T.S. Eliot and the Flâneur

 

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …

 

Tom Eliot was not a flâneur, or at least not in the sense that he was an idle wanderer and observer of the city streets. But he used the device of the flâneur in his poetry, particularly in The Waste Land and Prufrock. The London he wrote about was the one he observed as he walked to and from the office, before and after each day’s work. Eliot was consciously not an idler, but prided himself on being a producer of wealth at the heart of London’s financial core. Nonetheless, ‘outside of hours he was a poet. And watching, witnessing, writing about the crowd, he was a poet’.[1] Whether consciously or unconsciously, Eliot gave the nineteenth-century flâneur-observer ideas of Baudelaire a modernist psychological interpretation in works such as Prufrock. In his poetry, he fuses the realistic with the phantasmagoric and the everyday with the fantastic.

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent

 

For Eliot London was not just any city but the supreme city of the modern age; the heart of a great but decaying empire and still the world’s commercial and financial capital. He settled in London in 1917 having found both his home city of St Louis and his almae matres of Harvard and Oxford far too provincial for his tastes.

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London fired Eliot’s imagination. But, when we read The Waste Land, we do not see a world illumined by light but one of fire-revealed darkness:

  Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

 

When Eliot arrived in London he discovered a city ground down by war and with many of the best of its younger generation already sacrificed on the battlefields of France and Belgium. He found a London that was indeed the cultured, urbane society he had longed to embrace while still a young man in Missouri, but at the same time he sensed a rising tide of something that was spiritually and morally degenerate.

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is the centrepiece of Eliot’s first collection of London poems and in Prufrock we see his proto-flâneur. He is a wanderer of the city’s night-time streets and an observer of the denizens of its darker reaches. Prufrock, perhaps like his creator, is at once bold and also reticent and he invites us to join him in his nocturnal wanderings:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

 

But he is torn between the drawing room with its ‘porcelain, among some talk of you and me’ and the grimy city streets of the city where he yearns for ‘the yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes’.   The genteel world indoors represents conventionality and respectability whereas the streets suggest something freer, darker and a whisper of sexual possibility.

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In Portrait of a Lady, another poem in the Prufrock collection, the narrator takes tea with his would-be lover, conjuring up a vision of bourgeois respectability, but he longs all the while to take her out with him into the streets; for the two of them to share all that the shaded underbelly of the city represents:

— Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance,
Admire the monuments,
Discuss the late events,
Correct our watches by the public clocks.
Then sit for half an hour and drink our bocks.

 

In the same year that Eliot brought out Prufrock he also published a prose piece in the Little Review titled Eeldrop and Appleplex – I. The essay centres on an imaginary conversation between the two protagonists of the title, characters whom one suspects are thinly disguised versions of Eliot and his friend Ezra Pound.

Eeldrop and Appleplex’s conversation ranges over their mutual interest in experiencing the more visceral aspects of the city. The only meaningful point of contact, or moment of shared understanding, between the human psyche and the modern city is in the steady, sustained gaze of the flâneur. We cannot inhabit a city, Eeldrop suggests, but through our spectatorship we can bear witness to it. More than that, he suggests, the actions of the flâneur allow us to decode the city.

By the time he published The Waste Land in 1922 Eliot’s modernist conception of the city was fully formed. In this work he abandons any pretence of presenting a temporal sequence of events and instead lays before us an array of images linked only by their spatial form. These images do not follow on one from the other, rather they are arranged one next to the other in a seemingly random manner.

This sequence of images, Eliot seems to suggest, is analogous to our experience of the modern city.  We cannot comprehend the city as a whole.  Like the flâneur, we can only experience the city as the handful of images at which we gaze.  At best we can attempt to piece together a puzzle that can never be completed.

And this new character living in a modern metropolitan time and place seemed to demand new techniques. The job of the ‘modernist’ artist was not to represent the modern panorama but to render the shifting internal lie of an individual consciousness, to present the spasmodic, the obscure the fragmentary, the failure.[2]

 

[1] Peter Brooker, Modernity and Metropolis: Writing, Film and Urban Formations (Basingstoke and New York, Palgrave, 2002) p. 25

[2] ibid. p. 52

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The Ladies of Llangollen

Wordsworth knew them, the first time he met the ladies was in the garden at Plas Newydd.  Their maid showed him through the house and out into the garden where he found them standing arm-in-arm before a luxuriant spread of wisteria which had cloaked itself over a wall in the kitchen garden.  Sitting at his desk years later he could still see them, albeit through the lens of memory.  It must have been May or June, he recalled, for the wisteria was in full flower; and such flowers, a profusion of open, wanton blooms.  Each flower quivered gently in the breeze as if anticipating  the caress of a lover, and to the sound of sweet buzzing endearments, each bloom’s pollen is swiftly taken leaving her alone and bereft.

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As one the ladies turned to face him and he noticed that tears filled both pairs of eyes, though the face of each had opened into a welcoming smile upon seeing him.  We are so pleased that you came Mr Wordsworth, are we not Sarah?  We are indeed, Eleanor, we are indeed.

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They showed him around the garden explaining how they had transformed it from a place of wild rockiness into one of floral profusion and, flushing with excitement, they shared their ideas for the work that still needed to be done.  Eleanor and Sarah spoke in the manner of a musical duet, delighting in the contributions of the other but constantly clamouring to take the lead.  Eleanor was tall and slim, Sarah shorter in height and broader of figure.  Both had a soft Irish lilt to their words that gave a Celtic musicality to even the Latin names of their plants.

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img_0548Their walk took them to a stream.  Were they still in the garden, or had they strayed beyond its boundaries?  Wordsworth was not sure, he made to speak and then realised that the ladies were silent and had been so for some seconds.  They had reached a glade amongst the trees and stood before a glassy pool.  Silently, so it felt, they were imploring him to stand, to look and to meditate upon air, water, rock and plant.

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Such love: Wordsworth stayed with the ladies of Plas Newydd for several days and, though the word was never mentioned, that would be far too vulgar an affectation, he felt that love pervaded everything about that place.  Afterwards he wrote about their meeting in a sonnet:

A stream to mingle with your favourite Dee,

Along the vale of meditation flows;

So styled by those fierce Britons, pleased to see

In Nature’s face the expression of repose;

Or haply there some pious hermit chose

To live and die, the peace of heaven his aim;

To whom the wild sequestered region owes

At this late day, its sanctifying name.

Glyn Cafaillgaroch, in the Cambrian tongue,

In ours, the Vale of Friendship, let ‘this’ spot

Be named; where, faithful to a low-roofed Cot,

On Deva’s banks, ye have abode so long;

Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb,

Even on this earth, above the reach of Time!

 

To The Lady E.B. And The Hon. Miss P, William Wordsworth

 

The phrase ‘sisters in love’ particularly pleased the ladies, though they took exception to their home being described as a ‘low-roofed cot’.  They chided him about this on his next visit.  Though, with a soft brush of the hand along his arm by one lady and a shining-eyed smile by the other.

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The Buried Giant

The rocks they had discussed from below now loomed before them and Axl could see, as they came ever nearer, how they were arranged in a rough semi-circle around the top of a mound to the side of their path.

Buried Giant 7Buried Giant 10Buried Giant 4Buried Giant 5Some of you will have fine monuments by which the living may remember the evil done to you. Some of you will have only crude wooden crosses or painted rocks, while yet others of you must remain hidden in the shadows of history. You are in any case part of an ancient procession, and so it is always possible the giant’s cairn was erected to mark the site of some such tragedy long ago when young innocents were slaughtered in war.

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Buried Giant 6Buried Giant 8Buried Giant 9This aside, it is not easy to think of reasons for its standing.  One can see why on lower ground our ancestors might have wished to commemorate a victory or a king.  But why stack heavy stones to above a man’s height in so high and remote a place as this?

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant

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Buried Giant 2

 

 

Words: Kazuo Ishiguro

Images: Grimspound and Broad Barrow, Devon and Humbleton Hill Fort, Northumberland by Bobby Seal

 

 

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The Polish Embassy

It’s very easy to walk straight past the Polish Embassy in Wrexham without noticing it.  It’s a narrow, understated and not particularly distinguished building on the town’s High Street.  It also happens to be pub called the Royal Oak.

Polish Embassy 1

The earliest record of a pub by that name on this site dates from 1780, though the present building was completed in 1913 and replaced the original timber-framed structure.  In terms of architectural style I would describe it as Elizabethan-pastiche: pointed gable, leaded windows and a black and white-timbered façade.  The Royal Oak’s connection with Poland dates back to the Second World War.  Units of the Free Polish Army were stationed in the Wrexham area, and the pub became a favourite watering hole of the exiles.  Since that time it has been known locally as the Polish Embassy.

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A number of Polish soldiers previously based in Wrexham expressed a reluctance to return their homeland after the war because of the Soviet occupation and many of them chose to settle in the area.  This population was added to in 1946 when the Polish Army Medical Corps, who were based in Italy, decided en masse that they did not wish to return to their native country.  Several hundred Polish service personnel and their families were, therefore, relocated to a former US Army hospital site at Penley, just outside Wrexham.

Before the Polish servicemen began to use the Royal Oak it was the haunt of American soldiers from the 33rd Signals Construction Battalion and 400th Armoured Field Artillery Battalion who were billeted at Acton Park.  The US Army, to its shame, was racially segregated at this time and the Royal Oak was one of the few Wrexham pubs African-American soldiers were free to attend.  The US Army left Wrexham in 1944 shortly after D-Day.  It was around this time that the Royal Oak’s connection with Wrexham’s Polish community began.

Polish War Memorial, Wrexham

Polish War Memorial, Wrexham

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Royal Oak today is a very pleasant pub with a jukebox, open fire, a host of CAMRA-approved real ales and, weirdly, an enormous stuffed antelope head on the chimney breast.

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What there doesn’t seem to be, however, is any reminder of the pub’s once intimate connection with the town’s Polish population.  The Polish hospital at Penley no longer exists either having finally closed its doors in 2002.

Wrexham had a thriving Polish community throughout the 1950s and 1960s and the Royal Oak, by all accounts, maintained its Polish connection throughout this period.  In subsequent decades, however, Wrexham’s Polish community began to lose its unique identity as the wartime generation died off and their children and grandchildren were steadily assimilated into the local population.

Things changed, however, in 2004 when Poland and a number of other new countries acceded to the European Union.  Wrexham’s economy was booming during this time with an unemployment rate well below the UK average and a plethora of manufacturing jobs in the area.  As a result a steady stream of workers from Eastern Europe and Portugal were attracted to the town.  Wrexham’s Polish community has been rejuvenated and is estimated to form upwards of five per cent of the town’s population.

Wrexham now has several Polish supermarkets, most of the town’s pubs and off-licences stock Polish beers and the Polish language is now vying with Welsh and Portuguese to be the second most widely-spoken tongue in the area.

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But, in concrete terms, there is very little to connect the current Polish community with the wartime generation.  On several visits to the Royal Oak, obviously just for the purposes of research, I never heard an Eastern European accent: the Polish Embassy is still waiting for a new generation to reclaim its heritage.

 

With full acknowledgement and grateful thanks to Zosia and Jurek Beigus’s excellent book Polish Resettlement Camps in England and Wales, 1946-1969 (2013)

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Permanence and Impermanence: Auggie’s Pictures

This gallery contains 2 photos.

They’re all the same, but each one is different from every other one.  You’ve got your bright mornings; your fog mornings; you’ve got your summer light and your autumn light; you’ve got your week days and your weekends; you’ve got … Continue reading

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The Fairy Mount

For in one sense Faerie represents a species of limbo, a great abyss of traditional material, into which every kind of ancient belief came to be cast as the acceptance of one new faith after another dictated the abandonment of forms and ideas unacceptable to its doctrines. The difference between god and fairy is indeed the difference between religion and folklore.

Lewis Spence, British Fairy Origins: The Genesis and Development of Fairy Legends in British Tradition (1946)

 

Poring over a reprint of a 1909 Ordnance Survey map of Wrexham I noticed something odd. On the corner of Belmont Road and Fairy Road, in an area close to the town centre, I noticed that a tumulus was marked in what appeared to be the garden of a large house at the point where the two roads meet. I know Fairy Road reasonably well; it’s a conservation area with some striking examples of Arts and Crafts architecture and was once home to the offices of the Football Association of Wales. But I’d never noticed a tumulus there before and, according to the 1909 map, it looked like quite a large one. Strangely though, I couldn’t find anything marked on the current OS Explorer map nor was there anything on Google or Open Street Map.

 

OS Map 1909

Tumulus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the coincidence of the presence a prehistoric burial mound and the fact that the street is named Fairy Road intrigued me: what resonances of myth and memory had led to the area being given such a name? Having a free afternoon that day, I decided to take a little field trip. The first thing that strikes you about Fairy Road is the wealth of quirky Victorian architectural features, such as turrets, towers and curved walls, and the overall unity of the feel of the street that comes from the universal use of Ruabon red brick. The effect is spoiled, however, by the fact the street is part of Wrexham’s inner ring road and the noise and smell of traffic is ever-present.

Fairy Mount

Just past the corner with Belmont Road was something I hadn’t noticed before – a large detached house called Fairy Mount. The house sits behind a high wall of Ruabon brick on one side and a stone wall topped with a wooden fence on the other. Stretching to peer over the fence I saw that the house was set in extensive lawned grounds. I also saw that there, in the middle of the front garden, was a large grassy mound with the unmistakeable shape of a barrow. Sitting on top of the mound, like some strange obelisk, was the hollowed-out trunk of a dead tree. Leaning my camera on the fence I managed to fire off a couple of pictures.

Reading about Fairy Mount later, I learned that the house was built on a plot called Fairy Field and that the barrow was once topped by an oak tree. According to legend the fairy folk would dance around the mound on sacred occasions. It was excavated in 1882 prior to the construction of Fairy Mount and bones and pottery dating back to the Bronze Age were found. Unfortunately these remains have since disappeared.

Fairy hills feature prominently in Welsh and Irish folklore and tended to be regarded with a mixture of reverence and caution.  For the pre-Christian Celtic peoples a belief in the supernatural realm was an integral part of their world view, as was the existence of beings from this hidden world. In Scotland and Ireland these beings were known as the Aos Sí, which means the  Good People or Fair Folk.  To trespass onto their sacred places such as a fairy mount, known to them as a Sidhe, was to ask for trouble.

Of course we now know that such earthworks were constructed by our human ancestors more than two millennia ago. But even as I leaned on that wooden fence gazing across at the Fairy Mount with cars passing by behind me, I could still sense a certain ethereal beauty permeating this haven of earth, grass, trees and memory.

 

All images by the author other than:

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing – William Blake

Street view of Fairy Road  – Google Street View

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The Castle of the Raven King

‘Relic of Kings! Wreck of forgotten wars,

To winds abandoned and the prying stars.’

William Wordsworth, 1824

He keeps calling this a thin place which, to be honest, I find a little presumptuous. It’s true that a soon as we pass through the gate by the school and start to walk up the hill I find all sorts of thoughts and imaginings bubbling up to the surface, but is that really because of the place or is it just something I’m carrying inside me? Or maybe it was a book I read or something someone once told me?

You can see Dinas Brân from a long way down the valley: its conical hill dominates the view as you face upriver and the gnarled fingers of the castle’s outline seem to beckon and draw you in. I taught at the school at the foot of the castle hill once, just for the autumn term many years ago. Funnily enough, I never bothered to take the walk up to the ruined castle during that time, although I have done so several times since.

It’s a steep climb, the grass is slick with rainwater and the path a lumpy gruel of mud and small stones. Historians will tell you that they built the castle here because the hill provides a strong defensive position, but for me the choice of this site seems to be as much about asserting a claim to dominance: the hill isn’t just a point upon which to build a fortified position, but it is statement, a declaration of male dominance over the valley landscape and all who live within it. Thus the local lord was able to keep his own population in check and remind them who was in charge – Man dominating nature, or rather a handful of men dominating other men and women.

There’s a certain joy that comes from reaching the top of a hill and finding that there is no one else around when you get there, just my companion and me; and he seems to be more interested in checking the settings on his camera than in making idle conversation, which is good. I drink some water, not because I’m particularly thirsty but to disguise the fact that I’m out of breath and need to rest.

From the summit of the hill, standing amongst the castle ruins, you can see the River Dee below as it winds along the floor of the valley. I used to do a lot of wild swimming and I once swam in that stretch of water. It was quite a challenge to swim against the flow of the river just downstream of the town and it didn’t help to have so many crows constantly circling and swooping as I swam.

The name Dee is derived from the Brythonic word for goddess – the River of the Goddess. Castell Dinas Brân, I’m told, is variously translated as the Castle of the City of Crows, Crow’s Castle and Brân’s Fortress. Brân, of course, is the Raven King of Welsh mythology, hence my name for it: the Castle of the Raven King.

Most of the castles we now see in North Wales were built by the Normans to suppress the followers of the native Welsh princes; but Dinas Brân is different in that it pre-dates the invaders by at least a couple of centuries and was the stronghold of the princes of Powys Fadog. The site, however, was occupied long before that with evidence of Iron Age earthworks and ditches at several points on the summit.

Legend has it that Brân, the Raven King of Welsh mythology, had his head buried on Tower Hill in London after he was killed in battle. Brân, together with the ravens of the tower, then lived on as the symbolic protectors of the kingdom. King Arthur, the legend continues, had Bran’s head removed and re-buried at Dinas Brân where it remains until this day. Another Arthurian legend suggests that the Holy Grail is buried somewhere on the hill.

I don’t know the truth behind any of these stories, but I suppose that’s the whole point of mythology. This landscape certainly provides fertile ground for the weaving of legends: Dinas Brân’s imposing setting above the valley is reminiscent of something out of Tolkien and the facts of the castle’s earliest days are lost to recorded history, which leaves us with just the tales we read in the Mabinogion.

But I know this place, it lives in my dreams. I never dream about my time at the school, but the dark, glowering hill which looms above it frequently haunts my slumbering journeys. I am drawn to the sight of the jagged teeth of its wind-blown ramparts, and in my dream the crow flies and then everything makes perfect sense.

We are archaeologists of our own past lives, curious observers prodding away at the cooling embers of what we once experienced. All is cold and dusty, beyond any hope of responding to a despairing breath. It’s six years since I last swam in the River Dee, one day I will allow myself to think about why I stopped. We are creatures who look for patterns, trying to connect disparate elements, unwilling to accept the randomness of reality.

This is a guest post by Julie Baptiste. Any views expressed are entirely those of the author, Psychogeographic Review accepts no responsibility… ever.

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Psychogeographic Review’s Recommendations of the Year

Book Recommendations

cov_imaginary_hiresDarran Anderson – Imaginary Cities (2015)

Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities is a weighty, erudite book which propels the reader on an exhilarating journey through the history of the city in art, architecture and the human imagination. But, like some literary conjuror, Anderson has managed to produce a volume which wears its extensive and meticulous research lightly. He also places examples from popular culture, such as Judge Dredd and The Jetsons, alongside the more esoteric and academic. But why not? Anderson suggests that the buildings which did not get beyond the drawing board, those that remain within the realm of the imagination, are just as significant as those that were actually built: “The boundary between ‘real life’ architectural settings and fiction has been an intriguingly porous one.” After all, every structure, whether real or imagined, will eventually end up in the dustbin of history. Just one small carp, however: although the book is backed up by a slick website and lively Twitter account, it would have been nice to have included some pictures and an index.

exilesStuart Braun – City of Exiles (2015)

Stuart Braun’s book raises important questions concerning the influence of place on the human psyche and the nature of belonging. Berlin is, indeed, a city of exiles: from the Huguenots through to today’s Syrian refugees, outsiders have sought sanctuary in Berlin and each wave of exiles has left its mark upon the city. As Braun puts it:

Berlin is Berlin because of its strangers, its wanderers, its many displaced people who have come to build a kind of safe haven. These free-flowing exiles are the source of the freedom so many feel when they come to Berlin – they are the city’s substance in a sense.

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.

The LodgerLouisa Treger – The Lodger (2014)

While studying for her PhD thesis on Virginia Woolf Louisa Treger stumbled upon a review by Woolf of a writer whose name she did not recognise.  The review was of Revolving Lights, the seventh volume in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage sequence of novels.  Treger sought out Pilgrimage and was immediately riveted:

Who was Dorothy Richardson?  How had she come to re-invent the English language in order to record the experience of being uniquely female?

The Lodger, Treger’s first novel, tries to answer that question.  It is ‘a melding of fact and fiction’ exploring a critical period in the life of Dorothy Richardson.  She bases her story on the biographical facts of Richardson’s life, most of that life shadowed by Miriam Henderson, Richardson’s protagonist in Pilgrimage.

1783480858-230x345Tina Richardson – Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography (Place, Memory, Affect) (2015)

Tina Richardson is one of the key figures in contemporary British psychogeography and urban aesthetics. In this book she has brought together fourteen essays from a diverse range of urban walkers and writers. But this is not just a rag-bag collection of writings; Richardson’s own contributions give shape and form to the collection. For those of us interested in psychogeography she has provided a map of where we have come from and some pointers towards where we are going. More than anything else Walking Inside Out is a call to action:

Psychogeography does not have to be complicated. Anyone can do it. You do not need a map, Gore-Tex, rucksack, or companion. All you need is a curious nature and a comfortable pair of shoes. There are no rules to doing psychogeography – this is its beauty.

pond-by-claire-louise-bennettClaire-Louise Bennett – Pond (2015)

I first encountered Claire-Louise Bennett in the pages of gorse magazine and ever since I have looked forward to reading this, her debut collection of stories. The wait was worthwhile: Pond is a book that lives on in one’s imagination long after one has finished reading it. It is a collection of stories presented to the reader by an unnamed female narrator, but Bennett pushes the short story form to its absolute limits. In doing so she has achieved a work of profound and unsettling beauty:

Still, as I’ve said, none of this has anything to do with now whatsoever. I don’t know what it has to do with and as a matter of a fact I’m not sure what now is about either.

Music Recommendations

Sub_Lingual_1432561368_crop_560x583_0Sub-Lingual Tablet – The Fall (2015)

This is The Fall’s thirty-first album and is something of a return to form. Mark E Smith is at his irascible, snarling best and the band operates as a tight, punchy unit filling in the aural spectrum and leaving Smith’s voice free to wander in and out of his songs as only he can. Smith’s lyrics are totally unique and his subject matter is consistently idiosyncratic. Take Venice With The Girls, for instance:

 

Long nights in Brit-land
Olderness, his skin, whose is it
Too beautiful
Best thing, best thing for to do is hide

InstrumentalsInstrumentals – Flying Saucer Attack (2015)

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.

 

 

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.”

tumblr_nkoohysQDk1qf9i0do1_500Surface Tension – Rob St John (2015)

Sometimes with a project of this ambition it seems the initial concept overshadows the final creative achievement.  Thankfully this is not the case with this, Rob St John’s sublime multi-modal work.  As he describes it: “Surface Tension is a project I have been working on since last summer, exploring the River Lea in East London through sound, writing and photography.  Commissioned by the Thames21 charity’s ‘Love the Lea’ campaign, Surface Tension uses field recordings, tape loops, analogue synth, 120 and pinhole film photography to creatively interpret water pollution.”

homepage_large_58863bf2Alasdair Roberts – ‘Alasdair Roberts’ (2015)

Incredibly, this is Scottish singer/songwriter/guitarist Alasdair Roberts’s eighth solo album.  He’s also done any number of collaborations too; he’s clearly a hard-working performer, though he’s yet to do a gig in my part of the world.  Many of Roberts’s previous works have included traditional folk songs but this is an album of his own material.  It is a very satisfying and mellow collection with sparse acoustic arrangements and deeply personal lyrics, though Roberts mischievously wanted to know how I knew they were so personal when I first reviewed this album earlier in the year.

jo%20johnson-525x525Weaving – Jo Johnson (2014)

Jo Johnson has a background in punk and techno music and this is her first solo album.  It’s quite a departure from her previous work – five slices of ambient sounds and minimalist repetitions.  But it’s the attention to detail and the technical accomplishment of these ethereal soundscapes that really appeals.  That and track titles like In the Shadow of the Workhouse, which somehow puts me in mind of the opening of George Gissing’s novel The Nether World.

Film Recommendations

ttSunset Song – Terence Davies (2015)

Sunset Song is Terence Davies’s first feature film release in over four years and is based on Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 book of the same name. Set in a bleak rural community in north-east Scotland on the eve of the First World War, Sunset Song’s connections with Davies’s previous work may not be immediately apparent. However, Davies was clearly drawn to Gibbon’s themes of marital abuse, death and thwarted ambition; personal and universal wounds he had previously picked over in his Trilogy. But there is beauty in this film: Davies’s cinematography is sumptuous, his use of music is inspired and, in Agyness Deyn in the lead role, he has discovered an exciting new talent.

image004The Falling – Carol Morley (2014)

The Falling is Carol Morley’s study of friendship, sexuality and mass hysteria at a girls’ school in the 1960s.  She creates a satisfying mix of uncomfortable psychological insights and black humour seasoned with a hint of the uncanny.

 

vrodKSbA Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence – Roy Andersson (2014)

Roy Andersson’s latest film takes us through a series of episodes of existential pondering.  He reaches for truth by deliberately avoiding any hint of superficial reality:  his interiors appear to be constructed from balsa-wood, he has a colour palette that is largely restricted to a washed-out shade of green and his actors all wear corpse-like pale makeup.  Yet this is a genuinely funny and profound film; rather like Alexei Sayle  channelling Samuel Beckett.

CMD-Final-QuadCatch Me Daddy – Daniel Wolfe (2014)

Laila and Aaron are a young couple, one Asian the other white, who seek quiet anonymity in a caravan on the Yorkshire moors.  But Laila’s brother has other ideas.  The script by Daniel and Matthew Wolfe is acid sharp and Robbie Ryan’s camera evokes a landscape tinged with an eerie beauty.

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Space, Shadow and Light: The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer

Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.  (Carl Theodor Dreyer)

Carl Theodor Dreyer (3 February 1889 – 20 March 1968) was a Danish film-maker best known for his works The Bride of Glomdal (1926), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955), and Gertrud (1964).  His films are characterised by their mediated psychological power, naturalism and his use of space, shadow and light.  Dreyer displays a sensitivity for landscape, be it the wind-swept heathlands of his native Denmark or the forests of Norway.  He treats his indoor sets as landscapes too: the backgrounds of his interiors are a projection of the dramatic action and not just a backdrop to it. 

There is a certain resemblance between a work of art and a person. Just as one can talk about a person’s soul, one can also talk about the work of art’s soul, its personality.  The soul is shown through the style, which is the artist’s way of giving expression to his perception of the material. The style is important in attaching inspiration to artistic form. Through the style, the artist moulds the many details that make it whole. Through style, he gets others to see the material through his eyes.  Style is not something that can be separated from the finished work of art. It saturates and penetrates it, and yet is invisible and undemonstrable.  All art is a single person’s work. But a film is created by a collectivity, and a collectivity cannot create art unless an artistic personality stands behind it and acts as its driving force.  The first creating impulse for a film comes from the writer whose work is the actual foundation for the film. But from the moment the poetic foundation is laid, it is the director’s task to give the film its style. The many artistic details are born through his initiative. It ought to be his feelings and moods that colour the film and that awaken corresponding feelings and moods in the spectator’s mind. Through the style he infuses the work with a soul–and that is what makes it art. It is for him to give the film a face–namely his own.  The picture has a very great effect upon the spectator’s state of mind. If it is kept in light tones, then it tunes the mind in a light way. If it is kept in dark, subdued tones, then it tunes the mind to seriousness. As was suitable to the time and the action in Day of Wrath, my photographer and I agreed to have the pictures veiled in soft grey and black tones.  The eye prefers order, and therefore it is of importance that the picture effects are harmonious and remain so even in movement. Ungraceful lines push the spectator’s eye.  The eye absorbs horizontal lines rapidly and easily but repels vertical lines. The eye is involuntarily attracted by objects in motion but remains passive over stationary things. This is the explanation why the eye, with pleasure, follows gliding camera movements, preferably when they are soft and rhythmic. As a principle rule, one can say that one shall try to keep a continuous, flowing, horizontally gliding motion in the film. If one then suddenly introduces vertical lines, one can reach an instantly dramatic effect––as, for instance, in the pictures of the vertical ladder just before it is thrown into the fire in Day of Wrath.  (Carl Theodor Dreyer in Torben Skjødt Jensen’s My Métier , 1995)

Although Dreyer works in a field which has become inextricably associated with artificiality, trickery, and commercialized hoopla, his films have the personal, almost austere cohesion and integrity which mark them as the expressions of a single, quite extraordinary personality. There is in French the word cinéaste, which. has no equivalent in English and is applied to anyone who works, in any capacity, in the film medium; Dreyer, by his ubiquitous interest and direction, is the apotheosis of the cineaste.  (Paul Moor, The Tyrannical Dane, Theatre Arts Magazine, April 1951) 

Dreyer’s pared-down style takes him beyond surface realism to something more mysterious and abstract: sounds or shadows (as in the truly eerie Vampyr) evoke the presence of unseen beings, landscape and architecture are invested, by lighting, design and composition, with supernatural force. Paradoxically, by rejecting anything superfluous to his purposes, this undisputed master of the cinema created some of its richest, most affecting and wondrously beautiful studies of the human condition. (Geoff Andrew, The Director’s Vision, 1999)

Dreyer’s work is always based on the beauty of the image, which in turn is a record of the luminous conviction and independence of human beings. His films are devoted principally to human emotions, and if they seem relatively subdued, then that may be a proper reason for calling in Danishness. But simplicity and purity of style do not argue against intensity, Dreyer’s greatness is in the way that he makes a tranquil picture of overwhelming feelings. His art, and his intelligence, make passion orderly without ever cheating on it. (David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

Although he was sometimes austere and ponderous, Dreyer’s vision and drive for perfection made him the greatest director Denmark has ever produced. Unfortunately, the commercial failure of most of his films and his own perfectionism meant that his output was extremely limited… Dreyer was a film-maker before his time, even if his habit of using amateur players on occasions could work against his films. Nowadays he would find the world’s film climate much more to his liking and would no doubt be allowed the artistic and financial freedom he always desired.  (David Quinlan, Quinlan’s Film Directors, 1999)

Though his work is associated with emotional austerity and slow, stately pacing, Carl Theodor Dreyer made films that glisten with blood, sweat and tears; the Scandinavian winter wind may forever howl outside the door, but inside it’s a hothouse of conflicting desires and orthodoxies.   (Jessica Winter, The Rough Guide to Film, 2007)

Dreyer’s silent pictures are remarkable for their mastery of decor, lighting, camera movement, and editing.  Concentrate on the way he constructs the space of an interior or orchestrates a sensual camera movement that he invented himself – the camera gliding on unseen tracks in one direction while uncannily panning in another direction – and you perceive how each Dreyer film almost brutally reconstructs the universe rather than accepting it as a familiar given. Nothing can be taken for granted in these works – except their passion.   (Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Guardian, 2003)

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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.

The City of Dreadful Night James Thomson Book Cover

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.

City of Dreadful Night Gustave Doré 1

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.

City of Dreadful Night Gustave Doré 2

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’.

City of Dreadful Night Gustave Doré 4

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.

City of Dreadful Night Gustave Doré 3

 

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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