Situationism and spectacle in London's East End

A dérive around Limehouse with McKenzie Wark.

Associated with a diverse range of figures including Thomas De Quincy, Walter Benjamin and present day psychogeographers such as Stuart Home, the dérive is a difficult concept to explain concisely. It was popularised by the Situationists who used it as a way of challenging a rampant capitalism they believed to be infringing on every aspect of contemporary life. The group are the subject of new book The Beach Beneath The Street. I recently met its author McKenzie Wark to go on - if that is the right way to put it - a dérive at Limehouse.

On the day, before talking to Wark, I looked over our meeting place at Limehouse train station. Composed partially of old red brown brick and steel girders, it is one of London's oldest having opened in 1840. But it is also essentially modern; the only trains that pass through it are on the relatively new DLR. Limehouse's history is however one of stark contrast.

Once a central hub of London's trade networks during the industrial revolution, Limehouse today is dominated by the buildings of financial corporations that attest to Britain's position as (until recently at least) the financial capital of the world. Swapping the shipyards and cranes for giant glass skyscrapers, it is now a monument to how Britain sought to reinvent and maintain her power after the fall of the Empire in the aftermath of Second World War.

But the transition from industrialism to finance was not smooth and between these two periods there was another Limehouse. It was this Limehouse - a place associated with poverty and crime - that was in its prime when the 4th Conference of the Situationist International (or SI, as it came to be known) met in 1960.

Upon meeting, Wark and I meander through areas of poverty, algae-covered canals and old style tower blocks but soon become lost in the areas of redevelopment that have become commonplace since the 1980s. We discuss many of the topics he touches upon in the book and - given the recent London Riots - the Situtationists' understanding of civil unrest as inextricably linked to the city and wider political economy.

We don't know where we are or where we are going but I think that is the point. As Wark describes in his book, a dérive was seen by the SI's members - comprising individuals such as Asger Jorn, Jaceuline De Jogn, H P Zimmer and, most famously, Guy Debord - as part of a twin project to understand and challenge capitalism's unrestrained growth. It is a wandering "about in the space of the city according to [one's] own sense of time," and finding "other uses for space besides the functional." The time of the dérive, he adds, "is no longer divided between productive time and leisure time. Leisure time is often called free time. [I]t is free only in the negative, free from work ... what would it mean to construct a positive freedom within time? That is the challenge of the dérive." Debord's Society of the Spectacle, in explaining how the commodity - the fundamental unit of analysis in Marxist theory - had been replaced by the "spectacle", and within it the drive to commodify all forms of human experience, added further theoretical depth to the SI's position.

That the Situationists in 1960 met at a place which was to become a central site of the "spectacle" goes beyond mere serendipity. As they sat debating the Spectacle at the 4th Situationist International, having chosen an area renowned in society for its criminals, it's almost as if they knew what was to come.

After an hour and a half of walking, almost predictably yet unexpectedly, we find ourselves at the centre of towering banks in Canary Wharf. It seems to be a fitting place to end our dérive. Screens of market data on the sides of buildings show the markets are in the middle of another catastrophic day. Nobody seems bothered.

Originally broadcast on Resonance 104.4 FM, you can listen to the interview with McKenzie Wark as we embark on our dérive around Limehouse by clicking on the soundcloud player below:

 

 

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge