Saturday, March 19, 2016

Spirit of Place: A Tentative Psychogeographical Map of Birmingham

In the (somewhat affected) tradition of Guy Debord and the Situationists, for several years I have been trying to construct a psychogeographic map of Birmingham, based on the one Debord did of Paris. Trying has been the operative word, because I’ve kept hitting the snag that I have simply been unable to. Paris and London, two of the cities par excellence for psychogeography, have been mapped to death, seemingly without the problems I have experienced doing the same for Birmingham. To adopt the language of witchcraft and use it in a psychogeographical context, I have completely failed to identify the energetic or vibrational centres of the city, the liminal places, and magical routes around the city. When trying to identify distinctive energetic areas of the city or natural routes through it, I have found these areas and routes disrupted over and over again, to the extent that up until now I have not been able to map these things out. This is despite the way in which I can clearly identify that, say, Eastside feels very different from the Jewellery Quarter. Which brings up a first problem in mapping the city: when you get off a train at New Street and see signs to Southside, the simple fact is that the Southside label has not long been coined for that area of the city. When I tell people where I live, if they want to be sarcy they can call it Highgate (itself a created area in the 1960s rebuilding of the city), and when the council write to me they address letters to Nechells, even though I’m nowhere near Nechells but live in Nechells electoral ward. In a similar way people make fun of the residents of the Jewellery Quarter by calling it Hockley or Newtown, and of Brindley Place residents by calling it Ladywood. The repeated rebuilding and relabeling has created something of a psychological chaos and I have been forced to conclude that what is said in this blog post is true:
' I had about 2 hours for a wander and just followed my nose, through China Town then the Gay district. I have a pretty awful sense of direction at the best of times but Birmingham seemed to completely fry my navigational circuits sending me in large loops around rubble strewn car parks and wholesale markets. Andy from Magic Cinema said this was the effect of the city’s ‘concrete collar’, the asphalt noose formed by a series of ring roads.' (
Therefore based on the assumption that the line of the former Inner Ring Road creates a psychological line around the city, and also that I personally still see the line of the ring road around the city centre (bit difficult to eradicate what Manzoni and Co did with their bulldozers all those years ago) I have started my psychogeographic map with a scan of the 1979 A to Z map of the city centre, because it shows the Inner Ring Road intact.
My first instinct was to draw a major division in the city centre along the line of the Inner Ring Road, but I resisted doing that because I realised that many of my personal psychological routes around the city lay outside its boundary. Since it is clearly evident on the map I decided just to let it stand as something that is just there.
I decided to start by dividing the city centre into areas as they feel different to me (shown in green lines on the map). I was expecting the Inner Ring Road area to be a single one but was surprised to find that I experienced the area as several different zones. I was not surprised to find that while not completely dictated by it, my personal zones were heavily influenced by the line of the Inner Ring Road.
I continued by drawing (in blue lines on the map) the routes around the city that I tend to find variously compelling. This is where I got a surprise. Perhaps influenced by the previous complete separation of traffic and pedestrians in the city centre, I found that many of my personal routes completely ignored the line of the Inner Ring Road and went across it in many places. The present or former existence of underpasses or pedestrian bridges would explain that in many places, but I was astonished to find that another pattern emerged in my psychological routes through the city.
My personal routes show my almost complete avoidance of certain parts of the city – remember that while I have been using the somewhat compressed map of the city centre which forms a single page at the back of the A to Z, it nonetheless shows a very small area in reality, one which could very easily be walked end to end. My personal routes have almost completely avoided the North-East and South-West of the map, a realisation which surprised me since I pride myself on knowing the city centre backwards (‘Where on earth are you taking me?’, said a friend as I took her down a concrete spiral staircase she didn’t know existed). Additionally, I was very gratified to notice that in addition to routes explained by underpasses or pedestrian bridges, many of my personal routes followed genuinely old roads (such as Newhall Street), ignoring the line of the Inner Ring Road completely, or else genuinely ancient roads such as the route from Deritend High Street up through the markets and into the High Street area. In fact, I was very gratified to realise that my psychogeographic map bears much more resemblance to the 18th century map of the town!


  1. This is quite fascinating. I've never given psychogeography much thought. I tend to go where I need/want to, or let the geography guide me, but, having now read this, I may try for some sort of conscious understanding of where I'm going. This may be for naught, though, as I have a hideous sense of direction (ring roads notwithstanding).

    1. Oh I'm sure you'll be surprised as I have been. In fact I have only just noticed that a huge area in the centre seems to be completely blank, sigh.


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