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Book: Pocket Essentials Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley

I was emailed a pdf of "Pocket Essentials Psychogeography" by Merlin Coverley, these days there's no such thing as a free book. This author previously did the "London Writing" book in the Pocket Essentials series. Coverley's current title reveals his literary bias but in many ways, so what? I find it amusing to see psychogeography continually reconfigured and as new orthodoxies emerge, smashing them up. The term psychogeography originated with the 'avant-garde' Lettrists in Paris in the fifties and from there fed into the Situationist International (but its roots lie elsewhere). Coverley is keen to wrest all claims of ownership to the term from this group. I go along with that, and I greatly appreciate the way this text will wind up Debord's moronic fans. Debord, of course, did some cool things but that doesn't mean I (or anyone else) needs to take his every last fart and whimper seriously. So far so good. But for me Coverley does this in a way that draws the notion of psychogeography too far into literary discourse, and a too specifically 'English' one at that. So the first section is "London and the Visionary Tradition" covering Defoe, Blake, De Quincey, Stevenson, Machen, and Alfred Watkins. Part 2 takes us to Paris and the world of the nineteenth-century flaneur; while part 3 deals with those pesky Lettrists and Situationists in the nineteen-fifties and sixties.

Part 4 is, of course, the most interesting section because under the rubric of "Psychogeography Today", Coverley goes some way towards getting to grips with me. He writes: "Stewart Home was a prime mover within the resurgence of psychogeographical and avant-garde groups in the 1990s but his relationship with these groups remains tangential and obscure. He is best viewed as the ringmaster of an avant-garde circus comprising groups and individuals such as the Neoist Alliance, the New Lettrist International and, most prominently, the London Psychogeographical Association (LPA) reconvened in 1992, some 35 years after the dissolution of the original group of that name. In typical fashion, Stewart Home's flair for self-publicity has led him to become equated with the group and to be regarded as the author of its newsletter, yet, in reality, he appears not to have been a member. Along with fellow travellers that included, amongst others, Richard Essex, Fabian Tompsett and Tom Vague, Home was involved in a deluge of psychogeographical pamphlets, statements and events that recalled the pranksterism of the Lettrist International but, this time round, injected some genuine humour into the proceedings. Often operating under group monikers such as the Neoist Alliance, Home combines a peculiar blend of occultism, avant-garde theorising and radical left politics in what he terms the 'avant-bard', a concept whose incoherence and presentation in weighty disputations on Hegel, situationism and class war is saved from tedium by Home's clear inability to take himself or his subject seriously. The tone of straight-faced irony is constant throughout the proclamations of both the Neoist Alliance and the LPA, many of whose contributions to psychogeographical research are to be found in the collection Mind Invaders, edited by Home... throughout Home's work, the role of provocation is always given precedence over the factual accuracy of the content. Indeed, it would be more absurd than any of Home's antics for the reader to take him at face value. While taking on the mantle of Ralph Rumney's pre-situationist movement, both the LPA and Home offer, not so much a continuation of Debord's sentiments, as an antidote to its excruciating portentousness. A description of Home's work in the NME as,'Extremely entertaining bollocks, combining gutternutter tabloidese with bitchy art-student gibberish', comes to mind here and this type of discourse, with its characteristic theoretical incoherence, is the hallmark of much psychogeographical output during this period. Such activities are not confined to London but are replicated by similar groups abroad, most notably through the Italian collective known as Luther Blissett.Yet, just as the Luther Blissett Project now authors 'respectable' mainstream historical blockbusters, so too Stewart Home... (today) is less closely identified with his role as art-terrorist and sponsor of events such as the Festival of Plagiarism and better known for novels such as "69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess" and "Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton" in which he appears to have cornered the market in ultra-violent, sexually graphic but theoretically alert accounts of London low-life. Home's parodic insistence on presenting himself as wind-up merchant 'par excellence' cannot completely obscure the accuracy of his critical commentary upon the avantgarde movements that he has sought to revive. His obvious amusement at the provocations that he delights in creating is mirrored in a healthy critical awareness of the shortcomings of earlier psychogeographical activity. In a piece entitled "The Palingenesis of the Avant-Garde", he describes the all too familiar boast that Debord and Vaneigem had managed to supersede their avant-garde ancestry, noting that, 'all the Situationists actually succeeded in doing was restating the failures of Dada and Surrealism in Hegelian terminology, with the inevitable consequence that their critique was in many ways much less "advanced" than that of their "precursors".' Elsewhere, in his history of the post-war avant-garde, "The Assault on Culture", Home makes explicit the shared heritage that connect these myriad groups and which Debord was so keen to transcend. Home's ambitions seem rather less grandiose but, in combining a much-needed injection of humour with an awareness both of psychogeography's roots as a highly personal enterprise and its relationship to earlier traditions, he appears to have successfully wrong-footed those critics who have simply been unable to work out what he's up to and so have been unsure how to respond. Those highlighting the obvious limitations of his prose style tend to miss the point and, as Iain Sinclair has suggested, with ideas as obviously crazy as his, you have to trust him. Home has said of his avant-bardism that it follows no programme or agenda and, through his ironic undermining of his own work and critical responses to it, he has effectively liberated psychogeography from the constraints of any one set of practices or aims, creating a renegade weapon to be targeted against the artistic establishment." That's enough Coverley I think.

So now you know! Or maybe you don't. There are, of course, mistakes in what Coverley writes about me and my friends that I could correct, but personally I can't be bothered. It would be silly to take a quick suss guide like this too seriously, and what's wrong here doesn't bother me (and is relatively minor in any case). Likewise, I have a long standing policy of leaving certain inaccuracies about myself uncorrected because they create confusion and thus constitute an integral part of my practice. Moving on, it is easy to criticise these introductory type books for leaving stuff out, so the fact that there are plenty of things excluded here that I feel should have been covered. isn't any big deal. That said, as already mentioned there is a definite literary bias, and I think the space that is devoted to Peter Ackroyd, in particular, could have been better used for other stuff. On the plus side, Coverley is clearly grooved by the work of Iain Sinclair. However, he is wrong to state Sinclair is THE key figure in the popularisation of psychogeography. Sure Sinclair played a key role but other people are just as important. Sinclair himself appreciates the work of Alan Moore, whose "From Hell" really ought to have been included here. Even more important is Grant Morrison, whose "The Invisibles" elaborated and ran with a praxis he picked up from the "London Psychogeographical Association Newsletter".

I dig Sinclair and it's great to see how he now towers over an otherwise staid London literary scene; but when I go on promotion tours for my books to places like Finland, Brazil and Spain, I don't meet many people who have heard of Iain Sinclair, but there are always cats bringing up the fact that I know Grant Morrison. In these places people will listen with rapt attention while I bore myself silly by endlessly repeating anecdotes about the night Grant and I both deejayed at the CCA in Glasgow back in 1999 etc. Morrison is every bit as important to the popularisation of psychogeography as Sinclair, and on a global level more important. Likewise, there are a whole slew of non-English influences that have been overlooked by Coverley, from international bestsellers of the sixties like "The Morning of the Magicians" which repopularised loads of occult concepts that now play a key role in contemporary psychogeography through to figures like Henri Micheaux. I also felt Coverley overlooked a trick by not dealing with my fiction (particularly "Come Before Christ & Murder Love", "69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess" and "Down & Out in Shoreditch & Hoxton"), since this would have enabled him to make stronger links back to the English literary lineage he wishes to establish for psychogeography. That said, since I find his paradigm too narrow perhaps it is a good thing he didn't do this. Likewise, Coverley under emphasises the key role east London played (in relation to the rest of this metropolis) in the development of contemporary psychogeography (beginning with the psychogeographical games played around the "The Fourth Conference of the Situationist International" in Limehouse in September 1960). I'd have linked all this to the economic redevelopment of London and the relatively recent eastward shift of the cultural centre of the city. If Notting Hill and west London were the 'countercultural' omphalos of the city in the sixties and seventies, Shoreditch and points east assumed this role some time ago. To be fair, Coverley has produced an introduction to psychogeography and not the last word on the subject. If you know absolutely nothing of psychogeography and want to find out about it, this is as good a place to start as any other, but it isn't somewhere you'd want to stay, you need to drift off and reconfigure it for yourself...


Canary Wharf Tower at night

Canary Wharf Tower. Post-modern monumental architecture in east London.