Psychogeography: A Brief History

“I had often heard of the world’s seven wonders in my reading days at school but I found in London alone thousands.” John Clare.

Lost In Wandering
Some say that ‘psychogeography’ was just a trendy urban buzzword from the 2000s. Overused to the point of exhaustion. Others say think again, as it’s been with us, in one form or another, since the year dot. Does it have a real history?

The recent chief exponents of psychogeography where modern London is concerned are Ian Nairn, Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair. Nairn (1930-83) was a contributor to the Architectural Review. For his critically acclaimed book Outrage (1956), he drove the length of England from Southampton to Carlisle hunting for the individualism of places. Ackroyd, in particular, suffered acutely from his obsession, most evidently in his hugely successful London: The Biography (2000). Meanwhile, Sinclair’s Lud Heat (1975) is regarded as a landmark in the modern London sphere.

It is claimed that the origins of psychogeography are rooted in the Situationist movement that the French writer Guy Debord spearheaded in the 1950s, having been heavily influenced by the geo-cultural reflections of contemporary novels such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. However, it could be argued that the group had simply assigned a label to a concept already well-established in literature. For example, a generation before the beat got its kicks on Route ’66, the Welsh journalist Arthur Machen fantasized, but ultimately procrastinated, in his plans for a quasi-mystical journey through a city in his 1924 book, The London Adventure, or the Art of Wandering. A few years earlier, James Joyce had his protagonists randomly (and operatically) mapping Edwardian Dublin in his novel Ulysses.

Merlin Coverley in Psychogeography (2006) hails the 19th-century literary concept of the flâneur – celebrating the writer as walker. The flâneur is the idler-about-town who provides a commentary on the urban scene, chronicling the mood of a city. An early manifestation appears in The Man in the Crowd, a story written for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in 1840 by Edgar Allan Poe. Here, while wandering the streets of London, the narrator finds himself preoccupied with the meanderings of an old man. The flâneur was embraced by the contemporary French literary scene. In an 1863 essay for Figaro, the poet Baudelaire described the perfect flâneur as a “passionate spectator… who everywhere rejoices in his incognito… ceaselessly journeying across the great human desert.

Iain Sinclair believes the tradition goes back at least to the Romantic era. He notes that in Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), Thomas De Quincey found himself in the labyrinth of his mind, within the labyrinth of the city. Attempting to steer an escape route, he invoked nautical principles using the night sky in search of a ‘north-west passage’ and used this as his thread to guide him through the maze of his obsession.

De Quincey was a devotee of William Wordsworth who himself, just a decade or so earlier, could be found roaming the Lake District in a seemingly aimless cloud-like wandering, hoping to discover an inner peace. Wordsworth’s contemporary William Blake may also be considered a standard-bearer for such geo-soul-searching. And from a generation before, the 18th-century impresario George Alexander Stevens used local characters to map out his version of the city, in the Hogarthian Adventures of a Speculist (published posthumously in 1788). William Hogarth himself was a keen practitioner of flâneurity, as were his fellow satirists John Gay, Ned Ward and Jonathan Swift.

We might even go back millennia to find examples of psychogeography in the classics. In the Art of Love, Ovid hijacks the authoritarian and moralistic nature of the eternal city’s imperial architecture, replacing it with sites for sensuality. He encourages walkers to appropriate buildings, monuments and landmarks for licentious liaisons, listing by name colonnades, porticos, temples, fountains, law-courts, theatres and arenas. Roma is thus subverted and inverted to ‘amor’. In the words of historian Michael Wood: “In Ovid’s pages, the emperor’s grand design for the city becomes a kind of erotic memory map.”

The truth is, seaching for the roots of psychogeography is somewhat folly, because it is an experience so integral to the story of humankind. If you don’t believe me, check out the ultimate history of walking, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust. Even though its now twenty years old, it still has the power to take you on an enchanting journey of its own.

Reading list
Peter Ackroyd: London: The Biography
Merlin Coverley: Psychogeography
Thomas de Quincey: Confessions of an English Opium Eater
James Joyce: Ulysses
Jack Kerouac: On the Road
Arthur Machen: The London Adventure, or the Art of Wandering
Ian Nairn: Outrage
Ovid: Art of Love
Iain Sinclair: Lud Heat
Rebecca Solnit: Wanderlust
George Alexander Stevens: Adventures of a Speculist

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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