52. Arthur Machen, The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering

by breavman99

the london adventure

Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering is one of the central texts in occult and literary psychogeography. It’s also a very strange book. Its digressive narrative is characterized by endless deferral; the narrator (I’m not sure whether this book is a novel, an autobiography, or a pseudo-autobiography) tells one story after another, all in preparation for writing a book called The London Adventure, a text that ends without beginning (142). I’m certainly no expert on Machen, but I have to say that this book is less gothic than romantic, even neoplatonist, and that the “wandering” of its subtitle is as much discursive as ambulatory or geographical. And yet, after reading The London Adventure, the role it plays in particular types of psychogeography becomes clear, as does (to a degree) the term “psychogeography” itself.

The book begins in a tavern in the suburbs of London. The narrator is thinking about the difference between those who work because they have a gift, like the painter J.M.W. Turner, and everyone else—the narrator included—whose employment is “but the curse of Adam, the slavery that we have to endure; about as blessed as oakum-picking and limestone quarrying and treadmill climbing and the other employments of the poor fellows that we call convicts, as if we were not as much convicts as they,” sentenced to earn an honest living (6-7). A man arrives in the tavern, someone the narrator knows. He looks at the narrator in a threatening manner and says, meaningfully, “The leaves are beginning to come out” (10). The narrator knows exactly what that statement means:

I knew what the man meant. I had told him some months before that I was to write a book about London, that it was to be a really great book, this time. But, I explained, I was not going to begin writing it till the leaves were out on the trees, since the green leafage of the boughs made such a marvellous contrast with the grim greyness of the streets; of the streets of which I meant to write: unknown, unvisited squares in Islington, dreary byways in Holloway, places traversed by railway arches and viaducts in the regions of Camden Town. (10-11)

In other words, the book is supposed to be about unfashionable and suburban places, the kinds of locales most writers would avoid because they prefer more chic environs, displaying an obvious importance or heritage. 

The narrator then recalls going to the “waste portions of the world down beyond the Surrey Docks” and visiting a neighbourhood he had never seen before: “Everything was shapeless, unmeaning, dreary, dismal beyond words; it was as if one were journeying past the back wall of the everlasting backyard” (11). Then, on a grey street, he sees something wonderful: 

from the area of one of the sad houses there arose a great glossy billow of the most vivid green surging up from the area pavement half-way up the height of the ground floor windows; a veritable verdant mountain, as blessed as any wells and palm trees in the midst of an African desert. It was a fig tree that had somehow contrived to flourish in this arid waste; but to me a miracle and a delight as well as a fig tree. (12)

“[T]his was to be the kind of adventure out of which I had agreed to make a book; and thus it was that I had talked of waiting till the time of the opening of the leaves before I began it” (12). The problem is—remember, the narrator doesn’t like to work—he doesn’t want to start writing: “Always, or almost always, I have had the horror of beginning a new book. I have burnt my fingers to the bone again and again in the last forty years and I dread the fire of literature” (12).

Nevertheless, that sense of wonder in an apparently banal space is important enough that the narrator tells another story about it: he describes “with absolute veracity” strange events he experienced while in chambers at Gray’s Inn (he must have been a law student, once; he discusses his career as a journalist at length later), and, he states, “I have never forgotten my almost incredulous amazement when I found out, seven years afterwards, that some of these experiences of mine had also been experiences of the monks of St. Columba’s congregation at Iona in the sixth century” (13). This sense of a mysterious connection between past and present events seems to be a characteristic of occult psychogeography, but I think (if The London Adventure is a model for occult psychogeography) that it has other characteristics as well.

One of those characteristics is an anti-materialist, anti-scientific belief in wonders and miracles—wonders and miracles which are, apparently, experienced, like the eerie parallels between the narrator’s experiences and those of sixth century monks:

so corrupt and bewildered is our nature; on the one hand inclined to the crudest, most bestial materialism, to the simple, easy, natural explanation of all wonders, all miracles; on the other, so sickened with sham marvels, with pantomine-chorus fairies on photographic plates, with ghosts that gibber indeed in the vulgarest, silliest manner possible; so bewildered are we, I say, between these two sides that we hardly dare to testify to the things which we have actually known, seen, experienced with our own senses and our own souls, if these experiences go beyond the limits laid down in some twopenny “science” text-book. (13-14)

The narrator continues, “I do my best to conquer this ‘scientific’ nonsense; and so, as I have noted, I try to reverence the signs, omens, messages that are delivered in queer ways and queer places, not in the least according to the plans laid down either by the theologians or the men of science” (14). Those who seek to know, or are certain about their knowledge, are this narrator’s enemies; those who accept mystery are his allies.

The narrator tells another story, this one about how one such message came to him two and a half years earlier, in another tavern, at a time when he was being bullied by his employer and mocked by his co-workers, facing dismissal, which would have meant ruin for his family (14-16). (This experience, and others, seems to be at the root of his dislike of journalism as a profession.) A man walked up to him and asked how the Latin word exaltavit, from the phrase et exaltavit humiles, “and lifting up the lowly,” according to Google, is spelled (17). Being reminded of that phrase—our narrator has had a classical education and sprinkles his text with Latin tags—allowed him to begin to hope, “to life up a little corner of the black curtain of despair” (18). For the narrator, the man with his question about Latin orthography was a messenger, one of two or three he had met in his life, and he states, “I never think of them without great wonder, awe, and reverence” (19). Was it just a coincidence? “It may be so; and I am too keenly aware of the dangers and follies of credulity to deny that it may have been so,” he writes. “Yet, I am a practical man above all things, and coincidence or no coincidence, I know that I was comforted and sustained and enabled by that word through many months of horrible and shameful suffering” (20). 

For the narrator, and for Machen himself, for all I know, those supposed coincidences are significant: they suggest something about the world itself. “It is possible, just dimly possible,” the narrator suggests,

that the real pattern and scheme of life is not in the least apparent on the outward surface of things, which is the world of common sense, and rationalism, and reasoned deductions; but rather lurks, half hidden, only apparent in certain rare lights, and then only to the prepared eye; a secret pattern, an ornament which seems to have but little relation or none at all to the obvious scheme of the universe. (21)

This is, I think, the occult psychogeographer’s sense of the city: it is a text with multiple levels, and the hidden level(s), its “secret pattern,” can only be apprehended by the initiated, in “certain rare lights.” Reason has “nothing to say in the presence of the unknown” (22); forty years before rational people would have dismissed ideas like radio as mere fantasies (23-24). “[W]e know nothing of matters concerning which we know nothing,” the narrator states. “And so this applies to the ghostly world—always allowing that there is any such world. What do we know?” (24-25).

In fact, it seems pretty clear that the narrator does believe in that “ghostly world.” “I firmly believe that the two worlds”—that is, the world of the living and the world of spirits—“have that gulf between them, that magnum chaos, which yawns, let us say, between painting and music”, he suggests, (25) and while one can make analogies between them, or speak of one in metaphors of the other, they “remain worlds apart” (25). The relationship between the two is like that between an actor on the stage, and the actor’s life off the stage (25). Taking that analogy further, he suggests that, just as the world of King Lear is a dream of Shakespeare’s, “it may turn out that this world of ours is but one of the dreams of the Supreme Artist” (26). His sense “of the probable order of things at large” inclines the narrator “to believe that very high messengers—in the play, in the mystery which we are enacting—may be quite ordinary fellows in private life” (27-28). Again we see the sense of (at least) two worlds, which is picked up on by psychogeography, and the belief that the ordinary might actually be extraordinary. Also—and I don’t want to push this too far, because it’s clear that Machen (or his narrator) was an actor as a younger man—the emphasis on performance here might be important as well, given Smith’s belief that the best forms of “new psychogeography” are performative and relational rather than literary. The narrator acknowledges that all of this has been a digression, but he notes, in a manner that is almost metafictional, that such digressions will be characteristic of this book. The point of the digression was “to show that one should hear and weigh all sorts of messages delivered in all sorts of places” (28). 

The narrator’s plan for the book, The London Adventure, “originated in old rambles about London, rambles that began in 1890 when I lived in Soho Street and began to stroll about Soho and to see that here was something very curious and impressive; this transmutation of late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century social solidity and even, in some cases magnificence, into a wholly different order” (30-31). He imagines the previous residents of buildings in Soho, what those buildings might have been over time—the residence of an ambassador, a pickle factory or printer’s works, “a camping ground for poor people, a place where almost every room sheltered a family”—or how one particular building that “looked as if it had been built for a Doctor of Divinity, c. 1720,” now houses (apparently) the sex trade (31-32) (I’m not entirely sure because Machen’s description is somewhat obscure). Like occult psychogeographers, the narrator is reading the past over the present, exhibiting an awareness of multiple possibilities for a space, at least in historical or antiquarian terms. 

But rather than Soho, the narrator wants to focus on the years after 1895, when he began exploring London’s suburbs:

when I first found out the wonders that lie to the eastward of the Gray’s Inn Road, when Islington and Barnsbury and Canonbury were discovered, when Pentonville ceased to be a mere geographical expression. And there was a later time still that was to yield fresh fruit; the days when I ran errands that were often in themselves of inconceivable folly, but led me all the same into queer outland territories that otherwise I should never have seen. (33-34)

Those errands were stories he was assigned to write about by his editor. He recalls one experience, when he went to Enfield (one of the destinations in Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital) to “taste the newly brewed Government ale—some horrible teetotal concoction of those bad times,” but even though he couldn’t find a pub that new anything of this new drink, the journey was not a failure: 

I had passed through such unsuspected countries in my voyage and travel from Enfield through Enfield Wash to Enfield Lock, through fragments of market garden and fragments of wild thicket, by sudden apparitions of grey houses built in the early ’sixties when it had dawned upon the mind of some madman that the day of the Wash was at hand and that the time for ‘development’ had come. (36)

He walks through apparently abandoned suburban developments and shops, ghost estates interspersed with remnants “of much older days,” such as Georgian mansions, now fallen into disrepair, about which the narrator creates a story: “There a substantial man, maybe an Alderman, had once lived; now, everything was falling down, broken, discoloured, desolate, uninhabited” (35-36). This varied suburban cityscape, the mixture of things he saw, and the stories he imagined about them, pleased the narrator: “And while I journeyed back to the office, I felt that I had been enjoying a rich and various experience” (36).

At this point, the narrator interrupts himself to point out that his point of view “is totally  removed from the ordinary tourist, guide-book point of view. I hope I am not without a due sense of the historic and literary interests of London, with which the guide and my guide-book are very properly occupied” (36). The narrator he respects the past, partly because of “literary and historical association,” partly because “of the love of antiquity for its own sake; a curiously compounded pleasure,” although “the more noble, terrible, notorious the associations called up, the less I am moved, in my heart of hearts” (36-37). In other words, he prefers ordinary histories. Nevertheless, he notes that “this love of antiquity for its own sake, apart from any particular literary or historical associations, has always been a great puzzle to me and still remains so” (37). Sometimes the associations that attract him are fictional: the remaining wall of the Marshalsea debtors’ prison reminds him of Dickens’s Little Dorrit, even though she never existed (37-38). “[W]hy should we be interested in places more or less connected with the fortunes of people who never existed, outside the brains and the pages of the romancers?” he asks. “I do not know why we are thus interested, but I know that we are so and that this interest constitutes one of the gentlest of pleasures of life” (38). So, when the narrator goes to Tower Hill, he thinks of Dickens’s characters Mr. and Mrs. Quilp (38-39), the way that the Marshalsea’s wall reminds him of Little Dorrit. “Perhaps, the explanation may be that the historic people are actual people,” he surmises, “creatures of fact not of fancy; and that fancy is infinitely more impressive than fact, partaking, as it does, not of actuality, but of reality” (39). Again, there is a suggestion of multiple layers of associations here, although these associations have their roots in fiction rather than in history, and I think that is another link between The London Adventure and certain forms of psychogeography.

In any case, the book he intended to write “was not to deal in the main with the historical or literary associations of London, nor even with antiquity as such, though sometimes antiquity would form part of the queer pattern that I had in my mind” (39-40). But he immediately plunges into another digression about the strangeness of unknown suburban districts, the individuality of taste, and the notion that life is a play within a play—“that there is no such entity as the thing in itself, there is no absolute existence in things seen,” and that even the “vile, red stones” of a modern suburb “may be transmuted into living, philosophical stones,” that there are mysteries in such places, rituals performed, “though those who officiate are ignorant of the secrets in which they, nonetheless, share” (40-44). Again, the sense of mysteries in the ordinary, which Machen’s book shares with occult psychogeography. This leads to a discussion of Freemasonry: “the ancient rite is duly performed, and so other ancient rites are performed in the rawest, reddest suburbs” (45). Those suburbs would be the subject of his book, even though, on one level, he despises them: 

Well, I was saying, I think, that the book on hand, this famous London Adventure, would have to deal with the raw, red places all around the walls of London; places detestable in themselves, no doubt, from the artist’s point of view, from the point of view of the lover of green fields and woods and shady lanes; but most of all detestable, I think, from my point of view, which is that of a many who loves ancient, memoried things; things of all kinds that have a past behind them, things of all kinds that show use and the touch of men upon them, and have become, in a sense, almost human or, at all events, partake of humanity. (47)

He imagines a worn doorstep, hollowed by a hundred years of feet, and imagines whose feet they might have been: “The feet of the weary and hopeless, the glad and the exultant, the lustful and the pure have made that hollow; and many of those feet are now in the hollow of the grave: and that doorstep is to me sacramental, if not a sacrament” (47-48). The book he intends to write would take all of these things into account: “the old, the shabby, the out of the way; and also the new and the red and the raw. But it was utterly to shun the familiar”—in other words, it would explore the London incognita rather than the London cognita (49).

That book, it seems, would perhaps imagine the lives of people who lived in places in the past, the way the narrator imagines the people whose feet wore down that doorstep. He recalls once wandering into a street between Camden Town and Holloway, where the houses were modest, but where each had a coachhouse and a stable: “for me here were compact histories of the Sketches by Boz period,” he states (50), and he describes the people who would have lived in an 1830s suburb. They are richly imagined in great detail (50-53).  “So much I saw as I passed down that street, Camden Town—Holloway, and I believe that most of it is truly seen; deduced, rather, from the little coach-houses and the little stables; and all a vision of a mode of life that has passed utterly away” (53). 

But, “in spite of the rows and rows of cheap red villas, which we must expect everywhere, there are still remnants of a former age” (55)—such as poltergeists. He concludes, regarding poltergeists, that

a human being is a world and cosmos of forces that reach out to other worlds wholly, or almost wholly, unknown and unconjectured; that, in most cases and probably, as things are, for the best, these forces and powers are dormant and unsuspected; that occasionally and by accident they assert themselves and produce results which prove—nothing. (61)

That odd word, “unconjectured,” shows up many times in this book, and it’s a sign of the narrator’s, and/or Machen’s, interest in mysteries, in the unknown, in esoterica or the occult. For example, he remembers visiting Bath when he was an actor, and how his fellow cast members decided, at a party, to hold a séance. Although he doesn’t believe “that the spirits of the dead can be conjured into a parlour by people sitting round a table in the dark” (66), one of the party clearly felt the presence of a spirit and was horrified by it (66). He notes the differences between that party and a real séance, at which the participants are serious: “They are investigators. They are intensely interested. They have a profound belief that the spirits of the departed can and do communicate with the living” (66-67). And yet, despite their lack of earnestness. a spirit appeared (he says) at that party: “I think that something happened; that the doors were opened; that the human spirit came into momentary contact with unconjectured worlds which it is not meant to visit” (68). “I think of all these things as I pass along the interminable wandering of the London streets,” he writes, “of the strange things which may have been done behind the weariest, dreariest walls” (68).

Now the narrator returns to the tavern where the book began, and the demand that he begin writing his book: “here was I well equipped with long-gathered material for a sermon on the great text that there is wonder in everything and everywhere, wonder above all in this great town that has grown so vast that no man can know it, nay, nor even begin to know it!” (69). The notion that there is wonder in everything and everywhere would be the book’s thesis, if it were an essay, which it’s not. It’s also one of the central characteristics of Smith’s version of psychogeography, although he wants it to include ideological critique as well. Those wonders, though, are (I think) neoplatonic and romantic: “We see appearances and outward shows of things, symbols of all sorts; but we behold no essences, nor could we bear to behold them, if it were possible to do so” (69-70). “We see nothing real, we can no more see anything real that we can take our afternoon tea in the white, central heat of a blast furnace,” he continues. “We see shadows cast by reality” (70). Those who attempt to explain the world using scientific methodology are kidding themselves:

The more foolish of us gather up some of the shadows and put them in saucepans and boil them and then strain: and find out that water is really H2O, which is true enough in its way, and will remain so: till it is found out that H2 is shorthand for ten distinct forces, while O is a universe of countless stars, all revolving in their eternal order about an unknown, unconjecturable orb. (70-71)

“[W]e see nothing at all,” he continues, “though poets catch strange glimpses of reality, now and then, out of the corners of their eyes” (71). 

The suggestion that the world is not real, and that the real world is inaccessible, might bother anyone, and our narrator admits as much: “the recognition of these obvious truths cast me down a little. I had not, then, got the unique object for investigation that I had supposed. London, it was true, was unknowable, an unplumbed depth, but so was Caerleon-on-Usk, that you could see in its totality form the top of the hill; so was the pebble on the path” (71). He looks into an old notebook, and wonders if there is a recurring pattern in his writing. He finds one; it is

the sense of the eternal mysteries, the eternal beauty hidden beneath the crust of common and commonplace things; hidden and yet burning and glowing continually if you care to look with purged eyes. Nay, I think that in this age, which has probably lost what I may call the epic sense, as it lives in villas and flats instead of castles, and goes in tweeds in place of chain mail, for us, I think, it is easier to discern the secret beauty and wonder and mystery in humble and common things than in the splendid and noble and storied things. (75)

I could be wrong—it’s 30 years since I took a course on romanticism—but this strikes me as an example of one form of Victorian romanticism. Nonetheless, the narrator describes himself as “a determined realist,” because he demands “a certain degree of assent in the reader to the propositions which are laid down before him,” and he wants his work to be seen as “credible . . . in the artistic sense, as Micawber is credible, though there never was, in actuality, any such person” (79). 

Back to his notebook, where he is disappointed by various sketches and outlines that led nowhere. “I find my destiny a hard one,” he writes. “Here am I, born apparently with this itch of writing without the faculty of carrying the desire into execution” (91). But he thinks about being a newspaper reporter, and its primary benefit—not being forced to write something to its end, but having seen “queer things and odd prospects” which he would not have seen otherwise, particularly strange places and neighbourhoods (96-97). He tells a story about climbing a mountain when he was a young man, and feeling something spiritual or religious in his encounter with those hills, so that the only expression in words for that feeling was “For ever and ever. Amen” (99). That experience is evidence that “the unknown world is, in truth, about us everywhere, everywhere near to our feet; the thinnest veil separates us from it, the door in the wall of the next street communicates with it” (100). “Men of science”—those who would disagree, perhaps, with that claim—“are always wrong” (100). The stories about his experiences as a journalist are all about running across something mysterious, something that suggests that “we . . . live in an illusory world” (105). He recalls being sent to investigate a dispute over a will in which a man named Campo Tosto left all of his possessions (Flemish paintings and candlesticks) to a man named Turk. He writes, 

here was a man called Campo Tosto living in a place called Burnt Green, which is, practically, a translation of Campo Tosto. Here was a man whose property consisted chiefly in Madonnas and medieval candlesticks, who shot at intruders with the bow, either long or short. Here was his heir, with the good old English country name of Turk. (110-11)

The narrator wrote the story, and his editor didn’t believe it: “He understood, better than I, that one order of illusion must not be allowed to impinge on another” (110-11). He tells similar stories from his career as a journalist, but what the narrator considers to be his strangest story had nothing to do with journalism: he was walking along, thinking about a passage in Boswell’s Life of Johnson about a fashionable baronet named Sir Michael Le Fleming, “when suddenly I saw on a brass plate on the garden-gate the very name that had just entered my mind”—an incident of “mad inconsequence,” meaning nothing at all (118-119). That story led nowhere, he admits:

But I do think that in each there is a hint of certain things. We move, as I have said before, in a world of illusions, but of illusions on one plane. We are mistaken if we think that there is, in ultimate reality, any such thing as a cube, any such thing as a cow; but, at all events, these two are apparently on the same surface of being. But, now and then, there are intrusions upon us from other worlds, probably quite as illusory as our own. And we are accordingly left stupefied. There is no “therefore”; no ratio. (122)

The moral is that the world is infinitely strange, “that even in the rind or surface of it the strangest essences are lurking, that tremendous beauties, amazing oddities are everywhere present,” even if they appear commonplace “123). “Such things are constantly happening in real life, or, at all events, the only life of which we know anything” (124). 

In case you don’t believe me about this book’s romanticism, take a read through this quotation, which presents two pastiches of Keats (one from a letter, the other from a poem): “Strangeness which is the essence of beauty is the essence of truth, and the essence of the world. I have often felt that, when the ascent of a long hill brought me to the summit of an undiscovered height in London; and I looked down on a new land” (127). The narrator recalls living in Notting Hill Gate 40 years before, and how, on one October day, dreaming about becoming a writer, and “seeing the stones glow into a spagyric gold beneath his feet, seeing the plane trees in the back gardens droop down from fairyland, seeing a mystery behind every blind, and the infinite mystery in the grey-blue distance, where, as they tell me, for I have never sought to know, the street becomes dubious, if not desperate” (131-32). That is the way he sees the world, and I think the way occult psychogeographers see the world: there is mystery everywhere, if it can only be sensed.

“But here we are, still delaying over the great work, The London Adventure; and nothing done,” the narrator states:

I begin to reflect on the matter very seriously, as the summer wears on. It strikes me that I had better try an old recipe of mine, and start out, on a book of a totally different kind, in the hope, I suppose, that the one undertaking, going prosperously—as of course it will—may stimulate the other. (137)

That story would symbolize the soul through “exterior things” (137). He would write of a man on summer holiday, who goes to the hills he climbed as a young man, where he would see “something outland,” and then to Caerlon-on-Usk to see the sunset and the river and the Roman walls: “He should go wandering away, this unfortunate fellow, into such a country as he had never dreamed of; he should lose himself in intricacies of deep lanes descending from wooded heights to hidden and solitary valleys, where the clear water of the winding brook sounds under the alder trees” (137-38). Then he would return to London “and perceive that wonderful things have been wrought in him”—that everything he saw “discoursed to him a great mystery, whereby his soul has been renewed within him” (138-39). But this is a story he will never tell, even though he has been thinking about it for 40 years (139). He doesn’t explain why—perhaps because he has just told it.

There is one more story, though, another one about his sense that the real world is hidden from us. Once, while writing an earlier book, he went out for a walk and lost his sense of direction. He couldn’t tell where his lodgings were, or what was north or south, east or west (140-41). “I got home somehow by complicated and dubious calculations,” he writes, “and in a some[wh]at confused and alarmed frame of mind. And odd as it may seem, this perplexity has never wholly left me” (141). That, he thinks, is a story he might be able to tell: a man “who became so entangled in some maze of imagination and speculation that the common, material ways of the world became of no significance to him” (141). 

It’s easy to see the intersection between The London Adventure and occult psychogeography. I don’t know that much about that form of psychogeography, to be honest; I’m still gathering string on the subject of psychogeography in all of its forms. If I were to read Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territories, for instance, I’m sure I would see more connections. I also see intersections between the form of psychogeography that Phil Smith advocates in Walking’s New Movement and The London Adventure. I wonder, for instance, how close the process of coding or recoding spaces is to the stories Machen’s narrator invents about the places he passes when he walks around London. I think there might be other echoes or resonances, and that wouldn’t be surprising, given the powerful influence of psychogeography on Smith’s version of radical walking, and given the importance of The London Adventure to a particular branch of that activity. The more I read about psychogeography—the more I read about any and all forms of radical or aesthetic walking—the more I’m going to understand about it. So I’m happy I tackled one of the practice’s primary texts.

Work Cited

Machen, Arthur. The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering, Martin Secker, 1924.