One language most people speak fluently without really realising it is urbanism: reading and understanding and engaging with a city. Of course, being thrust into an unfamiliar urban environment can often be disorienting at first but it doesn’t take too long to find your bearings, even if you happen to be one of those people who are absolutely hopeless at reading maps.
Cities abound in as many varieties as snowflakes but most can be “parsed” without too much difficulty, actual linguistic barriers notwithstanding. For some people, this engagement goes beyond the merely functional – the city is a sounding board, an external stimulus, a puzzle to be deciphered. The late, great Ian Nairn said he liked to see how the architecture of towns and cities came together and “operated” the same way others like to watch football; it was “the greatest game in town” for him.
Such forays have long been a staple of tourism, but the tourist, even at their leisure, is often following a prescribed curriculum laid out by their guidebook, package tour or the travel pages of their favourite broadsheet. Others go off on their own bat, be it when travelling or in the city they call home, choosing the vulgate of happenstance rather than the scripture of travel guides. This has proven a rich seam for a particular subset of writing about cities that is loosely known as “psychogeography”.
Curiously though, it is only recently it has really gained a foothold in the English-speaking world. Not that there has been any shortage of writing about place in English, with travel writing having flourished since the heyday of the Grand Tour in Georgian times (though some might even put it as far back as Geraldis Cambrensis and Chaucer). But cities and their urban fabric have rarely been central to these works –– even in fiction, as Perry Anderson pointed out recently, 19th-century English novelists were rather coy about the settings for their books, often dressing them up in fictitious names, while French, German and Russian novelists used topographically real locales.
Much of the non-fiction written about cities in English has historically tended to the sociologically taxonomic, such as Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives and George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. Vital and urgent as these works were, their concerns were more focused and their narrative more methodical than much of the city writing that emanated from across the channel.
The French concept of the flâneur, the dandy who traverses the city on foot in search of impressions and experiences – “the gastronomy of the eye” as Balzac called it – is at the root of what we now know as psychogeography. Charles Baudelaire was the most famous of a number of illustrious avatars though even he acknowledged a debt to Edgar Allan Poe, whom he translated and whose short story, The Man of the Crowd, served as the spiritual and aesthetic template for these urban strollers.
Whereas the Romantics’ relationship to their environment bordered on ancestor worship, with their fondness for ruins, the stuff of antiquity and the “perfection” of Latinate philology, the Parisians of the later nineteenth century were more attuned to the immediate city of their everyday life. They found fascination in the metropolis rapidly growing around them, its sporadically paved streets newly connected by a network of covered arcades housing cafés, boutiques, curiosity shops, cabarets and boulevard theatres.
A number of theories might explain why such a subjective exploration of the urban space took hold in Paris at the time – rising consumerism during the Second Empire is one and another is that Paris, even more so than other European cities during a tumultuous century, had seen its topography change so often and so rapidly. It was occupied by Russian troops in 1814, who reportedly brought with them the word “bistro” (meaning “quickly”) which in time passed into the French lexicon.
Barricades dotted the streets of the city on three occasions, in 1830, 1848 and then during the Commune in 1871. In the meantime there was the 1851 coup d’état that turned President Louis-Napoléon into Emperor, leading to two decades of authoritarian rule. Baron Haussmann had free rein to dig up and bulldoze entire neighbourhoods, and remodel the city with his “strategic embellishments”, intended to facilitate the easy movement of troops and artillery to quell any future uprisings (as the Versailles Guard would do to the Commune in May 1871). To Parisians of the mid-century, it would probably have been natural to view the city as a series of palimpsests, a protean morass of urban activity.
Though the city featured heavily in much French writing of the nineteenth century, particularly Balzac’s Comédie humaine and Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris, it was with the Surrealists that the more recondite aspects of Paris took centre-stage. Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1926) delved underneath the skin of the city, using maps, newspaper cuttings and restaurant menus, anchoring his narrative around the gothic Victorian Parc des Buttes Chaumont and the Passage de l’Opéra, one of the 19th-century arcades, which was demolished during the writing of the book.
The book echoes the Surrealists’ favourite photographer, Eugène Atget, whose ghostly images of statues, doorways and staircases present a much different Paris from the branded city of romance later crystallised in the work of Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The eerie, unpeopled pictures (unpeopled largely because of the lengthy exposure times of the day) were a spectral counterpoint to the everyday, something which would become a hallmark of the ‘interior’ writing of the psychogeographer.
The Situationists took things a step further, Guy Debord coining the term “psychogeography” and theorising it while simultaneously taking a playful, “ludique” approach to the city’s terrain, which involved explorations of the city guided by fixed rules, and also intoxication (Walter Benjamin had in 1928 experimented with familiar surroundings by taking hashish for the first time in Marseille). The dérive, or drift, ostensibly an unserious phenomenon in the service of a critique of contemporary society, underpinned the reification of urban existence in contemporary French writing, be it in the nouveau roman, the experimental games of the Oulipians or Julien Gracq’s long meditative essays. It began to seep into Anglophone writing first through JG Ballard’s fiction, initially ignored by the literary establishment because of its “genre” status, and also by way of Alasdair Gray, Paul Auster and the non-fiction works of Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, Geoff Dyer and Will Self and Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films.
But it was the huge international success of WG Sebald’s novels in the Nineties that finally gave geographical writing a settled place in English-speaking countries. No doubt it helped that he lived in England for more than three decades before his death in 2001, and even more so because most of his novels took England at least in part as their setting. Sebald was an outsider familiar enough with the locale to offer a recognisable portrait of Britain while erudite and foreign enough to provide the necessary distance of strangeness. Though writers taking the city and/or geography as their subject didn’t need Sebald’s prompting, he certainly raised interest among readers and made publishers somewhat more receptive to it.
Teju Cole’s fictional exploration of New York and its history (and in passing Brussels too) in Open City draws from the same well as Sebald, while the pot-smoking narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station reminds you of the ingenu Benjamin getting stoned in Marseille. Karl Whitney’s Hidden City brings the dérive and the games of the Situationists to Dublin. Lee Rourke’s 2010 novel The Canal channels Ballardian anomie on a graffiti-strewn canal on the interzone between Hackney and Islington. The latter novel, whose titular canal runs through an urban landscape with one leg in an edgy working-class milieu and another in the oncoming tide of corporate gentrification, embodies the background against which the rise in city writing has taken place.
It may even be this changing face of the urban environment and of the perception of cities that is driving this interest. After decades of being associated with social decay, alienation and violence, cities have enjoyed a newfound good press in the past 15 to 20 years. Gentrification is the most obvious vector but there is more than simply that to explain how people are more comfortable in cities. Falling crime rates, particularly for violent crime, on both sides of the Atlantic, have encouraged people to be adventurous and more attentive to their surroundings.
A greater respect for public transport has brought improvements and also elided psychological divisions within cities, as has the greater mobility facilitated by technology. Even Brutalism, long maligned, is coming back into fashion. The growth patterns of inner cities and suburbs has in some cases been reversed (though this again is largely because of gentrification).
There has also been a proliferation of informal street tours that fall outside the traditional tourism remit, such as those focused on the 1916 Rising in Dublin, street art in Paris or the TV shows The Killing and Borgen in Copenhagen. Some excellent blogs such as Messy Nessy Chic, Forgotten NY and Invisible Paris cast a light on the underside of major cities. Urban explorers have always been the more intrepid of sorts (even those that have steered clear of sewers and condemned buildings) but cities certainly seem less daunting places for the ordinary citizen than they did three or four decades ago.
There is also a more nuanced impression of neighbourhoods that might previously have been dismissed out of hand by middle-class people as “dangerous”. French people reacted with anger and derision when Fox News announced parts of Paris were no-go zones for non-Muslims, and residents of Nørrebro in Copenhagen were similarly bemused by some of the commentary after a resident killed two people in twin attacks last month.
Some might argue that these neighbourhoods are in the process of losing their soul or becoming sanitised as property prices rise and public spaces become gradually privatised. This is certainly true, though “boring” parts of town can be just as much of interest to the psychogeographer, not least for what lies hidden beneath the exterior.