The City of Dreadful Night

James Thomson was a Scottish-born poet, atheist and anarchist. He struggled with depression, insomnia and alcohol-abuse throughout his short life and his work frequently reflected the bleakness and despair of his life’s experiences. Thomson wrote The Doom of the City in 1857 and his best known poem, The City of Dreadful Night in 1874.


Raymond Williams calls The City of Dreadful Night: ‘a symbolic vision of the city as a condition of human life’. Williams asserts that, by the Victorian-era, the city had become a new form of human consciousness. The city of Thomson’s poem is clearly an imagined London. But it is not the dynamic hub of Empire of the popular imagination: for him it is a city of death in life.  A place permeated by loss of belief, loss of purpose and loss of hope.

The City is of Night, but not of but not of Sleep;

There sweet sleep is not for the weary brain;

The pitiless hours like years and ages creep,

A night seems termless hell. This dreadful strain

Of thought and consciousness which never ceases,

Or which some moments’ stupor but increases,

This, worse than woe, makes wretches there insane.


The City of Dreadful Night takes the form of the poet’s journey through one night in the city and suggests a reworking of Dante’s Inferno. In terms of atmosphere it can be viewed as part of the Gothic tradition, but the setting is a supposedly modern city. The poem’s structure is interesting – it alternates odd-numbered seven-line sections giving description with even-numbered six-line sections giving narrative. This very mechanical structure seems to suggest an inhuman, mechanical world. A world where its inhabitants merely follow their allocated roles within a continually-running machine:

They are most rational and yet insane:

And outward madness not to be controlled;

A perfect reason in the central brain,

Which has no power, but sitteth wan and cold,

And sees the madness, and foresees as plainly

The ruin in its path, and trieth vainly

To cheat itself refusing to behold.

jerrold william blanchard london c13856 04

Thomson’s narrator is an alienated wanderer, a joyless flâneur. As he walks he encounters other aimless wanderers, in fact the city teems with people: it is a haunted space. But the wanderers walk, not to arrive, not to satisfy any purpose, but to make a kind of penance to the silent, impersonal ‘necessity supreme’ that permeates the entire city:

There is no God; no fiend with names divine

Made us and tortures us; if we must pine,

It is to satiate no Being’s gall.

In Thomson’s eyes the hopes and everyday concerns of the inhabitants of the ‘real’ London are just daydreams; eventually they will awake from what they think is reality and embrace ‘this real night’. In Masao Miyoshi’s words: ‘the desolation of the decomposing self permeates the dreadful night of his vision’.

jerrold william blanchard london c13856 07

For the poet wandering the city streets there is no alternative vision and no contrast to the unremitting gloom, as a result of which there is a complete absence of any hope. Even in that other nightmare vision of the modern city, Eliot’s The Waste Land, there is the hint of some hope, but here there is none.

Wherever men are gathered, all the air

Is charged with human feeling, human thought;

Each shout and cry and laugh, each curse and prayer,

Are into its vibrations surely wrought;

Unspoken passion, wordless meditation,

Are breathed into it with our respiration

It is with our life fraught and overfraught.


So that no man there breathes earth’s simple breath,

As if alone on mountains or wide seas;

But nourishes warm life or hastens death

With joys and sorrows, health and foul disease,

Wisdom and folly, good and evil labours,

Incessant of his multitudinous neighbours;

He in his turn affecting all of these.

Strange, dark images fill the lines of Thomson’s poem, a vision almost modernist in its self-conscious power and summoning up images of a type echoed many years later in Eliot’s work:

That City’s atmosphere is dark and dense,

Although not many exiles wander there,

With many a potent evil influence,

Each adding poison to the poisoned air;

Infections of unutterable sadness,

Infections of incalculable madness,

Infections of incurable despair.



Thomson, in his The City of Dreadful Night, characterises the city as a place of loneliness, alienation and spiritual despair for the many, which contrasts with the political and economic confidence enjoyed by the few. London in the nineteenth-century had seen an explosion in the size of its population and a proliferation of its downtrodden underclass. George Gissing wrote about this human underbelly of the city in his The Nether World:

Pass by in the night, and strain imagination to picture the weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality, of unmerited dolour, of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender, tumbled together within those forbidding walls.

The French artist Gustave Doré, together with his journalist colleague Blanchard Jerrold, spent three months wandering the grittier streets of London in 1872, just before The City of Dreadful Night was published. As a result of their investigations they published London, A Pilgrimage to highlight the experience of London’s poor, or what Jerrold called ‘that long disease, their life’. Doré and Thomson never collaborated, but the artist’s illustrations make a fitting accompaniment to Thomson’s poem.


James Thomson, The City of Dreadful Night (1874)

Gustave Doré and  Blanchard Jerrold, London, A Pilgrimage (1872)

Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (1973)

Masao Miyoshi, The Divided Self (1969)

George Gissing, The Nether World (1889)

Jane Desmarais, Review of James Thomson, City of Dreadful Night, Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 1 (March 2004)

Sally Ledger and Scott McCracken (Eds.) Cultural Politics at the Fin de Siecle (1995)


All Gustave Doré images used in this piece are now in the public domain.

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There’s a Thousand Things I Want to Say to You: The City, Modernism and the Flâneuse


The passing of the historical figure paved the way for the resurrection of the flâneur as a methodological persona, adopted in order to pursue the exploration of the city. Stripped to its basic characteristics and used as a modus operandi for the writer, flânerie, as a scopic methodology, involves mobile observation on the part of an individual consciousness from the supposed viewpoint of a pedestrian city dweller.[i]

Modernism is very much an urban phenomenon. Whilst writers of previous generations, such as Dickens, Gissing and Wells, wrote about the city, it was the early modernist writers, most notably Woolf, Joyce and Richardson, who developed new ways to represent the psychological impact of urban life. The early twentieth-century saw an explosion of new freedoms for women, and middle-class women, many of them newly empowered into roles in academia and the professions, together with an expanded role as consumers, became more evident on the city streets. Women writers, Mansfield, Richardson and Woolf in particular, began to write about the new types of women that they saw about them. These, and other, modernist writers stretched the boundaries of narrative form and used fiction not so much to tell a ‘story’, but to explore the very nature of consciousness. In the case of Richardson and Woolf, this was, in essence, an examination of the nature of female consciousness.


Several of Woolf’s novels, most notably Mrs Dalloway, are set in London and seven volumes of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series of novels are set in and around the streets of Bloomsbury. In Pilgrimage, Miriam Henderson’s exploration of London’s streets develops in parallel with her journey into her own consciousness. She finds certain streets to be ‘haunted’ (a word later picked up by Woolf[ii] in one of her short stories) and representing, for Richardson, the power of certain locations to stir up powerful emotions within one.


Since its first use by Baudelaire in the nineteenth-century, the flâneur has proved to be a useful device for writers to employ in their explorations of the modern city. Walter Benjamin conducted a systematic review of the world that Baudelaire had created and set it within a framework of literary, sociological and historical theory. His flâneur was an idle stroller with an inquisitive mind and an aesthetic eye; a solitary figure, he avoided serious political and personal relationships, preferring to enjoy the aesthetics of city life; its material artefacts and human archetypes. The flâneur reads the city and finds beauty in liminal spaces and discarded objects.

The city, though, has traditionally been a male place, with women in a subservient role, or at best at the margins, and this gender bias was reflected in the writing of that period. Benjamin’s work too was notable for the absence of women’s experiences. Some critics, such as Griselda Pollock and Janet Wolff, take a very negative view of this, suggesting the impossibility of there being a true flâneuse. Others, most notably Deborah Parsons and Anne Friedberg, take a more positive view, whilst accepting that there are limitations to Benjamin’s analysis.

Conducting a feminist reading of The Arcades Project, Deborah Parsons emphasises the strengths as well as the limitations and posits a different perspective on Benjamin’s analysis of urban modernism:

Janet Wolff, Griselda Pollock and Elizabeth Wilson all base their discussion of the flâneur within Benjamin’s definition, and have been influential in composing the conceptual categories of male and the male artistic ‘gaze’ that literary and art criticism now employ. Indeed their work has been crucial for encouraging the recognition of the masculine bias of hegemonic modernism, and the subtle techniques and styles women artists used to assert their differing perspectives on the urban experience.[iii]

Flânerie is a method of exploring a modern world that has become incomprehensible. The ‘shock’ of the modern city creates anxiety in the individual, pushing him or her to seek refuge in fantasy. Fairs, photography, cinema, festivals, world exhibitions and big department stores give the bourgeois individual a chance to enjoy a voyeuristic world. Anne Friedberg suggests that the department stores were a starting point for the flâneuse’s existence, but concedes this form of flânerie was tainted by consumerism. The key concept for flânerie, Friedberg insists, is an aesthetic distance towards the object of attention, and the new-born department store flâneuse seems to lack that characteristic. Benjamin, on the other hand, suggests that the department store opens up new possibilities for the flâneur:

The crowd is the veil through which the familiar city beckons to the flâneur as phantasmagoria – now a landscape, now a room. Both become elements of the department store, which makes use of flânerie itself to sell goods. The department store is the last promenade for the flâneur.[iv]

Benjamin was bound by the literary canon of the period he wrote about and very few of his flâneur characters were female. It was only with such works as Mrs Dalloway and Pilgrimage that one can see a female equivalent of the flâneur, the flâneuse, emerge. But ultimately, the flâneuse is journeying not just through the streets of the city, but through an exploration of her own human consciousness:

Miriam’s consciousness is the subject matter of this novel. And it seems to her that the experiences and perceptions of women have been brutally and unreasonably discounted by men. Nor has she any mercy for the majority of women who have, in her judgement, colluded with men in the suborning of their female gifts and attributes.[v]

In Miriam Henderson, Richardson presents us with a character who lives and breathes flânerie. A character who inhabits the streets and weaves her observations and impressions into her own psyche. Virginia Woolf too creates characters who consciously map out the streets of London and impose upon them psychological journeys of their own. Clarissa Dalloway ponders upon the impact of aging and recalls some of her life’s turning points and lost opportunities as she wanders through the streets of central London; and all about her she sees reminders of the cataclysmic war Europe had so recently endured. While in Street Haunting: A London Adventure, the narrator weaves the sights of urban life that catch her eye as she walks through the West End into a series of speculative vignettes.









But modernist writers were not just interested in the written word: Richardson wrote extensively about the cinema and Woolf had a passion for photography. Both seemed to sense, though not necessarily at a conscious level, a connection between female consciousness, the practice of flânerie and the roving eye of the photographic lens.

Although working-class women had always been free to travel through the city streets, if going about their allotted business, women in general had only started to be free to do so in the early twentieth-century; and even then they had to be careful to avoid drawing unwanted male attention and to avoid acting in such a way that would lead to accusations of being a prostitute: quite literally, a streetwalker.

One key differentiation of the fiction of Richardson and Woolf from that of earlier women writers was the fact that so many of the latter’s female characters are presented to the reader as habitués of the streets of the metropolis. This subtle change in the world their characters inhabit reflects the changes that female modernists saw going on around them. The importance of the flâneuse to modernist writing, in particular the work of female modernists, is much more than the creation of a different type of character inhabiting a different setting; the flâneuse provides Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf with a potent tool with which to expand the boundaries of our understanding of female consciousness. The flâneuse is, thus, not simply a female version of the flâneur, but she embodies a different subjectivity and a form of consciousness that is not the same as that of the flâneur. Richardson and Woolf both created female characters who were not content to simply conform to the Baudelarian stereotype of the prostitute or the ragpicker, but who instead demonstrated a new form of urban female mobility. Both Miriam Henderson and Clarissa Dalloway should be viewed as representations of the newly emerging flâneuse; an expression of both socio-economic change and of new forms of literary expression.

In the city there’s a thousand things I want to say to you
But whenever I approach you, you make me look a fool
I wanna say, I wanna tell you
About the young ideas
But you turn them into fears.[vi]

[i] Paul Castro, ‘Flânerie and Writing the City in Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory, Edmund White’s The Flâneur, and José Cardoso Pires’s Lisboa: Livro de Bordo’, Darwin College Research Report, Cambridge (October 2003) p. 6

[ii] Street Haunting: A London Adventure in Virginia Woolf, Selected Essays (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009)

[iii] Deborah Parsons, Streetwalking the Metropolis: Women, the City and Modernity (Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 2000) p.39

[iv] Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire (Cambridge, Mass and London, Belknap Harvard, 2006) p. 40

[v] Gillian Hanscombe, Introduction to: Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage:1 (London, Virago, 1992) p. 5

[vi] The Jam, In The City (Paul John Weller, 1977)


The image Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte is in the public domain

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City of Exiles by Stuart Braun

The first time I visited Berlin was in the spring of 1989. Falling into conversation with a Berliner on a bus one day I asked him if he thought the Wall would ever be taken down. Of course it would, he replied, though not in the lifetime of any of us. But by November of that year, as we all now know, the Berlin Wall was breached and the process of removing it had begun. Perhaps we should have been prepared for Berlin to surprise us. Stuart Braun seems to agree, and City of Exiles (Noctua Press) is his explanation why.


Transformation, Braun argues, is embedded into the very bedrock of Berlin. He notes the German writer Karl Scheffler asserted as long ago as 1910 that: ‘Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being.’ Thus, concludes Braun, the Wall was fated to fall:

For me, however, Berlin felt so intrinsically free that the Wall seemed like an aberration. Its fall was less about struggle than inevitability.’

Go to minor literature[s] to read the rest of this review.

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Psychogeographic Review’s Recommendations – October 2015

This past month Psychogeographic Review has been reading:

City of ExilesStuart Braun – City of Exiles (2015)

Read my extended review of this book  at minor literature[s]






Mapping LondonSimon Foxell – Mapping London: Making Sense of the City (2007)

This is a compelling, beautifully illustrated book, though the cover price of £40 will make most of us baulk and resort to buying it second-hand or reading it in a library, as I did.  But what you get for your money is a lavish cartographic journey through London past and present.  The 150 maps are arranged in thematic order and are accompanied by a stimulating collection of literary imaginings and political and social comment.

Gender of ModernismBonnie Kime Scott (Editor) – The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology (1990)

I think this is one of the most important works on literary modernism in recent decades and is one that I come back to again and again.  Put simply this anthology redefines the ways we look at modernist writing.  With contributions by Mary Lynne Broe, Suzette Henke and a host of others Kime Scott successfully pulls together a gendered reading of modernism.  Foremost for me are the sections on Dorothy Richardson and May Sinclair by Diane F. Gillespie.  Kime Scott asserts that:


Gender is not a mask for feminist or woman, though they are inextricable from it.  Both men and women participate in the social and cultural system of gender, but women write about it more, perhaps because gender is more imposed upon them, more disqualifying, or more intriguing and stimulating to their creativity.


meanwhile we were  listening to:

 InstrumentalsInstrumentals – Flying Saucer Attack (2015)

The kind of album the contrarian in me loves: no lyrics, no song titles, no ‘songs’ to speak of.  Nothing, in fact, to get in the way of David Pearce’s sonic wash of guitars, tapes and ambient effects.  As the first FSA album in 15 years Instrumentals feels like something of a place-holder, but a very enjoyable one for all that.


RatatatMagnifique – Ratatat (2015)

Although this is Ratatat’s first album in five years, longstanding fans will know what to expect and will not be disappointed.  The downside is that, within the canon of the duo’s work, it is not particularly innovative.  The joy of Magnifique, however, is the precision of the musicianship and production and the fact that it is a flowing album of atmospheric music, and not just a collection of songs.

Teenage LicksTeenage Licks – Stone the Crows (1971)

Teenage Licks is one of the great lost albums of the 1970s and showcases a band at their tight, funky peak. Listen out for the late Les Harvey’s sublime blues guitar on tracks like Big Jim Salter and Don’t Think Twice and Maggie Bell’s soulful, throaty vocals throughout. We even get a little Gaelic from her on the traditional Ailen Mochree.  The album also features some of the early work of prog rock record producer Eddie Offord as engineer.


and watching:

Invisible FrameThe Invisible Frame – Cynthia Beatt (2009)

In the excellent DVD version currently available in the UK this comes as a companion pair of films.  In both Cynthia Beatt looking at the impact of the Wall on Berlin, the city in which she is based.  In Cycling the Frame from 1988 Tilda Swinton traces the line of the Wall making a journey by bicycle.  More than twenty years later, in  The Invisible Frame, she returns to consider the Wall once more and finds its physical reality has been removed but its memory still casts a shadow.

Ploughman's LunchThe Ploughman’s Lunch – Richard Eyre (1983)

The Ploughman’s Lunch is one of the key British films of the 1980s and one that, in its subject matter, is uncannily prescient of current events.  Against the background of a bullish Conservative government seeking to boost its popularity at home with military interventions overseas, a young journalist quickly comes to realise the compromises and deceptions he has to be prepared to stomach get to the top in his profession.  Jonathan Pryce, in one of his first major roles, is superb as the journalist James Penfield.


JubileeJubilee – Derek Jarman (1978)

Derek Jarman’s second feature film is a genuine historical document which records an important moment in British popular culture.  It’s not just a film about the punk movement, but one made in accordance with the original punk aesthetic: a mainly amateur cast, a budget of just £200,000 and a shooting schedule of  six weeks.  By the time the film was released it was all over; but what a glorious, anarchic, exhilarating moment it was.

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Why I Am Not a Painter


Why I Am Not a Painter is one of my favourite Frank O’Hara poems.  He wrote it after a series of visits to his friend Michael Goldberg, the American abstract expressionist painter.  Like many have done so before and since O’Hara grapples with the idea of the many forms of expression open to the human creative spirit.

Frank O’Hara

Michael Goldberg

Michael Goldberg










I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

O’Hara’s title for his poem seems to suggest it will be about the differences between the two art forms, painting and poetry. However, in its execution, this poem seems to concentrate more on the similarities between the two.

In fact, one can even go so far as to say that the poem is a celebration of art in all its forms. Frank O’Hara creates his art with words while his friend, Mike Goldberg, does so with paint and visual imagery. Each is different but, O’Hara seems to be saying, both are valid expressions of the creative mind.

In the opening line  we are led to infer that poetry and painting are different:

“I am not a painter, I am a poet.”

But O’Hara then goes on to highlight the similarities of the two processes: Goldberg’s process of painting, in the second stanza, and O’Hara’s process of creating poetry, in the third. In fact, these two stanzas can almost be read in parallel, with the same creative impulse being expressed, the one at his easel, the other at his typewriter.

O’Hara’s poem is called ‘Orange’ and is inspired by that colour. His friend’s painting, when O’Hara first sees it, has the word ‘SARDINES’ in it. Later he sees that this is all but gone from the finished picture, ‘all that’s left is just letters’. The picture, however, is now called ‘SARDINES’. Thus, both the poet and the painter are inspired by a particular word, though neither word is immediately obvious in the finished work.


The painter’s creative process seems to be about refining, concentrating his imagery from a starting point as he works towards the finished object. O’Hara’s working method, on the other hand, seems to be cumulative, an expansion of words that leads him towards his finished poem:

‘………. Pretty soon it is a/whole page of words, not lines./Then another page.’

Why I Am Not a Painter is recognisably a poem of the New York School following, as it does, the I-do-this-I-do-that pacing of many of the works identified with this school of poets. Whilst this style produces a relaxed, seemingly spontaneous effect, O’Hara’s poem is, in fact, carefully structured.

He uses an introductory stanza of four lines to set up the premise of his being a poet and not a painter, although, almost as an aside, he lets slip that he thinks he might like to be a painter. He then employs two further stanzas, each of thirteen lines. In the second stanza O’Hara visits Mike Goldberg’s studio and reflects on his friend’s way of working and creating his art. O’Hara then discusses his own working method, in the third stanza, before describing the finished poem and the completed painting in the final few lines.

O’Hara breaks many of his lines in this poem with seemingly odd small words such as ‘is’, ‘a’, ‘in’ and ‘of’. He even ends the first stanza with ‘Well’. But rather than disrupting the flow of the poem, as one might expect, these line breaks give it a sense of unity and progression by referring forward to the next line and back to the one which preceded it.

The creative process may be sparked by a moment of inspiration but, O’Hara seems to suggest in this poem that producing a work of art, be it a poem or a painting, takes time and effort. A number of phrases in the poem are suggestive of the passing of time while the poet and the painter work away at their craft: ‘the days go by’, ‘pretty soon’, ‘Days go by’ and ‘one day’.

O’Hara, as the poem draws to a conclusion, seems to be satisfied with his chosen art form: ‘I am a real poet’. Then the final two lines bracket together the poem and the painting, each with its own somewhat enigmatic title, as if to emphasise the creative unity of the two.

Why I Am Not a Painter – reproduced courtesy of the estate of Frank O’Hara

Sardines – reproduced courtesy of the estate of Michael Goldberg

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October Sky

October Sky poem

October sky

grey above –

Sun glow

claws at

southern edge.

Daggers of rain

cold, vindictive.

Leaf blown,


Slick wet paving

mirrors sky.

Grey on grey.


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The Eye of the Inner Ear


as the films of Davies illustrate so convincingly, ultimately it is the inner space of the individual imagination that matters most.

Wendy Everett: The Eye of the Inner Ear: Terence Davies and the Space/Time Dimension, p.308.  Essay published in: Wendy Everett & Axel Goodbody (Eds), Revisiting Space: Space and Place in European Cinema (Oxford, Peter Lang, 2005)



By positioning the spectator as co-author, Davies’s resistance to mainstream cinema’s demands for pace, linearity, and closure should thus be recognised as an act of creative empowerment.  For above all his films are about film; whatever they tell us about ourselves, about Davies, about time, space, music, image, they are also telling us about the glorious, terrible, and powerful nature of cinema and its role in structuring our identity and that of the world we live in.

ibid. p.308

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Poem No. 4




Rooted –

in nurturing soil,

a growth inarticulate

in its proliferation

Anorexic pruning –

a painful birth

revealing flowers

of such unexpected beauty



Image: Culloden, August 2010

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Four Dogs

I asked my friend Will to join me on this walk. Will has lived in Wrexham for most of his life and I hoped he could put a personal perspective on some of the places I planned to explore.

Four Dogs

Ever since I moved to Wrexham I’ve been aware of the town’s connection with the land-owning Cunliffe family of Acton Hall. The house was demolished many years ago, but the name lives on in the guise of Wrexham’s Acton suburb. Part of the parkland previously surrounding the hall now forms a public park. I sometimes run in this park, Acton Park, and I’ve enjoyed the odd pint in the nearby pub of the same name.

Acton Hall 1938

The thing I was not aware of until recently, however, was Acton Hall’s connection with George Jeffreys, the so-called ‘Hanging Judge’. Jeffreys was born at Acton Hall in 1645 and, after reading law at Cambridge and training at the Inner Temple, became James II’s Lord Chancellor in 1685.

George Jeffreys

George Jeffreys

He is infamous for presiding over the Taunton ‘Bloody Assizes’ of 1685 in which more than 160 alleged participants in the Monmouth Rebellion were executed. Will recalls seeing Patrick Troughton play Judge Jeffreys in a 1960s television dramatization of Lorna Doone, which I guess gives Acton Hall an extremely tenuous Doctor Who connection too.

We start our walk in Westminster Drive where Will points out the yellow fire hydrant post which, back in the 1970s, he and his childhood friends regularly used in order to climb over the fence into the school playing field to play football. This sports ground, known locally as the Nine Acre Field, was once part of the parklands of Acton Hall until it was purchased by the local Council just after Second World War. Westminster Drive, incidentally, translates into Welsh as Rhodfa San Steffan, an interesting reference to Westminster’s St Stephen’s Hall.

Stand PipePlaque

Walking along Chester Road we soon come to one the few remaining parts of the fabric of Acton Hall. The imposing neo-classical gateway marooned at the edge of a modern housing development which was once the main entrance to Acton Hall. It was built in 1820 at the behest of Sir Foster Cunliffe whose family bought the hall in the late eighteenth-century and remained there until 1917.

Four DogsFour Dogs

The symbol of the Cunliffe family is the greyhound: it features on their family crest and is also now used as the emblem of the Wrexham Area Civic Society. The original gateway to the hall had four wooden greyhounds mounted on its top. One disappeared when the US army were stationed at Acton Hall in World War Two and another was destroyed by vandals in 1964. The present greyhounds were made by local art college students in 1982 when the council restored the gates. The students constructed moulds from an original greyhound figure and made four new ones from glass fibre and concrete. One of the original wooden dogs is now housed in Wrexham’s museum.

Adjoining the gates is a pub called, unsurprisingly, The Four Dogs. The Four Dogs has a bit of a reputation locally, although that may be a little unfair as I’ve certainly never had any problems on the couple of occasions I’ve been in there. Allegedly, however, it is the pub of last resort for people who have been banned from all the other hostelries in town.

As we walk we reflect on how pub names often seem to tap into local history and mythology. Across the road from The Four Dogs is a pub called The Acton Park and, a mile or so away on the other side of Acton is another called The Greyhound. Nearby, along the eastern edge of Acton Park is Jeffreys Road, named in memory of the previous occupants of Acton Hall. When a new pub was built here in the early 1970s the brewery invited suggestions for what it should be called. The Whippet, The Swinging Judge, The Hanging Judge and The Scaffold were all rejected before they settled on the rather less edgy name of The Cunliffe Arms.

We turn down Box Lane along what was once the northern edge of the Acton Hall estate. This was once the main road to Chester before the new turnpike on what is now Chester Road was constructed. Supposedly the ‘box’ in Box Lane comes from the sentry box Sir Foster Cunliffe had installed to prevent travellers using ‘his’ road as a cut-through to avoid the toll charges on the turnpike.

Acton Hall

Half way along Box Lane we come to Acton Park Primary School. Will’s daughters both attended this school. The oldest part of the school was built in 1917 by the Belgian-born diamond merchant Sir Bernard Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer bought all 224 acres of the Acton Hall estate when the Cunliffe family put it up for sale that year.


He immediately sold 64 acres to the council for what was to become the Acton Park housing estate and gifted 125 acres to a trust set up to provide small-holdings for ex-servicemen. He also built a factory unit on Box Lane on the site of the present school. His plan was to set up a diamond polishing works to provide work for disabled ex-servicemen. The initiative was not a success, however, and the site was sold to the council in the early 1920s.

Acton Park School logo

We take a right down a street called Acton Gardens which leads through to Acton Park. This street edges the former kitchen garden of Acton Hall and some parts of the estate’s original sandstone walls, formerly extending for some 23 miles around its perimeter, are still evident here.

Acton Gardens

The older houses in Acton Gardens appear to date from the 1920s but, just before we enter the park, we pass through a new development of town houses around a faux-village green. There is also a large three-storey apartment block modelled, so Will tells me, on the original Acton Hall. Although, to my mind, it doesn’t seem to bear much resemblance to the any of the archive pictures I’ve seen.

Acton Hall Walks

Acton Hall was built by the Jeffreys family in the sixteenth-century and was the birth-place of Judge George Jeffreys. The house passed through several other hands before being sold to Sir Foster Cunliffe in 1785. He made improvements to the house, expanded the estate and made it the Cunliffe family seat for another 130 years.

Sir Foster Cunliffe, 3rd Baronet

Sir Foster Cunliffe, 3rd Baronet

But the Cunliffes were not originally from the landed gentry; Sir Foster’s grandfather, who was also called Foster, was a Liverpool merchant who amassed his fortune on the back of the slave trade, a part of their family history which later generations tended to play down.

Sir Foster, the 3rd Baronet of Acton Hall, died in 1834. The final Cunliffe family custodian of the hall was the 6th Baronet, Sir Foster H E Cunliffe, an Oxford don and MCC cricketer. He succeeded to the title in 1905 but died in the Somme in 1916.

By 1917 the Cunliffe family’s fortunes were at a low ebb and they vacated the hall and put its lands up for sale. The house itself remained unoccupied. It was used as a furniture store in the inter-war years and as a billet for the US 33rd Signals Battalion in WW2. The building’s fabric continued to deteriorate and, with no resources to restore it, the council demolished Acton Hall in 1954.

Some of the grandeur of the Acton Hall estate is still apparent to us, however, as we meander across Acton Park. The park comprises 55 acres of grass, trees and ornamental gardens. At its centre is a lake which was once Acton Hall’s fish-pond.

Acton ParkActon Park

To the south of Acton Park we pass through Wrexham’s oldest council housing estate, also called Acton Park. The first 118 houses were built in 1920 following the ‘garden village’ concept of gardens, crescents, open-spaces and landscaping. The architect was Professor Sir Patrick Abercrombie of Liverpool University. More houses were added in subsequent decades, but they seem to lack the build-quality and imagination of Sir Patrick’s original design.

Beyond the Acton Park council estate we cross a main road and follow Park Avenue back to our starting point in Westminster Drive. Park Avenue is a wide, tree-lined road with an almost continental feel. It was originally called Cooper’s Lane but, when a number of large houses began to be built here in the 1930s, the council felt it needed a grander street name to attract the ‘right’ kind of resident. They also planted an avenue of 52 trees at the then astonishing cost of £22-16s-00d.

Sensing I might be tempted to write something wistful about Acton Hall and days gone by in Wrexham, Will reminds me before we part of the murky antecedents of the Jeffreys and Cunliffe families. Even Bernard Oppenheimer, he added, for all the good he tried to do for people disabled in the Great War, wrested his colonial diamond fortune from its rightful African owners.

But the resonances abound; so many of the street names in this part of Wrexham pay homage to the legacy of Foster, Cunliffe, Acton and Jeffreys. And that greyhound motif keeps turning up in odd places. Which just leaves me with the four dogs. After all, everyone likes dogs.

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Psychogeographic Review’s Recommendations – September 2015

This past month Psychogeographic Review has been reading:

51PZWznCa9L__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Iain Sinclair – London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line (2015)

These days Sinclair writes like a man  aware that he is running out of time: words tumble out of him, one project after another, often over-lapping.  There is a palpable sense of urgency in his work: the flow of words accelerates just as the pace of his walks, the groundwork that is so essential to his style of writing, seems to have speeded up.  London Overground follows a typical Sinclair scenario, taking a walk along the route of London’s overground railway, the ‘ginger line’ of the title, and using it as a starting point for Sinclair’s peregrinatory riffs on writers, politics and urban life.  Yes, he’s done similar London walks before, but rarely with the pace and verve of this book in which he sets out to complete the entire journey in one day.  Sinclair’s companion on his walk, Boswell to his Samuel Johnson, is the film-maker Andrew Kötting, who brings a glowering physicality to Sinclair’s sensory meanderings.  But, as ever with Sinclair, the words, the ideas, memories and observations, tumble forth.

51bSHEcj1BL__SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Roger Willemsen – The Ends of the Earth (2010)

Roger Willemsen is a respected German writer and television presenter and this is his first book to be translated into English.  The Ends of the Earth comprises of series of essays reviewing the author’s travels to some of the world’s remoter corners.  But this is not a simple travelogue, because Willemsen is not just a simple observer; he engages at an emotional level with the places he visits and the people he meets.  So, whether it is with prostitutes in Mumbai or at a hospital death-bed in Minsk, Willemsen is fully engaged and invites us to join him, not just to gaze but to understand and empathise.


18369750Terence Davies – Hallelujah Now (1984)

This is a fascinating read for those of us who are admirers Terence Davies’s Trilogy series of films in which he explores the life of his alter-ego, Robbie.  Like the films this, his only novel to date, traces the course of Robbie’s life as he struggles to come to terms with the weight of his upbringing, his Catholicism and his sexuality in the working-class Liverpool of the fifties and sixties.  Davies’s vision is clearly more fully realised in film, indeed I would suggest he is a far better film haunting glimpses into Robbie’s interior world.



By-Grand-Central-Station-b-format2Elizabeth Smart – By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945)

Elizabeth Smart’s prose poem of love, longing and betrayal delivers a visceral punch that is just as relevant today as when it was first written more than half a century ago: “I have learned to smoke because I need something to hold onto.”





Front PageSTEPZ: A Psychogeography and Urban Aesthetics Zine (Pilot Edition, Summer 2015)

STEPZ is the first issue of a new zine launched by Tina Richardson to try to bring together some of the creative expressions of what she terms the new psychogeography.  She succeeds in bringing together a host of new voices and some familiar ones, people interested in “critiquing, appreciating and debating urban space.”




umagthreeUniformagazine (No.3, Spring-Summer 2015)

A series of pieces on sounds, images and words  each loosely connected by a sense of place: “The uniformity of presentation highlights the variations and particularity of each combination of text and image—the singularity of each work is established by its relationship to other works.”





and listening to:

tmp_2F1427319212308-6k9bgbylc7jpp66r-6fb4ac4ca8a53f0cc687ae92aabda074_2FLITA129_HighresCoverDon’t Just Sing: An Anthology 1963-1999 – Karin Krog (2015)

Karin Krog is a Norwegian jazz singer whose CV stretches back to the early-sixties and includes work with Steve Kuhn, Red Mitchell, Dexter Gordon and Archie Shepp.  Krog’s vocals have been described as sculptural and this collection amply demonstrates the way she is able to shape her voice to extract maximum effect from every syllable.

a yearIn Every Mind – A Year in the Country (2015)

“This is the first audiological research and pathways case study constructed solely by A Year In The Country.  In contrast to the telling of tales from the wald/wild wood in times gone by, today the stories that have become our cultural folklore we discover, treasure, pass down, are informed and inspired by, are often those that are transmitted into the world via the airwaves, the (once) cathode ray machine in the corner of the room, the zeros and ones that flitter around the world and the flickers of (once) celluloid tales.  They take root in our minds and imagination via the darkened rooms of modern-day reverie, partaken of in communal or solitary séance.”

a1f8374c45e0c7cb2d54bcaaede43db3The Serpent’s Egg – Dead Can Dance (1988)

The music of Dead Can Dance is like an ethereal soundtrack meandering its way through ancient churches, stone circles and forest glades.  The Serpent’s Egg is one of a string of richly textured albums band members Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry produced in the eighties and early-nineties and serves as a good introduction to their work.


homepage_large_e3b2cb24Paris 1919 – John Cale (1972)

This is Cale’s fourth solo album and arguably includes some of his best post-Velvet Underground work.  A satisfying fusion of ballads, rock and the avant-garde music Paris 1919 also showcases Cale’s playful lyrics: “Somewhere between Dunkirk and Paris
Most people here are still asleep
But I’m awake
Looking out from here -at half-past France.”


and watching:

220px-Into_the_abyss_posterInto the Abyss – Werner Herzog (2011)

Into the Abyss is Werner Herzog’s critique of the American penal system and a powerful contribution to that nation’s debate on capital punishment.  But this is not mere polemic, although Herzog is a well-known opponent of capital punishment he enables all those included in his documentary to tell their own stories in their own way.




51QNWVAGTEL__SY445_Liebestraum – Mike Figgis (1992)

Liebestraum is ostensibly a thriller, but Figgis ignores any temptation to offered laboured explanations and instead concentrates on his film’s visual impact, soundtrack and moody atmosphere.  In doing so he succeeds in conjuring up the ‘love dream’ of his title; and like all the best dreams it embraces love, death and architecture.



$_35Get Carter – Mike Hodges (1971)

Michael Caine’s gangster, Jack Carter, is on the loose in Newcastle seeking answers and looking to exact revenge.  Hodges created a genre of British crime films later taken up in movies such as The Long Good Friday and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  But nothing quite matches Get Carter’s documentary-like evocation of provincial Britain in the 1970s, not to mention its score by Roy Budd and stand-out performances by Caine, Ian Hendry and John Osborne.







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