Iain Sinclair: A Life in Film

By Daniel Marc JanesFebruary 25, 2015

Iain Sinclair: A Life in Film

WHAT KIND OF FILM would the East End of London be? A cheapjack thriller, perhaps, c. 1959; a Gerald Kersh adaptation about gangland pugilists, from a forgotten B-factory like Butchers Films or Merton Park Studios. A poetic realist “rubble film,” maybe, c. 1947, where children play in the bomb-scorched docks and a top-floor tailor’s machinist laments a dying world to the tune of a Wolf Mankowitz screenplay. Old man Fender dead.

No: a video installation, c. 1983. A cathode ray flicker of competing screens, found images projected onto a disused meat locker or a godforsaken traffic island. Now we’re getting closer. Dog-frequency white noise and overlapping voiceovers, funded by Jeremy Isaacs’s Channel 4 — or Thames Television in one of its more experimental moods. A film by Chris Petit, or Andrew Kötting. A film by Iain Sinclair.

In June 2013, Iain Sinclair, manic cartographer of London’s underside, turned 70. There was no doubt there would be a program of events: the writer has long since made the transition from underground poet to literary institution. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was a roving peddler-poet, going from job to job — cigar roller in Clerkenwell, brewery worker in Brick Lane, dockyard laborer in Stratford, gardener in the cemeteries and churchyards of Tower Hamlets — while cranking out small editions on his one-man Albion Village Press. Today, he is both a grand old man of English letters and — bizarrely for so individual a writer — a brand. His delirious vision of a lost east London, in particular the borough of Hackney where he has lived since 1969, has become his stock in trade: submerged rivers and secret ley lines, gangland enforcers and Swedenborgian mystics, misfit artists in squats and co-ops. And then there are the walks. Before Will Self and Stewart Home — and before the walking cottage industry of Rebecca Solnit, Geoff Nicholson, and French philosophy professor Frédéric Gros — Sinclair had cornered the market in urban wandering. The opening of Lights Out for the Territory (1997), the book that introduced him to the wider British public, is a mission statement for Sinclair’s method of mobile mapmaking:

The notion was to cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant signmaking. To walk out from Hackney to Greenwich Hill, and back along the River Lea to Chingford Mount, recording and retrieving the messages on walls, lampposts, doorjambs: the spites and spasms of an increasingly deranged populace.

So idiosyncratic is Sinclair’s work that it is hard to describe to the uninitiated. Robert Macfarlane’s attempt, writing in The Guardian in 2011, has yet to bettered:

How best to describe Sinclair? East London's recording angel? Hackney's Pepys? A literary mud-larker and tip-picker? A Travelodge tramp (his phrase)? A middle-class dropout with a gift for bullshit (also his phrase)? A toxicologist of the 21st-century landscape? A historian of countercultures and occulted pasts? An intemperate Wall-E, compulsively collecting and compacting the city's textual waste? A psycho-geographer (from which term Sinclair has been rowing away ever since he helped launch it into the mainstream)? He's all of these, and more.

He forgot to say filmmaker. Sinclair is usually seen through a literary prism: he emerged from the avant-garde poetry scene of Jeremy Prynne and Edward Dorn; he is indebted to the psychic topography of William Blake and the freewheeling exuberance of the Beats, whose path across the United States he traced in 2013’s American Smoke. However, from the very beginning, he has maintained a parallel existence in film — and when his 70th birthday arrived, it was this crucial but overlooked side of his persona that Sinclair chose to spotlight.

It would be an injustice to describe the resulting project, 70x70 — a program of 70 film screenings selected by Sinclair — as merely a curated season, yet another event on London’s cultural calendar. Its character was less cultural event, more consciously overreaching folly. Sinclair immortalizes the project in his latest book, 70x70: Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked In 70 Films, and there’s a telling page detailing “intention vs reality.” Two crumpled sheets, outlining the planned program in printed text, are covered in handwritten and stamped corrections describing what actually took place. Dates and venues were changed; speakers were added; some events, such as a screening of Antonioni’s Il Grido in Hackney Wick, were canceled when not a single person booked. The highly variable attendance prompted Sinclair to muse on the nature of cinemagoing today, one of many themes discussed in the book’s 26,000 words of new copy.

On paper, says Sinclair, 70 x 70 seemed like “a fabulously extended Desert Island Discs”; in reality, it was more a “curation of memory.” The selection of films was just as unsystematic as the screenings themselves; there was nothing so glib as, say, having one film to represent each year of Sinclair’s life. Instead, it was an unkempt assembly, oddments and detritus of a life keenly lived, the film equivalent of Sinclair’s paper archive, sold to the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center: a derangement of scraps and fragments, manuscripts, postcards and telegraphs, stuffed with dust and dead insects.

In among the film noirs, Godards and Fritz Langs of 70x70 are several of Sinclair’s own directorial projects: his early 8mm shorts of Hackney; his collaborations with Chris Petit, director of the iconic road movie Radio On (1979); Ah! Sunflower, his 1967 documentary about Allen Ginsberg’s visit to London, the proceeds of which paid for his house of 45 years. While literary giants and films traditionally don’t mix — either they do a Barton Fink and crank out screenplays, or they embarrass themselves like Norman Mailer — Iain Sinclair is different. Even though his own filmography is fitful — many of his projects have been abortive, prey to the fickleness of the commissioning process — filmmaking is at the core of his literary sensibility.

Indeed, it was film that first brought Sinclair to London, when he enrolled at a course at the London School of Film Technique (now the London Film School), then in Brixton in south London. Many of his excursions, done in the company of filmmaking friends, such as Marc Atkins and Andrew Kötting, were also filmed; London Orbital (2002), his demented pilgrimage around the M25, was made into an accompanying film with Petit, who drove the motorway while Sinclair walked. In his straddling of prose and elliptical film-essays, his nearest analogue might be Derek Jarman. It is no coincidence that one of his 70x70 selections is Jarman’s The Last of England (1987), Sinclairian in its fixation on a ghostly Docklands on the point of erasure.

It’s not enough to say that cinema is everywhere in Sinclair’s Hackney; rather, Sinclair’s Hackney is itself a cinema. We meet by a mobile coffee stall outside the 16th-century St Augustine’s Tower, the borough’s oldest building, and already, the film memories begin. Only a few weeks ago, he tells me, his film Swandown (2012), the playful documentary in which he and Andrew Kötting navigate the Thames in a swan-shaped pedalo, was projected against a wall in the garden here. You couldn’t see it in the dark, but an eager contingent waited until after dark for it to become visible. “In a way, it’s not so far from the post-revolutionary Russian cinema where you’d go out on trains or buses or vans and show stuff to people who’d treat that experience as being nearly as important as what they’re seeing on the screen.”

This theme — the cinemagoing experience — recurs throughout the 70x70 project. As he curated the program, he realized that it was not just an essay of a life; it was a vigil for a certain kind of communal engagement. In the 1960s, a Buñuel film might only be playing in one cinema, so an eager cinemagoer might take the Northern Line to the other side of London and attend a packed-out screening. Now, everything is available at a click’s notice, rendering these microclimates extinct. In his recent diary in the London Review of Books, he illustrates this with a mournful account of one of the 70x70 screenings, a triple bill of Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and the Jayne Mansfield vehicle Too Hot To Handle at the London College of Communication. On reaching the theater, he realized that the audience “consisted of three people implicated in the project and one freelance viewer,” while the students lolled outside.

We are in the Hackney Picturehouse, where the first 70x70 screening took place. The café plays anemic soul background music and is alive with the thump of half-term children. It is buzzing — but this only adds weight to Sinclair’s position. “There are many more people inside the café than watching the film,” he tells me. “The place is an event center, a meadow, a grazing field around the central emptiness of the cinemas that are showing the films.” Has the communal art-house experience, I suggest, become co-opted into populist spectacles like Secret Cinema? He nods, criticising the “commodified Disneyland” of these events, which have more in common with a Premier League football match than an Antonioni screening for two and six.

The demise of the communal moment is only one of Sinclair’s grievances about the current film landscape. The thrill of the physical bounty-hunt — for example, happening across an obscure film for 50p in a shop in Hastings — has given way to online trawling, which he finds “de-energizing” in the technological facility required. Even worse is the commissioning process for film and TV, which is so exhausting he has essentially given up. “The bureaucracy looms so large, it’s a monster octopus in the middle.” Sinclair has long been at the mercy of commissioners, both a victim of their capriciousness and a beneficiary of those rare moments when their requirements aligned with his. He had what he calls “amazing luck” in getting funding for his Ginsberg film, but his subsequent pitches to the BBC had little success. Only later did he find out that the broadcaster had gone ahead and commissioned his ideas without him: “Exactly my version but there was nothing I could do or say.” Similarly, he and Chris Petit took advantage of a limited window in the early 1990s when an influx of young new commissioners seemed to herald a new period of openness. The suits later cooled: on seeing their quasi-documentary The Cardinal and the Corpse — a gallery of “reforgotten” London writers — Channel 4 commissioning editor Waldemar Januszczak told the pair: “I’m one of the most intelligent men in Europe and I don’t understand a word of it.” (More recently, Sinclair has turned his hand to crowdfunding, helping Andrew Kötting raise funds on Kickstarter for a documentary about John Clare, featuring Toby Jones. The campaign was successful, but following up on the rewards has proven “even more demanding than the commissioning process” in the first place.)

We left the Hackney Picturehouse without a clear masterplan. The notion was to go for a walk, but nothing was fixed. No tracing of ley lines; no ambulant signmaking. “I like things that take shape as they happen,” he said. We discussed the possible contours and rapidly it began to take shape. We are right opposite the Hackney Empire — the Rose-Red Empire of Sinclair’s 2009 book. I ask about nearby cinemas; we are about 20 minutes’ walk from the Rio, the last independent cinema in the borough. It is decided. We will go on “a reverse pilgrimage from 70x70 and Hackney Rose-Red Empire back to my very, very first sightings of Hackney when physically all I knew was the Rio Cinema and the bus to Liverpool Street.”

In Sinclair’s London, history piles upon history like sedimentation. The dead and the living coexist, past and present cities occupying the same physical space like a China Miéville vision. The Hackney Picturehouse is not just a picturehouse: it is simultaneously a white-elephant music venue and the central library frequented by the young Harold Pinter. Reading many pages of Sinclair at a time can be overwhelming, so congested are they with the names of the forgotten: Amhurst Road anarchists with ramshackle presses; artist-shamans doomed to lives of excess; Jewish scribes from the literary anti-canon. This stretch of Hackney is haunted by a less forgotten presence. It was here, in this damp recess at the back of the Hackney Empire, that Orson Welles came across some 1666-built almshouses as he left the rehearsal for his 1955 production of Moby Dick. They were occupied by six “fine, stout, solid, Tory Hackney ladies,” whom he promptly interviewed — captured in an extraordinary piece of footage. When Sinclair discovered this “strange ghostly fragment,” he was moved “to see collisions of my interest in various places emerging on my doorstep.”

“The good thing to do is treat the city like a movie. You move around through it, but you don’t have this compulsion to intervene, to remake, to regenerate and do all of those things that are primarily disruptive.” In the book Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, Sinclair uses the term “arbitrary jump-cuts of consciousness.” His twitchy style, all fragment and rupture, suggests a grounding in the cutting room. (As we walk down Graham Road, a Victorian conversion hassles an ungainly postwar estate: itself an abrupt edit.) How far has filmmaking influenced his prose? I ask.

It wasn't ever a conscious influence but my early saturation in the grammar of film very much did influence the way I thought when I was writing. I probably had more experience early on of editing films physically and moving things around than I did of editing literary texts. Because nobody was particularly interested in the literary texts I was doing, I would just spew them out in a lump as they came, whereas if I did a piece of film — probably in the early days, at least — somebody was interested in seeing what you’d done, because they’d put up some money. I think the way of approaching moving materials around did relate more to filmmaking than to literature.

Back a little: there’s somewhere we forgot. Sinclair takes me to Fassett Square, a tasteful gathering of terrace rows: low brick walls and projecting bay windows. This was the inspiration for EastEnders’ Albert Square: “It’s not really cinema, but it’s the way that a real physical location takes on this mythic dimension.” When Iain’s son, Will, was directing an episode of EastEnders, Sinclair visited the set in Elstree and realised that it was “a collision of all sorts of specific bits of Hackney.” Another peculiar edit.

The ghosts loom large in this part of Hackney. This area on the west side of the square, he shows me, was part of the German Hospital, where Joseph Conrad came after his collapse in the Congo. Heart of Darkness, he adds, was of course an endlessly optioned film — including by our friend Orson Welles. Not far from here, in Montague Road, Jean-Luc Godard came in 1969 to film a project called British Sounds for LWT. He went to see the feminist Sheila Rowbotham: “He’d read a polemic of hers in Black Dwarf and was trying to persuade her to walk naked up and down the staircase.” She refused and they used a model. This all fits in, adds Sinclair, with the earlier point about the whimsicality of the commissioning process. It was a cultural moment in which it was possible to let an art-house director loose on British television and see what happened — but in the end it was never shown.

“The other cinema,” says Sinclair as we emerged onto Dalston Lane, “is the train. The Overground railway goes right past here and this is where the painter Leon Kossoff had his studio, when he did a tremendous series of paintings. His studio was right here and he looked both ways down the track, and the train really does become a form of cinema.” This is Sinclair’s next book, to be published in June by Hamish Hamilton. The book describes a day’s walk, with Andrew Kötting, around the circular route of the new London Overground system. He describes it as a more upbeat book than Ghost Milk, his 2012 book about the Olympics’ destruction of local identity. That was a fated story which he could do nothing about; this has the sense of a new frontier.

He takes stock of the route. “We will go down Dalston Lane, past the ghost spot of where this great cinema stood, before we hit the Rio, which is just beyond. And that would give us a bit of a shape, I think.” In front of us is an unlovely stretch of disfigured frontage; underneath it is a row of barriers containing crude, infantilized representations of what was there before. Sinclair pauses in a perverse awe.

Look at this. This is like a storyboard of destruction. They’ve torn down a whole series of Georgian houses and now they’ve put up a pastiche storyboard thing to say “Well, it’s okay. We’re still going to retain a pastiche version of a façade and make it into a bunch of flats and businesses.” It’s as weird as you get. What an extraordinary, freakish London landscape that is.

This is so ugly. It’s mind-boggling.

The storyboard of destruction: another Sinclair theme. His Hackney is engaged in a prolonged, losing battle with the twin forces of turbocapitalism and flatulent bureaucracy. Ghost Milk was the high point of this — a surreal period in the writer’s career when he was continually wheeled out by the BBC as a go-to anti-Olympics voice — but it has been present in the writer’s work since the Thatcher era, and foreshadowed in The Long Good Friday, one of the most evocative 70x70 selections. Sinclair describes the Olympic park — and the general futurist scenery of new private developments — as a “CGI landscape,” borrowing again from the film idiom. 

Amid a series of tower blocks is a nondescript municipal building with large glass panes. This is the CLR James Library — the exact spot of the now-defunct Electric Cinema. Sinclair describes its evolution:

It started as a Victorian indoor circus building. Then it became music hall, then theater, then 1920s cinema, then in the 1960s a black music venue, a music venue again for the Ecstasy period, then squatted and occupied and used in various ways and finally just destroyed overnight.

It is exactly like the history of moving from the various forms of cinema we’ve been describing into the world of the generic multiplex. Somewhere is nowhere is anywhere — and that’s what this now is.

This expanse of Dalston, toyed with by marauding officials and developers, brings out Sinclair’s indignation. When Dalston Junction station was closed in 1986, it was stripped out — only to be restored when the Overground opened. “It costs millions and millions to put it back again. But you can’t put the cinema back.” We pass Ridley Road Market, “a classic idea of what generic Hackney used to be, a multicultural place with market stalls.”

“They’re doing their best to get rid of it,” he adds. 

Ridley Road Market was the symbol of Hackney, then a neglected borough, when Sinclair moved here in 1969. He was always filming tracking shots here on 8mm film. At the time, he said, there were two things you could do with the camera. You could film the 3-minute roll as a single take, with no editing — “a tremendously long tracking shot where you’re trying to notice millions of minute particulars” — or you could shoot in a single frame and make a cubist portrait, “capturing a lump of bread, your feet, your face — a series of close-up sharp details of things.” He likens this second technique to the way J.G. Ballard writes, “these very sharp, single images in quite a painterly way, in a plain style, obviously, that creates the contradictory dynamic of his writing.”

Just off Kingsland Road, about 200 yards from us on the right-hand side, is where John Smith shot The Girl Chewing Gum (1976), the avant-garde classic in which a commanding voice seems to direct the action in the street. Appropriately, this was filmed next to an old vanished cinema, an affecting reminder of the world Sinclair mourns. But there is one cinema that has not vanished: the Rio Cinema, the last independent screen in Hackney. Here it still stands, somehow, the Art Deco jewel of Kingsland High Road, decked out with expressive curves. We have now, says Iain, come full circle — for it was here where he went to Hackney for the very first time. “It had been about 1962, when I was a film student in Brixton. I saw that Joseph Losey’s The Criminal was showing in this place called the Rio Cinema. [I had] no idea where it was, found out it was get-at-able if you took a Tube to Liverpool Street and then got on a bus, leaped out, just missed the credits and saw it.”

There is no longer the variety in programming; the Hackney Picturehouse and the Rio are showing the same films. However, Sinclair agrees that it was a “great thing” to return to this momentous cinema for 70x70 screenings. As we cross the street, we see that the door is plastered with a poster for an upcoming screening of Estate: A Reverie, one of Sinclair’s 70x70 selections; the film charts the passing of the Haggerston Estate, a housing complex that is now “just dust,” he says. In true Sinclair fashion, past, present, and future are fused: the Haggerston Estate a reminder of the Hackney that’s disappearing; the Rio Cinema, transplanted to the present; and the screening that is yet to come, holding out a strange kind of hope. 

Sinclair remembers when there were many more cinemas on this stretch of road. As well as the cinema John Smith referenced in Girl Chewing Gum, there were two more as you went up toward Stoke Newington, all of which have completely disappeared. “The Rio now is the solitary citadel on Kingsland High Road,” he muses. “This single sentinel remains there, still looking of its period, and yet, somehow, it’s in this period as well.” Words, indeed, that could describe Sinclair himself.

Iain Sinclair’s 70x70:Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked In 70 Films is out now, published by King Mob.


Daniel Marc Janes is the arts editor of Litro Magazine.

LARB Contributor

Daniel Marc Janes is the arts editor of Litro Magazine. He has contributed to the New Statesman, The Guardian, and Huffington Post UK. He lives in London.



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