16: Are You Experienced?

One of my favourite books about India is William Sutcliffe’s novel Are You Experienced. Published in 1997, it tells the story of Dave, a naïve gap year student, who travels around India with his best friend’s girlfriend. The sexy cover suggests a much less thoughtful book than the one Sutcliffe has written. Some of the jokes may be offensive but there are some very insightful observations.

Dave roams around much of India, including Manali, Udaipur and Goa. The people Dave encounters, from public-school hippies to a Reuters journalist, provide opportunities for Sutcliffe to make points about travellers and the different ways they try to define and understand such a large and populous country. The journalist, for example, is used to skewer the traveller lifestyle, asking incredulously “So the most significant and challenging thing you do in each place is to buy the tickets to get to the next place?”

There’s no sudden epiphany for Dave and even learning from the journalist turns out not to be straightforward. But, somehow, Dave follows an epic hero’s journey to become, by the end of the novel, Dave the Traveller. Sutcliffe is sympathetic to Dave, even as he makes the occasional cringe-worthy blunder. Particularly interesting are his shifting observations, such as those around the question of what backpackers are supposed to do all day. At one point he muses, “maybe the places were the shit bits that you had to tolerate in order to do the travelling”.

Early in the novel Dave and Liz encounter an ostentatiously experienced traveller, who refers to the Lonely Planet guidebook as The Book. A few dozen pages later, they run into Jeremy again in Manali, where he has encountered some old school friends, all exclaiming over the cosmic coincidence that has brought them together in a country of a billion people. Dave is having none of it: “But you all come to the same places and you all do the same things, don’t you?”

Even in the days before the Lonely Planet guides, the traveller routes had their gathering places, such as the Pudding Shop in Istanbul or Jhochhen Tole, Freak Street, in Kathmandu, but the Lonely Planet cannot help but focus people into particular areas. A town like Udaipur, with 600,000 inhabitants, is reduced to a map of the tourist area, less than a square kilometre. Listing a dozen places to stay out of a few hundred leads travellers to congregate in certain ones.

The travellers in Are You Experienced find their way to Pushkar (“Oh, it’s really mellow, apparently. There’s this lake, and …er… It’s just apparently really mellow. A bit like Manali, but with a lake instead of mountains.”). When I visited the town last, I stayed in a guest-house that a friend had recommended. It was beautiful, with a balcony overlooking the holy lake and plain, simple rooms. I think I could have stayed for weeks.

When I checked, out the owner urged me to tell as many people as I could about his guesthouse. It had been in the previous edition of the Lonely Planet but was not included in the latest. He was now finding it hard to bring in guests. The listings in the Lonely Planet changed the routes followed by the herds of travellers and could make and lose fortunes.

15: Only literary walks leave traces

Or, perhaps, this is a walking movement. It is notable that the new psychogeography picks up on the Derive rather than some of the other aspects that Debord was interested in, such as mapping, politics or scientific observation.

In his Introduction to a critique of urban geography, Debord wrote “The adjective psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can thus be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and even more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.”

The Situationists never got down to specifics and the record of psychogeographical actions are sparse. Coverley describes one such account, Abdelhafid Khatib’s Attempt at a psychogeographical description of Les Halles, referring to its “mundane descriptions” and how it owes “more to a particularly unreadable form of travel guide”.

It makes sense that psychogeography has become a brand for a certain type of literary walking rather than a political movement of its own: activities that don’t leave an artistic or literary trace cannot be added to the psychogeographical canon. When Sinclair discusses tagging and graffiti in Lights out for the Territory, these anonymous acts are subsumed into literary psychogeography.

In the essay ‘Kafka and His Precursors’, Borges made the point that, following Kafka’s writing, a series of distinct earlier authors come to have a resemblance: “if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality”. Debord’s work has led to something similar, and Coverley’s book on Psychogeography draws in authors such as Daniel Defoe, Robert Luis Stevenson, William Blake, Charles Baudelaire and (of course) Thomas de Quincey.

Once a pattern like this is seen, it is hard to ignore. Perhaps there is another path that could be taken through psychogeography, drawing from Land Art and people such as Richard Long; or through protestors such as Reclaim the Streets and Occupy. A psychogeography that cannot be enjoyed from an armchair. Maybe the traces are there to be drawn upon.

14: The Psychogeographical Revival

In an interview with Lee Rourke, Merlin Coverley talks about how he came to write his book Psychogeography; that he wasn’t interested in the subject so much as ‘certain writers’. Coverley explains that he learned about it via Iain Sinclair who, he feels, is responsible for the current popularity of psychogeography.

And it’s certainly true that Sinclair’s Lights out for the Territory stands at the heart of a psychogeographical revival. The people featured in the book include Will Self, Bill Drummond, Stewart Home, Alan Moore, Peter Ackroyd, Patrick Keiller and JG Ballard. But, while Sinclair has a political rage that Debord would sympathise with, Sinclair’s psychogeography is more of a literary movement than a political one.

Sinclair started his long rambles in the capital when he first arrived in London: “Walking was a means of editing a city of free-floating fragments.” He began to interpret the capital, learning its history and reading its hidden patterns. Like Coverley, Sinclair was not directly inspired by the Situationists: ” I had no idea, back then, that rogue Parisian intellectuals had already branded these strategies and given them a provocative title: psychogeography.”

Debord was, in many ways, a poor father to psychogeography, leaving a lot of his work incomplete. He also ignores a lot of his predecessors (most notably the Surrealists) Rebecca Solnit writes in her history of walking, Wanderlust, “that flaneury seemed to Debord a radical new idea all his own is somewhat comic.”

While he would have hated what psychogeography became, Debord didn’t leave much to work with. In his interview with Rourke, Coverley says that his problem with Debord is “that when you look at the writings, the manifestos, the lists, the plans — it stalls… People are primed with Debordian ideas and sent out into the field and seem to come back with nothing.”

What would it matter if Sinclair was taken as the founder of psychogeography? If Sinclair had used another thinker as a point of departure, the situationists could have have remained as a minor influence on Sinclair’s new genre. Debord cut out many of his direct predecessors: what we would lose if we had a history of psychogeography without Debord?

13: On Missing Adventures

Last year, during the Brighton Festival, Dr. Bramwell suggested going to see a film show. It would be held in the Brighton Crematorium chapel, and was to be followed by a lecture on Victorian death rituals.

The event was not a success. The film hadn’t been finished and we could only see a seven minute segment. The lecture had to be cancelled when the speaker couldn’t download her notes to the laptop. After the truncated show, we asked for refunds and set off for a walk instead, heading up the hill and onto the race-course. The whole affair felt a little disappointing.

A week or two later I was at the Catalyst Club, an event compered by Dr Bramwell. For his opening monologue he described the event we’d been to. Rather than simply describe an underwhelming show, he worked it into an anecdote. The audience laughed as let-down was piled on top of let-down.

It made me think. About how adventure might not just be about epic occasions. That there is also an art to transforming something into a story. Nothing in Dr Bramwell’s monologue was invented, the exaggerations minimal, but he made it into a little drama.

Ever since then, I’ve wondered what things have slipped by me when I could have turned them into stories.

(From Tumblr, late May 2014)

12: A girl and her thumb

I’m a tourist, not a traveller. I follow guidebooks, I plan itineraries, and I book hotels ahead, even though this costs more than negotiating once I’ve reached a town. I know that the unexpected is the most exciting part of travel but I also like to know exactly where I will sleep.

If anyone I know is a traveller, it’s my old friend Jo, who is in many ways the opposite to me. Jo has hitch-hiked around Europe, going as far as Iran, and writes up her experiences in a weblog, A Girl and Her Thumb. I love reading it, hearing where she’s travelled, about the people she’s met and the communities that she has encountered.

The only time I’ve hitch-hiked is with Jo. Some years ago, I lived in Coventry. I had a large flat there, with two bedrooms and two bathrooms, far beyond the scale of any place I’d lived in Brighton. It was also far beyond the scale of the meagre furniture I owned, but I liked the flat’s emptiness/space.

Jo had been invited to a party on the outskirts of Coventry. She came up for the weekend, staying at mine, and we went to the party together. Afterwards, I was going to call a taxi but Jo said we should hitch. Jo was insistent about this so I went along with her. We walked along a dark hedge-lined road, only a few cars passing.

Finally one stopped, a taxi. He told us that he was heading back to town but we could hop in; he’d throw us out if he saw a fare. In the end we were taken to the town centre where he dropped us off. We thanked him and headed home. In my pocket I had enough change for the fare. When we arrived I had wondered if I should pay for the ride, but knew that Jo would have been annoyed – and, thinking about it now, the taxi driver would have been very confused. And that’s the only time I have hitch-hiked. It seems to show the difference between travel and tourism, and that these are two very different approaches, even if you’re in a town where you’re living.

11: The Creation of Shaolin

In his essay The Power of the Particular, David Brooks talks about the strangeness of Bruce Springsteen’s universal appeal, how European crowds sing along to lyrics about New Jersey; few of them have seen the Meadowlands, Stone Pony or Highway 9, but the songs still resonate.

Brooks refers to ‘paracosms’ the imaginary worlds we build as children: “These landscapes, sometimes complete with imaginary beasts, heroes and laws, help us orientate ourselves in reality.” For Brooks, the need for such environments continues into adulthood. Brooks refers to the paradox where artists who create “local and distinctive story landscapes” have the widest reach, referring to JK Rowling’s visions of a boarding school or Tupac’s Compton. Audiences are captivated by focussed, detailed realities.

Hip-hop has always been about celebrating places. Growing up, I listened to songs about Compton, Crenshaw and Long Beach. One of the revolutionary things about the Wu-Tang clan was that they didn’t merely talk about their neighbourhoods but transformed them. They renamed the borough of New York they grew up in, Staten Island, as Shaolin Island, and merged their locales with the mythology of the Kung-Fu films that they loved.

RZA (who also goes by the name The Abbot) talks about watching Kung Fu films on 42nd street with his cousin Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The band took the name Wu-Tang from films, as did some of the members – inspiration includes 1978’s Master Killer and the character Ghost Faced Killer from Mystery of Chessboxing. The first album’s title, Enter the 36 Chambers, was inspired by the film 36th Chamber of Shaolin. The lyrics are a stew of references to local landmarks and obscure slang, dramatised through Kung-Fu samples. The band don’t simply promote their neighbourhoods but fill them with myth. Mundane blocks are turned into stories, which are then listened to around the world.

10: Thank you, India

In 2009 I was in my early thirties and unhappy. I had good friends, enough money to live well, and my schedule was busy and exciting. But I still felt empty. A low-grade depression had gnawed at me for years, wearing me down. I wasn’t sure what to do and it felt as if I’d tried everything; work, academia, sabbaticals, living abroad. Nothing felt as vivid as it should do.

The person who inspired me to go to India, Dr Tom, wasn’t someone I knew particularly well, but when he talked about travelling he made it sound worth doing. I had some money left over from a recent contract so I decided to go to India.

I’m not sure exactly why I picked India. I wanted to visit one of the places on what I later learned was called ‘the banana pancake trail’, named after the ubiquitous dish requested by Lonely Planet reading travellers. (I searched for a book on ubiquitous backpacker cuisine, but it’s not been written yet. Maybe I should do it one day?). I think India appealed to me from the little I’d read about it and because of the connections between England and India.

Everyone knows that wherever you go, you take the weather with you. I understood that and was going to India to tour rather than to find myself. And there was no great revelatory moment, no sunrise by the Ganges that made me realise that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. But there were little revelations, a relief in being overwhelmed by the scale of the world.

My mentor had told me of someone she knew who had actual depression rather than the nagging dissatisfaction I dragged around. Whenever this friend’s depression became overwhelming they would head for another country. Forced to deal with the million little hassles of being somewhere new, the difficulty of finding food and shelter, their misery would fade into the background.

A year after that first trip, I read Deborah Baker’s A Blue Hand which tells the story of the Beats in India through the life of Hope Savage. A sentence in that book evoked my experience of India perfectly: “And perhaps just as the mysteries of train tables, currency exchange and cheap accommodations were eventually resolved, so might others”.

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.