London is basically a nineteenth-century city. And the habits of mind appropriate to the nineteenth century, which survive into the novels set in the London of the twentieth century, aren't really appropriate to understanding what is really going on in life today. I think the suburbs are more interesting than people will let on. In the suburbs you find uncentred lives... So that people have more freedom to explore their own imaginations, their own obsessions.

London, Patrick Keiller's pallid film about drifting across the capital, despairs of London. "Dirty old Blighty," it begins over a barely moving image of a cruise ship passing under Tower Bridge through the sickly grey Thames. "Under-educated, economically backward, bizarre : a catalogue of modern miseries." London projects Robinson, Daniel Defoe’s own psychic traveller, into the balefulness of the early 1990s. Robinson, we hear, is a flaneur. He teaches part-time at the University of Barking and spends his remaining time trying to pinpoint himself and his history on a mental map of the capital.

Robinson conceives that there is a “problem of
London”, and that it is insoluble. He obsesses over Sterne and Apollinaire and entirely neglects everything in between. He survives by pretending that the nineteenth century never existed. The failure of the English revolution and Blighty’s reaction to the French Revolution has produced a fear of individuality,
which masquerades as its ostensible opposite, the celebration of the free market. The autonomy of public institutions fades and the re-election of a corrupt, post-Thatcher Conservative government is an inevitable symptom of Britain’s malaise.

Robinson cannot find a home in
London. He cannot be affected by its secrets, for London, forever watched by an army of CCTV cameras and addressed by endless tannoyed instructions, no longer conceals any secrets. Intrigues find their home in the espionage of high political office, or else in the past.

And so, Robinson’s eye wanders to the suburbs : to Teddington Lock, to Richmond Hill, to Perivale and to Brent Cross, where he finds a man reading The arcades project, a potential ally who gives a phoney telephone number.

I wonder if Robinson is right. Perhaps psychogeography is hopeless – a “trompe l’oeil reality,” in Debord’s words, whose illusions, visions and fantasies occlude a rational dismantling of the city. I have drifted, of course, but never satisfactorily, and especially not in very built-up areas. DV
and I attempted a wander round Rotherhithe last weekend but it was awful. A tabula rasa, a victim of erasure, a hideous and decrepit theme-park whose amusements – Quebec Curve, Hollywood Bowl, Frankie & Benny’s – offered a stale promise of being anywhere but Rotherhithe. We went ten-pin bowling in Tavistock Square instead.

A psychogeographer must be simultaneously surveyor and resident : cooly analysing the forces which combine to produce reality, but sensitive to the intangible stimuli of the city, and alert to one's own propriety of it.

The city is as much yours as anybody's. Trespass upon it. Stake your claim to it. Join Savage Messiah at Housman's bookshop on Caledonian Road next Saturday (more here).


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