Psychogeography and writing landscape


17 March 2023
Novelist Kerry Hadley-Pryce describes how a particular kind of walking enables her to give landscape the qualities of a character

It’s an immense, immeasurable place – I’m talking about the Black Country here – and it sits, like some kind of brooding consciousness somewhere at the borders of the city of Birmingham and the Worcestershire edges and the Shropshire limits. You’ll hear arguments about where it is exactly, this Black Country of mine, but my advice is not to waste too much time on that because for those of us who live here, there is no argument.

Now, if you think about it, one of the things the Covid-19 pandemic has done is made us rethink the outside, maybe value it a bit more, or think about it in a different way. It’s made us yearn to be out and about. It’s made us realise how precious things are: our health, yes, family and friends, of course, but also our surroundings, where we live. It’s made us buy dogs so we’ve got an excuse to go for a walk. And when I say ‘walk’,  I mean a different kind of walking – more alert, more aware – a kind of traipsing about, sensing what there is to be sensed about the geography, the landscape, the geology and the architecture of where we’re from, because we know now what it’s like for that simple act of walking to be taken away from us. It’s this, really, this need to just walk that prompted me to research psychogeography, and which led to the writing of my latest novel, God’s Country, which was published by Salt Publishing on 15th February, 2023.

Walking in the city – strolling with apparently aimlessness – is one of the main elements of psychogeography. Writers and academics such as Will Self and Iain Sinclair have lots to say about it. It has its roots in the French Situationists of the 1950s; it’s all about rule-breaking and ‘drifting’. For me, psychogeographic walking is one of the main elements of my writing process. When I was writing God’s Country, I must have walked hundreds of miles – no joke – taking in this Black Country of mine, this edgeland of an edgeland, this nowhere place. The atmospheres here are unlike anywhere else: one minute you’re in an industrial estate with clanging metal and blokes shouting indistinguishably to one another, and the next you’re in the midst of a wilderness surrounded by birdsong, and you might come up against an unexpected body of water: the canal (‘the cut’ we call it) or the River Stour (‘The Forgotten River’) might appear from nowhere.

No matter whether I am in the Black Country urban, or the green borderlands, there is always a sense of creativity, like some kind of siren call, waiting to happen, and the walking gives me access to it. Reading that back, it sounds a bit like something a Romantic poet might say. I don’t mean it that way, in fact, my writing has been described as ‘Black Country Noir’. I like that, and I like that God’s Country captures what some academics refer to as the ‘liminality’ of the Black Country, reflecting the juxtapositions of concrete and colour, wildscapes and writings-on-walls.

Walking, I think, allowed me to access that feeling of liminality, and to translate it into fiction. You know that feeling when you’re walking and you see something – graffiti, perhaps – and you look at it, and you wonder why you hesitate, you wonder what it is and who put it there? You know that vague sensation of ‘wrongness’, or the sense of something strangely familiar, or familiarly strange? It is what Mark Fisher refers to as ‘something so strange as to make us think it shouldn’t exist, or shouldn’t exist there.’ What you feel when you walk in a place like the Black Country is the tremor of the eerie, the sensation of the weird, yes, but this is good. And what I’ve tried to do in my writing is to transport the reader to the very edgelands of the edgelands where they can experience the cultural currency of my region.

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Most importantly, the writing that is brought about by the walking is fed by a joyful presencing of place, and I hope that comes through to the reader, and that they – that you – will feel that, too: this Black Country clairsentience; the magnetic force of ‘place’ through the lens of fiction, through the story in God’s Country.

God's Country by Kerry Hadley-Pryce is published by Salt (£10.99)


Read more on how to write landscape and place from Tristan Hughes