Cardiff-born author Iain Sinclair is associated with ‘psychogeography’. His latest book, Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project, a look at the 2012 Olympics and other white elephants, was out last month. But what the hell does this term mean? Wiki dates the literary genre’s London-centred renaissance to 1980, defining it as ‘the pedestrian exploration of the urban and suburban landscape… utilising romantic, gothic and occult ideas to describe and transform the city… Sinclair [draws] on this tradition… as a way of criticising modern developments of urban space.’
Guy Debord’s label, eschewing urban exclusivity, is ‘the study of the… specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’ Compared to the deep emotional connection to place, long present in Welsh homages to the ‘milltir sgwâr’, psychogeography is broader, and bored with belonging. It likes stumbling across the new rather than confirming the known; even proposing the anarchic act of getting lost by superimposing one map onto another place.
Tristan Hughes’ latest novel, Eye Lake, shows how fiction rooted in place can be influenced by rural psychogeography (of course any fictional setting should be an emotional exploration of place). Indeed, Hughes plays with the idea that his location, Ontario village Crooked River, can be understood by two maps: before and after Red Rock lake was drained to mine iron ore. Half Canadian, the author grew up in Llangoed: this is his first book set outside Ynys Môn. Welsh motifs haunt it, for instance the eyes of the dead studding the bed of an artificial lake. Kirsti Bohata, previewing this novel in the summer issue of New Welsh Review, is well qualified to comment on Hughes’ ‘ritual charting’, engaged as she is with a digital mapping pilot of the literary geography of Wales (www.litencyc.com).
The ‘occult’ aspect of psychogeography should perhaps be restored before the term becomes a beach-bag for travel guides. Seren ‘Real’ series uses the label but will its autumn title, Mike Parker’s Real Powys, dare to cover Presteigne’s poltergeists? Hughes’ best story, ‘Ley Lines’, in his debut collection The Tower, parodies a New Age incomer’s mystical attachments to our physical landscape. However, mountaineer Jim Perrin’s affection for ‘fairy wing’ toenail varnish and pagan weddings in West, A Journey Through the Landscapes of Loss (new out in paperback) reclaims both romanticism and the occult as a valid insider viewpoint.
Meanwhile, Richard Collins’ psychogeographers in The Quality of Light are the most grounded participants of an urban art project. Another classic of dual mapping, this novel overlaps prisms of place, viewpoint and timeframe. Collins’ latest proves, just like those by Perrin, Hughes and Sinclair, that Wales’ authors understand place better than most.
This was first published in Gwen Davies' Insider books column in the Western Mail, Saturday 6 August 2011
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