As I went up through Llandaf with an 1880 Ordnance Survey map of the district in my hand I wondered just what I’d find. Would the totality have changed? Would the old streets shown from a hundred and twenty years ago have vanished into the dust to be replaced by new structures, terraces, parking places, curry houses and shops? Not a bit. The grid was identical, it was just the detail that had morphed. How much had we added here in a century? Not as much as you’d think. I wrote what I discovered down.
This act, artificial, contrived, even faintly ridiculous, was one of psychogeography. I discovered this later when the book of which my Llandaf piece formed part was published. Real Cardiff. ‘Finch is clearly a flaneur, suggested one reviewer. ‘A situationist,’ remarked another. ‘A psychogeographer. One who lets the built environment inform his emotions, who has discovered new ways for the pedestrian to explore the city, someone who lets go and ambles, a literary explorer of maps.’ So that’s what I was. Amazing.
Will Self, I discovered, had for years authored a column called Psychogeography for The Independent. In it he wrote of his experiences walking to New York, using trains to reach sales conferences, living in an empty high rise on Merseyside. He was the embodiment of what turned out to be a growing popular movement of artists and activists who had for years been using such conceits to propel themselves across the planet.
There were those who used numbers, throwing dice to define a grid point and then seeing who could get there first. Others followed the grid lines themselves as they bisected the landscape. Could the line be walked? When it reached buildings could you go through them, into the window, through the door, over the roof?
Iain Sinclair, author of one of the seminal reworkings of the urban landscape, Lights Out The Territory walked the M25, staying within 300 meters of the roadway, and recorded his experiences. What was there, in this liminal landscape? Abandoned factories, mental asylums, storage tanks, waste.
My own psychogeographic amblings took me along the entire Cardiff route of the Glamorgan Canal. Gone for decades. Who knew where it had run? With photographer John Briggs I tracked the long vanished Roath Branch railway from Gabalfa into Cardiff Docks. In a single day I tried to climb as many of Cardiff’s tall buildings as I could. I visited every street named after a battle, planet or element. I drank in all the pubs of Canton.
This last episode took some doing and, I have to admit, is still incomplete. Progress is slow. The pubs are closing too fast. Check Seren’s Real series for progress.