Restless Cities 04.08.11

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From doughnuts to bombs, a collection of essays on the mutations of the city enchants Chris Hall

The cover of Restless Cities is of a brick wall scratched with illegible lines, letters and words, suggesting a language of some kind, casting the city as a dense palimpsest, and indeed there are all kinds of buried treasure to be found. The essays collected here are arranged alphabetically by title, from Archiving to Zigzagging, a psychogeographical A-Z as it were, but one can perform a dérive of one's own through this book and get just as much pleasure.

Part of such a journey, however random, will include revisiting the same names. For such a supposedly radical group, psychogeographers' own drift through the – heavily French – literary canon seems oddly prescribed – Henri Lefebvre, Walter Benjamin, Marc Augé, Georges Perec, WG Sebald, Paul Virilio, Guy Debord are such landmarks that they take on the form of statuary. If there is a criticism, it is that the book tends to focus too much on these texts, particularly in the essays written by academics. The novelists and film-makers are a far more colourful bunch.

Geoff Dyer's brilliant, almost pathologically obsessive, essay on his own deeply worrying coffee and doughnut habits, takes him from various coffee shops and patisseries in London to ones in Paris, New York and, finally, Tokyo. It's a joy partly because it sits some way outside of the familiar frames of reference.

A writer of the calibre of Dyer can get away with quoting Nietzsche and contrasts his own "enduring habits" with the philosopher's "brief habits". (He doesn't go on to quote Nietzsche in full, but here it is: "I love brief habits and consider them an inestimable means for getting to know many things and states, down to the bottom of their sweetness and bitternesses", which is brilliantly apt given the aforementioned doughnuts and coffee.) He says that he was in Turin for three days but "came to love having my coffee and Cornetto in the cafe across the road from my hotel". Three days!

Patrick Keiller reminds us mischievously that "psychogeography and the dérive were conceived, in a more politically ambitious period, as preliminaries to the production of new, revolutionary spaces" rather than "preliminary to the production of literature and other works".

Chris Petit's Bombing opens: "During the war, architects, with little to do, drew up The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-45, colour coding individual buildings black for total destruction, purple for beyond repair, right down to yellow for light damage." The city as a cartographical bruise.

It's hard not to think about the MPs expenses scandal when Esther Leslie's excellent Recycling quotes Marx from 1860: "... all the lavatories of London empty their physical filth into the Thames. In the same way the world capital daily spews all its social filth through a system of goose-quills into one big central paper sewer – the Daily Telegraph."

It is this linking of the past with the present that makes Restless Cities such a culturally and historically rich illumination of the city in all its complexity.

Restless Cities, edited by Matthew Beaumont and Gregory Dart, Verso, £12.99

 

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Chris Hall

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For such a supposedly radical group, psychogeographers' own drift through the - heavily French - literary canon seems oddly prescribed

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