Walking off the Map

Hymns to the unknown city beneath our feet

A collective of fifteen young Italian architects, calling themselves Stalker, spent four days wandering Rome’s perimeter.

In the cities of North America and Europe, a new way of understanding and enjoying urban reality has recently emerged among certain artists, architects, writers, and persons without portfolio. The people captivated by this cool passion can be recognized by their patient gaze at what most others ignore or find offensive—the sidewalk clutter of signage and graffiti, construction debris, untended laneways—and by their meditative preoccupation with odd rips in the urban fabric: vacant lots, condemned buildings, naked electric­al transformer stations, other places where the skin of urban propriety has been torn or worn away. They are all walkers, and their tread through the city streets is intent and focused. We see them moving at the pace of dowsers looking for streams buried beneath pavement; and dowsers they are, these seekers for the fugitive urban imaginary in the solid matter of the city.

They are not exactly like the flâneurs of nineteenth-century Paris—loafers, dandies, idle strollers. They are not like the Surrealists, those æsthetes, trawling the same city’s streets and flea-markets for the objet trouvé; nor are they much like Walter Benjamin, wandering through the arcades of Paris. The measure of these newer walkers is more disciplined, their haunts unstylish, even uninteresting by any usual standard. It is globalism that makes their manner of touring urgent, and the Internet that makes possible a sense of com­munity among those who use digital gadgetry to record their trips and transmit them instantly to the tribe. There is no time to be lost in this endless task of identifying and cataloguing complex reality before it is simplified out of existence by the rationalizing forces in the world.

They are impatient with official street maps and conventional guides to notable monuments, which seem to have lost all usefulness as tools for discovering the city that now matters. The significant city that excites this sensibility is off the maps, beyond them, requiring new cartographies. It is composed of infamous, or non-famous, places: the homes of marginal populations, squatter camps and refugee dormitories, inner-city desolation, the banal zones under expressway flyovers and in suburbia, the smokeless sump of light industrial facilities at the city limits, once-rolling farmland stunned into flatness by bulldozers and overridden by the seemingly unstoppable grind of conurbation.

An image from the 1990s: fifteen young Italian architects with stout hiking boots—they call themselves Stalker—on a four-day tramp along the perimeter of Rome, photographing, writing in notebooks, sleeping in fields at night, claiming the unsightly, flabby fringe of that city for imagination, doing what they call “architecture” in the realm of the hitherto unimagined, unimaginable. But the new interest is dir­ected not merely, or even principally, toward the edges. Again in the 1990s, Toronto architect Paul Raff slips undetected into downtown construction sites, jumping over fences and scouting the urban banal for suppressed evidence of past human presence and passage. And Paul Raff and David Warne’s insitu 1995 artwork called UNbuilding Ways is yet another investigation of the customarily unseen: the gradual, minutely documented wrecking of an Ontario cottage, its coming open, the skin and darkness being stripped away. A few years later, British novelist Iain Sinclair would be similarly circumnavigating on foot the great expressway encircling London; the journey will be reported in his London Orbital: A Walk around the m25.

The interests of Raff and Warne, like Stalker’s, and those of numerous other operatives at work throughout the advanced capitalist world, reach into the shadowy places below the maps of the city’s most familiar precincts. They probe for what is under threat of banishment by the tourism and heritage industries, by civic boosterism, by the amnesia of bureaucrats. Excavated mindfully, the city, at both centre and edge and in its vast catchment outside the official boundaries, reveals itself to be something beyond the merely visual: a sensuous field of smells, sensations on skin, feet, and fingertips, tatters of memories, swatches of textures; collisions of desire, territories contaminated by toxic wastes and stories, by use and misuse, by reuse forbidden by the authorities, but happening anyway.

Up to a point, this secret city can be researched in archives. The raw material of vision is there. One finds clippings from old newspapers, photographs, sedimentary layers of advertising, letters, rumours, and gossip in books of tittle-tattle long forgotten. There is civic poetry, discredited lore, propaganda aimed at would-be immigrants, wilful misinformation put about by earlier guardians of the city’s public image. Along with archival materials, a life lived keenly in the full swim and swell of things also helps, as made clear by the bountiful harvests of memory that Iain Sinclair gathers into his books from his life among London’s marginal filmmakers, writers, and artists. But in the end, the archive, along with the avant-garde institutes and the architecture faculties where new images of the city are discussed professionally, must be abandoned—escaped. The city must be engaged on foot, in intimate, indiscreet encounters disrespectful of traditional itineraries, with curiosity about what lies behind locked gates, under manhole covers, down disreputable alleys: psychoanalysis with the city on the couch, an interpretation of the city’s dreams.

The notion of such walking had been making the rounds in cities here and there years before the 1990s, when Paul Raff, Stalker, Iain Sinclair, and other cheerfully transgressive walkers recognized each other, and the outline of a new urban sensibility became visible against the phosphorescent background rot and buzz of mass culture. According to its genealogists, like Rebecca Solnit in her sparkling Wanderlust: A History of Walking, the key creator of the talk that preceded the walk was Guy DeBord, leading intellectual of the poetical-anarcho-leftist Situationists, who in the 1950s promoted la dérive, the drift, a mindfully disordered wander, as a way to subvert—if only for a revelatory moment—the numbing spectacle of the capitalist city. Greil Marcus on DeBord, quoted by Solnit:“The point was to encounter the unknown as a face of the known, astonishment on the terrain of boredom, innocence in the face of experience. So you can walk up the street without thinking, letting your mind drift, letting your legs, with their internal memory, carry you up and down and around turns, attending to the map of your own thoughts, the physical town replaced by an imaginary city.”

DeBord’s work, along with the 1970s writings of the cultural theorist Michel de Certeau, provided a radical topic of conversation in the 1980s for bright architecture, art, and film students other­wise discontented with the conventional curriculum. But until the next decade, as far as I can tell, few people were actually pulling on boots and slickers and walking—producing the new psychogeographical wisdom that, in the years around the turn of the millennium, began to find its way into blogs and websites, little magazines of urban recollection like Toronto’s Spacing, murmurings published in Xeroxed pamphlets hawked in anarchist shops on the wrong side of the literary tracks, even books: thence into the world.

Another picture from the first dec­ade of real-world drifting: the writing room of Iain Sinclair, in Hackney, in London’s East End, wherein we find the author and photographer Marc Atkins—Sinclair never walks alone—about to mark up a map of the city that lies spread out before them. “The notion was to cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant signmaking,” Sinclair tells us at the start of Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London (1997), the first of three brilliant, stout compendiums of psychogeographical investigation. He intends “To walk out from Hackney to Greenwich Hill, and back along the River Lea to Chingford Mount, recording and retrieving the messages on walls, lampposts, doorjambs: the spites and spasms of an increasing deranged populace.” The idea of imposing a V on the map—the algorithm that generates the route to be taken—sprang to mind, writes Sinclair, while he was at work on his novel Radon Daughters: “that the physical movements of the characters across their territory might spell out the letters of a secret alphabet. Railway to pub to hospital: trace the line of the map. These botched runes, burnt into the script in the heat of creation, offer an alternative reading—a subterranean, preconscious text capable of divination and prophecy.”

Note the slide in Sinclair’s explanation, the Borgesian dissolve of city into text, alphabet into urbanism. In this accounting, the urban complex, simplified and falsified by the map-makers and their masters—guardians of modernist pieties and urban orthodoxies at city hall and architecture departments—becomes something dangerously unstable, restlessly mutating. The trackways of citizens going about their business, pleasures, and duties, unconscious of the astonishing thing they are doing, trace the lines of that “secret alphabet,” making it visible, as though re-inking long-faded words on parchment. The city is script for a dancework that will end only when the dancers themselves have vanished at the end of history. But in a heartbeat, one can reverse the sequence. Now it’s the citizens who are doing the original writing, setting down “botched runes, burnt into the script” by their motions, leaving traces that can be divined by those who have learned to read rightly: the city as pal­impsest, inscribed, erased, reinscribed constantly by our activities.

This is Sinclair’s city, and what distinguishes his books is the steady, productive measure of his psychogeographical walking in it and all that comes to the author as he walks along in this way, telling us everything. In his trilogy’s nearly 1,300 pages, Sinclair records his encounters with Londoners living in obscurity—poets forgotten, members of the cop caste whose job it is to impose psychological order on untidy London. He produces unforgettable surveys of once-lovely places swamped by the schemes of “improvers,” and of places that are fascinating in their very unloveliness. There are marvellous accounts of pomp and processions in these books, and tales of the raw absence one meets in the city’s dead zones. There are portraits of poets living and dead or disappeared, omnibus surveys of the writers and filmmakers and artists the author has lived among since coming to London upward of forty years ago. Sinclair’s immensely detailed, beautifully imagined reporting has meat on its bones, blood in its veins, and the predictable blisters and backaches that come along with knowing any city in this fashion.

Sinclair’s writing is not, however, an ecstatic version of Guide Bleu itineraries. Every page of his work conveys the sense that anything can happen right around the next twist in the street, that everything can go wrong, or miraculously right. While negotiating one arm of his prescriptive V on the first trip chronicled in Lights Out for the Territory, the author is swept off his track and into the garish funeral procession of gangland celebrity Ronnie Kray. The spectacle is “both emotive and grotesque, an overblown rhetoric of grief. Self-aggrandising tributes to a man who had been, for years, a chemically palliated zombi; a man whose humanity had died with his victims. Dead ground that had burst prematurely into bud; the sweet-sick stench of home-brewed perfume, flower­heads rotting in water.” A detour from the main route through London, an illuminating breakout of what is truest about the city.

But even the most stuffily kept-up places can be cracked open, revealing mysteries. While navigating the City—” London’s sorry heart, the heart’s intelligence—“he finds statuary, old stories of gory sport and ancient rituals, all combining in his mind according to a mystic syntax. Even ancient patterns of habitation in nearby Whitechapel make a kind of vivid sense. “Bulls on the roof. Bulls guarding the river gate. Where else should we start our circumnavigation Had not the city once been measured by the distance covered by a baited bull The crazy pattern of the lanes and alleys in Whitechapel had to be a faithful tracing of the blood running from the side of a tormented animal.”

Beneath the City, too, is the site of a Roman-era temple dedicated to the cult of Mithras (worshipped by soldiers), who, in the fragmentary myth that has come down to us, cuts the throat of a bull at the climax of a titanic struggle. And though presumably no Mithraic devotees remain in the City today, the echoes of those violent divine rituals continue to ricochet along City streets. “Everything that had happened within the shape of that building was loosed on the City as psychic interference, bad karma, white noise.” The City as cult centre for the worship of Mammon (adoration of the bull market), the centre from which dreadful forces are unleashed by the ceaseless tauromachia of making money. “Walks are permitted only on agreed paths. The ancient gates, energy sluices, have been replaced by tawdry plastic barriers—leaving in the place of well-ordered chaos, regimented anonymity—a climate in which corruption thrives. Poisoned weather, sick skies, confused humans.”

Though brightened by the eager intensity of Sinclair’s quest, and by the author’s love for the artists, eccentrics, parks and streets, and the very earth of London, the books are pervaded by an atmos­phere of menace. Among the threatened are the “shaggy scufflers, my stock company of anarchists, disenfranchised artists and petty criminals.” The enemies include Thatcher­ism, Tony Blair’s New Labour, the cruelties of self-satisfied prosperity, “small-minded provincials, career­ists distrustful of the liberties of the café-bar, the aimlessness of the flâneur—“all these are foes of the Londoners and the London Sinclair cherishes. His task as a walker in the city is urged on by a longing to know everything and everyone of merit—the resisters, the survivors—before they are chased into oblivion. “Certain artists—the ones you came across by accident, working their own turf—began to look strange, otherworldly, out of it. Their behaviour, this remorseless pursuit of discomfort, this restlessness and fruitful irritation, struck me as exemplary. They were associated in my mind with other avatars of unwisdom: scavengers, dole-queue antiquarians, bagpeople, out-patients, muggers, victims, millennial babblers.”

The task is as endless as the m25 that encircles London, always requiring new voyages, new recruits. “Another fugue. Another mad traveller,” Sinclair muses in London Orbital. “We were discovering a useful genealogy: gas fitters, painters, novelists. Through the suburbs at night, the motorway verges by day, we were there; heel-and-toeing it, sucking water from a plastic bottle, trying to find someway to unravel the syntax of London.”

Another mad traveller, another guide in the endless work of decoding is the so-called peasant poet John Clare, whose 1841 cross-country flight, from a madhouse on the edge of London to his hometown some eighty miles north provided Sinclair with the notable path he retraces in Edge of the Orison, the masterpiece among his walking books. Clare is an artist of the kind Sinclair loves best: misunderstood by literary London, eventually discarded because he was past his best-before date—only recently, rustic bards had been all of the rage among the metropolitan cognescenti, but were out of fashion by the time Clare reached the big city—insane, a fugitive abroad in the vast gravitational field of London, another exemplary pursuer of discomfort who also walked somewhere and left an account of his walk.

A picture from Edge of the Orison: the author abed, having paused for the night at Stevenage, Hertfordshire, on this walk in the steps of Clare and checked into one of those stripped-down, seriously sterile hotels you find in small European places where nobody wants to be. It’s part of the hotel chain called Ibis. Sinclair can’t sleep. “I put my head on an unyielding foam pillow, shut my eyes, and opened them a nanosecond later to a lion-sun climbing over a palm-fringed desert. Stevenage: Cairo of the Great North Road. The sacred ibis, a water bird, lends its head to Thoth, god of Hermopolis; scribe of the gods, inventor of writing.”

On the way to finding where we are, we are reminded, the mind as well as the body must be surrendered to la dérive. Knowledge must become complex, a twisting within the grid of customary logic. It must be a roundup of all we know, forgetting nothing, linking everything, no matter how far-fetched the connections may seem in the clear light of day. In the walking writings of Sinclair, doing this work of imagination assumes the shape of a spiritual discipline in life-giving contamination, prophylaxis against simplicity—walking as resistance to the simplifying effects of globalism, a new urbanism for writers. “We remember what we want to remember and forge our own autobiographies,” Sinclair writes on the last page of Edge of the Orison. “The Clare I found will not be your John Clare. The track we travelled, coming from London, is no longer Clare’s Great North Road. Through error, perhaps, we arrive at a richer truth: in the telling is the tale. The trance of writing is the author’s only defence against the world. He sleepwalks between assign­ments, between welcoming ghosts, looking out for the next prompt, the next milestone hidden in the grass.”

John Bentley Mays