7 October 2010


Merlin Coverley. Psychogeography. Pocket Essentials, 2010.

Louis Armstrong is reputed to have said to a questioner "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know!" After reading this book, that's how I feel about psychogeography. Anything which combines Surrealism, Rambeau, Baudelaire, Robinson Crusoe, Will Self, Situationism and a collection of 1940s and 1950s French political theorists is going to be difficult to define.
Coverley traces the origins of the concept to Blake and Defoe, who, in Jerusalem and Journal of the Plague Year respectively, tied the topographical and built structure of the city to the spiritual situation of its inhabitants in Blake's case, and to their physical condition for Defoe. It is significant that in both cases the city is London, which has been the focus of much psychogeographical thought and action, at least in the later twentieth century.

This book traces a link between writers such as J-K Huysmans whose psychogeographical exploration of London never took him beyond the confines of his Parisian apartment, and Iain Sinclair who has literaly circumnavigated London as a pedestrian along the route of the anti-pedestrian archetype, the M25 orbital motorway.

In the case of the Situationists, psychogeography became a political tool, and the structure of the city - in their case Paris - became a representation of the social structure; its boulevards and grand-places becoming a solid and structural representation of political and social control which was ultimately challenged in the events of 1968.

In London writers began looking at the city in a manner closer to Blake, seeing what Coverley calls 'the Visionary City'; with a less overtly political eye, although still aware of the way that politics have impacted on the fabric of the city. Coverley suggests they have developed a sort of neo-psychogeography. Iain Sinclair seems to be the writer most identified with this contemporary form, his books such as London Orbital and Lights Out for the Territory chronicling his long journeys through the liminal regions of both the outer suburbs and the inner city. These seem to be the places where, in the words of the great Ian Nairn - who I think was a psychogeographer manqué - "It is always four o'clock in late November".

An other writer who has been associated with a psychogeographical viewpoint, although he might vigorously deny it, is Peter Ackroyd, and with him perhaps we come to an overlap with the subjects that concern us at Magonia, for now we move into the world of ley-lines, ancient symbols hidden in the geography of the city, the persistent echoes of past and place which underly the modern streets and buildings, shadows of John Dee and the miasmas of lost rivers.

Although only 150-odd pages long, this is a complex book, the names and -isms may be confusing to anyone who is not already knowlegable about the subject, so I am not quite sure how useful it might be as an introduction for the general reader. Perhaps the best introduction is in the preface to the introduction, where Robert McFarlane advises readers to immerse themselves in the subject by drawing a circle at random on a map of London and then, as closely as possible, walking around the circle on the ground. He advises: "... be alert for metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street ..."

Of course, if that circle was drawn on a map of Lisbon, Leeds, Liverpool or your own city, so much the better. -- John Rimmer.

1 comment:

  1. Weird, this - I started writing a biography of Guy Debord, the first or possibly second theorist of psychogeography, in 1995, and at that time nobody but a handful of Debord anoraks had even heard of psychogeography. It's mushroomed since then, putting down roots in academia and building an ideal past for itself in a way that's really folkloric.

    In that context, to say that people always get psychogeography wrong might be missing the point spectacularly, but still. People quite definitely always get the relationship between psychogeography and the Situationist International wrong. It was a very big deal for Guy Debord's previous group, the Lettrist International - which theorised it, practised it and basically invented it - but it was starting to fade from view by the time the SI was formed in 1957, and by the mid-sixties the SI had dropped it completely in favour of revolutionary Marxism (which was what fed into May '68, obviously).

    I used to feel vaguely that this stuff all fitted together - psychogeography, revolution, the paranormal, the parapolitical... Then I got a more interesting job and found a better use for all that spare thinking power.