:: Article

Psychogeographic soul sister

Clare Brant interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Clare Brant is a rockin’ feminist psychogeographer who is co-director of the Strandlines digital community. She was once torn between modernism and epistolary fiction, found the eigtheenth century exciting in the 1980s, with better jokes than the nineteenth, and has never looked back looking back ever since. When not writing poetry or co-directing she’s either scuba diving or writing Eighteenth Century Letters & British Culture, Walking the Streets of Eighteenth-Century London with Susan E. Whyman, Women, Texts & Histories 1575-1760 with Diane Purkiss, Rethinking Sexual Harrassment with Yun Lee Too and Up In The Air: The Eighteenth Century Rage For Ballooning as well as editing the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She thinks it’s criminal the way psychogeographical musings tend to exclude women and blames Mrs Thatcher for shrivelling university choices which makes her an apotheosis of hard-boiled jive.

3:AM: What made you decide to devote your professional life to thinking about literature and the eighteenth century in particular? Were you always reading and wondering about the past even as a girl or did something happen?

Clare Brant: I was a short-sighted child who learnt to read young, so books were easy friends in my nomadic childhood. Books were also an important link back to England, though other countries’ histories were just as interesting or more because one was living in them. At school I was taught a little eighteenth-century literature by someone who raved about the most complacent bits of Pope, so it was if anything a period I disliked, and anyway nineteenth century angst suited a moody teen better. But when I got to university, I read eighteenth century novels and Byron, and warmed to the period’s wit and elegance. It had better jokes than the nineteenth century. Career choices in 1983 were completely shrivelled by Thatcher cutting university funds – there were very few jobs and most of my peer group went off to be bankers – so it was an act of faith to persist with intellectual life.

Or it was simple stubbornness. It wasn’t obvious I’d take up the eighteenth century – at the time I couldn’t decide whether to do my doctoral thesis on Samuel Richardson or Dorothy Richardson! Epistolary fiction or modernism: I still keep some research going on contemporary things. The 1980s was an exciting time for literary critics in the eighteenth century – besides the theory wars, there was a real push by feminist scholars to make women writers visible again. But yes, I do like life in the past. I teach the eighteenth century on film a bit now – costume dramas, highwaymen… still fun.


3:AM: You co-edited with Diane Purkiss Women, Texts and Histories 1575-1760. In the intro one of the key ideas being addressed by the book was the problem that ‘women are cut off from our own history through exclusion from print culture and literary traditions.’ And because of this, ‘the historical power of masculinity makes culturally sanctioned stories suspect.’ So how did this book try and get us to see the gap between what women are and what they were being made to be?

CB: Well the contributors made great cases in relation to particular stories, and they pushed the general point that women’s writing was there, was often contested and contestatory, and was sometimes complicit with ideologies that we might rather have wished it opposed. The ‘texts’ was important: my piece looked at scandalous memoirs, as the first-person apologias of mid-century women tend to be called, to propose that how they wrote was shaped by how they reckoned other people saw them. So ‘how women are’ was – and is – relational and contextual.

3:AM: Was the period you chose here a particularly important one for this discussion or would any period face the same problem?

CB: Feminist critics were getting going then on the eighteenth century, so it was pioneer stuff. But it’s really important to see how much effort is required to make women writers in any period become visible and stay visible – it’s horrifying how easily twentieth century poets who are women, for instance, are reviewed less, acclaimed less, forgotten fast.

3:AM: Who were the writers of this period who are particularly important for this issue? Lady Wortley Montagu seems a favourite. You edited her letters. Is she? What’s so cool about her?

CB: Lady Mary is a very fine letter writer – amusing, interesting, artful. Her accounts of women’s lives in Turkey in 1716 still give us plenty to think about, in terms of debates about veiling. The most cool thing about her is the deft and subtle way she uses irony. One of her letters describes a visit to a hammam in Constantinople. Her description is exact: I tested it in a visit to a hammam in Turkey, rose-scented research. It is of course a women’s bath she visits, and she describes what no other traveller before her had – a group of beautiful naked women, relaxed, chatting, being themselves.

She makes the point that bodies take away signs of class – the ladies and their slaves are equal in nakedness – and she appreciates their behaviour to her, polite and friendly. They call her charming and she is charmed with them. There is a freedom in their actions that she associates with liberty, valued highly by eighteenth century Englishmen and valued too by Englishwomen, to whom it was much less available (no vote, no property rights, limited legal rights.) Lady Mary anticipates the interest of her male correspondent, wishing she could secretly introduce a male artist to sketch the scene. Some critics dislike this use of aesthetics, but it joins up with a wider context in which Lady Mary points out that veils confer an anonymity that could carry an escape from the loaded significations read onto women’s bodies.

She suggests, with irony, that head to foot veiling provides useful cover for women to have affairs – equal sexual freedom being one way, and only one way, to measure freedom and equality. At the end of the baths letter, she reports that the Turkish women invited her to join them, which would have meant undressing. They are mystified by her stays, which they imagine to be a contrivance of her husband’s, to lock her up. So the irony wittily calls into question how free women are anywhere, and how clothes, customs and religions contribute to restrictions.

3:AM: There’s a lot of psychogeographic stuff around these days. It’s a way of using urban space and time for memory but perhaps you could flesh out the idea a little here? Your book getting writers to respond in various ways to John Gay’s Trivia of 1716 is kind of psychogeographic, isn’t it? Can you say something about Gay’s poem first and also why you think London has such a hold on people, both back then and right through to our times too? Is there a sense that London has retained something of the eighteenth century resonances for contemporary London writers like Iain Sinclair, Will Self and Stewart Home for example? And more generally, is London a template for all psychogeographic work do you think, as if all cities are somehow to be addressed like this?

CB: Good literary criticism usually involves imaginatively understanding a poem; we don’t have much of a language for that because English is already too liable to be seen as an ‘emotional’ and fluffy subject. Gay’s poem takes London by day and by night and also by winter, to convey its energy. It’s slippery in tone, both comic and anxious about what we might call the ‘melting-pot’ of the city. Of course London has much in common with other great world cities, but perhaps what makes it distinct and different is that it has such a rich history (unlike say L.A.), and that history has layers to it, both socially and architecturally, whose scale and twistiness is unique.

3:AM: I guess the psychogeographic thing is about space and time and I wondered if you could say how you’d characterise the London eighteenth century psychogeographic space/time?

CB: London gets much bigger in that hundred years. There’s also a stronger contrast between city and country – no surburbia, less sprawl. One characteristic of then was the way trades were more present and visible – people making things close to points of sale. That’s vanishing, or it’s being converted into ‘hand-made’ food and drink. Eighteenth century writers testify to a sense of growth, bustle, diversity, excitement, confusion; some complain of ‘luxury’, fraud, crime. So plus ça change… one of the fascinating things about London is that areas change, and yet change doesn’t change everything: traces, residues, ghosts survive.

3:AM: Could you still use the poem as a guide of the secrets of London? If so, could you give some examples?

CB: Some of its actual topography has physically changed but you can still ‘walk’ much of it. Parts of the poem speak of dipping into quiet alleys, hidden courtyards and gardens: these are still secrets in London. But then, what is a secret? Something hidden from view may not be hidden from knowledge, and vice-versa. Here’s something not in the poem, but which I think was in Gay’s view in a walk down the Strand. Halfway down Surrey Street, which joins the Strand to what’s now the Embankment, there’s a gateway that leads to some ‘Roman’ baths. Officially a National Trust-owned site, the baths have been brilliantly researched by Michael Trapp, who has convincingly shown they’re not Roman. Nice instance of legend being more printable than fact! You can join his discoveries on Strandlines. But just beside the non-Roman baths, there’s a watchtower. It’s now a rather ill-used part of King’s, but you can still see that in its eighteenth century original, it would have had a perfect sightline to the river, enabling its occupants to survey the traffic of boats. That feels like a secret.

3:AM: Is psychogeographic-musing usually a male thing? Margaret Hunt points out that women are used in the poem as emblems of corruption to be reviled and shunned. Women get to be read as useful natural signs like street signs, so I guess a woman walker looking for signs of what to see is not going to be fated in the same way as a male walker?

CB: Psychogeographic musing is often condensed into the figure of the flâneur, who is male, via Walter Benjamin. The issue I think is like the question of the gaze in cinema, which is underpinned by a whole lot of male-centric psychoanalytic theory. That’s fine, except it boxes in possibilities and actualities by rigid constructs (of which gender is one but not the only one.) There’s wonderful psychogeography in Hope Mirrlees’ 1919 poem ‘Paris’ – which incidentally anticipates T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Or Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness or Maureen Duffy’s novels Capital and Londoners (1983).

Recently I saw a flyer for a new anthology of poems about London. It managed to mention not one single woman. I thought that was criminal. Best I can do is not buy the book. I did buy an introduction to psychogeography which again barely mentioned any women writers – quite a feat, when Virginia Woolf’s essay Street Haunting is absolutely central. Is it that people are interested in making psychogeographic musing as a male thing? Streetwalkers do a lot of looking: why aren’t we open to their musings? Plenty of women write fabulously about place. Part of the problem may be in the concept of Muse – if you’re male, it’s easier to appear to have a hotline to inspiration in the form of a Muse because a Muse is traditionally feminine. It’s a whole lot harder for women who write to have a Muse like that, or a gendered muse at all. Could 3:AM Magazine readers contribute some differently-gendered or anti-gendered musings?

3:AM: I like the idea that Gay wanted the poor to read his poem not just the posh and the literati. Is part of the appeal of the eighteenth century that class and gender were openly on display in the streets at the time and so we get a sense of the kinds of issues of inequality that are beginning to haunt us now in these days? Is this part of the reason why eighteenth century ideas and attitudes seem to still resonate? Is this continuity something you wanted to communicate in Eighteenth-Century Letters and British Culture?

CB: Tricky! There’s a sexual double standard in the 18thC and there are people who resist it, courageously. I want a resonance in that, and in reason and feeling as good means of challenging inequality.

3:AM: On that last issue, you note that back then as well as polite literature there were pamphlets and lurid texts flooding the market. Anxieties of the posh Tories back then seem similar to those now, in fact when they talked of a ‘fractured society’ they even sound like moneyed reactionaries these days when Cameron talks about ‘broken society’. Is there a real connection?

CB: Wealth, power, establishment: these are still as much with us as the poor…

3:AM: Marjorie Garber writes about ‘desire lines’ as a metaphor for intellectual enquiry. Multi-disciplinary work can cause ‘discipline envy’. Do you get a sense that projects such as yours are becoming more acceptable and that multi-disciplinary enquiry across the board is much more acceptable than it used to be? I guess this question is really about the role of the university and how it is being shaped by forces both external (like funding, performativity, neo-liberalism etc) and internal (like cross fertilisation of enquiry and research etc).

CB: A big question! Interdisciplinarity has been fashionable; in practice (I’ve done lots) it can mean more conformity, and frustratingly publishers and bookshops still parcel up sales mostly by conventional disciplines. Multi-disciplinarity is hard to do well; if the disciplines involved have discipline-specific skills, you have more to master. One of the attractions of literary criticism is that it’s long been open to other disciplines – most obviously history, but also geography. Science is becoming du jour too. Universities have been both versatile and craven in responding to pressures from governments. At the moment ‘humanities’ seem to be the best compromise for retaining discipline specifics, which we still have to teach to students, and broader conversations. Life writing is really useful as a cross-disciplinary home to research that can handle crossing points in big questions.

3:AM: Strandlines is an amazing project. Why the Strand?

CB: Thank you! My office overlooks it. After twenty years, it occurred to me to make something of it. It’s got such a rich history and yet it has this unloved feeling.

3:AM: It’s organized through themes and places. I love the walk you recommend in the footsteps of John Donne. Can you say a little about your fave parts of this blog to whet the appetite of readers here at 3:AM?

CB: ‘The story of Strandlines’ explains how the project came into being – and yes, there’s psychogeography in that so it may offer an instance of female musing! I haven’t written much copy for Strandlines –the blog postings are occasional – so almost all the content comes very generously from others. The strapline of Strandlines is ‘Lives on The Strand: past, present and creative’ and I like best the many contributions that give weight to each.

3:AM: How do you see this work progressing?

CB: I’m afraid in practical terms it’s subject to funding. Any benefactors out there?

3:AM: And you’re about to publish a book about balloons and how they attracted imaginative responses in literature? You even flew in one, didn’t you? So why should we be interested in eighteenth century balloons?

CB: They’re an invention which in 1783 everybody knew was important – humans could now fly for real! – and great things were hoped for. So it’s a really rich imaginative moment, with speculation, utopia, dystopia all in the mix. The story has been taken up by historians as one of science versus spectacle, but it can be told in relation to a fast-changing world that isn’t sure what counts as progress. Balloons fit into force-fields particular to the 1780s, but there’s also a long story, in which balloons come to represent a symbolic imagination that is still powerful. Think of children with little balloons on a string… balloons still entrance us.

3:AM: So which are the books, art and music that have been influential in your work?

CB: Blimey: I’d probably need a whole autobiography to sort that one out! Some influences turn up in my poetry (Dark Egg and Entering Sleep Mode both published by Shoestring Press). Film is an important medium too, perhaps the most influential medium of the twentieth century. Being of a certain age, my bookshelves are full; what’s as influential for me now is learning from people.

3:AM: And for the multidisciplinarians here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend to us that will give us further insights into your world?

CB: Hans Hass, Men and Sharks. I’m a scuba diver and I am writing about life underwater so I read avidly whatever’s been written about it. Hass, like Jacques Cousteau, was part of a generation who started with a speargun and swapped it for a camera. That change of heart, from exploitation to conservation, is fascinating – and instructive. After ninety million years on this planet, sharks are now in deep trouble from human predation; they are in danger from us. Hass is adventurous, enquiring, engaging, ingenious, lively and brave. With his partner Lotte – ‘luscious Lotte’ to men of a certain age – he became inspirational to another generation. Everything he writes is charming.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, New Collected Poems – simply an astonishing poet.

Teddy Edward at the Seaside by Patrick and Mollie Matthews. My favourite book. Ever. A bear who belongs to a little girl plays on the beach with her, explores, and with his white rabbit friend Jasmine goes to have tea with a mouse before going happily home. Indeed golden pleasure. The illustrations are photographs which make it all perfectly normal. It may account for some of the surrealism in things I write, like Shadow Goes to a Gallery (Thingley Press 2012), a story with inspired pictures by Hermione Skrine, in which a deerhound goes to an art gallery…

Ferdinand Pessoa The Book of Disquiet. It’s been said that Pessoa is Portugal’s best four writers: he wrote in many different identities and four main heteronyms. This book has least personae distractions, and an intensity of philosophical lyric and self-reflection that many readers acclaim as life-changing. It’s a brilliant book for long journeys – each fragment gives you so much to think about.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Possibly the book I consult most: it’s full of treats for the word-mindful. My favourite is ‘sardonic’, which came into English in the seventeenth century, with an opaque history through Homer, who used sardánios as an epithet for scornful laughter, from the notion that the word originally referred to the effects of eating a Sardinian plant which was said to produce facial convulsions resembling horrible laughter.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 27th, 2012.