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Psychogeography: a beginner's guide



Saw this on the London Times Literary Supplement's website

Psychogeography: a beginner’s guide. Unfold a street map of London, place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets: the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Cut for sign. Log the data-stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle, and the record ends. Walking makes for content; footage for footage.

There are alternative methods. Part of the game is inventing your own randomizer. Plot a route between two places on a street plan of Berlin, trace the shape and transpose it onto a London street plan; walk the London version. Trace the Turin Shroud onto a street map and walk Jesus’ face. Walk between halal butchers, or Catholic churches, or hairdressers. Follow isobars. Footstep a historical walker. Or change the paradigm entirely. Go out into the city,
hungry for signs and portents, and see what happens. Open your mind, let the guiding metaphors of the walk find you.

The psychogeography patent is usually assigned to Guy Debord, prominent member of the Situationist International, an avant-garde group active between 1957 and 1972. Debord and the Situationists were looking for ways to explode the herd-think of the urban masses, and to disrupt their choreographed obedience to the sign-making habits of capitalism. To these ends, they developed the idea of the “dérive†or “driftâ€: the randomly motivated walk, which – in Debord’s well-known definition – was “a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiancesâ€. The dériveur was thus a radical update of the nineteenth-century figure of the flâneur: the pedestrian who wandered, idled and watched, and who – as Walter Benjamin pointed out – had been co-opted and degraded by capitalism into the figure of the shopper, aimlessly dot-to-dotting points of purchase.

The dérive was an aspect of the Situationists’ wider drive to achieve a revolutionary transformation of everyday life. Specifically, it offered a way to see past or through what Debord called “the society of spectacleâ€. By forcing
an arbitrariness of route, and insisting on pedestrianism, the dériveur was, in theory, brought to experience astonishment upon the terrain of familiarity, and was made more sensitive to the hidden histories and encrypted events of the city.

Unsurprisingly, the psychogeographic method has produced a great deal of highbrow nonsense; in the wrong hands, it becomes an excuse for an avant-garde truffle hunt. But its serious literary presence is formidable. Beyond the Situationists’ own output, it is to be found – avant la lettre – in Defoe, De Quincey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Beckett, Kafka and Kerouac, among others. It is there more recently in the work of Will Self, W. G. Sebald, Stewart Home, the Italian collective Luther Blissett, and scores of less mainstream writers (there are dozens of psychogeographic “unitsâ€, “laboratoriesâ€, “orders†and “associations†in towns and cities worldwide). J. G. Ballard’s later novels, with their fascination for the psychic auras of motorways, retail parks, shopping malls, airports, gated communities and business parks, are rich with it. In Paul Auster’s City of Glass (1985), the first book of his New York Trilogy, a private eye called Quinn follows his quarry, Stillman, on day after day of city walking. Having noted down Stillman’s apparently arbitrary routes over eleven days, Quinn traces them onto a street plan of New York. The map of each day’s walk forms the shape of a letter: combined, these letters spell out “OWER OF BABELâ€.

But it is the work of Iain Sinclair, beginning with the madcap bibliogothic pattern-making of his novel White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987), which has steered a huge revival of interest in the method, and made psychogeography into a buzz-term. All of Sinclair’s books – novels, poems, essays, uncategorizable travelogues – have turned psychogeographic tricks. But the technique has been most inventively successfully used in the trilogy of which Edge of the Orison is the grimly brilliant concluding part. Over three extraordinary books, ten years, and 1,400 pages, Sinclair has conducted a mapping of the psychogeography of south-east England, and produced a trilogy that will, unmistakably and deservedly, take its place in the canon.

The project began with Lights Out for the Territory: Nine excursions in the secret history of London (1997). Each “excursion†was determined by a different pedestrian logic: the notion of the first, announced in its opening sentence, was “to cut a crude V in the sprawl of the city†– to perform an act of “ambulant sign-makingâ€. The subsequent walks took similarly capricious routes through London – following the funeral cortège of Ronnie Kray, for instance – thus allowing Sinclair to riff and rant on subjects as dispersed as spies, gangsters, cemetery architecture and Margaret Thatcher. The book’s intent – as far as it is possible to extract anything so forthright from its magnificently pell-mell prose – was to reclaim London’s history from its sanctioned, official custodians (the Government, the heritage industry, the developers) and return it to those Sinclair saw as its true curators: a gaggle of mystics, visionaries, writers, collectors, filmmakers and poets, all the lost and the “reforgotten†keepers of a city’s pasts.
From the capital’s centre, Sinclair moved out to its perimeter. In London Orbital (2002), he walked the 130 circular miles of the M25 (the capital’s “grim necklaceâ€). That walk, as he mystically dramatized it, was a pilgrim’s ritual circling of the metropolis: “walking as virtueâ€. By pacing off London’s rimrock and recording the experience, Sinclair proposed, he would offer a counter-narrative to the pious snake-oil politics which Blair and his Cabinet had become such experts in peddling.

In Edge of the Orison, Sinclair has left London altogether, striking up into the “extruded suburbia†of the M11 Corridor. His inspiration, and psychogeographic predecessor, is the poet John Clare. In 1841, Clare escaped from the High Beach Asylum in Epping Forest and, over a three-and-a-half-day “hallucinatory voyageâ€, walked the 120 miles north-west to his home county of Northamptonshire. Shortly after arrival, he was recommitted to a local asylum, where he remained until his death in 1864. Sinclair follows Clare’s route (the pun of “syn-Clare†is implicit throughout this pun-riddled book) and uses the counterpoint of the earlier journey to meditate on, among other things, the politics of land use, doppelgängers, genealogy and the future of the English countryside. In
Sinclair’s visionary account, Clare’s tilt into madness – induced by the landscape changes which the Enclosure Acts wrought – becomes a parable for the fall of rural England, and the psychic maladies suffered throughout contemporary Britain.

Sinclair’s trilogy has advanced over its course. It has progressed by terrain: from interior, to edgeland, to outback. It has moved through different zones of England: from inner city, to commuter belt, to Middle. It has changed substance: from brick, to asphalt, to wheat. And the symbol or sigil inscribed by the walkers has altered: from V to O to \. One of the few constants has been the personnel.

For Sinclair never walks alone. He is accompanied on his excursions by an elite team of co-dériveurs: the mock-shock-troops of the psychogeographic brigades. Readers of the trilogy come to know his companions well, among them the painter-photographer Laurence “Renchi†Bicknell and the filmmaker-novelist Chris Petit (both, in Sinclair’s description, “true poets of the English landscape: ghost roads, river roads, and motorway service stationsâ€); the Oxford art historian Brian Catling (“looks like a porn star masquerading as a hit manâ€); and the writer and graphic novelist Alan Moore (“post-ironic scissorhand . . . John Dee’s malice made good . . . Northampton’s Bosch, painter of its demonsâ€). Absent shaman to the tribe is Ballard, to whose house in Shepperton Sinclair makes a tributary pilgrimage during his London Orbital circuit.

In each book, this crew of “unaccredited genealogists†moves through the landscape, “on the hunt for workable metaphorsâ€, inducing in each other a paranoid intensity of connection, and linking apparently trivial details into
compelling patterns. Their enemies in all this are the agents of what Michael Hrebeniak has nicely called “The Amnesia Market Stateâ€, and Sinclair rails superbly against the anti-pedestrian impulse of city planners, and the anti-historical impulse of the heritage industry: the “civil-servant class of explainers and apologists†who seek to package and laminate local history.

The style in which Sinclair recounts his subversive expeditions is unmistakable to experience, and elusive of definition. An approximate description of the form might be: high-rent contrarian rant delivered by post-structuralist vagabond with hermetic tendencies and a fetish for full stops. Better, maybe, to give an example. Here is Sinclair, a third of the way through his lap of the M25:

"Asylums ring the motorway like abandoned forts, the kind of defensive ring once found on the Thames below Tilbury. Hospital colonies are black mandalas of madness: circles set around a central axis, depictions of an unstable brain chemistry. Shenley is a hilltop encampment, Cadbury or Maiden Castle; Napsbury is a winged creature. The fantastic sigils of the madhouse architects dominate the map, the docile north-west quadrant of our journey.
London’s fringes were infected by nightmares in asylums and hospitals, by the pressure of our nervous attention, worrying at the fabric, promoting a thesis: the M25 is more than a road . . . . It means. Our walk made something happen, happen to us . . . we were transformed. On a molecular level. Very gradually, and with considerable reluctance, forgotten ancestors acknowledged our feeble interventions. We re-lived their histories and remade our own. The noise of the motorway changed from nuisance to a chorus of oracular whispers, prompts, mangled information. Which we had volunteered to transcribe and interpret."

Circles bud briskly out of one another in that first paragraph: the loop of the M25, the outer ring of the asylums, the hill forts, the hospitals, the mandala, the brain scan. The connections are so quickly made – connection is at work, too, in the aural overlaps of colonies/mandalas/madness/circles/axis – that the language becomes unstable, and thereby performs its own subject, which is paranoia, nervousness, mania. It performs, too, the historical layering which interests Sinclair so much: the past existences, in the same geographical space, of Iron Age encampment, Victorian asylum, Thatcherite motorway and Blairite hospital, and the psychic “energiesâ€, “voicesâ€, or “heat†(the mystical vocabulary is his) which therefore become invested in the area – and which are detectable to the skilled psychogeographic dowser.

As such, the passage exemplifies in miniature how all Sinclair’s prose works proceed: they are texts which need to be read across, for instead of forward-driving plot they have a kind of transways connectivity. Key metaphors and images recur (angels, churches and maps in Lights Out; asylums, pilgrims and lunatics in Orbital; drowning, flying and walking in Orison) and reach mycelially out to one another, and these complex lateral linkages bind the narrative together.

The passage also shows the risky games Sinclair plays with tone. He has, over the years, developed devices for striking pre-emptively at his own style; in the novel Landor’s Tower (2001), for instance, he has his narrator make extended fun of writers who specialize in “overdressed paragraphs of topographyâ€, “farcical excess†and “one-word sentencesâ€. But Sinclair can still lurch occasionally into pomposity, camp, or cod. In particular, he can show a table-rapping eagerness to extract the mystical from the simply banal (“the noise of the motorway \[was\] a chorus of oracular whispersâ€, etc). When, also in Orbital, Sinclair writes contemptuously of the heritage industry that it “presses . . . any convenient fable into service to lend narrative to a resonant locationâ€, one feels that the pot might be a little blind to its own blackness.

The politics of Sinclair’s books is curious and inconsistent, and would be more troubling if it were not for its inconsistency. Colourwise, he alternates between old red and true blue, lit by sudden black fascistic flares. Most problematic is the contempt in which he seems to hold much of the population of Britain. They – the uncontrarian masses – are either hopeless or soulless or both, and he tends to dismiss them in a Blakean-millenarian fashion – “London snorts human meat through metalled tubes. And later exhales the de-energised husks, its wage slaves†– which suggests he would be quite content to see them abolished. But then Sinclair is happiest when he is hating, and city life is what he hates most. The trilogy is full of rip-rap riffs on urban rancidity, and the “poisoned psyches†it breeds. He denounces (with a hint of awe) the “supernatural malignancy†of Hackney, where he has lived for twenty years. London is filled with “the exhausted, the timid. The burgled, raped, assaulted. Overtaxed. Under-rewarded. Choked on thin air. Allergic to everything.†Peterborough is a “blight†with a “prolapsed centreâ€. At such moments, Sinclair sounds very like Betjeman, calling down his air strike on Slough.

Edge of the Orison, which describes itself as a “meditation†on “landscape, land-useâ€, and “our optional futureâ€, is Sinclair’s clearest political statement. Throughout London Orbital, the city was figured either as a sick brain, pinched into maddening pain and darker psychoses by the band of the M25, or as a sloppy toxic pool. The only appeal of the motorway to Sinclair, in fact, was that it served as a breakwater, preventing London’s poisons – psychic, chemical, human – from sloshing outwards into the rest of the country.

In Edge of the Orison, Sinclair ventures into the land beyond the ring-road, to see how far those metropolitan toxins have seeped. The answer he comes up with is – as far as the eye can see. There is an apocalyptic feel to the book: one thinks of the final chapters of John Wyndham’s post-atomic masterpiece The Chrysalids, where the children ride out through the blighted badlands, wondering at the devastation and mutations they witness. For the England on which Sinclair reports here is no blissful Arcadia of bosomy hills and lush pastures, but an industrialized agri-scape: ecologically and emotionally devastated.

As he walks north, Sinclair compares his own progress with that of Clare. The discrepancies he finds are variously amusing, alarming and poignant. “Clare starved, tearing handfuls of grass from the side of the road. We breakfasted, full English. Clare navigated . . . by bird song. Petit does roads, Eddie Stobart lorries, dirty-white Transits, repmobiles, refrigerated carcasses swinging like a syncopated chorus line.†Where Clare saw gamekeepers, Sinclair sees green-keepers. Where Clare slept in hedges and ditches, Sinclair and company doss in chain hotels, and – in the funniest scene in a funny book – in The Wrestlers, a pub-hotel in Peterborough, where “food-substitutes fizz like sherbet on the tongue†and “‘chicken’ and ‘fish’ are courtesy discriminationsâ€. Most tellingly, it is impossible for Sinclair to repeat the route of Clare’s walk, for he comes up continually against blockages: “unilaterally privatised roadsâ€, “boarding kennels, golf coursesâ€, “forest exits blocked by burnt-out carsâ€, “padlocked gates across ancient footpathsâ€, “private airstripsâ€. “We are on our ownâ€, Sinclair concludes, “in country that doesn’t want us.†The Enclosures movement, which transformed Clare’s life and landscape (they led to the abolition of much common land, and obliged landowners to fence and gate their properties), is clearly still occurring, though in a more pernicious and thoroughgoing fashion.

Sinclair nicely christens this new Middle English world Xanaxshire (and so adds to the map of fictional English shires: George Eliot’s Loamshire, Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire, the Archers’ Borsetshire, Trollope’s Barsetshire, Edward Gorey’s Mortshire, Christopher Reid’s Bollockshire, and Tolkien’s ur-county, The Shire), and he develops a brilliant idiolect with which to deplore it. Venturing on foot into Xanaxshire’s “off-highway biosphereâ€, he encounters “a virtual landscape†of “industrial farmland . . . grassy knolls, business businesses and Glaxo colonies†(note the grassy knoll; Sinclair can never resist a hint of conspiracy). He moves through prairies of alien wheat, transected by roads; a countryside “stitched together from active or abandoned airfields, unpeopled farms, drowned villages and uncertain tracks that are visible only if you insist on themâ€. The emptier zones of farmland are pocked with “terracotta Travelodgesâ€, “mysterious hangars†and industrial parks “polyfilled with generic architectureâ€, which “resemble supercity germ cultures grown in hyperspaceâ€. This, he concludes, is the reality of the South-East, and the fate of the rest of the English countryside: an intensifying of “grunge, entropy, mismanagementâ€, “a preordained future of estate housing, retail parks, and out-of-town shopping citiesâ€.

Early in September of this year, the pressure group Campaign to Protect Rural England released Your Countryside, Your Choice, a major report on the future of the English landscape. It is a fine forty-six-page jeremiad against urban sprawl, poor planning and John Prescott, and it opens with a dystopian vision:

"It’s 2035, and the countryside is all but over . . . . there is no longer any distinction between town and country. “Town†does not end; “countryside†does not begin. The landscape is spattered and blotched with housing and large sheds of all colours while what remains of open land is riddled with fairways, paddocks and shimmering polythene. The varicose network of roads pervades all, ceaselessly coursing with traffic, from fat grey arteries to the writhing filigree of the cul-de-sac. An out-of-town state of retail parks, meandering housing estates, ring roads, streetlights, signs and masts punctuated with odd pockets of balmy green space . . . . By accident, much of England has become an anywhere-place, unloved and unloving – a homogenous exurbia."

The affinities of mood and style with Sinclair are unmistakable – but also unexpected, for CPRE’s politics are more usually associated with the Daily Telegraph than with avant-garde psychogeographers. But then Edge of the
Orison, like the CPRE report, is best read and admired as a document of nostalgic radicalism: an elegy for an already lost English landscape, a denunciation of a bleak present, and a warning sounded against an even bleaker possible future. If Iain Sinclair’s magnificent and urgent testimony is to be believed, we have long since entered a post-pastoral England and are fast approaching a post-natural England.