Why is Will Self’s column in The Independent called ‘PsychoGeography’?

I bought the Independent this weekend for the Eric Rohmer DVD’s and naturally came across Will Self’s column in the magazine. I have heard of it before but not paid any attention. I always assumed the title to be a bit of a joke, a comment on the over/mis-use of the term by a man who knows what it really means. But as I read yesterday’s cloumn, a meditation on “Travelling light”, the inappropriateness of the title irked me. Self was sailing too close to genuinely psychogeographical waters, questioning notions of and approaches to travel. What was Self playing with here?

I’d seen him jibe Iain Sinclair for his perceived mis-use of the Debordian idea of “The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment (whether consciously organised or not) on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”. (Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ 1955) for Sinclair’s brew of earth mysteries and East End esoterica. Mr Self had even squared the two ideas of psychogeography in his review of Sinclair’s masterful ‘London Orbital’ (along with ‘Lights Out for the Territory’ and Stewart Home’s LPA newsletters held up as the canonical texts of Anglo-Celtic psychogeography). He’d quite neatly defined what he thought the Situationists were up to when he wrote:
“The situationists of Left Bank Paris undertook their derives in an altogether aimless fashion. These urban rambles, guided by Guy Debord, a pisshead mystical Marxist intellectual manque (presumably holding up a cheap bottle of wine, the way a London tour guide lofts an umbrella), were aimed at deconstructing the urban space. The cities – according to these filthy flaneurs – had become merely factories for the production of soullessness, and it was their duty, by lying about drunk on the Ile de France, to liberate Paris from its collective obsession with work, consumption and industrialised mass “leisure”.
And he brilliantly summarises what Sinclair was up to:
“But across the Channel and 40 years on, Sinclair has made of psychogeography an altogether more productive, if decidedly less millenarian, field of study. While Ackroyd is a shameless antiquarian, a John Stow de nos jours who stomps through time and space kicking up the fossilised imprints of styles and modes, Sinclair, on the other hand, has at least a half-belief in full temporal simultaneity.

So what exactly is Will Self up to with this column? Where does his PsychoGeography fit in to all this? Surely he’s not throwing his lot in with the crew who produce such aberrations as the Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel and the Time Out book of London Walks.

Journeys Beyond the Western Sector

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.

Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.

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Psychogeography autotopography and the terror suspects

I can feel myself caught in a web of intersecting symmetries relating to the current wave of suspected and real terrorist activity. The house in Forest Gate that was wrongly raided is very close to a house I lived in whilst a student in Lancaster Road. You can trace a direct line from there through where I’m sitting now to the recently arrested suspected jihadists in Walthamstow. If I attempt to escape across London back to my hometown I must first pass the house of another suspect in Leyton and eventually find myself back in High Wycombe where several of the other accused would-be martyrs live. Such a journey would take me via my former home at Angel just near the tube bombings at Kings Cross and on the ill-fated No.30 bus route.
I have turned a wall in my house into an incident room to further track these developments. Comments on this subject are most welcome.

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an archaeology of the present

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.

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The London Explorers’ Club

The London Explorers’ Club was founded by W. Margrie in 1930 “to study London in all her moods and phases”. In 1933 he published ‘The Diary of a London Explorer’, part autobiography part manifesto on behalf of the club.

“We look into London’s kitchens and backyards as well as her front parlours. When we visit a building we are concerned not with dead stone, wood, and metal, but with the dramas, romances and personalities that the wood and stone represent. Every institution we have explored, from a cathedral to a brewery, symbolises mankind’s aspirations and strivings for a better and fuller life.”

Margrie also put a heavy emphasis on the fact that the Club was “jolly, human and creative”.
Wearing a spray of London Pride as their emblem they combed London “to discover the romances hidden in her ancient buildings, the sorrows in her slums, the unexpected beauties of her streets and squares”.

In a statement to the press they declared their mission: “We shall see London in all her moods, and not only her beauty but her ugliness as well. We shall try to recapture her histories and memories, seeing all there is to be seen by the flare of the gas-jet, by the light of the moon, or from the electric arc-lamps”.

In the first 3 years of its existence the LEC visited 180 Places including: Croydon Aerodrome, Headquarters of the Fire Brigade, Merrie Islington which was “not as merrie as it used to be”, Caledonian Market, Historic Deptford guided by the vicar of Deptford, Samuel Jones’s Camberwell Beauty Mills which specialises in gummed paper, and Peek Frean’s Biscuit Factory.
They embarked on an All-Night Ramble Through Central London, an act recently repeated by an artist to much media interest. Their nocturnal derive included the City, Covent Garden, Adelphi Arches and parts of the West End. Margrie wrote that “One of our objects is to study London in all her moods. London at 2am is very different from London at 2pm. Central London on a fine summer night is a fine place for poets, dreamers, musicians, lovers, optimists, and explorers. It is romantic, lovely, and mysterious.”

Another of their stunts was The World’s Greatest Treasure Hunt where competitors had two hours to identify twenty-four representative City institutions and a quotation. The hunt started at Mansion House and finished at Monument Station; and the clues included: 1. A church associated with Cockneys. 6. Insurance institution associated with a bell. 9. Historic institution associated with blood and beef. The winner would be crowned The Champion Londoner.

They pioneered the idea of the Topographical Race. Starting at Trafalgar Square and finishing at a restaurant in Holborn competitors had to visit ten institutions, “those spending the least amount on buses and trams would stand the best chance.” The institutions on the circuit were Bedlam, Boadicea Statue, Fire Brigade HQ, Friend’s House, Lambeth Palace, Law Courts, Mount Pleasant, new B.B.C House, St. George’s Hospital, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Margrie rounds off his book by proposing the formation of a Metropolitan Free State to replace the LCC. As a member of the left-wing Independent Labour Party it appears to be a forerunner of Red Ken’s GLC, “a central co-ordinating authority for the whole of greater London”, but would also include “five or six home counties, and the Thames”.

Margrie then spells out his grand vision for the new city state: “It is my supreme ambition to be the first Prime Minister of this Metropolitan Free State. When I realize my dream I shall emulate Mussolini and give Londoners plenty of dramas pageants and shows to wake them up”. He promises that under his rule “For the first time in London’s history Londoners will take an interest in their city and province, and all London will become as merry as a Peckham bye-election.”

This mixture of a form of proto-psychogeography allied to visions of a utopian future have echoes of the Situationist movement that would follow some 25 years later, although instead of drinking absinthe in Montmatre they supped tea in Camberwell.
The London Explorers’ Club seems to be a forgotten entity but lives on in the upsurge in interest in the hidden secret city led first by Geoffrey Fletcher and lately by Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd.

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