Laura Grace Ford takes issue with being called a “psychogeographer.” This may explain why she is a very good one, term notwithstanding. Speaking with China Mieville in his 2011 long essay London’s Overthrow, she said “I wanted to take the term psychogeography but I wanted it to be about the radicalism of it, not this kind of… and all that.”
For a practice that can be summed up as “walking and observing,” there is certainly a lot of dross to parse through in the concept of psychogeography. Lots of fey new-age speak, equating city streets with mood rings, middle-class twits acting as if they are first to ever walk by an abandoned building.
The unfortunate irony is that psychogeography—or whatever we might call it—is intended to illuminate a city to its inhabitants rather than further obfuscate it. Affinities can be found in the works of William Blake, Daniel Defoe, and Thomas De Quincey, all of whom pondered and explored the parts of London buried beneath layers of imperialism, plague, or industrialism. Walter Benjamin, in his work on the twentieth-century city, reinvigorated Charles de Baudelaire’s figure of the flâneur as a wandering urban déclassé whose outsider observations of the city were both a product of and estranged from the process of industrialization. Capitalism was reshaping the city, and our experience of it. Being sensitive to these changes was an invitation to subversion.
And then there are the situationists, that small group of European avant-garde Marxists who in the 1950s and ’60s attempted a unified framework of everyday life and revolution in consumerized post-war capitalism. Their version of psychogeography is where we get much of its terminology—in particular dérive, the unplanned journey through urban space conceived as an act of revolutionary reimagination. The debt to Benjamin, to surrealism and Dada (as well as their direct precursors the Lettrists) is obvious, in that the emphasis is on transformation, mining the liminal and overlooked, and radical transformation as a dissolution between art and life. If anyone is responsible for folding far-left militancy into the concept’s pronounced romanticism, it would be them.
The final product is a wondrously strange experience, part art book, part punk zine, part diary, part manifesto of urban revolution, all spun together into an acid-trip imagining of a future that might never come.
Ford, in her Savage Messiah, stands in the best of this lineage, at turns practical and imaginative, concrete and incendiary. Originally a series of zines released between 2005 and 2009, the book was first compiled and published by Verso in 2011 with an introduction from late cultural critic Mark Fisher. Not long after it fell out of print, forgotten even while Ford’s own art continued to garner acclaim. Republished in 2019, the new edition included all the original zines, a new preface from Greil Marcus along with Fisher’s original introduction. It also includes a new, circa 2018 zine.
The final product is a wondrously strange experience, part art book, part punk zine, part diary, part manifesto of urban revolution, all spun together into an acid-trip imagining of a future that might never come. A patient and generous read yields a rather painful awareness of how alienated urban space has become from us, how manipulative it can be of our wants and desires, how harsh and unenjoyable it can be. We are left wondering how—or where—they might be reclaimed. Fisher writes in the introduction that,
“If neoliberalism’s magical voluntarism is to be believed, there are always opportunities to be chased or created; any time not spent hustling or hassling is time wasted. The whole city is forced into a gigantic simulation of activity, a fanaticism of productivism in which nothing much is actually produced, an economy made out of hot air and delirium. Savage Messiah is about another kind of delirium: the releasing of pressure to be yourself, the slow unraveling of biopolitical identity, a depersonalized journey out to the erotic city that exists alongside the business city.”
Almost all of the zines that comprise Savage Messiah were created during something of a liminal space in London’s own history. These were the final years of the Labour government in the UK, with deep disillusionment setting in around Tony Blair’s enthusiastic involvement in the Iraq war.
They were also years of profound change in the London landscape: austerity, privatization, rising rents, disinvestment, attacks on public services and spaces. Youth—especially youth of color—were increasingly the subject of scapegoating with the rise of Anti-Social Behavior Orders (or ASBOs). More and more it seemed that streets and neighborhoods belonged to someone other than their residents and inhabitants, particularly in working-class and poor areas. All of this accelerated after the city was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games, just one day before the 2005 terrorist attacks.
Anyone who has spent any extended amount of time in London can attest to how jarring and disorienting these changes have been over the long term. I lived there myself for a spell in the early aughts, leaving in the winter of 2004. Returning for the first time in 2015, it was clear that the city had lost something: fewer squats, fewer independent record shops, and music venues, fewer spaces existing in the blurred lines of acceptability, where something exciting might be discovered apart from the simulacrum of twenty-first-century bloated Britannia.
Ford witnessed the process of decline that I missed. She lived there, and still does. Which means she can chronicle exactly what was lost and how. In Savage Messiah, the biography of a place is not down to its grand histories or architectures, though those may play a role. It is more about who interacted with it, perhaps even reshaped it, the experiences and urges and memories provoked by it.
Anyone who has spent any extended amount of time in London can attest to how jarring and disorienting these changes have been over the long term.
Wandering through the areas of London—Marylebone, Stratford, Lewisham, Hackney Wick—one gets the sense she is pensively but frantically trying to piece together a history-from-below of every street-corner and underpass. Her descriptions digress into memories, often several layered on top of each other, rabbit-holes within rabbit-holes: 1989, 1996, 2003, friends, strangers, acquaintances, piss-ups, drunken brawls, bonfires, people who fell in-and-out of love, bored afternoons, demonstrations, and riots, previous drifts that will bring her back into the moment in front of her. “The polychromatic riot of London’s histories,” she says, “travel in shimmering, tangled lines.”
She will also flash forward—again, provoked by some poignant observed detail—to what the future of this city, borough, or street will hold. It is almost always bleak, shaped by a rising cost of living, a creeping surveillance state and, stalking underneath all of them, the imminent 2012 Olympiad and its carnival of homogenization.
“Sweep towards White City,” she writes as she walks through Shepherd’s Bush,
“… site of the Franco British Exhibition and 1908 Olympics. There were palaces and halls on stilts and stations opened amid fanfare and ceremony. The complex was used to make aeroplanes and parachutes in the war and eventually laid to waste. Dreams of 2013, overgrown velodromes and derelict stadiums shimmer in this dirty construction site. The past holds tight the kernels of repetition and destruction. The White City was disused for years, part of it became a dog track, the rest left as a vessel for the imagination. In 1984 the last greyhound race was run and it was demolished. And now dust clouds are kicked up again as the site is turned into a 1.2 million square foot shopping city. Look here for the future …”
The book’s visuals are what draw these disparate times and places together into a coherent-yet-sprawling vision. In these images, the quotidian becomes revelatory and vice versa. Black-and-white photographs of housing estates, newsagents, empty lots have cryptic symbols or phrases scrawled over them. Ford has frequently drawn large eyes looking down on scenes from the skies or tops of buildings, in obvious reference to the proliferation of CCTV cameras. She also has pasted in pencil drawings of each forgotten episode’s forgotten protagonist.
These images defamiliarize, but in such a way that also “de-monolithize.” If London is headed toward grim authoritarianism, then it will be forced to exist over and despite its simultaneities. Ford’s drawings and sketches and collages reintroduce an element of chance and contingency to the urban landscape.
As the book progresses, the renderings get richer, more nuanced, and detailed, though still retain an essence of jagged fantasy. Photographs intersperse with detailed pen-and-ink landscapes, collages are assembled more seamlessly into warning posters, the kind wheat-pasted onto a wall overnight. Do the portraits represent real people or have their likenesses been borrowed as avatars? Is the graffiti on this drawing of an overpass actually there or did the artist add it after the fact? Are the faded and semi-translucent figures walking through dingy courtyards there for an overlapped photo or because we are in actuality looking at a window’s reflection? A ghost perhaps? The divisions between what is in this city and what could be start to break down, adding to a sense of latent insurgency. Between obscured pasts and uncertain futures, the present becomes a battleground both personal and political. The imaginary becomes more vivid, tangible. It also becomes a weapon.
If London is headed toward grim authoritarianism, then it will be forced to exist over and despite its simultaneities. Ford’s drawings and sketches and collages reintroduce an element of chance and contingency to the urban landscape.
The winter 2009 zine brings this to a head. Ford describes it as a “special issue tracing the paths from East End to the New Towns, from the riot cities of 1981 to the future insurrections of 2010—2013.” What starts as the story of an imagined survivalist scratching out an existence in a tower block on the edge of the Olympic village in 2013 gives way to remembered history. There were indeed riots all over Britain between April and July of 1981. They were not just in London but in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Leeds, where Ford lived at the time, shortly before moving down to London.
Captioning the image of a half-overgrown courtyard bench, a rusty shopping trolley in the background, Ford writes “There’s no angels heralding the next epoch, it’s just us as the swarming underclass, the surplus people animated round fires lighting up the tawdry streets. It’s coming, the next epoch. To some it’s too late. To us it’s just the start.”
The implication is clear. There is always something humming and buzzing underneath the surface of any city, no matter how much pomp is built on top of it. It is something dangerous, but the reason it cannot be fully stamped out is that it is made of actual human beings.
Savage Messiah’s final episode flashes forward, rather abruptly, to 2018. This is the new zine that Ford has included in the updated edition. The Olympics have come and gone, leaving in their wake destroyed public housing and glass-metal yuppie-nests. The Conservatives are in power. They have gutted education for working-class people, overseen drastic cuts to the NHS, and dragged the country into a disastrous Brexit, agitating an already horrific atmosphere for immigrants. The recent government is a worsening, but also completely in line with what Blairite Labour had already done to the country, to the city. The nine-year gap in Savage Messiah’s narrative, picking up in the same aesthetic oeuvre almost as if nothing had happened, affirms this combination of rupture and continuity.
The insurrections that Ford predicted in the previous 2009 zine have come uncannily true. There has been the higher education rebellion of 2010, that saw thousands of working-class youth and students occupy Tory headquarters in London and come this close to burning down Parliament Square. There were the urban rebellions that followed the police killing of Mark Duggan, spreading from several boroughs in London out into the other cities.
In contrast to this history, this coda for Savage Messiah is understated, calmer, slower. Ford remembers visiting a dying friend in a privatized hospital, another locked up in overcrowded prison. This is not resignation so much as contemplation, a chance to put loss in context.
“I get off the tube at Latimer road. It’s the first time since the fire I’ve been there. The tower is close, it’s presence palpable, the smell of carbon still there. The sky is a brilliant mocking blue and I resent it.”
It is here we realize she is speaking of Grenfell, the public housing estate that, aided by government negligence and lax safety standards, caught fire and killed at least 72 residents in June of 2017. The sense of deflected mourning, of melancholy that has permeated throughout the whole book, gains a kind of linchpin. So does the seething anger.
The insurrections that Ford predicted in the previous 2009 zine have come uncannily true. There has been the higher education rebellion of 2010, that saw thousands of working-class youth and students occupy Tory headquarters in London and come this close to burning down Parliament Square.
Conversely, the history of contemporary London has, at the end of it all, taken on a personality, characteristics worth celebrating or resenting. Its events are no longer something absorbed in a linear manner from a page. Be they defeats or victories or just neutral happenings, they linger for long afterward, shaping emotions and behaviors and decisions for years. They are also, if viewed in the same light, foretold, in some cases seen coming from a mile away. Perhaps then, contrary to the grand designs of planners and developers, the art and poetry of these same oft-forgotten buzzing-humming human beings might have something indispensable to teach us.