An Interview with Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair


Iain Sinclair takes the same walk around Hackney every morning.  ‘Same parkland, same grottiness.’  He travels the same route back by the canal.  He walks so he can see the same birds, the same people.  Sinclair is well known as a flâneur, a stroller of the city streets.  He’s described himself as a disenfranchised psychogeographer: ‘In London, from the first, I walked … Motiveless walking processed the unanchored images that infiltrated dreams … a means of editing a city of free-floating fragments …’

Following his walk, Sinclair settles down to write at 8:30am.  He will write intensely until lunch.

The afternoon is about getting on with business, the job of writing, emails and so on.  But today his routine is interrupted by a two-hour journey to Sheffield.  Sinclair is giving the keynote speech at a conference organized by Martin Carter and Tony Taylor of Sheffield Hallam University: Lost London: Explorations of a Dark Metropolis.  The conference is inspired by Sinclair, his career, his passion for examining London in his work and walking.

In the campus café, Sinclair’s soft voice could be lost in the clatter of cutlery.  I was still weighing up whether I could record the interview effectively, when Sinclair commented on how much he liked the idea of me just scribbling notes with pen and paper.  The idea terrified me, but he was so taken with it, I now have nothing more than my frantic scribblings by which to remember the event.

But that’s the point, that my selective hearing and writing, my making sense of it in retrospect, my mis-hearings and mis-rememberances, inform my experience of the meeting.  Sinclair’s own methods include making notes of his walks in retrospect, as, he notes in Edge of the Orison, did John Clare after his escape from Epping Forest’s High Beach Asylum, his long walk home to his Northborough cottage: ‘He lived it through his notebook.  He saw himself, once again, on the treadmill of the road: incidents from a fading fiction … Journey as metaphor’ (Penguin 2005: 10-11).

Sinclair describes his own work as generically promiscuous, the way he smuggles fiction in under the guise of documenting a lost or disappearing landscape.  ‘Make it up,’ he says to me.  ‘That’s the best way.’

I begin by asking what he is working on at the moment, not least because I want some for the next edition of Matter.  He launches into his subject with the authority and fluidity you would expect from a man whose career has spanned four decades.  ‘It comes out of the previous book,’ he says, ‘from the grand project of New Labour and lottery money, the way these top-heavy schemes are imposed down from the top …’

The last book is Hackney, That Rose Red Empire: a confidential Report (Penguin 2009). It is a record of the area in which Sinclair has lived since 1969.  He’s watched the north-east corner of London change around him, the way so many areas have become gentrified, often to the detriment of local, independent business and character.  Sinclair describes how the last of the local businesses by the Olympic Park, ‘an Italian hairdresser with no trade, stands on his doorstep waiting for the council to come and offer him compensation’.

The Olympic Park is a subject of huge significance to Sinclair, the way the land and its history is being ‘… bull-dozed for a legacy that offers little more than what was there already,’ he says.  ‘Local swimming pools, the cycle track, the football field, have been lost to fund and make way for 2012, when we will be left with stadiums nobody wants and a low level radioactivity that will take 20 years to neutralise.’  Over 7000 tonnes of low-level, naturally occurring radioactive waste, more than originally expected, according to, has been stored onsite.

The blue fence surrounding the site is covered with a utopian landscape to hide the demolition/building works.  ‘It displays a landscape that does not, and may never exist.  Construction has become an image exercise,’ Sinclair says.  ‘The brickwork across the road is, increasingly, a battleground between the intricate and bold graffitti, and the man in the yellow jacket that comes along each morning to paint over it, protecting the official narrative of the Olympic propagation of Stratford.’

This is the crux of Iain Sinclair’s vision, the official narrative of London, the face officialdom chooses to present to the outside world, and the unofficial, anti-London, the human cost to memory of the top-down grand project, the way Christopher Wren’s architectural blueprint in the time after the great fire was unable to overcome the will of the labyrinthine alleyways crammed full of people and their spaces.

This plural narrative is also the drive for his latest project, the plans for a ‘Super City,’ put forward in 2005 by architect, Will Alsop.  This was a vision of northern England that stretched from Liverpool to Hull, taking in Leeds and Manchester, a vision that saw people commuting between these locations, living at one end, working at the other, socializing and shopping in between, the M62, the spine of the project.

‘I suspected it couldn’t work,’ Sinclair says.  ‘So I took my free bus pass, you get a free bus pass when you’re old, and I boarded at Liverpool.  I changed buses 12 times along the way.  At each stage there were differences, differences in appearance and language, attitude.’  He talks about the way these schemes lead to an abandoned architecture, the Earth Centre in Doncaster, the Lower Lee Valley.

I ask if he is trying to protect a landscape he sees as under attack from a governmental notion of progress.  ‘Not protect,’ he says, ‘to retain respect, retrieve memory from government’s “cultural projects,” that sense they are trying to revise history – a cultural erasure.  I want to retrieve legends.’

Sinclair’s novel, Downriver (1991) saw a fictionalized Thatcher winning a fifth term in office and creating a one-party state.  The Thatcher trajectory attacking familiar landscape was, in Sinclair’s view, taken up by New Labour to a large extent.  I ask what he feels the coalition will mean in this respect.  ‘It’s too early to tell.  There is a sense that people are drawn to a more consensual approach, but Cameron seems so much of a PR man, used to television cameras.  I can’t get a sense of content.  We’ll see.  Do little.  That’s best.’  In general, I ask?  ‘No, not in life,’ he laughs, and takes a bite of his sandwich.

London Orbital (2003) examines these same issues in relation to the landscape surrounding the M25, Enfield Island Village, Holloway Sanatorium converted into Virginia Park, the way historical existence is erased, and the way the landscape seeks to hold on to its past:

However meticulous the makeover, the back story always leaks, seeps through as an ineradicable miasma.  Pain, displacement.  The agony of knowing enough to know that something is wrong … Consciousness misplaced in long corridors.  Buildings slip and shift and refuse to settle on a single identity. (2003: 289)

Sinclair’s walking provides the narrative structure of London Orbital.  But walking is present in much of his writing, if not always made so explicit in the final draft.  ‘I want to see the accidents of being somewhere, accidentally finding buildings, cafés, pubs, the people you meet, the slow accumulation of information and photographs.’

I ask if he thinks the walking affects the rhythm of his writing, like the lame walk of the iambic foot.  ‘Yes.  I’m sure it does.  It relates to this open form I’m trying to do.  Like Charles Olson.’  This is the notion of poetic metre as a reflection of the poet’s breath, how sound and perception drive the writing style, rather than traditional ideas of punctuation and syntax.  Is this a conscious consideration?  ‘No, it’s quite natural.’

Sinclair’s formative work was in poetry.  The epic, Lud Heat (1975), is a fusion of prose and poetry pre-empting his concern with place as he explores the trail of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s grid of churches across East London, the dehumanization of land in order to make space for these constructs.

Sinclair still writes poetry, although this is more a private activity, not necessarily for publication, and tends to exist on the south coast, writing in Hastings, publishers in Brighton (Pighog Press).  ‘I think of the coast as relaxed time, the mindset transfers to poetry, the light, the sea creating another way of thinking.  London is prose.  London is work.’

Sinclair hand-writes his poetry, but no longer with his prose.

I couldn’t read my own writing, so I would quickly move to the typewriter, an old clunky typewriter, the ones that make those great sounds.  My neighbour says she misses that.  Then I would move to an electric typewriter, a more plasticky sound, and type up the whole thing again, cutting things out as I went.  I would literally cut up pieces of paper, move them around like a collage.  These days I go straight to the computer, redrafting as I type.  It’s a more finished form, the opposite of the uncensored free form of handwriting.

I ask if his poetry feeds into his prose style.  ‘Yes, and working in film, the focusing on one image at a time, (he mimics zooming in on my writing hand) the cut and splice, the way short sharp images generate pace.  I’ve heard it all comes into focus when read aloud.’

Perhaps this is evidenced in the film London Orbital (2002), made in collaboration with Chris Petit.  Sinclair’s voiceover paces the visual image of the drive along the M25, using that same idiosyncratic rhythm you see on the page.

Sinclair often works with others, sometimes to provide another perspective, as on his Hackney walks.  He takes artists and filmmakers along the M25 and in the footsteps of John Clare.  This is not the ‘uncorroborated account …’ (Edge of the Orison: 10) Clare put down.

When I ask about his habit of collaboration, Sinclair puts it down to his time at film school, ‘that sense of being a group.  I enjoy engaging with other people and their practice, passing the dominant narrative through different people, a better, or different, form of logging, perhaps a photographic record.  It’s fruitful give and take.  It gives balance in life.

He describes some of his collaborations: Slow Chocolate Autopsy (1997), a novel, illustrated by David McKean, about a character trapped within the spatial reality of London, but able to travel in time, ‘he’s a prisoner of London’.  And his journalistic reportage of Allen Ginsberg at the Roundhouse, with Robert Klinkert in 1967, which resulted in the film, Ah!  Sunflower, and the book, Kodak Mantra Diaries (1971).

However, Sinclair is most animated on the subject when he talks about his collaboration with Rachel Lichtenstein: Rodinsky’s Room (1999).  ‘This room was locked up, disappeared from history.’  (He sits forward and draws a sort of square, or floor plan, in the air.)

The room is an attic in a disused Whitechapel synagogue.  Rodinsky was the caretaker, ‘Mesuganer, cabbalist, spook.  Inspirer of fictions.  Retro-golem.’ (Granta 1999: 6), and Lichtenstein is an artist with ‘a gift for archival research’.

Lichtenstein’s grandparents left Poland in the thirties for the East End of London, and in Rodinsky’s Room:

She realized with a proper sense of dread, that the business of her life … was to complete whatever it was that Rodinsky had begun: to pass beyond ego, and all the dusty particulars of place and time, into a parallel state … Unbodied.  Eternally present. (1999: 4).

Sinclair clearly enjoyed this project, speaking enthusiastically about Lichtenstein and their subject.  ‘It’s a Polish-Jewish family history interspersed with cultural meditations to create something other.’  Here again, there is a preoccupation with the historical landscape and the way it is shoehorned into an official narrative:

The brown doors of the old synagogue are never open, but the building harbours vague ambitions of turning itself into a museum of immigration and false memory.  (1999: 8).

There seems a coherence of intent across many of his projects, and I’m interested in how his work remains fresh over the years.  Is it movement of place that moves his work forwards?  Is it the transition from poetry to novel to fictionalizing fact, or has something else changed along the way, something more fundamental?  ‘I’m more concerned with social issues now, more informed on a superficial level of what is going on around me.’  In his earlier work, he focused on creating a mythical sense of the city, ‘… a Blakean concern that if you don’t create your own mythology, you’re stuck with someone else’s.’

I wonder if he feels an affinity with the Romantics.  ‘Yes.  I find a strain of Romanticism appealing.  There is a good attitude of mind, I think.  That Jack Kerouac open-mindedness, a spiritual base to life.  I prefer that drama of the personal, more than the English rationalism and social satire, the comedy of class structure, such as Evelyn Waugh.’

I ask what he’s reading now, what does he read to relax.  ‘Relax,’ he says, ‘what’s that?  I’m always reading about four texts for work at the same time.  Now, for example, I’m reading two catalogues of Brigid Marlin, her portrait of Ballard, and The Kindness of Women (Ballard 1991).  I’m already looking forward to the next project about Berlin, with a collection of interviews with the German filmmaker, Fassbinder.  The last time I was at the coast, I did pick up a book by James Lee Burke, Heartwood. It just happened to be lying around, but I read that to relax.

Time is running out.  Sinclair will have to sign books for the conference-goers before his speech.  One last question, an obvious one, but one I had to ask … what advice would he give new writers.  He laughs and says, ‘Don’t.  Don’t, it’s impossible.  But of course, as new writers, you’ll ignore that, so what next?’  He leans in, ‘Be true to your own instinct.  Don’t try to calculate what will work or what is like something else.  You need to develop your own voice.  It’s a hard thing to do when you’re setting out, when you’re learning a process of techniques and reading others.  But of course, you must read widely.  You must also develop as full a life as possible outside of writing, gather material and grit.’

Is this why his employment background is so colourful, cutting the grass in graveyards, cigar rolling, labouring?  ‘I wanted to write on my own terms.  I wasn’t interested in commercial writing.  So I spent ten years learning what the city was about by taking anything and everything.  And I published anything I wanted through my own Village Press.’

Heading back to the conference, there seems a ghost of John Clare in all that’s just been said, the way Clare will forever be remembered in the same space as Helpston, in the landscape that failed to remember him when the railway came, and Sinclair’s morning walks round Hackney.  How will Iain Sinclair be remembered decades from now?  In his own words, ‘There is no advantage in any man authoring his own life … it has already been told, warped, misappropriated …’ (Edge of the Orison 2005: 25).  This is my contribution to that misappropriation, the future mythology of Iain Sinclair.