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Posts Tagged ‘psychogeography’

The intention had been to continue the walk from Guildford last week but a combination of illness, work, failing light and a Tube strike made this unfeasible. So I swopped a day’s leave, did some work on what would have been the walking day, and this week went to Cardiff for 24 hours instead. Maybe this is how walkinghometo50 will end – never actually finishing, just getting diverted into aborted projects, side trips, health issues and random new starts and isn’t that just like middle age itself?

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The train journey was long but interesting, leaving Chester under a rainbow for a long twilight run through Shropshire into Wales. I had taken a book with me – Mythogeography: The Art of Walking Sideways – which I had known about for some time, but not delved into until now. It proved to be a compelling and fresh exploration of the ‘world of resistant and aesthetic walking’, part pseudo-literary account, part manual, part encyclopaedia. Plug:

The reach is wide and deep, occasionally idiosyncratic. The fragmentary and slippery format recognises the disparate, loosely interwoven and rapidly evolving uses of walking today: as art, as exploration, as urban resistance, as activism, as an ambulatory practice of geography, as meditation, as performance, as dissident mapping, as subversion of and rejoicing in the everyday. Mythogeography is a celebration of that interweaving, its contradictions and complementarities, and a handbook for those who want to be part of it.

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“If I’d known it was this good, I’d’ve bought the fancy edition…RB”

I was absorbed in this stuff when, somewhere near the border into Wales, the book broke the fourth wall as the passage I was reading turned out to be a quote from this blog. A few pages on, my name appeared in a list of ‘Exemplary Ambulatory Explorers’ amongst such luminaries as Peace Pilgrim and Arthur Machen. So if nothing else I have edged my way into some kind of provisional pantheon.

My mission in Cardiff was to accept an invitation to the private view of an exhibition – Everybody Knows this is Nowhere by Andre Stitt. I’ve known Andre for 30 years but not seen him for nearly 20 so thought a surprise visit was in order. I had also read the catalogue from the show’s original outing in Northern Ireland and, based on the photos, wanted to see the real pictures. And, if I was a salaried psychogeographer who had to justify his time in terms of spatial exploration, Andre’s show would be on topic:

The artist’s psychogeographic experience of Craigavon is examined through a series of site visits and explorations via the new city’s cycle and pedestrian network. This process is then in turn extended to the wider context of trauma, and conflict transformation in Northern Ireland. The project is both an investigation of the failure of institutional planning; exemplified by dead-ends, planned but uncompleted city sectors and vacant land, and a celebration of utopian aspirations through the integration of housing, civic amenities, dedicated paths, the separation of traffic and green space.

Up close the work is very powerful. I love the way maps, diagrams and writing are buried under pigment…

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The re-meeting was great. These not being the old days (for instance, neither of us were downing bottles of Thunderbird) and, having arranged to meet the next day, I wandered off at 7. Walking around Cardiff on an exceptionally windy night was a fragmented experience – the regenerated centre delivering flashes of other cities, bits of Leeds, bits of MK, even bits of KL (Chinese students in late-night shopping mall.) There was the same stuff you see everywhere – gorgeous lights, giant digitised faces of agony, and Lovecraftian incursions into old photos in the back corridors of the pubs. I was in bed by 10.

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The Premier Inn was a quiet space in the general hurricane. The room worked well for my newly-restarted, haven’t-given-up-yet meditation practice

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Then down for the all-you-can-eat breakfast, where the waitress was amazingly wholehearted by UK service industry standards. As well as making interaction with the largely machine-delivered breakfast a pleasant experience, she was conferring with colleagues about drifting leaves and spending ages sweeping up every conceivable shard of a dropped glass from the tiles next to the Costa machine, which as she said was difficult ‘when the floor has a sparkle in it’.

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Those worrying leaves

I checked out and walked around the outside of the hotel, took some pictures and had another look at those leaves. Then I headed off towards the art school, trying to keep my psychogeography eyes open, noticing things like 1980s-style graffiti inciting REVOLT and a woman in a headscarf playing an accordion, looking like something from the 1930s, maybe caused by leakage from the 2000s media success of the time-travel-based TV shows made here.

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Back at UWIC, I was casting a professional eye over their publicity when Andre reappeared and we went off to his studio. We drank coffee and caught up from a couple of decades. The studio had been a funeral director’s yard. It was as if we had only met up last week. He had been given the keys of the city of Manila. Andre gave me a painting: ‘Prospecting for the Memorabilia of a Lifetime (The 1980’s)’. Traces of words and glimmers of a camp 80s pink show dimly through a bitumen surface, and I’m in there somewhere; we agreed that on the whole things work out OK; as the Mythogeography man says ‘you can explore the whole whirling snowglobe.’

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All the pictures

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Having used a fairly recent (1992) I-Spy book as the springboard for a flight of fancy, I thought it would be fun to get one of the older ones and see what differences there might be. I-Spy on the Pavement came out in 1961, the year I was born, so that’s the one I decided to get.

The idea of children being encouraged to wander around towns on their own, looking at things, seems quaint these days (and it is poignant that this should be so.) To my modern eyes, accustomed to seeing children as vulnerable beings needing round-the-clock supervision and enclosure, the I-Spy ‘redskins’ in the illustrations seem to move through a world of adult menace; it is as if the various tradespeople and mendicants they encounter are just playing roles of normality, like characters in a Hitchcock film.

But the kids are in a world of adventure, junior psychogeographers seeing wonders in the detail of the city.

Of course, some of that detail has changed in the past 47 years. Banks have changed names, police boxes disappeared except for the one mythical one that is better known than ever. (I recently found a picture of Brighton Clock Tower, and remembered that there was one there, opposite the original Virgin Records.)

The 1992 I-Spy in the Town does not include CCTV cameras, now a feature of most urban environments. (This seems like an odd omission, as ‘I-Spy’ sounds like the raison d’etre of the CCTV industry, an ideal motto for their guild. One can imagine a special I-Spy book being produced as a training manual for CCTV operators, like the famous Ladybird Computers book that was used to train MoD officials in IT; ‘Vagrant in Sector 10: I-Spy for 20, dispatch community police officers’).

Amazingly, the 1961 book does mention CCTV, albeit in a different context. It seems that construction was a spectator sport in those days, understandable with new ‘sixties’ architecture appearing from the rubble of WWII. Special viewing facilities were available at building sites, and were apparently common enough to include in an I-Spy book. These included a ‘televiewing platform’ (Score 20), in which ‘Closed circuit television is installed and on a large monitor screen…you can see the work in progress in areas that would otherwise be hidden’.

I’m all for exploring ‘areas that would otherwise be hidden’ and I love the way this little book makes everything seem pregnant with meaning…

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The last two days of walking have been triangulated against some kind of literature. The next will be no exception, as I am heading for Leighton Buzzard where, back in about 1974, I bought a book that has retained great meaning for me over the years – Conan of Cimmeria. This paperback, which I have in my bag, was the first collection of Conan stories I read. Robert E. Howard’s sword-and-sorcery hero captivated my teenage imagination – stories about a marvellous world combining every kind of adventure story, full of scary monsters a bit like those of H.P. Lovecraft, but with a hero who prevailed over them rather than passively subsiding into insanity as HPL’s protagonists tended to do. For me, the Hyborian Age started in the WHSmith in Leighton Buzzard, LU7 7DN – accessing a rich seam of pulp literature, and a sense that one should (as the Quakers say) ‘live adventurously’. So revisiting the place is an essential milestone on this walk.

“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet” wrote Howard, describing what we might now call a ‘portfolio career’ – rather than specialising in, say, ‘reaving’ as a job-for-life, Conan use his transferable skills through many roles – buccaneer, mercenary, king etc. Similarly, I have multiple roles (albeit less colourful – ‘Hither came Mister Roy, a marketeer, a science fiction fan…’ doesn’t set the pulse racing). Whereas Conan tends to progress from one thing to another, my various aspects all seem to coexist, which can make me feel like the leader of a small unruly squadron, always threatening to deploy the wrong technique at the right time: doing a business presentation as a piece of performance art, turning a poem into a marketing matrix.

Life is complex like that and I guess we’re all mashups of diverse elements. As well as multiple identities, there are multiple realities to negotiate. In a great piece about London, Michael Moorcock suggest that creation of virtual identities and virtual living environments is a survival strategy, effective ‘as long as we’re fully conscious’, and talks about psychogeography as the recovery of lost London. Personally, I’m not from London, so I don’t have those particular ancient paths to rediscover. My quest is to stitch together the places and times where I’ve ended up, virtual or otherwise; an assemblage of cities, towns and villages and the unknown tracts of lands in between. Which is why I’m walking, trying to explore my own real/virtual worlds by physically slogging through them. Rather than psychogeography I’m calling what I’m doing autobiogeography – a conflation of ‘autobiography’ and ‘geography’, but also the ‘biogeography of myself’ – my own physical (blood sweat blisters and local real ale) interaction with places. As well as walking I’m creating this meandering document, like Conan in his throne-room, drawing a map of the semi-legendary places he had wandered through, because the official ones were ‘vague and faulty’ concerning his ‘northern countries’.

All of which brings me to be walking up Midsummer Boulevard in Milton Keynes, on a hot midsummer night. I haven’t discovered any evidence of Conan’s prehistoric Hyborian Age, but in a Wetherspoons I find unexpected evidence of an even more ancient world – a flyer for an art show called All Hail Atlantis, vortex of illumination.

Milton Keynes isn’t actually on the walk, but will be my base for two nights while I try a haul from Buckingham to Leighton Buzzard. This is the longest time I’ve spent in MK and the experience of visiting the centre is very enjoyable – I love the spacious walkways and unbroken modern-ness. Perhaps I’m appreciating what J.G. Ballard described as ‘the ambiguous but heady charms of alienation and anonymity’. The Encore hotel, a new sub-brand of simple-cheap-efficient sleeping machines launched by the Ramada chain, seems intent on counterbalancing any alienation with words: they are ‘exciting, passionate, fresh, stylish, vibrant, upbeat and refreshing’. By Crom, that’s a lot of adjectives – qualities I hope will infuse me during a long walk.

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Back to doing an early morning flit to start the walk; first train out of Ormskirk at 5.50, feeling strangely fragile after a headlong week of work and some sad passings. Seeking cheerful energy, I played a song I remembered as a fun summer tune, the Piranhas’ version of Tom Hark – but in my enervated dawn state it sounded like some kind of seaside apocalypse with its talk of ‘World War Three’ and ‘slapstick in the pantomime’.

I rallied as we approached Banbury. I had assumed that I would walk out of Oxfordshire into Buckinghamshire, but looking at the map on the train I realised that I would actually be spending most of the day in Northants. This bothered me as I like to have some kind of image-fuel for the journey, a sense however tangential of the mythology of the place I’m walking through – otherwise all I’d be doing is looking at scenery and thinking things like ‘yes, that is indeed a hill.’


‘A bush, I believe’

I put out an appeal on the aether and got a recommendation in the form of a query: ‘John Clare?’. This led me to seek out Books & Ink, a pleasant bookshop that did indeed have some books by Clare, agricultural labourer and poet, b1793 d1864. Armed with reading material I adjourned to The Exchange, a Wetherspoons pub, for a second breakfast and some reading time. In this rather subaquatic early-morning-alcoholic territory, I scanned the Clare pieces. Turns out he made a famous journey home once – escaping from an asylum in Epping Forest and walking for four days back to his home in Northamptonshire. He was also ‘devastated by [the] violation of… the open field system’ resulting from the Act of Enclosure. This process destroyed  common ground, accompanied by felling of trees and the creation of straight-line ditches, and Clare wrote poems mourning the passing of the the open land. I resolved to stay aware of ‘enclosure’ as I might encounter it on today’s ‘Careless Rambles’, see how my attempt to ‘wander at my idle will/In summers luscious prime about the fields’ would intersect with various grids of control by paying attention to the ownership of the spaces I walked through.

Returning to the Castle Quay shopping centre where I had finished walking last month, I arranged myself with sunscreen and other defences against the ‘liquid blaze’ of the sun, and set off along the Oxford Canal. My chosen pastime of spotting ‘enclosure’ is almost redundant as everything seems demarcated, fenced, named, owned and overseen by CCTV.

These areas are like the subconscious or maybe conscience of the town – a place for unwanted and hidden things: clutches of empty cans and bottles punctuating the embankments, residua of drinking exercises too freeform and low-cost to be contained even within the expansive hours of Wetherspoons.

I walked a few miles along the canal, in rising heat, now in fields, the canal lined with monsterium plants. After a  while I reached the M40, where I found a small door to some kind of inspection tunnel, monastic night stair or Jefferies Tube within the motorway.

Thinking back, I am surprised that I wasn’t more excited by this opportunity to creep inside the motorway we have driven countless times, that I have crossed thrice already on this walk, and that (I now know from reading Joe Moran’s excellent On Roads) is the site of an early memory of Lady Penelope buzzing beneath a flyover in a Tiger Moth.

On through the rising heat, until I reached Kings Sutton, a village of almost uncanny attractiveness. A wedding was happening in the church, and I watched the bride arriving in a horsedrawn open carriage as I settled in the pub with a pint of Brakspears. Regional tourism marketeers seem keen to claim this place as part of a ‘Flora Thompson Country’, a kind of dream enclosure.

Aside: I am writing this on June 30th, the release date for a western novel called The Tarnished Star by Jack Martin, real name Gary Dobbs; an early-release copy of the book was in my rucksack while I walked; Gary also works as an actor on the TV Larkrise, his Facebook status suggesting that he could be on the set at that moment; his novel skillfully hard-edged, lean writing summoning the shared fantasy world of the traditional western, a genre animated by economic enclosure strategies played out in the West, frontiers advancing and hard men fighting for freedoms already lost. 

I walked on, through fields and small woods, skirting a playing field with a cricket match in progress, and an airfield launching gliders. I began to feel I was in an imaginary England, or even creating one much like the Larkrise actors.

The sense of unreality remained as I walked into Hinton-in-the-Hedges. As I crossed the churchyard I could hear music and see glimpses of bright costumes. Assuming some kind of fete was going on I wandered over, but realised I was heading towards the backstage area of a play, costumed children giving me questioning looks. Not wanting to blunder on to a stage or though a dressing room, I started to slink away, but two women holding scripts brought me back and said I could watch the end (rather than, as Jennie suggested, seeing me off with a Shakespearian insult such as  ‘What hempen homespun have we swaggering here’ – which have been entirely appropriate, as it was A Midsummer Night’s Dream that they were performing.)

And there was a beer tent. With a pint of Hook Norton Bitter, I sat on a swing and watched the aftermath of the show, whose cast had ages spanning 70 years. It was a pleasant moment, soaking up the atmosphere of people celebrating something that had gone well.

Resisting the temptation to start a new life in friendly Hinton-in-the-Hedges (whose remaining hedges, seen in fly-wing-diagram-pattern on the OS map, suggest that it might have escaped some of the impact of the Act of Enclosure, still having fields spread out in a wheel with the village at it hub’) I completed the last couple of miles to Brackley. I had never thought about Brackley until this trip; I wouldn’t specifically have known that there was such a town, though it sounds plausible enough. Tired, hot and aching I climbed the main street to reach the Crown Inn, alone in this unknown place feeling a bit like John Clare returning to his empty cottage, ‘homeless at home and half gratified to feel that I can be happy any where’.

All the photos

Photos on a map

Map

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The next legs of the journey will take me through Buckinghamshire. This being the case, I have picked up a guidebook of sorts: Buckinghamshire Footpaths, by J.H.B. Peel, found in Wigtown (‘Scotland’s book town’) while on holiday. Buckinghamshire Footpaths was published in 1949, when a Britain battered by war was re-creating itself, and part of Peel’s purpose is to prompt readers to see preservation of countryside as an essential part of that re-creation: ‘Unable ever again to conquer others, let us now conquer ourselves.’

Peel, a poet whose work included Mere England, a long work about Buckinghamshire, sees parts of his county as examples of the kind of countryside that needs preserving. Whereas ‘The Londonward side of Amersham…is marred beyond mending’, ‘the northern half of Buckinghamshire is curiously ill-served by railways and main roads, and has therefore retained a relatively high degree of civilization’. For Peel this meant a lack of ‘Cosy cafes, palaces-of-dance, super-cinemas and other attributes of progress’, a place to experience ‘that sense of peace, which is an Absolute of Life’.

Of course, things have changed in the three-score-and-ten since the book was written. Peel could not imagine there being a reason to change the ‘unsophisticated’ nature of the county, giving as a hypothetical example the absurdity of running a bus service between the small hamlets of Milton Keynes and Woughton-on-the-Green. These days, the number 18 runs on the hour, reaching Woughton without ever leaving the huge version of Milton Keynes that now embraces the whole area.

Personally, I can see a beauty in many of the things that Peel would deplore – motorway services, gigantic New Towns and all. And yet I see myself in this picture:

To the quiet man who in these unquiet times is braced and made whole again by contact with things strong and steadfast and English, his County…is a very haven, in which he will find, not escape nor mere distraction, but the still, small voice of reality, cool and unwavering and melodious amid the vast mirage of contemporary arrogance and haste.

Although I now live in Lancashire, and have fond memories of boyhood holidays in Bucks, my county will always be Sussex, the destination of this walk. There I might find the ‘still, small voice of reality’, perhaps in the ‘cool and melodious’ spring that emerges beneath the escarpment of the Downs at Fulking… but perhaps in the foyer of a ‘super-cinema’ on the seafront.

Arguably I am one of the ‘good English folk, or proud Britons’ Peel writes for, mongrel quarter-Jap that I am; I am certainly glad enough that there are woods, fields and old buildings around. However I can’t bring myself to believe in a pure, essential set of ‘things strong and steadfast and English’, unconnected from other ‘things’ and somehow unchangeable. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist: I’ll keep an eye out for them as I wander through Bucks and beyond…

But it will be a careful eye. With concepts like ‘Britishness’ being grasped at by charmless fascist-wannabes and latter-day Thule Society types – cueing late-70s memories of Anti-Nazi League rallies in Brighton and London, a bloated man mouthing abuse at the marchers from the patio of a famously Hitler-loving south coast B&B, the long heat of the Rock Against Racism carnival in Victoria Park, Bernie outside Hassocks station batting away a skinhead with his skateboard, Pils-soaked gigs in the Vault and the Hanbury Arms, the Resource Centre getting trashed – in such times I guess it is important to try and distinguish between one’s own romantic fantasies, and other people’s manipulative dreams. As for ‘reality’, I may not know much but I do know that it can’t be tamed, packaged  or colonised.

I think I can spot my own fantasies and, to some extent, the paradoxes and contradictions within them. On the one hand, I can fill with emotion at the thought of English lanes in ‘Hardy’s Wessex’, pints of ale in Tolkien’s Shire, the England depicted in the fat ‘Books of…’ and ‘Guides to…’ published by the AA and National Trust that arrived at our house through the 1970s, TV’s luminous Larkrise with Gary Dobbs looking at vegetables in a sunlit square, and countless other lovely, idealised pasts.  At the same time I can join the Hope not Hate people in celebrating a diverse ‘modern’ Britain, and yearn for the lost Utopian possibilities of the 1960s mourned in the works of H.S.Thompson and M. Moorcock, transforming, exciting futures.  Meanwhile Brighton, my lodestone, offers as a kaleidoscope of images, ideas and subcultures, unfixable and therefore endlessly desirable. Earthquake, storm, fire – then the still small voice.

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