The term psychogeography is a flawed one. It presumably sounds better in France, where it originated, like its poetic sister-terms dérive and détournement. Here, it suggests canal-botherers and licentious lecturers. Maybe it’s just semantics. In French, reading a phonebook sounds like poetry; in English, the opposite is the case. Whatever noise we attach to it, it’s a phenomena we all experience if we have an awareness of our surroundings beyond the functional. It existed in Irish literature centuries before the Situationists. It was called Dindsenchas from the Gaelic for “mountain folklore” and is evident in the literary masterpieces of pre-Christian Ireland – The Táin, Acallam na Senórach and the Fenian cycle. It is weaved into the very names of the towns and villages of this island; as in the case of my hometown Derry, which originates from the Irish for “oak grove.” A good friend of mine is from a town whose name means ‘the place of the gallowglasses’ (Scottish mercenaries in the Dark Ages), another is from a village named after ‘the plain of the notable tree.’ We forget the old perspectives, innovations and stories and when we rediscover we mistake them as new. Yet they are always there, buried, concealed, as the poet John Montague wrote, “all around, shards of a lost tradition / the whole countryside a manuscript / we had lost the skill to read.”
The photograph above was taken on the shores of the River Foyle, north of the city of Derry, near Culmore Point, a stone’s throw from where I live at the moment but not, I suspect, for much longer. To the casual eye, it’s as insignificant as any place on this earth. There’s a small lighthouse, a morse code of rotting wooden effigies where a docks once stood, sandbags concreted over from the war, an ill-tempered wild goat living in the ruins of a sailors bothy, a nunnery and a girls school, now closed, which used the shore as a dumping ground for old desks and papers. If you travel due north from here, you might skirt the Western Isles of Scotland or the Faroes but most likely the next landfall would be the frozen Arctic. Due west, it’s the Atlantic and beyond it Newfoundland, where inhabitants on the Avalon peninsula once bore traces of an accent similar to ours, a psychogeography of the tongue. Facing the vast expanse of the ocean and the imagination, odysseys have been written, giving rise to the Irish genre of the Immram, the sea voyage to the otherworld and islands as extraordinary and metaphorical as any of Homer’s.
The place where I stood to take this photograph has no name. The closest location is the anglicized Thornhill or ‘the Woodlands’ with their echoes of Hardy or Lawrence. Yet wading into the water, perhaps four or five strides, you reach, plummeting, a semi-mythological place called ‘the Narrows.’ The gentle slant of the shore suddenly drops into an abyssal trench. Derry was, and is to an extent, a forgotten town on an emerald crag in the sea, far from any happening metropolis, a place so remote it was once regarded as the edge of the world, inhabited by a people so savage the Roman Empire declined to invade and Giraldus Cambrensis believed us to be werewolves. Perhaps he was right. The chance underwater chasm ensured the town was reinvented during the fight against the Nazis. It became Europe’s most westerly deep port and the base of Allied submarines. Shielded by distance from Luftwaffe bombers and nestled on a border with the faux-neutral Irish Free State, the Foyle became so strewn with destroyers and freighters it was said to be possible to cross the broad river by simply stepping from deck to deck. The American marines brought jazz, comic books, cosmetics and chewing gum. My grandfather, a Donegal fisherman, smuggled eggs and whiskey to them. Recently when I interviewed local women who married American sailors and moved to America, the contacts I accumulated from the U.S. Navy ran into the hundreds. The New World has always remained new for the Irish, however illusory it might turn out to be. It was here on the Foyle that the Nazi U-boat fleet surrendered at the end of the Second World War. They were taken out into the Atlantic and scuttled, the remains now coral on the sea-floor. I interviewed a friend’s grandfather who witnessed this first-hand, passing on a train and captured in Pathé footage from the time, a bystander to history.
The notoriously deep water and the hidden slipstreams, at the precise location of this photograph, also resulted in repeated tragedies. A group of children, from the housing estate which I grew up in, constructed a raft from planks and tyres and took it onto the water. They got into some unforeseen trouble. None survived to tell how or why. My grandfather was among the search party who recovered their bodies. Derry was once an island, the Foyle swept through what is now the Bogside, the so-called ‘cockpit of the Troubles.’ The city was founded on a defensive position in the woods next to the river and, as with many places, it contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. The vengeful Irish sea-god Manannán Mac Lir, supposedly responsible for countless shipwrecks, was said to sleep in a sandbank beneath the surface of the river. In modern times, the Soviet Union had marked the delightful panorama of this photograph as the destination of a thermonuclear missile should the Cold War ever suddenly boil.
The bridge in the photograph is high enough to be battered by the winds and is also a notable suicide spot. If you leap from the highest point, you’ll hit the water at a sprightly 60 miles per hour. A truck was blown off by a freak wind shear a few years ago resulting in the driver’s death. I had an ill-spent youth beneath that bridge, drinking and consuming ungodly substances with fellow reprobates nocturnally and in all weathers. It’s near the site of the boom that was broken through to relieve the infamous siege of 1689, another rare occasion where world history has chanced accidentally upon this place and an event wilfully misunderstood by armchair reactionaries and revolutionaries (what could be more heroic than people standing up against a tyrannical king?). It’s also the location of an old dilapidated manor of the same name, Boom Hall. The roof of the abandoned mansion collapsed in, after a fire, but before that the house had been left to rack and ruin. It had been ransacked by admirably-audacious thieves who hauled out mahogany dinner tables and chairs onto the glade outside and set up and consumed a feast, as a mockery of high society, before making off with their spoils. Supposedly haunted, it’s now sadly boarded up and its ghosts confined. Next to it are the ruins of stables, resembling an abandoned railway station with phantom railway lines. They still keep horses in the fields nearby and a boy who worked there, drunk one night, wandered back a couple of years ago and froze to death. On the other side of the river is the city’s asylum.
My grandfather, on my mother’s side, made his living on this river, my grandparents on my father’s drowned in it. It is a place that has stories, many of them secret. Sometimes these wash ashore. An uncle of mine remembers finding bullets from an unidentifiable conflict, which with suicidal recklessness they’d dispose of in bonfires, and in the Seventies a gun, which they consigned to the deep after playing Cowboys and Indians and showing a spooked adult. I’ve personally found nothing more interesting than clay bottles, rusting bicycles and, once, part of a billboard of The Adventures of Tintin, promising foreign adventures and floating out to sea; the flotsam of human experience and the junk of previous ages and our own. “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by” goes the Chinese proverb. Wait even longer and the whole world will. There are dead kings buried under car parks, dinosaurs beneath shopping malls, entire eras submerged below the tidelines. If there were such things as ghosts, we’d be surrounded by them, which, in a way, we are. We just need a better word for it than psychogeography. And the ability to attune our focus and see that there is no such thing as nowhere.…