‘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.’
Downriver XII, ‘The Sexing of Stones’
The other week, I went up to the Compendium bookshop in Camden Town, London NW1, to hear Iain Sinclair read from his latest novel. And read he did, the bit about the floating science fiction convention, from towards the end of Radon Daughters.
The heavy metal lads rushed the bar and stayed there, chucking their empties over the side, vigorously debating Robinsonades and Fraudulent Utopias. Graphic novelists in expensive leather jackets entertained wizards of the photocopier by converting their royalty cheques into Irish malt whiskey. They had found their Sargasso Sea. They’d be propping each other up when the first tentacles of fungus plague slid over the rails to suck their spines.
That’s what Sinclair’s writing is like, when you hit upon one of his many satirical routines. It is like impacted Burroughs, Ginsberg, Pynchon, all the big US influences of the last twenty years, squashed up into one, and yet made forcefully new and original. The voice is both familiarish-sounding and unrecognisably bizarre. And it is very, very funny in a somewhat blokeish, manically hilarious way.
Compendium literary evenings are usually frequented by a crowd of fairly faithful regulars: former beatniks, post-situs and surrealists, second-hand book-dealers, pulp fanzine editors and small-press poets, refugees and survivors from the many literary-artistic ‘scenes’ of London’s recent – that is, post-Sixties – subterranean past. This, roughly, is the environment out of which Iain Sinclair’s writing comes. Before he moved into fiction with his first novel, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, in 1987, Sinclair had already been publishing his own, extraordinary poems, his own, extraordinary researches into the secret history of London, with a tiny press he ran from his own East London home, for a good twelve years. He continues to work on the side as a book-dealer, specialising in Beat literature, experimental poetry, pulp writing and ‘modern firsts’, to this very day. So the Compendium audience, roughly, might be said to represent Sinclair’s most immediate constituency, his groupies, his home supporters, the sort of folk most likely to get a fair percentage of his innumerable sideswiping references and bitter, impacted jokes. The audience certainly behaved accordingly. Pretty well everybody was laughing fit to bust.
If you dig yourself deep in towards the heart of Radon Daughters, you will find yourself come to an occult triangulation. It is suggested that there exists an ancient system of leylines, paths of energy and magic, connecting a decayed churchyard in Whitechapel High Street, London El, to a mound of ancient earth in Oxford, and to an ancient earthworks in Cambridge too. This structure the novel counter-poses with other trios, triumvirates and sundry trivia: you can, if you feel like it, draw up a diagram of the novel’s secret structure to prove it,
I have, and I must say it looks pretty spectacular to me. If you look at it from one way, my diagram (or should I call it a trigrarn, really?) has the awesome, esoteric complexity and detail of a Kabala-type mystical Tree of Life. If you look at it from the other direction, mind you, it looks uncannily like one of those advent-calendar mobiles they used to make out of coat-hangers on Blue Peter. That’s how it goes with structures of occult significance. Phenomena which seem loaded with brooding horror by evening have a funny way of looking limp, harmless and rather foolish by the rising light of day.
In one section of the novel – Book II to be precise, entitled, helpfully, ‘The Triangulation’ – Todd Sileen and Rhab Adnam, of whom we will be hearing more, set out to walk this occult mapping from London, picking up a third, a poet, don and Star Trek enthusiast called TCP ‘Germy’ Hinton on the Oxford leg, passing by the grave of John Dee, Elizabeth I’s court wizard, an allegorical theme-park called Milton Keynes and other centres of deep and magical significance, as they go. Why are they doing this? Because they have been sent on a quixotic chase after a texte de fétiche, a putative sequel to ‘The House on the Borderland’, William Hope Hodgson’s not-greatly-known classic of Fin-de-Siècle gothic. For various reasons, they have been led to expect that they may receive important information regarding it at each of the leylines’ nodal points in turn. And do they? Well, sort of.
At Lachrimae Christi, Cambridge (‘25th in the league table of college equities. And falling’), they meet up with Hinton’s former tutor, a dashing don called Simon Undark, famous for wearing a tie with a goldfish on it, ‘punningly shaped like a kipper’. Undark informs them that it is to a certain spot in Ireland that they next must go: the text they seek seems to have only a notional existence, in fuzzy photographs of shadows and undulations on a hilly terrain. ‘Adnam’s finger, fretting, traced an arrowhead in the dirt of the plinth’s bowl. London-Oxford-Cambridge. Undark had unearthed their quest. And offered something more: the unknown. He did not understand, this new destination was illegitimate. The wrong shape.’ Our three pointers, as you can see, are now, thanks to Undark, in the process of becoming four.
But let us hold the psycho-geographical patternings, folding and unfolding kaleidoscopically, right there. What is all this nonsense about triangulations? Does Sinclair, does the present reviewer, really believe such a patterning objectively pertains? Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘objective’. Of course feet have beaten paths since ancient time, linking England’s most hallowed seats of knowledge and learning. And of course Sinclair himself has actually walked upon these byways green: the weird journeyings that criss-cross his writings are full of details of landscapes and earth-swellings, ‘promiscuous sycamores, knocked-off marble doves, nettles, ivy, overgrown paths’ that read with the precision of an Ordnance Survey grid reference into which only a tramping, panting, real-life poet-hiker could have breathed such magical life.
Anyway, you don’t need to go into ancient lore or New Agey drivel in order to believe that London, Oxford and Cambridge are linked by living waves of intellectual energy, emotions, desires. The cities of Oxford and Cambridge are even now packed with students and research fellows, ekeing out their stipends so they can get to London of a weekend to go to a special conference, a cosmopolitan bookshop, the British Library for a day. London even now is packed with ‘freelance’ scholars, signing on or working in jobs they hate, saving up to go to Oxford or Cambridge to attend an experimental poetry reading followed by a discussion in a bar. Certain corners, certain figures, inevitably are of more interest, and are perhaps more sympathetic, to this sort of activity than are others. By being so, they inevitably build up a cloud of fascination around them, becoming names to conjure with. Surely the wisdom, the charm, the raffish style of Sinclair’s Undark is based at some level on the aura generated by the ultra-demanding poetry, the ultra-enthusing presence, of Cambridge’s real-life J.H. Prynne?
All over Britain, all over the world, universities, libraries, certain bookstores, have lines of energy circulating through them, fed into by so many intersecting subjective quests for knowledge that they start shining like quasi-objective lodes. You can find quite material evidence to prove this if only you think how to look for it, in tatty posters, in spineless booklets, in DTP’d and xeroxed zines. If you had the skills of a pathfinder, you could probably, while you were at it, measure a certain depression in the pavement of Camden High Street, indicative of the millions of feet that have over the years staggered up to the Compendium bookshop, searching for forms of knowledge not accessible in conventional learning institutions, schools and colleges, from newspaper review pages, public libraries. Things do not have to be historically ancient to have an occult, underground existence. There is an invisible university, a vast, loosely-knit network of subterraneans, crisscrossing the country we live in even now.
It is on this particular grid reference, between the social and the imaginary, between the real and the fantastic, between an everyday sense of the occult and a derangedly magical one, that Iain Sinclair’s writing crouches, weaving its spells and prophetic invocations. The writing in Radon Daughters is extraordinary, uncanny. It manages, somehow, to be utterly familiar and totally alien at one and the same time. You can feel this weirdness seep out of the novel’s title: Radon Daughters, isn’t that a washing-powder you use to keep your coloureds bright? But before the thought has even finished, it starts to feel pathetically tremulous and thin. No, it isn’t a washing-powder. It’s a phrase, an image, sinister and incomprehensible, of the sort that hangs around on the edges of recurrent bad dreams. It’s a phrase, an image, you feel you’ve been worrying about all your life, although you are probably seeing it for the very first time.
Pretty well all of Radon Daughters has this same eerie feeling, a scent of the intensely familiar cut through with the foul stench of the unutterably strange. The names of characters – Todd Sileen, Rhab Adnam, Imar O’Hagan, Drage-Bell – threaten continually to wear holes in the pages, so heavy are they with the dread weight of multiply impacted portentousness and pun. Significant places – the Roebuck, Cable St, El, the Isle of Grain, a pub in Oxford, a Thai restaurant in Cantab – are rendered with vivid, iconic force, discernible as such whether you happen to be acquainted with their real-life originals or not. Extreme verisimilitude passes into extreme distortion and back again in the course of a single sentence, image, word:
Used light, eager to escape, revived the heraldic beast that had been etched into a panel of frosted glass, blooded its eye. The Roe-Buck. Sileen spurned the omen and stepped inside. Askead was late. The dingy pub was solid with lowlife, too stupid to hang themselves at home. Homeless. This was their home. Meaningless draff cut loose by the rationalisation of the brewery. The pesthole was their last oasis before an eternity of streets, cardboard coffins, piss-lacquered doorways.
Sinclair’s prose has always been lurid, small-grained, foreshortened, but in Radon Daughters it is more so than it has ever been before. Sentences are short, clipped, without subordination. There are rather fewer finite verbs, rather fewer cosy, supportive conjunctions, than are needed for a comfortable read. Action unfolds in a brutally squashed present tense, or in a simple past wired straight into the back of the present tense, which amounts to much the same thing. Meaning shifts point of view, time, mood, without the customary linguistic coughs and throat-clearings: there is no ‘there is’, ‘it was’, ‘he felt’, ‘she thought’, to help you figure out what is going on, with whom, or why, or in what way.
The effect of this is peculiar, and very particular. Tenses, persons and moods, interior life and exterior actions, facts, opinions and possibilities are all forced to fight it out on one flat and teeming, surrealistically hyperreal narrative plane. It becomes interestingly difficult to tell what has been, what is happening, what only may or might have been. Linear time is flattened, and human, personalised emotion is flattened out as well. Sinclair’s lexis is rude and violent, brutally, casually cruel: his men are all ‘gimps’ and ‘geeks’, substance-addicted sad-sacks, perverts and crooks, anorak-cases with ‘cheese-culture skin’ and scalps ‘ornamented with scabs’. And his women – of which there are, unsurprisingly, mainly three – are ludicrously gorgeous, pouting projections of male fantasy, with vaguely pornographic names and out-and-out sex-film scenario occupations: Helen, Andi Kuschka and Sofya Court. Television weathergirl, former nude model turned London tourist guide, documentary photographer who disappears impaled on a lifesize pinhole camera. Radon Daughters indeed.
But although it is sold to us in the shape of a novel, Radon Daughters has the depth and intensity of a narrative poem. Of course, novels get called ‘poetic’ all the time, but Radon Daughters isn’t one of those. The narrative really does move only poetically, via image and correspondence, via various chains of significance known only, or known mainly, to the author himself. It is possible to outline what happens in the novel, but only if you push the sentences of your plot-summary into something like those vague, elliptical, fetished, beside-the-point summaries of ostensible action you find in student cribs to the work of Eliot or Pound.
Sinclair, we recall, has been publishing poetry for many years. His first big book Lud Heat (1975), combines researches into the sinister dotted lines which link up the Hawksmoor churches of East London – complete with a very fine diagram displaying the pentacles and triangulations which connect churches to plague pits to the sites of the notorious Whitechapel and Ratclyffe Highway murders – with a broken sequence of breathtakingly lovely modern free-verse lyrics. Lud Heat, sadly, has been out of print for years. It is now remembered most often as the text from which Peter Ackroyd cribbed the basic concept behind his own Hawksmoor, a fact which Sinclair seems always to have borne with a gently joshing good grace.
Sinclair’s interest in the occult, in strange-but-true trivia, in murder, magic, mystery, makes some readers uncomfortable. ‘There is an easy (and wrong) attack on your position at this stage of discussion,’ writes poet Douglas Oliver in a letter Sinclair quotes, verbatim, in White Chapell. ‘It is that you have involved yourself with a sort of demonology and that doing so was an emotional error akin to that, say, of becoming involved in sex magic.’ Oliver is worried specifically about references to the Kray twins and to the Moors murders in Sinclair’s second big poetry collection, Suicide Bridge (1979). But a possible charge of prurience, of pimple-popping masturbatory obsessiveness, of sheer carrier-bag-collector creepiness, hangs over Sinclair’s work as a whole. Or, to keep any hint of a morality out of it: Sinclair’s writing manages to be ebulliently extrovert and sociopathically introverted at one and the same time. Such an extreme ambivalence is confusing, to say the least.
But there is, of course, an easy (and valid) defence of Sinclair’s position to be made as well. So easy is it to make, it can be rehearsed in note form only. The necromantic madness of Blake. The occultist sickness of Baudelaire. The sado-pornography of Bataille. The surrealists’ search for a new sublime conjured out of shock and violence and the wilful destruction of the orderly and the good. Fast-forward to an age which demands of its most savagely uncontainable precursors that they be gutted and gone over, reinvented as cuddly bunnies of rationality and bien-pensant goodness. Baudelaire, first great poet of the city, a proto-Marxist who sadly let himself go to the dogs. Bataille, great critiquer of sexuality, every right-thinking feminist’s most kind and faithful friend. And so on and so on and so on. And so the horror, the terror, the pity and the fear out of which these poets wrought their endlessly disturbing fictions is sucked, from their writings and from the emotional vocabulary of all who read them. We are no longer supposed to have inchoate, irrational, ambiguous responses to the beauties and abominations we see around us. Everything has to be neat and spruce and sensibly worked out.
There are great and life-affirming things about this domesticating process; and perhaps it has inevitably to happen with prophecies that are now a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years old. But for a prophet of the future, as a poet of the present time must surely aim to be, this total rationalisation of the sinister in literature is mind-flattening, soul-destroying. A gang of BNP skinheads, racketing down Brick Lane on a Sunday afternoon: we may think dread thoughts about famine and pestilence, death and the other one, but what we articulate is something small and tidy about poverty breeding resentment and the appalling housing problems caused by Liberal-Democrat policy on the Isle of Dogs. We may see clouds move across a sky and shudder with the majesty, the barely-felt sublimity of the scudding void. Yet all we can talk about is the state of the ozone layer that is supposedly protecting the earth from the unruly rays of the sun.
Before he had even started Radon Daughters, Sinclair had laid out his programme for a cure to the depressions, global, national, sub-cultural and very possibly individual as well, which keep our thoughts dragging their miserable bellies along the ground, grey and visionless, like a crawling East London fog. This masterplan he included in an essay he wrote in 1990 for the LRB, shortly after completing his second vision, Downriver:
Our best hope, perhaps our only hope, is to identify, and name, the opposite of a dog ... This opposite must have a special quality that, by its peculiar nature, will make it impossible to define. We must look for movement in the air, unexploited epiphanies of light. Whatever is not infected by touching the ground. A music. A tumbling hoop of maize and gold, birds’ wings, dust, pollen, linen, song. A ravished inattention. Whatever is incapable of being listed in a newspaper. Whatever remains invisible to the video eye.
Radon Daughters continues this visionary project. It struggles to conjure up a space for the imagination to stretch out and regenerate far beyond the skulking dullness that hangs around all thought that crawls too close to the ground. This is why Sinclair has made an appallingly kitsch three-fold Beatrice candelabra out of his novel’s women characters. Only figures themselves phantoms of the sick male psyche can be free enough of the dogged earth to speak of air and light.
Radon Daughters, then, is a piece of poetic atavism. Through the novel’s ritualised grindings between heaven and an earth which comes to look increasingly like hell, Sinclair is struggling to call up again the old sublime, a savagery and a beauty, a wonder and a horror, lost to our contemporary culture. He’s scratched the ancient patternings, of trivia and quadrivia, on the novel’s floor. He’s gathered memorabilia of past horrors, he has chanted the secret lore. He’s made a great and complex arrangement of filth and mendacity, idiocies and barbarisms, book of Drage-Bell, leg of Todd Sileen. And all in the cause of discovering the opposite of a dog. So what is the answer: a woman with big breasts, a woman lacking in pride enough willingly to go to bed with Imar O’Hagan or Todd Sileen? We remember Douglas Oliver’s worry about sex-magic, and we start to quake.
‘What is the opposite of a dog?’ asked Angela Carter when she reviewed Sinclair’s second novel, Downriver, three years ago for the LRB. ‘This question begins and ends the book, this manic travelogue of a city about to burn, and I can’t even begin to answer.’ Well, James Joyce knew the answer: it’s written all over Ulysses, the Sandymount episode in particular. Sinclair knows the answer too, and so do we all, although we are generally too embarrassed to mention it. Think about the joke about the insomniac dyslexic agnostic. It’s that simple. And that hard.
The main narrative of Radon Daughters fades very strangely to an end in Ireland, the Ireland dreaded by Rhab Adnam because it indicated a squaring-off of the power of three in which he had placed his faith. Light crosses an empty hillside. Todd Sileen steps into a struggle to the death with his greatest enemy. Helen, meanwhile, up until now inexplicably the girlfriend of the repulsive Todd, is surprised to meet a nice man, a man with still and lovely hands, on the selfsame hillside. His name is Undark. Another grassy mound is recalled, far away in Whitechapel, in a forgotten churchyard. A little bird skips away.
The true ending of such a tale cannot, of course, be told in the dark, scary voice of our narrator up to now. So the triangulation is at the last resolved not by Sinclair at all, but by three friends of his, Laurence Bicknell, Marc Atkins and Brian Catling. Each has agreed to stand at one point on the occult scheme, Castle Mound, Cambridge, Mary Matfellon, London El, Castle Mound, Oxford, at sunrise on the shortest day of 1992. Their task? ‘To make a brief report – in whatever form they chose – on the advent of light.’
But what has an ending such as this one got to do with Sinclair the subculturalist, Sinclair, the underground kosmos, Sinclair, Compendium bookshop’s hilariously malicious and bitter chthonic sprite of spite? The greatest mystery of all occults, ancient, pre-modern or post, is the way they manage to perpetuate themselves by learning to pass individual power from hand to hand. There is a real beauty, a possibly redemptive sacrifice, in the way that the ending of his latest novel sees Sinclair offering up its pages, its conclusion, to a triptych of his friends, as a freely shared-out gift.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.