Montreal took me quite by surprise with its Frenchness. It stands in as a European city in numerous Hollywood films and somewhere in its psyche there dwells an innate confusion – the French city in the French province in the former British colony with the English monarch on its currency and a sat on the shoulder of the world’s pre-eminent (English-speaking) cultural and political power.
The paradoxes and the underlying tension is palpable as you wander its deserted streets.
I seemed to lose myself this time, unable to locate the spirit of drift boxed in between the solid blocks that confined me within 63rd and 42nd Streets.
I found freedom by chance in the Beaux Arts magnificence of the New York Public Library where I was seeking an exhibition of contemporary photography and the city called ‘Eminent Domain’. It was a building that you could spend weeks in.
The exhibition was excellent, Bettina Johae’s ‘borough edges, nyc,’ particularly catching my eye – a series of digital stills taken on bicycle boundary circuits of the city’s five boroughs in an act of ‘remapping’ – redolent of mine and Cathy’s Remapping High Wycombe project where we too drifted to the urban edges to get a fresh perspective on what lie within.
I bagged the last copy of Jennifer Toth’s ‘Mole People’ from the library shop and read it on the subway – gazing out of the window in the hope of catching a glimpse of one of the legendary underground dwellers.
I react to Boris Johnson’s election as Mayor by escaping to Los Angeles, in a West Coast reversal of the John Carpenter/ Kurt Russell movie Escape From New York. I’m staying up a nasturtium-banked lane not far from the house on Hollywood Boulevard where comic legend Lenny Bruce met his end . When I check this fact with a local she looks mildly taken aback with my morbid interest until I point out that Bruce had also lived in the house – not just died there.
On my last trip to LA I’d read Will Self’s excellent essay in British Airways Highlife magazine on travelling without luggage and had the image of him “labouring through suburban LA” with his Barbour slung over his shoulder. On that cab ride I’d really longed to trace his steps on foot into the city – the 10 or 15 miles across town along wide streets adorned with hyperbolic signage to the celebrated Hollywood hills that rise above Sunset Boulevard.
This is the outer edge of Laurel Canyon, a place ridiculously rich in rock folklore. From The Byrds through Frank Zappa, The Mammas and Papas, Gram Parsons, Joni Mitchell, The Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and The Eagles – resided in these eucalyptus the topped hills. It’s the place that Mamma Cass was thinking of when she sang ‘California Dreamin’.
As Michael Walker writes in ‘Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Legendary Neighbourhood’ (picked up at the Laurel Canyon Country Store), “The musicians flocking to the canyon – at night, caterwauling coyotes and hooting owls made you marvel that you were only five minutes from the noise and neon of the Sunset Strip – constituted an unprecedented breed of incipient celebrity: the rocker-hippie, as much a work in progress as the music they made”.
The rocker-hippies are largely no more it seems, replaced by preening proto-porn stars with silicone enhancing any appendage that’ll take it. The Griddle Café on Sunset, sat beside The Director’s Guild of America, seemed a particular attraction for this genre of Los Angel.
It’s a city, a place, that I found resisting definition – allergic to prose. I ventured out on a few jet-lag inspired excursions on foot and experienced the odd sensation of being greeted by literally every other fellow walker – such is the exclusivity of the cult of the pedestrian. But due to the sheer scale of the place (and the steepness of the inevitable return to base) that I was restricted to laps of the blocks along Hollywood-Sunset-Crescent Heights Boulevards. Sprawl almost seems inadequate to describe a system of town planning that gives every single building the car parking space of a small supermarket. Atomised would better describe it – but if matter were this loosely aligned the fabric of everyday objects would crumble before us.
I had Will Self with me again for company, in the form of his piece in GQ on walking LA’s Downtown district (I’ve left off a qualifying adjective but needless to add that it’s a brilliant piece of writing). He references some of the city’s onscreen rendering – Falling Down, Collateral and Blade Runner, to such an extent that the No.2 bus from the bottom of the hill that would take me there seems like the transport to another city. I never made it downtown to Will’s vision of Los Angeles. The city I found the place was at odds with the 2-D LA of TV and cinema. Few cop cars, gangsters and aggravation. More violet blossomed boulevards where SUVs lumber along languidly. The only reference to hand for me being the LA scenes in Sideways – but without the pot-bellied Paul Giamatti.
On Wednesday I arrived in Paris with my family after setting out for Los Angeles alone that morning. I realise that this sentence comes across as both pretentious and preposterous but I hope to redeem myself by steering this in the direction of the heartland of French psychogeography.
We were in Paris to visit some my wife’s friends who live in Canberra (true and yet another dimension to what could also be a missive on ‘time-space compression – but isn’t). Los Angeles – well that’s better left unsaid.
After some of the usual family-friendly fun at the Natural History Museum perusing their collection of dusty old bones laid out like a Damien Hirst installation (that sentence would work in reverse if I were writing about Hirst – of course the museum was there long before BritArt) we allowed ourselves to drift through the frozen streets. Children are natural psychogeographers and flaneurs. They live for the moment, are completely guided by their senses and desires, and are inherently iconoclastic and anarchic prepared to challenge conventional norms with virtually every step. And we had four of them of various ages between us.
So I reckon it was the kids rather than the Paris-born Mathew who led us to Rue Mouffetard. It rang a bell, I think from the Will Self vs Iain Sinclair event at St. Lukes in 2004. As Mathew sat us down in the traditional café of Le Mouffetard, I asked him whether there was any link to Debord. He confirmed that it was in fact an area with Situationist associations, as later confirmed by this passage from The Situationist City by Simon Sadler:
“Situationsists regarded the best urban activity as human, unmechanised, and nonalienating, and their texts, films, and maps indicated some possibilities, variously idealising the marketplaces, like Les Halles or the Rue Mouffetard, the traditional cafes, notably those around Saint-Germain-des-Pres, and the places of student congregation, such as those around the Pantheon” (p.92).
He led me up the street to Place De La Contrescarpe where Debord frequented the cafes – possibly whilst plotting dérives that he got too soaked to carry out. I would have a cheesy photo to mark the occasion had I not by now have been carrying my youngest child.
Indeed Debord mentions the location in the Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography: “Is it illogical or devoid of interest to observe that the district in Paris between Place de la Contrescarpe and Rue de l’Arbalète conduces rather to atheism, to oblivion and to the disorientation of habitual reflexes?”
I was going to note how strange it was that a family outing should find its way to this exact location with such psychogeographical resonance, but this would be to ignore the articulations at work in the urban realm – particularly when guided by children.
The photo at the top is of the Memorial de le Deportation