Andrew Kötting, Bloomsday, British Library, Iain Sinclair, James Joyce, light, Literature, London, Olympics, place, psychogeography, Robert Macfarlane, Thames, Ulysses, Virginia Woolf, Will Self, words
After listening to some of the over 5 hour dramatisation of ’Ulysses’ broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday (Bloomsday) I was considering how life mirrors art and art mirrors life. Having spent much of the day negotiating Olympic areas of NE London on foot, including a variety of locales and experiences, I began to feel like a character in a novel or a narrator of my experiences. This was an after effect of being immersed the previous day in Bloomsbury attending an event celebrating literature and London. ‘One Day In The City’, brilliantly organised by the English department of University College London, ranged from luminaries such as Iain Sinclair and Will Self to undergraduates talking on anything and everything in a series of parallel or converging and diverging themes around experiencing the city, mainly through literature with some art, architecture and film thrown in, and mainly through walking. ‘Conceptual City’, ‘Contested Spaces’, ‘Nightwalking’, ‘Architexture’ and ‘Walking the City’ were some of the strands. Iain Sinclair in his keynote talk was accompanied by Chris Petit, primarily a film-maker (eg ‘Radio On’) and his longtime collaborator, and the city as a cinema was his theme for the day, ranging from ‘Blow Up’ to surveillance footage, “the endgame of cinema and the city.”
Psychogeography was definitely the central theme of the talks and I guess ‘Ulysses’ is a forerunner of this in many ways. Thoughts while walking become thoughts about walking. Robert Macfarlane‘s new book ‘The Old Ways’ which I am currently reading covers this ground and indeed he also had a piece in Saturday’s Guardian on the notion of pilgrimage. Mental journeys in Bloomsbury were then followed for me by actual journeys around London, Fish Island along the Lea Valley to Tottenham on Saturday and West Hampstead to Gospel Oak via Camden Arts Centre (see image at top) and Hampstead Heath on Sunday. As I am also reading Iain Sinclair’s ‘Ghost Milk’, his Olympic critique, walking along the edge of the perimeter fence on Saturday became another instance of literary pilgrimage.
Sinclair has also made his own form of pilgrimage with Andrew Kötting pedalling a plastic swan-shaped pedalo from the coast of Hastings to the Olympic site in East London, via the English inland waterways. ’Swandown‘, the film of this will be premiered this week. As Hanif Kureishi joked, at a British Library event recently where they both were discussing literature and place, “America had ‘On the Road’, Britain has ‘On the Pedalo’.”
We all create our own mental maps of the city, or our own town or village even, of places we frequent, areas we know well, journeys we make regularly and the ways in which these become a marker are very much the bread and butter of psychogeography. The effect of this on the brain was another theme of One Day In The City. Research on Will Self’s brain by the neuroscientist Hugo Spiers was presented here in conjunction with Self appearing as himself as well as a literary subject in a paper on his work by Sebastian Groes - subject becoming object and vice versa. This research shows how the hippocampus, the part of the brain dealing with both memory and imagination, is actually enlarged by large amounts of activity in thinking about space and how we move around it, and also by learning and repeating this in a known area (location of cafes and bars in Soho in Will Self’s instance). In another case of life mirroring art Self had famously written about a London cabbie in ‘The Book of Dave’, a master of the Knowledge process. Have they scanned the brains of any cabbies I wonder?
Other highlights of One Day in the City for me were:
Isabelle Southwood (a Fine Art and Media Studies student) and her walks under and over the Thames, one of which filmed as ‘Thames Salt Circle’ involved creating a circle of salt on the ground by pouring it from a pot as she walked on foot and by Tube from Pimlico under the river and back.
David Roberts (architecture student from the Bartlett) and his project on reviving the novels of Samuel Richardson in a sink estate in Haggerston helping residents to overcome the negative image forced on them by their surroundings.
Laura Ludtke (post graduate at St Anne’s College, Oxford) looking at portrayals of artificial light in Virginia Woolf, such as in ‘Night and Day’, in conjunction with the history of the erratic and lengthy introduction of electric light into London over 70 years.
My brain feels completely overstimulated after all this physical and mental walking and I shall have to digest and return to some of these strands of thoughts at another time.