Aimless pleasures

Observations on psychogeography

When I was a student, there was an organisation called the Straight Line Society, which I never quite got round to joining. Its members would draw a straight line on an A-Z and then follow that path as accurately as they could, even if it meant negotiating their way through private houses and gardens. Later I realised that this society, whether it knew it or not, was practising the art of psychogeography.

As first defined in 1955 by Guy Debord, co-founder of the French situationist movement, psychogeography reinvented aimless walking as a revolutionary act. The situationists would cut up maps of Paris, reassemble the fragments and then walk the amended routes, in search of a new awareness of the city not driven by the repetitive routines of work and the daily commute.

Psychogeography has now gone online, with groups of enthusiasts writing about their adventures. The Manchester Zedders stick a pin in an A-Z, head off to explore that map square, and then blog about it. The Loiterers’ Resistance Movement, a Mancunian artists’ collective, uses the blogosphere to rendezvous and share experiences, such as accounts of a “Subverting Surveillance Night” and an attempt to “dematerialise” the new Beetham Tower. Their commonest tactic is the situationist dérive, or purposeless drift through the city. Once a month they ramble around unregenerated parts of Manchester. On one occasion they ended up in an underground car park where they held an impromptu concert with kazoos and tambourines.

The same spirit is evident in Remapping High Wycombe, a project run by Cathy and John Rogers, a brother-and-sister team of “psycho-crypto-topographers”. They wanted to make an imaginative record of the old town centre before it was redeveloped, so they created an algorithmic dérive in which they repeatedly followed the same set of simple instructions – for instance, “Take a left and then a right”. My favourite online psychogeographer is John Davies, a vicar who spent two months walking the length of the M62 motorway and blogging about it from the wifi areas in Travelodges and service stations.

Literary psychogeographers such as Iain Sinclair and Will Self reveal the city as an intricate maze of hidden histories and surreal connections. But these bloggers tend to be collaborative and tentative, more willing to explore mundanity for its own sake. For them, the city does not yield up its psychogeographic secrets readily; sometimes a bus shelter is just a bus shelter, not a site of ancient or occult significance.

Most of them did not initially recognise themselves as psychogeographers. The Loiterers’ Resistance Movement says it still cannot agree on a definition for the term, but that its members do “like plants growing out of the side of buildings, urban exploration, drinking tea and getting lost. Gentrification, advertising and blandness make us sad. We believe there is magic in the Mancunian rain. Our city is wonderful and made for more than shopping.” You don’t have to be a situationist to say Amen to that.

Joe Moran’s “On Roads: a Hidden History” is published in June by Profile Books (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.