Film Review: Psychogeography And The Great Walk Thursday September 26, 2013

I’m interested in the process of mountain walking and the reasons why it’s therapeutic: why we enjoy it, what happens when we do it, and what implications this may have for the rest of our lives. I find it fascinating that I feel soothed, calmed, and consoled after romping for a few days, that geographic change instils psychological change. One perspective changes and so does the other. I don’t seek to complicate this or suggest you have to ‘understand’ it because you don’t. But it is possible to think about it and discuss it.

I’ve recently watched an interesting film called The Great Walk. It was screened at Manchester University as part of a mini walking season at a film club which is hosted there. The film is about psychogeography, the topic introduced thus by Morag Rose who works in this area:

Walking is an everyday activity with extraordinary resonances. To walk is to be between worlds, to change space, create imaginary worlds and desire lines, to be a pilgrim, a poet, a psychogeographer, a trespasser, an artist, an explorer, a zombie, a flâneur or maybe just propel yourself from A to B to buy a pint. Walking has inspired a rich tradition of writers, artists and activists and this season examines three different aspects of the pedestrian experience. Walking is essentially a practice and a multi-sensory experience; how can it be captured on film and what can it tell us about wider experiences?

I enjoyed the film, and later in conversation suggested the following to Morag. What you do, I said, is utterly different from what I do. You walk the city, seeking experiences and outlooks you otherwise won’t have. Walk randomly here, randomly there, follow a pattern such as the directions of pointing CCTV cameras and see what happens. It relates to parkour, which also reconfigures and re-appropriates public space. It’s a fascinating idea and great fun, to look at a street differently and see not corporate concrete and traffic sign dictation but a space for athletic activity which, when experienced as such, makes you feel you own it.

Graffiti has a similar psychology. People write it – teenagers, gangs, the occasional “political” adult or someone like Banksy – to stamp their identity onto anonymous space. Sociologically we might describe this with reference to the Durkheim notion of anomie which implies a sense of estrangement, dislocation, and having no place. If you write Dan Loves Suzi or Man City Rules or draw a heart and another teenager’s name, you express yourself and make other people see it. Flash mobs connect to this too, where public space is bewilderingly transformed into an arena for art. You find videos on the internet where a shopping mall is suddenly filled with opera. It’s joyful, moving, and a reminder that yes: these dreary urban places are only thus arbitrarily because of habit, fear, and ignoring them. Why shouldn’t opera be outside a supermarket as much as it is in an expensive musical hall?

Guerrilla Gardeners have the same idea, planting flowers and occasionally being questioned by the police. Now then, now then, what are you up to. Planting flowers officer. What do you mean planting flowers, you look suspicious and I might arrest you. We’re planting flowers officer. Why is that illegal, officer? Society can’t cope with this: someone taking the time to care about an urban space in the sweetest possible way, with flowers.

I further suggested to Morag that city psychogeography is utterly different to hill walking but, in some idea sense, thinking about it, there is a link. It’s a problematic link, because people like Will Self extrapolate further and suggest the only reason we like the Lake District is because the Romantics told us to: that beauty is only an idea, a cultural construct. The argument is preposterous, because it completely avoids the sensory and sensual difference between the summit of Great Gable and city streets. It’s a clinical academic argument which undermines both common sense and ecological sensitivity.

There is a link between city psychogeography and hill walking, in imaginative and psychological terms. In both cases you reconfigure your experience of life through the practice of walking. Morag writes: “To walk is to be between worlds, to change space, create imaginary worlds and desire lines.” I find this both poetic and accurate. It is ludicrous however (this is not directed at Morag) to suggest these two occasions were in any real way comparable:

Not convinced? Try this video and ask yourself if it coincides with the city experience. It’s more expressive and uses music, which admittedly can manipulate to any effect, but I think nonetheless it demonstrates my point again and if you don’t feel like watching my wild camping video which is considerably longer:

Director Clive Austen describes his film thus:

Anton Vagus is a legend, A product of the sixties walking revival he has inspired a generation to take to their feet in search of the world and of themselves. This is the story of nine of them. Unconventional walkers who, through circumstance and design, became his walking companions. From their discovery of a hidden city beneath Venice to the tragic incident at Berry Head that finally tore them apart, The Great Walk treads a curious path exploring the world that they crafted out of their remarkable experiences. As the layers peel steadily away the mystery that lies at the heart of the group is bought closer into the light, until it becomes clear that, as the last person to see him alive, it is Anton Vagus to whom we must look for our answers. The only question is, how does one find one of the most elusive people on the planet?

That’s a reasonable summary but it doesn’t mention the psychogeography of the film, which is actually the theme of it. The walking group, called The Nine, have a theory whereby a walk operates at many levels. I don’t take this seriously and it’s not intended as such, although the tongue in cheek model has resonance for both city and hill walking. Psychogeography has the potential for serious wackiness. Or it can be fun, explorative, and The Nine believe The Seven Dimensions Of Walking are:

Becoming mobile
Spatial exploration
Historic and visionary

I have intent for a trip to Wales (and I’m waiting for some sunshine). I become mobile when I get there and start walking. I explore the lovely space of Welsh mountains (I fancy the Conwy Valley). Wales used to be the scene of battles and old settlements (you find small Roman artefacts on the hillsides below Cnicht). I relate my feelings to this place and how I am calmed and happy. Merlin and others used to be here, we are told, in books like The Mabiongion. The mist comes down, I get lost, and I confront again the primal existential fact of hill walking: it’s a big place out there, I don’t know what’s in it, I walk and explore and try to return to the valley, while in a small part of me I know this is a tiny little gamble with mortality.

The film is both interesting and amusing, with a character called Alex Drowley who is of course Aleister Crowley, the magician lunatic who occasionally walked the hills. The Great Walk, we are told, is synonymous with The Great Work of alchemy. Trying to find Anton Vagus, the elusive leader, is like trying to track down Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz translated into the anti hero of Apocalyspse Now: Kurtz is mad, but we also recognise an appalling out of society genius. There are Don’t Like Now moments when we see Anton, then he’s gone, a Jungian trickster archetype who teaches through being elusive: be your own teacher, walk your own walk, nothing is certain including me; just walk. Anton is Anton LaVey, another lunatic who taught Satanism and said “when walking in open territory bother no one” followed by “if someone bothers you, ask him to stop. If he does not stop, destroy him.” ‘Vagus’ infers the etymology of the word which in Latin means “wandering” and the words vagrant, vagabond, and vague are related to this.

I don’t know what kind of distribution The Great Walk will get but it is clearly destined for the cult and alternative circuit. I recommend it for anyone interest in walking or psychogeography.