Aimless pleasures – Observations on psychogeography

As a NS subscriber of many years not sure how I missed this column by Joe Moran published in the Newstatesman 16 April 2009 about psychogeography which gives a great mention to mine and Cathy’s Wycombe project and the brilliant John Davies.

“The same spirit is evident in Remapping High Wycombe, a project run by Cathy and John Rogers, a brother-and-sister team of “psycho-crypto-topographers”. They wanted to make an imaginative record of the old town centre before it was redeveloped, so they created an algorithmic dérive in which they repeatedly followed the same set of simple instructions – for instance, “Take a left and then a right”. My favourite online psychogeographer is John Davies, a vicar who spent two months walking the length of the M62 motorway and blogging about it from the wifi areas in Travelodges and service stations.”

Psychogeography is definitely in the air at the moment as there is an article in Product magazine this month with a well articulated User’s Guide to Psychogeography.

Joe Moran’s “On Roads: a Hidden History” is published in June by Profile Books (£14.99)
joe moran on roads


Lewis Mumford and the psychogeography of High Wycombe

High Wycombe gets a mention in Lewis Mumford’s canonical The History of the City. I knew it would – that was what led me to look under ‘H’ in the extensive index, and probably what drew me in off the street to the charity shop.
It is a reference to the ‘agora’, the dynamic centre of the Greek city.
“The early agora had an amorphous and irregular form. If it was sometimes an open square, in a town like Thora it might be little more than the widening of the main street, a Broad Way, just as it was, to choose only one out of a hundred examples in the English town of High Wycombe.”

But why did this revered American academic choose the much maligned and overlooked Buckinghamshire manufacturing town as the “one out of a hundred examples”?
Mumford spent some time in Wycombe teaching a course on postwar reform. The town clearly had a positive influence of the great thinker of urban development. In a letter from High Wycombe Mumford wrote:
“For the first time in three quarters of a year I have a sense of well-being and intellectual assurance.” He explored the small town and it’s surrounding villages during his short stay. He witnessed the sadly now nearly extinct craft of chair ‘bodging’ using ancient lathes, admired the topography of the town and the surrounding landscape. This all had a profound effect on the kind urban development he would later advocate.

“The garden towns he would later press for in his work for a regionalized America were updates and transplantations to American soil of the kind of “balanced” living he observed in these country communities of the Wycombe valley.” (Lewis Mumford, A Life – Donald L. Miller)The psychogeography of High Wycombe thoroughly implanted itself in Mumford’s psyche. They keep trying to rip the guts out of the place, including the winding streets that he so admired and the traditional crafts with their workshops that he sort to replicate across America. But the power of place is too strong, as I found myself when I was drawn back there from Australia.
When doing presentations on the psychgeo of the town of my birth for a bit of light relief but secretly suspecting it to be true I would say High Wycombe made the modern world, generally when showing a photo of the Dovecote multistorey carpark or the littered alley beside the now demolished Scorpion Records. And here is yet more evidence.


Return to Wycombe – No escape from Eden

Returning to Newlands was a peculiar experience. I always thought it would be – maybe that’s why I delayed it so long. I attempted to adopt an air of professional detachment which was only partially successful as the remapping high wycombe project was always a personal journey – as Cathy had printed on the large scale Significant Sites map ‘This is no project – this is my life’.

Eden they have somehow branded this red brick consumerist behemoth, a moloch that will devour our children. A retail concentration camp, shoppers with bar codes burnt into their retinas, the whole scene directed by George A. Romero or John Carpenter – the no-comedy, spoof-free remake.

The development process that we documented in our project was one of ultra-artful deception from start to finish – a slick PR-savvy campaign by arch corporate colonists, like the alien invaders in the 80’s sci-fi earth invasion ‘V’ who adopt the guise of friendly attractive humans in order to seduce the human race and offer us amazing visions of the future they will bring us – then once we have given ourselves over to them, lowered our defences they remove their masks revealing their reptilian form and their true intention to farm us for food to feed their insatiable appetite. David Icke would probably close the circle and claim that the head honchos at Multiplex and the quisling Council Leaders who sold out the town are in fact lizard-like shape-shifters, a genetic throwback to a master race who aim to enslave us poor innocent homo-sapiens.

(a recreation of the orbital tour of the site that I did with Cathy in 2004)

I don’t agree with Icke about the lizard thing for the record. I met many of the people responsible for the ‘Horror of Newlands’ and they just looked like perfectly pleasant corporate suits, in much the same way that British colonial viceroys were often urbane, cultured souls. This didn’t prevent the brutality of imperialism – merely meant that it was administered by men who could relate it to the relevant precedent in the classical world. The mark of the colonist was to change the names of local landmarks, towns and villages. And so the Octagon has gone, that dark noxious place full of wonder – a piss-reeking reminder that shopping malls are places to be avoided at all costs. There was no deception with the old Octagon – it spelt it out for you ‘Shopping is Shit’. Where the Octagon still stands now the name reads ‘House of Fraser Eden’. The Octagon is erased from the collective memory – now there is only Eden. Shopping as Soma.

And so the Eden Shopping Centre was rationalised in terms of jobs and economic benefits. The havoc it would wreck on the psyche of the town, the scar it would gouge into its flesh was a concept they were unable to engage with. I presented this idea to both the architect of the scheme and the fella at Mulitplex – they simply didn’t have a vocabulary for the experiential qualities of space and place. That a building, especially a large lump of buildings could effect the way you feel, could influence your psychology. They had sophisticated models showing how to drive footfall through the mall, of how to enhance the shopping experience to maximise the consumer spend. But when confronted with the idea that a person might have an emotional response to such a place they were at a loss.

The evidence is there now – the gormless zombies listlessly perambulating from one chain-store to the next. The minimum wage jobs barely paying enough to cover the price of a double-caramel frappucino at BigBucks. The traffic on traction gliding from home to parking-space located conveniently close to the anchor store. The bus delivering you to your retail heaven. This other Eden that looks a lot like Hell to me.