REVIEW: Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley

Given that this site is primarily about RPGs, you might be forgiven for thinking that a book about psychogeography is some distance ‘out of my lane’.

My justification for covering this book is two-fold: Firstly, I wrote about Coverley’s more recent book Occult London and found it to be a really good fit for the type of stuff I have been writing about. Secondly, my recent attempts to review Call of Cthulhu supplements left me feeling that I needed to have a bit of a think about the creative processes through which real-world cities are turned into venues for Horrific and Fantastical stories, and that process of re-invention and re-imagination is precisely what psychogeography is all about.

While it has a number of historic antecedents, the discipline of psychogeography can best be described as catastrophically over-thinking the act of going for a walk. What I mean by this is that – every few decades or so – it becomes fashionable for writers to start producing works based on their experiences going for walks. However, rather than writing about their destinations or the physical act of walking, these writers tend to draw on the techniques associated with their respective creative disciplines and intellectual traditions. For example, back in the 1960s, a group of French radicals began exploring Paris and writing about the city in terms of their political struggles and potential confrontations with police. Before them, surrealist artists went for walks and used their creative techniques to re-imagine urban environments as fantastical dreamscapes. In fact, this surrealist re-invention of Paris is what inspired Robin D. Laws’ Dreamhounds of Paris for Trail of Cthulhu.

Much like Occult London, Coverley’s Psychogeography is a short and accessible book that is divided up into a series of more-or-less self-contained chapters dealing with different historical epochs. Each epoch is explored in a way that tries to communicate the big ideas and big conflicts without getting too bogged down in theoretical minutiae and each chapter comes with excellent reading lists that point you in the right direction should you decide to learn more.

  • The first chapter covers the visionary writings of London-based writers such as Daniel Dafoe, William Blake, Thomas De Quincey, Arthur Machen, and Alfred Watkins’ theory of Ley Lines.
  • The second chapter deals with such 19th Century French Flaneurs and crowd-psychologists as Baudelaire, Benjamin, and the surrealists.
  • The third chapter covers the radical leftist politics of Guy Debord and the Situationist International.
  • The fourth chapter covers the recent British boom in psychogeography including Ballard’s re-interpretation of the relationship between cities and cars, Peter Ackroyd’s stuff about London and time, Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films, and Will Self’s long-distance walking.

It’s important to note that this book was revised and expanded back in 2018 as the mid-2010s saw a massive trend in psycho-geographical writing, which is to say forms of non-fiction that bore a similar relationship to the psychogeographical writings of Will Self as the writings of Will Self bore to the work of the Iain Sinclair. In other words, essay-based memoirs were briefly popular as were forms of travel and nature writing with a degree of literary affectation and some degree of overlap with stuff done by earlier generations of psychogeographers.

If I sound a bit snooty then I am probably channelling Coverley as while he does engage thoughtfully with the work of Will Self, you can sense that he’s on his best behaviour and that he considers a lot of these more recent authors to be little more than trend-jumping carpet-baggers. I can’t help but picture Coverley bouncing up and down on his office-chair whilst transcribing Iain Sinclair’s remarks about Will Self going for a walk along the South Downs with a pipe and calling it psychogeography.

While Coverley does try to give Self a fair crack of the whip, it’s fairly obvious that he’s more interested in Blake and Sinclair than he is in more recent psychogeographical writings and I feel that’s a bit of a shame as there’s a good deal of overlap between the stuff that followed in the wake of Will Self and the trend in literary nature writing that elevated people like Robert MacFarlane. I could understand ruling weird nature writers out on the grounds that they tend to write about the countryside rather than the city but if psychogeography is about using a variety of literary, political, and philosophical techniques to re-imagine our immediate surroundings then why should this be reserved for city-dwellers? You could also argue that the recent trend for psychogeographical writings has been less fruitful than those that came before and so is less deserving of inclusion but you need to make that case or at least acknowledge that a case needs to be made. Deformed and mutated forms of psychogeography are still interesting, if only by virtue of their deformations and the forces that caused them.

Much like Occult London, Psychogeography is a book that left me wanting more but it is also a book that does a really good job of telling you where to go and who to read if you do want more and so I consider it a really useful read for anyone with an interest in re-inventing urban spaces. This book won’t tell you how to turn your local town into a den of werewolves or a Lovecraftian horror-show but it will at least tell you how other people have approached the problem and that has value too.

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