6: Sam Miller’s Delhi

As a child I was always told that the way to learn about anything was to read about it. So, before my first trip to India in 2010, I worked through a pile of books about the country.

One which had a great influence on me was Sam Miller’s Delhi. This is an attempt to explore the city, detailing an epic walk and describing the landmarks and neighbourhoods that Miller encountered. The book made me love Delhi, when many people I know can barely tolerate it.

In his introduction, Miller talks a little about urban walking and says that his first such journey was in was in Paris, a city famous for its walkers. He draws an interesting comparison between the urban poets of Paris and the English romantics.

Miller writes that “If you don’t walk in Delhi, large parts of the city are invisible to you”. It is also a place where life is “lived in the open” albeit one that can be difficult to move through given its traffic, broken pavements and open sewers. He also faces an amusing difficulty of walking in Indian cities: a foreigner attempting to cross the road is often faced by a wall of autorickshaws offering rides.

Around the time he encountered Sinclair’s Lights out for the territory, Miller was considering an exploratory walk. Sinclair had taken a letter V as his route, for reasons undisclosed. At night, when unable to sleep, Miller began to consider the perfect shape for a walk around Delhi. Circles and figures-of-eight left the holes in circles unexplored. Indian letters did not seem to flow well. Reading a book on Old Delhi, Miller saw diagrams showing how Muslim cities were arranged in concentric circles. He settled on a spiral.

Miller’s tour passes through fascinating locations: the Jantar Mantar, slaughterhouses in Old Delhi, Humayan’s tomb, Coronation Park, the new suburbs of Gurgaon. The question becomes: did Miller find these things because he had carefully chosen the chance method; or would any route have revealed such interesting places? If we are carefully selecting the chance methods of exploration, are we really open to chance?

5: Exploring cities

A city is a library of palimpsests. New buildings are erected, streets are re-routed, occupants come and go, each leaving some trace. As Chtcheglov wrote in Formulary for a New Urbanism, “All cities are geological. You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends.”

There is something mysterious about cities, all those doorways and windows, hidden rooms that might contain anything, whole worlds you will never gain access to. Cities have secrets. There are professions that glimpse some of these spaces (police, removal men, inspectors) but even they will learn only a fraction of a city.

Psychogeography has always been interested in exploring, in finding new routes through urban spaces. Debord saw the dérive as a strategic exercise, mapping territories and lines of communication. Other, earlier psychogeographers were charting courses and Debord referred explicitly to Thomas de Quincey’s explorations of London, trying to find a ‘North-West passage’:

 sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical principles, by fixing my eye on the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and headlands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphinx’s riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I conceive, baffle the audacity of porters

Other proto-psychogeographers have had the same feeling that mystical riddles lie somewhere within the city. As Arthur Machen wrote:

“…he who cannot find wonder, mystery, awe, the sense of a new world and an undiscovered realm in the places by the Gray’s Inn Road will never find those secrets elsewhere, not in the heart of Africa, not in the fabled hidden cities of Tibet… All the wonders lie within a stone’s-throw of King’s Cross Station.”

A sense of such hidden realms occurs in Alex James’ first book of autobiography:

There was a boat at Blackfriar’s Bridge, where scary people played cards, basements in Chinatown full of transvestites, stained attics along Berwick street full of crackheads and prostitures, mansions in Holland Park full of crackheads and prostitutes.  At night the city belonged to all the people who didn’t have to get up in the morning…

Cheeky Walks: Brighton Back Passages

Cheeky Walks in Brighton and Hove came out in 2012. I did a couple of the walks just after it came out, but didn’t get around to any of the others. An old friend suggested we get together for a walk on New Years Day and we decided to do the book’s Brighton’s Back Passages tour, which takes the reader around a tour of Brighton twittens.

The walk started at the Morrison’s in St James’s Street and soon showed me two passages on George Street that I’d never noticed, despite walking past them dozens of times.

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One of them had been decorated:

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The walk had been carefully planned and I loved how some of the alleyways opened up from what looked like dead ends. Being back alleys, all the passages were grotty and rubbish-strewn. At one point Ramsey the dog had to be carried over broken glass.

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The walk pointed out a few things I’d never noticed. The frame in the photo below used to hold a mirror to deflect sunlight into the workshop above.

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It’s interesting following a guidebook that is a couple of years old, because of the risk that landmarks have altered. The back passages walk was mostly unaltered, apart from one previously-decorated house near Regency Square being repainted.

The mispelling of ‘lane’ in the sign below has proved controversial, with a number of attempts to change itback proving unsuccessful. Laine is an old Sussex word for field.

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This door was painted when the barber’s opposite was used as a film set.

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We also saw a lot of street art:

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4: The Factory Must Be Built

The Situationists have influenced culture in subtle ways, small slips of their pens leading to later avalanches. Short phrases have gone on to change lives.

The Lettrist International was obsessed with the problems of cities. They wanted to break down division, to make space for art and play. Ivan Chtcheglov’s Formulary for a new Urbanism is one of their most powerful manifestos: “We are bored in the city,” wrote Chtcheglov. He feared being trapped in a world of boring leisure, a land of ‘banalization’.

Chtcheglov demanded a new vision of the city, an expansion of dream life. He wanted ‘houses where one cannot help but love’. He feared that people were no longer “setting out for the hacienda where the roots think of the child and where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac. That’s all over. You’ll never see the hacienda.”

The Lettrists mutated into the Situationists. Via Chris Gray’s translations in Leaving the 20th Century, they supplied a philosophical basis for punk; and Chtcheglov’s claim that “the Hacienda must be built” inspired the entrepreneur Tony Wilson, who used the name for his nightclub.

The story of Factory records passed into legend even as the participants were still alive, with Wilson cameoing in a film about his life. He was played by Steve Coogan, who did a good job of portraying Wilson’s hubris (even now, spending £20,000 on a table seems incredible). But, alongside it all, was something inspiring – a man whose record company collapsed because he’d never forced his bands into contracts.

Tony Wilson died in 2007. He was suffering from renal cancer, and could not afford the cancer drugs he needed. He was interviewed just before he died: “I used to say ‘some people make money and some make history’, which is very funny until you find you can’t afford to keep yourself alive.”

3: Haunted by Rain

French historian Hippolyte Taine claimed that the first English music was the sound of rain on oak leaves. Britain has always been a damp island – the Roman writer Tacitus referred to its reputation for frequent mists.

Britain also has a reputation for being haunted. Many German tribes thought that the souls of the dead found a home in the West, where the sun slipped into the sea, and some named Britain as the land of the dead. Indeed, the historian Procopius describes villages on the coast facing an island called ‘Brittia’ which paid no taxes because their inhabitants were said to be summoned to carry the dead across the Channel.

Britain’s reputation for ghosts and rain were linked in the mind of Anglo-Saxons, most notably the singers who developed the poetic form of the Rainsong. In mediaeval times, there was a tradition in Sussex that the rains allowed the living and dead to communicate. It’s not much that they believed the dead returned as rain – it’s that the rain brought Earth and heaven together. Ghosts and water.

I am haunted by the shipping forecast. A song of weather in distant places, it may be the greatest poem the English have produced. I lived six months in America and a friend would send me cassettes of recent broadcasts. I used to fall asleep to those recordings, announcing storms that had taken place weeks before. Nothing else sounds so mythic to me, sums up with I think of as home, a mantra that keeps things safe.

I’ve never understood why the modern English don’t appreciate rain more. It will rain anyhow, so you might as well develop a love for it.

2: The Dérive

Most discussion of psychogeography centres around the practise of the dérive, the Drift. According to the Situationists, this is “quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll”, since it involves “playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects”.

The essay Theory of the Dérive provides discussion and techniques of Drifting. Those involved suspend their normal obligations and motives, letting themselves “be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”. Rather than a single group, the best results are achieved from several small groups that can cross-check their impressions to produce “objective conclusions”; too many people and the Drift loses cohesion. The average duration is a day, from waking to sleep, but the time can range from a few hours to several days. The results taken allow the city to be mapped and navigational charts produced of the relationship between different zones and ambiences.

Given how influential Situationist ideas of psychogeography and drifting are, there are few examples of what they intended, of exactly how walking through a city was supposed to further revolution. Merlin Coverley writes that “one cannot help but notice that, while the theoretical and instructive elements of psychogeography are manifest, the actual results of all these experiments are strangely absent… one is hard pressed to find any concrete evidence… of psychogeographical activity.” Indeed, Ralph Rumney was expelled from the Situationist for being late with a psychogeographical report on Venice.

The random methods so beloved of modern psychogeographers are treated cautiously in Theories. “If chance plays an important role in dérives this is because the methodology of psychogeographical observation is still in its infancy”. It will do for now, in place of more useful techniques. What’s interesting is how modern few psychogeographers are exploring the methods that might take the place of an arbitrary shape drawn on a map. It’s as if any desire to develop the Drift ended with the Situationists.

1: What is Psychogeography?

The best introduction to psychogeography came from a review of Iain Sinclair’s Edge of the Orison in the Times, written by Robert Macfarlane:

 Psychogeography: a beginner’s guide. Unfold a street map of London, place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets: the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation… Go out into the city, hungry for signs and portents, and see what happens. Open your mind, let the guiding metaphors of the walk find you.

The activity described is interesting. When I’ve done it, even in areas I’ve known well, I’ve discovered things. I’ve seen how an arbitrary route cuts across the usual ways of travelling through a city, revealing how the city channels its residents, how the mood of an area can change abruptly. This sort of walking is a fun if pretentious way to spend a few hours. It will appeal to certain people and bore others. But it says very little about psychogeography.

The term itself emerged from left-wing art movements in 1950s Paris, but the ideas involved have been given a longer lineage. From theoretical, political origins, Psychogeography has been linked to literary antecedents such as Thomas de Quincey, Daniel Defoe, Arthur Machen and to literary descendants like Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore and Will Self. The subject has been connected to land art, urbanism, political walking, urban exploration, travel writing, mindfulness, punk rock. It has been invented and reinvented, becoming at times cliched and banal.

There is a lot of writing about psychogeography and it sometimes overwhelms the practises. The revolutionary ambitions of the original psychogeographers have certainly been drowned out by wordy petulance. Anything one writes about a subject like psychogeography has to keep returning to the question of what it actually changes. You can walk circles around the place where you live all you like. So what?

My Favourite Books of 2014

I only read 60 books in 2014, compared with 95 in 2013 and, apparently, 166 in 2012. My favourites, in alphabetical order were:

Broken Summers / Henry Rollins I’m not a fan of Rollins’ music, so I’m not sure why I picked this up. I love the energy of his prose though, and it leaves me feeling inspired.

Explore Everything by Bradley Garrett While this is a fairly self-aggrandizing account of urban exploration, it’s absolutely fascinating and contains some amazing photos. The achievements of Garrett and his colleagues would sound preposterous were it not for the images.

Fluent in 3 months by Benny Lewis The men who taught me languages at school were vile and trash; and, despite doing well in exams, I’ve always thought that I could never speak foreign languages. This book suggests learning techniques and encourages the reader to quickly learn useful useful words and phrases. Since reading it, my confidence about trying to learn Hindi has increased significantly.

Jacques Derrida by Benoit Peeters Derrida worked hard to hide many of the details of his life so I wasn’t sure whether to read this biography or not. It turned out to be interesting, with the details of Derrida’s terminal illness being incredibly sad. “Always prefer life and never stop affirming survival.”

Layla by Nina de la Mer Layla is a second-person point-of-view novel about a lap-dancer trying to get enough money together so that she can go back to her young son. It’s a desperate, enthralling novel, currently 99p on Amazon.

Power Trip by Damian McBride I’m not sure how reliable the accounts of events in this book are, and McBride’s alcohol intake is terrifying. But this is a compelling account of the Brown government and has made me reconsider my opinion of it. It also includes some scurrilous stories. The sort of political book that I love.

Swenglish / Louise Halvarddson Discussed here.

Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society An amazing coffee table book on the exploits and adventures of the Cacophony Society. I first encountered the Cacophony Society via Chuck Palahniuk’s writing. Their legacy includes SantaCon and Burning Man, but some of their less well-known events are equally interesting. I occasionally find myself thinking I should say ‘Fuck it’ and use this book as a template.

U2 at the end of the world by Bill Flanagan I find Bono as loathsome as any other decent person does, but Zooropa-era U2 fascinate me. One of the biggest bands in the world, experimenting with their music and ripping off Jenny Holzer. A 500 page book on their early-nineties tours should not have been so fascinating.

Working effectively with Legacy code by Michael Feathers This book is very different to the others! Very few people talk about the realities of software development, which is dealing with other people’s code and making quick fixes. Feathers’ book lays out techniques for changing legacy code and has proved invaluable over the last year.

Swenglish

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Back in October I visited my friend Louise in Sweden. While I was there, I read her book Swenglish (which I was supposed to have read before the trip, but many things had got in the way).

The idea for Swenglish was an interesting one. Lou was coming up to her 30th birthday. She’d achieved her ambitions and wasn’t sure what to do next. She had to either change things by moving back to Sweden, or commit to being English. She came up with a novel way to investigate the two options.

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Lou wrote to 120 people, some English and some Swedish. The time she’d been away from Sweden meant that many of the Swedish ones were older friends spread about the country. The English friends were centred on Brighton, including a lot of mutual acquaintances. She then chose fifteen English people and fifteen Swedish, spending a week shadowing each of them and writing about the experience.

(I was one of the people approached initially but didn’t make the final list. Louise was worried that I would be too interested in asking questions about the underlying project. She was probably better off not including me, as I’d already started preparing a serious of bizarre incidents to occur while she was shadowing me)

As a portrait of two countries the book is interesting enough. The Swedish find the English habit of carpeting toilets to be disgusting. And, despite Sweden having colder temperatures, Sweden is warmer than England, since our houses tend to be draughty and badly insulated. However, the thing I like most was the way the book sketched its characters.

Back when I was in Umi Sinha‘s classes, she told us an important rule for critiquing people’s work. Even if a piece is written in the first person, you shouldn’t talk about the actions “you” did, maintaining a separation between the narrator and the author. In a book like this, where the characters are so tied to real people there is a similar separation. The ‘characters’ are Lou’s view of people, distorted by what she brought to the experience and what she was looking for. At least one was unhappy with their portrayal but I felt that the portraits were positive and well-intentioned. I can’t speak for how these people should or did feel, but I felt a compassion towards each of Louise’s portrayals.

For me, the book was one about choice. Several portraits focussed on decisions that the subjects had made. Others had not made a choice, seeming to endure. Reading about thirty lives in quick succession made me think about my own choices, both those I was making and the ones I was ignoring. Interestingly, few people regretted their decisions, even when they involved a massive change.

A good book produces some sort of change in the reader. After reading Swenglish I’ve taken time to think about the choices in my life (including seriously considering moving to Sweden in the next year). Louise is planning to self-publish this in early 2015, with a launch in Brighton, and I’m looking forward to more people getting a chance to read it.

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Season-notes 2: What I did in the Autumn

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Three months ago I wrote a set of season notes, and it’s time for another. Three months seems a good period of time to stop and reflect on. Some things change, some things don’t, but you can see the patterns.

At the end of September I was worn out by work and organising events. I have now cut down on my commitments, which turned out to be a good move. I took the Facebook and twitter apps off my phone, and I’ve missed them less than I’ve enjoyed the feeling of additional space. I’ve also stopped keeping to-do lists, and my life didn’t collapse. I still find myself falling back into the habit, but I’m now more comfortable with letting my inbox fill up.

Lots of things that happened: Apple Day was a glorious end to the summer. I gave a talk, ‘The Internet is Haunted’ at the Phoenix Gallery and Eastbourne’s Towner. I saw the Nordic giants and watched the Manic Street Preachers play The Holy Bible – a cathartic experience. The MechaPoet performed with the Lovely Brothers then, as Chris writes, “was nearly washed away in the thunderstorm but we managed to dry her out in front of the radiator”. I went to a talk by John Lydon, attended MuCon (1, 2) and the LJC OpenConf; rounded off the 2014 season of Brighton Java; went on a trip to Sweden and visited Canterbury and Margate. One of my stories was discussed in a university English lecture. I watched 20,000 days on Earth and The Punk Singer, both of which were very inspiring. I was published in the Guardian blogs, with a piece co-written by Sophie Turton (I’ve not dared look at the link myself yet because comments). And I bonded with my family over Christmas food poisoning.

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Work continued to be a drag and I drafted a resignation letter after returning from Sweden. But a couple of friends advised me to hold out, and that turned out to be a good decision. I still think the work I’m doing do is important and worthwhile and it’s a shame when distractions get in the way. Things have improved, and I’ve learned a valuable lesson in patience and forbearance. I’m currently working away at some personal goals and, once those are done, I will think about what I want to do.

One of those goals is to send out some of my creative work. I’m still not interested in being ‘a writer’; but dealing with rejection is a skill I’ve never developed. I finished a book, Everybody Hates a Tourist, back in October, and I’m going to send that out to a few places. Another goal is losing the weight I’ve put on since starting at Crunch. I’m still not able to run, so fixing my hip will be a good place to start with this.

Last time I said I wanted to get more from the books I’m reading. I’ve made some improvement on this. I read 15 books, my favourites being Head On by Julian Cope, and Black Summer, a collection of Henry Rollins’ journals (interesting that the films and books I enjoyed most were about musicians). I also loved Louise‘s book Swenglish, which I will post about tomorrow. I’m trying to read more consciously, to ask why I’m spending time on a particular book. To quote Warren Ellis, “If we’re not doing something with the information we’re taking in, then we’re just pigs at the media trough.

The best nightmare I had featured me as the only survivor of a plane crash where there were no bodies in the wreckage. The dream plagiarised James Herbert’s The Survivor when the twist was that I was dead too. The best dream featured someone opening a window at work and the office being flooded by crows. What can that mean?

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I’ve been in Brighton for twenty years now, and I sometimes worry that I’ve settled into too many habits. But things do seem to be shifting and there’s a lot to look forward to in 2015. I have a visa for India. Slash/Night is being repeated, this time under the auspices of Mathilda Gregory; I’m also doing some sort of technical/programming thing for her performance How to be Fat. And I’m reviving Not for the Faint-Hearted, my anti-creative writing sessions. Should be fun.