Psychogeography Beyond Men

I’m giving a talk next month on ‘psychogeography’. I originally agreed back in February, when June was a long way off. I’ve spoken about the subject before, so it could be easy to do; but as the talk approaches, I’ve become increasingly troubled.

I’ve spoken in the past about some of my problems with psychogeography. But at the moment what concerns me is how the subject is dominated by white men. Beyond the issues of representation, it’s a massive flaw that a subject about perceptions of the city is often blind to how these are affected by privilege. Experiences are described as universal without noting the groups for whom these activities are contentious or dangerous.

To be absolutely blunt: hiking around a city is difficult when women face harassment and intimidation on the streets; when walking into new areas can be dangerous for some groups.

A damp funk of blokeyness has grown up around psychogeography. As Lauren Elkin wrote in her book Flâneuse, “The great writers of the city, the great psychogeographers, the ones that you read about in the Observer on weekends; they are all men, and at any given moment you’ll also find them writing about each other’s work, creating a reified canon of masculine walker-writers. As if a penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane”

Elkin goes on to quote Will Self in a footnote. Self writes: “A digression: do I believe that men are corralled in this field due to certain natural and/or nurtured characteristics, that lead us to believe we have — or actually do inculcate us with — superior visual-spatial skills to women, and an inordinate fondness for all aspects of orientation, its pursuit, minutiae and — worst of all — accessories? Absolutely.”

Amy Sharrocks, founder of the Walking Women project, describes being at a talk by Iain Sinclair and Will Self at the V&A on the history of walking art. No women were mentioned in the talk; Sharrocks said “I asked Iain about it and he said that there weren’t any women doing this kind of work. Established male artists and curators have a responsibility from their positions of power to do better research, as do we all.”

Psychogeography is an interesting subject, but it tends to regurgitate the same names and figures. It would be easy to give the talk I gave in 2011, with a few updated references, but doesn’t seem good enough. I want to be able to communicate my enthusiasm while acknowledging these issues. And, at the same time, I need to make it entertaining and approachable, so that the politics is not the central point. It’s going to be difficult, but if I’m going to give this talk then I need to find a way around it.

Daniel Hannan and Albert Speer

I’m currently putting together a new zine about Brexit and hiking, this time focussing on Daniel Hannan. It includes an account of a hike taken by Chris Parkinson and I. A weird moment on this hike got us thinking about the strange link between Daniel Hannan and Albert Speer.

Speer was Hitler’s architect and, later, the Minister of Armaments for the Third Reich. He stood trial at Nuremberg and was spared a death sentence after persuading the court that he had no knowledge of the Final Solution. So, one link between the two is that they were both part of racist movements but claimed to have no involvement with the racist bits. (Speer went to great effort to argue that he had not been present for Himmler’s speech at the 1943 Posen conference. Hannan went as far as writing an entire book on Brexit that doesn’t mention immigration to provide an alibi for his involvement in the leave campaign.)

The main link between the two is imaginary walks. Hannan is famous for faking a hike in the English countryside. He shared a photograph on social media of a walk near his home, which turned out to have been taken in Wales twenty years before. Speer devoted eleven years of his life to an imaginary journey.

In October 1946, Speer was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Long term confinement places a strain on mental health and, in the ninth year of his sentence, Speer decided on a project to keep himself sane. He started out by measuring the 270 meter distance around the prison garden, which he was allowed to stroll each day. He then began to walk 7km a day, mapping the walk onto the journey from his cell to Heidelberg, a distance of 620 kilometres. He used the prison library to provide background and research for the route. Speer reached Heidelberg on the day of his 50th birthday.

At this point, Speer continued, embarking on what Merlin Coverley referred to as “surely the longest, most sustained and most sophisticated imaginary walk ever undertaken”. Speer wanted to see how far he could walk around the world. The route was problematic, since the former Nazi did not want to pass through communist countries and he spent some time planning routes with Rudolph Hess. Speer ordered guidebooks and maps to support his obsession, and even describes what he might see in places he arrives – his diary mentions a demonstration in Peking on July 13th 1959. According to wikipedia, “He… passed through Asia by a southern route before entering Siberia, then crossed the Bering Strait and continued southwards”. Speer wrote “I would presumably be the first Central European to reach America on foot”.

Speer was released in 1966, after over a decade of walking. He had travelled over 30,000 kilometres and, the night before release, sent a telegram to a friend: “Please pick me up thirty-five kilometres south of Guadalajara, Mexico”. Sadly, the route chosen means Speer never reached Hampshire, the site of Hannan’s walk; although Speer did visit England several times after release, dying in London in 1991.

(The connection often made between the Leave campaign and racism has been rebutted in detail by Hannan, notably in an article written on the first anniversary of the vote)

Walkerpunk Zine released

I’m very excited that I released a zine this week. It’s called Thatcher in the Rye (the pun is from @JonathanDean_) and tells a story about a hike I took on imitation of Theresa May’s fateful trip to Wales in 2017. I’ve been thinking about hiking and Brexit for a while, and this is the first of a series of pamphlets on the subject.

Photo by @justinpickard

The first edition is just 23 copies, but I might do another run if people are interested. I’m currently working on a second instalment, which will be about Daniel Hannan, and a walk Chris Parkinson and I took in Hampshire – a walk that turned out far stranger than expected.

I’m terrible at actually getting things into the world, so this is a great achievement. I have too many finished projects that have only been read by one or two people. The zine is not perfect – the images are pretty much illegible, but that can be fixed in the second edition. I’m also not sure what people are going to make of the content, which deals with contentious issues, taking a view different to a lot of people I know.

But I think it is good getting projects into the wild. Committing to releasing something changes the course of the work. And there is a significant amount of work to be done after getting a clean draft of the text. This is only a small thing, but positive step.

The 2006 ‘Rough Guide’ to Blogging

Last week I caught up with an old friend who gave me two wonderful presents. The first of these was a 2006 book about blogging:

There is something amazing about returning to old books on a subject, particularly ones about the Internet. Looking at the predictions and expectations is fascinating; what excited people before hindsight corrected them?

When the concept of podcasting is introduced, the book explains: “technically speaking, a Podcast is an audioblog delivered using RSS”. And I’ve learned that the word blog (2004 Merriam-Webster word of the year) was coined by Pewter Merholz in 1999, who wrote “I’ve decided to pronounce the term ‘Weblog’ as ‘wee-blog’, or blog for short

So far, my favourite prediction is from Jason Calacanis of Weblogs Inc. I had to look up Weblogs Inc to be reminded who they were (one of the first blog networks, bought by AOL in 2005 for $25 million – which used to be a lot of money). Calacanis claimed:

nearly half of everyone who currently uses email will have a blog, and with blogs integrating themselves into the common routines of internet users, the percentage of blogs updated on a regular basis will rise

Which is a fascinating quote… my first response was to see it as ironic, given that the blogosphere has been trounced by twitter and facebook. And then it occurred to me that Calcanis was wrong through being too conservative. After all, facebook’s status updates are basically a blogging platform that is simple and easy to use – even if it has stripped away important elements like RSS and openness.

The book is full of reminders of lost things that were once important: technorati, blog rings; all the tools I’ve used over the years, like typepad, userland and even diaryland. I was reminded about how tricky comments were in the 00’s, with Haloscan popups being the easiest way to handle things (I still have an export of my Haloscan comments from 2001/2). I wrote about moblogging last year and there is a section on that. There are whole services that have disappeared, like audioblog-by-phone. Even at the time, I’d not realised there was a company set up to offer services related to sideblogs. There were just two pages on videoblogs, which have exploded with the rise of Youtube. I remember Beth being a pioneer for this, organising a vlogging event in Brighton in 2007.

It’s sometimes hard to see the roots of the current web, since things have flowered in such interesting ways. Technologies that once looked like dead-ends have become central. But, most of all, reading this book summons the optimism of that time. And we need that optimism as we work to rebuild the open web and move out of the walled gardens. This has happened before, when blogs took over from AOL and Compuserve and newsgroups. It can happen again.

Graham also gave me a book in the Burry Man. I remember hearing about this many years ago, in a talk by Doc Rowe at the Beyond the Border festival. Yesterday Doc Rowe was in the guardian, talking about Britain’s Weirdest Folk Rituals. ‘One year he had 23 whiskies before 2pm’

Sprawling Projects

One of the reasons I’m obsessed with the film Synecdoche is the horror of watching Caden Coutard’s project spin out of control. There’s that moment in the trailer, where the cast face him and someone asks: “When are we gonna get an audience in here? It’s been seventeen years.”

So many of the things I’ve worked on have spun out of my control – on a smaller scale than in Synecdoche, but still out of control. The book on curry feels like it exploded all over my hard drive and bookshelves. I have reams of notes, but no clear single thread. I’m not even sure where to start with it now. Even things like the spoken word show, which received such positive response, have stalled.

I’m currently working on a project about hiking and Brexit (I’ll return to curry eventually). This  emerged from a talk I gave in October, as part of the Indelicates album launch. I’ve been working on that same subject much of the time since then. And it’s sprawling. I’ve done my best to keep it under control, with Scrivener saving me from losing track of the notes.

I think the only thing that will keep this under control is getting things out into the world. One of my aims for 2018 was to produce something every month. I managed this for the first three month. My April project, a zine about hiking and Theresa May is part of the hiking/Brexit project. It won’t emerge until May, but the second part should also turn up the same month. I have several trips booked during the summer, which form part of the research. The difficult thing is going to be moving forwards despite all the different threads in play.

I think it’s worth doing, and hopefully I’ll also learn enough about managing these epic projects that I can then work backwards and fix the other ones.