Friday, August 28, 2015

Drift in Church Hill

If William Byrd II was reminded of Richmond upon Thames when he faced the James River, thus lending Richmond, Virginia it’s name, what if he had turned around to face Church Hill and tried—through sheer whim and curiosity—to see England there as well? A couple weeks ago, in ninety degree heat and feeling somewhat restless, I attempted to do just that. I looked out at the James as Byrd had done, and then…turned around.

The inspiration for this—and for the little journey I took through Church Hill afterwards—came from the French writer Guy Debord. Debord helped develop a practice called the “dérive,” or drift. The idea is to make your way quickly through an urban area connecting places that aren't usually connected. Often the paths we make through cities are dictated by things other than us. We follow the tourist areas, the shops, the signs with arrows. Debord called for “total insubordination to habitual influences,” either by drifting along the atmospherics you pick up or by playing certain games. I wanted to play a game.

“A friend recently told me that he had wandered through the Harz region of Germany while blindly following the directions of a map of London,” wrote Debord, offering an example of a beginner’s dérive. With new and arbitrary directions Debord's friend could shake his mind up, could see and feel things people didn't normally see or feel. Taking the cue from Debord’s friend I turned around from that beautiful view of the James with my own set of directions through London, knowing where they would have taken me if I were in fact in London, but having no idea where they would take me in Richmond.

Google “London” and the people in Mountain View, California will take you to Charing Cross, a roundabout joining Strand, Whitehall, and Cockspur streets. Considering that Charing Cross is the “center” of London and I too was standing at a roundabout (where 29th Street meets Libby Terrace), I decided to start my London directions there at the statue of Charles I. This meant that standing at Libby Hill and looking northeast, I wasn’t looking at any brick 19th century homes at all, but at the center of London.

The next thing I needed was a place to go in London, preferably somewhere not too far from Charing Cross since I didn’t want to walk a ways in the heat. I also needed a route to take me there, preferably one with lots of twists and turns, assuring that my walk through Church Hill would not be one I had ever taken before. I decided in advance my destination would be Geo. F. Trumper, a men’s barber shop in Mayfair, having seen it once in a documentary and happening to need a haircut, if only imaginary. I dragged the little blue line up and down my Google Map and gave myself a curly route.

Route planned, I could set the map aside. What I most needed were the directions: take a left, walk 43 feet; take a right, walk 0.2 miles. I listed all these in my phone and pulled up an app that would track my distance and location. Admittedly, carrying along a smartphone does not suggest insubordination to habitual influences, but this is drifting for beginners, and the 21st century.

The directions took me up 28th Street, across an alley to 29th. I passed the house where Edgar Allan Poe said goodbye to Sarah Royster. I went down a staircase to Farm Fresh and the Bottom. I had walked along some of these streets before, but always with an objective that took my mind out of the walk at hand—go to the store, to the coffee shop, walk in the shade. But since all I had to do now was blindly follow directions, and get a haircut near Hyde Park, I could relax, walk slower. The place I was in was important, not the place I needed to be. I didn’t even know where that was.

In the end I found Trumper the barbershop in a parking lot off Dock Street. I made fast work of the walk home, just generally staying out of the sun. And once home, seated at my desk, another and equally important walk could take place, this time not with streets but with documents. Looking over the locations I had recorded on my phone, I could draw out my Richmond route and compare it to the London map. It became a way of challenging my concept of London. Maps tend to make places seem bigger than they actually are, and by looking over where I had been, I could ask the map to tell me the truth: that a walk from Charing Cross to Trumper’s is no more than a lazy jaunt down the Hill.

Also at home, I could compare the places I had been to the places in London that had inspired my even being there. I took a turn at 28th Street solely because of a turn at Piccadilly Circus, and because of that, for a moment, the two spaces were transposed. They became one space. A hydrant was a newsstand, a garage a double decker bus.

Another dérive could take place now, also with documents, but this one cultural. I had already passed by, playfully and almost blindly, Guy Debord, Charles I, and Edgar Allan Poe. But now there were other things suddenly linked that had to be explored: the history of London barber shops, the development of the Richmond canal. Naturally this drift took me to the library.


Anonymous said...

A book recommendation on derive, or Guy Debord, or psychogeography?

Jonathan Tuttle said...


More recently two English authors have written about some interesting walks: in Psychogeography the novelist Will Self records the walks he took on either end of a flight from London to New York, walking from his home to Heathrow and then from JFK to Manhattan; in London Orbital Iain Sinclair walks in a circle along the M25, the highway surrounding London.

A lot of the philosophy that inspired Self and Sinclair is introduced in the Pocket Essential book Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley. And for the primary sources themselves check out the English translations of Guy Debord and other "situationists" at