Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Circuitous Route : Slice One

"There is an old saying, "if you can't fight, wear a big hat". The intellectual equivalent of this is, I suppose, "if you don't know what to say, invent a pretentious title". And that is how I come to stand in front of you today speaking on "The Circuitous Route : Chance, Information and Geography".

Those were the opening words of my presentation at Leeds University to the Leeds Psycho-geography Group  last night. A few months ago when I was explaining my Blog Project "West Yorkshire in Ten Squares" to a friend, he told me that what I was doing was known as psycho-geography. Sometime later he happened to mention my project to the co-ordinator of the Leeds Psycho-geography Group and she invited me along to their December meeting to speak about my work. In the talk I tried to interlink some thoughts about the impact of chance and randomness on the way we see the world with extracts from the Yorkshire in Ten Squares Project. After the talk, a few people asked me if I would make the slides available on the internet, so I thought it might be an idea if I shared them via the blog. Rather than repeat extracts from "West Yorkshire In Ten Squares", I can just provide a link to the individual posts, and this means that I can concentrate on the meaty filling of the sandwich, or maybe the slices of stale bread : it all depends on how you look at it. I will break this up over a few days - into "slices" of the sandwich that was my talk, so it doesn't become too heavy. So here goes .....

My first "slice" attempted to give some background to the "West Yorkshire In Ten Squares" project and I went on to explain how the project came about as a response to four questions. The first was a question that has frequently been posed by you, the readers of my blog, and it is "What is your part of the world really like?". One could, of course, turn to something like Wikipedia which will provide a potted description of West Yorkshire along with photographs of iconic buildings. But somehow that didn't seem to capture the essence of the West Yorkshire I know and therefore I was determined to find an alternative approach.

My second question might seem a strange one, but it is, I think, relevant. Think back to all those 1950s and 1960s science fiction films which feature invaders from outer space. These flying saucers have supposedly hurtled light years through space and hit upon earth. So why is it that they always seem to hover over London, or New York or Moscow? Surely chance would dictate that they would be as likely to land in the middle of Siberia, or in Todmorden. As far as raw chance is concerned the square mile that is Thorne Waste is just as important as the square mile that is the City of London. I wanted a way of reflecting this in my Ten Squares project.

My third question is one which is often heard inside the Burnett family car as we drive through West Yorkshire :  "didn't we once look at a house up there?". When we bought our current house 18 years ago we must have looked at about twenty or thirty in total, spread around West Yorkshire. When you are house hunting it is one of the few occasions in your life when you will go to out of the way places driven by nothing more than a random postcode on an estate agent's brochure. But that short experience of house hunting introduced me to more out-of-the-way parts of my native county than any other experience. What I wanted was to go house hunting without having to suffer the stress of buying a house.

Initially I had just those three questions : and an answer. I would choose ten points in West Yorkshire at random and see what was there. Whatever it was would, almost by definition, be typical of West Yorkshire. I started the process but by the time I got to point two I hit on a problem : the point was slap bang on the central reservation of the M62 motorway. So I changed the nature of the game from West Yorkshire in Ten Points to West Yorkshire in Ten Squares, making use of the 9,600 500 m by 500m squares that make up the West Yorkshire Road Atlas. A  square would give me chance to explore a little and the chance to avoid being run over by a bus.

And that is how it started. An internet-based random number generator would choose my ten squares and I would explore them and report on them. And so I headed off to my first square which was the Little Germany area of Bradford.

At this point I took a look at that first square - the meat in the first part of my multiple sandwich. If you haven't  seen Square One I have added a link to it. I will return tomorrow with the second slice of my talk.


  1. Excellent. I would have loved to have been there for your Leeds presentation, Alan. Your opening line was brilliant.

  2. Thanks Tess, I would have been delighted to see you in the audience.

  3. You're not related to Hari Seldon, are you?

  4. CB : No relation - and anyway, psycho-geography isn't my invention and until a few weeks ago I had no idea it existed. But now you mention it, I like the idea of psycho-history even better.

  5. Brilliant, thanks for explicating!

  6. Great post, Alan. I hate to be repeating myself but, it would make a great book too!

  7. So that's what psychogeography is! Very interesting. I gather you didn't know this before you came up with your "West Yorkshire in Ten Squares" series. So there is a little Jungian synchronicity involved in this after all. It'll be interesting to see the other two slices of this lecture.

  8. I am ashamed to say that your part of the world is almost unknown to me. Apart from being an armchair Leeds United fan (as they were THE big team when I was growing up), I know very little about Yorkshire, leat alone specifically West Yorkshire.

    I have been to York, Headingly and Harrogate, but all a very long time ago, but nowhere else.

    On the positive side, it's within reaching distance for a long weekend, and your posts have inspired me to move it up my "places to visit" list.

  9. Psychogeology..I'm going to use this word today and see what reaction I get! haha. And the better reaction will be when I can explain what it means! :)

  10. I suspect that you are very good at this sort of thing! I would have loved to hear your presentation,

  11. Yep I'd have gone too. I love the term psycho-geography. Madmen obsessed with landforms. Don't even get me started on psycho-history.

  12. Alan, I read your blog with delight, although I rarely comment. I'd love to actually hear a presentation of yours sometime, such as this one. Looking forward to the succeeding chapters.

  13. I really like the tearm "psycho-geography" -- and I most certainly would have been in attendance to hear you speak. Your ability to capture your audience and keep them is amazing. I found your post very interesting and thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  14. Oh you know, Alan, this is so interesting leaning how it all came about. I often wondered about the 10 square project and now I know more abouy why. Also shocked to learn that you actaulyl really did this talk! Whoa. you are one smart facscinating fellow. I love this.

    "As far as raw chance is concerned the square mile that is Thorne Waste is just as important as the square mile that is the City of London."
    --that is such a good point in itself actually. Very.

    OK, not sure I read the first post on the "German" quarterssection but will go there now and catch up.

    I'm with SF that I too would love to hear a presentation of yours as such.


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