“This is something that really belongs in the late 1950s and early 60s in Paris”, he explains. “It was to do with confronting a consumerist society by inventing conceptual ways of behaving, largely in cities.” A series of non-fiction books, starting with 1997’s Lights out for the Territory, have drawn on those ideas of unconventional urban exploration. Yet today the word psychogeography is “almost meaningless”, Iain tells me, “because it could be applied to absolutely anything. Some of the more interesting writers in that area have started to call it something like ‘deep topography’, because it’s more about researching by repeated walks or journeys.”
But even if the word is lost, the process has retained its value. For Iain Sinclair, walking was originally recreational travel. When he began writing professionally, it developed into an enjoyable research method. “The walking was part of how I constructed a book, but it wasn’t the actual subject matter. It took quite a long time for the process of walking to actually become the way of writing… and then that evolved, and I sort of became stuck with it.”
Would he recommend walking to other writers? “Yes, very much. Sitting at the desk, working on my laptop for hours, I used to get backache but that’s been totally dispersed by just doing an hour walking. Loosening yourself up, I suppose. And mentally as well. There’s a freshness by the time you come to sit down.”
“In a grander sense, to take more substantial and serious walks is a way of breaking out of being locked into reflex ways of thinking and behaving. It’s a great way to ‘go beyond your knowledge’, as the poet John Clare would say. To take yourself into something you don’t know and to see what happens. Like walking round the M25.”
Iain Sinclair is speaking at the Monday Literary Society this month. What’s he going to be talking about? “I have a book coming out in June, called London Overground, which is about a single day’s walk around a newly linked-up railway line, seeing the social and cultural changes that the railway brings. So in a sense I’m using that as a metaphor for a talk about walking, and ways of walking, and the way walks fit into the world as it is now.” You’ll probably want a pair of stout shoes for the journey home.
Under the Overground: Walking as a Way of Writing, Mon 27 April, Pelham House, 8pm, £7.50. mondayliterarysociety.co.uk
First published in Viva Lewes magazine issue 103 April 2015.