A Dèrive

I left work just after 4pm yesterday and, having no plans, decided to have a bit of a wander. I walked through Regent’s Park, aware generally that I was walking in the direction of Camden yet taking impromptu detours through areas of long grass where it was clear few people ventured. I was pleased to find myself at the bridge which crosses over to Primrose Hill and I walked to the top, sat down and took in that magnificent view. With a bizarre and unlikely timing, ‘London’ by Pet Shop Boys came on my iPod just as I reached the top. A “this is where I am” photo to my mum, brother and boyfriend.  It felt like a pause, a taking stock. How the hell did I end up here and how fortunate I am to be able to think that. Around me it was mostly couples, families and groups of students; runners panting their way up and down the hill while little girls self-consciously copied them, collapsing with laughter after running a few yards. I saw one other person who was on her own and wondered where she had come from. She lay on her back and spoke to someone on her mobile, staring at the sky. The urge to share this place, even when alone, is irrepressible – the trade-off being that you cannot truly wallow in any sense of solitude.

After 40 minutes or so a drizzle started to fall and it was time to go. Back down the hill, past the magnificent town houses (one of which I spent an evening in, a lifetime ago, drinking wine on the balcony with a Brazilian I never saw again) and towards Chalk Farm.  As I turned a corner onto Chalk Farm Road, the city returned with a roar. The police were holding a young black guy and speaking into their radios; a crowd had gathered around a man holding a megaphone, ranting about ‘men’s rights’ while a little boy (his son, I guess) held his hand and drank a Capri-Sun. As I walked along I marvelled at how pretty much every shop in Camden sells tat and yet there are always crowds flowing in and out of them. 

It was about 5.30 now and everyone was descending on the cash machines and bars, kicking off the bank holiday weekend. I ducked into The Black Cap, expecting it to be mobbed. I forget that it’s never mobbed. I sat at a table on my own, sipping a pint and took out the book I’m reading at the moment, The Beach Beneath The Streets: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International by McKenzie Wark. I did my final year university dissertation on the Situationists so I’m familiar with many of their concepts and it was impossible not to smile when I realised that the section I was reading was about the dèrive – the “drift”. Defined by Guy Debord as “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences”, it is a practice wherein you follow the contours and flow of the city, allowing your journey to be driven by it and forgetting its rational divisions and your usual purposes for venturing into certain areas (e.g. to go to work, to go shopping, to go to the Doctor etc etc). The aim is to create a new experience – a new relationship with the city, different ways of thinking about it, how it functions and how it affects us. To explore its “psychogeography”, as the Situationists called it. It is certainly one of the most popular and enduring concepts from Situationism and  for obvious reasons. I was no doubt flattering, deceiving and inflating myself by retrospectively labelling my afternoon walk a dèrive yet it was undeniably a powerful and profound experience. 

Debord believed that the dèrive worked best with “small groups of two or three people” and that “the average duration of a dèrive is one day”. Suddenly those two days off for the Jubilee look immensely exciting.

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