What is a walk? A foot rising, falling, lifting and connecting with the ground unconsciously thousands of times in a lifetime; only its beginning and end giving rise to thought, be it linear or circuitous; ideas precede movement, dictate our choices. We walk on average at 3 miles an hour, heel walkers rather than toe walkers, bipeds whose skeletal structure and muscles have evolved to favour distance over speed. Whether we walk as a means of getting from A-B, a physical challenge, meditatively, questing, or purely for leisure, we walk for paradoxical reasons: to simultaneously lose and connect with ourselves and our surroundings – either focussing our minds inwards, away from the busy rush of our lives, or outwards, losing ourselves in surrounding streets or country lanes.
A year ago, I walked 193 miles from my present home in Brighton to Bristol where I was born. It came about as a result of moving house three times in four years. None of the moves were made by choice, but were the consequence of decisions or paths taken earlier in life combined with divorce, and a housing market on the verge of exploding. The walk was intended as a way to explore the concept of home; the various shelters and nests we create, and the many migrations that comprise most of our lives – The UK has the highest levels of internal migration in the EU. In 2014-2015, 2.85 million people or just under 2% of the population moved in England, according to ONS. We are a nation in transit, materialistic nomads, upping sticks regularly for jobs, lovers, families, or simply a restless sense of the elusive other.
The walk was conceived for a purpose, a conscious contemplation of journey and place. In her introduction to psychogeography, Walking Inside Out, Tina Richardson distinguishes this type of conscious walking from the ‘Sunday Stroll’ school:
‘….it is absolutely about the process itself, …the walker connects with the terrain in a way that sets her, or himself up as a critic of the space under observation, but at the same time, they unite with it through the sensorial acknowledgement of its omnipresence. The space become momentarily transformed through this relationship. The psychogeographer recognizes that they are part of this process, and it is their presence that enable this recognition to occur.’
In recent years, ‘conscious walking’ has collected many labels, theories and manifestos, variously described as psychogeography, radical walking, mythogeography, hauntings, the Sebald doctrine. Explorations may be serious or playful, subversive or literary, political or curious; the landscape is interrogated through multi-lenses, splintered into external rationalities, drawing on the subconscious to create new relationships with the past. Journeys are self-conscious, performative, often produce their own mappings. They are mainly urban and male. The point of these wanderings is to focus the senses externally and forensically on topologies and micro-cultures, away from the interior life of the walker, the thoughts and feelings which rise from the rhythm of feet hitting the ground. They don’t seek to interrogate the subconscious to reveal personal narratives in relation to place, to achieve, what I have begun to consider a type of interior archaeology.
The term psychogeography was first coined by a member of the Parisian based Letterists, and appropriated by Guy Debord, in the 1950s. Eschewing the deterministic nature of geography, he sought ways to interact with the urban environment through political, emotional and sensory responses to space. Debord defined psychogeography as: ‘The study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviours of individuals.’ Algorithms called derives or drifts were developed, ways of walking to encourage playful and political exploration.
From the drifts around Paris, Debord developed a series of maps, recreating a city for walkers as opposed to highways designed to efficiently process capitalism. Yet, for all its playful and political intentions, the praxis of psychogeography failed to produce the precise laws or objectivity it sought. By the early seventies it had all but disappeared.
In the last thirty years, psychogeography has undergone a revival, reinventing itself in radical acts, disruptive walking, shifting shape and intention, purposeful in its lack of purpose, full of paradoxes, its tentacles reaching across art, politics, sociology, geology and literature. The word geography comes from the Greek, geo meaning land, and graph to write; literally to write the land. In Greek, psyche is named after the Greek Goddess of the soul – it is also the word for butterfly. In Jungian psychology, the myth of Psyche’s marriage to Eros, is said to variously represent the physical, soul and ego, or the maiden, mother and crone. It is a tale of transformation, of the mind dividing and reuniting, an archetype for the journey from immaturity to maturity, from innocence to conscious wisdom. Adapting the tale of Psyche and Eros in the White Bear King, Robert Bly acknowledges the transformative nature of journey, both physical and psychological, ‘I am embarking on territory now, which we don’t understand and which we are probably not qualified to speak of…’ so the story begins.
It is in connecting with our thoughts and memories that ideas and associations rise in tandem with our steps, the spaces we inhabit, the terrain we tread, our stories are part of an ever changing dynamic. ‘Stories,’ as John Berger said, ‘walk like animals and men, and their steps are not only between narrated events but between each sentence, sometimes, each word. Every step is a step over something not said.’ 2
The walk from Brighton to Bristol took 10 days, door to door. On returning home, restless in the way one can only be after a long walk with the rhythm of motion still pulsing inside, long after one is contained by a house, shut off from the sky, views restricted to garden walls and car lined streets, I tried to make sense of what I experienced, the thoughts and feelings, lost turns, days of solitary walking in the rain, memories rising unbidden from the dullest copse or gloomiest paths. There was no overarching narrative or grand theme, just a connection of associations, a web of stories extracted from other journeys made over a lifetime: from Bristol to Brighton, Hatfield, St Albans, Cahors, Reading, Hammersmith, Brixton, Stoke Newington, Holloway, Watford, Rickmansworth, Boston, Baja California, Easton, Catsford, Bermondsey. Stories created in places, stored in our psyche, in muscle memories. Places, as Michel de Certeau said, are: ‘fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read, accumulated times that can be unfolded but like stories held in reserve, remaining in an enigmatic state, symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body.’ 3
Psychogeography, with its hotchpotch of research and methodologies, offered a door to the world I wanted to capture; a means to conceive walking as a reawakening, to note the affective and cognitive, the random and subjective as well as sensory information. I It suggested a way to turn the lenses inwards rather than out to excavate an internal landscape in tandem with place.
In their drifts around Paris, Debord and his allies were sniffy about the countryside, claiming it contained few cultural curiosities and offered little opportunity for random encounters. Yet, the countryside itself is as politically and culturally constructed as the built environment – its fields and downland the products of land-grabs, industrialization and policy change – its scenic spots and heritage trails created for consumption, while history passes invisibly through empty fields, palimpsests layered with contested meanings. As DeQuincy, Poe and Baudelaire romanticised the city, Hazlitt, Thoreau, and the Wordsworths championed the countryside, praising its ‘naturalness’, a place for retreat, recovery and leisure. For many city dwellers like myself, this view still prevails. We talk of shaking off the cobwebs, getting fresh air, needing perspective. Or, we treat the countryside like a giant activity park for barbecuing, trekking, cycling, pitting ourselves against the landscape, forever testing our mettle. Yet, it is the very nature of being far from the crowded imagery and distractions of the city, that enables one to simultaneously pay attention to the landscape while contemplating our own emotional responses, the tangle of associations and connections Bachelard described in the Poetics of Space, as our relationship with ‘the limitless world.’ 4 One lonely afternoon near the Hampshire border, drizzle turning the world grey, I walked through meadows, rain dripping inside my hood, the only sound, my coat flaps swishing against my waterproofs, the dark mass of Winchester Hill rising in the gloom, and thought of Peter Jackson’s depiction of Mordor, the impending sense of menace it provoked among the audience, the soft plush seats of the Odeon in Brighton, the smell of popcorn making me feel sick. The memory was as real in that moment as the cows huddled under dripping trees at the far end of the field and the slippery chalk track beneath my boots.
So…the question I set out to answer was whether it was possible to port psychogeographical theories to the countryside, to find ways of walking which bound one to the landscape, transformed that relationship, and in doing so, opened a doorway to identity; the physical and emotional journeys we make through life? In one sense, a personal narrative is linear; we are born and die. In other senses it is circuitous, networks, connections and disconnections, dead ends, which don’t always make sense, ripple out, merge osmotically to create new meanings and new ways forward. Paths are walked and remade. The process is iterative, revelatory, transformative. The journey – the relationship between walker and landscape and association – becomes the map(s).
The blogs that follow are based on research conducted between June and August 2017, testing techniques created by the original Letterists, subsequently adapted and extended by contemporaries into praxis which offers ways of re-imagining journey by linking the affective with the cognitive and physical, the walker with the map with the journey.
As a crude attempt at benchmarking, I developed a set of questions to evaluate the effectiveness of each protocol:
Reconceive my relationship to landscape?
Unearth personal insights, memories, associations in response to landscape?
Promote/encourage/facilitate ways to think about identity?
Conceive the journey as the process not the outcome?
Create a new kind of knowledge that was personal, insightful, in tandem with place, and could be used to create a new map containing multi-textured personal/objective information?
The Protocols tested:
- Walking with a question
- Walking the rim of a glass
- Walking with the ‘Drift’ App
- True Drift (instinctual)
- Route maps
- Mindful walking
- Macro to micro
Richardson T., Walking Inside Out, Rowman & Littlefield
Berger J., Another Way of Telling, Bloomsbury (2016)
Certeau, M., The Practice of Everyday Lifehttps://chisineu.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/certeau-michel-de-the-practice-of-everyday-life.pdf
Bachelard G., The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press