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This Merlin is clearly not a wizard
on 25 January 2015
I'll save you the labour of reading this masterpiece of vagueness, those of you with the 'tl;dr' disposition: pick up any book by Sinclair, Debord, Ackroyd or Defoe and you have a far better chance of grasping what 'psychogeography' is than anything this glib affair has to offer.
Merlin, Merlin. I wanted to like this. I wanted to know more about 'psychogeography' as a term and a process of writing. I had faith that buying a book with the overtly succinct title 'PSYCHOGEOGRPHY' would at least go some distance in supplying answers to my questions. Sadly I am, all things considered, really none the wiser.
Where this book fails is threefold. First: it is structurally terrible and reads incredibly superficially. The sections, although some might say are 'clearly defined', do not really have much internal logic to them (why write about Stevenson and Blake, then for some reason bolt Watkins and theories of leylines onto the end of the chapter?). These subsections do not mesh all that well or chart a particularly clear chronological progression of 'psychogeography' in the sense that one might feel comfortable with. It flits choppily, and does not have a clear trajectory. What little information is given about each author is meagre and can't be more than 500 words in places, reminiscent of emaciated undergraduate degree essays where the threat of a word limit creates a frenzied culling of what would otherwise be perfectly acceptable - and probably necessary - analysis to flesh things out. Perhaps this is the fault of the publisher insisting on commissioning a pocket edition of something clearly more involved than 150 pages, large font print, would allow? I don't know. I don't really care anymore either, as there are far better authors to read (see above).
To be fair, and for the sake of balance, the section on Debord is clearly the best and is almost somewhat enjoyable despite the fact it is far too short. Perhaps the book itself would have been better centred on Debord and the Situationists as a touchstone rather than shamelessly name-dropping and writing ultra-compact précis to excess on each and every author who might have some connection to psychogeography. (He misses a few, too, by the way - and while I'm at it, what about psychogeographer poets? There are none mentioned here at all, despite Sinclair being a writer and poet).
Second: the theory just isn't there. At the start, Coverley says 'I will be discussing the origins and theoretical underpinning of term [psychogeography]' but this is a wholly half-baked fudge of a statement, as to my mind he does not offer any theoretical underpinning of what HE believes the term to be, only what others have to say about it. This compounds the problem in my first complaint about structure. The roots of the term, such as the etymology of 'psychogeography' and theories denoting space, place and what constitutes geography and perhaps a well-conceived explanation of what the term might represent in modern society is eclipsed by a patchy (and ultimately fruitless) exposition of the concept of the flâneur and the situationists. Where is the geography? Where is the land? The dirt and soil? The impact of this on writing and the mind? Which leads me to...
Third: the whole book is essentially an over-embellished reading list of authors, who are mainly, largely (and come to think of it, ONLY) concerned with psychogeography as an URBAN phenomenon. This is misleading and thoroughly untrue. Rural communities and wild landscapes are surely equally able to contribute to psychogeographic phenomena, of which Coverley is systematically phobic of committing himself to. Through distracting himself with - and limiting himself to - Paris and London, there seems to be a void of rural critique. I feel this is hugely disappointing and damaging to 'psychogeography' as a whole.
What is actually more troubling is the thinly-veiled attempt to discredit Ackroyd's work - claiming that he does not fit into the radical left-wing canon of psychogeography and damning any perceived 'conservative' aspects of his writing - despite Ackroyd himself claiming to not like or use 'psychogeography' as a means of describing his work, or, indeed, himself as a 'psychogeographer'. This is a poor, subjective, and needless addition to what is already a shallow and ill-conceived book.
I know this is a pocket book. I know that there is only so much that can be done or said in 150 pages. But I feel that this was a missed opportunity to actually lay down something more concrete than simply name dropping and surface-analysing a myriad of authors with sometimes vague associations with 'psychogeography'. If you are studying a module at university on psychogeography or writing and landscape, this is a pointless addition to a reading list. Go and read the writers mentioned in the bibliography - it will save you the few hours of teeth-grinding frustration and eye-watering banality that Mr. Coverley presents with relish in 'PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY'.