The Cyclist and the City: Cyclogeography interview in the saddle with Jon Day

When I opened the envelope containing Jon Day’s Cyclogeography (a beautiful object – pink cloth cover with embossed white and electric blue text) I wondered whether it was a provocation. I’d been sent the book on the basis of my writing about London walking and here was a text penned from the point of view of the one of the natural enemies of the urban rambler. With cycle couriers able to obtain speeds around the tight grid of Soho streets that even Jeremy Clarkson could only dream about you are more likely to be mown down by a bike in some parts of London than a motor vehicle. Puce-faced commuting cyclists shrink-wrapped in lycra and riding the Tour de France in their imagination have now rendered the towpaths of the Regent Canal and the Lee Navigation unwalkable. But I was intrigued by the occluded world of the bike couriers – you see them flash by like sprites but rarely is their society penetrated.

Jon Day makes the solid case for this book up front. After starting to learn London from the saddle during stints working as a cycle courier he began to read the city too and soon noticed that London had been claimed as a walker’s city with precious little from the perspective of the cyclist. As militant a pedestrian as I am, Day soon convinced me that whereas a walker will seek out London’s buried rivers by reading the runes of old maps, for the cyclist the contours of the river valleys are unavoidable, detected not by a dowsing rod but by tightening calves at the end of 80-mile day on the pedal. Not only does the Courier’s livelihood depend on an intimate knowledge of every street and alleyway between the Elephant and Camden and the East End to Hammersmith, but also their very physical survival. They are compelled to live in harmony with the city.

Cyclogeography portrays an intense relationship between the cyclist and the city – nearly elevating the courier to the status of the great hoarders of London lore – the Black Cab driver. Day makes such a beguiling case for the city of the cyclist that I asked him to take me for a ride, at my insistence away from traffic through the Olympic Park and beside the River Lea. It was one of the more challenging interviews I’ve filmed, but that was the point.
This is an important and unique London book – you should read it.

This article originally appeared in 3:AM Magazine

Psychogeographical intervention in the General Election

With the General Election looming it seems an apt time to post this video of an psychogeographical intervention I was invited to stage by artist Bob and Roberta Smith in Michael Gove’s Surrey Heath constituency where Bob is challenging him on May 7th.

Employing an algorithmic derive seemed like a good way to unlock hidden aspects of the principle town in the constituency – Camberley. The Situationists had developed the derive as a form of reconnaissance mission for the eventual transformation of everyday life – in this case it would be launching Bob’s election campaign.

psychogeography algorithm

The algorithm (above) that we used, and the overall idea of algorithmic or Generative Psychogeography was developed by Dutch artists Social Fiction who experimented with the process over the Summer of 2001. I’d used these in a psychogeographical remapping of High Wycombe working with my sister throughout 2004-05 to great effect. What would happen in Surrey Heath?

In their essay, Algorithmic Noise as Free Culture: The Hot Summer of Generative Psychogeography 2002, Social Fiction write of the experience, “Participation in a generative psychogeographical experiment forces you to adopt the characteristics of a machine, you are pushed through streets like an object in almost closed loops which are connected by sudden rushes straight forward.”

Camberley

As the algorithm took us into a series of carparks linked by flytipped alleyways this prediction appeared to be borne out – Camberley was perhaps a perfect ‘generator’ of psychogeography.

The process does come with the warning that, “the algorithm which should be able to produce a walk without navigational friction repeatedly produces more confusion than certainty: the algorithm becomes chaos.” Which certainly seemed to be the case as we crossed and re-crossed roads, and skirted a multi-storey carpark that Bob sketched.

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I had stated that we would follow the algorithm for exactly one hour. Our final turn took us off the main road opposite Sandhurst Military Academy and into the carpark behind Argos. And there at the very end of the derive, dead on 1 hour of walking, we found ourselves outside Camberley’s one and only Art Shop. From the chaos the algorithm had produced the perfect conclusion to the exercise.

Vote Bob for More Art

Forest to the Lea Valley – walking video diary and ‘psychogeographical sound sandwich’

Here’s a video of the walk I did last weekend from Leytonstone to Ponders End. I’ve collaged a soundtrack from some old records, field recordings I made on my phone and some music I quickly knocked up on my laptop using Garageband – it more accurately reflects what’s going on in my head as I walk. Bob and Roberta Smith talked of creating a ‘sound sandwich’ when I interviewed him at the Barbican during the Cultural Olympiad where he was performing with his Apathy Band, and he related the idea, using lots of overlapping records playing, to the psychogeographical walks I was undertaking – but in audio form – a ‘psychogeographical sound sandwich’.

Eric Simms BBC

Eric Simms

The first ‘found sound’ on the video is from a gem of a record in the BBC Wildlife Series featuring recordings of birdsong made by Eric Simms originally broadcast on the Radio 4 Countryside programme. It’s a selection of Spring choruses – ‘a busy rookery’ recorded in Sussex, 1960. In the sleeve notes Simms writes, “For me perhaps the quickest way to evoke memories of places is to listen to recordings that I have made of their background sounds”. For me when I walk the sounds of the present are mingled with sounds, voices and memories of other places.

There was a serendipitous moment when I grabbed a bit of a recording of ‘If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses-In-Between’ performed by John Foreman when I just happened to skip to the lines:

Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
And Chingford to the Eastward could be seen
Wiv a ladder and some glasses
You could see to ‘Ackney Marshes
If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between

Which is a fairly accurate description of the view from the footbridge over the North Circular between Walthamstow and Woodford, except the song was talking about the overcrowded East End of the 1890s, harking back to some rural idyll just beyond the rooftops. Is this what draws me out into the forest?

 

Read the blog post about this walk here

Urban Ramble on Absolute Radio with Geoff Lloyd

The other week I took Geoff Lloyd for an urban ramble round Soho for his show on Absolute Radio and chatted about psychogeography, topography, old maps, and the fate of Madame Jo Jo’s.

 

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A chat with Iain Sinclair in the basement of the London Review Bookshop

Iain Sinclair was launching his latest book, 70×70 – Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked In 70 Films so I got the opportunity to interview the great London magus in the basement of the London Review Bookshop. This was the second time I’d interviewed Sinclair, the first was for my documentary, The London Perambulator in his Hackney home 6 years ago almost to the day.

On that occasion we’d talked off camera about Iain’s elusive film collaborations with Chris Petit that had been originally broadcast on Channel 4 – The Cardinal and the Corpse and The Falconer, now impossible to find on DVD or YouTube and Iain had invited me to watch them with him there and then on VHS. But I’d had to pass up this golden opportunity as the strong painkillers I was taking following knee surgery were making me dizzy and nauseous and it had been a massive effort to get through the interview without passing out on his floor.

Those Petit collaborations had eventually been screened in the 70×70 season put together by King Mob to celebrate Iain’s 70th birthday – a year of 70 films which had been mentioned in Sinclair’s books, and screened in venues both obscure and grand, some of them joining the ranks of the disappeared before the season had been completed.

The 70 x 70 book is more than just a record of this filmic dérive around London, it is a repertory cinema season on paper, the SCALA brought back to life in print; a revival of the world of wall-charts peppered with classics by Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, Godard, unheralded oddities, all-nighters interrupted at 4am by a punk band to keep you awake. But it is also a form of autobiography, weaving a path through Sinclair’s life and work as he discusses the background to each selection, or “an accidental novel”, as he describes it.

So we chatted not just about the book. We spoke about Iain’s early years in London as a film student and eager cineaste, the Paul Tickell film for BBC’s Late Show that captured the world of Downriver when it was still provisionally titled Vessels of Wrath. This rare 20-minute gem included memorable scenes of Sinclair reading aloud in the still semi-derelict Princelet Street Synagogue and the notorious bookdealer Driffield scavenging for rare tomes in Gravesend and Tilbury.

He discussed his collaborations with Chris Petit and Andrew Kotting. It led us to the subject of John Clare and the idea of ‘fugue’ walking, “… to do it purposefully, if that’s not a contradiction, seems quite an important way of dealing with a city that is a series of defended grids and official permeable ways that you can drift through that lead you to the next supermarket”.  Walking, Sinclair told me is “absolute”; “The silence of just moving, hearing your own footfall, listening to the city, watching the city, drinking it through your pores”.

The interview came to a natural conclusion as the camera battery ran out just after Sinclair had recounted a pavement confrontation in Hollywood with a Warren Oates lookalike. The event organiser seized their moment and moved in as went to my bag for a spare. I could have kept asking him questions all night and Iain is so amiable and tolerant you sense he’d sit there patiently answering, but upstairs Chris Petit, Gareth Evans and Susan Stenger were waiting sat before a packed audience for the 70×70 launch event.

70×70 Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in Film is published by King Mob

This article was originally published on 3:AM magazine