Geography Psychos

Merlin Coverley – Psychogeography (Oldcastle Books) 

Here is the new updated version of Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography.

I started the Materialist Psychogeographical Affiliation with Mark Rainey and hung around the fringes of the MAP group and received post from the LPA and many other groups in the 1990s. I then spoke at TRIP, MMU Manchester in 2008. I also registered a PhD on British Psychogeography groups in the 1990s at Goldsmiths and had Chris Jenks down to supervise.

I went to a few events and then was horrified enough to drop the subject. Pas de regrets, Mr Debord.

I was cited on the last page of the first edition of this book, interviewing Patrick Keiller about how Psychogeography now boiled down to the Time Out Book of London Walks (which is still in the bibliography here as recommended reading).

The new conclusion is much less acid, which is not to my taste. In fact the aggrieved might suggest this review is sour grapes on my part for being left out of the new edition – apart from the surviving reference – but my take on Psychogeography remains largely unchanged, something which is evidenced by my 2007 article ‘Mind The Gap, Psychogeography as an Expanded Tradition’, for Street Signs, the Centre For Urban and Community Research journal.

Coverley’s book in any edition has never been a history and it still isn’t. What it does is run a timeline through seemingly arbitrary figures such as Defoe – included because Patrick Keiller makes intertextual use of Defoe’s work – into increasingly less arbitrary figures such as Alfred Watkins, and then on into surrealism and the Situationists – where the subject really starts – then out into what I have called ‘psychogeography as an expanded tradition’.

But ‘psychogeography as an expanded tradition’ is actually what Coverley gives us – even though he isn’t explicit enough about this. The Telegraph blurb on the cover which says the book ‘examines, explains and whets the appetite’ is actually a good description of the book’s strengths.

The more positive note Coverley ends on in this edition, which essentially places Nick Papadimitriou at the head of that tradition, is a good one too. If there is decent published work being done it is by him and a few others.

However, I cannot say the same for the figure he lumps in with Papadimitriou, Will Self. Self is that quintessentially English figure, the scoffing, jeering, privileged intellectual who also manages to be anti-intellectual at the same time, witness his trolling and then baiting Zizek like a common badger. Self, surely, is the perfect replacement for all those slimy Victorian flaneurs, and not to be celebrated at all.

I suspect Chris Jenks, as VC of Brunel, had a hand in Will Self’s appointment to teach there. Jenks also doffed his cap to Her Royal Highness and awarded himself some stupefying pay rises while he was at it: Radical.

Will Self’s column ‘Psychogeography’ was about specific things that happen in specific places. In the less successful versions ‘site specific’ becomes a mere fetish of the ontological strangeness of place. It therefore opens itself to class or ethnic tourism because ‘strange’ is rarely your own living room. If even less successful it simply opens itself wide to vacuous indulgence and stays there.

Coverley brings in Self’s walking and his struggle against addiction as a replacement for the romantic tropes he can no longer use: The Sorrows of Young Self. We’ve been through far too much of this kind of nonsense to be tolerating it now.

The anti-intellectual intellectual. How very England, 2018. He is the self-loathing that England seems to have become en masse. A sort of nasal sneer on legs. A kind of virus with shoes, if the death drive were able to be a virus. Anti-thinking – unless it’s done by him – and anti-European: How very English.

But both Papadimitriou and Self have history as addicts and I guess Coverley places them in ‘the lineage’ because of this, running back one assumes to De Quincey. But Coverley misses the recent research on De Quincey as a biological racist. Is that in this book? No.

The literary dimension of this book – Coverley is a bookseller – means that ‘The Canon’ is in the background, unspoken, all the way through. Harold Bloom, Leavis, that lot, all of them.

Coverley’s climax of Papadimitriou and Self then tends to collapse somewhat under all this. It’s the usual applause of the addict if the addict is supposed an intellectual rather than an estate junkie on the rob.

If it’s in cool clothes and the LRB then it’s oh so very wonderful darling, as much as the scum down the road are the direct opposite. It also puts some extra metaphysical nonsense into the act of walking, walking high, walking with access to occult knowledge, all of it sets up and lifts aloft a priesthood and we’ve definitely been through far too much of that nonsense.

Jeff Nuttall once moaned to me that some of his colleagues in the People Show with their ‘posh Sunday paper cred’ wanted to remain ostentatiously free to do whatever they pleased and Psychogeography definitely attracts that kind of pseudo-anarchist narcissism.

If Psychogeography is anything now it is where the art and geography schools meet in universities and in particular art scenes. The list of psychogeographic film in this book reveals a particular taste fetish as much as it shows a collection of aesthetics or particular epistemologies.

Pyschogeography is taught in universities as solidly as romantic literature was, although its largely practical nature has meant that it has replaced cricket as the thing to do on Wednesday afternoon. It has become the new extracurricular activity.

‘Psychogeography?’ we did some of that at university. I put it to you that cricket is far less jingoistic an activity than Psychogeography.

Here comes someone now, to tell me ‘psychogeography as an expanded tradition’ really is an open, hybrid, totally inclusive rainbow. Unless, of course, you are negative about that inclusive rainbow, at which point he will exclude you.

In my experience this kind of supposedly avuncular micro-trolling actually constitutes a hard core of the subject. Via one particular figure who has monopolised the discourse the MPA now exist in corners of the world, in art gallery discussions, in MA theses, typecast as miserable puritans when he never went to a single one of their events, cocktail drifting included. In fact, only Mark Rainey and I ever went to one.

The thing that the middle classes do is make borders between themselves and their neighbours. In the hipster, new cultural capital is being generated constantly by a particular haircut, a certain piercing, an even tinier bicycle. These are, after all, the real borders that matter to Psychogeographers: ‘I’m a Neo-Metageographer‘.

In contemporary British universities there is a direct but inverse relationship between the testimonies to radicalism and the radicalism that can be found there. The louder the boast the deeper the lack of radicalism in the university in which it is being declared. The university now is a place completely intolerant of any real radicalism. No wonder that any discussion of the subject – including the one that will come after this review – tend towards one-upping lippiness.

This is before we even start on ‘Prevent’ duty towards Islamic radicalism being rolled out in universities at the same time as this nauseating middle class posturing about ‘being radical’ happens (and is then written up and submitted for RKE funding).

The most interesting recent article on Psychogeography was Andrea Gibbons’ ‘Salvaging Situationism: Race and Space’, which was concerned with the Algerian section and the dropping of Psychogeography by the Situationists thereafter. The Algerians couldn’t like drift, man, they were under curfew and surveillance.

Anthony Hayes’ and others have given shitty responses to Gibbons’ article as the sad armchair orthodox party-line toers of a party that barely existed in its own time. Hayes has that neo-Debordian tone of sheer male pomposity and arrogance that characterises the very worst of the Psychogeography tradition. The S.I. may have railed against France in Algeria but they dropped the Derive and ran off in their nice but scuffed brogues. Is a robust discussion of any of that in this new edition? No.

The urge to mystify and therefore exclusivise quite simple practices is at the root of the contemporary expanded tradition of psychogeography. I walk around and think about stuff. I walk about and get ideas from the landscape. I take a notebook and camera and write things down then make work later. Good journalists and writers have been doing this forever. Walking in a circle is useless. Walking in a ghetto is not, a rich ghetto, a poor ghetto.

The attempt to make intellectual and cultural capital out of this mirrors the way the market more widely hoovers everything into commodity form. Here the end result is offered to the university, which after the Consumer Rights Act was applied to it a few years ago is now one more branch of British consumer industry like any other. And therein can be found most of the supposed spectacle-busting radicals and pretend anarchists.

But none of this is particularly amazing to me. The absolutely amazing thing about this new edition is that it inhabits a bubble which appears to have wombed its author away from the last ten years of politics in Britain completely.

Alastair Bonnett wrote a paper for Theory, Culture & Society in 2009, on identifiable strains of nostalgia within ‘radical’ political groups. Among his examples are the Situationists and British Psychogeography groups. Earlier, in 2006, Bonnett described the:

‘…idea of nostalgia as a removable stain upon the bright clothes of proper politics, something that anyone who is not a fearful conservative can and should have nothing to do with. Yet, as we have seen, the most outrageous revolutionary politics of the last century contained clear nostalgic tendencies. Nostalgia isn’t a disease, nor is it a virtue. One can turn away from it, but it remains nevertheless.’ In this, I think, it is possible to detect the strains of romantic nostalgia emerging from beneath the surface of Bonnett’s paper. He wishes to ‘…show that a newly confident politics of nostalgia can be glimpsed within this milieu: at the counter-cultural margins of society radicalism is (once again) becoming tied to a popular politics of loss.’

A popular politics of loss is strongly detectable within leftwing discourses, and Bonnett places them there, but for ‘radicalism’ the UK far right organisations the English Defence League and British National Party now give the most strikingly retrograde view.

The Situationist International, or 1990s British Psychogeography groups, none of them are Britain First or the EDL. But what all those organisations share is their use of a radical collage loaded with signs, which then become fragmented and re-ordered within an entirely new regime of meaning. Politics and aesthetics have always been a deadly mix. Crucial to this process of symbolic and social collaging is the simple fact that a popular politics of loss was being urged for by Bonnett, right at the moment when popular politics was lost, a haunted, staggering, zombie figure.

Popular politics is now back, it is what Bonnett wanted, and it is fascist. I’ve been saying this since the articles came out, but nobody dare publish the point, or they have been far too ignorant.

But this hard right romantic populism isn’t new either, it has just come to the fore. In 2010 The British National Party attempted to exploit fears regarding a possible undermining of ‘community’ via a leaflet with Winston Churchill on the front cover, his face merging with a union jack flag. The expression on Churchill’s face in the portrait the BNP used seemed to express a mixture of gravity and pride. The BNP were mobilising Churchill as a signifier of Britain under attack during World War II.

Not only does the BNP leaflet attempt to connotationally re-map the ‘attack’ of World War II on to processes of immigration, but it also attempts to re-vitalise the kinds of nostalgia which might look back to the ‘blitz spirit’ as a positively imagined form of community, in the face of its presumed lack in the present.

Interestingly, the BNP also highlighted in their leaflet what they clearly saw as an ‘irrational’ mapping of borders by the European Union: They re-presented a map of all the counties in the ‘Manche region’ of European governance, which includes Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Hants, as well as Somme, Calvados, Cotes D’Armor, etc., across the Channel.

It doesn’t matter that this new significatory whole falls apart in your hands with just a little unpicking. It may be epistemological hypochondria, but it ‘works’. That leaflet also counts as Psychogeography.

Well, that was eight years ago and look where we are now.

Alastair Bonnett made his points well and nostalgia does, I think, present us with a series of dilemmas. In the Psychogeography groups Bonnett describes, we have another form of looking-back to reinclude previous traditions, ideologies and historical material, in order to look forward. Here is another set of cultural collages fakely presented as a lineage or great tradition: Merlin Coverley’s book on Psychogeography is an ‘expanded tradition’ in that it re-includes a-historical material to create an ideological collage for the present which is declared as history.

The examples I use here all share this ‘fake collage’ approach, and they are not directly linked to the writing of history in an academic sense, to be clear, or to simplified histories taught in schools. These collages are deployed on the ground by supposedly ‘autonomous’ cultures empowering themselves with aestheticised rhetoric.

Bonnett outlines how for him nostalgia and looking forward can somehow resolve into a worthwhile creative praxis. Bonnett’s understanding of his subject is genuinely complex, he sees nostalgia as simultaneously ‘refused and deployed’ within the sprawling psyche of the subject. But nevertheless, he is interested in finding resolution within ‘radical nostalgias’.

I am much less interested in resolution, and I see much British Psychogoegraphical literature as intentionally, radically, unresolved. The search for ‘resolution’ is always also the search for ‘home’.

Bonnett goes on to examine the work of Iain Sinclair – an important literary fiction writer, influenced by occult forms of psychogeography – in relation to some of the 1990s psychogeography groups, and what he has to say here is telling in this respect:

‘These groups shared with Sinclair a quixotic, love-hate relationship with the past. Like Sinclair, they emphasized historical re-readings of the everyday landscape and exhibited an uneasy combination of deracinating modernism and folksy localism.’

Bonnett describes how Sinclair made his own books, bread and yoghurt. We hear nothing of Sinclair’s wife’s job as a schoolteacher in Hackney, or the commune they gradually bought out there. This ‘folksy’ localism, which Bonnett describes positively, still sits and moves around on the old base-and-superstructure of property ownership.

Living frugally in a nice area where things are cheap is allowed by wider forces and social contexts than just the desire to do so. Sinclair doesn’t make his own books anymore, most of the titles on my shelf were printed in Guernsey, but someone will have to ask him about the bread and yoghurt.

That was then, now we have the mass social cleansing of London.

Attempting to make laudable the politics of nostalgia and loss back then, in the face of a still relatively free market economic system, hoovering up vast tracts of capital in what David Harvey described as a ‘re-capitalisation’ was a stretch. Now it’s nauseating.

What is really happening here is that some are accumulating, and that accumulation is always tied to the dis-accumulation of others, and its attendant geographies. These arguments have an increasing relevance, particularly when aestheticised forms of localism seem to be the default defensive responses to the repeated failure of the compact of neoliberal government and consumer capital to provide anything like a stable social apparatus.

This is heavily underscored by the crash of 2008, and its still-ongoing aftermath. But of course ten years later we can see the popular politics of nostalgia Bonnett loved was heading to the alt-right, Brexit and the rise of everyday racism and a spike in racist attacks and violence all along. Bravo. Well done all. Is any of that in this book? No. Is Bonnett still referenced uncritically? Yes.

I could write a cracking book on this subject, but it would be a total waste of time, as the field is so clearly populated by the inheritors of Richard Neville’s ghastly Playpower, at the same time as those people claim to be everything but.

But of course the great smoking gun of Psychogeography and its transformation of all the world is there for everyone to see, isn’t it?

Perhaps they need to move on from Psychogeography to Psychoanalysis.

– Steve Hanson 

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Ode to Sussex

Shirley Collins – All in the Downs: Reflections on Life, Landscape and Song (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)

The 2017 documentary the Ballad of Shirley Collins followed the cult English folk singer as she recorded Lodestar, her first album in nearly four decades. Filmed largely around her home in Lewes in East Sussex, and the surrounding area, the film told the remarkable and poignant story of how Collins lost her voice – leading from her withdrawing both from performance and recording for many years – and unexpectedly found it again.

All in the Downs acts as a thoughtful companion piece to the film, with Collins drawing out her experiences in greater depth, writing from her own, opinionated perspective. It follows a previous volume of autobiography, America Over the Water, published in 2004, which told the story of Collins’ travels across United States with the musicologist (and her then partner) Alan Lomax. All in the Downs, by contrast, remains closer to home to focus on Collins’ career in her own right, and the way in which it was informed by her early years in the working-class seaside town of Hastings, East Sussex and later in her retreat from the town and city back to a rediscovery of the rolling countryside of the Sussex downs.

All in the Downs shares with the film a strong sense of loss and absence; it begins with a chapter on the breakdown of Collins’ second marriage, as a major contributory factor in the loss of her voice, before detailing her relationship with her father, who returned from the Second World War only to leave again, and the premature death of her sister and artistic collaborator, Dolly.

As well as sharing her personal and professional memories, All in the Downs offers a rich glimpse into the shared experiences of mid-twentieth century Britain, from the freedom of a semi-rural childhood, to post-war culture and politics, to the sometimes difficult personalities of the British folk scene, to work and motherhood. Looking back, Collins can’t help but reflect, sometimes caustically, on how places, lifestyles and entertainment have changed (not to mention what passes as ‘folk music’ these days!).

Above all, All in the Downs is an ode to the south eastern English landscape, showing what we can learn and pass on about the places around us by paying attention to working people’s voices. It’s written with the passion and in-depth expertise of someone who has dedicated her life and career to understanding, interpreting and transmitting traditional song, the words of which run through the book entwined with her own.

– Natalie Bradbury

Beyond the ‘Basildon Man’

Radical ESSEX (Focal Point Gallery, 2018)

If the tone of Radical ESSEX is at times defensive, it’s because it has reason to be. The book is upfront about popular perceptions of Essex, from its reputation as a county characterised by its purported brashness, to the right-wing, Tory-voting ‘Basildon Man’ invented by the newspaper industry in the 1980s as a supposed archetype of a shift in working-class political allegiances.

Radical ESSEX sets about showing us a different side to the county, and introducing us to alternative figures from its history. Published by Focal Point Gallery in Southend, and resulting from an exhibition and programme of events of the same name, Radical ESSEX brings together essays on various aspects of the county’s landscape, architecture and culture. There’s a strong emphasis on not just telling alternative stories about Essex, but highlighting the ways in which the county, which is within easy reach of London yet retains a sense of cultural and geographical isolation, has provided the space for the development of radically new social, political and architectural experiments. These include both planned communities, driven by ideological, political and moral motivations, as explored in a fascinating chapter on communitarianism by Ken Worpole, as well as more ad hoc settlements such as the plot lands, initially developed as DIY country escapes yet ultimately and illicitly settled more permanently, which are visited by Gillian Darley.

Radical ESSEX rises to the provocation, set out by writer Tim Burrows early on in the book, that ‘to infer anything intellectual from the county has at times seemed like a radical act’. A real highlight, therefore, is the chapter on the University of Essex, one of a 1960s generation of ‘new’ universities, and the way it embraced the new not just architecturally, but in the types of subjects that were taught and its approaches to teaching them, which ultimately aimed to generate students capable of thinking for themselves. As the chapter notes, this quickly resulted in a reputation for radicalism and free thinking – students set up their own ‘Free University’, and played an active part in political and social protests.

In general, the place of modernity in shaping Essex comes across strongly in Radical ESSEX – from the marsh-draining techniques, borrowed from the Dutch, that enabled the land to be reclaimed from the sea, to the bold modernism of planned towns and estates such as Silver End, Bataville and Frinton Park. However, modernism is also emblematic of the tensions encapsulated within the county. Although it’s home to some of the earliest and most innovative built expressions of modernism in the UK, which rightly take their place in the book, Essex is also a county of suburban sprawl, and an early adopter of the increasingly prevalent out-of-town, shed-type genre of architecture. In his chapter, architect Charles Holland makes the case that architectural modernism both began and ended in Essex: the county ultimately rejected modernism with the influential Essex Design Guide of 1973, which promoted a return to vernacular architecture and traditional building materials.

Essex has also been shaped by movement, particularly as expressed in successive waves of migration. No story of Essex would be complete without a discussion of the Essex new towns, built to house former East Enders post-WWII, and we’re also reminded of the arrival of the Windrush at Tilbury docks and the large numbers of international students attracted to study at the University of Essex. It continues today as young people are driven from the capital as London’s living costs become increasingly prohibitive for those looking to set up home or raise a family.

Although – or perhaps because – it’s not regarded as being conventionally picturesque, the look and feel of the book makes a feature of the county’s distinctive landscape, in which oozy, marshy creeks and inlets, which ebb and flow as the tide changes, leave behind large, shifting banks of mud. Instead of marbling, we have watery imprints, saturated in surreal colours, like an aerial or satellite view of the county gone psychedelic, aptly capturing the county’s strangeness. Catherine Hyland’s photos, which run throughout the book, on the other hand, offer a gentle, soft-edged view of the county and its architecture, old and new: remote country church and brutalist university campus alike are imbued with a hazy, pleasant familiarity, as if Essex is a county where anything is possible, and it’s always a bright early summer day.

Natalie Bradbury

English Journey

Tom Jeffreys – Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press)

In Signal Failure, the writer and critic Tom Jeffreys sets out to walk the route of HS2 on foot, from central London to Birmingham.

The future promise of high-speed travel through middle England is slowed down, with Jeffreys stopping to ‘wild camp’ en route, and to meet and engage people directly affected by HS2, from those who live and work on the route to those who are responsible for the land’s upkeep and conservation.

His initial motivation came from the notion that HS2 was a ‘vitally important project to question and analyse – on account of its scale and the number of people affected and what it might say about the country we live in’.

However, Signal Failure ends up simultaneously being about much less than this – it’s a book about the particular and the local, about places as they’re lived and experienced and, inevitably about personal journeys – and much more, posing big questions about value, power, ownership and authority.

Jeffreys wears his influences on his sleeve and places Signal Failure in a tradition of psychogeography as a (once) radical strategy of experiencing and using space. He also draws extensively on writing about travel, landscape and, to a lesser extent, nature.

Whilst he tips his hat to a lineage of heroic and often solitary male writers, Signal Failure is far from heroic – particularly striking for a book about walking and rail infrastructure are the times when Jeffreys has to be rescued by motor transport.

Jeffreys is honest about his own limitations, from his failure to complete the walk in one go, to his lack of knowledge about plants and trees, to (in a particularly memorable and miserable episode) his inexperience around horses.

What’s concerning, he suggests, is not just the lack of transparency around the origins, accountability and decision-making processes of HS2, but the fact that decisions often seem to be made by those with as little knowledge as him.

Signal Failure is partly autobiographical, describing Jeffreys’ Jewish grandparents’ journey from the city to the country, and his own journey in reverse, leaving the ‘home counties’ for university in Oxford and eventually making London home.

This is a common trajectory, yet Jeffreys also discusses a new trend, prompted by an overinflated property market – the flight of young professionals from an increasingly unaffordable capital to provincial cities – which may be accelerated by HS2.

Whilst some argue that HS2 will help bridge the north-south divide and bring London and regional cities closer together, others question who will benefit from a rail system which is already disproportionately expensive to use. Jeffreys also goes as far to suggest that trains actually cut off the passenger from the outside world, erasing the particularity of places which are passed through at speed, and resulting in a lack of depth of experience. Those he speaks to express concerns, too, that far from connecting communities, HS2 will cut through and isolate existing towns and villages.

Another concern is that despite having lived in Europe and travelled around Latin America, the rest of the UK outside of Jeffreys’ own small corner of the South East seems to be a mystery to him. His time in Birmingham – which Jeffreys visits only for the second time during his research for the book – feels rushed in comparison to earlier sections of the book and the eventual northern expansion of HS2 barely merits a mention.

Despite this, the detail of Signal Failure is impressively researched, offering historical context on the town planning that has altered the areas surrounding the route – from the suburban property speculation that shaped ‘Metroland’, to the modernist Alexandra Estate in north London to the redevelopment of post-war Birmingham – and the way in which the development and growth of places has been intertwined with histories of mobility and transport, from canals to motorways.

Signal Failure is also literary and poetic, and Jeffreys situates HS2 well in the surrounding political debates. The book is particularly strong on the nuances of landscape, acknowledging its links with culture, authority and identity, and positioning it as a place that is owned, mapped, managed and controlled.

Jeffreys challenges the accepted distinction between urban, suburban and rural ways of life, describing the Buckinghamshire town in easy reach of London where he grew up in a way many of us will recognise: ‘not quite suburbia’.

Jeffreys also acknowledges the fallacy of the man-made versus natural dichotomy: one of the most telling sentences is when he realises how lifeless and unnatural much of the countryside is, comprising bland agricultural landscapes and views already criss-crossed with pylons, roads and towns. As he notes: ‘One of the things that has struck me most immediately over the course of this walk is how unlovable parts of the countryside already seem.’

Nonetheless, at times Signal Failure adopts a slightly wistful tone, interweaving memory and a sense of loss. Jeffreys maps cultural change, celebrating the village green and cricket matches and eulogising the loss of pubs and communal experiences. Jeffreys ends by questioning whether HS2 is so important on a global scale. As Signal Failure demonstrates, perhaps it’s not the physical infrastructure of the train line, or high speed train travel itself that’s the issue – after all, countries across Europe are already connected much better than British cities – but HS2 should stop and make us think about an economic system which prioritises profit, economic growth and monetary value, and fails to take into account ‘real people’. These, says Jeffreys, are the issues of our time, and affect each of us individually, collectively, locally, regionally, nationally and globally.

– Natalie Bradbury 

From London to the Sea

Estuary – Rachel Lichtenstein (Hamish Hamilton)

Part travelogue and part-homecoming, Rachel Lichtenstein’s Estuary is a journey out from London along the Thames to the sea. Estuary traces the great river through the capital’s marshy hinterlands and out through the counties of Kent and Essex, from metropolis to open sea via fishing village and seaside resort.

This journey is both metaphorical and literal. Lichtenstein is returning to her roots, in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, where her family home is visible from the river. She takes to the water, on trips that are sometimes fraught with danger, portraying the river as a space of loss and unpredictability as well as a resource, drawn upon and put to use by those living alongside it.

However Lichtenstein’s own biography is only hinted at: instead, she focuses on the lives of those who use the water for living, working and recreation, from fishermen and fishwives’ choirs to boat racers and artists responding creatively to the river, as well as community groups campaigning for the ecological and environmental significance of sites alongside the Themes.

The book aims to create a ‘collective memory map’ of experiences, lives and perspectives, showing the importance of the Thames to work, livelihoods, trade, industry, culture and community. Interviews and shared encounters are interwoven with histories of the river and their physical and cultural traces, from shipwrecks to sunken wartime bombs to the cruise terminals where passengers from the Empire Windrush first encountered their new country, to the brief intervention into the airwaves of pirate radio, to Canvey Island band Dr Feelgood, whose ‘Thames Delta’ sound was inextricably linked to the estuarine vistas of their immediate environment.

A highlight of the book is the time she spends visiting the Maunsell Sea Forts, huge concrete towers originally built for defence, which stand tall above the estuary on stilts. Acknowledging a tradition of Great British eccentricity and obstinacy, she pays a visit to the kingdom of Sealand, a remote outpost constituting one family’s private and vigorously defended castle. Lichtenstein looks to the future of the river, too, considering the ways in which the Thames might be transformed once again by the creation of the Thames super port.

It’s difficult to write about the Thames without discussing landscape and the river’s relation to sea, sky and earth, and the way in which it has shaped and been shaped by the places and activities around it. Joseph Conrad is quoted liberally throughout, yet the book itself is written in a brisk, business-like, workmanlike style, sometimes reading like a factual report on the findings of a research project.

That the river is a working thoroughfare is well-conveyed, but the book leaves little room for passion, poetry or politics, preferring instead to take a matter-of-fact, documentary approach. However, what does come across strongly in Estuary is a sense of change, a notion that this book presents only a snapshot of the river at one moment in time, that it is a place to be appreciated, respected and revisited

– Natalie Bradbury

Holding On To A Dear Life

Various – A Jar of Wild Flowers, Essays in Celebration of John Berger (Zed Books)

It’s tempting to think that we no longer have figures like Goethe, Rosa Luxemburg, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt or Adorno. But John Berger was their equivalent, as was Zygmunt Bauman, who also died recently. Berger may not have made work that sounded or looked like any of those people, but why would he?

His work is influenced by them all to a greater or lesser extent, but he rarely came on like a card-carrying German Idealist philosopher. It is there though, pulsing up from the past.

But now we no longer have John Berger.

Manchester Review of Books covered Tom Overton’s book on Berger, Landscapes, some time ago. This book though, arriving for Berger’s 90th, not long before he passed away, is a collection of tributes.

Berger’s life spans much of the 20th and some of the 21st century, emerging after the second world war, alongside the British New Left. But he carried on, becoming, if anything, more radical the older he got.

I remember reading an essay on Bruegel the Elder and ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch. Berger compared the social world in the paintings to our own, implausibly, I thought, at first, until he explained that the lack of a centre, of a focal point, was a description of hell. He compared them to a CNN news bulletin.

It was utterly brilliant: So simple, so counterintuitive; yet so completely correct.

I also remember reading Hold Everything Dear when it came out and getting a sense that he had jettisoned many of the pointless courtly dances of writing. In it, he states, at one point, bluntly, that yes, he is still a Marxist. At the same time, the book is filled with poetry.

Zed Books are a co-op and this seems very appropriate, part of the tribute of the edition. Berger’s leftism never departed from him, it seemed to get stauncher, in inverse proportion to his generosity of spirit.

In London, Berger hung out with exiles who knew a lot about art, but cared nothing for art markets, and in fact were completely scornful of them. Berger was highly critical of the art market all his life, a tradition carried on nicely by Julian Stallabrass, who puts out books with empty squares where the accompanying picture should be, because the copyright is locked down by capitalist cartels.

The titles of the pieces in this collection are just single words, grouped under a themed heading. For instance a section called The Colours of the Cosmos has titles which run ‘Graphite’, ‘Hay’, ‘Fire’, ‘Milk’, ‘Blood’, ‘Forest’, ‘Toast’ and ‘Oil’.

There’s something straightforward and poetic about this, as there was about Berger’s work, and Jean Mohr’s, who also contributes the moving foreword to this collection.

But the universal and particular are one here too. Toast, blood, fire, oil. The cosmos and your immediate surroundings are part of the same vast continuum. But the search for god, or in this case, the god particle at CERN, is pointless, if the mortal lives of all cannot be lived blessedly.

For Berger, as Amarjit Chandan puts it, and beautifully, the ‘existential angst’ is ‘further expanded with the extent of multiplied horizons’.

Put more practically though, this way of titling pieces avoids the usual contents page in a collection, where each author’s long title, well-crafted in isolation, immediately drowns in all the others. This is refreshing.

Editor Yasmin Gunaratnam mentions that Berger met Orwell while working for New Statesman and that some of his style of argument is passed on from Orwell. This simple fact strikes me hard. Just that plain fact, that they met, and the continuum back into the past, into Orwell’s time, or rather Eric Blair’s time, in the Imperial police in India, on the road with ‘vagrants’.

Suddenly I cannot stop thinking about the simultaneous closeness and distance of history. But it is ordinary, too, as Hans Jürgen Balmes shows, in his section ‘Graphite’. He remembers Berger lighting a candle during a powercut and then reading. Suddenly I’m in some place with friends, on a break. Anywhere. The pencil line, fragile, shaking, easy to erase, is history.

Rema Hammami then writes about John Berger’s text messages. The facile notion that somehow newer forms of inscription are profane or less serious, although it is faster or more quotidian, is completely exploded by this section. The SMS message is a fugitive pencil line too.

A very interesting dimension of Berger’s life that is becoming much clearer in this moment of national breakdown is his decision to move to a rural, remote town in France and live there. There are parallels with Henri Lefebvre here, the great urbanist who in fact began in the landscape and life of the French peasant. But Berger also seems to mirror that other very British exile, Robert Graves. Part of the establishment, but pacifist, avant garde and totally dissenting. They left the island and stayed away. Never has this made more sense than now.

You can never escape, of course, in France there is Le Pen, but you can remove yourself to the edges in order to look back in again, awry.

Nick Thorpe and Iain Chambers turn the book towards migration. A Seventh Man is now a book about all migrant journeys. Decades old, it is as contemporary as the breaking news and as universally intense as Homer. Rochelle Simmons’ section explores Berger’s use of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to open up the politics of race. Simmons unflinchingly points out the ‘limitations’ of Berger’s ‘propaganda by deed’ – in this case donating his Booker Prize money to the Black Panthers – at the same time as celebrating it. Yahia Yakhlef’s final chapter ‘Courage’ makes clear Berger’s commitment.

Gunaratnam writes about Berger’s comments on the photographer Chris Killip’s work, in Thatcher’s Britain, describing it as a series of views of a -20 degree winter where people simply insulate themselves in any way they can to get through.

The same horror is with us again. Out on to the streets you go, and if you are lucky, with a tent or sleeping bag. She describes Howard Becker’s comments on Berger and Mohr’s work, how it gives you what I call in my head ‘truthness’.

There’s a richness to this collection. It unfolds, yields, gives. Nikos Papastergiadis contributes a wonderful section on landscapes, art and creation and how it connects with the human social world. The essay by Gavin Francis on A Fortunate Man is wonderful. It’s one of Berger and Mohr’s most moving books, and, perhaps not surprisingly, one that I rarely see for sale in book shops.

Who will replace the likes of Berger, Bauman and those taken far too soon, such as Gillian Rose? There is much to hold dear here for the art school. There is a generational cliff edge as those of Berger’s generation and the one after pass into retirement. The arts have been coloured pink for a long time, but it is not a natural state of affairs. It can and will change, and now we see how quantifiable outcomes and instrumentalised rationales affect all but the most resistant arts institutions.

However, what’s truly great about this anthology is that it is almost completely multi-purpose. It is of relevance to everyone in the humanities as well as the arts, and to the general reader interested in the new century and the one that has passed and how they connect: This is an electrically passionate collection.

The King and I

Roy Bayfield – Desire Paths – Real Walks to Nonreal Places (Triarchy) 

Around Christmas 2016, after a few days offline, Roy Bayfield discovered that he was existing inside a review.

The Reviewer had realised what the game was. He was not unwilling to play along, but knowing too much, he was also unable to completely immerse.

The witness protection program was full. After 2008, the funds had dried up. Opting for an exemplifying tone and strategy was now the only way out.

Like sneaking into the office and posting the story without a byline, hoping the news desk would publish the devious, lying thing anyway.

The Reviewer had no idea if it had been noticed or written elsewhere, but it seemed blindingly obvious to him that Roy is really ‘Roi’, as in King – with a nod to Ubu – and the Field of Bay means an abundance of laurels to be gathered ‘out there’.

Roy Bayfield. It is a banal but ingenious name, as it reaches right back through and to the Grail Quest. Without mentioning a single Templar, it manages to gather them all into a swollen lineage of questing. The Bay is also the place where all the ships arrive.

All those naughty Crusaders, re-appearing in legions on the Daily Express masthead. Sleeper Cells from the twelfth century staring at the same headlines about migrants and Strictly and Clarkson day after day after day.

‘Bayfield’ tries to make them recede in the text, in order, oddly, to try to desperately raise them with impunity.

But the Grail Quest was always the search for meaning, and this book is definitely about that, under the franchising term of ‘Mythogeography’.

There are many contiguous lines and corresponding points in this book for The Reviewer. André Stitt, who he hung out with, Long Mynd, where caught short, he once had to strain at his stool plein air. Caerleon, where Arthur Machen lived.

Machen’s Great God Pan is based in part on a Roman prayer statue in the museum at Caerleon. It was probably dedicated to Nemesis or one of the other gods called on for good fortune when backing a winner, or rather damning an opponent to hell.

You see, what was thought to be Arthur’s Round Table, at Caerleon, when excavated, turned out to be a Roman amphitheatre. It is likely that the statue Machen saw stood in an alcove in the amphitheatre to allow gambling sports fans to make an offering.

H.P. Lovecraft partly based the Cthulhu myth on Machen’s Pan. This means – if we follow the curve of influence on its oxbow mythological course – that Cthulhu is a kind of good luck keyring for blokes out for a flutter.

Not so scared now, are you?

However, if one takes ‘Arthur’s Round Table’ as the myth of chivalry, as a text of benevolent, patriarchal fairness, which actually concealed a site for sick, bloody, amoral entertainments, the real significatory lode can be accessed again.

Can you see how by slicing right through the surface with a sterile scalpel one really gets to the assembling organs? How merely remaining on the surface doesn’t quite ‘cut it’.

This is not why The Reviewer warns against the occult. Nor does The Reviewer warn against it because it is supposedly dangerous, frightening or dark.

Black Sabbath, Hammer Horror, The Omen films and inverted crucifixes. One should worry about the lightweight comedy and melodrama all of that might bring, emerging, as all those cultures do, across their longer historical curves, from Music Hall, Vaudeville and back into the bardic traditions.

This isn’t to deny light entertainment its place in our scrying practices. This book, in opening, cites Heraclitus next to a song called I Am The Walker by the 1960s mod pop band The Creation. ‘I am the walker’, they sing, but Bayfield omits the following half of the rhyming couplet, which is a declaration that he – the singer, presumably – is also ‘the telephone talker’.

Surely then, after affirming a kind of peripatetic mythologising, the text folds immediately back into what Raymond Williams called ‘mobile privatisation’.

Now, the two have folded into each other, as people walk in public with their earpieces, seemingly schizophrenic, talking to a distant body, attached, one hopes, to a brain.

The kind of schizoid norm R.D. Laing diagnosed is here. As he diagnosed it, The Creation described their music as ‘red with purple flashes’. But this book is grey-green with claret text.

No, the reason The Reviewer warns so strongly against the occult is because via it, as The Metaphysician – as he has demonstrated here – he has you all by The Laurels.

Signing off. Votre Roi, et Ami.

– Roy Bayfield 

On Yer Bike!

JD Taylor – Island Story (Repeater)

It’s strange how ideas of distance change with context. I consider a train journey of three hours or more to be gruelling, a long slog – to travel from Manchester to, say, Plymouth, would be an exceptional undertaking, only to be done in the rarest of circumstances. Say that to an American, though, and they’ll marvel at how compact Britain is, how close together and well-connected its towns and cities are.

In the UK, however, this distance is reinforced by other boundaries, many of them going beyond the geographical to encompass the socioeconomic and political, the cultural and the imaginary – as well as the distance from London, whether physical or perceived. As a born, bred and educated resident of the South East – more specifically, the southern reaches of the capital – JD Taylor’s mission to explore ‘The Island’ by bike, documented in his recent book Island Story, comes across as both admirable and necessary, yet also sometimes naïve.

To start with, the obvious. Taylor’s journey ticks many of the boxes of the conventional heroic male travelogue: he’s a lonesome traveller, setting out on a slightly misguided trip on a wonky bike which he appears to barely know how to ride – let alone maintain, something in which he gradually becomes self-sufficient. He camps clandestinely underneath the stars, at the sides of roads, in fields and in woods, relatively free to pitch up wherever he chooses. Elsewhere, he relies on the kindness of friends, strangers and acquaintances, not just to offer a bed for the night, and perhaps a meal, but to share conversation and an insight into everyday lived perspectives.

He has a vague idea of learning more about the country of which he is a part, at the same time as seeking answers to some pretty big questions around the nature of political, cultural and class identity, Britishness and belonging. So far so Beatnik, and Taylor is adept at literary and poetic description of place.

Yet Taylor is also a philosopher and a thinker, and he challenges many of the conventional narratives of the island, going beyond the surface story to reveal the concealed and the hidden. Visiting the vast, low-rise redbrick council estates on the outskirts of cities, as well as market towns, sleepy villages and far-flung cottages, he suggests it’s the former that’s more typical of the way in which most of the islanders live: in touching distance of both city and country, but somehow removed from both of them.

In the eastern flatlands, he tries to go beyond the stories in the headlines, seeking out the often-exploited foreign vegetable pickers upon whose labour the country depends for cheap food. Taylor also disrupts certain narratives about the north-south divide: for example, he finds Plymouth more like a Yorkshire town than the gateway to Cornwall, and struggling seaside/estuary towns mean the counties of Kent and Essex fail to fit easily into the contented, comforting ‘pleasantness’ he encounters in well-heeled commuter towns in the home counties.

Kent too, he notes, seldom appears in accounts of the miners’ strikes of the 1980s, despite its collieries playing a major part. The North East, Taylor realises, is very different not just from the South East but from the North West; the South West is very different again from the concentrated wealth and commerce of the South East.

Taylor is clearly well-versed in the historical and cultural background of the island, telling its tales through key figures and moments from the past lives of places, as well as their literature and music. He brings out local particularity, difference and strangeness, from regional mutations of language to the continuation of old customs.

Yet he also highlights a lot of sameness in experience and the built landscape from place to place – the book contains a surprising number of visits to McDonalds, as well as written detours about vast, anonymous shopping centres. He captures the complexity and contradictions in the island’s history – not least in its long heritage of migration.

At times, the account becomes sheer wide-eyed wonder – Taylor’s eyes are open not just to urban experience, but to landscape, wildlife and nature – particularly in extended descriptions of Scotland and its islands. What’s significant about the book is that wherever he goes Taylor seeks out people and listens to them, to their concerns and experiences.

Many of them have understandable reasons for feeling disenfranchised and disempowered, economically, politically and culturally – they are what the mass media would term, in the acronym of the moment, ‘JAMs’, or the financially ‘just about managing’, feeling that the norms and values of their class are shifting and under threat from influences beyond their control.

The book can’t help but be critical of the political, social and economic factors that have led to and entrench poverty – one of its overriding messages, captured in a quote from film-maker Patrick Keiller, is that Britain is a rich country populated by poor people – many examples of which are encountered and relayed in Island Story.

Island Story is political without becoming polemical and philosophical without becoming inaccessible. There’s humour in it. There’s also lots of Taylor himself – not just opinion, but well-balanced aspects of autobiography, drawing on the migration across the Irish sea, intercity moves and life trajectories of his own family.

Most importantly, Taylor seeks, finds and highlights the occasional glimmer of hope and dares to suggest some collective solutions. This part of the book is sometimes challenging in its idealism. Some of the suggestions are already in place in pockets – Taylor advocates co-operatives for their model of worker ownership and democracy. Others are already being debated in certain political parties and think tanks, such as a universal basic income, collective ownership and the nationalisation of infrastructure. Other suggestions are more utopian or seem more far-fetched and are less likely to go down well with the populace, such as direct democracy and compulsory voting.

There’s a poignancy to reading Island Story. The book was written, and its journey undertaken, before the 2015 general election and when the EU referendum was merely a blot on the horizon, although in many ways its findings seem prescient and go some way towards explaining the result.

It was published and promoted (Taylor set out by bike once more for a book tour of the country in the summer of 2016) in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit result, when many were in shock yet before the cumulative upset of Donald Trump’s election as US President. Island Story is an important education, both for Taylor and for the reader. After Brexit, the media has sought to scapegoat certain sections of the population – the young/the old, the rural/the metropolitan, the northern/the southern, the working-class and the affluent.

There’s also been much written about so-called echo chambers, the gap between the worldview of the individual, reinforced by the perspectives by which they surround themselves, and the way in which people live and think beyond their own immediate little corner of the world.

What Island Story suggests to me is that we should all be doing what Taylor is doing – seeking out the places and people beyond our own little bubble, visiting them, talking to them and trying to understand them, rather than relying on secondhand accounts and false boundaries of distance, demographics and geography.

– Natalie Bradbury