Breaking the skin of things: Iain Sinclair talks to Colette Meacher about Joycean epiphany, being held at gunpoint, the trashed sublime, narrative leaps, writing things into being, and punk transcendence.
CM: Iain, I’m interested in discussing the kind and nature of the visionary experience that emerges in your work, and would like to explore whether or not this has any continuity with earlier artistic and poetic representations of the sublime. It seems to me that you alternate between considering the city as sublime source, and a prelapsarian, pre-modern idealised sense of the sacred, composed of scholarly knowledge of ‘geology, prehistory, climate, palaeontology, industrial relations’, combined with the more obscure, and occult, rudiments, ‘earth mysteries’ — ‘ley lines, mycology, shamanism’. You’re not solely convinced by eighteenth century Romanticism, by Wordsworthian striving — which becomes incorporated, but not recuperated within your work.
You certainly exhibit a strong desire to dissociate from the political inheritance of a notion like the sublime with its bankrupt ideological baggage, its dodgy bourgeois connotations, its ‘pale wastes, reactionary tosh, moons and herons and impotent kings’. You record the poet’s sense of Romantic delight in surveying the surrounding landscape from an elevated prospect, whilst rejecting the pomposity of the position and its implicit privileges. Images of mountaintops and ascendancy figure in your fictions — albeit in pastiched form. Your walker is positioned above Beckton Alp, for instance, rather than the Alps – an ‘obscenery’ composed of waste and human flotsam and jetsam from which the poet is not distinguished, but plays amongst as an integral part. This post-millennial poet is a Stig of the Dump figure, a ‘hayseed’, rather than a king of the heap, a dandy or flâneur: neither a Friedrich solitary nor Nietzschean achiever.
Similarly, the Benjaminian or Surrealist — early Modernist — imagining of the cityscape as drama, as relentless montage of sense-impressions, can neither quite capture the flow of experience of moving through the city — ‘redundant. As much use as a whale carved from margarine’, you write.
There’s a sense of the picturesque becoming implicated with the horrors and grime, contributing to the evolution of an urban landscape of ‘obscenery’. Instead of ‘chanting transcendent rhymes’, you film everything on your camcorder as you walk, snatching at a means of capturing reality in its is-ness, in its immediate state, rather than filtering it through fiction. You certainly avoid employing direct reference to the word ‘sublime’, a term belonging to the eighteenth century, which nevertheless continues to haunt and ridicule the possibilities of human experience. It would appear that for you, the divine as a form of accidental epiphany is felt but expressed in language only as ‘it’: ‘it was happening’; ‘it happened’ and so on. Just as in Beckett’s writing, the moment of sublime encounter or event slips away from being adequately expressed, at the moment you try to write it into being; the ineffable remains ‘uneffed’.
IS: I’ve never thought about the sublime in inverted commas, no, although the resonances of it are always there for me. The notion of ascending, struggling towards some positions that offer a privileged view across the landscape is always crucial to what I do; I’ve been haunted by such fancies for years and years and years – right back to reading Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, doing their mountain-climbing in the Sierras in Dharma Bums. That’s one of my early defining images, more than Wordsworth.
CM: You mention Wordsworth in Landor’s Tower .. and you’ve got an ironic, sneaky take …
IS: Double-edged, contradictory. I don’t have scepticism but a kind of admiration for the grandeur of the project and also a sense of its absurdity at the same time. I think The Prelude is a great, magnificent book and I love the younger Wordsworth’s mad journeying across Wales, staring into cataracts, pushing himself towards notions of the sublime. That was certainly an influence — but less so than the oblique approach adopted by De Quincey; De Quincey visiting the Lakeland poets and his take on it, through his own hallucinatory visions and addictions: witnessing the sublime through cardboard spectacles.
CM: And so where does the sense of absurdity come into it? In terms of this man pitching himself into the unknown, the abyss?
IS: In terms of this man striding around his garden, Rydal Mound, reciting these poems, trying them out on his sister Dorothy — and the whole apparatus of support that surrounds him; the fact that in his later life he becomes this very conservative figure and is taking on government appointments and all the rest of it. The human element is the absurdity and the attempt to achieve the transcendent is the glory; that’s what we all do.
CM: Yes, there’s that huge sense of deferral in Wordsworth’s pilgrimage in pursuit of the sublime over the Alps. Him needing a guide yet losing the guide, getting lost on the way and a total sense of disorientation; then the chasm of 15 years between the experience, and putting it into words — this sense that the view, the sublime experience, is beyond words. That the realm of literature is an ideal realm, a place where things can be contained, and explained, but never adequately.
IS: Yes, I was always much more sympathetic to that than the notion of the classical — the notion that there is an ideal landscape; in terms of Claude and his paintings, or in terms of James Thomson’s poetry, where you can stand on an elevation and a landscape arranges itself in certain ways through hierarchies of peasants in the foreground to remote, interesting things, caves and ruined towers. All of that is anathema to me, both in the poetic organisation of it, or in the experience itself, which generally depends on the patronage of some grand house, where you’re given permission to admire a prospect. But the other side, this Romantic vision, underwrites everything I do, even when I’m being satirical. Especially then.
CM: There’s a line in White Goods: ‘They became what they beheld’ — which obviously comes from a Romantic source – Blake, perhaps? And it’s an expressive possibility that re-emerges again throughout your work; in Landor’s Tower, the poet Tunstall experiences a feeling of ‘joyous recognition’ as he propels himself beyond a sense of the purely physical city, and becomes aware of its intrinsic transformative potential — as a poetic form awaiting creative transcription. In this moment of self-realisation, ‘light that is heat [came] from within, fused with the light of the world; in movement, definition. A riot, a ravishment; a chaos out of which he … would retrieve or recognise order. And form. A unitive commingling with the pollen of the cosmos’.
IS: Yes, Blake. It’s interesting you mention that, because I’ve just finished this book in which I follow John Clare’s walk from Epping Forest to a village north of Peterborough, and there’s a point in that where he and his wife Patty, when they’re courting, both look at the same thing and become as one. By looking at a single, natural feature – a river, or whatever it is – in that gaze, you become one with each other, and one with the landscape. That too contains my sense of the sublime.
CM: Do you also encounter this sense of the sublime in relation to works of art – to paintings, sculpture, etc.?
IS: I don’t know what you’d call it; it’s a sort of Joycean epiphany (or prejudice). You see something — a work of art, a film, a piece of junk on the street, any kind of experience that lifts you into another realm, a parallel existence — and then, as you move about the streets, mired in the mundane, you can attempt to burn a hole in the membrane of the ordinary. Heavenly light can come glimmering through.
CM: I wondered if you felt that it was possible for the sublime to come through works of art as fixed objects with bound perspectives…
IS: I don’t think of works of art as fixed objects: they float. I think they change, alter in terms of our perception and our state when we look at them. They’re not given, inviolate, finished things. Even in the sense that the colours fade in paintings.
CM: I’m curious about this, because in White Goods you write about this sense of becoming, this fusion of vision, in the presence of a Ludwig Meidner painting. Later, in Dining on Stones, you re-quote yourself, paraphrasing the same chunk of text, only switching the Ludwig Meidner painting for a Jimmy Seed (Jock McFadyen) painting!
IS: That’s a strategic device in terms of the whole ambiguous nature of Dining on Stones. The trick is to present some of these elements of the past and to interrogate them, pull them apart and re-assemble them — in order for me to make something else, or to free up — I think it’s to free up — a sense of the sublime. The notion of being on the South Coast and staring at this sea is just about the most transcendent experience that we can imagine. It’s like putting all this other stuff behind me, putting all the energy of the city behind me — to achieve blankness. To achieve it, and justify it, I have to work through everything I have already experienced, in the form of real and fake autobiographies: structures that have been attempted in the past are held up for ridicule or encouraged to defend their continued existence.
CM: So is that why you decided to beat an occasional retreat to Hastings, to have immediate access to this unfettered source of the sublime — as dissolution?
IS: I thought about moving out of the city and I realised it would just be impossible, an insanity, because everything I do is locked in to the nature of the city. The occasional retreat to Hastings is just a breathing space, which is very pleasant, but I would never be able to switch into that mode entirely. It took me a while to work that out.
CM: But what was your initial urge in wanting to have greater distance from the city? Did you feel that you had exhausted it as a creative resource?
IS: Having been in the place for a very long time, I had this sense of exhaustion in the city and in myself. I thought, if the city’s my subject then I’ve written it out. Then I realised that was just stupid, untrue. Self-dramatising.
CM: Untrue, because it’s constantly evolving, and you’re never quite grasping its essence.
IS: Oh sure, absolutely. So I use the other location as an energising and emptying process and stick with the city.
CM: So do you have a sense, then, of different kinds of sublime experience? It seems that you relate both to this Romantic notion of the natural landscape overwhelming you and purging you of your personal restraints and to this typically Modernist vision of the sublime emerging in the city from its shifting, disparate elements…
IS: I’m not sure how the sublime defines itself, because it’s not really a term that I use. I’ve used other ways to describe it. It seems like a philosophical term that belongs in a particular period. It may be possible to reinvent and re-access it, but it’s not something, necessarily, that I would do. So I’d be re-jigging things I’ve done to see if they fit with this concept, it’s not my concept. I’m not really a Wordsworthian poet; I’m not searching out those kinds of experience and finding ways to access them.
CM: But at the same time you’re trying to lay open the possibility for those to happen?
IS: Yeah, by and large, I’m always looking for new quests and pilgrimages to push the thing on to the next stage.
CM: I’m interested in exploring whether this old, recurring, philosophical concept has any cachet now and whether the cityscape can be considered as an entirely sublime canvas for the imagination, given that it’s becoming an increasingly bewildering landscape with ceaselessly migrating populations and interpenetration of cultural elements…
IS: But is that sublime? You could pin any label on it you want. It’s like the moment of Expressionism. It really is like a Ludwig Meidner painting, before the First War, having these prophetic, visionary landscapes of cities cracking up and dissolving, volcanic energies … Is that sublime?
CM: The sublime is a convenient way of explaining something that’s difficult for you to explain – this enormous but nebulous experience of being overwhelmed, shocked, held in awe — which momentarily holds you still, stops you in your tracks, stops the gaze, is a kind of mental movement after which everything seems to fall into a state of almost impossibly perfect sense. And vitally stops the ceaseless wrestling to gain control of what lies before you…
IS: Well, I don’t know, I think if that’s the case, then it’s quite different from what’s happening in the city. The gaze is very different; it’s fragmented, this gaze of new technologies. We are being constantly observed; walls of monitor screens reproduce the city as a Xerox of itself. And that’s not really a sublime landscape, I think we’re into the post-sublime, it’s very tranquil, it’s very beautiful in a sense – the streets empty or active, infinitely moving and resolving in real time like a carpet or a curtain. The only time you need to zoom in and identify a single figure is when a crime has been committed. It’s all retrospective. Watching the monitor cameras of the M25 is transcendent in a punk-transcendent way: a remorseless tide of traffic and reverie and you’re not in it, you’re watching it, your gaze is on that. This is what the sublime has become: a computer-generated memory system. A consolation.
CM: So that’s one possibility for where sublime experience might manifest in a spectacle-saturated culture, how it might still pulse through the landscape of obscenery you’re alternately horrified and obsessed by. I’m interested in the correspondence between your concern with attaining some ‘total’ view of the cityscape (albeit given the impossibility of doing so), and using cameras and camcorders to do so, and the all-pervasive witness of CCTV.
IS: Absolutely. I think the city has been completely altered by this form of gazing and that indeed consciousness is shifting into a battle between the virtual and the actual and the whole machinery of government and politics is involved in this virtual presentation, which is their trashed version of the sublime. In which they conjure up the Millennium Dome as an island of the sublime, an Arcadian wonder — a shimmering thing of blue waters and orchards, which doesn’t exist. Underneath it is a disregarded reality, which is a kind of grim poetic, dystopian imagery, smell and filth and dirt. These two sides co-exist. The sublime has been corrupted, moved on by the persuaders and corrupters and the tricksters who are endlessly hosing it over you. I think the overwhelming experiences that you describe – a sense of your identity dissolving into this massive, shifting world – is not available to us any more.
CM: How about the effect of the recent terrorist attacks on London? Which Will Self described, rather peculiarly, as acts of psychogeography. [In a recent article in The Independent, he wrote: – ‘The terrorists were engaged in a murderous act of psychogeography – arguably they were the maddest town planners around, they had succeeded in entirely fusing the physical layout of the city to its human content, while at the same time annihilating time, distance and possibility. Organised terror makes everyone a psychic victim – it’s all about me. Their ideological motivation may have been radically different from that of Guy Debord and the original psychogeographers, yet like the Situationists these particular interpreters of Islam regarded the modern city as a contrived spectacle and sought ways in which to expose it as such. The detonator was their dérive’.]
IS: It was an energising moment – in a sense, it was more like Meidner. It brought out a level of communication and a sense of being alive in the city. We were shocked back into life. We began to notice the fabric of the mundane. Instead of being traumatised, we were actually inventing rituals, foregathering, placing flowers, talking, standing still for a moment. Listening to silence. An astonishing thing, even though it’s grim, frightening for an instant, its actual effect on the city was energising and dynamic.
CM: And so was this a collectively felt sublime moment?
IS: I can’t see it as in any way sublime. My sense of the sublime, in the Wordsworthian context, is that it’s like a priestly function. This poet, this Romantic person, decides that he will undergo this experience. He knows, he pre-empts, he puts himself forward to experience the sublime. It’s not an accident. He walks in very dangerous, difficult conditions, over ice or snow and then the clouds part and whoompf! And he’s in rehearsal for that all the time — it’s a deranged state and he achieves it. The derangement of stasis, frozen nerve. The world stopped: as with the silence after the bombs. This other thing is accidental. Something erupts in the city and it throws you into a state of confusion, but that isn’t sublime. If I go out of this door now and undergo this walk down the northern sewage outfall to Beckton Alp, it’s like a parody of Wordsworthian experience, but the thing of having walked and meditated on this journey, and having arrived at a slight elevation, and seeing the city spread out — it’s a great moment, but it’s one for which you prepare, you undergo a form of initiation. It can never be accidental.
CM: Ah! Well, you see, for me it’s always accidental. It’s always a question of accident, of error, of failure, of some psychic puncturing. You’re rolling along in some semi-conscious, somnambulant state and then something suddenly occurs to snap you out of that; it’s always that unexpected, accidental event that triggers a sense of the sublime.
IS: I see what you’re talking about, but I don’t recognise that as being sublime.
CM: If you’ve already laid the stage for it to happen, if you’ve premeditated it, then it’s not able to have that revelatory effect.
IS: That’s how any form of shamanic magic is undertaken, or any of these out-of-body, transcendent experiences. You prepare, you undergo a process that is possibly unpleasant and slow and then you arrive at the incident of the sublime. You go into the trance, but you don’t just open the door and fall down the stairs, oh my God! That’s a completely meaningless thing. This other form of experience is disciplined to release you; you work hard to get to the point where you experience it. You go through some kind of trial or test to achieve it. That’s my reading.
CM: Well, my reading of Wordsworth, though, is that he tried to set himself up for this experience; he decided to go out there and have it, in a way that hadn’t been experienced or documented before — he certainly didn’t want to go through the motions of the Grand Tour …
IS: It’s the same with writing; the process of the experience, in his case, or for most writers, is that you’re doing whatever you have to do to produce language, to achieve the object: text. Again, it’s a priestly function, you’re going to be a writer and it costs. To do it, you’re going to have to undergo these things and you hope for this experience, which will later be ‘recollected in tranquillity’. That’s it; it’s to do with him being a poet. To be a poet is to be talking to the sublime, to have the Gods whispering in your ear. He can’t just blunder about and hope that something happens to him. There’s another kind of poetic, too, which I like very much: Frank O’Hara, in New York, he roams around the streets in his lunch-hour, he buys postcards, he has a coffee, he just notes down these diary-like particulars, he makes a wonderful meditation with the energies of the city. But, it’s the absolute opposite of the Wordsworthian quest for the sublime. For the sublime is slightly preposterous and ridiculous if you think about taking off in quest of it.
CM: And this is the thing for me, anyway, with Wordsworth — that he fails. He does go off in search of it; he thinks he’s going to have this experience when he’s finally up at the top of the Alps looking down over Geneva. Yet, it doesn’t happen there, it’s only when he’s lost and stumbling around the Simplon Pass that suddenly! There it is, this must be it…
IS: Sure, but he’s smart enough to know that it won’t work out exactly as you imagine it; you can’t pre-plan. With my latest venture, I thought, ‘I’m going to follow in Clare’s footsteps from Epping Forest and I’ll write an account of it, and that will be the substance of the book’. But it isn’t because the jump didn’t happen in that walk. This was an experience and I’ve logged it but it’s only when I’ve done it that something completely unexpected kicks in, whole other stories to do with topography, deep memory, loss, and to do with all sorts of things begin to happen. And that initial thing in search of it is just drudgery, a commentary on the sublime rather than the sublime itself. But, having done it, the door opens and you go through…
CM: …and you fall down the stairs…! What did happen on the Clare walk?
IS: What happened was that I knew before I started out that my wife’s family came from the same village and area as Clare, and her father had said that they were related to Clare. So she was in the village and I walked across to meet her at a particular point. Also, I discovered this wonderful thing that I hardly knew anything about — Whittlesey Mere — which was this vast inland sea, south of Peterborough, which was drained in the mid-Victorian period. Before that, it was like a version of the Lake District and there’s a great moment when Clare’s in London on his first night — which relates again to what you were talking about — and the guy he’s staying with takes him down to Westminster Bridge, the famous Wordsworthian spot, Westminster Bridge, and says, ‘Look! Here is the Thames at night!’ And Clare simply looks at it and says, ‘But it’s not as good as Whittlesey Mere’. And so London is re-made into the particulars of his own landscape, and the whole thing’s turned on its head.
CM: Yes, the sublime is -has to be- constantly re-interpreted, re-visioned.
IS: Whittlesey Mere is a place of great resonance, I discovered, in that it’s gone, it’s disappeared from the landscape – but in the middle of this land, out of the ground are emerging white stone blocks which were intended for the building of Ely Cathedral and Ramsey Abbey. What had happened was that they had fallen off the rafts bringing the stones down from Barnack quarry, near Peterborough, and Ely, and they’d sunk into the mud and been covered over. Now, out of this peaty substance, the stones have emerged, with the original masons’ marks on them, and it’s as if the medieval churches and cathedrals are coming back out of the mud in their original positions. My sense of the history and meaning gets turned upside-down, a whole subtext to do with flying and drowning, and other shamanic forms of experience emerge from then heavy ground. Anna (my wife) had first arrived there by flying in a little plane, floating across the English landscape and arriving at this particular spot. Someone I’d worked with and collaborated with on White Stones, Emma Matthews, had this terrible story of her own childhood on the river Ouse: her sister had fallen off the boat and her father had jumped in to rescue her, and they had both drowned. All of those themes were waiting for me, accessed by this plodding walk, in the footsteps of someone who had no direct connection with anything I eventually described or discussed. I was fascinated by the notion of walks and of pilgrimages …
CM: So there wasn’t any sense of a creative empathy between you and John Clare?
IS: Not with Clare – his poetry is so different – although I felt very close to his prose. I could never be a Nature poet. His cataloguing of the animals and seasons wasn’t for me, but I was very sympathetic to him as a personality, the experience he’d gone through, and his trying to make something else of himself.
CM: You also shadowed Conrad, consciously ghosting him to Hastings. But to what extent are you actually able to access the writers that you’re ghosting?
IS: Or they’re accessing you…These things are perpetually present — not so much the writers but the texts they’ve written are part of the world, they’re part of the description of London and its surroundings. And you walk into them, and you re-vamp them, and they re-vamp you. Yes, that was part of the theme of Dining on Stones, to take that form of exile. In a sense, Conrad is a sort of pre-modernist; he doesn’t belong anywhere and he’s evolving very complex structures of alienation and romance — with such difficulty — writing prose in English is agonising for him, he’s literally tearing the words out and putting them together and yet in Nostromo, he imagines this fabulous seaside kingdom. I thought that could, ironically, be imposed on Hastings. I discovered much later that just up the road from here, in the German Hospital, Conrad had been taken after his complete breakdown in the Congo. He was actually on my doorstep, and I’d been searching for him among exotic images of colonialism, and actually he’s just 200 yards up the road! And then living in Stanford-le-Hope [in Essex], just down on the A13, when he begins to write; all of those themes I’d played out for a very long time were vividly brought home.
CM: And is there some shamanic process that you go through in preparing to actively ghost another writer that you’re trying to uncover something more about, that you necessarily put yourself through?
IS: Well, it’s a mixture of accident and a questioning of the process of creating fictions. I mean, the other thing that I was trying to get at in the book is a working out of the question of whether life is a rehearsal for the book – or do you write things and then they become? The loop of narrative gets very, very strange, particularly with this Conrad thing. There’s the story, ‘Grays’, which begins in White Goods — a story of how I wanted to get on a train and do this journey, as I was very interested in the estuary town and in getting out of London. I was looking for a fiction shaped by the course of my journey. I was auditioning for a piece of prose, in a sense. I had an urge to move towards Conrad, and I had found this book somewhere on the street about Conrad’s Polish period. Something formed itself. Then strangely, after recycling my original story into Dining on Stones, a Dutch writer mentioned that he wanted to repeat this journey with me and with him came a woman – and I didn’t know this at the time, but her ‘thing’ was that she obsessively photographs surveillance installations and all those security things which have grown up in England — that’s her art, particularly when there are pairs and doubles — so we get on the train, and she’s got this Conrad book although she’d never read any and she remarked on how the book was full of ghosts. And she was much more the woman I’d invented for my story than I could ever have imagined.
CM: You’d written her into being?
IS: I’d written her into being and I was doing the journey at that moment only because I’d attempted it a week before with somebody else who was a character in Dining on Stones. There was a journey from Fenchurch St. to Rainham to find the grave of David Litvinoff and the guy who’d told me about it had said he wanted to go somewhere by train. So I was standing on Fenchurch St., watching him come towards me, and it was like something I’d already described in the book, re-enacted. And by going there, we found in Tilbury, in the World’s End pub, this locked case which had a book which seemed to be by Pepys, about the Great Fire of London, and it was something I’d never seen and I was compelled to go back and look at that too … So all of these things lie between fiction and documentation, things you set up for yourself and things that happen.
CM: But you’re actively researching them…
IS: Yes, but the ‘I’-ness, the ‘me’-ness falls away, and there is ‘a writing’ of which I’m a kind of editor.
CM: The sense of self falls away in the process of writing – and in the process of walking too?
IS: Walking is a part of writing; walking and writing are the same. It doesn’t need to be scripted. What I think of as writing is walking. I wouldn’t have set out to do the John Clare walk if I wasn’t going to write it, so I was actually writing it the minute I was in Epping Forest and heading north, even though I wasn’t copying down a single word. The process of movement, moving a body through space, is writing; and when I come to write, I’m just re-remembering, re-experiencing, shaping, revising, editing. I’m not going to give an account of the entire experience; I essentially want to register the high moments and the connections of that experience, which I will scribble down immediately at the end of the day because otherwise I’d forget things.
CM: Ah, that’s interesting. So composing and walking are analogous for you? You’ve written that you have ‘a romantic/ poetic sensibility leaning towards narrative’.
IS: Yes, though not in the Wordsworthian sense — I’m not muttering sentences as I’m walking! — But the process of walking is a form of preliminary writing or posthumous writing, either one. It’s a reverie of perception, drifting down channels that have been written and will be written. Writing is a sort of unnecessary final stage, in a sense. It’s just like taking dictation — after all the walking, the writing is immediate, a seizure. It takes no time at all. If I was just writing about walking by myself, then it would be that Wordsworthian thing of interrogating and presenting my sublime and rapturous thoughts! And it’s not there, it doesn’t lend itself to be a structure; I might do something else with it, but not create a document or a fiction. Whilst walking with others is like making a movie. Fellow walkers become elective characters in the playlet of this walk.
CM: So it’s an entirely different process then; walking with others is akin to making a film and walking alone is pure writing. Have you never been tempted to take a recording device and just capture the flood of thoughts as you’re walking, to literally catch the dictation?
IS: That’s the one device for which I’ve failed to develop any sympathy. I don’t want to use words, I don’t want to talk, it breaks the skin of things. The visual world can create its own sensory pool, its resonance; I’ll swim across it. I walk more by myself, but I write more about walking with others, as it’s necessary to fictionalise the human drama of it.
CM: You write somewhere that you photograph incessantly, that photos provide you with a sense of narrative. Photography, too, is part of the process of translation, isn’t it?
IS: It’s just a mnemonic device in the end; it’s not entirely narrative in function. I don’t want to be bothered to write down a description of exactly what’s here. A snapshot will give me a good sense of that. I’d much rather publish a book of snapshots, to be honest, if anyone would do that. It would save me writing it. I don’t want arty, beautiful photographs, but a sequence of almost-random memories that build towards a kind of documentation that is at least as true as what’s written.
CM: There’s a strong element of self-conscious preparation to encounter the sublime in your work, but there’s also a noticeable antipathy evident towards the aestheticisation of ‘it’, in both your writing and photographic documentation. In Landor’s Tower you wrote, ‘one man’s sublime is another man’s wrapping-paper’; could you deliberate on that some more?
IS: I’m against the epiphany being dialled up for you like a fast-food order. That is what is happening with these marginalized landscapes, these edge-lands that I haunt. There are laminated boards that are put up all the way along, that tell you what’s in front of you — here’s the history in six paragraphs, here are the herons, etc. The banality of the information cancels what it says. The only way you can achieve vision is by discovering it for yourself and actually kicking against it, or stepping in it.
CM: So then how do you avoid adding to this heritage industry yourself? Isn’t there a sense that in documenting your walks you’re adding to this mapping of those same edge-landscapes? By fleets of journalists and reviewers, if no one else?
IS: This is the interesting thing — I’ve done walks with journalists and their processes don’t work in that form. It falls apart. If you come to my house and sit and chat, and record it, then you’re operating on your own terms and it’s all very comfortable. You’ve got your questions, you’ve got your answers and you do a number. If you’re plodding twenty miles across a grudging landscape, that experience will overwhelm you. That happened with Kevin Jackson — as I report in London Orbital. He started out with bags of kit and lists of questions. He was hammering away in the station café before we had walked a mile – and then as the hours unroll, and the heat of the day kicks in, the fumes, the noise, all the questioning goes by the board. His feet are hurting … it’s partly exhaustion, but it’s partly that the place itself and the specifics of place just overwhelm you. Another level of experience kicks in.
CM: In Downriver, you quote a line from J.H.Pyrnne, ‘joy is the complete ground gathered underfoot’. Yet you move away from that sensual, poetic delight to more directly address socio-political concerns in relation to the city’s built environment. You’ve tried out different ways of writing out the sublime experience in your work, and you’re never entirely satisfied with any of them — there’s always a negative underwriting, a double take. You write of walking up Margam Mountain in Wales, but you walk down and up it again as if to rewind, replay and question, ‘did it really happen? Am I convincing myself here? Can I see the same thing twice? If I can’t, then it must have been real, but also if I can’t, was it really real?’ There’s that abiding notion of being unable to consolidate any experience that you’ve had that has actually removed you from your habitual responses and everyday perception.
IS: Inevitably, yes. I can remember a fantastically sublime walk, around the Gower Peninsula, from Horton to Rhossili, jagged limestone, crags and caves, hard walking with a Vorticist succession of views: that experience has stuck with me for years and years and years, but I haven’t exploited it. I may have drawn on it in very obscure poems, or as part of sequences that nobody will have read, or that haven’t been published.
CM: And was there a conscious decision to keep the experience unique for yourself? Or was it simply impossible to translate it with language?
IS: Not really, no. Any given book that I’m working on has a set of strategies arrived at for dealing with it and anything is up for grabs, as far as I’m concerned. But some experiences just don’t fit or don’t get exploited in that way. It’s difficult to talk about; it’s a particular walk of about 16-18 miles, and it’s the unexpected nature of this landscape, because it’s coming from somewhere that’s relatively mundane and pleasant, a seaside with sand-dunes, where I used to go for holidays as a kid. I have the memory of the Gower walk as an adolescent, turning the corner from this Dylan Thomas-ish folk scene, suddenly, heart-stoppingly, into this other thing, savage and fierce — and not known. We kept on going, without any map or anything else, to see what would happen, and it just went on and on and on and on … for an entire day. I arrived at the other end of the peninsula, where you could get a bus back. I knew that the Red Lady of Pavilland had been found in a cave somewhere here and I went looking for that cave … And this particular walk was repeated later with a couple of people and a couple of girls, and the quest became a different kind of challenge, how far they would go, and so the walk changed. I went back with different people at different times, but the original experience can’t be recaptured. Those walks do exist, and they are as good as it gets.
CM: So the fact that you re-write the peripatetic sublime in different ways is nothing to do with adopting a particular strategy as a means to erase your steps, an avant-garde practice that means you can never be traced or pinned to the spot? If you think about Aragon writing about Paris, for example, there’s that constant drive to move away from writing any definitive version or vision of what the city is — what it is, how it is, how it smells, etc. He doesn’t want to contain anything at the same time that he wants to include his vision of everything, he’s trying to bring the impossibility of its being into being. And then to constantly underwrite it all again, as a strategy to keep at bay the critics and those that will feed off his writing. You have written that ‘poets can afford capricious migrations’.
IS: It’s only very late in the day that anyone’s been interested in discussing the strategies that I’ve been using. I feel that’s perfectly reasonable, and I want to discuss them, I don’t consider it to be inhibiting. It’s not a ludic performance, I just do what I do, it’s not a question of confusing critics or making it interesting for researchers or writers. If that’s what you were up to, you’d really just be some sort of conceptual artist.
CM: But there’s still that playful ruse of searching, discovering, multiple identities, ghosting – this Poe-like, PI caprice, in which nothing is ever entirely revealed — fictions are always left partially unresolved — as if to do otherwise would be to ‘skewer authorship’ too much, as with Barbara Vine and her fictions – a form of writing practice about which you claim the ‘price’ to be ‘too high’: the relinquishing of the mystery. It appears that you augment a different kind of skewering in your fictive worlds, appositely constructing ‘tilted topographies’, in your words, which never right themselves…How much do you personally identify with the PI as a character?
IS: I like the genre very much – I like those kinds of movies, and the literature that goes with it, I enjoy it as a literary device.
CM: And it enables you to distance the ‘you’ that writes from the doubles that appear in your books, too?
IS: I’m not actually sure what this ‘self’ is; I think it’s a hard thing to pin down.
CM: And is it also some attempt at recuperating the magic of the city because you feel that its mysteries are under threat from new surveillance technologies?
IS: Yes, I think there’s a machinery of explainers and exploiters. That is what the city has become, an explanation of itself. Various interests are in competition to deliver the most convincing pitch, to tell us what we have failed to see: architects, planners, corrupt officials, they are revising and remaking the city; and at the same time there’s this group of artists and writers who are in conflict with them, ahead of or doing the same job in entirely different ways. A whole literature has now grown up around Brick Lane and Whitechapel, and it’s fascinating to see, because it’s absolutely in parallel with the developments that have taken place on the streets, and the properties that have been revised and reshaped. It’s historical, but I don’t think it’s ever happened to the extent that it’s happening now. After the Great Fire of London, when Wren was remapping the city, there was a wonderful sense of London being revived, restored and recreated – but does what was written alongside that parallel those changes? I can see the correlation between literature and city development begins in the era of Dickens, he’s actually talking about developments and dust-heaps as they’re happening, but often he tends to set the action a little further back in time. I think it’s only now that the world of fashion and virtual reality impinges on the actual. I think we’ll pass the point of slippage and we’ll watch while the real disappears.
CM: Which brings us back to CCTV … I wonder if surveillance technology really does affect our perceptions of reality — alienating us from mundane, lived reality — or whether it in fact acts to serve up ‘reality’ with brutal force, as for instance, when those grainy images appear on TV news bulletins after a grisly crime has been committed, as you mentioned earlier.
IS: I’ve been battering against that for a very long time. You could be a technician of this new world, someone who plays with the knobs and buttons, and downloads images, or you could be someone that they’re interested in – and they’re only interested in you if you’ve committed a crime, and broken through the boundaries of the reality that they’re monitoring. The City of London itself has now become this zone of surveillance, it is entirely covered by cameras – every inch – and they can hear what you’re saying, directional mikes can be aimed at your mouth. So you’re a voluntary actor in a drama that is not of your making.
CM: But if you’re ‘innocent’, let’s say, (or more precisely, keeping your secrets to your chest), do you remember the presence of CCTV when you’re out as an average punter on the streets? And if not, does it exert a necessarily pernicious influence? Simmel believed that every city-dweller was harbouring a secret, a secret that could be promenaded safely on the streets due to the anonymity that they afford — a perfect space of display, which yet permits of subterfuge. Secrets he imagined people were desperately clinging on to for fear of exposure.
IS: There are no innocents in this world. If you’re on camera, you’re guilty. I’ve been held at gunpoint several times for the crime of walking through a certain zone or probably for picking up a camera and taking a photograph.
CM: For walking across private land, you mean?
IS: No, no, no! Just in Bishopsgate, in the City of London, in the street. Not walking through anything, probably with a camera, yes, and taking photographs of surveillance installations, or in an IKEA car park — taking pictures of IKEA is actually a crime even though all their cameras are taking pictures of you. You’re not allowed to be self-conscious. You have to pretend that you’re in the movie and that you’ve agreed to it.
CM: But then to an extent, you’re obviously complicit in their copywriting of their own image, in the sense that you know that taking photographs of this warehouse of furniture and things is forbidden, illegal…
IS: Yeah, but why?
CM: Well, I’m not quite sure why…! But you’re quite self-consciously crossing that line. You’re too tempted not to, yes.
IS: I know it’s not allowed, and I know that I might provoke an episode that will provide good comedy. Yes, I’m quite self-consciously crossing that line, but sometimes it just bugs me to the extent that I’ll do it anyway. The way that private roads disappear from the landscape at the margin, someone will put a checkpoint in and there’s no reason for it. Footpaths and ancient rights-of-way are taken off the map; private security can just pick you up and turn you out of it. That’s a consequence of development and the notion of the ‘Grand Project’. But it doesn’t affect my point about how the cityscape has been altered and changed, to the extent that, going back to the bombings, the footage taken by orthodox TV crews, who go out with cameras on tripods and stick them up in front of you, is inert and old-fashioned. And the images that were captured on phones in the tunnels, the person just un-self-consciously filming, just allowing this event to unfold, and come through, is just extraordinary. Providing a much richer sense of the present. This new thing has evolved, an eye in the palm of your hand, a device for seeing and communicating in present time. What you see is totally different, it breaks down those old barriers of otherness, interrogator and object. And that’s a huge thing that we’ve never had before.
CM: Yes, it opens up as many possibilities as it closes down. And there are episodes in your writing in which the lens acts as a portal not simply for seeing, but for mediated access to an impersonal sublime — Kaporal in the camera obscura has a Copernican revolution in which the world ‘moves’, he has ‘free play’ over ‘visions of an earlier landscape’. The camera obscura, like the car window screen and the banks of CCTV monitors all give access to a realm of ‘pure cinema — detached and impersonal’. I think there is continuity between the effect of CCTV and the internal monitoring that Simmel recognised was a consequence of the growth of the modern city — the need for self-preservation and a projected modesty, a protection of one’s inner secret. People had a sense of checking and monitoring their behaviour before the advent of CCTV — but isn’t it just a part of social acculturation anyway, that we’re taught how to create and maintain a sense of self which needs must have a private face? I don’t think that people really focus on the fact that there is a multitude of cameras filming their every movement as they pass through the city unless they know that they’re revealing their secret, unless they’re sticking a needle in their arm or smashing a window – in which case they’d be aware of crossing their own personal threshold whether there’s a camera to reveal the digression or not. I wonder how much it does intrude on public consciousness.
IS: I don’t think it intrudes on public consciousness, but I do think it’s changing consciousness. There’s a complicit agreement between this new kind of technology and the city dweller, they’ve made a treaty to get on with each other. I don’t think it does necessarily change the way that people see themselves, but I do believe that it’s changed the nature of the city. The psychic climate of the city has been altered. It’s not to do with people perceiving themselves in any particular way. A lot of people don’t even register that this is happening. It’s become an insidious thing, it has happened: a culture of post-human gazing has been created. When CCTV was first introduced, the whole city was mapped out. In Bishopsgate, where I first saw the cameras focused on the street, nobody knew how to work them. The guys invigilating the television monitors were quite prepared to let the filmmaker Chris Petit take away tapes and put them into a documentary for Channel 4. They simply said, ‘do what you want with them, because we don’t know what they are.’ But now that’s changed, and there is a very professional way of looking which comes into its own every time there’s an outrage or crime. The technical possibilities create an expectation of disaster. The budget is so big, there has to be a bombing or an assassination to justify it. Surveillance technology incubates future shock. We have to live with it or run away to the sticks to wait for John Prescott’s bulldozers.
CM: Most people feel that surveillance technology works in their favour…
IS: Yes and they’re quite wrong. What’s happening around here, in West Hackney (aka East Islington or North Shoreditch), is that an early-Victorian square (once promoted by John Betjeman) feels itself to be a sort of oasis; while around it are various blocks of public housing, collapsed or renovated estates. Kingsland Road, which runs off the end of the Albion Square complex, has become a major drug-dealing zone. But the people living in the square like to pretend that they’re in some kind of protected country enclave, and that all this local drug running doesn’t – or shouldn’t – exist. Not in the world that they have worked so hard to inhabit, with gardens thrown open to the public and community schemes of every stripe. The fact is that now, as they walk down on to the main street, they’re thrown into this real world of muggers and drug-dealers and shooters-up, right in front of them and on their doorstep. This has led them to immediately demand CCTV cameras on every corner. As if image will somehow magically protect them — without affecting their own lives and behaviour. I think that’s quite a bizarre notion. It’s the equivalent of people hiring private security to watch over their own houses – at the expense of all other property. You shunt the feeding grounds by setting up CCTV cameras like the heads of executed criminals on poles. It’s as primitive as that. They are saying: ‘You cannot come here, you don’t deserve to be here, you’ve got no right to pass through.’ We have the machines to keep you out. It’s social engineering. The moral framework is simply self-protection. It’s like, we’re not actually volunteering to be on camera ourselves, we feel other people should be…
CM: But surely there’s recognition of the compromise that it involves for everyone. The people petitioning have to agree to be part of the play, walking on and off as bit-actors, obviously not the major players … it’s not as if installing the cameras will criminalize the criminals; the criminals are criminals anyway! The cameras simply catch them in the act.
IS: No, they’re not, not unless they’re visible. You’re only a criminal if you’re caught. That’s the definition of a criminal. Until you’ve been accused and proven guilty you are of no interest to the system. It’s a real us and them thing. There are people who are the subject of ASBOs and who are also the criminal sub-celebrities of amateur CCTV reality shows and there are people who own cameras but who are not on camera. Most of Hackney is on a provisional caution. They’re waiting for the bureaucrats to find time to process them. They’re trying to solicit the attention of cruising squad cars. Police ride, hoodies are on bikes. Bottom-feeders walk.
CM: Ultimately, the cameras won’t do anything other than portray events as they’re occurring.
IS: There are no events as they’re occurring. (Both laugh)
We leave the room – the smell of bacon has been wafting up the stairs for a good ten minutes, signalling lunch and a brief respite for IS in between interviews. He shows me to the door, and lying on the pathway to the house is an IKEA catalogue, which has been flung over the gate, American-style. As I walk down Albion Road to Kingsland Road, I pass a couple of invisible criminals trying to break into a shiny new 4 X 4 with a screwdriver, loudly delighting at the fact that the CD player has been left inside by the owner.
To Cite This Article:
Iain Sinclair in conversation with Colette Meacher Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 2 (September 2005). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2005/interview.html. Accessed on [date of access]