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.
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.
This is a video that I made with Cathy Rogers back in 2004 capturing the experience of the Lunchtime Derive. This was one of the first interventions in the Remapping High Wycombe project and engages in a kind of playful-constructive activity
aimed at tinkering with the psychogeographical articulations of the town and its primary economic motors – work and consumption. Our grand plan was to roll this out en-masse and get large town centre employers involved and then study the changing relationship that people have with the town once they have been jolted out of their regular routines. The idea is still very much alive.
The maps and notes recording the derivistes pre and post derive movements and the text reproduced below were published in ‘Remapping High Wycombe: journeys beyond the western sector’
The aim of the LunchTime Dérive was to study how, by following a simple instruction, a group of workers could re-experience the town during their Lunch Break. The daily hunt for a prawn sandwich or Chicken Tikka Marsala Ready Meal will be replaced with a drift motivated by following a basic algorithm provided Dutch psychogeographers Social Fiction.
In an email to Cathy I sketch out the theoretical background to the exercise and how we might go about organizing it:
According to geographer David Pinder (1996) part of the purpose of the dérive was to allow “participants to drift from their usual activities and to become more aware of their surroundings while simultaneously seeking out ways of changing them.”
Our intervention is in part in reference to Chombart de Lauwe’s study of the movement’s made in a year by a Paris student. Guy Debord referred to the data produced by this study as ‘a modern poetry capable of provoking sharp emotional reactions.’ By asking the office workers to map their usual lunchtime routines we may find that this precious hour of free time is also similarly limited.
Debord describes the dérive as a period when one or more persons “drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” We will be asking people to drop their usual lunch-time routine of the trip to M&S for a sarnie or surfing the net a their desk and to follow an algorithm wherever it may take them and experience the town as they find it.
We will employ an algorithm to jolt people from their routines and drive the drift most likely taking them into areas they wouldn’t normally consider going to at lunch-time. Debord suggests that the dérivers may discover new ‘psychogeographical attractions’ to which they may be drawn back, in this way our intervention may have deeply subversive consequences in changing the lunch-time habits of a group of office workers, the hunt for grub between 12 and 2 being one of the town’s primary motors. By mapping this dynamic then by interfering with it we can start to truly understand and interact with the ‘psychogeographical articulations’ of the town.
1. Organize an initial meeting with the workers 1 week or so before the derive. Ask them to map their usual lunchtime movements.
2. On the day of the derive meet the volunteers outside their workplace. Issue them with: notepad, disposable camera, piece of paper containing the algorithm.
3. Make sure that everybody understands the instructions and send the groups of 2-3 people off in different directions.
4. We will accompany the groups to record the event but not intervene. The groups record their route, observations etc. on the notepads.
5. The derive finishes after 30 minutes and we reassemble for lunch and debrief.
6. We collect in notepads and cameras and process the results creating maps of the routes followed.
(we could give them a small amount of money to collect food along the way for the lunch at the end)
Rules for a Dérive
1. One or more persons may dérive
2. The most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of several groups of two or three people.
3. It is preferable for the composition of these groups to change from one dérive to another.
4. Drop your usual motives for movement and action, relations, work and leisure activities.
5. The average duration of a dérive is a day, considered as the time between two periods of sleep.
6. The times of beginning and ending have no necessary relation to the solar day.
7. The last hours of the night are generally unsuitable for dérives.
8. A dérive seldom occurs in its pure form.
9. The spatial field of the dérive may be precisely delimited or vague.
10. The spatial field depends first of all on the point of departure.
11. The maximum area of this spatial field does not extend beyond the entirety of a large city and its suburbs.
12. The minimum area can be limited to a small self-contained ambiance (the extreme case being the static-dérive of an entire day within the Saint-Lazare train station).
Extrapolated from Guy Debord’s 1958 Theory of the Dérive
Author mourns Wycombe’s loss of identity
ONCE known as a potential safe haven for Londoners during times of catastrophe, High Wycombe is today facing a catastrophe of its own as the town’s identity gradually erodes away, says author John Rogers.
John, who was born in High Wycombe and raised in Wooburn Green, has just published his book, Remapping High Wycombe: Journeys Beyond The Western Sector, which questions the impact of redevelopment on the town itself. The book, and an accompanying DVD, formed part of an 18-month public art project developed by John’s sister, Cathy, and was financially supported with grants from Arts Council England.
The impetus for the project, says John, was the announcement of redevelopment plans in the town centre, a mixed-use retail-driven scheme that was initially called Project Phoenix, but which later changed its name to Project Eden and is expected to finish in 2008.
The 35-year-old, who now lives in East London with his wife, Heidi, and two young sons, is keen to point out that both project names suggest “revival”, but he believes the opposite is in fact true.
John says: “High Wycombe once had a distinctive identity. It was called “Chairopolis” because it was the centre of the chair-making industry. But its industrial heritage is now slipping away and High Wycombe is like anywhere else.
“People say High Wycombe survived the Luftwaffe, but not the urban planners of the 1960s.
“Cathy and I looked back at the headlines from the 1960s and saw the doom and gloom newspapers spell for so-called “development”.
“But those headlines are little different from the ones we see today. We’ve learnt absolutely nothing. And why? Because the drive behind the development is always the same – money.”
John tells me he feared the town would undergo such radical change that in only a few years, his birthplace would become “unrecognisable”.
With the help of his sister, he decided to capture High Wycombe, in words and film, before its transformation is complete, as well as rediscover the town’s “forgotten history”.
John says he also became increasingly interested in psychogeography, or how a place affects people’s emotions and behaviour.
“The basic idea we came up with was to look at the way people connect to an area and how this can be disrupted,” says John. “In recent months, High Wycombe has been described as “a leading M40 corridor town”, because of the new developments in place.
“How is this something we should be aspiring to and how does that affect the people who live there?
“High Wycombe was once known for better things, such as producing two Prime Ministers, the Earl of Shelburne and Disraeli. How many other towns can lay claim to that?”
John adds in his book that he found many other reasons why the people of Wycombe should be proud of their area.
He writes: “Apparently there is a saying that the river Wye gave the town its mills, the mills produced the market and the market gave birth to the town.
“It’s where the early translators of the Bible found support, where Engish Civil War took root, where the Quakers plotted their flight to America, the US Air Force based their Cold War communications; and where RAF Strike Command still rests in the hills.”
With these thoughts in mind, John tells me he set out to “rediscover” the historical High Wycombe for himself.
He discarded his maps and instead embarked upon a series of walks or “drives”, purposeful drifts around the streets of the town that he believed would help him see the town with fresh eyes.
“It was all about seeing past the surface level,” says John. “I’ve travelled a lot in the past, around India and Australia, and I think it’s really helped to heighten my senses.
“I can wander around places with innocent eyes and even the most mundane things are fascinating to me.”
With his trusty camera by his side, John took pictures of crumbling engravings, vandalised bus shelters, picnic tables scrawled with graffiti, sharp razor-wire fences and ancient stone bridges.
Each has come from a different time and has a different purpose, but, explains John, they all make up the High Wycombe of today, and as such, deserve to be recorded in his book.
“My investigation threw up all kinds of fascinating things I never knew before. I discovered an ancient footpath in Green Street, which stretches back to before the Romans, possibly 5,000 years, maybe earlier.
“There’s so many little footpaths everywhere, and who knows where they lead?
“Some seem like they don’t go anywhere, but the important thing is that they once did.”
John says he is proud of his book, if only because it offers a “snapshot” of the town, preserving it before it changes for good. He now plans to return to High Wycombe in future years and document the town’s changes again.
“The main thing is that we found another Wycombe. We found our own town. We ignored the maps and we discovered a town that still has a very strong spirit of place. That can’t be taken away, whatever lies ahead.”
Remapping High Wycombe: Journeys Beyond The Western Sector is currently available exclusively at www.lulu.com/cryptotopography. For more information, log onto http://remappinghighwycombe.blogspot.com.
1:13pm Friday 8th December 2006
By Francine Wolfisz
read the original here
The Remapping High Wycombe book “Journeys Beyond the Western Sector” is finally available, through Lulu.com. The purpose of the project was to re-map and re-imagine the town as it was going through a period of redevelopment. The idea was to create a kind of parallel scheme, a psychogeographical vision of the area. The book takes the form of several walks or ‘dérives’ – some following prepared routes based in significant sites or old borough boundaries, others using the principles of generative psychogeography. There is a DVD to accompany the book featuring footage from the derives and some interviews we conducted intercut with archive film of Wycombe, which we’ll send to anyone who wants one.
I’m doing a talk with Cathy on Wednesday 21st at Wycombe museum about the Remapping High Wycombe project. I’ve just been reviewing the powerpoint, seeing how we’ve presented our work to different audiences in the past, working out how we’ll pitch it this time. The interesting thing is that regardless of the audience when we talk about the derive, and “encountering the unknown facets of the known, astonishment on the terrain of boredom…” (Greil Marcus), it always gets a good reaction and people become intrigued about the process. It’ll be interesting to see how the midweek lunchtime audience at Wycombe museum react and what they’ll latch on to.
We’ll also show a map we made from comments posted on the Knowhere Guide, which are quite negative and focus on the violence and racial tension that some people pick up on in Wycombe, and see how people respond to that. Our Mytho-Historical Map is our response:
This talk will bring the project to a kind of conclusion, a year on from the Significant Sites event (almost to the day). We’ve to-ed and fro-ed on this but with the imminent publication of the written material (via Lulu) and hopefully a Dvd to go with it, we can draw a line under the work and move on to something new. Although, I think I’ll still find myself being drawn back by the psychogeographical articulations of the area.