Discovering the secrets of the city


Merlin Coverley <em>Pocket Essentials, 160pp, £9.99</em>

The wo

For some time now, "psychogeography" has been one of the words at the top of every hipster's lexicon. It is so much edgier, so much more avant-garde, than plain "geography" - which reeks of wet Wednesday afternoons listening to provincial schoolmasters droning on about the Zuider Zee. It crops up endlessly in style magazines, in the sleeve notes for experimental electronica albums and in newspaper columns by sharp-spectacled margin-walkers keen to distinguish their prose from the bread-and-circus bromides peddled by less culturally savvy commentators.

The term "psychogeography" was actually coined by the French philosopher and situationist Guy Debord in the 1950s. It referred, he claimed, to "the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals". Though he would later expend a lot of energy on the lookout for semantic drift, and trying to regulate the uses to which the word was put, it has come to be associated with a belief in the revolutionary insights and epiphanies opened up by the act of walking (described by Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust as "a constellation whose three stars are the body, the imagination and the wide-open world"). And more, much more than this, it refers to a particular kind of mental and imaginative mapping, one often associated with writers such as Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair.

In their books, especially the latter's, psychogeography is partly about method and partly about outcome. It involves moving around the city - always on foot - and being attentive not only to new buildings and architectures, but to the ghosts of previous urban cartographers and visionaries - William Blake, say, or some little-known East End shtetl poet. The present-day city chronicler, almost always a man (women appear only as predator fodder, objects of perverted desire in psychogeographer-as-stalker narratives), is attuned to echoes of the past and prowls around in search of psychological ley lines, eager to divine strange visual and acoustic coincidences that offer evidence of the still- potent presence of darkness, history and texture within a metropolis that seems to some critics increasingly to lack those qualities.

Psychogeographers, then, while knowing full well that successful metropolises have always thrived because of deregulation, turnover and a healthy irreverence for the past, take umbrage - aesthetic more than political - at the way that urbanism has become big business. Since the postwar era of inner-city neglect and mass suburbanisation, cities have become hot commodities, both in the UK and globally, for academic theorists as much as financiers and real- estate moguls. Communities, often poor or populated by migrants, which have struggled to survive in the face of neglect by governments, are now disrupted and deconstructed by gentrification. Space is also increasingly privatised: from the takeover of busking pitches by lager companies to the seizure of the riverfront by absentee bankers. A mourning, or perhaps a nostalgia, for a London that's disappearing - an industrial-age London, a bricks-and-mortar London - is evident in the popularity of recent books such as Travis Elborough's Routemaster valentine, The Bus We Loved, and Adrian Maddox's survey of greasy spoons and Formica-clad coffee bars, Classic Cafes, as well as the rediscovery of Geoffrey Fletcher's The London Nobody Knows (1962).

That mourning, though it's rarely articulated as such, has an intriguing racial dimension. Psychogeography, echoing the crepuscular sensi bility found in the archives of the 19th-century Society for Photographing Relics of Old London or in Danny Lyon's The Destruction of Lower Manhattan (1969), tends to fetishise ruined and decrepit elements of the city. Vespertine and verging on the morbid, it is drawn to boarded-up pawn stores, abandoned match factories, collapsed synagogues. It is usually a rather solitary mode of engagement with metropolitan life, and its practitioners often prefer to yomp through the ghosts of communities rather than newer, living ones, the messy fragmentation of which is less easily conceptualised, social rather than aesthetic.

Small wonder, then, that to date there have been virtually no examples of immigrant psychogeography: settlers, whether from the old empire or the new global south, are more inclined to insist on their present - and future - presence, often in the face of wilful public myopia, than to engage in melancholic cogitations about the fading of an old metropolitan order that allowed them entry only on the most unforgiving service-sector terms.

Now Merlin Coverley has written a short guide to psychogeography for beginners. It traces a line from English metrographers such as Daniel Defoe, through Thomas De Quincey and Arthur Machen, right up to Iain Sinclair. It also examines the emergence of the flâneur, and in so doing not only offers thumbnail sketches of some of the writings of Poe and Baudelaire, but suggests that psychogeography is a mode of urban counter-surveillance largely restricted to Paris and London. This, as anyone who has read Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" or Paul Auster's New York Trilogy will attest, is highly debatable. The Indian novelist Amit Chaudhuri has argued, in the course of an essay on the provincialising tendencies of European historiography, that flâneurial activities were also commonplace in early 20th-century Calcutta.

Coverley's book is hindered not only by its lack of cartographic expansiveness, but by its focus on Sinclair, about whom a number of critical volumes already exist - for example, Robert Bond's 2005 monograph and Kevin Jackson's collection of interviews, The Verbals (2002). If Coverley had a broader cultural range, he might have mentioned the sound art of Janet Cardiff, the films of Andrew Kötting, the art practice of Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark, or even the songs of Barry Adamson and Pulp (the former's Moss Side Story and the latter's "Sheffield Sex City" offer intriguing examples of provincial psychogeography).

In fact, though he does well to offer a synopsis of the work of Alfred Watkins (1855-1935), an archaeologist whose "earth mysteries" investigations have won favour with the crop-circles-and-Forteana fraternity, he should have gone further and cited such radical ruralists as Richard Long, Julian Cope, Bill Drummond and the various artists associated with the California-based Centre for Land Use Interpretation.

The book is frustrating in other ways. Coverley often chides the likes of Debord and Michel de Certeau, author of the influential Practice of Everyday Life, for being too abstruse and jargonistic; yet, though he claims to prefer psychogeography's literature to its apparently cloudy theoretical tenets, he barely ever looks at the (often dense and impenetrable) prose of the writers he champions. Also, in spite of suggesting that psychogeography has become divorced from the politics of contemporary London, he rarely engages with issues such as pedestrian isation, cultural rezoning and the congestion charge, all of which have the potential to impact upon the poetics of perambulation.

Most of all, it's a shame that Coverley neglects so many of the most interesting London walkers from the late 19th century - Mayhew, Dickens, G A Sala and George R Sims - and their postwar descendants Colin MacInnes and Roy Kerridge. These writers traipsed and snouted through the capital's streets, not just indulging in necromantic speculation and Gothic reverie, but talking to its labourers and inhabitants. Modern-day urban chroniclers would do well to spend more time in the city's churches, barber stores and industrial-estate canteens. Here they would find graft and endeavour, dreaming and aspiration, stories full of drama and incident that give the lie to Coverley's glib belief in "the processes of 'banalisation' by which the everyday experience of our surroundings becomes one of drab monotony". Here they would find the London that everybody should know.

Sukhdev Sandhu is the author of "London Calling: how black and Asian writers imagined a city" (HarperPerennial)