Tuesday 1 July 2014

Review: On Walking - A Psychogeographical Journey

When you are on a magical path, I believe coincidences are worth paying attention to. Here's one that happened to me.

Just as I was thinking I ought to start doing research for my talk on psychogeography at the Pagan Federation London Conference this August, I got the following email: "Dear Bad Witch, Please pardon this intrusion. Given your interest in psychogeography you might be interested to know that my new book On Walking(and accompanying essay ‘Enchanted Things’) is now available from Triarchy Press."

It wasn't a book I had been aware of previously, but it was about psychogeography. Perfect. The author, Phil Smith, also kindly offered me a review copy - and I enjoyed reading it very much.

In On Walking,Phil Smith describes a psychogeographical walk he made in Suffolk following a route taken by another author, W.G. Sebald, for his 1995 book The Rings Of Saturn.

I've never read The Rings of Saturn, but I don't think that mattered. On Walking is not just an homage to a famous 20th century writer obsessed with the horrors of war and the decay of civilisation. What Phil Smith offers is part travelogue, part visionary journey and part tutorial in how to do psychogeography as well as a being a literary journey. And the English coastal towns he travelled through have inspired many writers apart from Sebald, including MR James, Arthur Machen and HP Lovecraft - all writers I am familiar with.

Phil Smith says: "On the eve of setting out I read Arthur Machen’s The Terror,the narrative of which briefly crosses my own intended route at Dunwich Heath. Machen’s story is the source for horror master H. P. Lovecraft’s fictional ‘Dunwich’. Lovecraft transposes the town, a large East Anglian port mostly swept away by the sea in the early mediaeval era, to Massachusetts for The Dunwich Horror,one of the core stories of his Cthulhu mythos."

Psychogeography is often described as a study of the "effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals." That study is usually done by walking - or "drifting" - around an area and paying attention into its atmosphere and ambiance. It is an important technique employed in On Walking, although Phil Smith calls it "mythogeography". He describes mythogeography as "...a hybrid of ideas, tactics and strategies. It embraces both respectable (academic, scientific, culturally validated) and non-respectable (Fortean, antiquarian, mystical, fictional) knowledges."

He offers tips on how to approach mythogeographic walks interspersed with descriptions of his own "great walk". These are methods of disrupting our everyday sense of the world around us and helping us to see things differently. They include picking a theme, going somewhere previously unknown, going alone or just with one other person, freeing oneself from usual walking habits and, sensibly, wearing good footwear.

On Walking works on many different levels. As the description on the Triararchy Press website, says:
On one level On Walking... describes an actual, lumbering walk from one incongruous B and B to the next, taking in Dunwich, Lowestoft, Southwold, Covehithe, Orford Ness, Sutton Hoo, Bungay, Halesworth and Rendlesham Forest - with their lost villages, Cold War testing sites, black dogs, white deer and alien trails.

On a second level it sets out a kind of walking that the author has been practising for many years and for which he is quietly famous. It's a kind of walking that burrows beneath the guidebook and the map, looks beyond the shopfront and the Tudor facade and feels beneath the blisters and disgruntlement of the everyday. Those who try it report that their walking [and their whole way of seeing the world] is never quite the same again. And the Suffolk walk described in this book is an exemplary walk, a case study - this is exactly how to do it.

Finally, on a third level, On Walking... is an intellectual tour de force, encompassing Situationism, alchemy, jouissance, dancing, geology, psychogeography, 20th century cinema and old TV, performance, architecture, the nature of grief, pilgrimage, World War II, the Cold War, Uzumaki, pub conversations, synchronicity, somatics and the Underchalk.
On Walkingis thought-provoking and extremely well written. If you are a psychogeographer, a keen rambler or just an armchair explorer you will enjoy it. If you are a fan of the works of MR James, Arthur Machen, HP Lovecraft or, presumable, Sebald, you will enjoy it. If you like books that challenge your perspective you will enjoy it. If, like me, you are on a magical path then I urge you to read it and let it inspire your journey.


Unknown said...

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Badwitch said...

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