FRIDAY 26 OCTOBER BISHOPSGATE INSTITUTE
“London Lip”: a celebration of the paperback publication of London: City of Disappearances. Witness a rare urban excursion from the legendary Northampton magus of the graphic novel Alan Moore and the Texas-exiled creator of the multiverse, author of Mother London, Michael Moorcock. A conversation refereed by the book’s editor, Iain Sinclair [see below]. Plus Brian Catling and Kirsten Norrie.
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On the road
The son of a Welsh GP, IAIN SINCLAIR studied in Dublin before moving to London with his wife. His early work was self-published, and he worked as a teacher and labourer while researching occult aspects of the city’s past. Fiercely critical of plans to regenerate the capital, he has written a new novel about the ‘semi-celestial’ A13, and talks of leaving Hackney for good.
Saturday April 24, 2004
Near the outset of Iain Sinclair’s new novel, Dining on Stones, a visionary poet is teased by a young woman for embarking on a seemingly miserable walk along the cursed A13 out of London to research a book. “You love this shit,” the woman tells the poet as they walk. “Trading horror stories. Without Blair and Livingstone, Conran and Foster, the landscape rippers, you’d wind up sharing a couch in an old folks’ home, plaid rug over the knees watching reruns of Fools and Horses.”
Given that the hack is a thinly veiled if unreliable version of Sinclair, the reader would be forgiven for thinking that hers is a jibe at the expense of the writer and everything he stands for.
The poet’s journey will take him past plague pits, over sewers and burial mounds, under the howling skies produced by City Airport; across the occult vortices of Hawksmoor churches, Ripper landmarks and gangland haunts; onward to Dagenham’s Ford car plant, Rainham Marshes, the full-on estuarial blight of oil refineries and warehouses.
It’s a walk devoid of bucolic heritage idylls, one the narrator conceives of as subverting Blair’s bad alchemists as they strive self-defeatingly to redeem the unlucky A13, rebrand east London’s epic badlands as Thames Gateway and fill it with spirit-crushing Barratt-style homes. Without these wannabe Baron Haussmans bent on erasing London’s mystically cursed landscape, though, Sinclair would have to find another muse to justify his punishing schedule of walking and writing.
Perhaps, then, Sinclair does love the exasperating, cursed tangle of his churned-up city? “Yes, I do,” he says over coffee in his unexpectedly genteel sitting room in Hackney. “The A13 is this lovely corridor of blight which feeds the imagination. But the Thames Gateway notion involves sweeping away everything that’s unsightly and messy in favour of a heritage experiment. That all started with Michael Heseltine’s corporatist vision of Docklands redevelopment – a vision taken up by John Prescott and New Labour. They want to transform that other corridor of blight, the Lee Valley, too; swallow it up with Olympic sites. In my work, the pains of the past need to be appeased – or they will come back.”
In Dining on Stones, the poet conceives of his A13 “as a semi-celestial highway, a Blakean transit to a higher mythology, through a landscape of sacred mounds and memories”. Ever since Margaret Thatcher came on the scene with what he regards as her “demonic vision”, Sinclair has been walking London’s semi-celestial highways, and then writing them up so he can pit his higher mythology of ley lines, mounds and primeval forces against government-inspired makeovers and speculative developments.
“As a symbolic manoeuvre to respond to political forces, I’m very happy with what Iain does,” says Patrick Wright, friend and rival literary pathologist of east London during the Thatcher era. Sinclair’s invocation of a mythologised London is no mere “manoeuvre”, however. He believes there are occult forces at work in east London and that they can be mapped by considering the alignments of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s post-Great Fire churches. “I don’t care about Iain’s hokey-pokey malevolent stuff,” says Wright, “but what was and is fascinating for me is that these systems of geometry and meaning are brought up by Iain just when the city is coming to the end of the enlightenment project, when the welfare state is being destroyed and the dream of London’s municipal socialism is being crushed by Thatcher.”
At the same time as Wright was producing A Journey Through Ruins (1991), a historical text about a disappearing London, Sinclair was writing a parallel anti-Thatcherite work. Wright recalls: “It was at the moment in the late-80s when the Bryant & May factory, famous for the match girls’ strike, was being converted into loft apartments and the gentrification of the East End was beginning in earnest. We were both living in Hackney, trying to anchor a different form of critical analysis. We both thought the polite public literary culture was barking. It refused to engage with the politics of the time.”
The key difference between Wright and Sinclair, though, was that only the latter – Beat aficionado, walker of ley lines, alternative poet – believed quite literally that Thatcher was a witch. He still does.
“You can’t understand Thatcher,” says Sinclair, “except in terms of bad magic. This wicked witch who focuses all the ill will in society. I can’t understand her except as demonically possessed by the evil forces of world politics. Everything else follows from that: oil revenues blown in dubious arms deals, all real values trashed. She becomes a godhead to those who want to destroy the city’s power. But the godhead is created for a system which destroys her, as always happens. Now she’s been banished to a kingdom of whisky and mockery. But the fact remains that she introduced occultism into British politics and that the role of the writer was to counter that political culture.”
The novel in which Sinclair attempted that shamanic literary response was Downriver (1991). It was culled from his 5am walks through London and beyond, his labouring jobs in Tower Hamlets and – above all – from his determination to exorcise the witch. He traced the Thames from Tilbury, past the gathering pomp of Docklands, all the way back to Hackney. It was a satisfyingly Dickensian text – there was a nurse teaching immigrant urchins by day, prostituting herself to Labour councillors by night; a conflicted German currency dealer and collector of Conrad, driven to a Wapping suicide. A year after publication, it won the £7,500 Encore Award – his first literary award – and James Tait Black Memorial Prize. An underground writer who had previously specialised in self-publishing books from his home, Sinclair was striking a chord with a readership so revolted by Thatcher’s materialism they were willing to contemplate his anti-materialist psychogeography.
Sinclair is tall, barrel-chested and fit-looking, with a military bearing that is thoroughly undone when he opens his mouth and speaks like a kindly country vicar. Like many of his favourite and most visionary writers about London (Joseph Conrad of The Secret Agent, say, or Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who wrote of seeing buses at Piccadilly Circus as a herd of mastodons), he isn’t a Londoner himself. The son of a GP, he comes from the former mining town of Maesteg, and had his strong Welsh accent teased out of him by English boys at Cheltenham College in the 1950s. “My father’s family was Scottish, disappointed Jacobites living it tough in Aberdeenshire; my mother’s family mad preachers from west Wales.”
Both his parents are dead, so he has little occasion to return to Maesteg. “The mines gone, gastropubs, retail park culture – there’s nothing for me there now.”
Of Cheltenham, he says: “I had a comic Welsh accent, so I was aware of a double life – of subverting what I was.” This served him well in later years. So did the college’s film society, where Sinclair was exposed to Cocteau, Bergman, the nouvelle vague. A teacher lent him a copy of Kerouac’s On the Road and, as a result, Sinclair steeped himself in Beat literature. By 16, he was writing film reviews, theses on Hitchcock. His fascination with cinema led him to spend nine months at the London School of Film Technique.
Then he was lured into the vortex of Dublin bohemia, seduced by the society depicted in JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man and Joycean topography. Notionally attached to Trinity College, he lived in a cheap boarding house overlooking Joyce’s Martello tower in Sandycove. It was congenial and cheap, though he was never sucked into the drinking culture that con sumed Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan. “I never wanted to piss my life away in a pub,” he told Kevin Jackson in his book of interviews The Verbals (2002). “I really have a puritanical thing: in the morning, you get up, you write, you do your stuff, you get on.”
In Dublin he made several 16mm films and wrote plays that were staged in the city’s thriving small theatres, some based in garages. It was the start of a multi-media career – collaborative films and exhibitions have always since paralleled the more solitary business of writing. He met Anna Hadman, then a student, in Dublin, and she appeared in his first play. They married at 23 and quickly succumbed to London’s lure. For a while he wound up teaching, and in his spare time walking the seemingly ungraspable labyrinth that was to become his muse.
The couple bought a condemned Hackney house in 1969 for £2,000. They’ve been there ever since, watching the tower blocks thrown up in utopian hoopla dynamited down in dystopian pragmatism, seeing their slum become an unlikely piece of prime real estate in a gentrified ghetto. Anna was for many years a local infants’ school teacher, while their three children have all pursued careers in television: Farne is a documentary producer, William a film-maker and sound man, and Madeleine, the youngest, is a script editor.
How did he buy the house? “I got a few grand from a film I made about Allen Ginsberg for German TV. I and a couple of other scruffs turned up to interview him at this wonderful house in Regent’s Park where he was staying. It was part of the wonderful accessibility of the period.”
Hackney proved a secure base from which to write and publish small editions of poetry from his own Albion Village Press. “There was no anxiety. Most of the stuff I have done didn’t have to win anybody’s approval. For me, there wasn’t that question of ‘How do I get published?’ that seems to preoccupy writers now. I used to publish myself: £50 to print a few hundred copies. Then you’d go along to Compendium [an alternative bookshop in Camden Town] and sell them.”
Teaching became irksome. “I thought it used up my energies. So I made a strategic decision to get out. Jobs were easy to find.” He took on anything that was going – cigar rolling in Clerkenwell, barrel rolling at Truman’s brewery in Brick Lane, blacklegging at the docks as containerisation destroyed a venerable east London trade, cutting the grass of east London churchyards and cemeteries. He became a book dealer to feed his growing family, revelling in the raffish, arcane trade and the opportunities it gave him to travel outside London. Even now he occasionally puts out a catalogue. “I may have to return to it if the writing stops paying,” he says.
The artist Brian Catling helped him find labouring work, and thereby awakened him to an alternative east London world of occult mythology, gangster lore and Ripperology. “I had a love for the curious and the abnormal,” says Catling. “I think I converted him.” The pair worked and walked together. “Every where there were spectres in the stones. If you stare at these things for long enough, they start to stare back. We were never interested in drugs. We had enough trouble controlling our imaginations.”
Sinclair’s imagination was fired particularly by Hawksmoor’s churches, their appropriation of mystical Egyptian and other ancient civilisations and the significance of their alignments. “I thought that St Anne’s, Limehouse, Christchurch Spitalfields and St George-in-the-East were outside the official nexus. Hawksmoor became for me like a mockery of the high culture of Wren and the rational sweep of London. I became interested in why each church was where it was, and how this connected with Blake and other mythologies.” The crystallisation of these reflections was the 1975 long poem Lud Heat, where Sinclair set out his mystical account of Hawksmoor churches. A decade later, Peter Ackroyd published Hawksmoor, in later editions of which he pays tribute to Sinclair’s poem for directing him to “the stranger characteristics of the London churches”.
“Iain discovers it all and Peter makes a bestseller out of it,” says novelist Michael Moorcock. Sinclair is more circumspect: “I don’t think Peter’s book could exist without the emerging crystal of Lud Heat. It’s an energy crystal system that he adopts and puts into something different.” Ackroyd is happy to acknowledge the debt: “I read it when I was quite young and was impressed by it and naturally it resurfaced in my work.”
The two met at poetry readings, Sinclair reciting his neo-modernist free-form works heavily influenced by the Cambridge school of JH Prynne. “Peter’s poetry was much more influenced by the New York school – civilised and gossipy,” says Sinclair. “But he responded to something I wrote about Hawksmoor and it took off. There was a great critical demand for the Gothic things that Peter does, for Dr Dee and Dan Leno and all that. I came in the slipstream. Though, for me it is in the Thatcher era when it all kicks in.” They became rivals as much as friends. When Sinclair was asked to review Ackroyd’s biography of William Blake, he broke his copy’s spine into pieces and took each section on a walk – to test how Ackroyd’s life matched Blake’s mythologised reality.
Ackroyd, with his London: The Biography (2000), his fictional treatments and biographies of the capital’s most fruity denizens, may have captured the most lucrative aspects of the London franchise, but the decades since Sinclair’s early experiments have seen his brand extend its remit and an appealingly diffident writer pushed further into the literary limelight. So far, in fact, that he’s on the same high-profile Hamish Hamilton list as Alain de Botton, Zadie Smith and James Kelman. “Even if I don’t like all of them, each one has a brand image. There’s this frightening sense that I must have some weird brand image as the London psychogeographer.”
Psychogeography is a talismanic term that Sinclair understands to have been cannibalised from French situationism. “For me, it’s a way of psychoanalysing the psychosis of the place in which I happen to live. I’m just exploiting it because I think it’s a canny way to write about London. Now it’s become the name of a column by Will Self, in which he seems to walk the South Downs with a pipe, which has got absolutely nothing to do with psychogeography. There’s this awful sense that you’ve created a monster.”
Lights Out for the Territory (1998), based on walks through the capital city that the Tories were bequeathing to New Labour, unleashed that monster before a large public. Hounded by the spiritual brokenness of the city and haunted by the scrawls of disenfranchised graffiti artists as he walked, Sinclair seethed, often wittily, against the invasions of power and money that seemed to be transforming London into Eliot’s unreal city incarnate.
As he walked, Sinclair found his literary allies inscribing “editorials of madness” on the walls. He wrote: “As newspapers have atrophied into the playthings of grotesque megalomaniacs, uselessly shrill exercises in mind-control, so disenfranchised authors have been forced to adapt the walls to playful collages of argument and invective.” He transcribed these collages into the book and found they had mythical resonances, “thus proving that graffiti has a half-life far in excess of the buildings on which they have been painted. Broken sentences and forgotten names wink like fossils among the ruins.”
For Moorcock, Sinclair’s approach to London’s ruin marked him out from the city’s literary mainstream. “One difference between him and Martin Amis is that when the latter moved to Notting Hill, he was always talking about its denizens. Iain sees himself as a denizen rather than an observer of denizens: he associates with the outcasts and the forgotten.”
Labour victory brought the risk that Sinclair would lose his muse just as he found a larger audience. “I was in a pub on Brick Lane on election night 1997 and there was a sense of complete joy and celebration,” he says. “But from the start it was awkward and the Dome fiasco just showed me that it was going to be worse than Thatcher.”
The Dome made Sinclair put on his walking boots again and embark on a crackpot project literally parallel to Peter Mandelson’s folly. He hurled himself up zero degrees longitude from Greenwich along the Lee Valley and then walked anti-clockwise around the M25 until he purged himself of his contempt, and circumnavigated on foot the “grim necklace” that Thatcher had cast around London in 1986. The result was London Orbital (2002). Reviewing it in the Daily Telegraph, Sinclair McKay suggested his grotesque portrayal of politicians “pulls one back to 1980s student agitprop”.
Sinclair wrote that he was prompted by “an urge to walk away from the Teflon meteorite on Bugsby’s marshes. A white thing had been dropped in the mud of the Greenwich peninsula. The ripples had to stop somewhere… A journey, a provocation. An escape. Keep moving, I told myself, until you hit tarmac, the outer circle. The point where London loses it, gives up its ghosts.” He recognises London gave him his voice. “If I had to write about any city – and I did because of the strong sense of place that I have – it had to be London. I couldn’t do Paris, for example, because there would be too much of a culture of approval for my writing. London seems imponderable, unlike anywhere else. I was drawn in and never really escaped.”
Devotees and critics have become familiar, often besotted, with his style – his sometimes struttingly Hemingwayesque, sometimes sinuously poetic sentences, verb-free zones, clipped gags. On the first page of the new novel, for example, we read: “Pass sixty, sixty-five, and you can’t sustain an erection beyond eight and a half minutes. So I read. Is that a promise? Eight and half minutes, of the right intensity, sounds good. Novelists have managed books on less.”
Literary critic James Wood called him the “demented magus of the sentence”; John Walsh suspected him of genius, writing: “He can outgun virtually any writer in England.” But Wright sounds a cautionary note when he says: “He’s got to avoid becoming a parody of himself. There’s a risk of mannerism. No question. The real problem is with the architecture of the books. Can he create the structures to sustain his sentences?”
Devotees have become familiar, too, with the appearance in his books of a repertory of chums – critic and film-maker foil Chris Petit, perambulating snapper Marc Atkins, alternative sculptor-turned-Oxford-professor Catling, situationist pop prankster Bill Drummond, with guest appearances by the likes of Moorcock, Ackroyd, the late Kathy Acker and artist Rachel Lichtenstein.
“I appeared in one of his books sitting on top of a car in a vast Viking beard streaming in the wind as we drove around the M25,” Moorcock recalls. “In fact, that incident’s taken from my old Hawkwind days when I wasn’t quite in my right mind if you know what I mean. It wasn’t the M25, it was a B-road in Windsor. Iain produces myths: it’s never to be taken straight.
“I reply by putting him in my books. I have this Home Office pathologist called Taffy Sinclair in my metatemporal detective novels. It’s all a bit incestuous I suppose, and Iain does get taken to task for that in reviews sometimes.”
With these friends and alone, Sinclair continues to pound the streets seeking myths. One was the story of a cabbalistic scholar, David Rodinsky, who lived above the synagogue in Princelet Street in the heart of the old Jewish East End. In the late-60s, Rodinsky disappeared, leaving a room filled with maps, books, and writings undisturbed for 20 years. The haunting aura of an abstruse writer, an East End ghost, Jewish arcana, even the danger of being ensnared by this ready-made legend – all of this seduced Sinclair and, with Lichtenstein, he wrote Rodinsky’s Room (1999). “He’s a very spiritual person and he got very excited by the coincidences that happened as we were working on the book,” says Lichtenstein. “For me it was personal: I was an artist who wanted to literally walk in the shadows of my ancestors, to stalk the ghosts of my past and trace the places which had personal significance for me. Both of our voices flourished in the book – he was an extremely generous collaborator, a very kind and lovely man, a mentor to me really.”
Sinclair’s ensnarement by London has no such ancestral resonance: “I didn’t intend to be one of the people who writes about east London. I could have got out, but the Faustian bargain has been struck: every time I try to do something else, it’s fallen flat.”
Reviewing Sinclair’s Welsh novel Landor’s Tower (2001) for the Guardian, Ian Penman first hailed Sinclair as “a prickly alternative to the dully polished hegemony of Amis, Barnes et al”, then worried that the book was lost in literary festival gossip, before concluding that it “reads like any other work of London hi-lit snobbery… Sinclair Magus, please return.”
Chastened, the magus has not strayed so far from London since. “In a way I’ve allowed myself to become this London brand. I’ve become a hack on my own mythology, which fascinates me. From there on in you can either go with it or subvert it, and in the novel [ Dining on Stones ] at least, there is attempt to subvert it in a big way.”
He has a two-book deal at Hamish Hamilton for a novel about Hackney and a book about poet John Clare’s walk from an Epping Forest asylum to his Northamptonshire home. “London was the generator of Clare’s madness,” says Sinclair. “He was aware of the ghosts in the labyrinth.”
Sinclair hasn’t written either book yet: instead, he favoured his editor with the unexpected – a 450-page neo-modernist collage of a novel-in-progress with a panoply of self-subverting narrators, fractured walks along the A13 and a storyline involving an attempt to kidnap Max Bygraves from a Hastings theatre. “I have a very accommodating editor,” he says.
Another London book is on the way. Called Sixty Miles Out, it will be the final in a trilogy of London walk books. He’s already done the inner circle ( Lights Out for the Territory ) and the middle circle ( London Orbital ). The final book involves taking the A13 out of London and then tracing a 60-mile circumference from Southend, Cambridge, Northamptonshire, Oxford, Winchester, Hastings, round and round – exploring the points at which that sucking maw, London in all its abject splendour, loses its centripetal power.
Dining on Stones pre-empts that looming book – as well as offering a self-subverting perspective on his previous work. “I dreamed up the novel while sitting on a balcony of my flat in Hastings,” says Sinclair. “I was coming up to 60 and I was thinking about the other books that I’d written and my thought was, ‘Who wrote all that? Was it me?'” The narrator-novelist is haunted by a doppelgänger, someone who nicks his best ideas, publishes them first, and appropriates his life. Worse yet, he’s haunted by the thought that he may be the doppelgänger.
The Hastings foothold may yet turn out to be Sinclair’s new home. He’s already started calling the town Hackney-on-Sea. Hackney itself is becoming too difficult to live in. “He’s been saying that for years,” says Catling. “If he did leave London, it would be to somewhere like Hastings – a zone the heritage industry hasn’t polished into something else,” says Moorcock.
“I can’t live in Hackney,” says Sinclair. He cites the murder of a young American artist in Victoria Park and drug-related killings on his street, the closure of the baths where he taught his three children to swim. “Nothing working, completely shot council, the banality of gradual dysfunction, the sense of the landscape becoming more intimidating.” He is undecided about leaving: “Perhaps it will never happen.” But perhaps it will: raffish, ungentrified, and – thanks to Aleister Crowley’s association – with enough in the way of dark forces to keep him interested, Hastings is his kind of town. Maybe, too, Sinclair doesn’t love London’s abjection that much. More likely, though, his part of the Faustian pact with London dooms him to stay for ever.
Born: June 11 1943, Cardiff.
Education: Cheltenham College; London College of Film Technique; 1962-65 BA, Trinity College Dublin.
Married: 1967 Anna Hadman (children: 1972 Farne; ’75 William; ’80 Madeleine).
Some books: 1970 Back Garden Poems; ’75 Lud Heat; ’79 Suicide Bridge; ’87 White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings; ’91 Downriver Or The Vessels of Wrath; ’94 Radon Daughters; ’97 Lights out for the Territory; ’97 The Ebbing of the Kraft; ’97 Slow Chocolate Autopsy; ’99 Liquid City, with Marc Atkins; ’99 Rodinsky’s Room, with Rachel Lichtenstein; 2001 Landor’s Tower; ’02 London Orbital; ’04 Dining on Stones.
Some awards: 1992 Encore Award, James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
· Dining on Stones is published by Hamish Hamilton at £16.99.