Review: Kirsten Sealeon Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair’s Archive

It is 100 degrees out, and my refuge from the sticky Texan heat is the cool, rarefied air of the Harry Ransom Center. The HRC is a vault located at the University of Texas at Austin. Locked inside are the archives of the American, Irish, English and French literary canon: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Raymond Queneau, Doris Lessing, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace. I read a New Yorker article on the HRC in preparation for my visit which is ominously titled ‘Final Destination’.

I have travelled to the HRC to look at the papers of London writer and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair. The capital of the Republic of Texas is a curious place to be sifting through the textual leftovers of a writer that the critic James Wood once anointed the ‘Magus’ of London. The histories that existed prior to Austin’s settlement in the mid-nineteenth century are oral, folkloric, linked to the natural environment and the Native American tribes who inhabited the area. The asphalt and concrete slathered across the landscape seems to have interred these stories. This incontinent spread of roads and carparks acts as a prophylactic against psychogeographical forces. There are ruins here in Austin, but they, too, lack psychogeographical charge. They are the stinking remains of yesterday’s fast food in back door dumpsters, the remainders of mass consumption.

Back at the HRC, the Sinclair archive is raw, untouched, still in boxes. I find a letter to J. G. Ballard dated 30 October 2003 in which Sinclair describes his archive as if it were a scene from his own fiction:

Dear Jimmy,

Just a quick note before I vanish for another day into my Whitechapel lock-up (with a spectacular crew of petty villains stacking and unstacking contraband in and out of tin units, black bags into white vans), another day of listing dead papers for a potential (unlikely) sale to a Texas University.

The Sinclair ‘contraband’ is notorious amongst the HRC archivists for being a chaos of documents, dust, mould and desiccated insects. Photographic evidence of the collection as it originally arrived is presented to me. The boxes are split at the seams, documents spilling out. To gain access to the archive I have put forward a research proposal, but targeted research proves impossible. None of the customary research technology is applicable. There are no databases. An inventory exists only in hard copy. It is a taxonomy of vague categories such as ‘large packet of letters’ or ‘ephemera’. The inventory is unreliable. It does not match what is written on the exterior of the boxes. The texts on the outside of the boxes do not match their contents. The elusive nature of the material in the boxes plays havoc with my scholarly aspirations.

What I do uncover in the archive is often prosaic. The everyday creeps in through artefacts like plastic bags: Waitrose, W. H. Smith, Ryman the Stationer. Prophetic scrawl is contained in an inauspicious red notebook with black lettering:

Silvine Exercise Book.

Name and Subject.

The ink of the final draft typescript of Edge of the Orison (2005) runs in imperfect circles where a glass has been left carelessly. Scribbled lists – or is it poetry – proliferate on the back of brown paper envelopes.

Iain Sinclair's Archive. Photo: Kirsten Seale
In the Sinclair archive at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo: Kirsten Seale

Rapidly, one prominent and unexpected feature of the archive reveals itself: an absence of London. Sinclair spent his first 24 years and intermittent periods afterwards in places other than London. Sinclair has always been at pains to point out that he is not a Londoner – he was born in Cardiff – yet this distinction is often subsumed by the far more prominent narrative about Sinclair and London. The amassed documentation of Sinclair’s years removed from the capital is striking in its breadth and its affirmation of biographical fact. In letters and juvenilia from his years at boarding school at Cheltenham, Sinclair is referred to as ‘Maes’, a name derived from his hometown of Maesteg in Wales. Correspondence is addressed to multiple locations in Dublin, where Sinclair attended Trinity College, and on the island of Gozo in Malta where Sinclair and his family spent 1974-5. For the last half of the 70s, and most of the 80s and the 90s, Sinclair is entrenched in London, but then spends years of narrative exile in Wales (Landor’s Tower), out past the M25 (London Orbital), along the A13 to the Sussex coast (White Goods, Dining on Stones), in Essex (Edge of the Orison), overseas in Europe and the US (Ghost Milk, American Smoke).

Much of this later writing is conceived as respite from London. Sinclair has exhibited ambivalence and even antipathy towards the public perception of him as a central figure in London writing. In a short fiction from 2000 titled The Keeper of the Rothenstein Tomb, the protagonist (and occasional Sinclair alter-ego) Norton deplores the literary appropriation of previously hidden histories, whilst realizing his own complicity in exposing them:

Norton blamed himself. He couldn’t keep shtum, didn’t know when to leave well alone. He had to worry at, tease out, secrets that were better left untold: vanishing caretakers, patterns of malign energy that linked eighteenth-century churches, labyrinths, temples, plague pits. Now they were too loudly on the map, or trashed by attention.

Now, in his most recent book The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City, Sinclair declares himself done with London as subject. These will be his last dispatches on and from the city which has made his name. The Last London is bracketed at beginning and end with the words of Great Fire of 1666 diarist John Evelyn: ‘London was, but is no more.’ In making this analogy with the disaster that razed seventeenth-century London, Sinclair affirms that twenty-first century London, too, has been destroyed. This time by a crew of gentrifiers, property developers, politicians, hyper-affluent transplants, and the creative classes. New indignities and torments are suffered by the endangered psychogeographer in London’s inhospitable city streets. Gangs of evangelical cycling fanatics led by the one-time Mayor of London, Boris Johnson are set loose. Conversations overheard in the neo-liberal version of the London coffee house are wan substitutes for their seditious antecedents:

‘So I’ll do my own publishing thing. Hoxton, yes. Absolutely if I can source the right size of desk. […]

‘It’s relatively difficult to fix a price definition ceiling on the competition. Plus margins of course.’

‘Before college the other kids were getting rucksacks and walking around the Third fucking World. I went straight to Wall Street.’

Always drawn to written and spoken language in the landscape, Sinclair now finds it overwhelmingly belligerent and disingenuous:

The noise! The din those improvers make. The decibels of patronsising signs. The notices that appear in advance of demolition. […] There is not a plugged Victorian sewage pipe without a headline boats. Not a dustcart without a grandiose statement of intent. Utilities are billboards. […] Ecology of excess. Slow death of meaningful language. Lies like lies.








The volume of this noise has become unbearable. During the 2011 London Riots, Sinclair sits on a bench

in Weavers Fields […], facing south, my back set to the noise of the riots. I tried to think about nothing. To empty it all out. But the irritation was still there. The voices of unsponsored oral historians offering chapters of their fragmenting lives as they race through the park, almost colliding with other ranters, jabbering into the cold air. (…)

‘Reluctantly, we are going to have to say “no” to that. You better stick it out, John. It’s going to take proper money. I want to see landscape on my desk. There are huge numbers of jobs available in London. The company will change a lot over the next year. You can’t master the same costume when you’re in a different culture.’

‘I got a job today, mum, property development.’

As conceived by the Situationists, the objective of psychogeography and its methods, the dérive and the détournement, was to misuse and subvert urban space so as to resist dominant spatial formations and organisation. Psychogeography produces alternative routes, imaginings, representations, histories of the city that counter official narratives. A number of tropes familiar to Sinclair’s work—memory, residue, ruin, the spectral, surveillance—perform an ongoing self-reflexive critique of the psychogeographer’s task and can be traced to the tension in his writing between the virtuously occulted and the uncomfortably visible. Nevertheless, Sinclair stubbornly, gamely remains a psychogeographer in The Last London. On the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral at Westminster, Sinclair sets out with his 1991 novel Downriveras a guidebook. (Sinclair has never been averse to referencing or plagiarising himself.) He’s ‘on the lookout for symbols and portents,’ and travels across the Thames from Tilsbury to Gravesend mapping the places in the book:

Making landfall at Gravesend… I have to duck very sharply to avoid the malignant swoop of a tethered crow. This is a malignant spirit in an evil wind, in a defeated place loud with absence… The funeral rites of Lady Thatcher, the great leader, permafrost warrior and motorway ribbon–cutter, celestially upgraded from her complimentary suite at the Ritz began.

Sinclair concludes: ‘What I now understood… On this morning of … madness tracking an inoperative railway to a place nobody wants to go, is that the walks we are compelled to make are the only story. Walks are autobiography without author.’ On another walk (and essay) he finds a carved, wooden mask that becomes a psychogeographical totem: ‘It was a relief map of the journey we had made: uphill along the edge of the nose, then into the maw of Croydon.’

Iain Sinclair's Archive. Photo: Kirsten Seale
Photo: Kirsten Seale

Like Lights Out for the Territory, the 1997 book that brought Sinclair’s work into the mainstream, The Last London is an anthology rather than a unified work. Nevertheless, the essays in The Last London stand together as a Sinclairean jeremiad — mordant, forensic, artful. Sinclair revels in the possibilities of British miserablism. Town centres are described as ‘resolutely downmarket’. He is as comically curmudgeonly as ever. Sinclair has never received as much credit for his satirical wit as he deserves. Here he is on a retail development: ‘A post-architectural malapropism of stunted tower blocks in play-dough colours, buttressed by failing shops and offensive artworks, […] left to expire on the hard shoulder like radioactive roadkill. Ferry Lane is such an evocative name.’ On Boris Johnson: ‘There was a headshot of Mr Johnson, glossed as “a keen cyclist”, in a helmet splattered in Oyster branding. And it did look as if he’d managed to ram his golden mop into a giant mollusc.’ Teresa May is ‘a Schrödinger cat, simultaneously living and dead.’

The elegiac is a mode in which Sinclair has always operated. In The Last London Sinclair evinces an awareness that his own time is up, not only as he approaches his mid-seventies, but also as a white male modernist. Certain types of voices have dominated the telling and interpretation of stories about the city (as the reference list for this essay illustrates).  Many of Sinclair’s familiar travelling band of outsiders—for instance, the filmmaker Andrew Kötting and the photographer Stephen Gill—are present, but the topographies are strange for them: digital culture, globalised hipsterism, the political landscapes of Brexit and Trump. New psychogeographers emerge: the photographer-flâneuse Effie Paleologou, who maps the trails of chewing gum residue in the streets; the writer Adjoa Wiredu, whose ‘work, in a more sophisticated digital form, was much like my own: image cleaning, wondering, assembling, sticking to the territory’; The Gentle Author, tireless scribe for the blog ‘Spitalfields Life’.

Time is up for London as well. Sinclair’s broad lament: London has become too ‘known’. Almost two decades ago, Sinclair’s stand-in Norton was warning, “If he’d had a camera, he would have left it in the bag. London was a book with no surprises. It knew itself too well. When self-consciousness turns into art, art into fashion, fashion into property, it’s time to pull the plug.’ Norton is surely speaking for Sinclair in The Keeper of the Rothenstein Tomb when he says, ‘The madness of seeing London as text. Words. Dates. Addresses. No brick that has not been touched, mentioned in a book.’

Excavating the secret histories of cities has acquired an elevated cultural currency in the past three decades. Twenty-five years ago cultural historian Patrick Wright (who appears in fictionalised form in Downriver) was already commenting on Sinclair’s ambivalent relationship with these literary developments in Journey Through Ruins. Wright explicitly linked the rise of London writing to the political metastasis of a dismantled welfare state and consequent spatial and social transformations. Roger Luckhurst connects Sinclair’s ongoing interest in the occult to the ‘historical avant-garde’s interest in the occult as a mode of resisting instrumental reason and the tyranny of planned space.’ Illumination and surveillance equal commodification in Sinclair’s equation. Areas that are rich in alternative energies dry up once they are brought to light. This is Sinclair’s narrative and textual bind. On the one hand, his books have attributed cultural value to previously neglected swathes of London by the very virtue of writing about them. On the other hand, that value hinges on neglect by the dominant culture, which, of course, becomes impossible when Sinclair’s writing unearths them.

Sinclair has always had something of Walter Benjamin’s ragpicker about him, sifting through and recovering the texts, places, people that are thrown away or buried out of sight. In London Orbital (2002), now recognised as a classic text of psychogeography, Sinclair undertakes a fugue-like circumnavigation of London’s M25 ring road, where references excavated from largely forgotten texts pile up like cars on that benighted motorway. Sinclair’s singular perspective is always mediated by other texts. In The Last London, the city is a kaleidoscopic tissue of texts: ‘by the time I found myself on Endymion Road I have lost my sense of direction entirely. Railways were cross criss-crossing on the flank of Finsbury Park. Was this the Endymion of Keats? Or a novel of railway mania and Chartism by Benjamin Disraeli?’ Of Sinclair’s methodology, Michael Moorcock once wrote, ‘Sinclair drags from London’s amniotic silt the trove of centuries and presents it to us, still dripping, still stinking, still caked and frequently still defiantly kicking.’ Writing about Lights Out for the Territory, Robert MacFarlane discerned an agenda to this practice:

The book’s intent—as far as it is possible to extract anything so forthright […]—was to reclaim London’s history from its sanctioned, official custodians (the Government, the heritage industry, the developers) and return it to those Sinclair saw as its true curators: a gaggle of mystics, visionaries, writers, collectors, filmmakers and poets, all the lost and the ‘reforgotten’ keepers of a city’s pasts.

In Lights Out for the Territory, Sinclair declared that ‘It was the bits you couldn’t see, black holes on the map, unlisted bunkers and disregarded lives that made most noise’. In The Last London, digging down under the surface city has become an existential necessity: ‘Underworld is the condition of being resolutely off-grid. It registers as a free state, a pirate liberty’. Nevertheless, even the space beneath the city is ultimately unsafe from appropriation and commodification. Sinclair’s account of the city underneath the city is an allegory on the psychogeographer’s fate in contemporary London:

This compulsion to dive beneath the skirts of river terrace deposits, Hackney gravel, shale and mudstone, down through old workings, the slag and clinker of doomed estates and lost theatres, is soon demonstrated by every stratum of society, from City Hall and the major developers, the off-shore speculators hidden behind front companies and proxies, to art collectives and ‘place-hacking’ crews posing for hi-res selfies in Secret State bunkers, sewage outfalls and ghost stations filled with forgotten archives.

Subterranea, an uncolonised country of childhood imaginings, is the coming battleground. The epidermis of the city is so heavily policed now, so fretted with electronic babble, so corrupted by a strategic assault on locality, that civilians unable or unwilling to engage in a war they can’t win respond by exploring forbidden depths. A Wellsian subtopia without maps or frontiers.

In Texas, the title of a 1988 Sinclair poem keeps returning to me. ‘Significant Wreckage’ is an apt description of the archive’s contents. The opening line of that poem, ‘Words writing in a heat that slides them from the icing page’, might be the process of exhuming the archive, re-animating texts from their cold mortuary slab in the climate-controlled HRC. The scholar that Sinclair conjures in his fictions White Goods (2002) and Dining on Stones (2004) is present in the archive too. Sinclair’s academic doubles as a vampire—or perhaps it is the other way around. She obsessively stalks the object of her study, Joseph Conrad:

First, she had learnt Polish. Then she tracked down the letters and initiated the slow, painstaking, much-revised process of translation. She travelled. Validated herself. Being alone in an unknown city, visiting libraries, enduring and enjoying bureaucratic obfuscation, sitting in bars, going to the cinema, allowed her to try on a new identity. She initiated correspondence with people she never met. She lied. She stole from Conrad.

The woman’s identity is leeched from the work of Conrad. Sinclair describes unethical activity: lying, stealing, sucking the blood from the corpse/corpus of Conrad. This manifests as addiction and a necrophilic engagement with what has been left behind by Conrad.

As I pick through the papers in Sinclair’s archive, it occurs to me that the scholar’s prurient urge to sift through a writer’s textual refuse is an ironically under-examined mode of textual surveillance and capture. It becomes increasingly difficult to separate myself from Sinclair’s researcher-vampire when I come across a letter penned in 2004 which refers to a conference in which I participated. Sinclair writes, ‘I ran into Amanda … at the recent City Visions conference in Greenwich. (Marxist/Modernist interpretations of everything that isn’t in my dead books.)’ Given this ambivalence about the avaricious eye of the culture industries, of the creative classes, of academia, perhaps Sinclair’s relocation of his papers from a Whitechapel lock-up to their final repository in Austin, Texas is not so perverse after all.

Works Cited

Benjamin, W. (1997). Charles Baudelaire. London & New York: Verso.

Luckhurst, R. (2003). ‘Occult London’ in Kerr and Gibson (eds). London: From Punk to Blair. London: Reaktion Books.

MacFarlane, R. (2005). ‘A Road of One’s Own.’ Times Literary Supplement.

Moorcock, M. (1998). ‘Introduction’ in I. Sinclair. Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge. London: Granta.

Sinclair, I. (2013). American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light. London: Faber & Faber.
— (2004). Dining on Stones, or, the Middle Ground. London: Hamish Hamilton.
— (1991). Downriver. London: Paladin Grafton.
— (2005) Edge of the Orison: In the Traces of John Clare’s ‘Journey Out of Essex. London: Hamish Hamilton.
— (2011). Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project. London: Hamish Hamilton.
— (2001). Landor’s Tower. London: Granta.
—  (1997). Lights Out for the Territory. London: Granta.
— (2002). London Orbital. London: Granta.
— (1988). Significant Wreckage. Child Okeford: Words Press.
— (2000). ‘The Keeper of the Rothenstein Tomb’ in N. Royle (ed). The Time Out Book of London Short Stories: Volume 2. London: Penguin.
— (2017). The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City. London: Oneworld Publications.
— (2002). White Goods. Uppingham: Goldmark Press.

The Gentle Author, ‘Spitalfields Life’.

Wiredu, A. ‘Marigold Road’

Wood, J. (1997). ‘Magus of the City’. Guardian, 23 Jan.

Wright, P. (1992) A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London. London: Paladin.