Lisa Hilton finds a French-inspired retreat for flagging flâneurs in Shepherd’s Bush
Shepherd’s bush is a Situationist’s dream. Born in France of a post-war critique of capitalism as manifest in urban planning, Situationism rejected functional zoning on the grounds that it sought to rebuild the city as the ultimate means of coercive social control. Instead, the Situationists celebrated the creative chaos of the nineteenth century city, as a place of vitality and surprise, where daily life was not channelled physically between labour and consumption, where time and place were not governed by strict utility.
There’s a Rousseauesque naiveté to this vision, a wilful Romantic glossing of the realities of urban existence, in that many inhabitants of early industrial cities found nothing lively or engaging about wretched poverty in squalid rookeries and couldn’t wait to get out to a nice clean suburb. But that didn’t prevent a whole generation of writers from taking up psycho-geography, the literary practice which Situationism spawned.
The form derives from the dérive, a faux ami which translates as “drift”, a term utilised by Guy Debord, one of the principal exponents of the movement. The dérive functions as a rebellion against the strictures imposed by the geography of the modern city, in which the practitioner walks mindfully through the urban landscape, observing and reflecting. Thus Will Self on Shepherd’s Bush:
I resist the urge to divert into memories of ill-advised sex with a girl from Sheen. It was daytime in her girlhood bedroom … I was shocked by the thick hairs sprouting from the aureoles of her dirigible breasts.
We can only be grateful that Mr Self resisted thus far, but Shepherd’s Bush remains an embodiment both of Situationism’s prescience and its unintended redundancy. Despite its central location and green spaces, it has resisted gentrification, retaining the kind of grit that posh boys think is cool. Noisy, dirty, crowded, in the Bush the signifiers of modern wealth are jammed right in against the shambling victims of contemporary poverty.
Thanks to the proximity of the BBC, the very air round Brook Green thrums with angst, the sound of a generation of content providers waking up to the fact that, as the architectural critic Will Wiles puts it, “the crashing of those boundaries between work, culture and leisure has not made my life or practice one glorious subversion, but a slick of low-level creative anxiety, punctuated by eruptions of deadline and financial stress”.
The signifiers of modern wealth are jammed right in against the shambling victims of poverty
Debord’s method involved the rejection of intellectual property, the blatant plagiarising of other artists’ and writers’ work in an attempt to smash the dominion of intangible ownership. This committed Marxist committed suicide at the age of 62 (after carefully cultivating his archive, which his widow flogged to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France for 2.7 million euros), having failed to destroy the “society of spectacle”. Yet Situationism, whilst easy to mock, was by no means entirely inaccurate in its predictions.
Debord failed to see the internet coming, but he was spot on about IP. The dérive is no longer a means of achieving urban jouissance, but a fraught dogshit-dodge in which the practitioner paces the wilds of W12 wondering how the hell to pay the mortgage when they’re suddenly as economically useless as a handloom weaver. It’s enough to make anyone occupy the Sorbonne.
Le Petit Citron is the perfect place for the fagged flâneur. It’s the kind of restaurant you’re dying to have in your neighbourhood, and which you could still have if only you’d stop ordering Deliveroo.
The checked tablecloths and chalkboards are a soothing cliché, the menu is south-western French with a nod to the multicultural innovations of Marseille. Bouillabaisse and aïoli feature alongside a falafel burger and pastis glazes. Given that the other edible offerings in the Bush are Westfield or the Pizza Express on the corner by the Ibis Hotel, the place is an oasis.
The baguette is properly crunchy and squishy, the chicken liver parfait with Armagnac is a rich, velvety plate of nostalgia for the days when you could bring up a family nearby on a doc director’s wages. I tried a mushroom pot with tarragon, truffle oil and “Emily” croutons (the restaurant is
run by a couple, Emily and Lawrence) which was more of a savoury crumble, maybe not entirely professional standard but cheerful and delicious.
Onglet steak comes with old fashioned beurre maître d’hôtel and proper thin frites, chewy confit de canard is lifted by a sharp rhubarb compote. The wine list is quite brief but considered (suggestions for pairings are given in brackets, thus the rosé for sheep’s cheese, the Chablis for goat), and puddings are straightforward classics — chocolate mousse, petit pot au citron.
The web has succeeded where Le Corbusier at his most extreme failed, not so much funnelling our time as colonising it. We carry our shackles willingly in our pockets now, and the psychogeographer’s reverie is vivisected not by flyovers and tower blocks, but by the endless shrill ping of updates and alerts. In terms of prose, the death of the dérive may be no bad thing, but at least the spirit of ’68 still lingers at the Petit Citron.
Le Petit Citron, 98-100 Shepherds Bush Road, Hammersmith, London W6 7PD; 020 3019 1175
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