Mindscapes: The Development of Psychogeography. Part Two.

David Sivier.
Magonia 84, March 2004

Myths die hard, and the atmosphere of patriotism, in which these works were produced, militated against the exclusion of favourite national myths, such as that of the origins of the British people from Brutus the Trojan. Camden included this, along with much other legendary material, which has made his work invaluable to folklorists and historians investigating the enchanted worldview of early modern Europe.

He wasn’t alone. Roger Sherringham, one of his successors in the 17th century, also shared his belief in the British people’s noble descent. David Lanthone, one of the pioneering antiquaries of Anglo-Saxon England, believed in the historicity of King Arthur. While there are a number of historians today who share his belief, not to mention the legions of lay people devoted to the ‘once and future king’ through the enduring charm of medieval literature, if mediated by Hollywood and a myriad popular retellings, none would argue that the classic treatments of the myth in Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien de Troy or Thomas Mallory are anything other than glorious fictions. Lanthone was a pioneer, so it is too much to be expected that he should prefigure completely the attitudes of later generations of more sceptical scholars.

Not all scholars, however, were quite so content to follow Geoffrey of Monmouth’s line. Aylet Samme, for example, argued in his Britannia antiqua illustrata of 1676 that the British, far from being Trojan in descent, were instead Phoenician. [1] While Samme is equally mistaken, he was correct in seeking an ethnic origin for the British beyond the time-hallowed fictions of Monmouth. His selection of the Phoenicians as the ancestral stock is bv no means inexcusable, if you consider that the Phoenicians are still believed to have traded with the Cornish for tin. It is also possible to see Samme’s theories as the precursor to the more bizarre alternative histories and archaeologics of the 19th century, which traced the descent of the British to the lost tribes of Israel and even ancient Egyptians, ideas which persist even to this day amongst certain sections of society.

It is also far less bizarre than some of the works of ethnology, which arose later in the 18th century, such as The Antiquities of Nations, by D.D. Pezron, abbot of La Channoye; and translated into English by a Mr. Jones in 1706. In this the reverend gentleman traced the origins of the Celtic peoples back to the Scythians, then to the Biblical patriarch Gomer, and ultimately to the Old Testament nephalim, the children of the rebel angels who intermarried with the daughters of men. [2]

Although firmly entrenched in the traditional view of the ethnogenesis of the British, Camden nevertheless was a modern historian in that he considered the primary role of the historian to explain, rather than merely describe the past. Away from such national concerns, other historians of the same period were actively trying to reinstate other legendary figures back into history. Thus, arguments were made for the historicity of such worthies as Guy of Warwick, and Robin Hood. The latter even enjoyed the privilege of having his genealogy drawn up by William Jackson, a Yarmouth Customs Master, in the 17th century in an ultimately mistaken attempt to establish the existence of the great outlaw. [3] The new chorographers of the psychogeographical fringe took over their fascination with folklore and legend, as well as the physical, architectural environment in their historical researches.

This was not an isolated concern. Psychogeography appeared at the same time as a more general intellectual flourishing of a new urban consciousness in the 80s and 90s, in which academics and writers attempted to explore the new intellectual and social horizons afforded by the artificial, built environment of towns. A major part of this was the explorations of urban space, which constitute so much of contemporary Cultural Studies. Pioneered by French post-modern philosophers, such as Georges Bataille’s influential Against Architecture, students of contemporary culture interrogated the architecture and layout of cities and urban spaces for the concrete embodiment they appeared to give to deep societal notions of authority, class, gender, and racial identity.

Possibly this concern with the built environment reflects Postmodernism’s own origins in architecture in the 1950s, in which contemporary architects quoted the features of historic schools of building in their modern works. One rather more contemporary example of this is One Redcliffe Street in Bristol, a modern office building, which is nevertheless constructed to resemble a medieval fortress, with projections suggesting barbicans and watchtowers.

These decades saw the appearance of urban history as a distinct historiographical genre as a part of this new intellectual orientation towards towns and their citizens. Naturally, this also included an examination of cities’ own self-conscious attitudes to the past, and the creation of a common heritage and historical identity for their citizens. Although by no means confined solely to the Continent, this new trend in historical inquiry was particularly strong in France, pioneered as it was by the third generation of academic historians associated with the Annales School. This highly respected French historical journal had been instrumental in introducing the methods and aims of the social sciences into historical research since its foundation in 1929. Montaillou, Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie’s 1974 study of a 14th century southern French town during the Inquisition’s attempt to clamp down on the Cathars, which gained a considerable degree of admiring attention from the litterateurs of the highbrow press, is the classic example of their anthropological approach to history.

This includes a close examination of the mentalité - the worldview – of past ages. The Annales historians pioneered this with Marc Bloch’s 1924 study of the 16th and 17th century popular belief in the efficacy of the royal touch as a cure for scrofula, Le rois thaumnturges. In the 90s these historians became increasingly concerned with ‘cultures of memory’, the national and local historical consciousnesses linking particular architectural sites and places, such as the Bastille, with politics and the social creation of such collective memories. The classic example of this new approach to history is Pierre Norat’s 1996 The Realms of Memory. A vital part of this new approach to historical consciousness of towns included cataloguing and noting historical monuments, like statues, war memorials and so on for what these said about cities’ self-image and the type of past they wished to celebrate and evoke.

The difference between the official, academic exploration of such local and national historical consciousness and those of the psychogcographical counterculture is essentially philosophical – rationalist and philosophical materialist on the one hand, and mystical and occult on the other. The methodology pursued – the interrogation of monuments, street plans and names, and commemorative events – is the same.
Psychogeography tends to adopt a radically anti-authoritarian stance in its attempt to rediscover the bizarre, forbidden and transgressive

Indeed, the concerns of both groups overlap to such an extent that it’s probable that in addition to both being related as products of the zeitgeist, there may well have been some direct influence between the two groups. A glance at the stock of radical bookshops demonstrates that the countercultural fringe still absorbs and devours works by radical, professional academics, as well as the far less academically respectable tomes on alien conspiracies and so forth. Since the late 1980s some ley hunters did incorporate the methods and objectives of mainstream archaeology in their research. It is therefore not remotely impossible that some psychogeographers have similarly been directlv influenced bv the academic explorations of the cultures of memorv. On the academic side of the divide, even if the new historians of collective memory were not members of the counterculture, drawn to the re-enchanted landscape of the hippy imagination, the growth of such movements under the wider milieu of popular culture has clearly influenced their decision to explore the historical consciousness of which they are a part.

Of course, there has been more than an element of radical politics involved in this. Psychogeography tends to adopt a radically anti-authoritarian stance in its attempt to rediscover the bizarre, forbidden and transgressive. So too do more academic investigations of the historic environment. In America, particularly, such explorations of urban history have been closely linked to attempts by local community groups and multicultural organisations to reclaim the history of urban spaces occupied by members of ethnic minorities and other marginalized social groups. This has led to the creation of a number of Black heritage sites and museums in the USA, particularly in the South, and in Britain the ‘Slave Trail’ along Bristol docks set up by Dr. Madge Dresser, a historian of the slave trade in Bristol at the Universitv of the West of England, amongst other projects.

More spccifically devoted to the mythic environment of cities has been the rise of the folkloric genre of the ‘urban legend’ and academic societies, such as the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR) devoted to their study. Although the notion of a distinctly urban folklore dates to the 19th century, when French folklorists attempted to establish that cities also had their folkloric traditions in a move away from the concentration on those of the rural peasantry, it was only with the appearance of the ISCLR and similar organisations around the beginning of the 90s that they became a separate subject of institutional research, at about the same time Cultural Studies’ scholars and social historians were similarly investigating the social phenomenon of urbanism. Psychogeography is merely the underground expression of this wider cultural trend, the Gnostic shadow of the respectable academic investigations of the universities.

Although the dichotomy between psychogeography and related folk history and mythopceia and the academic and public histories interrogated and forged by the universities and community heritage organisation clearly exist, the boundaries between them is blurred and porous. As has often been clearly demonstrated by academic trends since the 1960′s, last year’s student rebel may well become tomorrow’s university chancellor and celebrated cultural guru. Today’s academic environment may be particularly receptive to the bizarre and transgressive. For example, David Cronenberg’s disturbing cinematic treatment of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, which provoked outrage and moral panic amongst Daily Mail readers about a decade ago, has been the subject of a book by Sinclair, published by the British Film Institute, and an academic seminar, Crash Cultures, partly organised by UWE in Bristol. Back to psychogcography and urban occultism, Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor has been read by students at the universities of Gloucester and the West of England for their degrees, though as part of their English courses, rather than history.

Moreover, the antiquarian discourse and literary style employed by the Earth Mysteries milieu were by no means confined to the alternative culture. Although superceded as the accepted vehicle of learned historiography since the 16th century, the chronicle as a popular genre has never really gone away. A glance along the history shelves of most large book shops will show the persistence of this particular form of historical writing in the form of large, profusely illustrated popular histories itemising national or global events year by year. More often than not these popular, coffee-table histories indeed explicitly describe themselves as such.

As for chorographies, a fair number of local history and folklore books, such as those produced in the West Country by Bossiney Press, in Liverpool by the Bluecoat Press and in East Anglia by Jarrold Colour Publications, can reasonably be described as such. Written for the popular, rather than academic market, these recount episodes from local history and folklore, usually witchcraft, ghosts and other tales of the paranormal, with particular reference to surviving monuments, landscape features or buildings in the locality.

As for those works produced by academic folklorists, such as Jennifer Westwood’s Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain (1986), these are truly chorqgraphics in all but name. This particular book, like Biondo’s pioneering Italian study of the 15th century, divides its subject matter into its constituent topographical regions, and itemises the folkloric features of each – tales of heroes, giants, ghosts, fairies, witches and demonic visitations – according to the locations within these broader areas in which thev occurred, complete with brief notes at the end of each episode giving the map references and road directions to the site of the described events.

A similar approach, though without the traffic directions, was adopted by Reader’s Digest thirteen vears before in their own volume on Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. The only difference between these modern chorographies and those of the new antiquarians and psychogeographers, such as Sinclair, is that the latter explicitly describe themselves as such, consciously harking back to their 17th century predecessors. Even this, however, is hardly an exclusive trait. The long, flowing locks of the historian, Ronald Hutton, and his interest in popular religion, folklore and myth certainly recall 17th century antiquarians such as Stukely and John Aubrey, rather than the less flamboyant denizens of more contemporary campuses.

The traffic directions contained in the books indicate both their intended readership and the modern sensibility informing their exploration of the past. They’re essentially products of the new age of mass tourism made available bv the rise of cheap motor transport. Although such books may cull much of their contents from the various tomes on local folklore penned by eminent Victorians – extracts from various chapters of Robert Hunt’s Romances of the West of England have been published separately as a booklet on Cornwall’s ghosts and folklore, for example [4] – their real ancestors are the calendars, nature guides and local history books produced by the petrol company Shell in the 1950s and 196′s. Like these later volumes these guides also stressed the importance of local folklore in the legends and history of the areas they covered, an attitude summed up in their advertising slogan. ‘Here you can relive legend and history on the spot.’

Peter Wright, one of the most trenchant critics of the modem heritage industy, has criticised these books for using ‘the evocative gibberish of authenticity.’ [5] Shell’s books have been particularly criticised by the Left for their apparent appropriation of British historical identity to serve their own commercial interests, as well as promoting bourgeois cultural hegemony by expressing British history and heritage in the discourse of middle class values and attitudes.

It’s a criticism, which has, with various degrees of justification, been levelled at the national concern with heritage whole and especially its expression in commerce and industry. In the eyes of commentators such as Peter Wright, Robert Hewison and David Lowenthal, the heritage industry acts as a retrograde social mechanism by which the patrician upper classes use the past to producc a spurious sense of national cultural identity, stifling working class and feminist dissent and excluding the contributions of ethnic minorities. The particular example seized on by British writers is the use made by the British upper classes to attract support for the preservation of their country seats and traditional privileges, as the cornerstone of British heritage, both historical and architectural.

Although the chorographies of local history publishing and national folklore are aimed, at least partially, at the same tourist market, it is extremely problematic whether such accusations could be reasonably levelled at them. The psychogeographical fringe is still the product of 1960′s countercultural radicalism, however attenuated, a feature which led Private Eye’s scathing review of Sinclair’s book on the M25 to refer sneeringly to the author ‘and his aging, anarchohippy friends,’ a description which could also be fairly applied to Alan Moore, whose image is very much that of the hippy weirdo. Sinclair’s and Moore’s urban and psychogeographical sensibilities were shared by a number of small press countercultural magazines. such as The Edge, which carried features and interviews with them.

This magazine. describing itself as a vehicle for ‘modern imaginative urban stories for today and tomorrow’, [6] was devoted to experimental and genre fiction – crime, SF, horror and slipstream. Moore and Sinclair in their interviews for the magazine discussed their attitudes towards occultism and the changing topography of the metropolis. The mentalité expressed there, however, was one of intense alienation towards the cultural and spiritual hegemony of the ruling elite, and particularly their appropriation of whole sections of London’s built environment in the creation of privatised commercial areas, shopping arcades and business districts.

For them, the classic example of this was the Isle of Dogs, imagined in Sinclair’s Downriver as the Isle of Doges, a privatised capitalist Vatican. J.G. Ballard, the magazine’s culture hero, has made a large part of his literary career from exploring the detrimental moral and spiritual effects of the privatisation of such public spaces in the institutional violence of fictional gated communities, from High-Rise in the 1960′s to his Cocaine Nights of a few years ago. Ballard, however, writes from a High Tory pcrspective, against the encroaching suffocation of the Nanny State, rather than that of the alienatcd, classconscious radical Left. It is, however, the viewpoint of the Tory anarchist, rather than the bluerinsed guardians of national propriety.

The model for their explorations of the urban environment is not the prosperous bourgeois day-tripper, but the alienated flaneur, who stalks through the city watching the courts and squares of new, unknown locations unfold before him. Their model of the urban tourist is Thomas De Quincey and his drug-fuelled peregrinations through the metropolis, a narcotic exploration that, if written today, would almost certainly incur the intense displeasure of the custodians of British moral rectitude.

It is also especially difficult to suggest that this kind of folkloric topographical occultism is, as a whole, racist or xenophobic, although the accusation certainly has been levelled at particular expressions of it with some degree of justification, as has been done of other forms of popular history within the heritage milieu, when one considers that one small press magazine, Pegasus declared Woking mosque as a ‘ley-centre’. [7] Of course, by very definition as a place of religious worship the mosque clearly was already a sacred site, though its designation as such by those particular devotees of Earth Mysteries indicated its acceptance as part of the British mythic landscape through its location within a putative indigenous. British mystical topography. A concern with the ancient and antique demonstrably does not necessarily mean an automatic rejection of the modern or foreign.

As for professional folklorists, such as Westwood, although they may also write for the popular market, and come from middle class backgrounds – Westwood’s citation in Albion of Management Kinetics, by Carl Duerr as the source of one quotation ccrtainly seems to indicate this in her case – it cannot by any means be taken as read that they share in toto the class attitudes ascribed to them by the critics of the heritage industry on the Left. Westwood, for example, explicitly discusses the origins and historicity of many of the legends she recounts in Albion, while professional folklorists, like other researchers in the humanities, may be intensely conscious of the effects of class politics in their subject. One section of the folklore milieu has, since before the Second World War, been intensely interested in its subject as an expression and instrument of working class politics and cultural identity, in direct opposition to the establishment culture of the patrician elite. This section of the folklore movement is unsurprisingly quite politicised, as demonstrated by the career of British folk musicians such as Ewan McColl.

More generally in folkloristics, the effects of the ‘Merrie England’ and related societies in cleaning up British folklore and using it to present a false image of class reconciliation and national prosperity has long been recognised. Moreover, folklorists’ own criticism that this movement was essentially nostalgic, looking back to an imaginary former world of happy prosperous tenants, supervised by a benign, paternalistic squire, is essentially the same criticism levelled at the heritage industry.

Although every academic brings their own social and political weltanschauung to their subject to a greater or lesser extent, the concern for accuracy and historical truth means that it cannot be automatically assumed that as a whole they act as the conduit for a particular set of received, hegemonic social values and attitudes. These may well however, inform the research and work of individual scholars. Indeed, the opposite may be the case. It is no accident that 3rd Stone, the revamped successor to The Ley Hunter, one of the premier vehicles of the Earth Mysteries fringe science, under Neil Mortimer and his predecessors attracted the attention and support of respected academic archaeologists, historians and folklorists, such as Jennifer Westwood, Aubrey Burl and Ronald Hutton, amongst others, because of its intense engagement with the mythic dimension of the historic environment. This in turn begs the question of how far psychogeography and associated Earth Mysteries research has anything to offer respectable, academic history and archaeology.

The short answer to this question is probably a great deal, but at a cost. The existence of magazines like 3rd Stone and Northern Earth, amongst others does show the need for popular, interdisciplinary magazines exploring the mythic, imaginal environment and the overlapping interests of archaeologists, historians and folklorists beyond the narrow specialisms and readership of academia. This need has become all the more acute with the demise of the former magazine which effectively means that there is now no national journal devoted to this subject.

It is also true that fringe archaeology has been the source of ideas, which have later found wider acceptance in academia and broadened their approach to the subject. Astoarchaeology is a case in point. From merely being the wild speculation of a few cranks in the 1930s, professional archaeologists now accept that the theory that some ancient monuments, from the megalithic henges of the European Neolithic to the Egyptian pyramids, at least, were constructed to align with the rising and setting of certain stars and there is now a specialist academic magazine devoted to the subject in America. Paul Devereaux’s more recent suggestion that Neolithic monuments and barrows may have also been constructed to channel sound in order to generate altered states of consciousness – the still embryonic discipline of archaeoacoustics – is another case in point, as he has enlisted the assistance of professional archaeologists and acousticians to test his hypothesis. It’s possible to add other examples, like the ghost paths to cemeteries in Germany and other parts Europe, which have recently been explored by folklorists.

The price for this, however, has been the rejection of the traditional methods of ley hunting – the search for the alignment of ancient monuments regardless of their age or the intentions of their builders – as spurious, and the adoption of the rigorous approach of academic antiquarians and folklorists. The former method of looking for patterns on a map is best understood as a form of art, a kind of Fortean lexi-linking using the vocabulary of geography and architecture for those who are fascinated by the strange, often unconscious connections between different groups and individuals forged by the names and words used to describe them. Sinclair’s observation on the alchemical connections of Jeffrey Archer’s life and residence – he lives in Alembic House, and like an alchemist, ‘turns his own tawdry stuff into gold’ – is a case in point. [8]

Whether in its original form or as urban psychogeography, it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to describe it as a kind of antiquarian ‘Mornington Crescent’ with an undercurrent of occultism. Like Moore’s Beat Seance, it’s best considered as a form of performance art or religion, in which chance alignments of the landscape or architecture occur as environmental, surrealist objéts trouves, like the simulacra which appear in the Fortean Times, and linked by similar surrealist notions of synchronicity, such as that of Breton’s novel, Nadja. Indeed, Paul Devereaux himself has described this particular part of the Earth Mysteries milieu as essentially religious, commenting on ‘various forms of neopaganism for those needing a religious framework’, a grouping which many observers would consider automaticallv includes the ‘New Age’ notions concerning ‘energies’. [9] Many of the milieu’s activities are likewise ritual re-enactments of the strange, forbidden, suppressed heritage of a locality. Like the wider heritage milieu, it’s essentially about the creation of a particular identity, in this case spiritual, from the past, rather than objective history.

This is not to say that there aren’t Masonic and other occult motifs consciously laid out in the urban and even rural environment, or that cities and landscapes aren’t imaginal realms generating their own folklore and myths to populate their topography, myths that may, to a greater or lesser extent, impact upon the minds and activities of their residents. It is certainly true that often the ancient geography of a town can still be traced in the layout of its streets and buildings, even if these are actually quite recent. Historians have traced the ancient grid pattern in which Bristol was laid out in its origins as an Anglo-Saxon burh through the street plan of the historic city centre, allowing, of course, for centuries of architectural change and supported by a close reading of historic maps and documents describing the city’s topography.

What has been rejected is the automatic reading of any alignment or topographical or architectural pattern as intentional, and designed as a conduit for objective occult forces. The notion of ‘leys’ as channels of geomantic energy and discussions of supposed chakras around the Earth belong to religion, not history. Only by consciously separating the two can fringe archaeology and psychogeography continue to make a contribution to a proper investigation of the continuing numinous power of place and explore the vital imaginal landscapes of the human mind.

  1. See Salmon, J.H.M., ‘Precept, Example, and Truth: Degory Wheare and the Ars Historica’, in Kelley and Sacks, op. cit., pp. 11-38.
  2. See the discussion of the book in Hunt, R., The Drolls, Traditions and Superstitions of Old Cornwall (Popular Romances of the West of England), First Series, Llanerch facsimile reprint, 1993, p. 39.
  3. Wood, D.R., ‘Little Crosby and the Horizons of Early Modern Historical Culture’, in Kelley and Sacks, op. cit.
  4. Hunt, R., Cornish Legends, Tor Mark Press, undated.
  5. Wright, P., ‘Trafficking in History’, in Boswell, D., and Evans, J., eds, Representing the Nation: A Reader – Histories, Heritage and Museums, Routledge, London, 1999, p. 132.
  6. Entry for ‘The Edge’ in Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2000, A. & C. Black, London, 2000, p. 45.
  7. ‘News from the Front’ in McClure, K., The Wild Places – The Journal of Strange and Dangerous Beliefs, no. 7, p. 26.
  8. Hedgecock, A., op. cit., p. 19.
  9. Devereaux, P., ’30 Years of Earth Mysteries’ in Fortean Times, FT 177 Special 2003,