Psychogeography of the Cafe
Psychogeography is the hidden landscape of atmospheres, histories, actions and characters which charge environments.
The term originally harks back to Thomas De Quincey's dreamy, druggy treks of the nineteenth century and Walter Benjamin's excursions around the Paris streets of the 1920s, fusing Jewish messianism, Kabbalism, Marxism and visionary Surrealism.
But after Internationale Situationiste #1 1957, the term evolves again, indicating the study of the effects of geographical settings on mood and behaviour.
Today, the expression is possibly most readily associated with Iain Sinclair's synoptic urban drifts; the divining of the unconscious cultural contours of places: "By the time I was using [the word], it was more like 'psychotic geographer' more of a raging bull journey against the energies of the city of creating a walk that would allow you to enter into a fiction."
Sinclair's work is a dense, fused poeticized prose often inspired by walks and free-associated treks around the underside of London, most especially the expansice wilds of the East End and its Essex deltas. Cafes often figure in his novels, and the Alpino in Islington's Chapel Market N1 has long been one of his stop-offs on regular walks up the Regent Canal.
Those new to Sinclair's work should start with his collection of essays Lights Out For The Territory. Then move on to his co-written account of the mystery of Whitechapel legend David Rodinsky - Rodinsky's Room - and his vanishing from a hidden East End Synagogue. On no account miss Sinclair's early novel Whitechappel Scarlet Tracings or his exorcizing of modern City meltdown, Downriver.
Cafes are vitally about atmosphere and kindled memories; their dowager bearing apparently drably familiar, yet full of secrets. Developing from the early twentieth century Welsh and Scottish Italian immigrant coffee houses and their binding family function in continental street life, today's remaining classic cafes show Britain looking beyond itself - combining cultural bloodlines that played a part in making modern British life a little less constricting, yearning for the more open social lifestyles of Europe.
The Italian caff families that ended up in London mostly hailed from the Welsh valleys of Taro and Ceno in the 1880s. As news of the boom in the Welsh coal fields of the time (particularly the Taf, Cynon, Rhymni and Rhondda valleys) filtered back to Italy from these first settlers, hundreds more Italians came over to set up cafes and ice cream parlours. These businesses thrived in the Welsh mining communities. (Each year, a coach party from South Wales still travels to Bardi in Italy's Chino valley full of the relatives of the Welsh-Italian families who set up these original cafes.)
Scots-Italians can trace their history back to the mass migrations from the Italy of the late 1800s. Many remained in the port cities of Glasgow, Greenock and Edinburgh, opening shops and serving dairy ice cream direct from barrows, with shouts of 'Gelati, ecco un poco' (consequently becoming known as the 'Hokey Pokey' boys). Italian cafes subsequently sprang up all over Scotland.
Switch to the Dickensian tenement back-streets of Mount Pleasant and Little Italy where the nineteenth century influx of Italian families and refugee subversives carved out a unique cafe style...
The visual focus is the mix of traders underground record biz whizz-kids and sombre Orthodox Jewish jewelers. You begin at Andrew's on Grays Inn Road and then submerge into the teeming jewel trader cafes of Hatton Garden: the green marbelised Formica cavern of Farina's; the Woolworth's deco of the St Cross St cafe (RIP) with its large lime 30s signage.
The cafes here are cross-fertilization zones for ideas and movements - a thousand stories in a semi-naked city - packed with spooks doing business off the books and under the Formica! All the while the cosy familial Italian cafe owners oversee their flock.
Andrew's acts as an unofficial clearing house for players from the nearby cheapo multi-occupation office block Panther House - a pox maze warren with hundreds of people running fly-by-night record companies, 'artiste' agencies and innumerable waxing and waning businesses. An atol of entrepreneurial cargo-cults.
Further up Roseberry Avenue, Luigi's (a laminated corridor with a basement attached), Alfie's (smaller still, little more than a period lean-to) and The Golden Fry (a dark rosewood gem filled with museum-class furniture) form a triangulated caff zone catering to the drifts of postal workers who wash around the Mount Pleasant sorting office.
These family lines then take us over to Islington...
Before his current Walworth Road sojourns, 'Mad' Frank Fraser was an Alfredo's regular (Frank was tight with the guy who set up Alfredo's 90 years ago; the caff Cosa Nostra.) Always dressed in full Long Firm funeral clobber, Fraser sits quietly, alone in a back corner, his immaculate black Gangster No. 1 tonsure (sculpted at an old 50s throwback barbers cold-shouldered behind Sadlers Wells) clashes with Alfredo's breezy ivory-and-blue tile interior.
Frank: "contract strong-arm, club owner, club minder, company director, Broadmoor inmate, firebomber, prison rioter... thief. 26 convictions. 42 years inside... Frank was quaffing beers with Charlie Kray while the twins were still in primary school."
Frank: the fabled non-medicinal 'dentist', the Richardson's panjandrum of pain ('Frank joining the Richardsons was like China getting the atom bomb'), the torture gardener, the legend who took a full barrel in the temple outside Farringdon's Turnmills ... and lived (an insider police job, insists FF).
FranK: the King of N1, man, the king of N1 "I speak with a great deal of experience when I say that life is sometimes very hard."
Meanwhile, at the grease kayfs up East...
Pellicci's in Bethnal Green: a stepdown Vitrolite gangland oasis teeming with beefy heavies from the old Kray-of-sunshine-days, all overcoats and knee-capped nostalgia amongst the lacquer panel walls and warm steam fug.
Pellicci's is also a haunt of cafe enthusiast and noted virtual villain Steven Berkoff. Vallance Road (Kray Street) - mecca of English method-'heavy' - is just round the corner. The lock, the stock and the full smoking barrel.
Which filmic lie-dream points us to the old Soho teams...
But now a new generation is paying belated respects...
Alfred (RIP) in New Oxford St: fitted out completely in the sensurround-Formica style of a working men's cafe... Stanley's in Little Portland St (by Alfred designer, Quentin Reynolds): a massive scarlet banquette pile-up of Brit motorway cafe meets LA lounge...
And, most notably, the S&M Restaurant (formerly Alfredo's): founded and run by the DeRitus family at the turn of the century (with Deco styling dating from 1920), the S&M restoration is a real indigenous attempt to face-off the US chains.
Kevin Finch, head of S&M restaurants, says: "With the new caffs I'm doing, the building, the fabric is as vital as the food. Proper tables, authentic light fittings. I want to replicate what Alfredo's was, what it meant."
A restoration. Resurgam. A rekindling of 'proper' cafe culture that is actually distinct from demographics, Third Space branding and lifestyle force-feeding. A valediction in Formica.
Iain Sinclair: Fortean
Times June 2001
Do you remember when the
word itself began to creep into your work?
Were you ever interested
in the Situationists or Lettrists?
How influenced were you
by the Earth Mysteries school, popularised particularly by John
Michell in the '60s?
John Michell's ideas are theoretically based in sacred geometry and Platonism, whereas the other side of it is more do to with quite random and extraordinary things like walking shapes or words or symbols into the map. Bill Drummond walked his own name across London and found himself finishing up outside a gallery where there was this image that he goes in and buys, of somewhere in Iceland. But these impulses are nothing to do with eternal verities or sacred notions of place and space.
Stewart Home says that the LPA deliberately mystified and irrationalised their psychogeograhical ideas in order to prevent them from being academicised in the future. But they inevitably will be because Stewart himself is a sort of rogue academic, so it's self-contradictory in some ways. By doing it, it becomes part of this machinery in talks and interviews. The franchise rolls on for future generations.
The density of information
to be gathered from these lines in a city must be far greater
than in the countryside.
How do you think ideas of
sacred space apply to cities today?
You must have seen a lot
of change having lived in this same spot for so long, almost
However, I've been less comfortable of late here than ever before. Things are boiling up quite fiercely from this random patchwork of gentrification. As one part gets nicer, so the surrounding bits will become more ferocious. Now those contradictions are starting to bite in a serious way. The latest fright sheet that came through from the council says that car crime involves cars being loaded onto lorries and taken away. There were people being arrested on our square doing crack deals, there've been stabbings -if you'd read all this a few years back you'd think they were describing New York. Superficially it's quite calm, but there have been maybe ten or twelve killings here just lately, and they hardly register.
There's ordinary, everyday things too, like the post hardly operates any more, it's completely random whether you get it or not - everything is quietly breaking down. Movement around the city through public transport is impossible. That's one of the reasons I began walking everywhere, because it was quicker!
Is this because, with the
increasing gentrification of the area inherent systems have been
There aren't many people still here from when we moved in. This strip was originally all indigenous, white cockney East End families, who'd been here a long time. This house had grand parents living upstairs, other family members downstairs, all tiny rooms. There was a tin bath and a lavatory outside, and there was a good bath house down the road which has just closed down.
As these people died off, mainly middle class newcomers moved in. they'd then move out, often when they had children, like Tony Blair, who lived across the road here then moved to Islington because he didn't want to put his kids into Hackney schools. So there's this constant migration. There's only one family here from when we first moved in. There was a gradual shift to places like Cheshunt, Cab driver territory, people who wanted to escape from black faces.
Wasn't there quite a big
migration in the '70s out to Hay on Wye?
Most of the people I've known and worked with around here have gone, for various reasons. But I think I'll stick here to the death, but who knows. Suddenly it seems that these house are worth huge amounts of money - theoretically, if I couldn't get published I could sell up and get a cottage somewhere. In Wales!