Tag Archives: psychogeography

A sense of place – falling in love with a boatyard

What makes somewhere feel comfortable? Why do we feel at home in certain places, and out of sorts in others? We can fall in love with places just as well as with people, and some of the processes are the same, I think.

I’ve been thinking about this, both as part of the ‘Home’ project that  Jo Roberts and I are working on, and through reading more about psychogeography . But the major impetus comes from a recent encounter with a boat yard. I’m involved, in a small way, with the restoration of a narrowboat, and have spent a few weekends sanding, scraping and sketching near Saul Junction, on the Gloucester and Sharpness canal.

This enormous old engine cheerfully guards the entrance from the car park.

This enormous old engine cheerfully guards the entrance from the car park.

There I am surrounded by boats of all sorts in various stages between construction and disintegration; rows of engines, from shiny to rusted beyond use; planks, cans, tools, ropes, gangways, drums, rags; an amazing jumble of ‘stuff ‘– in ordered piles or collapsing heaps where nettles and oil have reached a stand off. IMG_0018

This is a land of projects, overseen by an enormous crane routinely swinging a boat or an engine overhead. The most visible projects include the ‘pirate café’, rising to daring heights on the base of a river boat, with a life-size pirate at the helm and the ice cream refrigerator leading the way below decks; a former RNLI lifeboat, now being repainted in ‘rescue orange’: the restoration of various elderly narrowboats, motor cruisers, and something that looks to me like a small trawler.


Then there are the less visible – boats shrouded in plastic, mysterious tents under which men disappear for hours, or the business of boatbuilding itself in large industrial sheds.; and all around, the routine maintenance of canal life – hull surveys, jet washing, and blacking boat bottoms . It took me a while to realise that the plastic garden chairs with sawn down legs, spattered in bitumen, were a vital part of the action!

At first sight it appears unruly, unkempt and chaotic, but no – there are men who know what is happening in every corner, who are chatting with owners, assessing damage, planning repairs, organising, advising, bantering. They are the business, these men who know about engines, gearboxes, welding, tools, boats – craftsmen and experts in their trade.

It is another country, but one that I have visited in the past. There are no iPads or laptops, very few mobile phones, no shops, cafes, restaurants, or retail outlets. There is nothing to do but get on with the project, joke about others’, watch the passing traffic on the canal or admire the resident dog as it climbs ladders that it can’t get down. There is a great sense of relief to leave behind 2015 and the world of David Cameron et al.



There is a degree of shouting and swearing, mainly at the apprentice, but it feels ritual rather than aggressive. Most of the time the conversations are about engines, boats, boaters and sport. The swearing might be toned down in deference to the presence of any ‘ladies’, but this too feels familiar – the stuff of my childhood, ‘normal’ and unthreatening, where men held doors open for women who accepted it as their due.

The more I thought about, the more I realised that how much this other country echoed my past. I was fortunate in that the ‘menfolk’ of my childhood were in my eyes protective rather than persecutory or aggressive; the fixers, the craftsmen, the main wage earners,the respectable working class. It was only later that another, less benign side of all this became clear. I suspect another side would probably emerge in the boatyard too, if I spent more than a brief time there! But for now I love it!

I’ve written before about ‘resonance’ in our relationships – that very complex process whereby we recognise, or think we do, unspoken affinities or aversions; a map, only partly conscious, that guides our choices of who we stand next to at a function, who we avoid on the bus, who we want to spend time with, or who we fall in love with. The map is constructed through time from the experiences and materials of our personal and physical environments; we recognise familiar scenes and scents in some deep recess of our being way before we come to understand our responses.

Just as there is always more to discover in our relationships to people, our reactions to places can teach us a thing or two as well!



Waste products in the back passage

I have drawn my garden and my street so many times I can’t generate any enthusiasm for yet another try – whereas the back alley is virgin territory – as far as sketching goes, I mean. It certainly doesn’t have a virginal look about it, even though these sketches make it look cleaner and tidier than it is.



Here the wheelie bin rules, along with difficult to dispose of hard-core, building materials and general rubbish. In my newfound role as psychogeographer-cum-urban-sketcher, I found myself pondering the links between the wheelie bin, consumerism, capitalism, and of course, psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, psychogeography, sketching – the words don’t roll off the tongue easily, but there is a fluid interchange between the three areas as far as I am concerned.


There is probably a long established sociological discourse on the wheelie bin, but apart from this interesting research project[i], I haven’t been able to track much down yet. So these are my uninformed thoughts!

The rise of the wheelie bin could be a metaphor for the rise of consumerism and an encroachment on the public by the private. Somewhere in the 1990’s it came to replace a system where ‘bin men’ – local government employees, collected metal bins, emptied and returned them to our gardens and backyards. Now it is the householders’ responsibility to take the wheelie bins to the public space of the pavement or roadside, and the ‘binmen’, working for private contractors, empty them and return them to any point along the street.

Many recycling centres – shared facilities- have gradually been overshadowed by roadside collections. Rubbish is a private affair, unlike for example, the French system where rubbish is taken to a communal area. Litter in the street is now deemed the responsibility of the council, whereas my grandparents would sweep the pavement outside of their house and expect the neighbours to do the same.

The size of the wheelie bin – about one and a half times that of the old dustbins –has legitimised a significant increase in waste as we buy more and more Stuff, along with its packaging. The way we handle rubbish illustrates the break down of a sense of community and shared ownership, the rise of consumerism and the packaging industry as well as the commercialisation of disposal. Waste is big business.

All this can be discretely ignored if you live in a large enough house to have a side entrance, or a large front garden to conceal your wheelie bins. Those in Victorian terraces with no/ tiny front gardens are forced to live with the bins as permanent plastic Daleks by their front door, who in time become disregarded and ‘normal’.CCI24082015_2

In the 1990’s too, my local alleyways were gated as a ‘security’ measure, no longer pedestrian pathways though the Victorian Edwardian housing stock. They passed from public into private space; a space where by and large, it was possible to deposit and forget any inconvenient truths – like the link between our consumption and climate change, for example. Again, the wider the alley (posher houses) the greater the space available. Poorer people can’t get away from their rubbish so easily, it would seem. If you can afford a new build however, Eric Pickles came to your rescue with new building regulations, which, whilst freeing developers of some inconvenient requirements to consider the environment, insisted that wheelie bins must have their own dedicated space.[ii]

So what about psychotherapy? Putting our emotional rubbish out of sight and trying to forget about it is a familiar story in all our lives. What we most fear to acknowledge is the back story, where our own culpabilities and shameful secrets lie at the bottom of the wheelie bin, concealed by more acceptable rubbish. The bad things people have done to us, traumas inflicted by others, are terrible enough, but our own cruelties and complicities are often more painful to acknowledge.

We are generally ashamed of our bodily functions, of mess, shit, pus, semen, vomit. We have designed a sewage system to sweep these down to the sea and beyond – where they can poison somebody or something else. But there are other things that won’t fit down the toilet that linger in our back alleyways and wheelie bins. Humans are messy, capable of unspeakable horrors that although repressed, damage the self, others and society. [iii]

It is one of the great strengths of group psychotherapy that it can provide a space where this distressing, painful remembering can take place, witnessed by others struggling with their own back stories of mess. Acknowledging culpability, discovering regret, facing up to past actions and the responses of others – not just the therapist – can begin a process of re-integration and healing.

Look again at the wheelie bin. What can it tell us?


[i] No. 08-2003 ICCSR Research Paper Series – ISSN 1479-5124 Hidden mountain: The social avoidance of waste Edd de Coverly, Lisa O’Malley & Maurice Patterson

[ii] Architects Journal 13 May 2015 G.Wilkinson 

[iii] Phil Wood writes about Lviv and the related attempt to forget the inconvenient and bloody history of genocide, in Walking Inside Out, ed, T. Richardson.

The urban psychogeographer-sketcher

Sketchers need to have their eyes open; the act of looking closely at the environment is fundamental. But we all see something different, have different styles, and draw a multiplicity of truths about the same street scene. The mantra of ‘draw what you see, not what you think you see’, has limited value, it seems to me, if it carries any implication that there is a correct version that we can all agree on. Of course it is vital to get beyond the assumptions that we ‘know’ what something looks like – but what emerges is never a ‘correct’ version but rather an unlimited number of unique drawings.

As a beginner I have been trying to ‘draw what I see’, and in the words of the urban sketchers manifesto, ‘be truthful to the scenes we witness.’



But more and more I realise that I want to draw something more. This part of the manifesto I find far more appealing: – ‘Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel.’ Telling a story seems to liberate me from the challenge of accurate reproduction; it catapults me forwards into new possibilities, and takes me right back to the drawings that I did years ago … and here we bump up against that word ‘doodle’ – yet again! This is what my sketchbook looks like lately – a mixture of this –



and this…..CCI05072015


All this has been illuminated by my reviewing ‘Walking Inside Out’  a wonderful book edited by Tina Richardson about contemporary British psychogeography. It’s a stimulating mixture of academic and literary contributions, all emphasising the impact of the physical environment on our identity.  Where and how we live, our sense of place and belonging are all bound into our relationships with others, and make us who we are. We all have an internal psycho-social landscape.

Psychogeography encourages us to look closely at what is around us, throw away the map and explore the marginal spaces, opening our eyes to the way in which we have become habituated to surveillance, social control, privatisation and consumerism. Along the way, it is witty, playful and somewhat anarchic – I thoroughly recommend it, especially to urban sketchers with social constructionist leanings.

Psychogeographers are trying to capture the emotional resonances, the social history, the political forces that permeate the streets that they walk. Like urban sketchers, they are physically in the environment they are trying to understand, experience, and describe. It seems to me that there is an alliance here that could be very productive and creative – the urban sketcher- psychogeographer; the psychogeographical urban sketcher. Maybe I could join a group – or even start one up?