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…

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?