Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
I wish that there was another
word to do the job which the word 'psychogeography' currently does.
Pyschogeography is a clunky and pretentious-sounding term for
something which is actually very interesting. It is a way of
re-mapping an area, not just by its history or geography, but by
studying the nature of that area: what it has played host to and what
its prevailing ambience is. For instance, if I were to mention Soho
in London, most people would conjure an almost monochrome vision of
strip-clubs, cafes, alleyways, dodgy doorways and nefarious
characters. Soho has been sanitised somewhat during my own lifetime.
It's certainly a different place to the one which I first wandered
around when I was still a schoolboy. It's different again to the one
in which I worked for eighteen months during the mid-1980s. Soho,
nonetheless, retains its own distinct and probably ineradicable
psychgeography, as do the areas of Kings Cross and Whitechapel.
The particular psychogeography
of a place is dictated by the trades which have gone on there, the
ethnicities of its residents, its battles, its celebrations, its
villainy and its culture. Don't bother looking up the word
'psychogeography' however. There are some confusingly highbrow
definitions of it in existence – a sure sign that no-one's quite
pinned it down yet. Believe me if I could simply it Darren or Suzie
and have done with it, I would.
The psychogeographers are all
over London like a rash, of course, with their theories, podcasts,
pamphlets and books. Well, they would be, wouldn't they? Anyone would
think that London was the only place in the country worth exploring.
It isn't. Colchester with an equally rich psychogeography has been
comparatively unmapped so far.
Let me run this past you,
therefore. If an angry horde of several thousand people were to
descend upon the town, massacre all of its occupants and burn the
place so comprehensively that two millennia later, the archaeologist
were still fishing forensic evidence of the conflagration out of the
soil, would that not be quite a big deal? It is a big deal. Winston
Churchill called the Boudiccan revolt the most horrible episode in
our island's history. Philip Crummy, our senior archaeologist has
compared the event to ethnic cleansing. An incident such as this,
will necessarily leave its own deeply embedded atmosphere – a folk
Within a scant quarter-mile
radius of Colchester's Firstsite building, are layers and layers of
conflict, poverty, power-struggles, religion, revelry, decadence and
general venality. Underneath Firstsite itself, is the Beryfield
whose, gentle slopes the cattle and geese for the nearby St Denis
Fair were kept each autumn through medieval times. A few yards to the
south are the magnificent, if slightly creepy ruins of St Botolph's,
England's first Augustinian Priory. St Botolph's was ruined not so
much by Henry VIII's hissy-fit in the 1530s but by a much later
cannonading during the 1640s by Parliamentary troops laying siege
from the south.
Behind the ruined priory is its
namesake, the church. Tucked away in a dark close, leading off Queen
Street, St Botolphs Church, designed by a young Ipswich architect,
William Mason was built in 1838. Much lighter and more cheerful
inside than its exterior, it looms proprietorially over Colchester
Town station where in 1914, 2,000 horses from the Cavalry Barracks
were entrained in cattle trucks, despatched to the coast, and shipped
to Flanders from which most would never return.
Barely 30 years later, in
February 1944, during an air-raid, 1400 incendiary bombs were dropped
on the St Botolphs area, destroying a number of buildings, including
most Paxman's Britannia works. Near here, in medieval times, just
outside the town walls was an infamous human dungheap. Here too were
to be found prostitutes and occasionally, bear-baiting. In an echo
of its sordid ancient past, today the area is still well-known for
its 'night economy'. For here are the late-night bars, the fast-food
joints, exotic dancers and the type of rash offences often described
in the spanking new magistrates court, as being “out-of-character.”
In daytime, commuters, students and shoppers share these scruffy
pavements with street-drinkers, shifty-looking underwolves and
sundry others who've fallen through the net. With its strange mix of
bars, cheap eateries and dark old religious houses, along with its
chequered history, the St Botolphs, area so far as its
psychogeography is concerned, is an almost perfect storm.
That's the thing about
psycho-geography, though, it does tend to repeat itself, like a
spectral historical belch. Just up the road from here, outside
Colchester Castle, on the same ground which Boudicca's tribesmen
massacred or immolated the Romano-Celtic townspeople, Colchester's
own Poll Tax riot took place in March of 1990. The riot was not of
the same propensity of course. But it was unpleasant and shocking
enough if you happened to be caught up in it, as I was. I remember
witnessing four huge police horses as they rode through the crowd
outside Greyfriars and went cantering on past toward East Hill.
It was an uncharacteristically
warm Saturday in early March. I watched it all in a semi-psychic
haze, realising:“This has happened here before.” A force of
horsemen trying to keep order. Romans, Normans, Roundheads? Who knew?
What did it matter? The ground had been imprinted very long time ago.
Coincidentally, a few yards walk from here, in 1973 was the East
Hill headquarters of the band I joined which changed my young life
forever. And that's psychogeography.