I am in leurve.
I am in leurve with a word.
I am in leurve with a word which, it is possible, does not even properly exist: a beatnik-word, a shady semi-respectable possibility.
I stumbled across psychogeography as I was searching vainly for the source history of the strangest piece of street furniture. I had entered: “Canterbury wooden demons Mercer Street.”
Because there are the most arresting wooden demons carved into the shop front of a place in the street which leads to Canterbury Cathedral; the street which would once have been lined with street vendors flogging bottles of holy water from the holy well, the big approach to the great house of God which must surely have been funded by the great hordes of pilgrims who, for centuries, started at London Bridge and walked all the way to the city where Thomas A Becket was martyred. Or murdered. Or both.
It happened a very long time ago indeed. Is it ever long enough ago to forget?
A man’s violent death on December 29, 1170 sparked a wave of something near hysteria and made him an instant hero for the people, a saint whom the king must fear far more in death than life. Rumour has it that Henry II, the man who insisted he didn’t order Thomas Becket’s death, had Dover Castle built as a perch on the hill, to brood moodily over the international tourists disembarking to make their way to the shrine.
Oh, what a tangled web Henry II wove, when he grumbled at his courtiers about the archbishop of Canterbury who had grown too big for his boots. Not, as popular myth would have it, “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” but as a contemporary – Edward Grim, outed by Simon Schama – would have it,. “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”
Whether we should have forgotten or no, we haven’t. The pope himself knelt with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, in May 1982, to what purpose I am not exactly sure. Pope Alexander III canonised that dead archbishop long ago, there’s a link, I suppose.
And the streets of Canterbury reflect the fact that we have never forgotten the hysteria of that martyrdom. Their very geography, their layout and appearance and street furniture is dictated by Becket’s demise.
Which brings me to psychogeography: a word the dictionaries seem to shun, the urban dictionaries mistrust. Wikipedia, that strumpet, will talk about anything, but even it insists that its entry needs to be re-written completely to comply with its free-for-all standards.
Oddly the Turkish-English dictionary has an entry, translating it as psikocografya.
It started with a French Paris revolutionary called Guy-Ernest Debord and his movement, the Situationists, who incited factory workers to revolt in the late 1960s. He and his people held that to fulfil human desire one should engineer one’s environment accordingly. He came up with the term ‘psychogeography’ in his essay, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography :”Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”
And what an environment Canterbury has set: a place designed to awe and cow pilgrims in equal measure, to stun with towering architecture, to crowd with overhanging buildings, to instil fear and superstition with those grotesques and carvings which people the city.
It is as if someone thought: how shall we best get money out of those trusting pilgrims to Canterbury?
And then , they built it.