Iain Sinclair describes himself as a “British writer, documentarist, film maker, poet, flâneur, metropolitan prophet and urban shaman, keeper of lost cultures and futurologist.” He was born in Cardiff in 1943 but has lived much of his life in Hackney, East London. He has written considerably and famously about the capital city and for doing so is often linked to the term –‘psychogeography.’ His numerous novels include Downriver (which won both the James Tait Black Prize and the Encore Prize), Radon Daughters, Landor’s Tower and Dining on Stones (shortlisted for the Ondaatje prize). He has also written a number of non-fiction books that explore the mythical underpinnings of the ancient city of London, including Lights Out for the Territory, London Orbital and Edge of the Orison. No stranger to television Sinclair has also presented a number of films for BBC2’s Late Show and been involved with a series of documentaries for Channel 4, including Asylum, which won the Montreal Festival short film prize.
Sinclair underwent an extensive education beginning at Trinity College in Dublin and continuing on to the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London and what is now the London Film School. His first forays into literature were a unique stylised commixture of poetry and prose as a member of the 60s and 70s British avant garde poetry scene. He became an active participant in London’s sordid book-dealing underground then formed his own small publishing venture, Albion Village Press, in order to release his work and that of his contemporaries. Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge (soon to be reissued by Skylight Press) were published in 1975 and 1979 respectively, followed by White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings in 1987. These early works, which knitted together strange themes like the psychic influence of the Nicholas Hawksmoor churches, the faceless ghosts from William Blake’s Jerusalem, and a mad hunt for Arthur Conan Doyle’s study of the Jack the Ripper murders, have become underground classics and are still widely sought today. Other authors such as J.H. Prynne, Douglas Oliver, Peter Ackroyd, Brian Catling and Charles Olson are often referenced in these books and even feature as fictionalised characters. Developing a reputable standing in the poetry world Sinclair went on to edit the Paladin Poetry Series and the respected Picador anthology, Conductors of Chaos. The improbable transition from ‘unpublishable’ vanguardist to literary celebrity was soon to be realised.
In 1991 Sinclair came to fame for his meandering Thamesian novel, Downriver, a work full of snaking tributaries and intrigue, described as “crazy, dangerous, prophetic” by Angela Carter. The novel is an imaginary but bleak extension of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as a one-party totalitarian despot. Sinclair follows the river’s flow through a landscape of civic ruin and dredges a grotesque hypothesis of what could have been – and what can still be through political corruption and neglect. Here are some of the most succinct appraisals of the work:
“Each story (is) dense with pathways, interweaving narratives, hundreds of characters, and references upon connections upon allusions. The book is a tremendous pillar of words, not all of them making direct sense and not trying to.”
– Howard Coale, The New York Times Book Review
“(Sinclair’s) snarling compendium of obscure lives and dubious livelihoods, rotting neighbourhoods and neighbours, hypocrisy, dreams, endurance, is recommended to complacent politicians and all whose London is blocked by gentility. It will repel devotees of Margaret Thatcher and Somerset Maugham, and those who expect a novel, unlike other arts, to reveal all at a single examination.”
– Peter Vansittart, The Spectator
“Downriver’s intensity recalls the best and most humane tradition of a 19th-century radicalism, inevitably echoing the angry passion of Blake or Shelley. It speaks for the alienated, the underdog, the dispossessed, the eccentric, the bewildered idealist.”
– Michael Moorcock, New Statesman & Society
Sinclair followed the impact of such a work with a volume of essays, Lights Out for the Territory, which put the material of his novels into non-fiction form. In 2002 he released his non-fiction London Orbital along with a documentary film of the same name and subject. Another popular work, it reflects Sinclair’s penchant to walk and record, producing the sort of roving, psychic travelecritudes that he has become famous for. As the Telegraph duly reported – “…Sinclair’s explorations by foot are highly engaging and anything but pedestrian.” Instead of the Thames, this time he traces London’s outer-ring motorway, the M25, on foot, catching all the ancient and modern resonances that enclose the great city. Similarly, in Edge of the Orison, he follows the footsteps of the poet John Clare’s walk from Epping Forest in Essex, to his home in Helpston, near Peterborough.
The term often attributed to Sinclair, ‘Psychogeography,’ is a recognised academic subfield of geography. It was defined by Guy Debord as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.” Barred from the Lettrist group Debord and his new Situationist contemporaries established the idea of ‘unitary urbanism’ in a bid to develop a revolutionary ethos in the world of architecture. This necessitated a smashing of old Euclidian ideas, which valued buildings and structures separately from their organic surroundings. This new psychogeographical praxis was implemented in various ways, which precluded the formation of various groups of influence in Britain. The London Psychogeographical Association and The Workshop for Non-Linear Architecture appear to have influenced or been influenced by such innovators as Peter Ackroyd, Patrick Keiller, Alan Moore, John Mitchell, Walter Benjamin, J.G. Ballard, Will Self, Robert Westerby, and of course, Iain Sinclair. But it should be said that these retrospective connections are often the puerile prattling of stodgy academics. Though there are some references to these continental theoretical forebears and their jargon, British psychogeographers appear to take their cues more readily from the older souls of British literature. Previous urban explorers like William Blake, Arthur Machen, Robert Graves and Thomas de Quincey, along with their gothic and occult proclivities, seem to hold a more direct sway. In an interview with Mark Pilkington and Phil Baker for Fortean Times Sinclair discusses the influence of Machen with caution: “…it’s the rhythmic nature of the language, it’s incantatory. But there’s also this sense of revelation, that he has some great secret that he’s always on the point of revealing. There’s also a sort of muted sadism beneath this that you’re never quite comfortable with. Things like the bit I quote in the book about the woman who has a brain operation – it’s really ferocious stuff, but it’s enacted in a sort of paradise-like pastoral landscape. I find those conjunctions very interesting.” Additionally, Sinclair honours other literary cultures as evidenced by his donning of the mantle of ‘flâneur,’ an older concept revisited by Charles Baudelaire in his Parisian wanderings, followed by such later examples as Louis Aragon’s Paysan de Paris. In the same interview referenced above Sinclair articulates this circumambulatory role thus: “The way I work, it’s largely coming from place, my system has always been to meditate on certain areas or structures, then to visit them and walk about until I get into some kind of slightly mediumistic contact with the story. If it’s going to work you find that your intuitions are usually pretty good. And then all kinds of clues and documents start to arrive.”
Literary pigeonholing aside, Sinclair’s work taps in to various esoteric spheres such as sacred earth mysteries, ancient ley lines, chaos or sigil magic, and a sort of geo-nomadic gnosticism unique to his work. As a publisher in the realm of the British mysteries as well as experimental literature, Skylight Press is honoured to reissue two pioneering works of Iain Sinclair that intertwine these strands. Our imminent release of Lud Heat will be followed by Suicide Bridge later in the year and both books will seek to emanate the original versions as previously envisioned and published by the author – that distinguished metropolitan prophet and urban shaman.
For more information about Iain Sinclair and his works (too numerous to give full mention here) – please see http://www.iainsinclair.org.uk/bibliography/
Above photo by Belinda Lawley