I’ve just finished reading Iain Sinclair’s excellent London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line, and thought I would use it to tie together some recent thoughts about wandering. Sinclair has lived in London as an author for fifty years, and is perhaps best known for his line in ‘psychogeographical’ journals of the city, which also include London Orbital (a similar walk around the M25) and Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. Psychogeography is a term coined by Guy Debord in 1955, and while it has had various interpretations, I think it might best be understood as an errant and playful approach to urban geography, in which the city becomes a multitude of ideas and memories to be explored. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Charles Baudelaire’s notion of the flâneur, but perhaps with less of a sense of detachment.
In the book, Sinclair follows the route of the (then) newly-minted London Overground route on foot in just one day, with his friend the film-maker Andrew Kötting in tow, noting the layers of memory and history, both personal and public, attached to various locales. Although a pedestrian for the purposes of the book, Sinclair’s real interest lies in the way that train lines warp the world around them. He looks at this in the prosaic sense of the rise and fall of London suburbs – Hackney on the up, Chelsea Harbour somewhat stagnant and forgotten – and in terms of the subjective experience of the individual traveller. This latter purpose is exemplified by his tribute to a London painter of railways, Leon Kossoff, whose paintings of Willesden Junction give a new perspective on a landscape not usually regarded as beautiful.
The book has a unity of purpose and tone, but its digressions retain a constant power to surprise. For instance, Sinclair uses the streets of Clapham to weave an extended (and quite moving) passage on the sadly shortened life of the author Angela Carter, and her gifts of friendship and professional advice to the younger writer. Again, in the hallucinatory night-time streets of Hampstead (getting on for thirty miles of walking behind them), the apparition of Sigmund Freud’s final residence leads to thoughts on other London exiles, such as Karl Marx, who lived in London from 1850 to 1860, and the French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine, who briefly lodged in Camden in joint love, enmity, and poverty. By the time I had finished reading I had a quite visceral sense that I had travelled with Sinclair, in mind if not in body, and on a journey different from anything I might have expected before opening the book.
Being a musician and member of the iPod generation, I suspect that my own psychogeography of London would be rather more musical than Iain Sinclair’s. Laying aside my early years of illicitly hiding my iPod in my bag so I could listen to Dark Side of the Moon on the way to and from school, mixes have been a particularly important musical inflection of my London travels in recent years. Electronic mixes and albums seem particularly suited for travelling through the urban environment on trains and buses, especially when the music comes from London. A good example of this is Burial’s music. His nostalgia for 90s rave culture is well documented, with tracks saturated in vinyl crackle and redeploying air-horn and vocal signifiers from earlier London musical scenes. But Burial’s music also seems to express something about London as a place, as he suggested in a rare interview from 2006, speaking about the sense of travel he tries to evoke in his music:
‘If I’m making a tune sitting in my room with a cup of tea, I’m not making a tune about sitting in my room with a cup of tea, it’s like I’m out there somewhere. That’s how I started listening to jungle, going through the lightless neighbourhoods, the districts.’
The track Night Bus from his self-titled first album is an encapsulation of this feeling for me, using the sound of rain and vocal samples, perhaps echoes of the club or rave, to express this idea of passing through London’s sprawling suburbs.
Another good album for travelling about the city, especially on a wintry night, is Cold Mission by Logos. Its a perfect combination of lush ambient soundscapes, grime references, and ‘anti-banger’ tracks like Seawolf and Menace, which have an incredible sense of power and movement using just a sparse palette of sounds. A favourite track from the album is the more ambient Night Flight, also known as E3 Night Flight. In the track the sound of metallic waves collides with a repetitive bell riff, almost like a lullaby, then a chanting vocal and ominous bass drone chime in, gradually building then dropping out until just a pair of string notes and a siren are left in the mix. As a citizen of South London, I’m pretty reliant on night buses to get home once the last train has gone, and for me the track is another perfect evocation of and soundtrack (after Burial) to that washed out night bus feeling.
Of course, it would be a little blinkered to insist that Burial and Logos’ music is about London in any meaningful sense – it could mean something completely different to a listener from elsewhere, or even just someone else from London. But since this is my psychogeography, I’m going to go one step further, making the leap from Logos’ Night Flight to another kind of night journey which it evokes for me – the ecstatic flights of the Shangqing Taoists, who were active during the Han period (206 BCE to 220 CE) in Ancient China.
Magical night-time excursions seem to be a global feature of religion and mythology – just think of the witch on her broomstick for the archetypal European version – and the Shangqing corpus of texts includes elaborate instructions for a practitioner on how to visit the stars without leaving their room. In the Taoist worldview, there is an understanding that various levels of reality are related, with a particular correspondence between the structure of the human body and that of the universe as a whole. The Shangqing texts tend to prescribe visualization as their main meditation technique, combined with breathing exercises, fasting, etc.
There are many texts, involving ecstatic visits to various parts of the earth and its boundaries, but those which appeal to me most, and which I feel are evoked by the dream-like nocturnal sounds of Night Flight, concern excursions to the sun, moon and stars, related in Chinese thought to the ‘Three Breaths’ which created the cosmos. The practitioner first retires to their meditation chamber, completely isolated from human activity, then invocates the names of celestial divinities. Following this they fly to the heavens (sometimes using the constellation of the ‘Dipper’ as a vehicle), and pace the constellations, absorbing the energies of various stars.
But really, what relation does any of this have to a walk around the London Overground? I reckon that psychogeography and Taoist ecstatic flight have quite a few interesting affinities. The notion of freely wandering pervades both, maintaining an openness to whatever might occur – especially if it will bring joy. There is also an aspect of forgetting required for success in both, since the everyday world must be left behind, either to visit the stars or to look askance at the city as it exists. The Taoist practitioner uses visualization practices to render the world as it is new, much as the psychogeographer creates a new world by dredging up the ghost memories of the city and putting them to work.
While riding the N3 bus doesn’t compare very favourably to travelling in a vehicle made of stars, it is nevertheless an opportunity – to look at the city afresh, and in doing so hopefully learn something about both the city and oneself.
This world is unreal in that it is imaginary, but it is real in that the individual lives in it and through it creates a new self: it is unreal-real, like the world of the Buddhists, which has a metaphoric character one must never forget – a net used to catch one’s prey, a creative, playful globe.
Isabelle Robinet, in Livia Kohn: Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques (1989).
Robinet, Isabelle, ‘Visualization and Ecstatic Flight in Shanqing Taoism’, in Kohn, Livia (ed.), Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1989), pp. 159-191.