An A to Z of Iain Sinclair on the Occasion of the American Publication of “The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City”
By Geoff NicholsonJanuary 9, 2018
Partly because the A–Z (pronounced “A to Z” but spelled A–Z) was the map, in book form, by which for so long, so many London insiders and outsiders found their way around the city. It came in multiple shapes, formats, and sizes, not always very convenient to use, but pre-cell-phone mapping what was the alternative? The edition I keep for research purposes begins with Abbess Close, E6, and ends with Zoffany Street, N19. London is, of course, Sinclair’s great obsession, and walking is his primary way of exploring it. I imagine there are quite a few well-thumbed, highly annotated A–Zs on Iain Sinclair’s bookshelves.
His new book The Last London is being promoted as his farewell to the city, his last word on the subject, the end of his relationship because he no longer loves, understands, or recognizes the place in its present form.
Slogging past the stations, buffeted by mad heads-down soliloquists, bruised by invalid carriages, blocked by strings of unlicensed children and dogs, family units confused in tourist hell, deafened by sirens and the yelp and fret of bicyclists hammering on white vans or sharing obscenities with U-turning-cabbies, I was convinced that the city had reached the limits of human tolerance.
However, there are quite a few places in the text where Sinclair rather undercuts this premise, not least that he still owns a house in Hackney, London E8, where he’s lived for 50 years. Personally, I doubt these are his last thoughts or utterances about the city, but it’s a useful enough conceit for Sinclair’s current purposes.
A for ALCHEMY
Merriam-Webster defines it thus:
1: a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life
2: a power or process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way
3: an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting
Sinclair’s writing has all three of those definitions covered. The work of the alchemist must inevitably be repetitive, occasionally exhausting. The same basic materials are endlessly combined and recombined in different quantities, in different proportions, in different ways, using different catalysts. Sinclair’s base materials are London, walking, urban exploration, eccentric characters, deep history — much of it literary or artistic, obscure knowledge that sometimes edges into the occult, with many elements of autobiography. In this alchemical metaphor the book itself becomes the crucible or the retort.
Only a fool would bet on any writer’s immortality, and base materials are essential to any literature, but there’s transformation for sure, and plenty of gold in Sinclair’s writing.
B for BIBLIOPHILIA
In my not-all-that-limited experience of authors, a surprising number of them aren’t lovers of books. This is patently not true of Sinclair. He’s besotted with books, their content, and their physical reality.
His oeuvre runs to over 50 volumes, some very slim, some massive. Some are books he’s edited, some are beautifully produced, highly limited editions, some have become mass-market paperbacks. Early work tended toward poetry and fiction, later work has tended toward documentary and memoir, but these are largely publishers’ marketing terms, and pretty much all of Sinclair’s works push at the boundaries of classification.
His books open out into a world of other books — one or two come with extensive bibliographies. A strictly non-exhaustive list of authors celebrated might include J. G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Alan Moore, J. H. Prynne, Arthur Machen, and W. G. Sebald. These are just a few of the authors that form a pantheon of fellow scribes and fellow travelers. The reader frequently emerges from a Sinclair text with a mental or actual reading list for “further study.”
Sinclair was also, for a time, a book dealer and a small press publisher. He has written about this extensively, and achieved the quite remarkable feat of making the selling of books seem glamorous and edgy.
C for CRASH
Sinclair wrote a volume in the BFI Film Classic series, on David Cronenberg’s movie Crash, based on the J. G. Ballard novel. He observes that an early scene with the “heroine” Catherine standing on a balcony, semi-naked, legs and butt exposed, looking out over the city, is a dead ringer for a photograph by Helmut Newton, “Winnie at the Negresco.”
I hadn’t spotted that, but once it’s been pointed out it seems absolutely obvious. In the book, Sinclair puts this point to Ballard who swears that Cronenberg wasn’t at all influenced by Newton’s image. This seems a very odd thing for the author of the source material to be so sure about. Did he think it would in some way devalue Cronenberg’s originality? Or his own?
And if Ballard was right, then this is surely one of the world’s most uncanny pieces of visual synchronicity, or “convergence” to use Lawrence Weschler’s term. Sinclair, wisely no doubt, doesn’t press Ballard on the matter.
I once asked Sinclair what kind of car he drove. He said, “A brown one.”
D for DIFFICULTY
It would be pointless to argue that Sinclair’s writing doesn’t have its difficulties. The chief one, I think, is that you actually need to know quite a bit about a quite a few things in order to follow what he’s writing about. There’s a density, an allusiveness, a scholarliness, a lack of narrative thrust. Nobody has ever described an Iain Sinclair book as a page-turner.
Having said that, the books that are most popular and perhaps most widely read are those where there’s a clear and obvious narrative scheme. The subtitles often say it all Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London; London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25 (that’s London’s notorious encircling motorway ring road); London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line.
These books are meandering and free-associative to be sure, but they involve real journeys with beginnings, middles, and ends, sometimes in that order. They provide a literary structure to which endless bits of arcana can be attached.
There are, I’m sure, any number of ways of reading Sinclair. Personally I go for one of two methods. The first is simply to submit, to accept the journey, to allow yourself to sink into the loam, the mud bath of Sinclair’s prose and obsessions. There’ll be much that’s familiar — William Blake, Jack the Ripper, the Kray twins, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s church architecture, the Beat poets — but you have to accept that you won’t know every single name and every single reference, and that’s just fine. You accept that this will, at some level, be a learning experience. Sinclair doesn’t wear his own learning lightly, you can always see the heavy lifting, but he doesn’t make you feel dumb. He seems clever, and he makes you feel clever — this is no small achievement.
The other method I often employ is to open a volume of Sinclair at random and read a paragraph or two as though they were fragments of a prose poem. I just did this with The Last London, and I didn’t cheat. I came up with the following:
Ah! Reach for that notebook. Freshly sprayed this morning: ANGELS GATHER HERE. Woodsmoke from tin chimneys. Yawning cats. The settlement of the moment isn’t brownfield but the emerging water village. […] Occupation is anarchy. Property is debt.
E for EDITING
I’ve often wondered what the editing process is like for Sinclair. Is he beset by publishers telling him that London’s all played out, that he should be writing about Seoul or Reykjavík instead? I also wondered how he deals with proofreaders. Does the manuscript come back covered in question marks, inserted commas and colons, with endless annotations that say “incomplete sentence”?
In honor of this A to Z, I emailed him and asked. He replied,
It’s a good question about editors and proof readers. I haven’t really had an editor, as such, since Neil Belton at Granta (when he wasn’t busy writing his own books). Neil had an excellent system of sending a letter with a list of questions. About a third were valid, I did what I could to fix the passages he questioned. A third, I ignored. I was happy with what I’d done. A third we negotiated over. Later, at Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, as the publishing monster expanded and no time could be wasted on lesser productions, the process went straight to the dreaded copy-editor. I had to submit to ‘house style’. I left in things I knew would have to be changed, so that I could show willing — before digging my heels in about other elements. This was a lengthy business, getting longer with each book. But more nit-picking than full-frontal assault. You pull out lumps of my stuff (as Ian Jack would do) and it falls apart. I nearly ruined Downriver by fiddling around to shape the first chapter (and explain all references) to dinky little sentences for Granta magazine. Never again. Which is why I avoid writing anything for US publications. If I wanted a collaboration and a debate, I’d have asked for one.
There was no problem with Sam, my editor at Oneworld, until he passed the ‘approved’ text to the copy-editor. Within six lines, she’d made a dozen idiotic ‘improvements’. I blew up. What I have is what I want. She stepped aside. I have insisted on the Iris Murdoch - leave well alone - from the start. Those I work with agree that we have to sink or swim with the eccentricities and tone on offer. We’re not in mega-selling territory, where any of this matters. My editor for one US edition - Ghost Milk - was brilliant, suggesting caption summaries at the start of each section and more photographs, amended title, lovely design. I was very happy. The book sunk without trace.
There are those who accuse Sinclair of being humorless. Not me.
F for FOOD
You won’t find any loving, sensual descriptions of food and drink in the works of Iain Sinclair, although food is very important. There’s a description of a gloriously foul, Beckettian meal in the novel Slow Chocolate Autopsy, “Nothing foreign about Ma’s cuisine: week-old stockpot, bacon on a string, cabbage leaves with an earth basting. Worms a bonus,” though admittedly this is being cooked and eaten in the 17th century.
In the real world food is necessary to fuel his walking expeditions. There are a lot of meals taken in what he’s referred to as “bastard cafes” —
mongrelised ones, with bits and pieces strategically placed and altered. The main thing for me is the food — funnily enough I’m bothered about the food — placing and position, too. I pick places on the perimeter of the city. That’s where I walk. I don't go through London as such.
That’s from an interview with the website classiccafes.co.uk.
Along the way or at the end of the day, some decompression and self-medication with alcohol may be required, often in alien, joyless pubs. If Sinclair has a regular haunt he’s keeping it to himself. He apparently doesn’t want to go where everybody knows his name.
There’s a wonderful scene in The Last London when he travels to Tilbury, on the Thames, in Essex, on the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, thinking this will be a rich source of material. He ends up in the Dock Café, “[t]he starred item was the Olympic breakfast at £5.80, with two eggs, two sausages, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms. Beans, bubble and squeal. I settled for a cappuccino and a vegetarian fry-up.”
As he’s about to leave, a woman enters, carrying a camera and tripod, wearing a badge that identifies her as a journalist from BBC London News. She’s had the same idea as Sinclair about material, but she’s having trouble finding anyone willing to talk about Thatcher. Except him. He writes, “Delighted to have bumped into someone ready to talk, she offered me a coffee — before she realized that I was in the same dubious trade, trawling for exploitable copy.”
G for GARDEN
Sinclair’s first published work, in 1970, was Back Garden: Poems and Stories. He was working at the time as a municipal gardener for the Parks Department in London’s Limehouse, and the job involved cutting the grass adjacent to various churches designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Sinclair continues to write and talk about his time as a gardener, and Hawksmoor has become a lifelong obsession (see below).
This gardening period was in the late ’60s, early ’70s, an odd time in English social history, when a surprising number of smart, educated young men, and a few young women, found jobs doing grunt work for local councils. As a piece of social engineering it had its appeal, and it lasted a surprisingly long time. I’m a later generation than Sinclair but I too worked as a gardener and then as a garbage man. Some of my friends with arts degrees found themselves working, albeit briefly, as road sweepers or garbage dump laborers. We tended to get called “Prof.”
I’m always reminded of the line from Tom Waits’s song “Down in the Hole,” “When you walk in the garden, you gotta watch your back.”
H for HACKNEY AND HASTINGS
When a man is tired of London it may be time to move to his second home in Hastings, a seaside resort on the south coast of England.
This is not the place for a history of Hackney — Sinclair’s already got that well covered — suffice it to say it’s a history that includes Roman roads, Alfred the Great, Henry VIII, Edgar Allan Poe, London’s first theaters, various religious and political dissenters including the Gunpowder Plotters, and a Technical College where Johnny Rotten met Sid Vicious.
I’m enough of a Londoner to remember a time when a lot of people didn’t even want to set foot in Hackney, much less live there. Hackney was denounced in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s government as an example of the inevitable urban blight that results when a left-wing local government is in power, but that already seems like ancient history.
As central London got ever more expensive, Hackney started to look affordable, even desirable to property hunters, though a long way from the heart of things. That has changed. Hackney is now its own center, gentrified, hipster-ish, and today you’re unlikely to find a house like Sinclair’s in Albion Drive unless you can raise a million quid. This is, of course, not by any means unique to Hackney. Real estate watchers will be interested to know that Sinclair bought his house in the late 1960s for a couple of thousand pounds.
It’s not hard to see how Sinclair’s disillusion with a changed and incomprehensible city represents a crisis for him. He’s always prided himself on being in the know, in having the highly specialized knowledge that others don’t. He’s not been selfish with the information, the whole project has been to share and celebrate this information with readers, even as he’s marked out territory as thoroughly his own. But now the territory no longer looks like his. It’s full of things he doesn’t know.
Of course one reaction to these changed circumstances might be to celebrate the fact that London is even more mysterious than we thought, in ways that we couldn’t once have conceived of. Sinclair is not blind to these possibilities. Who would have imagined the occasion he describes in The Last London — with such ambivalent relish — of swimming in the pool, high inside the Shard, an elongated 95-story pyramid tower, built in 2012, in the ancient borough of Southwark. When Sinclair first started writing nobody could have imagined that London would ever contain something like the Shard.
Sinclair’s movements outside of London are well charted in his own and other people’s writing. He’s had a place in Hastings for at least 15 years. Hastings used to have a reputation, perhaps unfairly, as the heroin capital of the south coast. These days it experiences the same contradictory effects of gentrification as a great many other places.
In an interview with the Guardian in 2002, Sinclair described it as “Hackney-on-Sea,” which at the time he seemed to believe was a good thing.
The final chapter in The Last London describes a five-day walk from Waltham Abbey (itself a bit of a hike from Hackney) to Battle Abbey (six miles or so from Hastings), built by William the Conqueror as penance for killing so many English at the Battle of Hastings. Sinclair travels in the company of a ragged band of fellow walkers. “They are the beaters of invisible bounds bedizened in outlandish fancy dress that is becoming noticeably less fancy with every mile endured.” He turns the account into a moving rumination about Brexit, “foreignness,” emigration, and the status of refugees.
I for “I” as in IAIN
I realized, with a slight start at my own naïveté, that in my reading of Sinclair’s work, I often assume the “I” of the narrative is identical to the author. Then I remind myself that writing doesn’t work like that. The first-person narrator, even in a work of nonfiction, is a character like any other. Further complicating things, in some of Sinclair’s fiction, there’s a character named Norton who’s an autobiographical stand-in for him. (See N for NORTON below.) I asked what thoughts he had about this.
Curiously, your question is just the opener Stewart Lee delivered at the LRB last night in St George’s, Bloomsbury. A Hawksmoor church with very unwelcoming acoustics. I can’t remember what guff I fed him. I’ll have to wait for the podcast. You know that there is no adequate answer. But the trick is, as you suggest, to imply enough of a connection between author and narrator (or subject). This should draw the reader in (or repulse him/her). In truth, all the selves are performances, according to circumstances, company, location. And age. The pitch shifts from apparent fiction to pseudo documentary, to graphic novel (versions of Norton in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are based on me, the photographed self - as are the Moorcock ‘Taffy Sinclair’ comic strip sidekick & Dave McKean’s Slow Chocolate Autopsy puppets). I would say (and I keep saying it) that the self, as moving around in London, is re-enforced, daily, by bounce-back from familiar markers and persons confirming identity (the London walker/stalker mythology). But walking in the childhood landscape of carboniferous limestone (Black Apples of Gower) is a way of abdicating identity, finding there is no imprint on a timeless territory. John Clare, heading ‘home’ from the Epping Forest asylum is a chaos of identities: younger, freer self (still attached to his muse, Mary Joyce), channeled Lord Byron, Nelson, a prizefighter, a peasant poet forced to perform that role in public in London. You get the drift, I won’t bang on.
J for JOYCE
Sinclair attended Trinity College Dublin, living in a house in Sandycove that overlooked Joyce’s Martello tower. When Newsweek reviewed Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, the writer said Sinclair was “known for his James Joyce-meets-‘Lonely Planet’-style ‘documentary fictions’ of different parts of London.” There’s so much wrong with that assessment, but the Joyce comparison is understandable, if lazy: anybody who writes prose that isn’t immediately transparent gets described as Joycean.
I was interested to discover that Sinclair delivered a talk at the 2016 James Joyce Symposium at London University, titled “James Joyce, Our Dad, Alas: a late modernist autobiography of Bloom fugues in simultaneous cities, London and Dublin.” According to an account on the blog belonging to one Peter Chrisp, “[t]he theme, like a lot of Sinclair's writing, was walking — walking in Ulysses, and walks Sinclair took as a young student in Dublin — along the Liffey to the Phoenix Park.” There’s also an epigram from Finnegans Wake introducing the last chapter of Sinclair’s novel Downriver.
I suppose we’re all post-Joyceans now, but I wondered to what extent Sinclair was a true believer. I asked him. He replied,
I did deliver a Joyce lecture in London — and another, before that, in Cork. A long time obsession, scab, enthusiasm, argument. One of the reasons I was happy to spend four years in Dublin. None of that Joyce stuff was published. Before embarking on Downriver, I re-read Dubliners (as the book was intended to be made from a series of loosely linked stories); then I made the mistake of re-reading Ulysses. After that I kept away for a few years.
Joyce may or may not have said that if Dublin suddenly disappeared it could be reconstructed from Ulysses. It would be one mighty strange, but not wholly unappealing, version of London that could be reconstructed from the works of Iain Sinclair.
K for KODAK
Sinclair’s second publication, his first book of prose, was The Kodak Mantra Diaries (1971), a tall, thin slender volume documenting “The Congress on the Dialectics for the Demystification of Violence,” a two-week event, which had taken place four years earlier at the Roundhouse in London’s Camden Town. It featured the likes of R. D. Laing, Stokely Carmichael, and Herbert Marcuse, with Allen Ginsberg as the star of the show.
Sinclair, with his film school pal Robert Klinkert, had managed to get a commission from German television to make a documentary about Ginsberg, and the book was a kind of retrospective scrapbook of notes and photographs about the “Congress.” An expanded edition was published in 2016, and some of the footage was released on DVD in 2007 as Ah, Sunflower.
Sinclair’s fascination and involvement with film started early, the film school mentioned above was a dodgy-sounding outfit he attended briefly, the London School of Film Technique, in Brixton, and the fascination and involvement have never gone away. For his 70th birthday he curated a year-long series of movies presented in various venues around London. The list of movies included Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, Jean-Luc Godard’s British Sounds, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie. There was a catalog in book form, another item for the bibliography, titled 70x70: Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films.
At various points in his career there have been collaborations with filmmakers, primarily Chris Petit. Sinclair is all over YouTube, a much softer and gentler presence than you might expect from reading his work.
My favorite exchange from The Kodak Mantra Diaries:
Chris wants Ginsberg to tell him the way out of the situation as it has developed in western culture: the deadlock. He asks, in a tight voice, a long question, tortured in its syntax, schizophrenic in its content — something about: interpersonal, religio-spiritual, linear structures, of colonized, formalized, institutionalized, inhuman, containment. He is demanding help & refusing it at the same time, by the way he lays it out, the reality is shattering.
Ginsberg replies very loudly, very determinedly: I DO NOT KNOW I DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE ASKING ME.
One of Ginsberg’s better lines.
L for LONDON of course, passim, but also for LANGUAGE
Sinclair’s language is special and specialized, muscular, unsentimental, immodest in its ornateness, “inimitable” in the sense (true of so many great stylists) that it’s quite easy to imitate badly, but impossibly hard to imitate well.
Out in the “real” world and in his description of it, Sinclair is highly attuned to incursions of other people’s language, and sometimes it isn’t the language of people at all, but inert corporate-speak designed to obfuscate rather than communicate. He homes in on the word “so”:
Now it’s a signifier, a warning bleep letting the recipient know that nothing that follows has any billable consequence. The speaker, the spokesperson, the hireling expert, is not accountable. Language in the last London is a negotiation, a spin of terminological inexactitudes. We are losing the ground beneath our feet. […] We feel as if we are falling as we walk, reaching out for anything cold and hard and more than a week old.
This comes from an article in the London Review of Books, dated March 30, 2017, titled “The Last London,” and I’m sure that passage must have been reused somewhere in the book of the same name, but I’m damned if I can find it.
M for MUSIC
Music doesn’t loom large in Sinclair’s writing, and he’s certainly never written at any length about musical performances or performers, yet he’s rubbed up against, and in some cases shared a stage with, some of the very coolest musos: Dr Strangely Strange, the KLF guys, Scanner. And he’s best friends with Michael Moorcock who once had one foot (maybe only half a foot) in the rock world as a collaborator with space rockers Hawkwind.
I asked Sinclair if he thought there was an interesting contradiction here.
I’ve just done a collaboration with local solicitor/activist (fisherman, jazzman), Bill Parry-Davies. A CD called Under Offer. The first three tracks, recorded in his home studio, and finessed by his son Adam, work pretty well. The live tracks from performances in the past are much rougher. I have also collaborated (and performed with) John Harle and Jah Wobble — but of course those events carried through despite my acknowledged ‘tin ear’ (according to Zappa-freak Ben Watson). Yes, I have found myself, with very little excuse, on stage (or down the bill from) KLF, Wire, Nick Cave, Thurston Moore, Patti Smith — often through the good offices of Paul Smith (Blast First, Disobey). Strangely Strange were friends from student days in Dublin.
So all that activity informed a general atmosphere, but I have never felt qualified (or inspired) to write anything about music, or much about musicians (apart from the book-dealer Martin Stone). I stopped listening, except in cars, when the technology moved on from cassettes and left me behind.
However, in that Guardian interview with Will Hodgkinson he did say, “I might listen to Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart to be inspired in an indirect way.” Good enough!
N for NORTON (Andrew Norton, a fictional character created by and based on Sinclair)
Norton first appeared in Slow Chocolate Autopsy (1997) written by Sinclair, illustrated by Dave McKean. Norton is known as the Prisoner of London, a man trapped in space but adrift in time. He can’t leave London but he can move around in its past, a conceit that allows him to be a witness to the death of Christopher Marlowe, as well as encountering Jack “The Hat” McVitie, murdered by the Kray twins.
Norton then memorably pops up — looking just like Sinclair — in Alan Moore’s graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2009 and ongoing) where further complications ensue, including a battle against the Antichrist, though Norton’s role is restricted to guiding characters to a secret railway platform at King’s Cross station, which of course is an echo of Harry Potter.
Moore says his version of Sinclair is “somewhere between a tribute and a travesty.”
O for OLYMPICS
Sinclair hates the Olympics, I mean he really hates the Olympics. In Ghost Milk, he rails against them at book-length.
To be fair, it may only be the 2012 London Olympics he specifically hates, and it’s not that he hates the Olympic ideals of excellence, courage, determination, international cooperation, and what not, though like any sane person he’s skeptical about them. No, his objection is that the developments and redevelopments made to accommodated the Olympics in London were essentially a land-grab by robber barons, corporate greed in the fancy dress of “regeneration.”
He’s still railing now that there are plans to turn part of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London into Olympicopolis — “the ugliest word in the language,” says Sinclair — a massively ambitious “arts hub” that may, or may not, be open as early as 2022. The legacy is itself denounced in The Last London:
Everything is pop-up. Nothing is true. The fables are authorless and generic, finessed by computer programmes. Boasted green spaces are the conceptual green of plastic football carpets. Wild flowers are currently unavailable. A patch of scorched earth has been fenced off: “Sorry we are closed right now. We are just growing new plants ready for you to enjoy.”
Still, I think my favorite Sinclairian Olympic denunciation appears in Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. Here he’s summarizing things for an out-of-town visitor. “I tried to explain how the violence of the Olympic assault unpicked identity, made everything into a fictional bouillabaisse: heritage myths, untrustworthy documentation, computer generated vision. Political wisdom insists that we believe what we’re told to believe.”
The visitor is Astrid Proll, once a member of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and a former Hackney resident where she acquired false documents and worked while on the run. She tells Sinclair that she’d like to move back to London, but it’s too expensive.
P for PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY
How long have you got? The word doesn’t appear in any of the dictionaries I own, nor in any online dictionaries I’ve checked, although it can be found in plenty of other places, which generally accept Guy Debord’s 1955 definition of psychogeography as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” The pedestrian dérive, or drift, is the favored psychogeographic modus operandi (see W for WALKING).
It has always seemed to me that Debord’s definition raises more questions than it answers. How specific are these effects? They don’t seem very specific at all to me, and are surely different for every observer. In what sense are they laws? Can they be broken? Can they be enforced? And as a discipline, isn’t a study of the environment and its influence on emotions and behavior so vast and open ended as to be pretty much the study of everything? Or is that the whole point?
At the same time, in a more modest way, without putting a name to it, isn’t this what walkers have been doing for centuries, probably millennia: walking, sensing, absorbing, looking, jotting down, taking photographs when the technology eventually permitted? It’s a tradition that includes many of Sinclair’s heroes, most of whom are also sometimes categorized as flâneurs — Bunyon, Baudelaire, Clare, Poe, Dickens, and perhaps above all De Quincey.
Sinclair has regularly described himself as the owner of a psychogeography “franchise.” Merlin Coverley in his book Psychogeography has described him as rebrander. Sinclair’s commitment to the concept is genuine enough but he seems deeply suspicious, and on occasion amused, by some of those who’ve come after him, and who claim him as an inspiration.
In a talk he gave to readers of The Idler magazine about The Last London he said,
It’s about wandering. It’s not a kind of idle wandering; I gave up on the term flâneur a while back. I went for fugan instead, like the mad walkers of the 19th century who took off on enormous journeys across France. There was a plumber from Bordeaux who walked out the door one day and finished up in Moscow. Then some dreadful writers took up with it and within a few months, the middle classes were all on the road pretending to be fugues. I feel a bit like that now with this whole walking fetish. Now everywhere you go, you find people doing strange conceptual walks, taking photographs of road signs and trying to get arrested in the car park of IKEA.
Q for QUOTATION (possibly I mean epigraph)
Sinclair has a very skilled way with a quotation. His epigraphs are erudite, broad ranging, they refer to literature both classic and popular, and you never get the sense that he’s just showing off. A swift, more or less random, sampling of his books reveals epigraphs from, Christopher Marlowe, William Burroughs, T. S. Eliot, George Harriman, Samuel Palmer, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde.
The two quotations that open The Last London are as follows:
“But sometimes the street spills over me, too much to absorb, and I have to stop thinking and keep walking.” Don DeLillo.
“I went againe to the ruins; for it was no longer a Citty.” John Evelyn.
As a marking out of territory, as a promise of what’s to come, it doesn’t get much better, or more accurate, than this.
R for REVIEWS
Sinclair gets good reviews, often great reviews, reviews that any author, or publisher, would be happy to see quoted on a dust jacket. These reviews assert that Sinclair knows his London, has a singular prose style, and is in some profound though nebulous way a “good thing.” What they often fail to do is engage with the content of the books, as though Sinclair is some eccentric old relative to be cherished and indulged rather than understood.
Here’s a sampling from British reviews of The Last London (and I do wish there were some reviews by women):
“Comparisons with Pepys are tempting — and in the end, apposite,” says Ben East in the Guardian.
“Without him there to bear witness to 21st-century London, many of the city’s historic delights, surreal ironies and brutal hypocrisies would pass us by unnamed,” says Laurence Scott in the Financial Times.
“Very few authors have fashioned a London more real than the one we see (in his work),” says Sinclair Maccay in the Spectator.
Previously, James Wood declared Sinclair “a demented magus of the sentence” and Sukhdev Sandhu in The Observer, and in full pastiche mode, wrote, “Sinclair’s is a prolix poetics, an amassing of noun-hives whose compacted wit would make the most lexically dexterous rapper envious […] his writing can be an imagistic seance-stream full of startling riffs, memory sifts, domino-effect associationism.”
I have only found one really, truly bad review of Sinclair’s work and it’s addressed directly to the author, as follows: “Your women are a joke and you can’t do working class. Or blacks or Jews or immigrants of any kind. As for kids — where are they?” This is however a fictional bad review written by Iain Sinclair and put into the mouth of one of his characters in Landor’s Tower.
S for SHAMANISM
Merriam-Webster offers: “a religion practiced by indigenous peoples of far northern Europe and Siberia that is characterized by belief in an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits responsive only to the shamans.” Altered states of consciousness seem always to be involved.
There are multiple online references, perhaps all from a common source, that refer to Sinclair as an “urban shaman.” Again, this seems to raise more questions than it answers. True, anybody who writes about history and people of the past, whether fiction or nonfiction, does in some metaphorical sense “raise spirits,” and yet I don’t see Simon Schama or Hilary Mantel referred to as shamans.
It probably has something to do with a chapter in Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory titled “The Shamanism of Intent” (also available as a separate volume) originally the title of a daunting exhibition featuring work by the artist Gavin Jones, “painter, sculptor, earthmover, outlaw ecologist.”
And what the hell did it mean — The Shamanism of Intent? Was there a current in the social life of the city that could be usefully identified with this conceit? Artists so stubborn, so ruinously estranged from the tribe, that their outcast status was something more useful than a disguise, a horn mask. Is it too preposterous to think of this — delusion — that work is capable of re-enchanting place — as a reality, a significant marker on the chart of our culture?
These questions remain rhetorical as far as some of us are concerned. Still, if Sinclair has any claims to be a shaman (and to be fair, I think these claims are made by others rather than by the man himself) it’s on the basis that after a long session immersed in Sinclair’s prose, in his thought patterns, his way of observing, you emerge with a different way of looking at things, you see new connections, new narratives, and in that sense yes, a previously unseen world is revealed, and maybe that counts as an altered state of consciousness. Equally, if you simply said this is the effect that all the best writers have on the reader, you’d get no argument from me.
T for TOPOGRAPHY
Merriam-Webster: “Topography: the art or practice of graphic delineation in detail usually on maps or charts of natural and man-made features of a place or region especially in a way to show their relative positions and elevations.”
There are a lot of maps within and around Sinclair’s work, some real, some virtual, some imaginary, sometimes functioning as sources of information or illustration that complement the text, other times appearing as decorative elements on endpapers or book jackets.
Maps in books can be strangely ambiguous. On the one hand they assert a kind of authenticity: the book is obviously describing a real place, a real expedition, as though it might be the exploits of Mason and Dixon, or Speke and Burton. However, real-world explorers are endlessly mythologized, and a map can in itself can be an emblem of myth or fable, whether it’s a map of Nancydrewland, Middle Earth, or those strangely inert locations depicted on the Dell “Map Back” pulp paperbacks.
Moreover, it seems to me that once a place is described in a text, it has by definition been reimagined. Yes, there is Dickens’s London, Chandler’s Los Angeles, Simenon’s Paris, Karen Blixen’s Africa, and so on, but they never exactly coincide with the geographic facts. Of course the same can be said about a lot of maps.
Sinclair regularly exploits this oscillation between the real and the imagined. His books refer to a London that is simultaneously authentic and recognizably all his own. The very classy-looking jacket on The Last London features a schematized, gold map of a small section of London embossed on a white, parchment-like background. The book, as noted, is subtitled “True Fictions from an Unreal City.”
I asked Sinclair whether he had a whole stack of dog-eared maps in his office, or whether he’d made the switch to online cell phone mapping. He replied,
No cell phone surveys, ever. As you might suspect from The Last London. They would be death to the provisional aspects of my expeditions. Actual maps always, however eccentric and unreliable. The books themselves are all maps. And maps or charts or energy patterns of some kind have been included since the start (with Lud Heat).
Then there was Rodinsky’s A-Z - in which I did a series of walks (filmed) from red-biro lines scribbled in his friable copy by the Princelet Street recluse. Maps for the covers of Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, American Smoke, London Overground, The Last London.
(The reference here is to Rodinsky’s Room, a book co-written with Rachel Lichtenstein — Sinclair insists he was the junior partner — which is a kind of reclaimed biography based on materials found in the abandoned, long unopened room belonging to David Rodinsky, “Talmudic scholar, a holy fool; a man who invented himself through his disappearance.”)
I do have boxes of these things, more studied and picked over (like books) than actually consulted out there (although I’ll carry some version with me in less-known territories). I’m especially fond of the maps showing vanished or erased sites. I still use them.
An exhibition I ‘curated’ in Redchurch Street, way back, was called Jago & Out. I sent an outdated AA book of road maps to various people, asking them to make a mark anywhere they fancied. I then walked to that place, keeping a record, taking photographs, recovering a random book somewhere along the way. These accounts were exhibited, along with art works (of their choice) by the invited parties: Marina Warner, Dave McKean, Alan Moore, Chris Petit etc.
So no ‘advance’ into digital mapping, as walker or driver.
U for USA
Sinclair’s relationship with the United States is an up-and-down affair. Many of his literary enthusiasms and inspirations are American: the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, a group of writers that includes Kathy Acker, Jack Kerouac, Ed Dorn, Charles Olson, among many, many others. His book American Smoke tracked a number of literary journeys that took him to Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, and California, and beyond. It was an honest and serious work but somehow it didn’t quite come off. Even, or perhaps especially, in the States it was a tough sell.
Sinclair seems to accept this even if he’d prefer it otherwise. As preparation for this piece I offered to do a full Q-and-A session, or an extended email correspondences about The Last London. He declined. “Because I have to get on with the next book — for the Welcome Trust — against a firm deadline (exhibition pending), I’ve refused to do lists of my favourite London books for US outlets or to take on small commissions from various magazines. I don’t have a readership there — or anywhere much outside Hackney. But I will answer any questions you have.”
I think perhaps he protested too much, and in any case, as you see above, he answered very generously.
In the course of writing this piece I discovered a most surprising bit of American Sinclairiana, shown to me by a fellow enthusiastic (Anthony Miller). It’s a postcard publicizing an American tour by Sinclair to promote his book Landor’s Tower. The card lists a string of appearances that includes City Lights in San Francisco and Skylight in Los Angeles. It was due to start mid-September 2001.
The full US tour for Granta was planned, arranged, tickets secured. First stop, the Moorcocks in Bastrop, Texas. A few hours before our flight, those planes went into the Twin Towers. Everything in lock down, obviously. All readings cancelled. Trip abandoned. Tour never to be resumed.
V for VERBALS
The word doesn’t appear in Merriam-Webster as a plural, but the website grammar-monster offers, “A verbal is a verb form which functions as a noun or an adjective.” However, the usage we’re invoking here is common enough in British English, and appears in the online Urban Dictionary as “swearing/cursing in a [sic] argument, swearing/cursing at someone in general, ‘you hear the man over there giving it the verbals to that woman’.”
The Verbals is the title of an excellent book of interviews with Sinclair, conducted by Kevin Jackson. (Full disclosure: Jackson is also the author of an abecedary Letters of Introduction: An A-Z of Cultural Heroes and Legends — hey, we find inspiration wherever we can.)
One of Jackson’s most telling observations is his first impression of Sinclair:
Definitely officer class — if not a posh headmaster, then probably a high-ranking cleric, regional bank manager, or consultant specializing in some exceptionally rare and unpleasant neurological disorder. Then there was the voice: “educated” […] quite, well-modulated, sweetly reasonable. Until you listen to the content.
W for WALKING (above, op cit, passim)
Over to our friends at Merriam-Webster:
1: the action of one that walks
2: the condition of a surface for one going on foot “the walking is slippery”
I love that. Yes, walking can be very slippery, indeed. For Sinclair, walking is the means, and sometimes the end, the way of traveling, the way of exploring and investigating, ultimately the way of being.
This from Liquid City, “Walks for their own sake, furiously enacted but lacking agenda. Strategic walks (around the M25, the walls of the City) as a method of interrogating fellow pilgrims. Walks as portraits. Walks as prophecy. Walks as rage. Walks as seduction.”
And of course, walks as source material so that the author will have something to write about.
Again, to be fair to Sinclair, walking is not his only mode of transport; there was a famous pedalo expedition for the film Swandown, and in The Last London, there are train journeys, drives, a ride on the sponsored “Boris bikes” promoted by London’s former mayor Boris Johnson, as well as that swimming adventure in the Shard.
X for XEROX PRINCIPLE.
I thought X was going to be really difficult to find, until I read Walking Is a Radical Act, a pamphlet-length interview with Sinclair, by Jarett Kobek, best know for his book I Hate the Internet.
Sinclair says to Kobek,
I have this idea I call the Xerox Principle. Anything that becomes massively popular and visible, you can trace back three, four, five jumps and it’ll be heroically obsolete; a little room somewhere, a mimeographed text read by five people. Borrowed by ten other people. Published in a fugitive magazine. Then a small-press booklet. A sensationalist paperback. By this time, ‘difficulty’ has been smoothed over, heretical notions are floating just beneath the surface. Then, suddenly, after twenty years: ‘Wow!’ and you’ve got Dan Brown. It all goes back to the nutty theories of a ponytail in Notting Hill. You can apply the same model to most popular successes.
He could be, and probably is, referring his own experience with Nicholas Hawksmoor, the late 17th- and early 18th-century architect, protégé of Christopher Wren, builder of six London churches, along with much else. In Lud Heat (1975), Sinclair toys with the idea that the locations of those six churches when plotted on a map, form a geometrical pattern of occult power, whatever that may be.
Peter Ackroyd reused this material, and acknowledged his debt to Sinclair, for his novel Hawksmoor (1985), in which a fictional 18th-century church architect named Nicholas Dyer is involved in satanic rituals and human sacrifice in his own era, while in a parallel narrative a 20th-century police detective named Nicholas Hawksmoor investigates murders connected with Dyer’s churches.
Much of this, along with a raft of other Victorian conspiracies, pops up again in Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell (published in serial form from 1989 to 1998) which in due course was made into a 2001 movie starring Johnny Depp, though describing the movie as a “popular success” might be an overstatement.
Y for YEATS (W. B.)
Not one of Sinclair’s greatest heroes, though he does get a mention here and there.
The best reason for including Yeats in this A to Z: in 1888 he wrote in a letter to Katharine Tynan, “This melancholy London. I sometimes imagine that the souls of the lost are compelled to walk through its streets perpetually. One feels them passing like a whiff of air.”
It’s true: all Londoners do it to a greater or lesser extent, and Sinclair does it in spades.
Z for Z
Again, not quite as hard as I was anticipating. This, from Lights Out for the Territory:
“I did once toy with the idea of collecting an alphabet library: from ‘A’ by Louis Zukofsky, through John Berger’s G and The Story of O, to Z, the novelisation of the Costa-Gavras film.”
In fact there’s no need for a novelization. The Costa-Gavras movie is based on a novel, by Vassilis Vassilikos, also titled Z.
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