Me, psychogeography, and the importance of a pleasant sit down

This was originally written as an accompaniment to a potential print version of my blog Benches of Louth. I've since decided not to go that way, but that's no reason not to waste a piece of writing. It's part of a wider attempt to explain and contextualise what informed the project; there'll be some more on this over the next couple of weeks on this blog.

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London’s perhaps too easy. Any fool can wander the capital’s streets and perceive the ghosts of the past, be they in architectural mismatches, faded Victorian signage painted onto brick, or else in imaginings of what Johnson or Defoe or whoever might have thought when stalking the cobbles. London’s busy with the past; histories grand and quotidian, native and migrant, obscure and in-your-face. That’s not to say that there isn’t a deal of fine writing about the city and with contemporary engagements with its earlier incarnations. There’s a lot to be said about the way that our urban environments are palimpsests; culturally layered like the strata of the geology underneath the asphalt and between the abandoned lines of the Underground.

Then again, subjective response is always interesting. The different senses folk make of the same thing, be it London or whatever. You can take the practical-to-mystical approach of an Alfred Watkins, whose notion of ley lines, straight tracks connecting places of significance or its opposite, weaving the kind of magic that too often has a letter K at the end of the word, as folk seek for deeper truths in the banalities of the alleyway between Rymans and Greggs, can be inspirational.

You can look to the prescience of writers such as JG Ballard, who saw, a generation before its time, the displacement by the automobile of the people from the city. Folk hutched up in gated communities or in high rises, linked by motorways to malls and car parks to other car parks. People who’d forgotten how to walk, or why it might be important to do so. Women and men driven to private violent extremes by their dislocation to the suburbs, sent mad by consumer technology and modernist building materials.    

It’s good to get out and walk a bit. I’m no hiker, and not a natural driver. I’m asked why I don’t drive, and I say that I don’t need to. Which I don’t. Part of the problem with driving is that it gets you from this place to that and there’s no in-between except what’s going on in the car. The radio, the conversation, the bickering kids in the back seats. Plus, car travel tends to be purposive. You travel when you need to, not because it might be fun, or distracting, or a way to ventilate your mind for thinking reasons.

I’ve made no attempt to draw lines of power between these benches, or to suggest in a Lud Heat / Hawksmoor kind of way that they’re points of pentagrams anchoring occult forces over the town. 

Nor yet a Situationist-style reaction to late capitalism; a derive, in the sense of a random walk, a drift through urban space. Not even a Guy Debord-ish appreciation of the senses of the city, the way different parts of an urban whole might be said to have differing attitudes or personalities.

Then again, there’s something of the notion of a walk without purpose. Trips to benches are non-journeys in the sense that I’m not going to the shops, for example, or visiting a friend, or commuting to or from work. Instead, I’m going to places to stop. The map that I derive from that – or more accurately, the set of points on other people’s maps – might re-map the town, or at least suggest other mechanisms for travel and for not travelling.  

Coverley (2010) defines psychogeography in Situationist terms as “the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviours of individuals”. Now then. There’s something in that. The different ways in which parts of Louth might make folk feel. And the ways in which the view proposed by any particular bench might suggest emotional responses.

Or maybe they’re just places to take a breather.

And if they are, then why are they sited where they have been? Reasons for placing a public seat in a particular place might include:

1.       That there’s something to see here

2.      That this is a likely place that people might need a rest

3.      That there’s something to wait for

4.      That this place is deemed recreational

5.      That this is a place to be seen to be at

6.      Combinations of the above

The first option’s straightforward enough; there’s a good view to be had. So why not take a load off. Okay. I’ll buy that.

The second option on the list suggests perhaps the top of a hill, or partway up a longer or steeper incline. It suggests perhaps distance from the town centre, and people returning with their purchases. Going beyond that, it suggests folk being on foot. No-one gets out of their car to have a sit down on a public bench, do they? So the spread and location of benches may indicate both directions of movement and historical walking patterns. This is where a rest might have been welcomed – even campaigned for, and the council petitioned for a bench to be erected – from wearying returners.

There’s a whiff of social class involvement here also. The working class have always been walkers; have always been those for whom walking was the default mode of transportation. Cars are status symbols, as is ownership of any vehicle, as were horses and coaches and carts and penny farthings in their time too.  I know people – fools, bless them – who won’t even take buses on grounds of class superiority, and affect not to understand timetabling for the same reasons. The urban bench is, in its way, not only a signifier of movement and rest, but of labour and of mobility.

This leads to the third. There’s seating galore at bus stations and on railway platforms. The wait for scheduled services necessitates a bench. Even the most exposed high-angled stool as a leaning post is better than nothing, and acknowledge the minor inconvenience of waiting for your transportation to arrive. If you know it, try the waiting area above platforms thirteen and fourteen at Manchester Piccadilly railway station and you’ll see just what I mean. So, benches can be anticipatory. Places for waiting. Way-stations. Nodal points. 

As for the fourth, it might depend on your understanding of the word “recreation”. Parks and green spaces are often festooned with seating; somewhere to eat your packed lunch, to pretend to supervise children’s play from, to read in the sun. But so are town and city centres; people-watching, being still in the pacy throb of the High Street, licking the milky dribble from the cone of your melting ice cream. All of these are improved by taking a moment on a bench.

The fifth reverses some of the above. Who does not want to be seen to be basking, to be reading, to be a family man or an active woman, about their stretches before another couple of miles of FitBit-monitored exercise? It’s good to be seen out and about; where else might we spontaneously engage with others these days? So pick your seat with your audience - intended or opportunistic - in mind.  The nineteenth-century notion of the flaneur, the self-conscious stroller of the city, at once observant and being observed by others, pops into view here.       

Or, at the last, some of the above together, either simultaneously or selectively. One man’s fag break is another woman’s meeting point is another fellow’s chance to flex his palms where the carrier bag handles are cutting into him on the way home.   

The Situationists - a bunch of French mid-twentieth century surrealism-inspired Marxists, more or less - wrote of “detournement”, which might be interpreted as meaning to use pre-existing items for new and subversive uses. In such terms, psychogeographically-informed walking might be subversive, as you’ve not necessarily using the urban space for commercial or business reasons. You’re not obeying the road traffic laws or paying overmuch heed to rights of way.   

You can make a bench your own by the way you use it. To someone else, it may well be a wonky amalgamation of metal and wood on a scrubby corner of council land. Let them think that. But it can be a paradise. It can be a study carrel. It may be a confessional booth, a snack bar, a restaurant, a pub. It might be a bed. A place for assignations and for the swapping of secrets. Somewhere to lurk and to mooch and to ponder and to fret.

Sit on the top of the backrest and put your feet on the seat.

Lie down on it.

Pull backflips off it.

Or just take a few minutes to yourself. Don’t move until a yellow car passes by. And then, when it does, carry on. Or go home.

It’s up to you.  

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Benches of Louth is here.

If you're so inclined, my novels The Prospect of This City (a historical thriller set in the days immediately prior to the 1666 Great Fire of London), and Torc (a Scots-set children's novel of time-slips between the present-day and the 2nd century AD) may be found here.