Caterpillar Soup by Samuel Rutishauser-Mills

An out-of-work urban design professor uses his explorations of London's psychogeography to avoid reflecting on himself, in Samuel Rutishauser-Mills' sophisticated satire.

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The derive is the art most antithetical to the workings of late capitalism. Using movement, our goal is to interfere with the mechanisms of the superstructure. We refuse to 'commute' along the authorised transit lines that link key urban features, typically of commercial interest. Only when positioned in the dead space of the urban environment do we know who we really are. My investigations have taken me to the hinterlands of this strange city. What I've seen here has irreparably shaped my impressions of its more popular reaches - the monuments and squares - that wink at me now like cursed trinkets, tempting passersby with their poisonous promises.

Before the pandemic, I taught urban studies at a college in London, which encompassed a psychogeography module that was popular with students. My doctoral thesis examined motorway boundarization on attachment styles in rural England. Recent work looked at religiosity in communities threatened by airport expansion. Students often complain of an explanatory gap between introductions to psychogeography and the derive as an academic tool. Much talk of its dissociative, psychoactive potential, yet they don't know how to do it. When the pandemic shut the schools, and I lost my job (for reasons unrelated to the virus), I had time to set out a plan. As lockdown measures eased, I was out again exploring the urban environment. That's when I decided to write a book on the subject - to record a derive in 'real-time'.

Setting off, I followed the basic principles of the practice. I was drawn in the direction of the greatest appeal, carving my path through the terrain on no more than impulses. Whims: the introduction of a smell might turn my course suddenly to new pastures. In that first week, I found myself walking the canal at Paddington. I thought of the path as a kind of travelator west: a slithering pseudo-wilderness providing a passage out of the city via the lesser-known suburbs of Southall, Hanwell, and Hayes. The typical paraphernalia of urban waterways piled high on the bank (the trolleys, mopeds, and bikes mangled together called to mind a satire of modern art). The presence of fishers never had me optimistic about the biodiversity there. These men knowingly dodge the bargain when they cast their lines in dead streams (they understand the real business of fishing, which is sitting still for those who can't find excuses). In that first week, I walked the canal almost every day, my drift confined to the dimension of the water's coursing. No apologies on my end. Contrived aimlessness suspends freedom in its own way. The Brownian motion of particles threatens only the hierarchy of physical states. My decision-making was guided by the more revolutionary aesthetic.

I took notes and made recordings; I shot hours of video. I wrote my observations in a log: the raw materials to process into a first draft. I admit I was struggling to imagine how the book would achieve cohesion. The academic format had spoiled me; I was no longer padding out a thesis. I would need to build the work from the bottom up, rearranging the fragments until they elucidated something bigger than the parts. I accepted it might take years for my polishing to yield lustre. I surrendered myself to the only option, which was to crack on. But it felt like I was unravelling. Lockdown had destroyed the few reserves I had built up since the split with Clarissa. The precarity of my new career - no longer salaried or legitimised by a teaching position - was beginning to sink in.

I drank regularly on these walks. As per the Situationists, I used intoxication to modify my psyche, to, in turn, inflict a change on the surrounding geography (for the two are commutative). Most men live their lives as an epiphenomenon: marked by the urban array, they fail to effect it back. A voluntary misdecision. Our practice resists the rules tacit to maps. We can crash the system on our own choosing. Intoxication bolsters the reimagining of the space around us, offering us a leg-up in its overcoming. I tried smoking hash, but it made me tired. Instead, I drank strong beer in copious amounts.

Weeks passed by, but my book was failing to take shape. The practice of navigating space outside the confines of urban design, I realised, was somewhat inimical to the production of a good story. A book is constructed geometrically. If I wrote something diffusely post-modern, it could struggle to publish. And yet it was impossible to tie the various strands together. Only a basic chronology seemed to link the pieces, but I wasn't writing a diary. I was mindful to avoid the great folly of the aspiring travel writer, who considers the traversing of an African river a shortcut to his narrative arc.

Sometimes I'd get so drunk on my walks it was hard to remember details the following morning. More than once, I'd wake to find my notes illegible or spoiled. My voice recordings were often muffled and incoherent. The video I shot (which sometimes failed to record entirely) rarely illuminated anything interesting about the day's work. Playing it back, I often found my behaviour shameful. On top of that, I was running out of money. The eight years at Clarissa's had rendered me useless at budgeting for rent payments. Sunak could offer me nothing. I pissed my universal credit away in a fortnight, which forced me to eat into my savings.

I was developing a new respect for the work of the author. It was clear my fifteen years in academia were rooted in a desire to extend the framework of my schooling. I'd been holding the handrail, kept going by a reward system that had served me well since childhood. Peer approval, publication; the occasional accolade: these were the rewards that punctuated my stints of toil. Pain for pleasure, and neither in extremes. A comfortable, studious life, free of the self-loathing that comes with the bigger highs. Pleasure that felt deserved. I climbed the academic pole and found it not so greasy. Writing a book, on the other hand, was a thankless task. The business of composing prose simultaneously explanatory and entertaining was new to me. I'd long resisted the prioritising of form over content. I opposed the Wittgensteinian view of humour as an important philosophical tool, which is to say, I believe tediousness an essential character of truth. I was struggling to write prose that would engage a reader for twenty-five chapters.

My laptop was destroyed in a storm in Greenford. Although my documents were cloud-backed, my train of thought was suspended. I would have to wait to get the money together for a new Toshiba. I drank profusely and took a train by accident to Crouch End (force of habit). I took the bus back to Westbourne, where I was staying at a friend's. She volunteered the use of her living room as a study. I woke the next morning nauseous, with pain in both knees, and vowed to take it easier. I attempted to start a separable chapter with pen and paper. Something that I could place within my main narrative as an interlude to give context to later themes. But working by hand was more tedious than I remembered, and I was back on the road by lunchtime, on the travelator west. By five o'clock I was sitting on Horsenden Hill, a happy wine drunk, my sense of optimism inflated by the sun, the view, and the almost baptismal gesture of having been cast out of the online domain.

I discovered on borrowing a friend's laptop that most of my documents were not cloud-backed. At some point during writing, I'd accidentally turned this feature off, meaning the bulk of my work was stored, not on a server in California, but on the now-sodden hard drive buried under a kilogram sack of basmati. We looked up methods of file retrieval. Former servicemen advertised their skills for rates that demanded double-taking. A craft honed in hacking the laptops of paedophiles. The presence of my sympathetic friend buffered the explosiveness of my reaction, which I saved for an empty stretch of towpath and a few, spectating geese.

It was raining. I was drinking a can of lager in the understory of a tree outside of Perivale. Gazing at the rippling water, I was struck by the number of cans that littered the pathway - a medley of beer brands spanning Europe - strewn in the canal's recesses, crumpled, empty, depleted; pressed into the gaps of the hedgerow, or bobbing in the water. I saw these scrunched objects as manifestations of the sadness that had been carried down this path. An anaesthetic for those bearing the brunt of the system's failings. I imagined these cans of Ursus, Perla, Tyske, Lecce, Zywiec, Borsodi, and Budvar like lost postcards home.

I walked the perimeter of Heathrow. I could taste kerosene. Jets took off two a minute and, looking at the rows of bordering terrace houses, I struggled to imagine an argument that could justify such dwellings as acceptable for human beings. What disgust I felt towards the town planners who conceded this for the advancement of profit. A bill unfooted by the debtors, paid for in proliferating lung disease.

I decided to love again and that I was capable of it. It felt, for the first time in months, I deserved to be loved back. Pain had eaten its way into the core of my heart like potato blight. I would rebuild and heal and let everything run under the bridge. I thought all this in Longford; a half-eaten village to the west of Heathrow, with its thatch cottages and country pubs and the nearby droning of terminal five under which lies the skeleton of the old corn exchange. I was reminded of the Airports Commission advising the airport's expansion proposing, on page 99, the demolition of every building at Longford. I wondered what it would mean to live in a place where lawyers and capital go head-to-head to challenge its existence. How could we believe anything but the inevitable? I drank a pint of cider in the pub garden as I watched airbuses ascend. I thought, what a sinister document the Airport Commission's final report is. The sword of Damocles is sometimes just a footnote in a PDF. Once I'd cried it all out, I took the bus to Chiswick and walked the three or four miles home to Westbourne in a light evening shower that made the pavement dazzle with orange under the electric lighting of the indifferent London streets.


  1. This is a short but intriguing story, written by an author with a vast vocabulary and a feel for erudite expression. To cite a couple of Yanks, it’s as if George Will or William F. Buckley had taken to writing fiction. In places, his prose is self-effacing: ‘…I believe tediousness an essential element of truth…” At other times he employs words and concepts: “commutative,” “Brownian motion,” the obscure discipline of “psychogeography,” which are not generally found in your General Studies program at University. The devolution of the MC to a lager-swilling lush is amusing as well. We’ve all been there, or else we wouldn’t have survived to become writers. Well considered story, and well executed, Samuel—or should I call you Professor?

  2. The main character uses intellectualization and alcohol as a defense mechanism against the anxiety of his downward social spiral: loss of career, loss of intimate relationship, loss of financial security.
    He seems drawn to the higher levels of Maslov’s pyramid without properly completing the lower levels.
    He seems to be a real Puer Aeternus…
    He does cry it out at the end so perhaps there is some insight for him at some point.
    I enjoy how he travels with a bit of Brownian motion himself, and I also enjoy how (I think, not a Brit..) I think he ends up at the end of his journey where he began.
    Fun story!
    (Sort of Henry Miller meets modern academic refugee angst?)

  3. To paraphrase the song "Night Life" "It ain't no good life, but it's his life." Doug Hawley

    1. Whereas Adam and I offer up virtual literary dissertations, citing the likes of William F. Buckley and Jungian psychology, cut-to-the-quick Doug Hawley summarizes Samuel’s fine story with a one-line quote from Willie Nelson. Excellent, Doug.

  4. Well-written and thought-provoking. The descriptions of the city and the MC’s experiences within it are engaging and immersive, and the personal struggles add an emotional depth. I appreciate the way the story raises questions about the nature of storytelling and the challenges of making sense of our experiences in a meaningful way.
    -David Henson