Close
Close

Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair is working on unpublishable poems and thinking about Tasmania.

Diary: The Peruvian Corporation of London

Iain Sinclair, 10 October 2019

Out of​ the shuddering car and into the dance. The holy medallion is still swinging like a hanged Disneyland midget in a gale. The eyes of the skull knob on the gearstick pulse dangerously. The migraine radio thumps to assert a fading connection with the world we have left behind. But the headlong momentum of the broken road, endured in a foetal crouch for so many miles, is swiftly absorbed...

The Last London

Iain Sinclair, 30 March 2017

Lastness reverberates. That impulse towards wiping the slate clean and starting over. ‘London was, but is no more.’ John Evelyn writing, after the Great Fire, with such relish in his plain statement of fact. ‘London was, but is no more.’ It reminds me of hearing Ian Holloway, the manager of Queen’s Park Rangers, on the radio. He’s got a nice West Country burr, very soothing for his employers. He was talking about his club’s horrible run of form when he said, with disarming optimism, ‘I think we’re right on the crest of a slump.’ And that’s where the current last London seems to be: riding the crest of a slump. That madness of quitting Europe, burning our bridges, starving hospitals of funds, is part of a suicide-note delirium. When the worst is coming straight at you at a thousand miles a minute, embrace it.

Diary: Eccentric Pilgrims

Iain Sinclair, 29 June 2016

I became aware that most of my fellow passengers, waiting for the DLR connection at Shadwell, were mutants. They looked like regular Docklands folk – neat, shiny shoes, considered hair – but there was always one element out of place. The girl in the pristine white coat had sprouted a pair of crow’s wings. The programmer with the burnt-out red eyes was carrying an expensive leather satchel and a plastic light sabre. Morning-after party girls with rescued maquillage had spiders’ webs across their faces and horns spouting from freshly airfixed heads.

Ferlinghetti

Iain Sinclair, 17 December 2015

This​ was a 42-year marriage of convenience between forgiving but frequently exasperated business partners and poetry rivals. It was launched with a seize-the-day telegram, after a one-night, earth-shuddering, world-tilting performance in a jazzed-up garage. Before moving on to occasional meetings and decades of dutiful, near conjugal correspondence from all parts of the globe. Before...

Diary: Swimming on the 52nd Floor

Iain Sinclair, 23 September 2015

Not many guests arrive at Shangri-La, the cloud-shrouded lamasery/hotel that occupies the paying mid-section (levels 35-52) of the London Bridge intervention known as the Shard, by way of a 149 bus out of Haggerston. This on the day of a seasonal Underground strike that has to be explained to bemused knots of grounded tourists as they squeeze through a complexity of automated barriers, encumbered by caravans of luggage.

The Hackney Underworld

Iain Sinclair, 22 January 2015

They dig and the earth is sweet. The Hackney Hole is eight square metres, straight down through the lawn of a decommissioned rectory. This secret garden is separated from St Augustine’s Tower by a high wall of darkly weathered brick. The proud stub of the square tower is all that remains of Hackney’s oldest ecclesiastical building, a 16th-century revision of the 13th-century church founded by the Knights of St John. The Hole is a statement and it is properly capitalised. The labourers, a self-confessed art collective, work the Hole by hand, with pick and shovel, turn and turn about.

Diary: London’s Lost Cinemas

Iain Sinclair, 6 November 2014

While trying to ignore my seventieth birthday I was offered an unexpected gift, which was also a challenge: the chance to nominate seventy films that would be shown in orthodox and unorthodox venues across London. I didn’t want to play the listing game of best or worst or personal favourite. And it didn’t work, in Dillinger fashion, to isolate one film for every year of my life; the big clusters came in the 1960s and there were plenty of desert epochs during which I saw practically nothing. I scanned my published books, in reverse order, and assembled a catalogue of films referenced. I wrote brief notes on all of them, realising that there were unexpected connections and overlaps.

Silent, heavy doors open on a line of dense and minatory charcoal drawings, linked like coal trucks, and arranged on the floor in a provisional order – I visited before the all-encompassing Leon Kossoff show, London Landscapes, opened last month (it closes on 6 July). Tolerated afternoon light insinuated from a west-facing window, to be swallowed in that privileged and subtle...

Diary: Thatcher in Gravesend

Iain Sinclair, 9 May 2013

Coming ashore at Gravesend like Pocahontas, the dying Native American princess, and wobbling up the raked walkway in a stiff breeze, I had to duck to avoid the menacing swoop of a tethered crow. This was a malignant spirit, in an evil wind, in a defeated place loud with absence. Naturally, on such a day and at such an hour, I was on the lookout for symbols and portents. The funeral rites of Lady Thatcher, the great leader celestially upgraded from her complimentary suite at the Ritz, began as our ferry, the Duchess M, butted out, cross-current, from the container stacks of Tilbury Riverside.

Edward Dorn

Iain Sinclair, 11 April 2013

The publication in Britain of Edward Dorn’s Collected Poems is a big moment, a bonfire of the verities, for the embattled tribe of local enthusiasts, veterans of old poetry wars who are still, more or less, standing. Dorn’s face is news again, live and loud, on a cover laid out like a wanted poster, or the freeze-frame of a sun-bounced downhill skier, against a backcloth of...

Diary: My Olympics

Iain Sinclair, 30 August 2012

The Owl Man has gone. He has left Hackney, left London. His gaunt property, close to the newly fashionable barbecue pitch and managed wildflower meadow of London Fields, has been made secure and rigged with scaffolding. Above mildewed steps, pasted with boot-smudged council notices, a wonky sign, hand-painted in red on white, is still visible: DISABLED BIRD OF PREY KEPT HERE. GUARD DOGS LOOSE. CCTV IN OPERATION. The faint reek of feathers, rotting meat, might have something to do with the drains, but it persists.

Meeting Gary Snyder

Iain Sinclair, 24 May 2012

Coming through the woods, down a soft winding track, two minutes shy of the time we have been instructed to arrive, 10 a.m. on a bright Sunday morning, we see the man already there in the clearing, his right hand on the dog’s collar. Two minutes later, you feel, and he’d be gone. But this is the right person, undoubtedly, the one we have come to see. In a solid, heavy, hired car,...

Boris Bikes

Iain Sinclair, 20 January 2011

Lord Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham, single shareholder in the late lamented Millennium Dome on Bugsby’s Marshes, talked confidentially to an unseen interrogator who appeared to be crouching on the floor of his chauffeured limousine as he drifted across London; and who remained, within earshot of an eavesdropped soliloquy, while the real PM perched in his office, alone with his compulsively agitated gizmos, grape-peelers, yoghurt spoon-removers, young men who read newspapers for him and blunt Irish fixers chewing on unrequired advice. Dripping with froideur, an imperious Mandelson nailed the upstart coalitionists for their absurd sense of entitlement. Hannah Rothschild’s vanity promo, unaccountably offered to the great unwashed by BBC4’s Storyville strand, sold itself on privileged (and clinically controlled) access to the ultimate political voice of the era, the oracle of tie-straightening and pantomimed sincerity. And how fascinating it was, after the fastidious documentation of eyebrow lifting, the heart-rending sighs over the shortcomings of colleagues and patrons, to be granted an unposed snapshot of the child behind the man, Mandelson’s short-trousered induction into political life. Boy Peter on a Hovis bicycle!

In Athens

Iain Sinclair, 27 May 2010

They hunted dogs with guns, the Berliner said, to clear the streets for the Olympics. He was in Hackney now, an architect, but he had been in Athens in 2002, when the deals were going down and the grand project was underway. I sat in an afternoon pub, beside a street market that seemed to have migrated across town from Notting Hill, close to a stretch of the Regent’s Canal that had been...

The Thames

Iain Sinclair, 25 June 2009

I have been brooding on Peter Ackroyd’s notion that the Thames is a river like the Ganges or the Jordan, a place of pilgrimage, a source of spiritual renewal. ‘The river itself becomes a tremulous deity,’ he asserts. I carried Ackroyd’s epic, Thames: Sacred River, as I made a series of expeditions along the permitted riverpath from mouth to source. My bias, which I will attempt to overcome, tends towards the more cynical view ascribed to William Burroughs by Jack Kerouac. ‘When you start separating the people from their rivers what have you got? Bureaucracy!’

The Razing of East London

Iain Sinclair, 19 June 2008

In the mornings, there is a clinging, overripe smell that some people say drifts in from the countryside, a folk memory of what these clipped green acres used, so recently, to be. Mulch of market gardens. Animal droppings in hot mounds. The distant rumble of construction convoys. The heron dance of elegant cloud-scraping cranes. Flocks of cyclists clustering together for safety, dipping and swerving like swallows. Hard hats and yellow tabards monkeying over the scaffolding of shrouded towers, the steel ribs of emerging stadia. Early risers, in the privilege of first-use recreation, a smudge of sun burning off the fug of pollution that hangs over a pre-Olympic city, fall into quiet conversation. Ice-cream kiss of almond blossom, bridal abundance of cherry: pink and white. Yellow pom-poms of japonica, horticultural cheerleaders. In a corner, under a high wall that gives away the previous identity of this public park as a decommissioned energy-generating plant, retired workers sway, stiffly and slowly, in t’ai chi ballets.

On the Promenade

Iain Sinclair, 17 August 2006

From the balcony, seven floors above the coast road, I watch the pepper-grey beach disdain its nuisance presences: night-fishermen, scavengers sweeping the shingle with metal detectors for small change lost in the spasms of last night’s courtship rituals. Dog valets. Tai chi soloists. Convivial drinking schools, cans raised to the world, enjoying the last cocktail party in England...

Silence on the Euston Road

Iain Sinclair, 18 August 2005

We emerge on the heights of Islington: that famous view down towards the crazy, bat-chewed spires of St Pancras. An example of architecture intended to be fabulous, but unworkable. Grey spikes on red brick. A thousand Gothic revival windows with a yellow hard hat in every one of them. There is a residual nostalgia for grunge, smack, crack, skunk, discarded rubbers, black-glassed massage parlours, begging bowls, flea-bitten dogs, muggers, shunters, fastfood banditry, snoop cameras optimising car-fine revenue in the name of that corrupt god, ecology. The area stinks: of hair in hot fat, man-sweat, spastic movement. Of non-specific fear leaking out of surveillance monitors. The urban condition: suspension of reality. A multitude of travellers avoid touch and collision. They apologise. Or argue the toss with uniformed invaders of privacy. The whole mess is underwritten, yet again, by a notional futurology. The Radiant City that is still to come, Brussels-connected, Euro-buttered.

Tom Raworth

Iain Sinclair, 19 August 2004

Tom Raworth, according to Marjorie Perloff, is the ‘oldest living open-heart surgery survivor, treated in the UK in the first round of heart operations conducted there in the 1950s’. Highlight the ‘survivor’ bit. The last poet left standing in the saloon. (Think Gregory Peck in Henry King’s The Gunfighter. Grave moustache succumbing to gravity.) Many myths...

Diary: Out of Essex

Iain Sinclair, 8 January 2004

Coming off Tottenham Court Road, screens, devices, gizmos, you plunge with relief into a street of unexpected, probably miscalculated art galleries, restaurants that change their pitch every time you pass, a pair of narrow, secret alleys, twittens everybody knows, the relief of that, the pub, the slope down into Newman Passage, the opening sequence of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a...

Margate

Iain Sinclair, 20 March 2003

‘Yet the dream he describes is a traveller’s nightmare: Englishness lost, identity cancelled, fatal infection,’ David Seabrook writes of Thomas De Quincey. Of himself, the dole-queue De Quincey, making a high-velocity, long-term progress through the Isle of Thanet. More speed, less haste: Seabrook is a master of the throwaway put-down, a speculator in tachist topography. The...

In Lea Valley

Iain Sinclair, 27 June 2002

‘Best Value’. Somebody somewhere, well away from the action, decided that this banal phrase, implying its opposite, was sexy. Best Value, with the smack of Councillor Roberts’s corner-shop in Grantham, the abiding myth of Thatcherism, has been dusted down and used in every PR puff of the New Labour era. Best Value. Best buy. Making the best of it. Look on the bright side....

Diary: At Bluewater

Iain Sinclair, 3 January 2002

In The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells’s Martians had the good sense to make landfall near Woking. ‘Hundreds of observers saw the flame that night and the night after, about midnight, and again the night after; and so for ten nights, a flame each night.’ Technologically primitive Surrey suburbanites were zapped by future war weaponry; it was a horribly unequal contest. Roaming...

In Hackney: Steve Dilworth

Iain Sinclair, 15 November 2001

London: chaos. The Isle of Harris: rock. Visual and auditory interference on all sides. You hear the radio even when it isn’t playing. The shocked and affronted voices. Our eyes are scratched by bad loops of illegitimate videotape. But the voice of the sculptor Steve Dilworth, who lives out there, between road and sea, might be coming from a chair on the other side of my Hackney room....

Michael Moorcock

Iain Sinclair, 30 November 2000

Around the time of the London mayoral election, that stupendous non-event in the calendar of civic discourse, posters appeared out of nowhere with the head of a man who wasn’t quite Frank Dobson. There was nothing peevish or pop-eyed about this citizen. The shirt was open-necked. The tilted look was watchful, eyes narrowed against bright light: a non-combatant shocked to find himself...

In Hoxton

Iain Sinclair, 1 June 2000

Here they come, marching north out of Spitalfields, stride for stride in hallucinatory ordinariness, the celebrated living sculptures, Gilbert and George. It’s an English spring afternoon and they have dressed for it in country formal outfits: stout boots, long, brown chequerboard coats with too many buttons, furry headwarmers that flap down over their ears. They look worried – like posh herdsmen who have lost their reindeer. At Shoreditch Church, they dress to the left and march west under the railway bridge. It’s not difficult to guess where they’re making for: their new gallery, Jay Jopling’s White Cube2 in Hoxton Square. You don’t really need to go inside the sugar-frosted box to see what’s happening. You can get it from the street. This is top dollar, scratchcard art. Either it works in one hit or forget it. If it doesn’t jab you in the eye as you drive past in your cab, keep going. The names involved in this pitch are so hot, you might as well frame them and leave it at that. Now the cultural ambulance-chasers know where Hoxton is, they won’t leave it alone. This is here and this is it. The back-story is more complicated.

The Dome

Iain Sinclair, 13 May 1999

Panic on the peninsula. Outrage in North Greenwich. The gas-holder, familiar to motorists skirting the perimeter fence of what is now the site of The Millennium Experience, set ablaze. Flames visible across the river from Beckton Alp to Parliament Hill. ‘A man said to have a slight Irish accent said: “This is the IRA. We have planted bombs at the southern entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel. For goodness sake, do something about it. We want the area cleared.” ’ So Gareth Parry reported in the Guardian of 19 January 1979. Bomb-carriers, from The Secret Agent to Paul Theroux’s Deptford-based urban terrorists in The Family Arsenal, have delighted in targeting Greenwich domes. There is something in the nature of the place, a residue of royalty and privilege and congenital self-satisfaction: the old dockside dowager has painted herself up for the punters, while revising her lurid past in amnesiac tourist brochures. Clap sores revamped as beauty spots. PR operatives delight in being both economical and spendthrift with the truth. Acceptable glories – the knighting of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Francis Chichester, visits by Samuel Pepys, location work for the latest Jane Austen or for Harrison Ford (more bombs) in Patriot Games – are trumpeted, while the dark history of the Greenwich marshes, a decayed industrial wilderness, is brutally elided.’‘

Jim Sallis

Iain Sinclair, 18 March 1999

Jim Sallis is the one who isn’t Bill Clinton’s official favourite purveyor of fiction, although his sequence of crime novels featuring the New Orleans polymath Lew Griffin (writer, melancholic, occasional lecturer in French Lit, sometime PI and full-time avatar of the author) has plenty of superficial similarities to Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins project. Both men have received support from sharp-witted British independent presses. Mosley from Serpent’s Tail and Sallis from No Exit Press. Both men had early champions and a serious readership on this side of the Atlantic. Both men were drawing on the heritage of Chester Himes. But that’s where their paths divided. There was no percentage in Bill’s advisers bullet-pointing paperbacks composed by a peripatetic, a white man who wrote in black-face. Griffin does not aspire to Easy’s confidential charm, his bright-eyed savvy, his innocence. He’s a white man’s black, darker in spirit, thwarted and confused. And New Orleans, the setting for Sallis’s Griffin novels, is a mob town with murky connections to Kennedy conspiracies, voodoo, vampire faggots, jazz, child brothels and all the trash, black and white, of the Delta. It wasn’t a place – with its ‘meaty, rich smell of frying shrimp’, its ‘palms, hibiscus, yucca trees and rubber plants’ – to be closely associated with Clinton’s make-over into a caring global peacekeeper (with smoking gun and $400 haircut). Mosley’s Los Angeles was a safer option: the blurb writers could draw tactful comparisons with Polanski’s Chinatown, thereby positioning civic corruption in the distant past, the Forties – a period that photographed well, nice hats, frocks, autos, legitimate smoke. Mosley’s country-boy blacks drifted west from Texas looking for jobs in the shipyards (the setting of Chester Himes’s astringent first book, If He Hollers Let Him Go), while Sallis’s transients came south, down the Mississippi. This was a period when the Hollywood studios were an alternate government, capable, if they chose, of keeping the lid on minor PR inconveniences such as rape and murder. California had both closet Communists (‘premature anti-Fascists’) and carcinogenic cowboy alcoholics ready and willing to build careers on the blacklist. The virus that would surface decades later, disguised as Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, began here. Fault lines in the American psyche are most obvious at the interface of showbiz saccharine and the political process: Monroe’s birthday tribute to JFK, Sinatra as MC at the Kennedy White House, late-liberal millionaires from Tinseltown rallying round Bill Clinton.’‘

The Great Ian Penman

Iain Sinclair, 19 March 1998

One of the myths that fuzzes the shadowy outline of Ian Penman, a laureate of marginal places, folds in the map, is that Paul Schrader, the director of a sassy remake of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, admired Penman’s review so much that he invited him over to Los Angeles to talk product. Penman in California was truly the vision of a man who fell to earth, a pale alien in an X Files landscape. Wasn’t that the dream they all had, the gob-for-hire scribes, the cultural commodity brokers? That Abel Ferrara or Wim Wenders or Fassbinder or Jean-Pierre Melville would recognise that they were the only ones who understood the secret text, the story beneath the story. And they would be whisked away, club class, to an air-conditioned suite to collaborate on some long-incubated millennial masterpiece. They would pass through the curved window of the cinema screen, critic (tolerated fan) to artist in one snort. American Express voyeurs ripped out from the scratch-card world of overnight prose into a rippling surface of starlight on swimming-pools, Mexican gardeners; dreamtime transfusions of tequila and cocaine. From institutionalised prose to celestial poetry. (They hadn’t read, these promoters of the Penman in Hollywood fable, Michael Moorcock’s minatory letters to J.G. Ballard, the grind of lost years and aborted projects.) So, obviously, when I met Penman, this Schrader yarn was the one I put to him. Why did he come back? Where did it all go wrong?

Mandelson’s Pleasure Dome

Iain Sinclair, 2 October 1997

It gets me every time. That hallucinatory instant. Da da da da da, da da. The Pearly Queen drill of the EastEnders signature tune, as the map spins and the known world is stood on its head; what you thought was the blunt lingam of the Isle of Dogs is revealed as the East Greenwich peninsula. That vertiginous, and slightly desperate, readjustment of consciousness is what you face as you emerge, high on diesel fumes, road rage and subterranean paranoia, from the tiled bore of the Blackwall Tunnel. Nobody crosses water without paying a price, the ferryman’s wages. The peninsula, marshlands giving way to the toxic debris of the South Metropolitan Gas Works, is represented on maps from the Seventies (which now appear positively antiquarian) as a radiant blank. Polar nothingness bordered by custard-yellow feeder roads steering over-ambitious voyagers back to the tunnel and the distant prospect of a return to civilisation.

Narco Polo

Iain Sinclair, 23 January 1997

‘Did you write it yourself?’ That is the first question any visiting journo asks Howard Marks about his autobiography, Mr Nice. Marks suppresses a yawn. The morning is not really his time. He’s in the middle of a promotional binge, late nights, dry-throat blather; the anecdotes on autopilot. By temperament he’s the contrary of the Tory apparatchik in the radio car. Instant confidentiality, a gentle workout for the laughter lines. He’s guilty. Of what? What have you got? Guilty with extenuating circumstances. ‘Truth without betrayal,’ Howard says, ‘has always been my code.’

The Grey Boneyard of Fifties England

Iain Sinclair, 22 August 1996

Tim Binding is a confident writer. His paragraphs, lengthy but under control, take swift possession of the thick sheaf of pages, imposing form. The narrative voice is modestly assertive. There is a tale to be told. The tale-teller, having caught your attention, will not let go. No tricks, no mannerisms, no eye-catching Modernist flourishes: that’s the trick of it. The story is what it’s about. And how strange a sensation this is for the innocent reader who wants to lift the carpet to see how it’s done, what the author is really getting at. Contemporary fiction has made us all paranoid, a generation of conspiracy freaks, uncomfortable until we’ve identified the nature of the game. But not here. Binding has no truck with correspondences, coded texts, analogues, signifiers; he draws breath and plunges in. A randy weatherman spiralling out of control through the opening pages, as the hook for his first novel, In the Kingdom of Air, or the mechanics of a good public hanging convincingly laid out (by the use of words like ‘gutta-percha’) for his second, A Perfect Execution. Whatever follows, image by image, follows from the opening sentence, in pursuit of an essential shape. You could, should you choose to, draw a map of these books, a diagram of peaks and troughs, movement, recapitulation, coda. Binding enforces and confirms his symphonic structure with a system of linked metaphors: eggs, eyes, bombs, births twinned with deaths. A triumphant hanging at the start of the novel will be balanced by a hideously botched performance at the finish. Shape gives his books the narrative nonchalance that distinguishes the work of Angela Carter, all those gins and powders and game old boilers. Fabulous bawdy. But there is none of Carter’s subversion, the dangerous sense that the narrative, if you don’t keep your wits about you, will carry you somewhere you’d rather not go.

Off-Beat

Iain Sinclair, 6 June 1996

There may be only two writers, currently at work in America, who can bring themselves, unblushing, to use the phrase ‘drinky poo’. Two Wodehousian renegades. One drops the words, like a pair of maraschino cherries, into his sunburst fiction. The other, a poet, whose work is his life, is happy to go either way: rhyme them or float them, with a winning question mark, at the conclusion of an in-your-face Greenwich Village monologue.

Customising Biography

Iain Sinclair, 22 February 1996

A recent episode in a jobbing writer’s life found me interviewing Carolyn Cassady (author of Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg) in her comprehensively occupied Belsize Park flat. The unreality of this situation – talking, shoulder to shoulder, with one of the Beat Generation’s best-preserved icons – was ameliorated by the fact that our paths had crossed a number of times over the last fifteen years. (Once, during a strained public conversation in Waterstone’s, Charing Cross Road, we had been interrupted by a foam-flecked out-patient yelling: ‘How often do you sleep with prostitutes?’) But even now, at some level, I couldn’t accept it: that this courteous and sharp-witted lady was the one who had been, rather reluctantly, photographed with Neal Cassady, and who had herself been responsible for some of the most familiar images of Kerouac and Cassady in archetypal buddy-buddy poses. I guess that I’m temperamentally ill-equipped to deal with these confusions. Fiction, biography, journalism: they will insist on muscling in on territory that doesn’t, strictly speaking, belong to them. Carolyn, in stately exile in North London, calls into question the eternal present-tense rush of On the Road. They can’t both be true, not at the same time. That plural consciousness is too much to accept. But Carolyn is, self-evidently, very much alive, and feels obliged, as a duty, to swoop on inaccuracies perpetrated by career biographers, manipulations that nudge her out of the official portraits. Biography is serious business these days. It underwrites the republication of a sanctioned backlist. It provokes movie deals that, in their turn, create a climate of excitement which finds Johnny Depp paying $ 15,000 for what purports to be Jack Kerouac’s old raincoat. The vendor cursed himself for letting the relic go so cheap: a soiled handkerchief was subsequently found in the pocket which could have been sold separately, or used to bump up the price tag by another couple of grand.’

Mysteries of Kings Cross

Iain Sinclair, 5 October 1995

A senior lecturer in English and American studies at one of our livelier universities, himself a fine poet, was talking to me on the telephone. A student had decided to write something about London poetry – was there any? He’d toyed with David Gascoyne’s A Vagrant (‘They’re much the same in most ways, these great cities’), but decided that Paris was the principal focus there. He couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for the post-Olsonian outpourings of the Seventies, most notably Allen Fisher’s Place, Place was set largely south of the river, a nowhere defined by unnecessary particulars. Now Roy Fisher, he could do something with him – but the man had the poor taste to base his mythology on Birmingham.’

Diary: Ronnie Kray bows out

Iain Sinclair, 8 June 1995

A crisp, clear morning, bright and fresh and cold enough to make the flaunting of black anklelength crombies no burden: the perfect day for a funeral. Walking down towards Bethnal Green, through Haggerston Park and over Hackney Road, I appreciate the unnatural, expectant stillness – dispersed by the fretting of traffic that is already beginning to snag up. Outsiders, transients, put it down to road works; an extension of the tarmac hole that is London. But three helicopters to the south, somewhere over Vallance Road or Cheshire Street, that is unusual. One chopper, ferrying traumatised meat to the Royal London Hospital, we’re used to that. Three choppers, catching the light, remorselessly circling the same patch, are worth remarking; an arrogant display of budget that speaks of royal visitations, the finish of the London Marathon, or John Major on walkabout, prospecting for inner-city blight. But on this unearned, mint morning, the fuss is all about real royalty, indigenous royalty: one of our local princes of darkness, a cashmere colonel, is about to be boxed.’

The Cadaver Club

Iain Sinclair, 22 December 1994

Baroness James, making a rare visitation to a blighted metropolitan zone, downriver of Tower Bridge, has written a very useful book, a book on which I will be happy to draw for years to come. That was back in 1972. Title? The Maul and the Pear Tree; co-authored by T.A. Critchley of the Police Department at the Home Office, where James then earned her crust as a Principal in the Criminal Policy Department. She had previously produced four well-received mysteries and this was her first work of non-fiction (apart, presumably, from interdepartmental memos, annual reports and the like). The Maul and the Pear Tree was a spirited, effectively researched account of the infamous Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811; an account which offered, as an additional benefit, when the compulsory gloating over the crimes was accomplished, a persuasive sketch of the districts of Shadwell and Wapping in their maritime pomp – brothels, grog shops, provisioners, the bustle and fret of a crowd in perpetual motion, oysters at midnight, and all of it ‘bounded to the south by London’s dark blood stream, the Thames’. The book (a modest 234 pages) was anecdotal, speculative, inhabited. There was something going on. The past blistered seductively like the golden skin on a good Welsh rarebit. The project was a live one, working hard, after paying its respects, to defuse the purple excesses of Thomas De Quincey’s On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts. This is P.D. James at her best; the fastidious dabbling in horror, the forensic eye finding order in chaos. Now, 22 years later, with the oven-ready blockbuster, Original Sin, she returns to cover the waterfront, and the question has to be – what went wrong?’

Vermin Correspondence

Iain Sinclair, 20 October 1994

It’s quite a popular secret, the Cambridge Poetry Festival; a roomful of freelance delegates, all capable of keeping then eyes to the front, on the platform – no droolers, no crisp packets. By Saturday afternoon, a certain mid-term weariness is evident (so many readings survived, so many still to come); the post-traumatic shock of being allowed into the showpiece. King’s College, the part the grockles are never allowed to photograph (too squalid, these ranks of distressed vinyl chairs). It’s unreal: all these floaters drifting in from the street, straight past the uniforms, unmolested; an atmosphere of subdued revivalism, inauthentic elation (like getting high on a dope dealer’s promissory note). There is even a cadet Boulting, floppy-haired, who has volunteered to keep the video record. Otherwise the civilians, the print-grazers, wouldn’t believe it: poetry, the hard stuff, back on the agenda. Not the New Generation faces with the interesting jobs, the mugshots from Waterstone’s window, nor the ethically-challenged technicians who provide the polyfilla strips to fill a hole in the broadsheets with a slender genuflection aimed at the Balkans. The commodity these Cambridge jokers trade in is much more volatile. It congratulates itself on an audience-defying perversity. Read the list of ingredients: argument, intelligence, spiteful syntax, information overload. A negative dialectic that can live uxoriously with itself, assertive in its modesty. Poetry. An embarrassing word. The project is anachronistic. Well-meaning (but seriously pared-down) publishing conglomerates have had to let it go. The Oxford University Press feel no obligation to keep David Gascoyne’s Collected Poems in print. Faber and Faber get along very nicely on Tom Eliot’s singing and dancing pussy-cats. The Cambridge Festival (don’t tell them) is nowhere, it isn’t happening. What’s the story? Even the participants don’t know. Irony is currently unfashionable. An outsider couldn’t begin to grasp the laid-back intensity with which the poets (because they are all, it is understood, card-carrying practitioners) test the rhetoric for unsound doctrine. Anathemas are pronounced with quarrelsome tenderness. Rogue cadres peel away to check out the alternative festival, the real action, the underground’s underground.’

Who is Stewart Home?

Iain Sinclair, 23 June 1994

Aline of brightly painted stone cottages, out there at the end of the world, beyond Allihies in West Cork. The cottages have been extensively tampered with, knocked through, until they form a single unit, set square to the prevailing on-shore winds. The occupier, New York-born to a childhood in John Cheever commuting country, now reinvented as a Vietnam-vintage Irish citizen, removes all the offending oil paintings from the wall: jewelled landscapes in oil; lively, naive renderings of the headland on which the cottages have been built. Expressionist weather systems have been brought indoors, a wall of light in the smokey darkness. These endearing celebrations of place glisten in the firelight, when the rock fields they represent are lost in the inevitable sea-fret, the mist drifting down from the hills.

You’ve got it or you haven’t

Iain Sinclair, 25 February 1993

Anthony Lambrianou, the self-confessed author of Inside the Firm: The Untold Story of the Krays’ Reign of Terror, admits that Ronnie Kray did shock him. Just once. An unforgettable occasion. A motor eased alongside Tony at the corner of Blythe Street, Bethnal Green. Ron and Reg were inside, keeping company with a known associate, Dickie Morgan. Reg was nicely cased in a blue three-piece by Woods of Kingsland Road. Dickie matched him. (The Twins were very influential that way. All the faces were expected to dress to a middle management standard.) Reg was, as Tony acknowledges, ‘one of the smartest men London ever turned out’. But Ron, the younger twin? There he was, large as life, out and about in his own manor, wearing ‘slacks and an open-necked shirt’. He didn’t have a tie!

Lady Thatcher’s Bastards

Iain Sinclair, 27 February 1992

A year ago, made tame by viral invasion, I wandered listlessly through the arctic wilderness of the Stonebridge Estate in Haggerston, in the company of a strategically-bearded photographer sent by this journal He had recently returned from a sharp-eyed raid on Eastern Europe and was enjoying the sense of recognition, the familiar after-images, triggered by these survivals. In a dream, the cancelled estates of Hackney were seamlessly twinned with some Stalinist wonderland. He couldn’t miss. He could point his Leica in any direction. A rough, snot-ice cladding had transformed the tenement hulks into a Gaudi cathedral: Pentonville draped in a septic wedding dress. It was the last of times. Elegantly patterned prints from the soles of our boots would soon be eradicated by the caterpillar tracks of bulldozers. Rivulets from burst pipes, clinking lianas, muted the defiant calligraphy that defaced these walls. Monster slogans in braille aimed at the wilfully blind. Demands. Complaints. Curses. This was not the work of a coven of Class War anarchists but the frantic message-in-a-bottle charter of humans at the end of their tether: marooned exiles who had nothing left beyond a collaboration with the masonry that held them prisoner. The message the dwellings tapped out was simple: ‘tear us down.’ The white lettering was a suicide note.

Bad News

Iain Sinclair, 6 December 1990

Separate, within his glass-enclosed elevation, the riverboat pilot glances wearily at the undramatic shoreline, and spins the wheel to bring us closer to the west bank. His rapid spiel picks out, for the benefit of tourists ploughing resignedly from Totnes to Dartmouth, the celebrities who have made their homes, or pitched their weekend cottages, within sight of the Dart. His list climbs, in order of precedence, through the ranks of the famous and infamous, the recently notorious and the hopefully forgotten: an inflation of Dimblebys, a lobotomy of Heavy Metal percussionists, Daphne du Maurier, Dame Agatha Christie – then, finally, his voice rasping with emotion, a raven’s croak of intensely local pride … the birthplace of Bill Giles, television weatherman, cold front pundit, guru of the wind-chill factor. A meaningful silence advects along the deck as we contemplate the blessings heaped upon this hamlet, this shrine. We find ourselves glancing involuntarily at the skies, as if the very act of naming the Devonian shaman should bring down thunder from the troposphere, cataracts and hurricanoes, empurpled messengers of apocalypse. It is a bald truth: our peculiar island tribe still worships, above all false idols and over-familiar commentators, these hierophants of climate – initiates capable, after years of severe druidic study, of foretelling the shifts in the cloud masses, the future weather, what we will wear and how we will behave three days from now.’

Isle of Dogs

Iain Sinclair, 10 May 1990

This small-brained animal, primed to hate, straining at the end of a short leash, is universally recognised as bad news. And the dog, his yellow-eyed, short-eared familiar, the killing machine, is not much better. The whole relationship is a mistake, a dangerous misconception, a perversion of actual needs. The dog as protector becomes the very thing that must be protected against: squat embodiment of threat. It is, of course, a truism that beast and man come to resemble each other, a couple wearied by compromise, tissue mapped by shared embraces. But even this specimen of folk wisdom is reinforced by repeated sightings. Something does happen. Jolts of electrified tension pass along the chain; defensive warnings are exchanged, atavistic fears. The man believes he is tethered to the heraldic expression of his own courage made into flesh. He is pulled forward by an intelligent muscle, a growling machismo. His phallic extension has achieved independence, and swaggers beside him: the dog is a prick with teeth. What the beast believes, I do not pretend to know. I leave that to Jack London.

Monster Doss House

Iain Sinclair, 24 November 1988

‘Suddenly a hand wrenched my neck back. Others grabbed my arms, my legs … One of them squeezed my balls so hard. I got a pain in my guts making me dizzy.’ Brooding malign silences wind the tension to breaking point, and are punctuated by sudden eruptions of violence: it is a survivalist world, bleak and uncompromising – the world of competitive chess.’

Letter

The Last London

29 March 2017

A footnote to the debate on involuntary baptism in the Regent’s Canal (Letters, 4 May). I was excited to discover that one of the more challenging passages for cyclists, the blind sweep under Mare Street Bridge, had been improved by the provision of ‘community’ bells, to be pinged by pedestrians. make yourself heard. Solid brackets on both approaches supported domed clangers. The...

Iain Sinclair

Caroline Maclean, 18 November 2004

It is best to read Iain Sinclair’s work out of the corner of your eye. The action takes place on the peripheries; it disintegrates if you concentrate too hard on the middle. Dining on...

Read More

Elective Outsiders

Jeremy Harding, 3 July 1997

That Iain Sinclair, poet, essayist, impresario and weaver of arcane fictions, is one of the more generous spirits around is obvious from this brave, demanding and often flummoxing anthology....

Read More

The Opposite of a Dog

Jenny Turner, 6 October 1994

‘I’m so glad to hear that your son is having some success at last, Mrs Sinclair,’ said the Queen Mother. ‘We all follow his career with the greatest interest.’

Read More

Adventures at the End of Time

Angela Carter, 7 March 1991

Iain Sinclair, in the profane spirit of Surrealism, has chosen to decorate the endpapers of his new work of fiction with a dozen unutterably strange picture-postcards. They show scenes such as...

Read More

Rodinsky’s Place

Patrick Wright, 29 October 1987

In 1975 Colin Ward described Spitalfields as a classic inner-city ‘zone of transition’. Bordering on the City of London, the place had traditionally been a densely-populated...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences