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The Literary London Journal

March 2008)

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Psychogeography: Will Self and Iain Sinclair in conversation with Kevin Jackson

Transcription: Karian Schuitema (University of Westminster)

Edited with introduction: Steven Barfield (University of Westminster)

The following is a verbatim transcription of the recording of an event hosted by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, on Friday 8th February 2008. This event was co-organised and sponsored by the School of Social Science, Humanities and Languages of the University of Westminster. The University and the V&A share a historic relationship, insofar as Prince Albert was also a patron of the University when it was the Royal Polytechnic Institution (its name was changed in 1841 to reflect this) and both Westminster and the V&A were set up with similar aims during the nineteenth-century to enhance public education in the capital. Literary London is grateful to both institutions for allowing us to use the recording that was made of this event, and to the participants, Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Kevin Jackson for generously giving us permission to transcribe their conversation within this issue of the journal, as well as to the articulate, if anonymous, audience members whose thoughtful questions are also evident here.

That Iain Sinclair and Will Self are two of the most important contemporary writers of London largely goes without saying and in this conversation they focus on the practice of psychogeography both in terms of what it means for them in terms of their own work and on its significance as a broader literary and cultural phenomenon. The transcription has been very lightly edited, with some useful references added for the reader and it deliberately maintains the unprepared, raw and improvisational nature of the conversation that occurred during the evening, as Self, Sinclair and Jackson think and reflect aloud in what becomes something of a struggle for the articulation of these ideas and whose trace still remains in the coldness of print.

Introductions

Jo Banham (Victoria and Albert Museum): It is great to see so many of you here this evening and a tribute, Iím sure, to our speakers. Iím going to say very little by way of introduction partly because our chair Kevin Jackson, who is an author, broadcaster and critic and who has written a definitive biography of Humphrey Jennings, will be introducing them more fully. Iíd like to contextualise this talk in a sense in two ways. Firstly, that the museum has long been interested in associative properties, in particular the literary ones of images and places and we have a project on the website that looks into this more closely, so there is a connection in many ways between the talk this evening and with the work that is going on in the V & A. Second, I would also to thank the University of Westminster who very generously supported the event and in particular Alan Morrison who is director of the London studies programme there and has been instrumental in helping us set it up. And enjoy the talk. Thank you Kevin.

Kevin Jackson: Thanks very much Jo. Itís more than an unusual pleasure to be here with an old friend and a more recent friend. Iain Sinclair and Will Self are very, very different writers as Iím sure everyone here knows but they are united in a few things, one is a joint admiration for the writings of a senior British writer J. G. Ballard, who they both admire and both know. And in Ballardís most recent book, his autobiographical work Miracles of Life, he returns their admiration by saying that they are the two writers who he can think of in Britain at the moment who are doing substantial work to extend the range and intellectual possibilities of the artistic resonances of fiction.

A handsome compliment from one of the people from who is well worth receiving a compliment. Of course, one of the other things that unites them is the word that is being flagged up for this evening, which is the word psychogeography, and although that word has been knocking around a lot in some very strange circles, I think it is reasonable to say the it is a lot of its currency in the last 10 or 11 years has been due to the success of Iainís book Lights Out for the Territory, his extraordinary commercial breakthrough from being a well-respected writer, but shall we say a coterie interest, into something more like the mainstream, and introducing ideas which themselves have been somewhat peripheral to that conventional culture, to a more general audience.

Will of course needs again no further explanation except that he has recently himself has been branching out very differently into the field of psychogeography, and I think one of the things that will be interesting to come out in the course of the evening will be the way in which their individual Ďtakesí on this idea or this practice, whatever one wishes to call it, have fed into their work; the ways which they diverge and the ways in which perhaps they can, despite their divergences, find common ground. I know the idea is that gentlemen, each of you will read a short passage from one of your recent works. Who would care to take the first ... the first move ... Will?

Discussion

Iain Sinclair: I havenít heard this ideaÖ

Will Self: Yes, Iíll happily read something. I think since Kevinís mentioned Jim Ballard, Iíll try and find a passage that relates to Ballard. Which may take me a little whileÖ?

Kevin Jackson: Well, while we are hunting, will you perhapsÖ

Iain Sinclair: Well OKÖIím not going to do what you say because Iím temperamentally awkward. I have been rummaging around, of late, doing a book about Hackney. Iíve lived there for forty odd years. Itís like a long sentence. I donít feel I am going to be released from it. But part of the research has been to delve into the past to try and find strange versions of younger selves, that are alien to me now, but which fed into what become psychogeography. And the whole thing with psychogeography was that I remember it as being viewed from a distance. It was around in the '60s with the Situationists, and I bought a little Situationist booklet in French which I could barely understand but which, you know, was very hip to have. I probably opened it as often as I opened Maoís Red Book.

Kevin Jackson: (laughs) To the best of my knowledge it was coined by Guy Debord wasnít it, in about 1953, or thereaboutsÖ

Iain Sinclair: Yes and the interesting thing is that it tracks much deeper back into the '50s and even into the '40s as many things do. I was telling you earlier about the figure of Orson Welles, the great American director, who pitched up in Hackney in the 1950s to make a play, he was rehearsing a play about Moby Dick -- which, incidentally, was J. G. Ballardís favourite novel. [Orson Welles, Moby Dick Ė Rehearsed (1955) Ėed.] Welles came out of the theatre and found these old ladies who were living in an alms house, the Spurstowe alms houses, and he decided that he would shoot a documentary piece. So he shoots this interview with these old woman -- of course the alms house is now gone, the only record of it is this fragmented film by Orson Wells. He put the film together as a series of little essays or home movies which were shot in Paris, Spain and London. [Orson Welles, Around the World with Orson Welles (1955) originally made for BBC television. Ėed.]

So it was 1955, and he goes into a Paris bookshop and here are those psychogeographers and Lettrists [Lettrism is a French avant-garde movement, established in Paris in the 1940s by Isidore Isou, inspired by dada and surrealism Ėed. ] and they are reciting incantatory poems, and it is just extraordinary that the date is '55 -- and from Welles moves into a nightclub where the American actor Eddie Constantine, who later emerges in Godard's Alphaville, is sitting with a hat on, looking sinister and grinning and then there is Jean-Paul Sartre. So thereís a weird cultural stew that appropriates this term psychogeography, which is a way of thinking and dealing with how the city emerges. It didnít mean a lot to me then, and looking back I find, in documentaries that I was involved with at that time, the term used with more frequency was psychopolitics. Iím not sure what it meant, but people like R. D. Lang and Ginsberg and Paul Goodman and Gregory Bateson were all using this term constantly ...

Kevin Jackson: All the people who were at the Ďdialectics of liberationí conference at the Roundhouse in 60Ö7Ö ['The Congress of the Dialectics of Liberation Conference', The Roundhouse, Camden Town, London, 1967. Edited by David Cooper, The Dialectics of Liberation (Penguin, 1967)- ed.][1]

Iain Sinclair: Yes, a big term was 'psychopolitics', which was a way of heating up politics, and taking it away from corporate entities, and I think the same sort of thing happened with geography. What happens is geography becomes interesting. So ... maybe I should let Will do his piece now that youíve found it, and then I will pick up on this and read a little piece of my own which might relate to this subject.

Will Self: Yes, I say that ... (laughs) ... no, no, I think I can probably find something to read. This is really a preamble to a walk I took from my house in Stockwell to Manhattan in November of 2006. Now, obviously I didnít walk the whole way because the Atlantic tiresomely intervenes. I walked to Heathrow Airport, flew to J. F. K., and then walked from J. F. K. into Manhattan.

Will Self: Reading from Psychogeographies (Bloomsbury, 2007)

Iain Sinclair: (Applause) ... What I liked very much about the opening riff of your book, Will, was the way that you summoned up presences like Ballard in a pass, as you come through Chelsea Harbour, and also the contact with your friend Nick Papadimitriou, who is a self-described Ďdeep topographerí, and the way that you stay within your individual pods of consciousness through all the burdens that you carry along the way. You are together, but apart, and you move into a landscape that you generously award to Nick, through the intensity of his earlier researches. And behind everything else, there is a quest for a quest. I keep getting an enormously strong sense of a debate or argument over parentage, not only your biological parentage, which is a major concern, always, but also the connection to landscape as a kind of alternative parentage, dues paid, so that it makes a very heady mix ... in a sense your mother is still lurking in airport corridors ...

Will Self: Yes, but in the same outbreak of generosity of spirit I have to say that just, you know, sort of reading that piece with you here Iain, and thinking about your work, and what you say about Nick Papadimitriou, who is actually here this evening. Really that practice, and I think if psychogeography is anything itís a practice, itís not really a field; I mean it is something that you go across. I think we owe it to you and particularly that thing which you have in your books exactly as youíve described of the companions.

Iain Sinclair: Well Kevin was a ... (laughs) ... classic sufferer.

Will Self: (laughs) ... Yes, Kevin, of course.

Iain Sinclair: Well, I mean the thing with Kevin was that initially he was going to write a piece of journalistic reportage -- which is always a dangerous prospect and ...

Kevin Jackson: It blew up in my face ...

Iain Sinclair: and got sucked into ... the piece couldnít just be predatory on this specific occasion, it was taken away by the overwhelming reality of the day and the road and the heat ... it had to become part of the thing itself. I met up with Kevin very early that morning, in Shepherds Bush, and we landed beside the river in Staines. We were in this classic greasy-spoon cafť besides the station, in which these geezers appeared and they couldnít believe the library that Kevin was carrying with him. For some strange reason he felt obliged to carry a rucksack completely piled up with reference books that he was using to research his article. Brave but foolish ... a great sign of spirit but ...

Kevin Jackson: A stupidity ...

Iain Sinclair: which I adored, because the cafť geezers began to tell us all sorts of extraordinary things that we should look out for on our journey.

Kevin Jackson: They were very interested in the financial aspect they said you know, who is backing them then, who is paying for this ...?

Iain Sinclair: They described themselves as Ďpayroll boysí. I donít know if this meant that they nicked payrolls (laughs) or whether they carried them.

Kevin Jackson: (laughs) One use you both touched upon in fact, and Iain very much so in Lights out for the Territory, you had the idea that one could map London particularly in terms of the authors who left their imprint on a particular area, as well as authors who was being affected by the places in which they live, so that you have Clerkenwell sewn up by Peter Ackroyd for a while, you obviously have Notting Hill ...

Iain Sinclair: Yes, well thatís the gangland picture I was using as a sort of a metaphor. But I mean it is much more like you are walking through a series of memory control barriers, you pass under certain points ... The essence of a writer, the person youíve read, is connected to place. Words are echoed in your head, London is so dense with sonar echoes. I mean someone like Peter Ackroyd touched on it, but then there is Moorcock whose own biography is always confused with places he has lived and experienced. You canít take a step, after a certain number of years, without every street being loud with these echoes. I mean now, from Willís book, Iíve got this term stuck in my head, which is a Ďsacheverelí for a rucksack. Which I thought was wonderful, it had not only the echo of satchel in the word, but also Sacheverell Sitwell, it Ďsits wellí on your back ... [Sir Sacheverell Sitwell, 1897-1988, was a writer and art critic and a member of the Sitwell family. Ėed.]

Kevin Jackson: This was the very theory that we launched together a few months ago ...

Iain Sinclair: Yes, a powerful theory. But whatever it is that word now is, you know, every time I see a rucksack ...

Kevin Jackson: For those who havenít read Willís book, shame on you. There is a section where he reminisces about walking in the countryside with his father in the way that familyís generate private words for particular objects and particular things, the type of rucksack that was favoured by your father was called a Ďsacheverelí.

Will Self: Well, called by him, Iím not enough of a kind of sesquipedalian, contrary to what people think, to have really looked into but I think you did and tried to find out whether the term had any application beyond the ĎSelfí family, but it may not, and it must arrive from Sacheverell Sitwell.

Iain Sinclair: Has anybody else ever called a rucksack 'sacheverel', there must be somebody (laughs) ...

Will Self: He used to say things like ďput on your little jerkinĒ and ďIím going to take you to Muswell Hill to buy you some dancing pumpsĒ (laughs). And this was a man who was so lost in the inter-war period, itís a wonder that he dragged on into the 1990s, which he indeed did.

Iain Sinclair: Sort of flannels, you thought it was grey flannels ...

Will Self: Flannels, flannels, lashed round with a thin leather belt not through the restraining hoops. But I mean he was the great ...

Iain Sinclair: How do you think your sons will think of you? In the same period of time ...

Will Self: Well, I think with the same acute embarrassment (laughs). For the same reason ...

Iain Sinclair: You involve them in several of these expeditions, when they are required to walk to Sidcup or somewhere. It does mark them, I found that myself, I mean now my children who are much older than yours, old enough that the crimes of my youth, when I dragged them around Cadbury Castle before breakfast, which I thought would just wash over them, has left a deep and terrible imprint (laughs). They will never forget or forgive our crimes. They almost feel themselves obliged, as adults, to come off-road and start looking at locations that were the horrors of their childhood.

Kevin Jackson: Iain, before you flagellate yourself too much, perhaps we should hear some ...

Iain Sinclair: Yes, alright, I was going to go down another route, but the mention of shamanism in Willís piece, is pertinent. I never really felt myself to be in any way a psychogeographer up to the point of Lights Out For The Territory. I thought I was enlisted in a sub-branch of secular shamanism. I was deeply involved in reading people like John Michell [A Little History of Astro-Archaeology: Stages in the Transformation of Heresy, (Thames and Hudson, 1977) -ed.] and Watkins [Alfred Watkins, 1855-1935, The Old Straight Track, (1925) -ed.] -- theories of ley lines and the Old Straight Track, and the slightly dubious vision of England that drew me out into the landscape. In the '60s I did a lot of lengthy pilgrimage walks on the Ridgeway, or from Salisbury to Glastonbury to Cadbury Castle. I was going to read you a piece about that, something called West, Light.

But, I think, better to do something from London, City of Disappearances -- before it disappears. That collection was a nice excuse to make contact with about 50 or 60 people, and to allow their voices and stories -- some fictional, some retrievals of facts or places or people or memories -- to see how it fitted together to make a city of memory. The piece I would read comes after a walk that followed the circumnavigation of London which was done for a book called London Orbital, walking around the M25 fringe. Kevin was involved in the final walk of that, it brought us back to Waltham Abbey.

And, as we passed through Epping Forest, I was reminded of John Clare, the peasant poet, romantic poet, who was locked up in Mathew Allenís asylum, in a fairly open benevolent regime in Epping Forest, at Fair Mead House, High Beech. Clare took off for a three and a half day walk to try and get back and find his first love, Mary Joyce in Glinton, which is a small village north of Peterborough. He didnít realise she was already dead, she had been burned in a fire and died while he was in Allenís madhouse. And there is this tragic moment, after his three and a half day walk, -- which he describes in a fabulous journal -- when, as he comes out of Peterborough, a farm cart comes towards him and a woman, a complete stranger, climbs down from the cart with a young boy ... and it's his real wife and son and he doesnít know who they are, and they take him up onto the cart and take him home.

So for a lot of reasons I really felt, for years, that I wanted to do that walk, Clareís walk through Epping Forest, back up to Glinton. And the perfect moment obviously came at the end of this M25 tour, which was not resolved, it was a kind of circuit that went nowhere, there was no way out of it -- so to break away from London was to follow Clare through this visionary journey of madness, back into the village his wife and family came from. The little section Iím going to read here is after that, re-earthing myself in London, a place always all my walk pass through and start from, which is a little non-conformist burial ground called Bunhill Fields which is significant because its not quite within the walled city, it is outside and William Blake and Defoe and Bunyan are all buried there. All of whom are influential on the kind of writing and walking that weíre talking about. I did a circumnavigation of Hackney with Will, as it happens; he was brave enough to come on this walk which I think he was fairly dubious about as a concept (laughs). But it yielded its rewards, in memory, things that touched him, Stoke Newington, places we passed through where he remembered being a builder's labourer and so on -- through into the final space of the Olympics zone. I think it paid off. Anyway (laughs), we passed through Bunhill Fields in that walk and Iíll read a piece about it, called 'Vegetative Bunyan'.

Iain Sinclair: Reading from London, City of Disappearances. Hamish Hamilton, 2006.

Kevin Jackson: (Applause) ... Iain, one of the things that strikes me immediately about that, particularly with your reference to the engraving of Blake as pilgrim, is that there is something about your particular meanders which very often, although a lot of your writing is extremely funny, there is also a side of it thatís to do with a curious kind of reverence for often outsider figures. It seems to be that sometimes these walks are ways of paying respect to a kind of imaginary ancestor figure some of whom are quite famous like Blake and some who are absolutely unknown and forgotten by history. Is that right? Is there a kind of element of shaking hands with the ancestors, as it where, by doing this sort of thing?

Iain Sinclair: I think so. I mean I think it is because I never really had a fixed home. My father and his antecedents were Scottish and my great grandfather wrote a fragmentary autobiography which stated at the beginning that the family were, after Culloden, dispersed Jacobites. They never had a home. Whatever they had owned was gone, somewhere north of Aberdeen. And I grew up in South Wales, but I never felt that this was where I would stay. Finding London was an accident, like finding this enormous anthology of possibilities. Coming at 18 to an area close to where Will lives now, I went to film school in Brixton. I knew that northern spine, the Northern Line out of Stockwell, to Camden and Hampstead, was my initial rib, my London compass. And so the whole process was, from then on, walking, recovering people, writers who would be made into honorary ancestors, and then respecting them by making journeys and paying homage.

It has an element of self-parodying and comedy and black humour. People would get dragged into these experiences, Iím afraid. They might suffer (laughs), by being turned into kind of cartoon characters, -- as does the narrator himself, who is endlessly hooked on the absurdity of this never ending quest for quests, some way of beginning the next project. We were talking, before we came here tonight, about this object I got landed with, a whalebone box from the Hebrides: I have to carry it back there, a burden, on a journey through Britain. And that is how it works. There are figures to whom I constantly turn for inspiration, people like Blake. Others emerge from the ether, present themselves, do their stint and are forgotten.

Kevin Jackson: Well I remember the last time we talked about these matters. You were quite interested in the saying that there is a sort of a trendy take on psychogeography which traces it exclusively from Debord and the situationists, but you have said well, what about De Quincey, what about Mallarmť, what about Baudelaire, what about the surrealists etc.? Is it something you are quite keenly aware of that what your doing has fairly substantial roots actually in a subterranean current of western civilisation?

Will Self: I suppose so; I think I can only concur with Iain. It's really writers who spend most of our lives looking at paper and itís a good excuse to get out of the house, and the idea of the quest for quests I absolutely understand and it chimes strongly with me. I donít have Iainís super-saturation or erudition when it comes to the source material, but its interesting listening to him, because I realise listening to the way he talks it that a lot of it is how one comes to the urban fabric and in our case how we come to London, it sounds like some tedious middle aged genealogical remark, but my father was a professor at the LSE, and convenor of the town and country planning association, and my childhood included such exciting things as going to the toping out ceremony for Stevenage (laughs) ...

Iain Sinclair: That sounds great ...

Will Self: But I grew up with this man and walked with this man, who was absolutely preoccupied by urban and regional development, you know, one of his great friends had written a book called Wittgenstein and the Fourth London Airport (laughs) ...

Iain Sinclair: wow (laughs).

Kevin Jackson: I want to read it (laughs) ...

Will Self: I know, he was quite an eminent man. I remember him coming back when I was a child and telling me about going on an amphibian to look at fowl nests in Maplin sands as a possible site, he was on the committee for the then fourth London airport, and so I grew up with this conception of urban space as being something that one needed to think about, and I think that ... But I am preoccupied also by Debord and by ... I mean it seems marvellous to think you could have imagined that sort of buying a few bottles of red wine and tottering pissed from the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont down to the Ile de la Citť and that capitalist society would magically disintegrate (laughs) as a function of this kind of drift through ... the city ...

Iain Sinclair: It worked (laughs) ...

Will Self: I think that the terrible sort of victimology of Debord is that les ŤvŤnements of 1968 then came along and it kind of did work, so you know inevitably he then became a victim of his own seeming success. But I think that if there is a quest Iím looking for, it is how can we approach the city, and particularly the power of walking and its destructive ability to destroy the way we are meant to live in cities and the way were meant to perceive them and the way theyíre meant to be for us. I mean I know that somebody approached me quite recently to sort of look at the literature that Transport for London are putting out on walking ... the absurdity and the idea that they have a budget for this and theyíre producing literature for this ...

Iain Sinclair: Yes Hackney has done it, thereís a leaflet which really got me. It tries to tell you how to walk (laughs). If you would like to find out how to walk come to London Fields at ten oí clock tomorrow morning and our trained guides will show you, in small groups, how to move gently around the perimeter of London Fields. It wonít be too strenuous and the over sixties can do it, so I thought, great, I should go (laughs). This preposterous notions sits alongside another inspired scam from London Fields: which is ... as there is no budget to cut the grass or employ park keepers ... what you do now is you is stick a notice in the ground calling it an unmanaged Ďwildernessí area, great for bugs and creepy-crawlies. To boast about doin g nothing, at no cost, is an eco triumph. The greening of the inner city.

Kevin Jackson: Well, wild night area is pretty good (laughs) ...

Iain Sinclair: Itís perfect, you can have it both ways (laughs) ...

Will Self: The TFL plan as I remember it rightly is to create kind of nodal info points throughout the city that your meant to walk between, so what its trying to do is elevate the level of corporate governance, a kind of drift and thereby de-drifting ...

Iain Sinclair: Exactly, exactly ...

Will Self: and rendering it completely null and void so ... I mean, why Iíve kind of set my cap at these airport walks is because I think that that is the most prescribed folk-way there is, you donít just walk to the airport, it's sort of inadmissible ...

Iain Sinclair: Well, I thought that the most romantic section of the walk I did around the M25 was the passage alongside the rim of Heathrow, villages that were threatened and likely to disappear, and the river ColnÖand the marvellous warp-pastoral things Ballard writes about. Those reservoirs, the verdant slopes - before the terrorist threat started to freak the authorities out. The whole area is now crawling with security, but we walked up onto the banks of the reservoir and were doing some filming across the water, which was very beautiful, planes taking off, and I looked down this slope at rippling corn and woods, and I thought: this is an unbelievable vision of England and its bang next to the airport. You follow the Coln down to Staines and under the bridge over the M25 bridge, just beyond Staines, is an echoing oracular chamber of light. Two bridges collide, one of which is vernacular and rustic, and the other one is industrial, Ove Arup, and theyíre banged together, and they sit together like two worlds meeting. And then you can actually walk the hard shoulder of the motorway, for a few hundred yards, all that madness.

Kevin Jackson: One of the implications of your method, is that it does take you to places which simply are unreported, I mean we found that really bizarre underground place near Epsom didnít we which ...

Iain Sinclair: Yes, absolutely those tunnels ...

Kevin Jackson: notionally was part of some scheme for a post-war regional seat of government ...

Iain Sinclair: Yes, that was pure psychogeography, because underneath Epsom, thereís this whole network of secret tunnels from the war period ...

Kevin Jackson: Which we went down ...

Iain Sinclair: Which we went down, but the interesting thing was they had marked them out with names like Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, so London was in fact recreated underneath Epsom in these tunnels, with little alcoves where people lived and slept, and ...

Will Self: Thatís what they did on the Western front as well ...

Iain Sinclair: Unfortunately, when we went back after we had been there with you, to take a deeper look, it was all padlocked. It had gone, it was only available on that particular day. I think when you do these walks, youíll share this experience: things are available once and once only, that is the only time the door is open. You slip in, you see something, itís gone ...

Will Self: not surprising ...

Iain Sinclair: and developers are now trying to sell it, or set it up as a nightclub or something.

Will Self: I think that what people ... I mean my view of it is that as a practice, itís a destructive of ... I mean your saying that the roots go through the fl‚neurs back through the surrealists to Rimbaud a fantastic stomper (laughs), but what it really avoids is the whole tradition of English romanticism and the idea that you know ... And I think that the kind of modern mass travel industry is sort of Wordsworthís mind child, if I could go back in history and assassinate somebody who is really to blame, for the way, you know, for the way the prescribed folkways chew up the environment, its probably Billy Wordsworth because at any rate heís one of the major kind of figures ...

Iain Sinclair: Right. And then De Quincey writing about Wordsworth is very funny as he kind of fastens on to him, as a demented fan. I think the whole tradition goes back to De Quincey and one particular phrase that he uses: the Ďnorth-west passageí [see chapter 3, Confessions of an English Opium Eater -ed][2]. He describes, in the English Opium Eater, finding himself within the labyrinth of the mind, within the labyrinth of London. There is a concept called the Ďnorth-west passage' -- which is like the thread in the maze, like Ariadne's thread -- which could lead you out of London if you contact it. And he makes reference to Frobisher's voyages, the idea of actually navigating a passage through the ice to find a way out, to find a way between the Atlantic and the Pacific. And of course people attempting this disappear, they fall prey to cannibalism or scurvy or whatever.

De Quincey is the one who sees that this is a metaphor that applies perfectly to London, and that notion he floats is then taken up by later romantics like Arthur Machen and Edgar Allan Poe. They they sift it and test it. The notion is applied very specifically to Stoke Newington. Poe goes to school ...

Kevin Jackson: Poe went to school there!Ö

Iain Sinclair: in Stoke Newington [at Manor House School (1817-20) -ed], and writes a story called 'William Wilson' which is a story of the classic Scottish kind, the story of the double, the person who looks exactly like you, sits on the end of the bed and haunts your life. And that takes place within whatís now Abney Park graveyard, this wildly overgrown space. Arthur Machen goes on to write to a story called 'N'. He goes to Stoke Newington to discover this mythical Ďnorth west passageí, the key to psychogeography in many ways ['N', in Tales of Horror and the Supernatural (The Tartarus Press; New Ed., 1997) Ė ed.]. And he does discover something; he walks a way that heís never gone before, a place that he doesnít really know and he finds, or thinks heís found, a sort of paradise garden. But, it canít be found again, it disappears. This is an alternate form of psychogeography: we walk in a particular way and its going to lead us out of the density and clutter and noise of London. Iíve attempted that for many, many years. Without success.

In fact, I do want to start my own search for the north-west passage, by only moving across Britain, between places I know nothing about (laughs). The empty spaces. And then going off for an actual voyage into the ice, because the other haunting romantic image comes at the end of Frankenstein, where of course Frankensteinís monster is last seen striding off across the ice floes, the last natural man, the cobbled together man, the kind of monster figure of what psychogeography could become in the wrong hands.

Kevin Jackson: A wonderful image, which is to say it's time to move from the private conversation to the large ones. And if there is anyone who likes to ask questions could you please indicate by the usual traditional method of raising the hand and we will try to get some microphones to you. So any questions, please?

Audience Questions

Kevin Jackson: The gentleman over here if you just wait for the microphone please, that would be great ... yes. Iíll tell you what, if you could be nice and loud, project loudly please.

(Q.1) Audience member: I wanted to ask a question which sounded like a boring one ... it sounded like question about where you get your ideas from. There is not much, and I promise. But if you are talking about the continuity of psychogeography, yet it does come in pulses and waves, and I wanted to hear if you guys talk about why the current, and we are on the back of it now, why the current ... suddenly concerned with going at the road and the city in this way?

Kevin Jackson: OK the question for those of you who where sitting behind was: while there appeared to be certain waves that appeared in the development of the practice that we now call psychogeography, though it hasnít always born that label, why is it that it has been something what has been particularly thriving since the late nineties and through to the present day ... Will.

Will Self: I think it is probably ... My hunch is that it is a practice that kind of marches with environmentalism to some extent, it marches with a growing consciousness. There is no longer ... I mean I was going to say, there is no longer ... there is so much stuff to get through now before you get to the picturesque. It is so hard to get the picturesque and the whole kind of, you know, one of the prescribed, one of the things of the society of the spectacle, one of the spectacles you are meant to enjoy is the picturesque and you got to get out of ... you can either have the picturesque city or you can have the bucolic countryside but there is now so much shit you have to wade through, that is in fact where people live and breathe and think and emote. That I think that people have become very conscious of the fact that they have to reintegrate where they live they, have to know where they are in a new sense it has just become sort of unspeakable. I think one of the climacterics might have been the sort of tube strikes in the late eighties (laughs/agreement) when the city was gridlocked for weeks on end. I mean, it was laughable the sort of constipation of metal in London streets. Thatís my hunch.

Iain Sinclair: I think Iím pretty much in agreement with that. I think my sense is that it was in the Thatcherite era when there was suchÖKevin and I have talked about this before ... a kind of occulted state in politics, demonic energies, and things so impacted and grim. And everything was being wiped out, old values, so it became necessary to provoke the human imagination. There were ways of resurrecting tools of resistance and one of them, certainly, was the notion of psychogeography -- as it began to appear in the work of people like Stewart Home and Fabian Tompsett. They ran something called the London Psychogeographical Association. They put out newsletters which in a slightly parodic way used Situationism, used the original psychogeography, and combined it with elements they had taken from ley line studies and the methods of linking up Hawksmoor churches or whatever. And they stewed the whole thing together into a way of resistance and named people like a BNP councillor in Limehouse/Millwall. They would actually find this manís house and draw lines and they would organise sťances on top of Greenwich Hill for the destruction of Prince Charles (laughs) or the Bishop of London.

Kevin Jackson: Was this same people who alleged that a number of MPís where Illuminati?.

Iain Sinclair: And London was a particular target for obvious reasons ...

Kevin Jackson: And wasnít Norman Tebbit supposed to be Londonís arch magus, carrying out virgin sacrifice ...?

Iain Sinclair: This is what I loved in Willís book, these little asterisks alongside Jack Straw or David Blunkett and the footnote at the bottom of the page which says former foreign secretary (laughs) ... As if these are the most ... I mean among all these wonderful terms and figures that float across the page, which may be mysterious to some people, the only ones that might be pointed out are these obscure politicians who are just going to vanish like smoke.

Kevin Jackson: Serves them right ...

Iain Sinclair: But thatís what I think really happened. There was a necessary moment when resistance was required, psychogeography was summoned up, and exactly as Will says, the city was unworkable. I remember vividly in Hackney there was no Underground so you had to use the busesÖthe buses were privatised and run by out of town companies who were given the franchise. And you would see the driver holding an A to Z, to work out where the hell he was (laughs). And the queues were enormous and I discovered that to get to the middle of town it took me an hour and ten minutes, a walk along the canal. The bus, back then, took longer. So I just abandoned public transport. I think a lot of people were doing that. And the same crisis is going on now but it is spookier, because now we have a class of compulsory cyclists (laughs). This is a dangerous thing because the cyclists have taken over the canal banks and the footpaths, all the old wild ways of walking. And cyclists do not combine very well with heavy duty lorries going to the Olympic site, secretly, in convoys. The deaths have been horrendous, because you have a lot of amateurs wobbling all over the road, encouraged by Ken Livingstonís 35 people set up in a Hackney office to persuade you to get on a bike. The lorries canít see them and are crushing them. Weíre in very strange urban territory at the moment.

Kevin Jackson: Very good, excellent. Sorry, gentleman in the front row. I think we could get a microphone to you nowÖ

(Q.2) Audience member: Thank you. I can understand the way that psychogeography is a geography of resistance. But to what extent does it challenge ... British life ... and gender dimensions. For instance, can you imagine yourself walking for example from central London to Heathrow and then from J.F.K to Manhattan, imagine a brown man, a bearded brown man, walking toward Heathrow on his own. I feel that he might have been stopped more often by the police. It gives that a racial dimension to that. And to what extent do you think that this kind of fl‚neur lifestyle is not a male preserve, or is it something that can be enjoyed more by men than by women?

Kevin Jackson: OK. Sorry, did everyone get that at the back? The question essentially boils down to: to what extent is there a sort of understated dimension of this being something of white male privilege to be able to do these kind of things, what would it be like for a woman to undertake these, what would it be like for an Asian person doing this, etcetera, etcetera. Gentleman?

Will Self: Well it is certainly ... I mean when Jackie Smith, the ... what is she, home secretary?

Iain Sinclair: I donít knowÖ

Kevin Jackson: I need to look for the footnoteÖ

Will Self: Yes footnote ... they keep carving up all these ministries so much ... sheís home secretary ... confessed she did not want walk around in London at night ...

Iain Sinclair: Buying kebabs ...

Will Self: ... except to go with her security man to buy a kebab. I think she was unjustly pilloried, I think it is just a fact ... and I think it is ... I mean that interestingly when I say in this prefatory piece to this book that I think it is largely a male preserve for just that reason. A very highly rated woman psychogeographer in somewhere like Wisconsin, had a go at me in the LA Times over this and said it was ... it is a state ... itís an observation, itís not kind of ... I also think that men are frankly more interested in orientation and ... in just in that way ... the two may be connected. I mean as for the argument about ethnicity and about ... again itís a statement of fact, you are absolutely right. But then again, if I was walking to the airport in Delhi I think I would probably attract more attention for being white-skinned so you know ... there you go. Actually anybody walking out of J.F.K. is in some serious shit, I can tell you that (laughs), it doesnít matter what gender or ethnicity is (laughs).

Iain Sinclair: There was some sort of comedy character, wasnít there, who dressed up in robes, and walked through Windsor and got into a royal party ...

Will Self: Aaron Barschak ...

Iain Sinclair: Yes, but thatís another story. But one of the most notable writers on the whole kind of field of walking, is Rebecca Solnit. I mean this is an American, and this is San Francisco, but she has done epic walks and covered the ground thoroughly. [A political activist, walker and writer, Rebecca Solnit's many books include Wanderlust: A History of Walking ( Penguin, 2001) -ed. ] And I think in England itís both perfectly true that it is, it does seem to be a kind of male preserve, a very white male preserve, but that isnít necessarily going to stay the case. Because I was showing you this photograph earlier from the Olympic Park. I get quite a few requests from small groups, students or whatever, to do walks or journeys, and I would say that mostÖ that there are certainly more women, and young women, than men involved. I took ... I donít know whether you can see this picture, very small ... a group from Central St. Martins out into the edge-lands of the Lower Lea Valley.

I was saying that it would be interesting to go on a circuit round the whole Olympic site before it closed off. And we did this journey and their was one person who didnít say anything, but had a very calm interested presence and at a certain spot, where we were looking over a canal ,where there had been some allotments Iíd taken them to see, Manor Garden Allotments, she suddenly pulled out this book and it was absolutely the perfect thing to do. Kevin knows about these people, it was a book brought out by a group called the 'Pataphysicians' and it was a mythical river that was a real river which becomes mythical, becomes fantastic. ['Pataphysics' is the science of imaginary and self-contradictory solutions, invented by Alfred Jarry and explained in his 1911 novel, The Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll: Pataphysician. -ed.] . And she saw absolutely that the crossing of this poisoned creek, part of the Olympic site, was the moment to show me this book from another era, which was precisely right. She then revealed who she was, and she actually was, so she said, a direct descendant of Thomas De Quincey, her name was De Quincey and she had this face and this presence. So there are certainly a lot of young woman, working with these methods making a lot of art, doing a lot of things that follow a vaguely psychogeographic form. And also in terms of ethnicity I have been doing walks with quite a lot of Asian people in Whitechapel -- not walking out to London airport or any of that, but exploring territory thatís familiar to them and where they have grown up, trying to get a kind of different angle of looking at it.

Kevin Jackson: Thank you. Yes, over here please ... again if you could wait for Trevor with the microphone. Thanks.

(Q.3) Audience member: I am interested to hear what it feels like to write psychogeography and whether when you go on walks if you feel the words coming to you, or whether it is simultaneously a process of words and the geography come together. Or whether even, I mean you are both obviously extremely skilled wordsmiths, whether even the words come first and you kind of impose them on the geography. I just wondered what does it feel like to write in this practice?

Will Self: Well I mean I think the ... itís a steal for a writer. I am amazed that everybody doesnít do it (laughs). Itís interesting what you where saying Iain, about in Jim Ballardís memoir, about this weird period where he would only walk for what he reckoned was his personal horizon ...

Iain Sinclair: His personal horizon ... for his own height and I donít know how he calculated that. But in Shepperton you are on the flat I suppose. Heíd seemed to work out that three-quarters of a mile would do him. So he went three quarters of a mile in every direction and he got to know the area intimately.

Will Self: Because he was on a driving ban.

Iain Sinclair: Yeah, for a year. But he said it completely changed his life, because he decided he just wasnít going to use public transport, it was horrendous. To get into Notting Hill or Hampstead where he wanted to see people was just such a hassle, he wouldnít do it. So he then became a recluse in some ways. The upside of it was that he wrote more and better -- and presumably he was coming towards the period of writing Crash. And, secondly, I think because he now had to walk rather than just leaping into the car, he actually released different kind of energies and it was a wonderful thing. This notion of horizon, a personal horizon, is obviously very important. And the whole culture, the mainstream culture, has followed him into acknowledging the significance of the airport fringe. Ballard says that London is a suburb of Heathrow rather than the other way around, everything you need is out there. This does seem to be true and you walking there, Will, pays homage to this concept.

Will Self: Well, I mean when I went up to Stansted where they are fighting the expansion of Stansted and one of the things statistically about it is the reason that the British airports want to expand Stansted is for the retail opportunities and the parking. So it is not because they make money from landing fees, it is because they make money from Knickerbox and Waterstones.

Iain Sinclair: Yes absolutelyÖ

Will Self: But to come back to the question, for me walks are an actual narrative and the beauty of them is that it doesnít ... I mean if you ask me do I try to impose stuff on them the answer is no. I mean, part of the beauty is to not do that and let it speak to you and if it is dull then let it be dull, and if you have no thoughts let you have no thoughts, and if you keep thinking about a tiresome pop lyric, you know what the Germans call the ear-worm that gets inside your head and you canít shake it off, then let that be part of it as well. I mean it is not only for me an attack upon the convention of going to see the picturesque, but it is also an attack on ... its kind of you know correlative in the literary world which is a kind of cod, you know, painted biscuit tin naturalism that so much writing seems to partake in.

Iain Sinclair: When I was doing a book called Dining on Stones, which involved a walk down the A13, I stumbled on this concept as I went into a Travelodge, an off-highway motel. My eyes where not that sharp and I though I could see a jukebox and I thought this is quite interesting and I went across to examine it and it was actually full of books, it was a dispenser for books. And staring at it, suddenly, it struck me that there are just two schools of writers: the Ďpodsí and the Ďpedsí, and everything breaks down into this. So all writers are either naturally accessing material by walking, observing or else they sit within cars, figuratively or actually, and they allow reverie and imagination to play over them in that way. I mean J. G. Ballard obviously would be a pod person, in that he really belongs in the car and even when he is in America itís being in a taxi, being in a car and seeing the world through the window or the curved windscreen, seeing the hoardings. Whereas Will would obviously ... I mean although he has done car writing, he is essentially a walker. He has been initiated into the 'ped' brotherhood.

Will Self: Yeah, Iíve done 'pod' ...

Iain Sinclair: John Cowper Powys obviously is another Ďpedí. I think every writer is one thing or the other. I mean, I grew up with Kerouacís On The Road, which was the notion that you move, youíve got to move, and youíve got to learn to transcribe landscape. But I did not really want to spend my life in a car so I tried to develop techniques for rapid transcription, logging. I recently had to do a project in the Medway area, whereby we were given a tiny square of a map and in one day had to go to wherever this piece of the map was and write a notebook. I found ... I went to Chatham and I wrote this book in five hours and it was dead easy because the method was so well established: looking at the map, marking the coordinates, starting early. Had the breakfast, found an alms house, found a lepersí hospital, found Dickensís house, took an overview of the whole panorama, met a weird character in a pub, blah blah blah. blah, blah. Sit down and, you know, money for old rope ...

Kevin Jackson: Does that book now exist Iain?

Iain Sinclair: Well in one copy ... (laughs) ... So I typed it and stuck the photographs in and made a book. One of the other guys who was doing it with me was just gob-smacked, I mean not at the quality of it, but just the quantity that I was able to produce, the narratives and information from a single walk. Because the one who was most defeated by the conceptual notion was a very urban black writer who had come out from Brixton and got on the train and ended up in Rochester. He got out of the train and wrote about four lines because ... he didnít know how to approach this, it was so bizarre and so English and so unreadable. And he said all he could do ... he went up and down and finally found a barbershop where there was another black guy and they sat down and had a chat and he thought, thank God, there is one civilised person here. And he got back on the train and went home ...

Will Self: That makes a perfectly good book as well ...

Iain Sinclair: It was perfectly good, and it would have saved a lot of paper (laughs).

Kevin Jackson: I think we have got time for two more questions. So, the next one coming up ... OK gentleman here, please, microphone coming in.

(Q.4) Audience member: Hi, you cited Debord, Clare, and so on, which strikes me that it is to do with subverting the monumental and traversing the kind of city. There is another tradition of psychogeography, that of people like Jane Jacobs [The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961 - ed.] and Kevin Lynch [The Image of the City , 1960 -ed.], that is the visual survey, the repetitious crisscrossing of community, and the recursive pattern of behaviour across time. Do you think there is a kind of possibility of that kind of writing as opposed to the linear, and the subverting the kind of peculiarly post-modern romantic writing that seems to have been described tonight?

Kevin Jackson: I donít know how competent I am to condense that into a single phrase, but I think it points to the suggestion that there are alternative traditions of psychogeography based more on repetition rather than a linear narrative, which would have been expressed more in visual terms than in prose terms and the question is: is there any possibility of reconciliation between the linear kinds of narratives which you have perhaps produced and something perhaps that is more closer to a kind of art practice?

Iain Sinclair: Yeah, obviously, examples of it turn up regularly on my doorstep. And it is a thriving tradition but it is outside ... we are talking really rather mainstream here. I think like everything else in the culture there is a kind of Xerox effect, the difficult stuff, the sticky toffee of the universe, is buried so deep, and so long ago (laughs), and from it, generation by generation, the message is smoothed out, made familiar and accessible. Stewart Home takes this thing, psychogeography, and it is in an underground subversive state that is only to be encountered in self-delivered newspapers: and then it creeps out into the mainstream. And so you go on to a point where we are actually sitting here having discussions in the V&A, thatís the endgame of this idea, the whole psychogeographic conceit. And I think with the other tradition thatís mentioned there, much less so. I think it thrives within certain kinds of academic institutions, certain art practices. A lot of people are doing it, there are lots of projects to do with recording, retrieving, making maps conceptually, going out along the M11 doing whatever you do, and archiving and curating a kind of history in a way that is very interesting, I think, but doesnít fit within popular methods of publication and dissemination.

Kevin Jackson: Will?

Will Self: Well I mean people donít want to read things that donít have narrative structure because they donít pull them along. I mean it is as simple as that. I mean I donít ...

Iain Sinclair: No, I know, I 'm often being told ... told from the start that I canít do narratives, so ... a walk is ...

Will Self: I wasnít talking about you!...

Iain Sinclair: No, I know! (laughs). I am saying that this is where you can get ... it is feasible to be published without a narrative, just, but it will be held as a criticism.

Will Self: I think ... well, I donít know ... I mean ...

Iain Sinclair: But a walk is a narrative that was what I discovered.

Will Self: Yeah, I mean I donít think that this ... I donít know ... Surely the aim is to make something that involves people in some way or another ... or not (laughs) ... or in fact not (laughs) ...

Iain Sinclair: Probably not ...

Will Self: You know, or maybe the paradigm is to produce something and put it in a box of whalebone. I donít know. I mean it is sort of ... its not ... I am familiar what you are talking about Phil but itís not something that I find particular interesting myself. (laughs) I am afraid to say. I mean maybe I am missing that kind of ... I mean it seems to me that it is the formalisation of the kind of relationship with the environment that everybody should have. And it is a bit like kind of, Iainís Hackney council teaching people to walk, it seems to me. But I mean maybe it is necessary ... It doesnít seem to me particularly subversive, particularly if it is going on in University departments, unless it is just subverting other peoples funding (laughs).

Kevin Jackson: Time for one last ... Ah, now Iím torn morally ... All right, youíve been very patient in the front row ... OK ... Loud voice.

(Q.5) Audience member: I just wondered, you know, we are talking about of psychogeography going in waves as well as Thatcherism here, and it strikes me that CCTV really started to come in, as psychogeography really started to come back. It was almost like an escape from the state, as we are all being observed, we are all trying to find our own narratives. In one way it serves me when I think about it, it is about finding my own narrative, my own connections to the landscape. Maybe that is the way we are living at the moment, whether it is a sort of escape into the virtual, or the escape from being seen, it has led us to a sense of people needing to find walking as a way of developing narratives of the city.

Kevin Jackson: To reformulate the question: could any cause effect relationship between the rise of CCT(V) and the practices weíve talking about tonight?

Iain Sinclair: Yeah, I think probably profoundly so. I think they have had a major effect. The kind of slow realisation that you are in this movie all the time, you start to behave like you are in a movie and one of the really interesting things, again locally, I have discovered is that in Hackney we have more CCTV cameras than any other borough. Weíve also imported a system that logs number plates on cars, brought in from Northern Ireland, when the Secret Services did not need it anymore and sold it to Hackney (laughs). Youíve got this bunker with 60 monitor screens watching every street the whole time and they hire people from National Car Parks to do it because they have a high boredom threshold and also they can be sacked without any problems. And what it has done is to create a phenomenal level of paranoia, you know you are on camera all the time, that doesnít actually bother you anymore but you are very, very, very paranoid if anyone picks up an ordinary camera and there is a flash: you are likely to get your head blown off, it really is serious. And so if you got that projected over a whole city, then, as you are saying, there is the necessity of creating ways of moving through a city that acknowledge that you are now part of the movie. And this will involve elements that could be called psychogeographic. The real Big Bang is the argument between the Virtual and the Actual in zones like the new Olympic Park. Occasionally, you are allowed to take a tour around it, but you are never, never allowed to take a single photograph because that would introduce reality. The thing is that the only images allowed are computer generated, so you have a virtual version that is pushed out time and time again until you believe it; as with the Millennium Dome which became a complete Arcadian pastoral fantasy of blue rivers and orchards, everything that didnít actually exit anywhere and would be contradicted by ordinary digital photography or by drawings: so you suppress that, and you have that other thing. Thatís my thought.

Will Self: Yeah, I mean I think the ... the most interesting when street lighting came to the cities in the late nineteenth century the perception was that instead of people feeling that they were safer the perception was that the demimonde would kind of thrive. It was going to grow with kind of hideous mushroom alacrity so it was seen as the kind of spread of sin, the spread of light. I mean in the same way ... itís interesting how this very, very high level of visibility seems to walk in step with a kind of massively increased paranoia about crime and a kind of general unruliness about the way people are. And when I think back to when I was a child in London and the pea-soupers were still going into the sixties despite the clean air act, and you would walk back from the tube station by the hedge, I mean there was noÖthere were still many days in the winter when there was no visibility whatsoever, and I mean the CCTV would have been completely useless, so thereís some strange ... I suppose Iím driving at here, Iím kind of echoing Iain, thereís something about the kind of ... the way in which things are potentially over imagined through the lens of the camera, that makes people, I think, want to just fuck off all together really (laughs) ... I mean it is ... when I was listening to Iain I was thinking I never actually think about it much myself, Iím not highly conscious of CCTV when Iím walking around. I sort of think it doesnít apply to me because Iím not really doing anything wrong (laughs)Ö

Iain Sinclair: Perhaps you donít show up (laughs) ...

Will Self: Perhaps I donít show up, maybe Iím invisible, I donít knowÖ

Kevin Jackson: Like Count DraculaÖ.Thank you very much. Iím very sorry, that there really isnít time for any more, but I hope you will join me in thanking very much Iain and Will for a wonderful talk, and Iím told that their works are on sale outside, so weíll keep the organs of publishing that wayÖIain and Will, thank you very much indeed!

Endnotes

[1] ĎThe Congress of the Dialectics of Liberation Conference', The Roundhouse, Camden Town, London, 1967.' Further information available at: http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/60spubs/67dialecticlib/677DialectLibIntro.htm, date accessed 28th April 2008. [^]

[2] De Quincey, 'Some of these rambles led me to great distances, for an opium-eater is too happy to observe the motion of time; and sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical principles, by fixing my eye on the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and head-lands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphynxís riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I conceive, baffle the audacity of porters and confound the intellects of hackney-coachmen.' De Quincey, Thomas, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, available online at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/q/quincey/thomas/opium/chapter3.html, date accessed 28th April 2008. [^]

 

To Cite This Article:

Steven Barfield - Editor and Introduction, ĎPsychogeography: Will Self and Iain Sinclair in conversation with Kevin Jackson Transcription: Karian Schuitema (University of Westminster) (Literary London Journal)í. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 1 (March 2008). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2008/sinclair-self.html.

 


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