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Free-Thinking London Babble: My Fucked Interview With Iain Sinclair

Interview by Richard Marshall.

On an old tape from the bottom of a drawer a remnant of what once happened in Bride Lane, off Fleet Street and some label on the tape, handwritten, scawled, more or less unreadable… Subversion in the Streets of Shame. It was Paul Smith from Blast First records that apparently got Iain Sinclair to put together a three-day event of subterraneans… there was Alan Moore; there was Stewart Home; Robin Cook aka the crime writer Derek Raymond (that was his last reading before he died, he came and did a reading about death, he was very ill), perhaps Kathy Acker too. Voices crackle and spit from the tape loop before it gets all twisted up, distorts, ends in a groan. It was a warning, if nothing else.

The strangest things happen. Sinclair‘s mode has always been a matter of multiplied voices, dead and undead spirits, plus living ones, elbowing out the white air with darker stuff, stuff from mud, paper, wire, water, phlegm, ink and skin. He hears things, generates sounds that are unhemmed by physics and science. Fractal noise, multi-layered phantoms, mathematics and demons, Bill Blake and Austin Osman Spare fighting in a captain’s Tower that’s as likely to be a Gothic church used by occultists in Stoke Newington as Bob Dylan’s threatening sounds or Mark E Smith‘s Cthulhu dances. His is an ungridded, multiplied vision where dead dogs stink out the Fleet and the Lea, an anti-systematic systems guy who knows the full deal in Blake’s unchartered streets.

He’s put together the crew but he’s not anointing anything, he’s no priest, nor is he asking anything back here. This is just the way London starts to break up and dissolve. The book is a metaphor for the city and in turn it takes the contradictions inherent in the massive urban fornication of confusions that London calls up and distributes them lovingly across a spectrum of different voices. There are already critics, sadly, who find that there’s too much here, that somehow there needs to be more order, more grids, more decisions, excisions, that not all of the voices are making enough sense. The whole is too opulent, too overwhelming. But London for a moment is slipping away, is coming through first in all its many voices and then in the mute hiss of white noise silence and as always as it does so it is too huge a thing to be whittled down and managed. Sinclair reminds us that there were once plans to turn it into a kind of Venice and that such dreams of controlling and overpowering the city always ends in tears.

So there is this knowledge, the fear that everything changes, everything gets to be destroyed buckled to the hope that this is true too. There’s the shrug, that this is inevitable. There’s the Beat need for freedom in what Sinclair does, for an authenticity that is more than one voice but is a group, a mass. This new volume is Sinclair brilliantly defiling the single perspective. For a moment we believe Hazlitt who writes that “Truth is not one, but many; and an observation may be true in itself that contradicts another equally true, according to the point-of-view from which we contemplate the subject.” A Londoner writing in the buzz of the city’s heart and heat. There’s a moment in Hazlitt’s life where he is pretended to be dead by Lamb and the jest becomes a matter of finding out something that might not have been known before. Hazlitt dead and yet seen walking London and the Strand. Lamb raises the question as to why the phantom has risen and been made visible. It’s a spoof with something edgy hanging around it. Are there really these demons, these otherworldly apparitions? A sinister, spooky moment and one which Sinclair’s oeuvre repeats, again and again. Where does the game end? What is actually happening? Are the demons real? Who calls out the final answers? For Sinclair London is the mystery that never gives a final answer. Too much of it hides in history, too much of it disappears before anyone can grasp what really goes down.

I set off to do the simple thing. An easy interview. Iain Sinclair sits genially and talks into the recorder for over an hour, and there’s the sly undercurrent in this of a benign Sir William Gull instructing the ignorant Netley of the ventricles of London, England’s heart, as they turn down Greenwood Road as far as Albion Drive to survey London Fields and the suburb of Hackney containing the overspill of the East End. I’m the duff Netley, the stuttering ignoramus, wrestling with the recording machine and then failing to register its weird failure. Two hours later, speeding away in an unwashed van cluttered with dead paperbacks, used-up Costa paper cups and rotten apple cores, I’m clicking the corpse button trying for the replay and finding nothing but white noise. A failed seance. Or rather, one that the digital technology can’t pick up. Dead noise. I shriek into the van’s cabin and recognise the sick joke. It’s down to memory now. There’s nothing else but what I can dredge up. Whatever haunts me.

Sinclair’s voice. Hackney, it reminds me, was once Hakons Ea, a Saxon place where Hengest’s father, Ivalde Svigdor, the murderer of Mani, the Teutonic Lunar deity, lived. The man who killed the moon. Underground secret rivers run, like Hackney Brook slipping like a bad secret from Crouch Hill to the polluted River Lea. Sinclair chuckles, recalls how Alan Moore drives his novel in a black horse-drawn cab past the end of his road, a gift From Hell to his own doorstep.

Where goes the recollected voice? Where goes Moore’s monstrous book? It drives on from Albion Drive to Broadway Market, Goldsmiths Row, snakes along the Hackney Road, down Old Street to Bunhill Row where Stewart Home contemplates culture as the last chance to save capitalism in England whilst looking at the world through the bottom of a bottle of Springbank. He’s simultaneously figuring the easy way to falsify your credit rating. Blake, Bunyan, Lady Di, they would each understand this principle… insist that you’re already bankrupt. There you have it. My fucked interview. Sinclair’s brilliant new book. Work the scam from the rumour of bankruptcy and fly from there.

There’s a theme to be shaped, a mucky one… “nsist that you’re already bankrupt”, flashing out of Home’s dead-eyed prose (The Easy Way to Falsify Your Credit Rating ISBN0954006380, Sabotage editions 2005) and it’s one that seeps up out of Sinclair’s work too, and Moore’s, seeps up out of the purest forms not as a corruption but as a dissenting stamp across the city’s face, a kind of Hawksmoor obelisk, a magical idiom confronting us in secret, like Northampton Square, named after the Marquis of Northampton, a leading mason, site of Easton Neston Hall and linked with Northampton itself, the birthplace and home of Alan Moore, author of the Tom Strong comics, Promethea, Watchmen, The Killing Joke, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell among many others and zooming us as if with a telescopic lens to “…John Clare escaping the Epping madhouse at High Beach, frantic to repossess his own voice, the Northamptonshire sources of his pain and inspiration.” Somehow there’s a mad connection between all this and reading catalogues and lists and the remnants of cities and those who read the remnants of cities… I’ll stretch the point then leave it, quote this and let it lie: in all this “catalogue-fresh ruins… we sit/beneath a rage of crucified leper waxworks,/our backs turned from/ a dark feathering of smoke, blown seaward.” (Sinclair Significant Wreckage 1988) He’s been at this forever.

In the opening paragraph of his essay “The Shamanism of Intent: A Retrospective Manifesto”, Sinclair muses that “We have been walking too long in someone else’s sleep. There’s a nagging sense… of having travelled through the dark night of the soul, a sooty tunnel of indolence and mechanistic frenzy: a tooth-chattering, skull rattling dance of the zombies.” Here is the attitude, the stance, that Sinclair takes, indeed needs, almost as a reward for knowing the situation, and so in everything we read from him there is the awareness that only redemption through a mighty will to continue, “to keep a hand on the drill, to improvise upon chaos” would do the biz. He quotes Eliade, calls out this calling as a “sickness vocation” and finds himself forever tagged with the “scavengers, antiquarians, bagpeople, outpatients, muggers, victims, millennial babblers” that populate his landscapes. His work has the heroic virtue of Beckett’s “Try, fail, try again, fail better”. It is discomfort and fruitless irritation that is the substantial organisation and ethic of his borrowed sleeplessness.

And the voice keeps coming. Even now he speaks of Brian Catling at London’s grim Tower, working at the dark stuff at the place of executions there, and the thought of this reminds me of Catling’s chameleon, an animal with a “spiral tongue wound tight in its head. It can unwind this whiplash in a lightening blink, sending its sticky bulbous club to concuss and capture its prey. All this is done with great accuracy, from a position of standstill. The prey is then wound back into the waiting jaws of the creature.” There is no safe zone in this, nor is there any such thing in this dark great feather-scumble of work which Sinclair continues to produce.

He too seems to sit like the deadliest killer, a fine London gent who knows how to do you serious damage if he needed to, winding back the tongue of his words into his head, words which, like the tongue of the chameleon, are many times the length of the body. There is something impossible, like a Dr Who Tardis, in Sinclair’s books and in his manner. What they contain spills out into the room off the page like arsenic from old green wallpaper used to. There’s always danger involved. Death actually. Or forgetfulness. Oblivion in the head. Things missed and gone forever. It haunts the stories. You get the panic. If the recording fails, if there is no one to recollect, record, somehow acknowledge these other voices, histories, pages, then a kind of doom is interred within us which is as rotten as racism, fascism, totalitarian jump-starts. And once this stuff seeps out, once it becomes known about, or at least becomes a rumour, then there’s a chance that you don’t sleep easy again.

The reader gets to be put in a place, like a bottled specimen, a portrait of herself rather than just herself. Something like perspective is removed or changed, like we find the glass cabinet set at an angle in an obtuse corner in a secret room contains something that reminds us of ourselves. Some version of ourselves at any rate, a darker version. This is Sinclair’s way. Glass is a kind of mirror in Sinclair. It is a circuit where completion comes: look into yourself, look out to yourself, look through yourself to whatever is not yourself. In his great first novel, White Chappel, Scarlet Tracings he managed to put his own correspondence into the book to challenge the dark stuff within the novel. It continues to be his way, from Rodinsky’s Room to this new work, his most explicit yet. He mixes himself with the London muck, with its ghosts and ways. He writes backwards as if coming out of a remoter posterity than can be possibly bequeathed to him yet. Posterity from a disappeared future.

His current project is Hackney where the seething present is about to be obliterated by the oncoming new forgetfulness of the Olympic Games, a vast and International neutralising agent which derives its strength from its ability to treat all fair varieties as so many imperfections and mistakes in the creation, compounding a mock-existence of filmy, impalpable, abstracted and sublime idea of what is general, commonly true and wreaking havoc upon the variety and extremities of difference which refuses the continued repetition of itself. Sinclair speaks in low, soft tones as he wonders at the speed at which Hackney will disappear, and it’s a shadow voice where strength and softness combine like the voice of a very dangerous gangster. Hearing the voice, we are reminded that a shadow can be twice as deep in certain pictures than in others and yet almost imperceptible, a Correggio of prodigious strength and even greater softness.

This softness is as Hazlitt tells us not an implication of the absence of considerable extremes but is rather the interposing of a third thing between them to break the force of the contrast. So we can hear his style in his voice, we read it on the page. Like one of his books, his voice is the shadowy image of an x-ray. We remind ourselves of the purpose and context of x-rays, the terror of the cancer smudge around the lungs, the crack lines like river tributaries in the bones. Hospitals, negatives, monochrome prints of our own mortal remains yet to come. In Sinclair the spook show is always there, embedded deep down. London is a city but it is also our own failing bodies.

He returns again to the project in the face of the Olympic changes coming to Hackney — he is continually busy interviewing people about Hackney before it and they disappear… Hackney secrets, London secrets… he talks of hidden rivers, people, history… the role of Rodinsky’s room… of White Chappel, of Catling and the Tower and being drawn, again and again, to the dark stuff, of how it will all be gone, of how once it has disappeared another place will appear and so there is no time to lose. This is a crucial time, this is a crucial work. He must excavate the living presences in Hackney now because there is no other time afterwards. The people will be gone. The place will be gone. London is like that. And in its place, a new Hackney. A new London. Onwards it goes. Radon’s Daughters, an earlier novel, made all this clear.

“All we transcribe is a mute affection” (“Pogrom Music” in Jack Elam’s Other Eye Hoarse Comerz 1991). This is at first glance, an early go, an opening salvo from many years ago culled from a last line of what he summarises as “Armaggedon, with mirrors”, which is shifty, shifting ground, here and there, somewhere but now, for now, Princelet Street, 6th November, 1988… where some poor girl must either “defend yourself in childbirth or split like/ a red pomegrate…”. Permanent options amongst the ever-changing, ever transient. But this is something that is disappearing, slipping into “…the debris of unrecorded necks… nothing to falsify the register of ruin whose cities/are already known and therefore damned to carbon dust…”: Sinclair writes out of this moving territory where language is the country, the city, the movies and where everything is ready to fall back under new stuff… This is what his interview was about. This is what he said. This is what I recall. City noises and traffic clog my head. I have hurled the failed tape recorder out. In my bone head I have to recall, so it becomes just a mysterious mind/body thing as always.

And now in this 2006 book he shares the spaces out with others of his tribe, writers who like him grub around the London secrets as the secrets disappear, often taking the voices down with them. Where Stewart Home round about this time last year brought to the darkest of lights news of Jilly O’Sullivan, his own mother, hostess in Gordon’s gentleman’s club in Soho, swinger in Notting Hill’s hippie community who, whilst flirting with Black Power activists and mixing with the likes of Alexander Trocchi, Brian Jones and John Lennon , ended as another of London’s mysteriously and terribly disappeared revenants in his novel Tainted Love, Sinclair is heroically testing out the territory again, seizing its fading, slipping, falling geography. It has the faint energy of old gossip and the overfocused knowledge of the geek, the cadences of mantic secular prayer and something warily spiritualised and insanely transient. It contains moon prose that both glazes its own floodgates of secret knowledge with pale deathly lights and glides a shadow of grace compelling stealth and long intervals upon the reader. These are voices of liberty, short and fleeting, up against power, which is eternal.

In the interview room Sinclair talks about a man who used his own brain scan x-ray as a way to walk around London. He superimposed it onto a map and has been trailing his own uncanny geography since. The uncanny is part of what happens in Sinclair. And also a love, a love of London, or of some something that London evokes. The different voices he has collected in this new book of his, be they Anthony Rudolf, Sarah Wise, Alan Wall, Marina Warner, Will Self, Ruth Valentine, Chris Petit, J.G. Ballard, Stewart Home, Alan Moore, Nicholas Royle or any of the rest, work up “a thin fine light / to palliate the deconstruction of library fear” (Sinclair, “Thermometers of the Damned” London Fields 1987) and there’s a sense that is agreeable after it’s all been done and dusted, as if to establish, again, that “what he breathes he also loves…” (“Thermometers of the Damned”).

It was an interview that failed, a technology that failed and yet Sinclair’s genius is such that out of such bankruptcy comes a generous multiplicity of that lunatic imagination that challenges insipid sameness, second-hand wit and servile imitation and shares through sheer courage and cathode-ray addiction the limitless possibility of free-thinking London babble.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 11th, 2006.