John Smith and the Leytonstone Road Protests in NLR

M11 Link Road, Leytonstone

There’s an excellent blog on the New Left Review website by David Anderson about the films of Leytonstone artist John Smith and the M11 Link Road protests of the early 90s.

“The Link Road protest nevertheless attracted a broad church of supporters, engaging them in a project that, as the Aufheben group put it, aimed not just to stop ‘this one road’ but to create ‘a climate of autonomy, disobedience and resistance’. This included not only local residents and veterans of other road protests, but also a substantial number of artists living in and around Claremont Road. Their presence contributed to a year-long ‘festival’. Throughout 1994, the street was blocked to cars and turned into a public outdoor living room, just as protesters were busy burrowing underneath the houses’ actual living rooms, constructing a fortress that would be difficult for police and bailiffs to dismantle …

The result was, according to McCreery, a space with ‘no formal social organization’ in which ‘every moment of every day amounted to a political act’. Even if he doubts how much ‘radical French theory’ the protesters were actually reading, their activities ‘probably amounted to the most complete expression of situationist techniques ever seen in Britain’.”

A note on psychogeography and the dérive

I recently came across an essay on ‘Situationists and Architecture’ by Peter Wollen in The New Left Review from 2001. I thought it was worth sharing these passages on psychogeography  and the dérive as it’s a subject I’m often asked to explain or define, so scholarly sources are always very welcome.



from Memoires by Guy Debord & Asgar Jorn 1959


Guy Debord wrote the classic text on the ‘Theory of the Dérive’—usually translated as ‘drift’ or ‘drifting’—in December 1958, in the second number of Internationale Situationniste. He defines it as ‘a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences’. Note, again, the taste for transience and spontaneity. Debord’s basic idea is that this project of wandering through the city should be determined not by any preconceived plan, but by the attractions or discouraging counter-attractions of the city itself. It requires a ‘letting go’ of ‘the usual motives for movement and action’—we might almost say, a letting go of everyday identity. Debord seems to have been inspired in part by Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe’s study of Paris et l’agglomération parisienne, published in 1952; and particularly by its maps, which are frequently used as illustrations in the Situationist journal and in Debord’s own art works. He was especially struck by a map detailing all the movements made over a year by a student living in the 16th Arrondissement: ‘her itinerary delineates a small triangle, with no deviations, the three apexes of which are the School of Political Science, her residence and that of her piano teacher.’

Shocked by this rigid repetition of a fixed pattern of mobility, Debord conceived dérive as a way of creating completely new, unpredictable itineraries, dependent on chance and the spontaneous subjective impulses and reactions of the wanderer. The recourse to chance reminds us, unavoidably, of André Breton’s doctrine of ‘objective chance’ and above all of his great book, Nadja, which traces a series of just such aimless journeys through Paris, punctuated by a pattern of attraction and repulsion to certain buildings, or kinds of buildings, rather than others. Debord notes that this technique of dérive is, in a way, only necessary because his larger project of ‘psychogeography’ has not yet been sufficiently far developed. Psychogeography would make possible the creation of maps in which particular locations or regions had already been designated as favouring the arousal of one kind of affective or aesthetic response, so that a certain amount of pre-planning could take place. Meanwhile, chance was the best method. (This text, interestingly enough, was written just as John Cage was conducting his seminars on chance procedures at the School for Social Research in New York. Probably a coincidence.)

A dérive could take place over a few minutes or even a few days. Duration didn’t matter. Taxis could be used for rapid transport outside one’s usual environment. (One Situationist demand was for the abolition of private cars and their replacement by fleets of low-cost taxis.) As in Breton’s book, the dérive also implied the possibility of chance encounters, meetings with strangers. Debord even suggests that the subject of a dérive might be invited to visit a particular place at a particular time, with the expectation of meeting an unknown person, thus being forced to introduce themself to random passers-by in an effort to identify whether this was the person he or she was looking for. This was called the technique of the ‘possible rendezvous’. He also reveals a taste for straying in uncanny locations—‘slipping by night into houses due for demolition . . . wandering in subterranean catacombs forbidden to the public, etc.’ Here we see the dérive as a kind of dream journey, even an invitation to break taboos—or, perhaps, simply to enjoy what we might think of, in the architectural register, as the Gothick picturesque.

…from the start, psychogeography was bound up with the creation of situations; and the concept of situations was expanded, in time, to cover not just the city, but the whole of society, the totality of possibilities open in an unalienated community.”

PETER WOLLEN, New Left Review 8, March-April 2001

The radical tradition of urban walking – my article in the NewStatesman

radical urban walking

‘What both the interwar topographers and the situationists recognised was the transformative potential of large numbers of people regularly stepping outside the matrix, taking to the streets and walking, becoming active participants rather than passive spectators.’

Read the article here

Debunking Debord – Chris Gray Memorial Lecture

Last week I was invited to Housmans for the inaugural Christopher Gray Memorial Lecture given by Gray’s long-term friend and collaborator Charles Radcliffe.

It was fascinating to hear Radcliffe talk about heading off to Paris with Chris Gray to meet Guy Debord and join the Situationist International. He was disparaging about Debord, saying how square he was and didn’t understand the acid culture that was a significant force in 60’s London (Gray later authored The Acid Diaries). Debord’s intellectual achievements weren’t contested but more the manner of how he dealt with his allies and fellow travelers.

He then gave a pithy account of all the expulsions and exclusions from the SI instigated by Debord and how the Situationists never really seemed to do anything else. Radcliffe was in that select group of people who resigned.
It was a great evening and felt I learnt more about Debord and the SI than in the previous years of reading hagiographies of Debord and his cohorts.

On the way home I read Chris Gray’s introduction to his key book on the SI – Leaving the 20th Century. It seemed from the talk and from Gray’s text that the principle thinker on psychogeography wasn’t Debord by Ivan Chtcheglov. I imagine Debord couldn’t be bothered to walk around Paris all day from the sounds of it.

A passage from the book about the foundation of the SI also struck me:

‘On 28th July 1957, delegates from l’Internationale Lettriste, from the largely Scandinavian and German Movement pour un Bauhaus Imaginiste and from a dubious London Psychogeographical Committee, met at a formal congress at Coscio d’Arroscia in Italy and decided to amalgamate. L’Internationale Situationiste was born.’

Does this mean that this ‘dubious’ London Psychogeographical Committee was the first explicitly psychogeographical group?

If so makes it fitting that the practice and ideas of psychogeography were revived in London in the late 1980s/early 90’s by two men who were in the audience that night at Housmans – Fabian Tompsett and Stewart Home.

There is a video of the part of the event on the Housmans Youtube Channel


Cities Under Siege

In the pub last night I was reading Nicholas Lezard’s illuminating review  of Cities Under Siege by Stephen Graham. I’ve chalked this up on my ‘books to read (but probably will just read about)’ list.


The book is provocatively subtitled ‘The New Miltary Urbanism’ and aims to be an “exposé of how political violence operates through the spaces of urban life”. On the most basic level this is expressed by the intense surveillance that urban populations are placed under – and Londoner’s are some of the most watched over of any city dwellers in the world.
Lezard mentions the London Transport poster ‘Secure beneath watchful eyes’ that he ponders may have employed a 1940’s design style to invoke memories of Orwell and Big Brother.

That poster first appeared in 2003 when people were still in the grip of post-9/11 paranoia. But the increased level of CCTV did little to prevent the 7/7 bombers bringing carnage to London’s bus and tube network 2 years later. And it was noticeable that after the attack next to no CCTV images of any of the suspected bombers appeared even though they had passed along thoroughfares covered every inch by surveillance cameras. So who are the cameras really there to reassure?

Lezard’s review highlights Graham’s point that, “the powerful, particularly those in the Republican party in America, do not like cities. For a start, they’re ethnically diverse places full of liberals who don’t vote for them.”
As the recent UK riots demonstrated, cities are places of insurrection and dissent that can spread quickly and uncontrollably. It put me in mind (again) of a line from Patrick Keiller’s London where Robinson argues that:

“That the failure of London was rooted in the English fear of cities, a protestant fear of Popery and socialism, the fear of Europe, that had disenfranchised Londoners and undermined their society.
Like the idea in Graham’s book that the provincial Repulicans fear the inner city, Robinson/Keiller sees London as, “a city under siege from a suburban government which uses homelessness, pollution, crime and the most expensive and run down public transport system of any metropolitan city in Europe as weapons against Londoners’ lingering desire for the freedoms of city life.”

The other recent manifestation of urban disquiet that has given the ruling elite a rude awakening has been the Occupy movement, seeming to randomly spring out of the asphalt to reclaim prime strategic locations to assert the case of the “99%”.  Over the weekend I ‘stumbledupon’ two articles exploring the links between Situationism and the Occupy movement.

I suppose people were always going to see the parallels with Situationist-inspired events of 1968 and here on The Bureau of Public Secrets those theories are further drawn out.
On Cryptoforestry, Wilfried Hou Je Bek writes about ‘Occupy as psychogeographic urbanism’, “Psychogeographically speaking the idea of a tent Potemkin village has great appeal.”

I have to confess that when I headed down to Occupy LSX at St. Paul’s I was partly inspired by the significance of a tented village emerging on the ancient and significant site of Ludgate Hill. Of all the places in London to occupy, the protestors had claimed a geographic node point in the city’s history. A feature of the landscape that had been noted from the first Roman incursions right up to the building of the church on a site of great pagan ceremonial importance.

By the time I had left the encampment I could see the psychogeographical resonance would have to emerge at a later date. For now it is still about economic injustice and corporate greed.


Chris Gray – Anarchist, writer and maverick Situationist – Obituary

Dick Pountain, The Guardian Wednesday 8 July 2009

In London in 1966, Chris Gray, who has died of cancer aged 66, teamed up with Charles Radcliffe, an anarchist blues aficionado, to produce Heatwave, a magazine blending radical politics with the nascent youth culture. They soon attracted the attention of the Situationist International (SI), in Paris.
The leading lights of the SI, founded in 1957, were the French theorist Guy Debord and the Belgian philosopher Raoul Vaneigem. A descendant of earlier 20th-century European avant gardes, the dadaists, surrealists and letterists, it added its own libertarian strain of Marxist politics. Its 15-year existence was hectic and expulsion-prone, but it achieved an influence on radical culture and politics – especially the May 1968 events in Paris – far beyond its tiny numbers. Gray was more attuned to the sensual post-surrealism of Vaneigem than Debord’s cerebral Hegelian Marxism, and he translated Vaneigem’s Banalités de Base (1962-63) as the pamphlet The Totality for Kids (1967), thus helping to introduce the SI’s ideas to British radicals.
English members Don Nicholson-Smith, Tim (TJ) Clark, Gray and Radcliffe parted company with the SI in 1967: the first three and others then assembled King Mob, a group named from a slogan daubed during London’s 1780 Gordon Riots, along with a magazine, King Mob Echo. Nicholson-Smith remembers King Mob as being composed of “ex-artists, ex-socialists and radicalised hippies” who were caught “between the dialectical certainties of Paris and the no-holds-barred, risk-everything example” of the New York group Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, a “street gang with an analysis” founded by the painter Ben Morea and the poet Dan Georgakas.
What most distinguished King Mob from late 60s student revolutionaries was its sense of humour, displayed in stunts such as entering the toy department of Selfridges, in London’s Oxford Street, dressed as Santa Claus and giving away the toys to passing kids, or scrawling erudite graffiti around west London. King Mob participated in the March 1968 anti-Vietnam war protest in London – culminating outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square – under a banner drawn from William Burroughs that proclaimed: “Storm the reality studio and retake the universe”.
King Mob had dispersed by 1970, and two years later Debord dissolved the SI. Gray turned away from politics, his parting act being his 1974 publication of a valedictory anthology of SI writings, Leaving the 20th Century: The Incomplete Work of the Situationist International.
Gray was born in Crosby, Liverpool, and his parents separated after his father returned from war service in Kashmir. Chris was raised by his grandmother until the age of 10. In 1952, his parents reunited and moved to Cornwall, sending him to Repton school in Derbyshire. He evaded a university education and in the late 1950s gravitated to London’s Soho, where from 1959 to 1961 he was to be found helping the poet and playwright Neil Oram run one of London’s first basement jazz cafes, Sam Widges, in D’Arblay Street. Then he travelled across the US with the film-maker Conrad Rooks, returning to London in 1965.
By the late 1970s Gray was spending much time in India, as a trekking guide in the Himalayas and a not uncritical follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (known after 1989 as “Osho”). Under the pen-name “Sam”, Chris published Life of Osho (1997) and The Acid (2009).
Charismatic, charming and perpetually amused, Gray was a romantic rebel in the Byronic mould. Clark remembers most his distinctive laugh – “a high-pitched, disbelieving, boyish cackle, full of delight in human folly. The kind of laugh one imagines Rochester or Rimbaud having. Chris was about as remote from the moralising puritanism of the British left as one could imagine.”
I first met Chris on the steps of an occupied London School of Economics in 1969 and that laugh changed my life, convincing me that mischief-making would be far more fun than staring at test tubes.
Towards the end of Leaving the 20th Century, Gray wrote that “Everyone’s life is a switch between changing oneself and changing the world. Surely they must somehow be the same thing and a dynamic balance is possible … I want to find it again – that quickening in oneself and in others, that sudden happiness and beauty.”
He is survived by a daughter, Maria, with former partner Brenda, and a son, Elian, with former partner Usha.
• Christopher Nelson Gray, activist and writer, born 22 May 1942; died 14 May 2009 © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009