Walking Backwards, or, The Magical Art of Psychedelic Psychogeography by Greg Humphries & Julian Vayne

There is something of a literary tradition in which Greg Humphries and Julian Vayne’s Walking Backwards: or, The Magical Art of Psychedelic Psychogeography stands. In the nineteenth century, Thomas de Quincey’s urban flâneur reimagined his surroundings through the veil of opium. He invoked the familiar and the alien with astonishing juxtaposition, perfectly attuned with a time of urbanisation that was drastically reformulating British society. 200 years later, the Romantic Imagination grappling with the city has given way to the Mages’ re-enchantment of the landscape, and opium has given way to psychedelics.

While the basic matrix of an intentionally disrupted interplay between set and setting remains, textures and formulations have evolved. In the mid-twentieth century, the Situationists formalized the wanderings of the flâneur into a political act, naming it psychogeography. They used their bodies to carve new paths through space, intending to sculpt it anew. Elsewhere, Aldous Huxley took mescaline and colonialized the mind, creating a landscape of peopled and memorialised locality that led to a furthermost and rarely explored wilderness. A bedrock in psychedelic thought often hidden beneath the waves of experience.

To enter into a dialogue with a ‘psychedelic psychogeography,’ however, is to engage with what is perhaps De Quincey’s greatest, although often unspoken, legacy on subsequent drug writing; his palimpsest metaphor for memory and the mind. That experience leaves an imprint and that, although faint and faded, can be invoked presently through a psychoactive disruption. Walking Backwards underlines this beautifully: where a familial memory invokes a search for a photo, revealing further photos and memories from the authors’ walks ten years before. Ultimately leading to narrative reconstruction wherein text, memory and i-mage play beautifully together in the reader’s presence.

As Humphries notes of ascending up a cliff, ‘Taking care of each step upon the path we look down, keeping our own counsel we look within. The discomfort forcing to the surface our own shadows bringing the hidden into light. Unbidden the difficult memories and thoughts arise, they are witnessed and cannot be ignored.’ The reaching of the summit is as reaching the light of consciousness, and those unbidden memories are shown in perspective against the diverse and powerful surroundings of Nature. As he adds, ‘Viva Pachamama.’ Like the palimpsest, Nature is both a cradle of experiences but thus also an agent of transformation.

The book’s title is taken from a belief that exists in an Amazonian tribe that the past is laid out before us, as memories and stories, but the future is behind us, hidden i.e. we are walking backwards through life. Narratively, Walking Backwards plays along similar lines. After Vayne’s brief introductory section, which explores several magical techniques, the book’s mytho-poetic narrative looks further into the past, through the memory of a photo, to two particular walks the authors took—one in Hartland in Devon, and the other in Bodmin, Cornwall. And in these literary explorations of a walk-past, meaning emerges as story.

Unlike the flâneur exploring an emergent urbanisation, it is the countryside that now represents the more alien of the two environments. Indeed, Humphries discusses the importance of the basic tenets of survival, the skills we need for sustenance and shelter; skills which have largely been lost to the majority of folk in a urban, consumer environment. Yet where the memory of these skills exists lies the capacity to reacquire them. Not, as Humphries notes, because we will necessarily need them every day, but because by mastering them we re-establish, or re-cognize, our intimate relationship with the landscape. In this case, the landscape of the British Isles.

While sharing some sensibilities with the twentieth century counter-culture’s beloved Blakean landscape of Albion, the practicalities of chaos magic—a chosen magical path of the authors’—shifts our relationship with this mythical world. The former’s nostalgic emphasis and inherent romanticism over a lost landscape is replaced by an active formulation of that landscape—watching the story of the past emerge in the present. The ‘psychedelic psychogeographer’ is ideally tooled for such a quest; able to develop new ebbs and flows in Huxley’s cartography of the mind, and equally able to deeply mythologise their physical environment.

‘I believe my work with plant medicines has given me the opportunity to work with the metaphorical and mythical dimension through the visions these medicines bring. With the help of these plant allies this physical dimension of landscape and place and the mythical dimension can co-exist, come together, join, become one.’

Walking Backwards is a beautifully crafted book. Not only in its presentation, with wonderful complementary imagery and a thoughtful layout, but also through the way that layers of the past are interwoven, underpinning the book’s premise. Furthermore, a strong ecological theme throughout is a reminder that perhaps this reconnection with our countryside, and our past, is also imperative to step into the future—blindly, of course, but properly intentioned. I would conclude this review, but ‘For this book to work you are required to participate. Use it as a guide to visit the places it describes or go on your own magical walks, your own magical pilgrimages to Hartland and Roughtor, to places dear to you.’ Perhaps I’ll add a note after the summer!

Further reading:

Grab a copy of the book here.



Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a historian, writer and editor. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Press, co-director of the Psychedelic Museum, and is currently undertaking his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests focus on the history and literature of psychedelic substances, and the role of writing in spiritual and magical traditions during the 19th century. He is also the author of the novel 'Erin', and has occasionally be known to perform a poem or two.

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