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…

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