9: How the Invisibles Didn’t Change My Life

According to Stewart Home, Grant Morrison is an under-appreciated influence on psychogeography: “Morrison is every bit as important to the popularisation of psychogeography as Sinclair, and on a global scale more important.”

Morrison’s masterwork so far is his 55-issue series the Invisibles. In the first issue, Morrison claimed that the story’s end would reveal the secret of the universe. The plot described a battle between a group of freedom fighters and an extra-dimensional conspiracy that had enslaved humanity. But it was about more than that: magic, politics, Lovecraftian horror, UFOs, transvestite witches, class, India, voodoo and on and on. It was a comic book about everything.

Grant Morrison has always been one for epic statements. He has said that he aims to make the DC comic-book universe self-aware, or that his current series will make the readers into superheroes. The Invisibles, he claimed, was a magic ritual, a ‘hypersigil’, designed to make the world more exciting. It’s arguable that it worked. Morrison was, initially, furious at the way in which the Matrix took on many of his ideas, achieving far greater reach than Morrison’s often difficult narrative, then realised this could be seen as an effect of the magic.

I read a lot of books because they were referred to in the series and saw traces of the way the comics emerged into the world. Submitting to an annotation web-site led to me spending a day in LA with counter-cultural journalist Jay Babcock. I lurked at the Barbelith website, a community started by some Invisibles fans. Out of this came Liars League, the London short-story night, which read one of my stories some years ago.

The book ended in 2000, after revealing the secrets of the universe. Parts of it now seem dated, with a particular nineties glibness and postmodernism, but much of it is still striking, such as the struggles of Dane McGowan, the tragedy of the time-travel romance, the sacrifice of Mr. Six and the revelations about the universe.

According to the Invisibles, 22nd December 2012 was the end of the world. I was lying in bed that night, unable to sleep. For years, I’d followed a twitter account called Barbelith, named after a satellite from the book. There were very few messages on the account, but it came alive that night, tweeting the messages the satellite had made that night in the final stages of the story. Reading those messages, I suddenly felt connected to the Invisibles again, to all the threads it had made in the world. The comic book had meant a lot to me, had suggested so many places to look, and here I was years later, sleeping in an attic, reading the satellite’s transmissions. Something had passed.

8: Microadventures

I first heard of Alastair Humphreys via Mr. Spratt. While Humpheys has walked across India and cycled 46,000 miles, I was most interested in two of his smaller adventures: walking a lap of the M25 and walking home for Christmas. They had a lovely mix of epic and whimsy.

Some time after, Humphreys began promoting the idea of microadventures. The idea was the simplest expedition one could manage, so short you could do it between leaving work one night and starting work the next day. No need for extravagant gear, just grab a sleeping bag, warm clothes, food and maybe a bivvy bag. Set off into the countryside and sleep outdoors. It’s a simple idea but Humphrey’s enthusiasm acted as a sort of permission. Don’t worry about sleeping rough, just get out there.

My first microadventure was in 2013, the day after my birthday. I cleared up the house, ate a cooked breakfast then set off walking with my friends Trevor and John. We met up with another friend, Michael Parker, and made it to Cuckmere Haven where we drunk a pint; then waved Mike off and settled into some woods as dusk fell. I remember the quiet, the dawn sky through the leaves.

There was a less successful outing with my friend Vicky in 2014, sleeping out on the Downs. The bare hills had little cover and we hid beneath some thorny trees, keeping off the rain with a tarpaulin. As cold and damp as it was, I’m still glad I did it. I loved drinking red wine, the lights of the weald villages below us, wondering what was the searchlight that kept sweeping over us.

It’s only takes a little work to have an adventure. I could bundle together the things I need in ten minutes, be deep in the countryside within an hour. The question is, then, why don’t I do this more often?

7: A City Built for Drifting

When he was 19 years old, Ivan Vladimirovitch Chtcheglov wrote Formulary for a New Urbanism, one of the central psychogeographical texts. Chtcheglov was a member of the Lettrist International, a small crew of artists and radicals formed by Guy Debord. This essay was written in 1953 and published in 1958, with an abridged version appearing in the magazine Internationale Situationniste #1. By this time Chtcheglov had been incarcerated in a mental hospital following a plot to blow up the Eiffel Tower with stolen dynamite; its light apparently shone into his attic room and kept him awake.

In the short piece, Chtcheglov sets out a manifesto for what he thinks a city should be, how we should create a new type of city to resist the threats of what he terms banalisation. Merlin Coverley, writing in his book Psychogeography, says of Chtcheglov that “His Formulary certainly seems to display ample evidence of his oncoming mental illness” going on to sneer that “Needless to say, the details for establishing such an environment are absent here”. While it’s true that many of the Lettrist and Situationist projects were left half done, Chtcheglov does not seem to be setting out a plan, rather than making a poetic call-to-arms – one that has has been responded to by, for example, Tony Wilson’s building of the Hacienda.

 (Which is not to say that there are not significant flaws in the Formulary, but it remains a powerful evocation of how strange and beautiful a city might be).

We are bored in the city, there is no longer any Temple of the Sun…

The formulary demands a new architecture, not one built around absolute truths that have trapped for so long, but a playful city. A fascinating place, where people can explore, whose different zones evoke and heighten particular emotions and sensations. The main activity of the inhabitants will be CONTINUOUS DRIFTING. The changing of landscapes from one hour to the next will result in total disorientation. 

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.


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.


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.


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.



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


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?