Photo by Artur Tumasjan via Unsplash

A Psychogeographical London Dérive

Wandering aimlessly and uncovering the truth in my London neighbourhood on a pursuit of psychogeography.

Psychogeography is defined by Guy Debord as the study of the effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. It constitutes a mindset of active spectatorship within which one questions all. This 1950s theory is definitely discernible in eighteenth-century writing documenting London. Inspired by its ideas, I seek to represent London in the mode of psychogeography through a dérive (drifting), particularly one of aimlessly wandering around my neighbourhood Fulham and Chelsea, like a flâneuse.

Google Maps (2021), London: Fulham and Chelsea, annotated by Clera Rodrigues
Google Maps (2021), London: Fulham and Chelsea, annotated by Clera Rodrigues

Skate Spots

I set off for my dérive from Fulham Road. Being accompanied by my partner and interlocutor — a spirited skateboarder — when walking meant that their remarks marked me. Where I saw walkability, they saw skateability. Plain old pavements and kerbs became stages and podiums. They drove me to truly observe London’s topography. Skateboarding in the streets means that one is always aware of the ground. In fact, a skateboarder’s everlasting search for the right surfaces and slopes usually lands them in areas most people wouldn’t even think of going to, that is, the mediocre or dodgy districts that locals would rather leave. 

Seeing the world through a skateboarder’s eyes, I suddenly began perceiving skate-preventive measures everywhere. Louis Althusser’s Repressive State Apparatuses — government and local councils — are at play here, restraining skateboarders and privileging walkers. But what is being protected: people, or pavements? Either way, my partner’s appreciation of skateable spots amended my own impressions to see potential and pleasure in apparently boring streets; their psychogeographically-poignant places became my own. After all, couples in longterm relationships tend to experience attitude alignment, psychologically speaking. Psychogeography challenges one’s sense of separation between subject and object as, evidently, the objective streets induce subjective emotions in us as the subjects, and conversely our subjectivity mediates and gives life to the object.

Spring Blossom

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” 

David Hume, 1739

In carrying on with our impromptu trek, I found it fairly difficult to listen solely to my emotions, because I kept stopping every now and then to pick flowers for my personal pressed flower art project. I suppose, being the international-city-raised Londoner I am, I suffer from what Georg Simmel coined the ‘metropolitan personality’ as I simply couldn’t help being neurotically triggered by both inner (motivational) and outer (environmental) stimuli. Psychogeography does dispute one’s distinction between theory and practice. In retrospect, my having read Debord’s writings unexpectedly failed to facilitate my practical psychogeographical pursuit. Nonetheless, the walk must go on. 

Whilst admiring the innumerable blossoming trees we passed, I realised that these spectacles of nature were purposely planted not only to uphold the “posh” upmarket aura of the area, but also to aestheticise the urban-industrial city and to lure us into it. The eighteenth-century novelist Sophie von La Roche, in her 1786 diary Sophie in London also noticed some ‘artistically planted trees’ on the side of a garden facing the Thames, when visiting Alexander Pope’s garden in Twickenham. Modern-day London surely differs from its eighteenth-century predecessor, but it is fascinating that although the London(s) Roche and I experienced are immensely different, a common thread — that of the purposely planted trees — still continues to run through time, 235 years later. Perhaps she perceived the trees dissimilarly to me though. What I describe as purposeful Roche describes as artistic — exactly what the urbanists want. Perhaps even the mere term ‘city’ meant to her something unalike what I understand — skyscrapers, symmetry, gloss and glass, high streets, and, of course, picturesqueness. 

When passing by Darlan Road, I was allured into its ambience. I witnessed the wind shedding millions of petals off of Sakura, or cherry blossom, trees. Their fall and flight appeared as snow to my foreign desert-trained eyes. I immersed myself in the petal bath and even played a spontaneous game of trying to catch a petal. I felt childish, but, surely that is a reasonable sacrifice for attending to one’s true sentiments.

Pressed flower art by Clera Rodrigues

Chelsea Harbour

After much strolling as flâneuse and flâneur, we were finally drawn to an unnamed pier near Chelsea Harbour, probably because we felt trapped indoors as well as within the city confines. Here we rested the longest, breathing in the fresh (polluted) air at the glowing (brown) Thames. Whilst conducting research later it intrigued me how far fewer eighteenth-century artworks feature Fulham than Chelsea, that too, many of which eye Chelsea from across the Thames. I wanted to know what all the hype was about. Henceforth I embarked on a fieldwork endeavour to revisit a post-1751 painting facing Chelsea from Battersea.

Revisiting the modern-day site of View of Chelsea College with Ranelagh House and the Rotunda (after 1751), unknown artist, held by the Tate Gallery, photo by Clera Rodrigues

There was indeed a detectable class divide, however nuanced, between the north and south of the Thames, so one might interpret the artworks eyeing Chelsea as idolising its status. Roche records in her diary ‘look[ing] up the river, and beh[olding] the myriad beauties of the opposite bank’ on the aforementioned visit. Her lived experience and past positive portrayal mediates London for contemporary readers. Intriguingly enough, she too notes the beauty when gazing at the south bank of the Thames as positively affecting herself — the grass is perhaps greener on the opposite side. Psychogeography blurs the lines between space and time, as one may skilfully locate a former temporality and history within a contemporary space. However, although I could locate some elements, I couldn’t realistically situate myself in eighteenth-century London as a Brown woman, hence I had to defamiliarise myself when revisiting the aforementioned painting.

My psychogeographical dérive of (mostly) aimlessly strolling taught me to suspect and question both my spatial preconceptions as well as the constructedness of my surroundings. I learnt to listen to my gut feeling and to my emotions, and I found myself connecting with earthly elements such as water and earth itself. Psychogeography is a riveting field that all city-dwellers ought to practice at least once in their lives.

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