“The Albion sails on course. Black script on white wall. The spill-zone around Corbridge Crescent, the painted devil heads and hybrid monsters, the bare-breasted pin-ups from naughtier times mouthing Situationist slogans, are captured and made fit for purpose by film crews and television set-dressers, lighting technicians and catering caravans, responding to dissent as exploitable edge.
“LOADED WITH/ MEMORIES/ I WAS NOT AFRAID/TO SET OFF/ AN ADVENTURE/ ANY MORE.
“14 November 2016: the words I copied into my notebook yesterday are painted over with white undercoat, so that professionals can create rebellion suitable for television. For example, a Worholist head of Che Guevara – CHE GAY – inflated to cover an entire wall, with fake yelps about eating the rich to replace the groundwork of RIP and the Secret Society of Super Villains and Artists. NO PIGS ….
“The outlaw in his shack on the ledge by the canal sleeps through the entire fuss. He learnt his lesson after the first Immigration Enforcement raid. Now his shelter looks like the detritus of a lumberyard. ….
“A young boy cycles uncertainly to school, in the wake of his mother, wearing a silver skull mask. Welcome to the comic world, Hackney. At the base of the image swamp we find the sinister clown: child-catcher, grinning molester. The public joke, the big-haired politician who dissolves into the Joker of DC Comics.
“Extinguish fire with petrol. One of the latest Andrews Road defacements is a poster: SILENT BILL MUSE WANTED. Silence against the noise of imagery? The meditation of a hooded man sitting all day on a bench? Or another who dreams the fading city through all the hours in an Arsenal-branded sleeping bag? ‘Be silent in that solitude,’ said Edgar Allan Poe. ‘Let them come. The restless spirits of the dead are in death around thee’.” (1)
Iain Sinclair has a reputation as a leading figure in the practice of psychogeography, though he has now somewhat distanced himself from the word itself. He is quoted as saying (2) that “I buy into a union of writing and walking” and identifying with “the kind of writers who very definitely have, within their writing, this rhythm of journeys and walks and pilgrimages and quests”.
Sinclair’s work often celebrates London’s neglected and overlooked spaces, and draws on a visionary tradition of London writers from William Blake to Arthur Machen as well as the French situationists who developed psychogeography as a concept. His early reputation rests on the prose poem Lud Heat (1975) which was also influenced by Alfred Watkins and the earth mysteries school that followed in his wake. This work describes lines of force between Hawksmoor’s London churches to reveal the hidden relationship between the city’s financial, political and religious institutions. Peter Ackroyd drew on these themes for his later Hawksmoor (1985).
Last London (2017) is grittier and more concerned with a November 2016 witnessing of social breakdown in Hackney, a London borough that is being simultaneously gentrified. In the UK, it is also the year of the Brexit referendum (the Albion sails on course?) and in the US the month, November, of Donald Trump’s election as president (“at the base of the image swamp we find the sinister clown”).
Why am I drawn to this work? I lived in London for 17 years, from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s: there’s an element of nostalgia, and also of grief. Beyond that, my contemplative inquiry has led me in recent years to a practice of walking and writing. Are there lessons for me in Sinclair’s tradition?
My contemplative inquiry is not just about resting in the eternal moment – it also concerns life in place, time and culture. I’ve always liked walking meditation, mobile and open-eyed. Ideally, the still point and the moving line are both present, together as one. Often I stumble around between them, but that’s part of the journey: learning to be present in a field of living presence. I have a lot to learn.
(1) Iain Sinclair The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City London: OneWorld Publications, 2017
(2) Merlin Coverley Psychogeography Harpenden: Oldcastle Books Ltd, 2018 (first edition 2006) In his last chapter, Psychogeography Today, the author devotes a section to Iain Sinclair and the Re-branding of Psychogeography.