Monthly Archives: February 2014

New London writing, or What the fuck is psychogeography anyway?

I don’t think anybody, with the possible exception of Will Self, really knows what psychogeography means but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of it about. For years, the London writing landscape has been dominated by three masters of the genre, the Ackroyd-Sinclair-Self trinity (in this interview, Self distinguishes between their different approaches) – it’s hard to find a book in the Museum Of London bookshop that doesn’t have an intro penned by one of them – but that is starting to change. In the past year or so, three books have been written by debutant writers that take a broadly psychogeographical approach – you can tell this by the use of words like ‘palimpsest’ and liminal’ –  to the city or patches thereof but are happy to present it in a more approachable, less LRB-approved style.

The man above is Nick Papadimitriou, and his Scarp is the most Sinclairian of the three, written by a man obsessed with a small parcel of land on the city’s northern border. ‘I’m trying to get below the surface into something that’s moving in my mind as much as in the landscape,’ he says, which doesn’t say a great deal and is therefore as neat a summary of his obscure methodology as you are likely to find. Scarp is a wonderful book, a brilliantly obsessive and beautifully observed celebration of the meditative quality of what Papadimitriou calls deep topography and the rest of us know as walking. It’s also classic psychogeography in that you read it in the knowledge that a significant proportion of the theorising is total codswallop, but at least it is entertaining codswallop, an intriguing combination of the occult and broad generalisations about place drawn from a tiny physical space.

Next up in This Other London by John Rogers, a lighter but similarly intentioned account of ten walks – ‘a plunge into the unknown’ – around fairly random parts of London that were previously just strange names on old maps to the author, a film-maker and good egg. Rogers has none of the astonishing familiarity with his territory as Papadimitriou and he makes a virtue of this, imbuing the book with the joy of new discovery. It is, as a friend noted, a salute to the rewards of simple rambling, of going somewhere unusual and just strolling, or flaneuring to use the specific vernacular of psychogeography. As an alternative guide to London walks – or an inspiration to do the same yourself – it is a marvel.

Finally, came Gareth Rees‘s Marshland, hallucinatory, speculative non-fiction about the marshes of Hackney and Walthamstow that combines Scarp‘s deep knowledge about a specific locality with the dry wit and accessibility of This Other Land. Again, Rees is fond of that psychogeographical turn of phrase – ‘There is no final draft of London’, being a particularly fine example – but laces it with humour as he explores this odd landscape of rave holes, filter beds, football pitches and reservoirs (and a fascinating landscape it is too), mixing in a bit of fiction and even offering an audio soundtrack. Rees has a tremendous, natural, written voice and the book fairly skips along. I loved it.

All three books are a lot of fun and that is the great, dirty, secret of psychogeographical writing – it is hilariously fun to do as you train your brain to make grandiose statements about people, place and history that you are fairly sure won’t stand up to any great inquisition but look fucking brilliant on paper. Bill Drummond’s neat summary of psychogeography is perfect – ‘An intellectual justification for what I have been doing most of my life’.

I do not consider myself to be a psychogeographical writer (and here I express some of my dislike of it), but that’s not to say I’ve never indulged in it myself of occasion (as here, when writing about Wappingness), particularly when asked to do so by property developers, who seem to love this style of writing as a way to signify their deeper engagement with the city they are hoping to exploit.

By my experience then, psychogeography is used as much to shift property as it is to expand and combine the frontiers of space and mind, which is perhaps inevitable in London, where any amount of folklore and fauna only really has any value if it can be seen to have a positive effect on land prices. I’m not entirely sure that this is what Guy Debord was hoping for when he first conceived his theory, but given that he’s long gone there’s not a great deal he can do about it.

Situationists at the Sailors' Society in London during the 4th Conference of the Situationist International. Those assembled included (from l. to r.): Attila Kotányi, Hans-Peter Zimmer, Heimrad Prem, Asger Jorn (covered), Jørgen Nash (front), Maurice Wyckaert, Guy Debord, Helmut Sturm, and Jacqueline de Jong. To ensure that the proceedings were kept away from any contact with artistic circles or London newspapers, the conference took place in Limehouse, "a district renowned for its criminals."

Guy Debord’s Situationists in Limehouse, in search of Wappingness and investment opportunities.

Advertisements

Five fictional Londons

For more on London Fiction, see the latest issue of the wonderful Curiocity map-magazine. 

Nú Lundun

The Book Of Dave (2006)

Will Self’s phonetic and splenetic Mockney masterpiece imagines a future London buried beneath flooded waters. It is set on the island of Ham, all that remains of Hampstead Heath, where the inhabitants worship a psychotic taxi driver, so take a cab up to Parliament Hill and imagine yourself looking down upon a lagoon. The book ends in Nú Lundun, rebuilt near Nottingham.

MAP

Un Lun Dun

Un Lun Dun (2007)

China Mieville’s underground fantasy city populated with things that people in real London throw away and accessed through a door in an estate in Kilburn. If you stand in the right part of Charing Cross Road and stare through a grille in the pavement, you can see a subterranean sign for a long-lost London street – perhaps this is how we can enter Un Lun Dun?

 

Brit-Cit

2000AD (1980s-present)

A post-apocalyptic city of giant towers and rage imagined by the creators of Judge Dredd, this megalopolis has distinctive landmarks like the New Old Bailey, Bigga Ben and the Battersea Mutants Home. The closest you can get to it today is by walking around Canary Wharf in a motorcycle helmet shouting ‘Drokk’ at passing bankers.

 

London Below

Neverwhere (1996)

Neil Gaiman’s TV series about a magical subterranean London where many of London’s evocative place names – Angel, Earl’s Court, Knightsbridge – have come to life: there’s a real angel, a real earl and the Night’s Bridge is an ominous stone bridge. Recreate the experience by going to Catford shopping centre with a tin of Whiskas and trying to entice the giant cat down for a cuddle.

Londongrad

Comrade Dad (1986)

Short-lived sitcom starring George Cole and set in London in 1999 after a Communist invasion – the opening credits feature the Red Army marching through Trafalgar Square while a revolving red star sits atop Nelson’s Column. Recreate the experience by living in a tiny London bedsit struggling to pay the heating bills while the government and their cronies bathe in diamonds and caviar and listen to your phone calls.

The Ramones in London: What if nobody speaks English?

I have written a cover story about the Ramones in the current issue of Uncut. One element of the Ramones story is their two gigs in London in July 1976, when the band played the Roundhouse and Dingwalls before audiences of around 5,000 at a time they were drawing around 150 back in New York.

These are considered key dates for the punk revolution in the UK, giving a kickstart to the three pioneering London punk bands, the Sex Pistols, Damned and Clash. The truth is a little more complex. One of the reasons the Ramones even got a record deal was because of interest in the New York scene in the UK. As Craig Leon, who produced Ramones for Sire, told me: ‘There had been inklings in the British press that something was happening and Malcolm McLaren had been over for a while managing the New York Dolls and took a lot of the scene – mainly Richard Hell’s dress sense – over to London, where it began developing in its own way. Sire felt that if we could make a cheap album and then get our money back in Europe it wasn’t a risky proposition.’

So even before the Ramones went to London, they knew the city was familiar with the CBGBs scene. For a band that loved English pop, this was quite a thrill. As Tommy Ramone explained, ‘They said the UK was interested and we’d grown up with all our favourite bands coming from the UK [Tommy told me that “Judy Is A Punk” was basically based on “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits] so we were very excited and we thought it might give us our break. We went over for a few days and played the Roundhouse and Dingwalls. We met a lot of the English bands, who came to the soundcheck at Dingwalls. We knew that we had sold out these place so we had an idea something was going on.” The success of the Camden shows did nothing for the band’s reputation back home, however. When they returned they continued playing in front of small crowds. In fact, as the Pistols gained in notoriety, being associated with English punk acts was more of a hindrance.

Nonetheless, Danny Fields, the band’s manager, felt the Ramones appearance gave London a crucial fillip. ‘To be the toast of London was incredible. There were people line up to meet them, to sleep with them, to sleep with me. All the would-be bands were there to see them. The  dressing room was full of people from the Clash, Damned and Sex Pistols. They were amazed that a band could put out a record like this, that they would even be allowed to play. We sat with Paul Simonon before the show and he said to Johnny he was in band but they weren’t good enough. Johnny said, “You’re going to see us for the first time. We suck, we can’t play. But don’t worry about it, just do it.” Johnny Rotten had to climb up knotted sheets. They took inspiration and thought the Ramones were exotic. The inspiration was, “We stink, stop rehearsing, start playing.’”

The only problem with Fields’ narrative is that the Pistols and Clash already were playing. Indeed, both bands actually missed the Ramones show at the Roundhouse because they were playing that same night, at the Black Swan in Sheffield, while the Stranglers were supporting the Ramones. The Damned made their debut a day after the Ramones show at the Dingwalls on July 6. So Rat Scabies, Damned drummer, thinks the influence of those London shows was more subtle. ‘Their influence on British punk rock is negotiable, because the London bands had already started,’ he says. ‘We were rehearsing, the Sex Pistols and Clash were doing the odd gig. But I remember listening to the Ramones debut album with Paul Simonon and we thought it was great as it was exactly what we were all about, three minute pop songs about life. We felt an immediate connection and it was confirmation: we realised we weren’t the only ones doing it. What was important isn’t ‘who came first?’ but the fact the same thing was happening in different parts of the world. It wasn’t just London frustration, it was the next generation getting angry. It made us realise we weren’t alone.’

In that sense, the Ramones shows were more like the International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, when the hippies, ex-Beats, freaks and flower kids all turned up at the same place for the first time and realised they had a constituency, that the happenings they were organising in silos could be fed into a collective scene. It’s a glorious movement for any youth movement, the realisation you are part of something bigger than yourself. Even the underground wants to be popular.

The Ramones shows then have passed into punk legend, to be reinterpreted by new generations. ‘There’s a comic book called Gabba Gabba Hey that talks about the Ramones trip to London and how we were so concerned about the economic conditions, the UK depression, unemployment, children out of work,’ says Fields. ‘In truth, we were there for three days and the last thing anybody was thinking about was whether the British state was unfair to unwed mothers. They only thing they were worried about on the flight over is whether we had enough t-shirts to sell and what if nobody speaks English.’

Here’s an excerpt from the Ramones documentary End Of The Century talking about the Ramones in London.