Psychogeography for dummies

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We think about places in many ways, most of them more or less based upon physical considerations (climate, distance from somewhere else, height above sea level, ease of access and so on). We may say that we like somewhere, even to the extent of returning there every summer for the annual family holiday, but we rarely think much beyond that. Most of us certainly take little notice of the emotional or spiritual impact of a particular location or look for meaning in the abstract qualities of a place.

This has often seemed to me at odds with my own experience in which many places are loaded with significance and numinous qualities. There are obvious places with historical associations but there are many more where the place itself seems almost to speak, to have a story to tell that is uniquely it’s own but, more even than that, presents an abstract sense of meaning that derives from a combination of sources. History, personal or otherwise, by itself is not the full story: in these places there is a particular quality that derives from considerations to which we rarely pay attention, usually because it simply becomes to difficult for most of us to think deliberately and analytically about something so abstract as the meaning of a place.

So it was that I came to the writings of Iain Sinclair, foremost (as I discovered) amongst psychogeographers. The psychogeographer has many inputs, some historical, some social, religious, geophysical, philosophical and some downright mystical, even countercultural. Sinclair has a documentary sense for East London that equates with JG Ballard’s fictional sense for it’s Western extremities. Reading Sinclair, I found the same respect and fascination for the intangible qualities of spaces and places that I had previously encountered in Ballard’s work. In both writers, one is introduced to places whose meanings transcend their mundane functions. Exactly what the repeated Ballardian motif of the abandoned swimming pool signifies is rarely, if ever, clear but one is left in no doubt that it is of great, albeit profoundly abstract, importance.

With these intangible thoughts swirling around I came to visit somewhere that had this numinous quality for me. In early spring I visited what is now called Gunpowder Park. Coincidentally, the first of Sinclair’s works that I encountered began nearby, in the Lee Valley of North East London, just within the M25 orbital motorway. Gunpowder Park used to be owned by what, in the 1960s, was known as the Ministry of Aviation who called it the Explosives Research and Development Establishment (ERDE). I know this because I worked there for several years from 1966.

Our work was to do with small rocket motors, the kind used to throw lines from lifeboats or to power aircraft ejector seats. It wasn’t secret work but the whole campus was redolent with security culture: not in the crude physical forms in which we encounter it today for there were no surveillance cameras, phone taps or the like but the very air was heavy with an intangible sense that there were questions one didn’t ask and parts of the establishment to which one didn’t go. Oddly, it would have been physically quite possible to have done so but one simply didn’t think of going exploring in the way that the averagely curious person would do anywhere else. There was a group of buildings that were reputed to house a department that specialised in developing devices for clandestine purposes. Maybe it existed and maybe it didn’t: the people who worked there didn’t volunteer information but, more significantly, the aura of the place meant that no-one would ever ask them. Quintessentially English.

There were other areas that were part of the local culture such as the intriguingly-named “Blast Mound”, an area of high ground upon which explosives could be detonated at a sufficient elevation that the shock waves they created would, so the theory went, pass harmlessly above other buildings. There were many hair-raising tales told by the older manual workers (known as “industrials”) including the awfulness of the headaches resulting from the daily handling of explosives for which the only remedy was supposedly large doses of medicinal alcohol in the form of Scotch whisky dispensed by kindly doctors in the medical centre. They, of course would never have admitted as much but, then again, such was the culture that no-one would ever have been so indiscreet as to have asked.

All this has gone now, save for a few derelict buildings fenced away and an occasionally open museum celebrating the heritage of the place from it’s glory days as the Royal Gunpowder Mills. What is left is bulldozed wasteland that has allegedly been decontaminated and declared a park, a supermarket distribution centre, a housing estate and an orbital motorway. I hunted high and low for traces of what used to be but, apart from roads that went nowhere, it had all been erased from view. Sadly, I put my camera away unused. The physical evidence was gone but somehow, what remained was more than just memory: not just mine but the memories of the hundreds of people who had worked there in difficult and sometimes highly dangerous conditions. In this ground there was still significance and a sense that much had happened here (including some harrowing accidents). Whatever awfulnesses the demolition and decontamination workers had sought to remove, a vital essence remained, the bland fields spoke of their past: meaning had somehow survived.