Review of You Are Here: An accelerating history of Canterbury from the Big Bang to noon August 15th 2014 by Matthew Watkins
Matthew Watkins book You Are Here is, to his own acknowledgement, about many things: it starts with the physical and biological beginnings of the cosmos, but it’s really about the social and historical evolution of a Kentish city, Canterbury. How can these two be connected, you ask? Well, quite well so it seems, and Watkins has done this quite cleverly and stylishly by using lovely illustrations* to take us from the big bang (13,798,000,000 to 11,000,000,000 years ago - and Watkins should know since he is a mathematician and physicist) to his first mention of Canterbury (in 800 to 230 BCE), or at least the place it was eventually to become known as.
However, the book is also not just a history of Canterbury, it’s also a psychogeography of Canterbury. We can see this transition - from the accounts of social history, to Watkins own personal explorations of the city - when he starts to focus his discussion on its more urban aspect, 2004-2006. By the time we get to 2014, Watkins’ book has turned full-blown psychogeographical in his journal-type entries, which are oriented around his discoveries, made through walking the actual city itself. So, since this is a psychogeography blog after all, I will include a couple of the extracts that I particularly enjoyed below, one of which appears to come from a single dérive that lasted well over 24 hours - Guy Debord would be proud!
9:22 on 12th August to 00:31 on 13th August 2014
On my way back home from Rough Common I decided to walk the labyrinth below Eliot College. Its Portland stone was a bit more worn in now, I noticed, with some lichens and mosses having taken up residence. As I sat in the middle reading Jung’s analysis of physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s dreams and drinking a bottle of ale, two middle-aged women wound their way in and joined me. We talked about the soullessness of the University and ley lines. They described themselves as “semi-local”, out for an evening walk, one of them explaining that she was trying to mentally process actor Robin Williams’ recent suicide.
11:53:48 to 11:55:03 on August 15th 2014
Passing the City Arms pub, its A-frame blackboard on the pavement featuring the city’s coat-of-arms: three choughs (Becket’s family heraldry) and a golden leopard in a posture known to heraldry enthusiasts as passant gardant. Two men and a woman were sitting outside enjoying late morning drinks. I turned to look at the admission price for the Roman Museum across the street: £8 for adults. I wondered if my local Resident’s card would get me in for free. A few steps further, Club Burrito. The idea of a burrito suddenly appealed. I’d been walking for hours. But as well as being on a mission, I reminded myself that I wasn’t too well-off financially at the moment. This involuntarily triggered the execrable band Simply Red’s 1985 single “Money’s Too Tight (to Mention)” in my mind, which in turn produced a memory of a party in Whitstable in autumn 1988, the highlight of which was a drunken working class man who’d torn this record off the stereo while a couple of middle-class drama students were dancing to it shouting “You’re all living a lie!” at the stunned revellers.
Watkins journal entries end, in a way, like the book begins, with the physical laws of the universe exerting their influence on space and time - since they are what makes the universe what it is - and Canterbury, too. We count down - in the tiniest cosmic clock level increments - to his last entry, which is hand-written: “the barrier between worlds loses resolution, fragments, and all perspectives collide and fuse together”...
Sketch of Stewy’s ‘Robert Wyatt’ Graffiti
*Illustrations by Matt Tweed, Carol J. Watkins and Juliet Suzmeyan