Friday, 16 October 2009

Gleaned Genius (Pt 5)

What is psychogeography?

In short: writers walking around cities getting into scrapes and (occasionally) taking notes.

For a more academic definition, in 1955 French Marxist Guy Debord pinned down the term in a rather impressive feat of conciseness, which read something like this: ‘The study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment.’

He formulated the Theory of the Dérive, meaning the writer is required to free-roam the city, dropping their usual motives for ‘movement and action’ in favour of a form of transcendental ‘daze’ – following their instinctive writerly snout for interesting things and exploring their pants off.

My psychogeographical debut took place yesterday at the topmost part of Edinburgh. For six hours, I roamed with my ginger companion around a desolate harbour, a block of abandoned yuppie flats, and many thrillingly bland streets. The aim of the exercise was to get a strong feel for the area of exploration and to become one with the surroundings… or somesuch nonsense.

Basically, it’s designed to hurl the writer from the safe cocoon of their keyboard and out among people. The idea is to have an experience that defines the nature of your surroundings and which makes for a highly entertaining anecdote to blog or write articles about.

Here’s why psychogeographical expeditions are not for me. Firstly, I dislike excessive physical exercise. I’ll take a 20 minute walk every day to keep the wolves of lethargy at bay, but long stretches of exertion make me cranky. Secondly, there’s a reason I like fiction. I dislike the outside world. People, buildings… things. Yuck.

There was a third reason. Oh yes… I don’t like blisters and legs that ache for weeks on end. And I also can’t think of anything remotely remarkable about old Scottish fishing ports populated by nondescript oldies and the occasional feline.

In the end, we had three or four lunches, went to the pub an hour before the agreed completion time, and took photographs of four dead crabs and a miserable guard dog.

On the plus side: the trip did stoke my creative fires and I have a few ideas for stories fermenting now. Which was, presumably, part of the idea in the first place. Ah well. Viva psychogeography!


  1. But did you explore your PANTS OFF? Because if you still had your pants at the end of the day, I'd argue you don't have a true feel for the exercise... Then again, you know my feelings about pants.

    I think it sounds like a FABULOUS time, though I am with you on the four lunches and lots of sits in pubs along the way.

    I think I once had that experience in Edinburgh, but a mad busker knocked me off the sidewalk. Then again I started at the bottom and climbed up... climbing OUT of gutters is never as fun as falling in...

  2. Ha! No, my pants refused to come off. That might have spruced things up, going for a swim in the petrochemical waters.

    Which part of Edinburgh did you visit? Did you shun the tourist traps and explore the dirty crags?

  3. Thank you!
    i have now added 'psychogeography' to the list of things that i will NOT be doing when I do NOT come and visit Edinburgh!
    A night spent in the photobooth at Waverley Station with two future Ripped & Torn Puppy Killers after The Clash gig at The Playhouse in May 77 was more than enough of yr fair city for me!

  4. Well, at least you saw THE CLASH. I'd happily walk halfway around the world in my bare feet to pray at the altar of Strummer and co.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Of an age where I saw them numerous times, was hard to beat that one tho' Clash/Jam/Buzzcocks/Slits and Subway Sect all for a couple of quid!
    Truly an outstanding night & with the wonders of this interwebbythingy I got a recording of The Clash that night, and it sounded as good as I remember!
    I visit from time to time via MizzD's FB page...

  6. I'm drooling. Hurrah for the Clash and hurrah for MizzD.

  7. Hurrah indeed! I have been known to drool for MizzD (I am trying to picture that 'love heart' in Joe Strummer's gob, and well I suspect there wld be drool there too, but not such an attractive sight my friend!)
    PS: Wld I be right in thinking that we are already FB friends? Amazing place that, Lydia and my question re: The Third Mind was just answered and silly me...I didn't realise that it was THAT William S Burroughs that was being talked about. The same one that appears at my blog with alarming regularity!!!

  8. Yes, Dutch is our poison, our torment. We love her.

    I suspect we are FB friends through the Lydia account (which I co-manage). I peeped your comment on FB though I was phased by the Mona alias.

    Burroughs and the cut-up. Hmm. I was never won over by this method. Except in the lyrics of David Bowie.

  9. I must take you and Lydia hiking with me and Horst.

  10. Witnesses of my Urbis Forums avatar will have seen the evidence of the one and only time I managed to explore my pants off.
    Usually the things remained stubbornly determined to remain in place.

    I also feel sadly deprived in another way, a combination of advancing civilisation and blandification have made most sojourns boringly safe and unadventurous – especially in the UK.

    Ah, back in the days up until the 1970’s, where a walk down the Scotswood Road could lead to blood and gore if someone sneezed in the wrong direction. Where wandering along a Soho street would lead to “Come inside Sir” plus a stage whispered “And we’ll rip you off, and then mug you again when you leave”. Or having to keep a hand over your pint in a Warwickshire pub to prevent blood splashing in when the man next to you was ‘glassed’ by his mate.
    Ah, the memories!

    Hell, I have to go abroad for such adventures now.

    The Royal College of Art photography department had a neat idea, they sent newbies out in the street with instructions to shove their camera into a strangers face and come back with some extreme close-ups.
    Now that was ‘getting to know people”.

    I wonder what the literary equivalent would be?

  11. Ian Sinclair pioneered the "piss-up" psychogeographical exercise -- wandering from pub to pub "getting to know people" through kegs of Stella.

    It seems you have partaken in this yourself, albeit obliviously!

  12. I was in Edinburgh only for an afternoon--I had a conference in Glasgow and was THERE almost a week and loved it, but the Edinburgh trip was a speedrace through the primary tourist points (which for me centered on JK Rowling). I saw enough to know I'd love to get back there, though my tendencies when wandering as a tourist are rather darker than the exploration I steal from conference locales. Where I'd REALLY like to go is Inverness...

  13. Funny you should mention Inverness. I go there regularly to see my "other" family. Bloody freezing, though.

    If you go, take 50 jackets.