Thursday 19 February 2009

Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley

An application on a social networking website once described me as a very ordinary person. It said: "You are 0% unique and 60% herdlike (partly because you, like everyone else, enjoy walking)."

The designer of the social networking application had plainly never heard of psychogeography, which elevates the city walker to the status of artist, revolutionary and occultist. Exploring an urban environment on foot can transform the mind, the imagination and even the landscape with which the walker interacts. It is an activity both artistic and revolutionary.

I've always enjoyed exploring London on foot. It is the best way to see the scenery, observe life and take in the ambiance of the city. In particular, I enjoy exploring the area of London near where I work, where the City meets the East End and modern glass skyscrapers rise above narrow Victorian streets, the rooftops of crumbling warehouses and, to the west, historic monuments. Yet I only recently learnt that psychogeography was the name for my wanderings. I had never heard of the term, let alone realised it was an influential political, social and occult movement characterised by walking in urban environments and engaging one's senses.

I first read about it in Occult London, by Merlin Coverley, which I was given as a present and reviewed in A Bad Witch's Blog a couple of weeks ago. Having discovered the unexpected significance of one of my favourite pastimes, I had to find out more and so got hold of a copy of Merlin Coverley's earlier book specifically on the subject, called simply Psychogeography.

Although the term psychogeography was first coined in Paris in the 1950s, Merlin Coverley traces its origins to London a few centuries earlier. Coverley sees Daniel Defoe's written account of the 1665 Great Plague of London, A Journal of the Plague Year, as the earliest example.

Poet and painter William Blake has been described as The Godfather of Psychogeography because of his imaginary reconstruction of London as The New Jerusalem. Other visionary writers who Merlin Coverley sees as precursors of psychogeography include Thomas de Quincy, who described his drug-fuelled journeys around London in his book Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Arthur Machen, who wrote The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering.

Arthur_Watkins, who came up with the idea of ley lines - or patterns of straight lines between landmarks and ancient monuments - is also seen as being highly influential to later psychogeographers.

But the term psychogeography was first coined by the French movement Lettrest International, a collection of radical artists and theorists, in the early 1950s. The idea was that by wandering around the city you could not only apprehend the environment in the best way, but you could also envisage a new urban environment to overcome the banality of the modern world. Psychogeography was seen as a method of urban change.

This was taken up by Guy Debord and the left wing political group Situationist International, which was active in France in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1955, he came up with definition of psychogeography as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals."

In its early days, the Situationists saw psychogeography as an important tool for assessing the emotional impact of cities on their inhabitants, but later moved on to more standard revolutionary activities, such as rioting and infighting.

Today, the main focus of psychogeography has returned to London and its literary roots, with writers such as Iain Sinclair, author of London Orbital, a description of walks around the M25 motorway encircling London, and Lights Out for the Territory, which describes hidden aspects of the city.

Iain Sinclair also combines the more visionary and occult aspects of psychogeography with social comment, particularly in his 1975 book Lud Heat, which is influenced by the ideas of ley lines. This was taken further by author Peter Ackroyd in his novel Hawksmoor, about the occult significance of Hawksmoor's churches and their influence on criminal activity in their environs.

Iain Sinclair is currently in the news for his criticism of plans for the 2012 Olympics, the effects of which he describes as "state-sponsored terrorism" on London's East End.

There are still a number of psychogeographical associations around the world, and Merlin Coverley attempts to give addresses and website information for them at the end of his book. However, as he says, they tend to be small and disorganised, so contact details can quickly become out of date.

I must admit, I feel I have come rather late to the psychogeography party having only learnt about it in the past month. Nevertheless, I believe it is something I have been doing intuitively for much of my life - and at the same time searching for a name for my city wanderings. Perhaps incongruously, having read Merlin Coverley's book, I have at last found my home.

As a final coincidence, I realised that a piece of card I had been using as a bookmark while reading the book was an advert for London walks - An uncanny coincidence, yet oddly appropriate.

Psychogeography is published by Pocket Essentials and costs £5.99 through Amazon.

Psychogeography (Pocket Essentials)
A Journal of the Plague Year (Oxford World's Classics)
Confessions of an English Opium Eater (Penguin Classics)
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Chosen Classics)
The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering
London Orbital
Lights Out for the Territory
Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge


Anonymous said...

That's a fascinating write up - thank you. I've ordered a copy of Psychogeography on the strength of it.

I think it's something that I've been doing since moving to London too - certainly the weight of history here presses down heavier than anywhere else I've lived.

Badwitch said...

Glad the review was useful. Reading the book has certainly inspired me to do more city exploration.