Tag Archives: psychogeography

Space: 2017 Prix Pictet in Photography at the V&A

The exhibition of The Prix Pictet shortlist and winner at the V&A was superb.

Prix Pictet is a global prize that aims to highlight sustainability and environmental issues through photography….The theme for this cycle is Space.

The winner Richard Mosse for his series entitled Heat Maps — enthralling pictures, only two of them on display here. Huge  composited black and white film pictures and heat photographs showing refugee camps, showing metal cars glowing and human bodies incandescent, this use of military technology against military technologies to bring alive the scale of the camp, but in so much detail… Like a Bruegel Mark said and it was exactly what I had been thinking but the technology of it also means it comes in and out of focus a bit, like an enormous charcoal with sections in crystal clarity but but others blurred as though a careless fist rested there. Figures also burred white but caught in fragile intensely human moments and motions, there is a vividness here, a humanity unvarnished, a poverty not picturesque. These are landscapes of tents and metal and ripping wire, and a fragile battered environment of water, trees.

Carceral spaces at scale, but with humanity foregrounded. They were incredible. A visceral call to dismantle all of it, a recognition of the spirit of those within it.

The full list of photographers, all of their work is wonderful.

Mandy Barker (United Kingdom) Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals
Saskia Groneberg (Germany) – Büropflanze
Beate Guetschow (Germany) – S Series
Rinko Kawauchi (Japan) – Ametsuchi
Benny Lam (Hong Kong) – Subdivided Flats
Richard Mosse (Ireland) – Heat Maps
Wasif Munem (Bangladesh) – Land of Undefined Territory
Sohei Nishino (Japan) – Diorama Map
Sergey Ponomarev (Russia) – Europe Migration Crisis
Thomas Ruff (Germany) – ma.r.s
Pavel Wolberg (Russia) – Barricades
Michael Wolf (Germany) – Tokyo Compression

Another set of pictures of the migrant experience from Sergey Ponomarev, pictures of this massive movement of humanity that seems so remote to London even as I read of camps and deaths, even as I contribute food and money, even as I cry over boats tumbling over themselves and spilling children into the sea.

From Ponomarev’s statement:

Most of the refugees reached Europe. They began to conjure up and build new living spaces for themselves, forever changing the face of Europe itself.

I loved the recentering of the world onto these journeys that these pictures achieved. This new world they are creating.

Pictures of faces against glass in Tokyo’s subway, condensation, patient suffering. It feels infinite here.

Tokyo Compression

Shinjuku Station is used by an average of 3.64 million people per day, making it the most crowded train stations in the world in terms of number of passengers. I spent more than 60 weekday mornings photographing passengers during their commute into Tokyo. All portraits were taken at one train station along the Odakyu line, during rush hour between 7.30 and 9 am. At intervals of 80 seconds, a train already packed to the absolute limit pulled into the station. Even more people pushed their way into the compartments until the commuters were jammed like sardines in a can. Day in day out, millions of commuters must endure this torture, as the only affordable housing is hours away outside of the city center. Is this a humane way to live?

The collision of housing crisis, work, public transport. The everyday pain of it.

Saskia Groneberg’s pictures of plants filling offices, curving towards light, peering round blinds. They start banal and by the end of the series have given you a feeling more ominous than that, as though humans are not just absent but gone.But I think that is very much my own impression, too many movies, too many references to the Triffids.

Benny Lam’s pictures from Hong Kong, staring down at people in tiny rectangles — the length of our vertical axis — only enough room to sit and barely enough to lie down. The rooms’ heights  stacked vertically, the sum of people’s possessions around them. I remember my tiny room in London on New Park Rd, spacious in comparison (you could have got three or four people lying down in there, a new spatial measure), similarly stacked high, this feeling of being trapped yet also of safety because it is still yours… Nothing to this. I am humbled. Again we must question just how this is the world we have created.

Benny Lam Trapped 03, 2012, Series: Subdivided…

The tiny space in this house compels you to do everything on or around the bed: sleeping, washing vegetables, having meals, writing letters, and watching TV. For some people, it is also where the children do homework and play games. Living here is like being trapped in a cage. Dilemma is what it’s all about. If you need to catch your breath, stay in this trap and entertain yourself.

Sohei Nishino’s amazing montages of London and San Francisco, space expanding again. Myriads of images collaged together into a larger sense of the city, a vertiginous wandering through cityscapes that resemble the city you know but with some jarring differences.

Sohei Nishino: Diorama Map San Francisco, 2016, Series: Diorama Map, 2010-16

He writes:

Rapid cultural and economic development creates a continuous process of amplification and accumulation within cities. I walk through these cities, camera in hand, capturing multi-facetted [sic] views that I then combine,in accordance with my memories, arranging them into a map that portrays all the singular aspects of the place. The result is quite different from the denotative expression of a map; it uses photographs of concrete objects or shapes as units to recreate a geographical representation, expressing the city through human memories and images. This means that the finished work is anything but an accurate map, it is simply the town as seen through the eyes of a single individual, a trace of the way in which I walked through it, an embodiment of my awareness, a microcosm of the life and energy that comprise the city.

Fascinating exercises in psychogeography, though perhaps a little too stripped of situationist rebellion…

There is earth being scorched by fire, tied to agricultural ritual and both literal and cyclical space in Rinko Kawauchi’s pictures. I loved this hill, this sense of rebirth and the barrier between life and death, the theme of connection across space in this kind of time.

Beate Guetschow. Brutalist concrete crumbling against landscapes that I had to be told were composites to create new landscapes. That needing to be told…that fascinated me.

Her statement brought together a lot of the things I have been thinking about (I mean, she quotes Georges Perec, she is clearly playing with the idea of city here as well…):

Cities grow, and in doing so they occupy increasingly large amounts of space – the built environment is the greedy counterpart of the natural realm. A space is defined only by differentiation from another space, for which it needs walls that serve as barriers or borders. These are mainly conceived and put in place by man. The walls and virtual boundaries around spaces usually have some form of opening that define one’s own position and allow one to enter a different space. Georges Perec describes this perfectly in his book Species of Spaces: “To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself.”

In the S series I investigate urban space, whereby I am particularly interested in architecture as a representation of ideology and in the international equality of built structures. My photographs present cities that do not exist in reality. I use computer software to assemble new cityscapes from buildings I have photographed all over the world. The resulting images are visual utopias that reflect modernist thinking, its desire for structure and its idealism. A key characteristic of modernity was an unshakable belief in progress – the idea of a process of sustained growth that would ultimately lead to a perfect society. In terms of its clarity and functionality, modernist architecture symbolises this faith in rationality. In my images, these very structures are shown to be crumbling; their substance is rotten.

Mandy Barker’s study of plastic, a Victorian labeling within a tiny glass cabinet combined with these pictures of wonderful circles — views through a microscope, new views on the plastic that is filling the earth and all the living things within it beginning with plankton.

Micro to macro, Thomas Ruff’s pictures of Mars. Proper space:

ma.r.s.08 II, Thomas Ruff. © Thomas Ruff

Landscapes just as arid, just as likely to be found in Arizona where I grew up as in the strip of land between India as shown by Wasif Munem in ‘Land of Undefined Territory‘:

The chosen area of land in this series is a mere observer of nearly a hundred years of land disputes, which saw colonization, 1947’s divide of the Indian subcontinent and mass-migration with Partition, and 1971’s liberation war of Bangladesh which created the current border tension with the neighboring country, India. Absence of any profound identity for its existence never diminishes its presence, and its body carries the wound of aggressive industrial acts, such as stone collection and crushing. … Wasif’s work is not a definitive act of understanding the totality of deeds, rather deliberately ignorant of them with the help of an unconscious camera, to merely show land’s lone existence over a period of time.

And finally, Pavel Wolberg on the barricades.

The barricades are architectural elements that instantly appear and change existence around them. They are made out of tiles, barrels, blocks, and sacks of sand against which human beings seem to blur And become insignificant.

The barricades are the instant, moment-to-moment, concretization of separation of lives, identities, and ways of being. It is here that political, social and above all, religious believes are conjured up into a violent confrontation frontline made out of piles and multitudes. These barricades become turbulent focal points in the landscape where space is constantly reshaped and re-conquered and always remains chaotic.

Brilliant exhibition, and we caught it on the last day and almost didn’t see it at all as there were lines to main entrance — the security guard we were talking to told us of the other entrance round the side — not a soul around. good thing too, as who wanted to see fucking Pink Floyd or the Balenciaga exhibition? Everyone else apparently, which was all the better.

We also took this opportunity to enjoy a view of Tipoo’s Tiger. Worth stopping by even if you don’t see anything else there at all.

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Paris Detournements

For all the efforts of Haussman to strip much of the mystery away from Paris, getting rid of narrow crooked streets and old buildings, protest through art could be found everywhere. Especially once we learned better where to look (mostly up — if I had another day in Paris, I would follow the little octopi things wherever they led).

Perhaps so many exist because of Haussman, because of beautiful uniformity.

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Guy Debord on psychogeography & the dérive

7041009With my article on psychogeography and race and the city done and dusted and accepted by Salvage, I suppose I should finally finish off these half finished blogs collecting my favourite quotes from tom mcdonaugh’s wonderful book of new translations, the situationists and the city. There were a  lot of them, too many for one post really, so I’ve mixed it up a bit with Wark’s Beach Beneath the Street to look at Constant and Jorn, my favourite piece by Ivan Chtcheglov and adventures in Limehouse. This one on Guy Debord, and one more and then I am done.

I liked Chtcheglov’s piece so much more than these more widely quoted pieces from Guy Debord, but they’re still interesting. Also infuriating.  From ‘Introduction to a critique of urban geography’
(Les Lèvres nues no. 6 (September 1955)):

Of the many sagas in which we take part, with or without interest, the sole thrilling direction remains the fragmentary search for a new way of life.

I do like that very much. But then there comes the causal reference to an ‘illiterate Kabyle’ that I hate, and hate also that he (or she) remains unnamed. It taints the definition that follows, though it is an interesting one…

The word psychogeography, suggested by an illiterate Kabyle to designate the general phenomena with which a few of us were preoccupied around the summer of 1953, is relatively defensible. It does not stray from the materialist perspective of the conditioning of life and thought by objective nature… Psychogeography will aim to study the precise laws and specific effects of the geographic milieu, consciously planned or not, acting directly on the affective comportment of individuals.

I enjoy their fanciful parallels:

It has already been a long time that one has been able to say the desert is montheistic. Would it seem illogical, or devoid of interest, to declare that the quarter running in Paris between the Place de la Contrescarpe and the rue de l’Arbaléte inclines rather to atheism, to oblivion, and to the disorientation of customary routines?

I like this as well, with its quote that brings us back to King Lear, or Faulkner, both of whom would have found Haussman rather incomprehensible. I do wonder how historical it is for governments to want open spaces for the rapid circulation of troops however, so what exactly is he trying to say there…

It is right to possess a historically relative idea of the utilitarian. The concern to have at one’s disposal open spaces allowing for the rapid circulation of troops and the use of artillery against insurrections was at the origin of the beautification plan adopted by the Second Empire. But from any standpoint other than that of law and order, Haussman’s Paris is a city built by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (59)

On privilege, of which Guy Debord had more than a little really, and some other interesting things:

Since we run into, even with such slight justification, the idea of privilege, and since we know with what blind fury so many people–who are nevertheless so little privileged–are willing to defend their mediocre advantages, we are forced to declare that all these details partake of an idea of happiness, a received idea among the bourgeoisie, maintained by a system of advertising that includes Malraux’s aesthetics as well as the imperatives of Coca-Cola, and whose crisis must be provoked on every occasion, by every means.

The first of these means are undoubtedly the spreading, with an aim of systematic provocation, of a host of proposals tending to make of life an integral, thrilling game, and the unceasing depreciation of all customary amusements… (60)

The revolutionary transformation of the world, of all aspects of the world, will prove right all the dreams of abundance.

The abrupt change of environment in a street, within the space of a few meters; the obvious division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the strongly sloping contour (with no relation to the unevenness of the terrain) that aimless walks must follow; the appealing or repellent nature of certain places–all this seems to be neglected. (61)

I love the description of beauty here:

…in speaking here of beauty I don’t have in mind plastic beauty–the new beauty can only be a beauty of situation–but solely the particularly moving presentation, in one case and the other, of a sum of possibilities.

But I am not so sure of the usefulness of impostures in achieving any kind of aims at all, much as I love their maps:

situationist-mapThe forging of psychogeographic maps, and even various impostures like correlating (with little justification or even completely arbitrarily) two topographical representation, can contribute to illuminating certain displacements of a nature indeed not so much gratuitous but utterly insubordinate to usual attractions–attractions of this order being catalogues under the term tourism, that popular drug as repugnant as sports or purchasing on credit. (62)

So I’ll just throw in a few quotes from ‘Plan for rational improvements to the city of Paris’ (Potlatch no. 23, 13 October 1955), that exemplify all of the division of my feelings between loving their challenge and their call to reimagine the city, retheorise the city, rethink how we live in the city and move through it — and everything else that shows a lack of empathy, compassion, respect or connection to the real struggles of the time.

Everyone agrees to reject the aesthetic objection, to silence the admirers of the portal of Chartres. Beauty, when it is not a promise of happiness, must be destroyed.

On trains:

Gil J. Wolman demanded the complete suppression or falsification of all information about departures (destinations, times, etc). This would encourage dérive.

I was trying to imagine the chaos this would cause with trains, the lifeline between myself and my own true love and the horrible thought of heading in an opposite direction from him when trying to get to Bristol and wanting to hit Mr. Gil J. Wolman. Is a dérive forced upon you by a half-baked French intellectual still a dérive? I think not.

This same article asks

Is it possible to see a cemetery without thinking of Mauriac, Gide or Edgar Faure? (70)

Which I found somehow irrepressibly funny for some reason, but that brought to mind another ridiculous prank by Marcel Mariën as related in ‘The Commanders Gait’ (Les Lèvres nues no. 5, June 1955) where he moved crosses around in a graveyard to be playful, to ‘favourably stimulate the minds of those who visited this spot…’ (57).

Fuck that guy, even if this is simply a provocation. What made it worse was that he wanted to move rich people’s grave markers but they’re all massive stone things, so instead he wrote of moving the humble wooden crosses of the poor, fucking with people’s relationships with their dead and every belief they hold most dear, rather than their perceptions of space or any empty boredom of their lives (presuming this exists).  It highlights the arrogance of young intellectuals who think they know best, which means they are never able to think very deeply or learn from who and what is around them. To me this kind of thing (and it is hardly unique) makes harder attempts to take seriously this movement more or less as a whole.

So I’ll return to fragments… back to to Guy Debord, and the ‘Theory of the dérive’ (Les Lèvres nues, no. 9, November 1956)

I enjoyed the dig at the surrealists:

An insufficient distrust of chance, and of its always reactionary ideological use, condemned to a dismal failure the famous directionless ramble undertaken in 1923 by four Surrealists… (79)

But on the whole I found this less interesting than I had hoped, being very definitional…useful but not so interesting.

Dérive‘s lessons permit the drawing up of the first surveys of the psychogeographic articulations of a modern city. Beyond the reconnaissance of unitary ambiances, of their main components, and of their spatial localization, their principal axes of passage, their exits, and their defenses would be perceived.

This I liked, but it’s fairly obvious after all:

The distances that effectively separate two regions of a city are measured, distances that cannot be gauged with what the approximate vision of a map may have you believe.

Such certainty, I can’t imagine feeling this kind of certainty about everything, whether hopeful posturing or not:

Everything leads us to believe that the future will precipitate the irreversible transformation of current society’s comportment and setting. One day, cities will be built for dérive. Certain areas that already exist may be used, with relatively light touching up. Certain people that already exist may be used. (85)

What is it about Guy Debord that makes me hope his vision of city built for dérive won’t actually come true?

For more on situationists and psychogeography…

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Chtcheglov’s Formulary for a New Urbanism

7041009This has been my favourite of all of the works that poured from the pens of lettrists and situationists and all the -ists of the place and period. These quotes are drawn from the translation of tom mcdonaugh’s the situationists and the city, which was for the most part a truly inspired collection, and wonderful to read in rapid succession to The Beach Beneath the Streets.  Nice to see Mike Davis there in the acknowledgments as well, for his inspiration and encouragement of the project.

I intend to find out more of Ivan Chtcheglov — or Gilles Ivain, but these are my favourite bits from ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ from the Internationale situationniste no 1 (June 1958). I love the opening:

We are bored in the city, there is no longer any temple of the sun. Between the legs of women walking by the Dadaists would have liked to find an adjustable wrench, and the Surrealists a crystal goblet–that’s lost.

I think of Aragon and Breton, all that is missing from their work, I somehow love this first sentence. It gets better from there:

All cities are geological and three steps cannot be taken without encountering ghosts, bearing all the prestige of their legends. We maneuver within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary. It must be sought in the magical locales of folkloric tales and surrealist writings: castles, endless walls, little forgotten bars, Mammoth Cave, mirrors of Casinos. (33-35)

It is not often I love the complicated and baroque, the privilege of boredom, but I swooned a little over cities geological. Realised much of what I seek in my rambles through the city are indeed the original conceptions of space (though more than that, how they lead you to a taste the original experiences, because how else can you feel the weight of past lives lived in dialectical relation to such spaces?).

Then on to architecture and all it can be, all it can do:

Architecture is the simplest means to articulate time and space, to modulate reality, to engender dreams. It is not only a matter of plastic articulation and modulation–expression of an ephemeral beauty–but of a modulation producing influences, in accordance with the eternal spectrum of human desires and progress in the realization of those desires. (36)

and this:

I will quickly recall the bases of architecture:
– a new conception of space (whether based on a religious cosmogony or not).
– a new conception of time (numeration starting from zero, various ways for time to unfold).
– a new conception of comportment (in moral nature, sociology, politics, law. the economy is only one part of the laws of comportment to which a civilization agrees). (36)

In thinking about what most modern architecture provides us in terms of new conceptions of space, time and comportment, I despair. My walks up and down the Thames (and any river in any city) reveal all the terrible truth of the following statement, particularly in regards to the construction of new luxury development, new ‘public’ but always mostly privatised space:

A mental disease has swept the planet: banalization. (36)

We quarrel, however, Chtcheglov and I, over the possible cure. Still, he is delightfully inventive:

The ideal city would be built in quarters — the Bizarre Querter, Happy Quarter, Noble and Tragic Quarter, and perhaps also a Death Quarter, not for dying in but in which to live in peace, and here I think of Mexico and a principle of innocent cruelty that becomes dearer to me each day. (40)

A bit confusing and a little patronising, this innocent cruelty, but I will let it go…

We move into city as process, as activity, as the building of the collective and the need for the spiritual aspect of life in its fulness:

The principle activity of the inhabitants will be CONTINUOUS DÉRIVE. The changing landscape from one hour to the next will result in complete disorientation. (40)

…a people cannot live on dérive alone…Experience demonstrates that a dérive favourably replaces a mass; it is better fitted to introduce the whole of our energies into communication, to collect them for the benefit of the collectivity. (41)

It seems to me this presents insight after insight in vibrant language and then leaves you alone to think about it. I much prefer it to Debord, but Chtcheglov was removed from these intellectual debates through institutionalisation, which breaks my heart a little. McKenzie Wark writes:

After he was institutionalized, Chtcheglov would write Debord and Bernstein from the sanatorium explaining that the dérive has its limits, and cannot be practiced continually. “It’s a miracle it didn’t kill us. Iron infected our blood.”3 To even propose a new architecture for a new way of life took more resources than they possessed. The complete renunciation of what one might now call middle-class life cut them off from vital resources. (146) (from Beach Beneath a Street)

There is little more about Gilles Ivain here, or elsewhere that focuses on the situationists. The toll of mental illness and the lack of sympathy and understanding perhaps, alongside the toll of intellectual inquiry and the struggle for change.

chtcheglov1

 
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Paris, Baudelaire and Spleen (mostly my own)

Baudelaire - Paris SpleenWho has not, in bouts of ambition, dreamt this miracle, a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the bump and lurch of consciousness?

It is above all in the habit of huge cities, the endless meeting of their ways, that this obsessive ideal originates. you have yourself wished to put into song the glazier’s grating cry, and render in lyrical prose its heartbreaking resonances, carried up to attic rooms higher than the mist in the street. (3)
— 26 August, 1862

I first read that quote reading Walter Benjamin, and I loved it. There is something about the city that I long to capture, to express, to give voice.

Today in Westminster Abbey with sunshine and thunder outside and about to hear some wonderful baroque choir music and feeling maybe after all I love more in London than I was feeling I did
Today in Westminster Abbey with sunshine and thunder outside and about to hear some wonderful baroque choir music and feeling maybe after all I love more in London than I was feeling I did

Last night I sat in Westminster Abbey listening to Monteverdi’s ‘Vespers of 1610’  and almost cried knowing my words could never do what that music does, nor even capture what that soaring stone vaulting speaks (and god forbid my writing stay trapped in the side aisles growing full of ponderous stone monuments to vanity festooned with putti too fat to fly). Baudelaire, I wondered, what else do we share since we share this ambition? I had read Les Fleurs de Mal a long time ago, I think I struggled through it in French which is why I remember nothing.

Though there was indeed an absence of love in that absence of memory.

There are even so a few things in here I love. Baudelaire wasn’t talking about pulp perhaps, but I adore this quote:

And I quit my room raging with thirst, because wild addiction to bad literature had instilled in me a proportionate want of clear air and refreshment. (96)

And this? Though Baudelaire and I in fact share little to nothing, I do know this well:

10. One a.m.

Alone at last!…At last, the tyranny of the human face has gone, and my only source of suffering will be myself.

Horrible life! Horrible city!  (18)

Still, it goes deeper, this tyranny of the human face. Something in this early book prepared me for Nadja, for so many of the great men who write cities, write women, write themselves over and over again onto the page.

12. Crowds

It is not given to all to crowd-bathe: the enjoyment of crowds is an art; and only he can go, at the expense of mankind, on a reinvigorating spree whom in his cot a fairy wand has left the taste for masks and travesty, a loathing of home and a passion for travel.

Multitude, solitude: equivalent terms for the active and prolific poet. (22)

Why should this be ‘at the expense of mankind’? Yet it is, it is set up this way — artist v mankind. Artist alone and above and born to it, looking out but always looking down. The essence of this:

27. The Old Acrobat

There was no point in asking the poor fellow what marvels or curiosities he would conjure in the stinking gloom behind his ragged curtain. In truth I did not dare; and even though you might find the reason for my caution risible, I confess it came from a reluctance to humiliate him. (28)

The reluctance to humiliate being risible. To whom is he talking that compassion for an old man should be something of which he is ashamed? This is the nutshell I think, the point at which ‘art’ goes where I no longer wish to follow, yet it seems to be a masculine ideal belonging to many a writer and observer who care nothing for others.

Even when it has to do with cake. As in:

15. Cake

Oh glorious title! But so sad:

Before me stood a little human creature, ragged and blackened, with wild, deep-set, supplicant eyes that were devouring my bread. And I heard him moan in a hoarse, low voice the single word: cake! I could not hold back my laughter at the title he wanted to give my off-white bread… (29)

He doesn’t worry about humiliating a foreign child (it could even be little Dicky Perrot, and my heart breaks), only throws him a piece of bread and wonders at a country where two children will fight to the death for it and call it cake.

There are poems of equal callousness musing on mistresses, misogyny regarding wives, tropical fantasies of opium  and women that still contain glorious lines like:

beyond the veranda the noise of birds drunk on light… (48)

ph_0111201517-BaudelaireThe piece I have seen most quoted, describing Baudelaire and his mistress sitting in a new cafe on one of Haussman’s new boulevards and watching a family of people too poor to partake stare at them, drinking in the lights and the warmth and the food.

26. The Eyes of the Poor

As I turned my gaze to yours, my love, to read my own thoughts; as I immersed myself in your eyes…you said to me: “I cannot bear those people with their eyes out on stalks! Tell the waiter to get rid of them.”  (53)

Baudelaire has such eyes, does he not? An intensity to them. Yet I am angered that he seeks only to read his own thoughts in the eyes of a woman. Conflicted when I hate her response as much as he does.

Still, serves him right perhaps, what better woman would care to be with someone so self-centered? Reflect this, mother fucker, is one phrase that might come to mind, here and in another musing that mingles the profound with the sad with the profoundly self-obsessed:

35. Windows

An open window never reveals as much as one closed. There is nothing more profound, mysterious, fertile, shadowy, than a window lit by a candle. What is seen in sunlight is always less interesting than whatever occurs on the far side of a glass sheet. Within that cave, dark or illuminated, life lives, life dreams, life hurts.

Across undulating roofs, I perceive a mature woman, already wrinkled, poor, permanently stooping over something; a life spent indoors. With her face, her clothes, her movements, with almost nothing, I have recreated that woman’s story, her myth rather, and sometimes I weep as I tell it to myself.

Had it been a poor old man, I would have reconstructed his story as easily.

And I retreat to my bed, pleased I have lived and suffered not in myself but in someone else.

Perhaps you will ask me: “Are you sure you have the right myth?” But why should I care what the reality is outside myself, so long as it helped me to live, to feel that I am, to feel what I am? (76)

‘…pleased I have lived and suffered not in myself but in someone else.’ Profanity seems by far the best response since he cannot be slapped. But I will end with one of my favourite ones, as I favour asking things of wind, waves, stars and birds (but not clocks)…

33. Be Drunk

be drunk always. Nothing else matters; there are no other subjects. Not to feel the grim weight of Time breaking your backs and bending you double, you must get drunk and stay drunk.

But drunk on what? Wine, poetry, virtue — the choice is yours. Just be drunk.

And if sometimes, on a palace staircase, on the green grass of a ditch, in the gloomy isolation of your chamber, you wake sober or just a little tipsy, ask the wind, waves, stars, birds, clocks, ask anything that flies, moans, moves, sings, speaks, ask it the time. And the wind, wave, star, bird, clock will reply: “Time to get drunk! To avoid the enslaved martyrdom of Time, get drunk and stay drunk! On wine, poetry, virtue, the choice is yours!” (73)

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Nadja: Surrealism’s Absent Heart

172244This book has often been described in things that I have read, but these descriptions seemed to bear remarkably little in common with what this book actually contained.

Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I “haunt.” (11)

I read that sentence knowingly, thinking glibly that by haunt he really meant “stalk”, of course. But this was not in fact a tale of Breton’s stalking a woman through Paris streets (though their passage through streets is charted by street names and monuments and pictures of Paris to the delight of psychogeographers). It could be titled André, as it has far more to do with his own obsession with self and the encounter with Nadja sits sandwiched as a section between other thoughts and odd coincidences and naming of friends and enemies along with their pictures and other meanderings of surrealist nature, and a long passage on a woman and her gloves — another female object of a long-term affair. While Nadja seems to perceive him as another man who will protect her from destitution and seeks him out as such, André remains the principal subject to himself.

Do not expect me to provide an exact account of what I have been permitted to experience in this domain. I shall limit myself here to recalling without effort certain things which, apart from any exertions on my part, have occasionally happened to me, things which, reaching me in unsuspected ways, give me the measure of the particular race and disgrace of which I am the object…(23)

He takes pleasure in the reactions of other men to Nadja’s attractiveness, exoticises uncomfortably her appearance as well as calling on racist tropes. The waiter keeps hovering over her on the Quais Malaquais, in the restaurant Delaborde and Breton writes:

Nadja is not at all surprised. She knows her power over certain men, for example, over Negroes who, wherever she may be, are compelled to come and talk to her (99).

Ugh. Then there is Breton’s soliloquy on women and the street, quite as uncomfortable. It is part of the tradition that assumes the female wanderer of the streets as prostitute (if such a tradition yet existed as spoken aloud rather than simply held axiomatic), but here it holds a twist. Here some women they can only live and experience that life fully in the street. Through the gaze and actions of men.

I mean, is the real Nadja this always inspired and inspiring creature who enjoyed being nowhere but in the streets, the only region of valid experience for her, in the street, accessible to interrogation from any human being launched upon some great chimera, or (why not admit it) the one who sometimes fell, since, after all, others had felt authorized to speak to her, had been able to see in her only the most wretched of women, and the least protected? Sometimes I reacted with terrible violence against the over-detailed account she gave me of certain scenes of her past life, concerning which I decided, probably quite superficially, that her dignity could not have survived entirely intact. A story of a blow in the face that had drawn blood, one day,in the Brasserie Zimmer, a blow from a man whom she gave herself the sly pleasure of refusing simply because he was low–and she had cried for help several times, though not without taking the time, before disappearing, to bleed all over the man’s clothes–this story, when she was aimlessly telling it to me, early in the afternoon of October  13, almost managed to alienate her from me forever.  (113)

Is Breton’s violence in thus defining her any less than that of the man who hit her? Being always inspired and inspiring must be quite demanding.

He seeks to deny her any outside reality from this existence in the streets, but only in relation to men like him ‘launched upon some great chimera,’ her role simply to facilitate that search. He is uncomfortable with the other side of this existence in the streets. She seems to define herself here through her ability to reject some men’s advances because she is above them. A right of rejection that should belong to all women, with nothing sly about it. To Breton she seems to take almost a pleasure in their violence, her vengeance through bleeding on them. Such a sad paltry kind of vengeance. I tired of his self-obsessive interpretations of her, wished for just a moment to see her as she was. She tries to tell us but Breton does not wish to hear it, wants nothing to do with what she does or who she is or what she faces in life when not with him, nothing of the hard edges of survival and the things that it requires. It is too close to his own mingled desires perhaps. He fears her life’s ugly realities, refuses to think about them, prizes only the strangeness which cushions him, preserves him from poverty and violence. And day to day bodily functions.

…I was also increasingly alarmed to feel that, when even I left her, she was sucked back into the whirlwind of ordinary life continuing around her and eager to force her, among other concessions, to eat, to sleep (115).

He is also alarmed by her mental illness. He distances himself from her as this becomes worse, as she becomes more needy and thus more and more human to him, more flesh and blood, less enigmatic and charmingly strange. He notes her disappointment when they first meet and he tells her he must return to his wife — she will only ever be a curious sideline to him, while it seems (and how can we really know) he is all she has both emotionally and for his monetary support for physical survival — he is uncharmingly open about the money her gives her. At the end she calls his wife and tells her they are the only friends she has.

This poor unnamed wife that Breton always uses as an excuse when Nadja demands too much. When she begins to bore him with her actual thoughts and her actual needs. Her only friends?

Bad luck to her, because they abandon her after she is committed — though you can hardly blame the wife. She has enough on her plate with Breton.

My general contempt for psychiatry, its rituals and its works, is reason enough for my not yet having dared investigate what has become of Nadja. I have indicated my pessimism as to her fate…

Is it really reason enough? Others Nadja met through Breton did not do the same, but no one was able to really help her.

To label this a romance seems to me cynical beyond anything, an acknowledgment of the emptiness of surrealism and this vision of art and its life when real humanity was required. This haunting he refers to in his first paragraph is is the absence of soul, of heart. It is the vacuuming up of the lives and experience of others to discard them, leaving only their husks as its playthings. Just as in the play he describes at such length in the first chapter, Les Detraques [The Deranged], where two women feed off of and kill their students, though you are never quite sure how.

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On Writing and Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk’s THE BLACK BOOK

The Black Book“Each life is unique!” cried the magazine writer. “A story is a story only when it has no equal. Every writer is poor and all alone.”
–Galip (104)

I read Pamuk’s The Black Book to then give away, and I am not sure I can. I feel that I should come back to it knowing more of the city’s history, knowing the city itself. Istanbul is so central to it, made so concrete through its pages that it becomes the standard — the cities wandered and written through my own life become the exotic others. It is a heady feeling.

It is a story of intrigue and mystery. It evokes and plays with some of the old psychogeographical cannon like Poe and Baudelaire, but its foundations are anchored in a Turkish literature that has, for the most part, not been translated. It edges around city–and the human face–as sign and signifier, drawing these into plots and conspiracies of occult dimensions playing on words and anagrams and numerology and games —  yet the lines are blended between the hysterically imagined and the real and violent, this is the time of the actual coup.

Always the city is there to wander, to describe, to inspire, to shape, to speak. Celâl Bey the columnist attempts over and over again to capture it, Galip Bey his nephew turns to it (and Celâl’s descriptions of it over decades) to help him solve the mystery he faces in the disappearance of Celâl and Galip’s wife.

This is a wondrous imagining of the draining of the Bosphorus, and the records of past glories to be found there and what will come after:

I am speaking now of the new neighborhoods that will take root on this muddy wasteland that we once knew as the Bosphorus…of brothels, mosques and dervish lodges, of nests where Marxist splinter groups go to hatch their young…
— Celâl (17)

As in all cities there are many mysteries and wonders. My favourite perhaps is the underground caves full of mannequins ‘possessed of a life force stronger than anything you might see in the crowds swarming across the Galata Bridge.’

My father always said we should pay close attention to the gestures that make us who we are…In those years his father held that a nation could change its way of life , its history, its technology, its art, literature and culture, but it would never have a real chance to change its gestures.
–Celâl (62)

Galip in his search ends up in these same caves, finds a mannequin of Celâl himself, listens to a new generation creating these mannequins and in effect talking through the way that culture survives modernisation, westernisation:

“My father quickly realized that our history could only survive underground, that these passageways leading to our house, these underground roads strewn with skeletons, provided us with a historical opportunity, a chance to create citizens who carried their histories, their meanings, on their faces.”
–Galip 191

The psychogeography of the city:

He surveyed the ramshackle shops lining the crooked pavements: These garden shears he saw before him, these star-spangled screwdrivers, NO PARKING signs, cans of tomato paste, these calendars you saw on the walls of cheap restaurants, this Byzantine aqueduct festooned with Plexiglas letters, the heavy padlocks hanging from the metal shop shutters — they were all signs crying out to be read. He could, if he wished, read them like faces.
–Galip (215)

Always the city like a face.

So then he spread out the maps of Damascus, Cairo, and Istanbul side by side, just as Celâl had foreseen in a column inspired by Edgar Allen Poe. He cut the maps out of the Istanbul directory with a razor blade he found in the bathroom…When he first put the maps together, he saw that their arrows and line fragments were different sizes, so he was at first unsure how to proceed. Then he pressed them together against the glass pane of the sitting-room door…
–Galip (263)

This takes him nowhere. I liked that. A few more quotes I liked:

…every time it occurred to him that someone might be following him, his legs speeded up, the city ceased to be a quiet place where all signs and objects looked familiar and turned into a realm of horror, shimmering with mystery and danger.
–Galip (340)

The shopkeeper certainly remembered. His sense of place was as good as his sense of smell. Through his close reading of your columns. he had conjured up an Istanbul that was more than a cornucopia of smells: He knew every corner of the city that you had visited, grown to love it–love it secretly, without telling a soul–for its mystery, but just as he was unable to imagine certain odors, he had no idea where these places were in relation to one another. I myself had, thanks to you, visited these places from time to time–when I’ve needed to find you…
–phone call to Galip (350)

‘You bastard writer, you!’

This book is as much about identity, about discovering who you are, the intersections between the individual and the nation (or Empire), how writing facilitates, hides, occludes, makes possible.

This mystery, this truth you’ve been making us run after for all these years…: No one in this country can ever be himself. To live in an oppressed, defeated country is to be someone else. I am someone else, therefore I am! (390)

…when he told the story for the third time, it became clear to him that he could be a different person each time he told it. Like the Prince, I tell stories to become myself. Furiously angry at all those who had prevented him from being himself, and certain that it was only by telling stories that he would come to know the mystery of the city and the mystery of life itself, he brought the story to a close for a third and final time, to be met with a white silence that spoke to him of death. (417)

…he had been waging this war not just on his own behalf but for the many millions who had bound their fates to the crumbling empire…all people who are unable to be themselves, all civilizations that imitate other civilizations, all those nations who find happiness in other people’s stories were doomed to be crushed, destroyed and forgotten.
Galip as Celâl (429)

Because it was only when a man had run out of stories to tell that he came close to being himself. (431)

This was particularly interesting after reading Pamuk’s autobiography Istanbul: Memories of a City, which shows how he has been circling these ideas even as he circles this same family, apartment block, street, city, nation, empire…yes. I think I may come back to it. But in ten years or so, so someone else can read it in the meantime.

It ends with a lovely couple of pages from the translator Maureen Freely that has me contemplating learning to read Turkish — every translation should contain these few pages. Clearly there is so much that simply cannot be translated and I yearn to understand the cascading sentence structure that echoes the cascading of subject, the ways that a Turkish sentence can circle, obscure, make clear that English simply cannot.

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A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague YearDaniel Defoe ([1722] 2003)

A Journal of the Plague Year is grim, strangely gripping almost in spite of its author.

I had to try and remember that this is so early, among the earliest of the many claims of earliest novels — that’s hard enough. Written decades after the events it is describing, it’s still questioned how much of it is based on Daniel Defoe’s uncle’s diary (he himself was 5 at the time he describes in such detail), how much is historical research, how much is ‘novel’. It’s strangely removed yet at the same time close enough to be fairly terrifying.

Many claim it as part of the psychogeography tradition, an early example of a literary mapping of London, and I confess that is what I liked the most. The street by street, parish by parish descriptions, the sense of all London reading the death lists, waiting, watching the plague move from West to East and South but all the while hoping it wouldn’t reach them. Getting some sense of what these times were like, how they were lived so far removed from imagination and Hollywood’s occasional depictions. It’s hard to believe that it all started only a short distance from where I work every day in Holborn.

I haven’t read much beyond wikipedia and short descriptions, but what bothered me most was trying to decide how much irony is in this, how much is written straight faced. I just couldn’t tell. From the point of view of someone who doesn’t identify with the rich but with the poor, it is fairly staggering. He rails against the thievery, the lengths to which the well-off had to go when fleeing the city to protect their property–there is so much here about protecting property. So damn much. Yet he himself lists the multiple professions, the thousands that lost all work and hope of sustenance when the plague hit London. The many families who fled the cities, firing their servants and turning them out of their homes penniless and with nowhere to go.

He writes at one point of the plague as a kind of deliverance, how it:

carried off in that time thirty or forty thousand of these very poor people which, had they been left, would certainly have been an insufferable burden by their poverty; that is to say, the whole city could not have supported the expense of them, or have provided food for them; and they would in time have even been driven to the necessity of plundering either the city itself or the country adjacent, to have subsisted themselves…

In fact, it is extremely noticeable that all of the much vaunted charity of the city and ‘gentlemen’ of the country is primarily a measure to stop mass starvation resulting in rebellion and theft. Personally, I was angry enough at it that I was hoping for a little more pillage, for some distribution of the high life in this time of horror, especially as he describes the frightful conditions under which people lived. Their desperation is visible in the number of people willing to risk their lives for the small pay offered them to nurse the sick and watch at their doors and dig the graves and collect and bury the dead.

While praising London’s government for running the city well through it all, Defoe blames the poor for spreading the plague, for not remaining shut up in their houses like the wealthy, waiting out the infection:

But it was impossible to beat anything into the heads of the poor. They went on with the usual impetuosity of their tempers, full of outcries and lamentations when taken, but madly careless of themselves, foolhardy and obstinate, while they were well. Where they could get employment they pushed into any kind of business, the most dangerous and liable to infection…

As though people seek out such employment when they don’t need to eat. There is also a curious interlude when he reproaches some men getting drunk in a pub and laughing at those praying and grieving. He tells them to repent, to learn from his own behaviour, and tells them he is saved by God…As I say, almost over the top enough that it could be stab at some critique of the religious and the rich, but left me with the feeling that it’s probably not, or not critical enough. Though it has contradictory opinions in it to fill another book sorting them all out.

Thank god I live now.

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Women who write about cities

Who are key women writing and thinking seriously about cities in fiction and non-fiction? My partner asked me this innocuous question that should have been easier for me to answer as, among other things, an avid reader, a geographer, a feminist, an urbanist. Granted I feel a beginner at the academic interface of all but the first, still, when asked, I was struggling a little. This post is a beginning at rectifying that problem.

space-place-gender-doreen-massey-paperback-cover-artIn the most easily accessible list of ‘great’ or best-known geographers I carry in my head, there is really only Doreen Massey, who has absolutely written on space and gender. Beyond an article or two I haven’t read much, and I’ve been meaning to change that for some time. I suppose Saskia Sassen belongs here as well with her work on world cities, but I think I probably need to revise this list of ‘great’ geographers in my head, or get rid of it all together. Key to my thesis was the work of Laura Pulido, who looks at race, white privilege and the city’s form with a focus on struggle and environmental racism in L.A., and to a lesser extent Gillian Hart, who brings together Stuart Hall and Lefebvre to look at race, gender and space in South Africa. There are Audrey Kobayashi, Linda Peake, Katherine McKittrick,  all of whom I know from searching for discussions of intersectionality and space. One of my favourite books about L.A. is by Becky Nicolaides, a historian writing about the working class suburb of South Gate in My Blue Heaven. Jenny Robinson on everyday politics and the Global South, Margit Meyer writing from Germany on struggle and right to the city. I am sure there are many other women rocking the subject of women in the city, and many I’ve cited, but shamefully they are not in that top layer of my brain’s recall. I’m in Bristol at the moment, but hopefully once I am at home staring at my beloved bookshelves I will come up with a few more.

VIRGINIA WOOLFI’ve been doing all this reading on London and psychogeography as well, and is that shit male! White too. There is a kind of cannon of ‘walkers of the city’ that so many people refer to, Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Years, Poe’s ‘Man in the Crowd’, Baudillaire and Rimbaud, de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater, Arthur Machen, de Certeau, Walter Benjamin, sometimes Dickens, Breton’s Nadja (where he stalks a woman), the situationists Debord and Vaneigem, there is  James Joyce of course, I always add Dylan Thomas to this list but not many other seem to. Iain Sinclair writing now, Patrick Keillor. There are a few names missing here, but the only woman regularly included is Virginia Woolf, with Mrs Dalloway. Time to create a new and broader cannon I think, much more female, queer, of colour. These groups move through cities, experience cities, desire from cities very different things.

mishaI love noir and SF, which deal so much with cities, but again, most of the people immediately springing to mind as writers of the city are men. Asimov of course, with Trantor, China Miéville’s The City and the City, and New Crobuzon and London in so much of his short fiction and Kraken and King Rat. The city is a character in so much noir, but it’s Chandler and and Hammet, Gary Phillips and Walter Mosely and Chester Himes on LA and Harlem, even Crumley, not Dorothy Hughes or Leigh Brackett or Margaret Millar — though perhaps her more than most. Maybe L.A. for Denise Hamilton, who knows so much history of both the city and noir itself. Chicago in Paretsky‘s novels? Not so much really, not if I remember rightly. There’s the incredible book of urban apocalypse by MishaRed Spider, White Web, Karen Tei Yamashita‘s L.A. in Tropic of Orange, and San Francisco of I Hotel, Nnedi Okorafor‘s Lagos in Lagoon.  Glasgow in Denise Mina‘s work. London’s broader literature scene has Zadie Smith, and Monica Ali, maybe Elizabeth Gaskell on northern cities…but who else? The more I write and think the more names come to me, but I haven’t come across anyone else thinking about these things. Probably my own fault for not looking hard enough.

So I googled women writing on cities. The first hit is a list of work from the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association on contemporary women writers and their constructions of the city from some years ago, it looks good but it is so short:

Comer, K., 1999. Landscapes of the New West: Gender and Geography in Contemporary Women’s Writing. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

An original text that explores the way in which a number of contemporary American women writers (Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Leslie Silko, Jeanne Houston and Louisa Erdich among others) have developed a feminine/feminist, postmodern, multiracial, urban imagination in their fiction.

Fischer, S. A., 2002. “A Sense of Place: London in contemporary women’s writing”. Changing English, Vol. 9: 1, pp. 59-65.

An exploration of the symbolism of London and its relation to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and class in a range of contemporary women’s writing including Sarah Waters.

Palmer, P., 1994. “The City in Contemporary Women’s Writing” In Massa, A. & Stead, A. eds. Forked Tongues: Comparing Twentieth Century British and American Literature. London: Longman, 1994, pp. 315-335.

Palmer’s essay explores the approach taken by women writers to writing the city in contemporary fiction.

Squier, S. M., 1984. Women Writers and The City: Essays in Feminist Literary Criticism. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.

A unique critical analysis of the symbolic role of “the city” in a range of women writers. This collection includes essays on Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing and Adrienne Rich. Also has a very useful bibliography for further reading.

Wilson, E. 1991. The Sphinx in the City. London: Virago.

An examination of various cities with regard to urbanism and postmodernism. Offers an excellent focus on the role of women and the freedoms and perils that face them in the city.

Some good places to start. There is this book from 2006: Unfolding the City: Women Write the City in Latin America, Anne Lambright and Elisabeth Guerrero, editors.  More to read! This book on women’s poetry and translations and walking the city — Metropoetica from Seren Press. But really, without more thought on google strings and library searches, not much more is coming up. I know you’re out there, women. Writing great things, thinking great thoughts. So, a new theme to investigate and write about and hopefully I will find you sooner rather than later.

The London Adventure or The Art of Wandering

The London AdventureA delightful book of meanderings, almost too meandering because there are some really brilliant things in here that deserve some deeper thought but the style of it almost carries you right past them. I know, I know, that the style of the book maybe reflects the art of wandering itself, stumbling over the unexpected, taking up the digressions, exploring the byways. But still. I wanted more places, more stories of places, more London. Still, there are some real gems about the city, how we experience it, where its wonder lies, speaking both as urbanist and as author. And just thoughts on being human in this world of toil. This is clearly someone who has known toil.

In this pleasant and retiring spot I was sitting not long ago, enjoying gin and that great luxury and blessing of idleness, concerning which so much cant and false doctrine have been preached. (6)

On writing:

Always, or almost always, I have had the horror of beginning a new book. I have burnt my fingers to the bone again and again in the last forty years and I dread the fire of literature (12).

On life:

It is possible, just dimly possible, that the real pattern and scheme of life is not in the least apparent on the outward surface of things, which is the world of common sense and rationalism, and reasoned deductions; but rather lurks, half hidden, only apparent in certain rare lights, and then only to the prepared eye; a secret pattern, an ornament which seems to have but little relation or none at all to the obvious scheme of the universe’. (21)

One of my favourite phrases of all time is now ‘amiable Conandoylery’ (27). It certainly takes him a while to describe the purpose of this book he is being paid to write — and this sense of literature as something for hire, something you must sell to live and feed your children is never absent here, anchoring his wonderings and wanderings. His dread as he sits ensconced in a comfortable pub that Spring has arrived and the book must be begun opens every chapter, humorously to be sure, but not entirely. But it is still on a subject he loves — rambling the city:

[the book] originated in old rambles around London, rambles that began in 1890 when I lived in Soho Street and began to stroll about Soho and to see that here was something very curious and impressive; this transmutation of late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century social stolidity and even, in some cases, magnificence, into a wholly different order (30)

What he loves is not about tourist stops or antiquarian wonders but:

the general queerness; a piece, a tesserae, that fitted in very pleasantly with that hopeless 1860 terrace and that desolate 1900 shop, and the cabbages, and the raspberry plantations and, above all and before all, with the sense that I had never been that way before, that the scene to me was absolutely new and unknown as if the African Magician had suddenly set me down in the midst of Cathay, that I was as true an explorer as Columbus, as he who stood upon a peak in Darien. For if you think of it: the fact that the region which is to you so strange and unknown is familiar as daily bread and butter or—more likely—the lack of it to multitudes of your fellow men is of no significance on earth. (40)

There’s some interesting colonial stuff here, though I think it echoes in my own mind far different than in his for I cannot divorce colonial exploration from despair, conquest, slavery and death. I am hesitant to strip these away, but in Machen’s writing it seems to be simply the seed of wonder at what is new, and the acknowledgment that this lies alongside hunger and misery and want. Lightly done, but it is there.

My book, then, was to take all these things into account: the old, the shabby, the out of the way; and also the new and the red and the raw. But it was utterly to shun the familiar. For if you think of it, there is a London cognita and a London incognita(49)

He seeks the incognita, the overlooked. Finds the things that I too love:

I can look with a kind of pleasure on a very doorstep, on a doorstep approaching a shabby grey house of 1810 or thereabouts—if the stone be worn into a deep hollow by the feet of even a hundred years and a little over…The feet of the weary and hopeless, the glad and the exultant, the lustful and the pure have made that hollow; and most of those feet are now in the hollow of the grave: and that doorstep is to me sacramental, if not a sacrament, even though the neighbourhood round about Mount Pleasant is a very poor one. (48)

There is a section imagining the life of the reporter as a road, traveling through cities, opening up the countryside, ‘where there is no money but plenty of happiness’ (62). That old city/country divide. There is also, of course, a touch of the gothic here, a familiar strand running through so much literature of the city:

Strangeness which is the essence of beauty is the essence of truth, and the essence of the world. I have often felt that, when the ascent of a long hill brought me to the summit of an undiscovered height in London; and I looked down on a new land. (127)

I loved the idea that we must no longer seek wonder in castles and keeps, but in the everyday. Even then the sense of the madness of developers and real estate, the joy in the battered cottage amongst plate glass and brick shops, a hold out against profit. On this score there are some brilliant descriptions of Enfield being developed (35) to return to, perhaps after I’ve visited Enfield.

Why have I waited so long to read his fiction? It’s available, unlike this book, which was an amazing birthday present in the form of a first edition.

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