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Londonography: Iain Sinclair’s Urban Graphic

Julian Wolfreys

The most notable thing that struck me as I walked across this landscape for the first time were these run-down churches, and I suddenly realised, there’s this one here and that one there, and maybe there’s some connection.

Iain Sinclair, The Verbals

… an over-complicated collision of antiquarian retrievals … and hysterical satire …

Iain Sinclair, Dining on Stones

I. Graphic

In this essay, I wish not to offer a reading of any one text of Iain Sinclair’s, so much as to suggest an alternative mode of perception for Sinclair’s reader grounded in an appreciation of the radically graphic nature of Sinclair’s modes of composition. Seeking to illustrate this matter briefly with reference to a range of Sinclair’s publications, it is necessary to begin by considering what is meant by the term graphic, and how in its own etymological and semantic resonances, it might best be appropriated for the present purpose. The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following:

Graph: a kind of symbolic diagram in which a system of connexions is expressed; — graph: written, that which writes, portrays or records, drawing or writing; graphic: of or pertaining to drawing or painting; producing by words the effect of a picture; of or pertaining to writing; fit to be written on; an appearance of written or printed characters; pertaining to the use of diagrams, linear figures or symbolic curves; of a geometrical proposition; concerned with position and form, not measurement.

Following the prescriptions of the OED, what text — understanding this word to refer both to written and pictorial forms, whether drawn, painted, or printed — would not be graphic? To address the ontology of the graphic in a manner which does not take into account, however fleetingly or by allusion at the very least (as is here the case), the etymologies, genealogies, histories and fortunes of the term graph, the suffix -graph, or the word graphic would leave us open to a number of possible errors. However, the field of inquiry already anticipated is vast, covering, at the very least, everything encompassed under the heading text, addressing everything implied or signified by and in that name. It would, from the outset, require that we ask a question akin to the one already posed: what would not be textual?

One must therefore necessarily, albeit violently, delimit the fields in which we will find ourselves as we seek to address and chart the terrain, the topography and tropography of the graphic, so as to express a system of perhaps occluded connexions. The system of connexions herein being adumbrated has to do with the relation between the provisional constitution of dissonant identities of the millennial or apocalyptic city and its recurring histories of power and violence. To define more narrowly still the focus of attention: that which is to be understood apropos the graphic will be refracted through the text of Iain Sinclair. Sinclair’s London poems and narratives have arrived from the experience of walking the city and perceiving the flows of energy, as well as the immanence of invisible, yet forcefully marked patterns. He acknowledges as much in the interviews published as The Verbals. Such being the sources, the particularly graphic aspect of how to handle such material arrived for Sinclair from other sources, influenced by Stan Brakhage’s material manipulation of film: ‘I wanted to use lino cuts, very vivid colours and images, between each section [of unpublished book, Red Eye], and the sections mixed this earlier mode of domestic recording with a real mapping of London’.[1] Such techniques, adapted to writing and the representation of London, inform all of Sinclair’s major publications, whether presented exclusively the presentation of words in prose or poetry, or whether accompanied with photographs, photomontages, or illustrations produced by a number of media. Sinclair’s text is inescapably graphic. More than this appreciated and apprehended as graphic, Sinclair’s texts force on the reader the necessity of an evaluation concerning what is meant by graphic text and what forms it might come to assume apropos the city.

In being graphic, Sinclair’s texts evade analytical approaches grounded solely in narrative or thematic concerns. They demand to be taken on the one hand as modes of encrypted historiographical topography and chorography (see below), and, on the other, in being encounters with and experiences of London, are singular events, rather than merely narratives in any straightforward or conventional sense. Hence Suicide Bridge’s commingling of what Sinclair calls a ‘re-animat[ed] Blakean mythology … [and] the low life of East London’ (V, 99). This is particularly true not only of either Lud Heat or Suicide Bridge, with the Egyptian hieroglyphs and the interweaving of heterogeneous locations (‘From Camberwell to Golgotha'[2]), but also of many of the poems, in which stark temporal and cultural mappings confront the reading subject with the inefficacy of any direct approach. More fundamentally and formally, words are gathered into shapes, such as the arrow in Lud Heat (105); otherwise there are the sudden graphic interruptions in both poems occasioned by words or entire phrases spelled out in upper case letters. In somewhat more normalised or mystified fashion, what goes for the poetry goes also for the novels, the essays, and the journalism. Such events are, I wish to argue, graphic interruptions that mark and write the city topographically and historically. From certain aspects, the form of the so-called graphic novel is particularly well suited to respond to the darker aspects of the city, for it allows for textual productions that can simultaneously, or nearly simultaneously, open location and narrative moment to the various historical and material oscillations that resonate in any place in the city, as it brings together writing, photography, drawing, and other textual marks. In this, one possible reading of the graphic text is that which understands it as a chorographical discourse.

Acknowledging the difficulties with which we are confronted by so vast an area of inquiry, the topography of which is unmappable as we have admitted, this essay will examine only a few strands from Sinclair’s output that map and construct London symbolically through what I would like to describe as pictorial and narrative acts of phantastry (to which term I shall return). To anticipate in a telegraphic manner certain of the issues to be raised in more detail, allow me to refer briefly to Slow Chocolate Autopsy.[3] Neither simply a novel in the conventional sense nor solely a graphic novel or comic book, Slow Chocolate Autopsy is an uneasy, edgy, and excessive hybrid of both in its yoking together of urban violence, that incorporates the historical through invented projections of Christopher Marlowe’s death and the murder of Jack “the Hat” McVitie at the instigation of the Kray Brothers in the 1960s. Such a text, it may be argued, engages in a performative violence as the expression of its being an event. It is clearly readable as a series of responses to the recurrent patterns of violent power that write London, and which become in Sinclair’s writing a graphic reiteration of the patterns of power that take place historically across London’s topography as, for Sinclair, in his desire to resist acceptable appropriations of London into heritage-culture narratives, fundamental determinants of London’s identity.

What I want to describe provisionally, and solely for the purposes of the present consideration as Sinclair’s Londonography, is the way that mode of representation effects its disquieting force, not through ‘illustration’ in a pictorial rather than a written sense, but via synchronous revelation. Sinclair’s graphic mode “does violence” to the eye, as well as to the language, in its multiplicity of signs irreducible to any calm order or linear narrative logic. It offers something akin to a performative speech act in the excess of its simultaneity, in that the form of the graphic — we might say the graphic form of the graphic — in being irreducible to a single order of signs architectonically arranged, does not merely describe or narrate an event, it effectively stages that event through the multiplicity of signs configured as the simultaneous transmission (and, in principle, reception), of any single page.

I am speaking here of a simultaneity by which the pages’ spatiality confounds the temporalities of reading and narrative, and thereby announces as an analogous correlative to the mystery of the crime depicted, the undecidability that lurks at the heart of any act of analysis or autopsy (an important word in Sinclair’s lexicon). Such simultaneity and its impossible or at least unjustifiable disentangling operates according to what Jacques Derrida calls, in speaking of the photo-novel, “the order of the series or temporalities,” the movements of which announce “the space of the labyrinth and the simultaneity of the [checker] board,” and the possibility to “traverse or cross through the narrative sequences in several directions.”[4] At any moment in any novel or, indeed, poem, by Sinclair, one may read the opening of different temporalities, narrative trajectories, and other potential lines of flight from the subject’s encounter with or experience of location. The London locus for Sinclair is always the imminent site of graphic excess, a ground teeming with innumerable traces. Thus the graphic text of Iain Sinclair graphically (as it were) simultaneously presents and dismantles the simultaneity of presentation and representation, re-presentation of the presentation within representation.

II. Chorography [khora + -graph][5]

Though given relatively recent attention in the work of Gregory Ulmer, and bearing a passing resemblance to the Situationist International’s concept of psychogeography, chorography is an Early Modern discourse relating frequently to cartography, one of the most famous extant examples being Michael Drayton’s self-styled “topo-chrono-graphical” poem, Poly-Olbion, printed in 1613.[6] While the term chorography has been superseded by the terms geography and topography, the use of the word is suggestive for the reading of Sinclair in ways that neither topography nor psychogeography are, because of the interwoven temporal, cultural and ideological ramifications that accompany and inform the discursive practice. The purpose of chorography for Elizabethan intellectuals was to map the various historical, folkloric, and cultural resonances which could be unearthed in one location, specifically at the county level, as a means of producing a mythical and ideological identity that acknowledged the singularity of place while showing analogically the resonance, both temporally and spatially, between local and national identity.

It was also, often, an act of writing aiming to generate complex and unanticipated relations in the reading of place, thereby performing vertiginous dislocations from within undifferentiated ideologies in the service of cultural mythologization and mystification. Furthermore, early modern chorography offers a symbolic alternative to the construction of identity, thereby countering chronicle histories, such as that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, which assert the hegemonic imperatives of family and dynasty related in a linear, progressive narrative at the expense of place and the cultural memory of location. The writing of chorographical texts, such as John Stow’s Survey of London (1598), involve the recording of detail gathered in the act of walking through a location such as the city. In this implicitly graphic and iterable process of walking-as-mapping, and writing as the memory of motion, the chorographic text anticipates the interactions, the motifs and motivations, which inform the multilayered tracing of resonances in any one of Sinclair’s publications. While Stow’s Survey tends to support dynastic hegemonic claims, other texts such as Drayton’s Poly-Olbion unearth counter-hegemonic narratives and events peculiar to local identities of place, so that there is at work a form of counter-memory, from which broader notions of alternative identities are formed.

In effect, this is what is at stake in the contest over the identities of London, both the city and certain of its forgotten or marginalized inhabitants, in texts as disparate as Rodinsky’s Room, Radon Daughters, or Slow Chocolate Autopsy. Anamnesiac ‘afterimages’ of site and event are generated, graphic mappings of ‘collective historical memory, haunting images … that ha[ve] the capacity for a social reawakening’.[7] Thus, Sinclair’s urban graphics, in their chorographical articulation, have the potential to call up forgotten memories. Additionally, location does not merely call up memory. It can be figured as a materialised and encoded medium of anamnesis through which writing re-marks what is already there. As Sinclair has it in London Orbital (a title perhaps deliberately mimicking and yet resisting all that is implied in the London Eye and its erection), ring roads are ‘pastoral memory rind[s] at the edge of things’.[8] Here as the figure of the ring road duplicates in prose the graphic demarcation of the building of such a road, edge operates in at least two ways. On the one hand, it names boundary, liminal interstice. The city becomes ‘zoned’ by the material presence. On the other hand, the association of the road with the conceit of memory’s rind intimates another liminal locus — that of what is forgotten and what is recalled. On the edge of memory and the city, the mark left by the road mediates, as mnemic trope in Sinclair’s prose, between observation and the recollection or recovery of the historical determination of distinctions between the urban and the suburban.

Such a practice should not be mistaken as some kind of pseudo-mystical act of communing filtered through a post-Situationist sensibility. As Sinclair has remarked, his work is intended to have a ‘bit more bite … than the whole ley-line thing which is … [a] bit soggy’ (V 75). Describing how he writes he acknowledges that it is shaped by ‘[p]atterns and lines and ways of moving’ (V 75). In the revenance that is made possible in Sinclair’s writing, whereby the experience of the city is translated as the textual event, as writing takes place it also gives place. It promises to reinscribe location with a ghostly palimpsest that traces an event is temporally both before and after: already having occurred it returns in the graphic refiguring of Sinclair’s text, but is never there as such. Thus when Sinclair comments in Dining on Stones that walking is in effect ‘cutting into an historic landscape’ (DS 13), he is being more than metaphorical. The walk only comes to be known after it has taken place, once it is re-marked in the novel or documentary text. That which the subject enacts, thereby invoking the already-present, though immaterial ‘patterns, lines and ways of moving’ is a momentary graphic intervention, which itself recedes simultaneously with its occurrence, only to return in a retraced manifestation of itself in another medium.

Retention and protention, then, and always the graphic trace without any presence whatsoever.

To consider this in a different context, and taking what is perhaps Iain Sinclair’s most sustained meditation on the relation between subject and memory, and the textual grafting of a forever-absent subject through anamnesiac invention onto the city, Rodinsky’s Room moves between identity, subjectivity, the uncanniness of the abandoned domicile and the city.[9] There is never a David Rodinsky, only graphic reminders that he is a ghost, themselves to be reiterated in other’s hands, and coming to pass between the remainders of his past that serve as so many ruined aides de mémoire, and the ‘futurity’ of projection implied in the writing of the text. Rodinsky becomes inscribed onto the city that he has already passed through, and from which he has disappeared.

Sinclair acknowledges and enacts this doubling temporal simultaneity and displacement often in disconcerting manner throughout his writing. In presenting to the gaze the multiplicity of textual and therefore graphic signs, all of different orders, the graphic condition of representation as reconceived in this essay invents radically. At the heart of both the city and the writing of it for Sinclair is ‘the belief that something … happens in a place [that] permanently affects that place … There are these acoustic chambers in the city, voices and echoes …’ (V 76). While the truth of this will be familiar to the Sinclair reader, what is interesting to note is the relationship between the line and the echo, between the material tracing, and subsequent retracing, and the invisible, amaterial resonance or echolalia, which leaves its acoustic-graphic imprint on London as the city’s spectral imprimatur. Sinclair forces the relationship further, when in Dining on Stones he observes, in relation to the admission that ‘all composition is memory’ that the city is informed by ‘visible echoes’ (DS 417; emphasis added). What is invisible, intangible becomes visible. More than this, not only does it become visible, it leaves its mark on the subject, graphically so. With regard to the graphic gesture that charts the secret histories of the city, such invention is readable as the most apposite of textual analogies with regard the very condition and identity of the city, especially as the text addresses matters of myth, alternative history, power and violence as being constitutive elements in the identity of London.

Thus the graphic text’s response to London is read as being one that is markedly faithful to the ineradicably temporal and textual condition of London, in all its graphic and material excesses and distortions; its faithfulness is witnessed in its ability to convey the ways in which ‘certain streets or neighbourhoods carry with them a particular atmosphere over many generations’.[10] Such communication marks the reader with the permanent ‘sense of strangeness in London’.[11] It is with such strangeness that the texts of Sinclair confront us, inviting us to consider the grammar and syntax of the abyss. Such a process of writing is, moreover, urgently necessary. For, as Sinclair has it in Dining on Stones ‘[h]istory has ended. It was (and remains) a TV channel’ (DS, 361). Like the representational televised image, official history has only the ability to reproduce the false, and to limit one’s apprehension to the immediate transparency of that which mimetic representation can accommodate. Instead, a radical graphics of representation can, like the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor to which Sinclair (and others) have been repeatedly drawn, impose on the eye compounded, simultaneous, yet heterogeneous marks of ‘different ears, piled one on top of the other (but staying, miraculously, vertiginously, in balance)’ (DS, 396). Although Sinclair is describing Christ Church, Spitalfields, is he not also, in effect, confessing to his own modes of construction, to the architextural in his Londonography?

III. Londonography

In the words of Norton, Iain Sinclair’s seemingly ubiquitous narrator, ‘stick any two postcards on a wall and you’ve got a narrative’ (SCA 88). Line, graphic trace, emerges out of visual encounter, not as a direct or mimetic representation of what is seen directly in that experience. The observation of conjunction and its power to produce a trajectory provides a fitting aphorism to define those graphic modes of production that interrupt and exceed the linearity of conventional narrative, with which the reader of Sinclair will be familiar. Such a mode of literary production admits the possibility, or at least the illusion of randomness and chance occurring in the encounter with the city as that becomes enacted in writing. It admits of changes in direction, an open passiveness to the arrival of future unexpected directions in which narrative of London might at any moment travel. Equally significantly, Norton’s post-card theory of imagistic construction announces the very violent intrusion that just is the graphic, whereby the work of the hand causes to appear that which was hitherto invisible. Of course the graphic mark is violent in another way. For the lines of flight it delineates, in being decided on, necessarily exclude every other possibility. However, in the chorographic text the reader is at least offered visions of potential other clews to trace, narrative weaves to unravel, in a manner that exceeds any present moment.

What arrives has the power to produce an uncanny effect therefore; though, we must remember, it is not an example of the uncanny in and of itself. Sinclair often toys with the motif or trope of the ghost, perhaps nowhere more insistently than in Lights Out for the Territory, the very title of which plays historically and topographically on a certain haunting instability, between an idiom of Mark Twin’s and what amounts to a political diagnosis of Thatcher’s London. That there is a relationship between the urban and the uncanny is inescapable. For, in order for there to be some haunting, there has to be a place, spatial, topographical, architectural, in which the event of the spectral and one’s experience of that can take place. Thus

At this point on the map we are all Estuary Egyptians: like the Victorian cemetery designers, we want to dabble in a more exotic iconography. The white obelisk of St Luke, to the south across the City Road basin, is an hieratic intention botched by unplanned industrial development. That glyph of sun/water/stone remains securely in the mind’s eye.[12]

Arguably, what is uncanny in this representation is precisely its understanding, its apperception of a multiplicity of simultaneous times being traced in one location. The subject responds to and relays to the reader in particularly graphic terms, the confluence of different myth systems, different semantic and epistemological networks, and differing historical frames of reference. Noticeably, there is a sense of a phantom-graphic impression, registered through that acknowledgement of the glyph remaining in the mind’s eye. Clearly then, the uncanny in this ‘taking place’ is not simply the condition of the locus, even though the site is a necessary precondition for the urban subject to experience the uncanny. As Anthony Vidler suggests: ‘The “uncanny” is not a property of the space itself nor can it be provoked by any particular spatial conformation; it is, in its aesthetic dimension, a representation of a mental state of projection that precisely elides the boundaries of the real and the unreal to provoke a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming’.[13] Thus, in the chorographical writing of the city, Sinclair registers graphically the motions of the amaterial trace, and so focuses the reader’s attention on that phantom-graphic oscillation, as can be witnessed here, from Radon Daughters: ‘Spasms of language, ameliorated by the random collisions of the city’.[14] As with innumerable occasions in Sinclair’s prose, there appears here the ghost of self-referentiality, as if he were writing about his own writing, and through that opening for the reader a glimpse of the uncanny urban experience, as it leaves its incision on the self. Slightly displaced, perhaps unhinged, in the shadow of London’s many absences, the graphic condition of the text enacts location and event in an uncanny series of sequential and simultaneous displacements and dislocations in lieu of the city, offering the reader of Sinclair so many phatic snapshots, postcards, by the arrival of which the city is announced, however indirectly. The relationship between the elements of a structure translates as those elements transmit.

Thus locus or structure as realised topography and chorography — the structurality of structure — has, implicated within the formal presentation that seems merely synchronous, a number of temporalities; having to do on the one hand with the times, if not the untimeliness, of communication and reading — even when all the signs appear to be there in the same frame, or as the structural elements comprising that frame (for even the most apparently formal element is not only a base or support but also, in principle, an articulation, however silent); and concerning, on the other hand, the traces of the material, of a site or text’s historicity. Despite the material and historical dimensions at work here, what returns is immaterial and yet is capable of producing a material effect. The multiple temporalities immanent within any frame or complex of graphic traits facilitate and yet interrupt the subject’s consciousness in the event of reception and in response to the event of perception. As Husserl remarks, the now of apprehension, in this case the perception of the city in the graphic texts with which we are concerned, has about it a sense of belatedness. One gathers, in apprehension, what Husserl terms ‘earlier now-points of the motion’, which are, themselves, apprehensions of, and marked by, still earlier now-points.[15] Only a few signs are gathered, beyond which lies an unmappable topography composed from the ineffable totality of diachronic and synchronic lines of flight in endless intersection.

The megalopolis often emerges in Sinclair’s writing as necropolis (as the passage just cited from Lights Out should make apparent). Yet in being a city of the dead, Sinclair’s graphic manipulations of time, place and confluence offer London as being uncannily alive, after a fashion. Neither quite living nor dead, the city arrives as so many liminal sites and crossings, animated through intermittent pulsations of so many heterogeneous marks and signals, phantasmic flows that are disembodied, barely present (if at all), either to sight or hearing. Synchrony and anachrony, framing and disjointing as well, all are intimately entwined with one another, as is clear in the various narrative-temporal-historical loops of a novel such as White Chappell, Scarlett Tracings. The sites of any Sinclair novel are connected by the passage of the narrative that reads significance and pattern onto aleatory motion in a redrawing of the map. This is apprehended most immediately in the charting of the pentagram overlaid as the psychic topography punctuated by Nicholas Hawksmoor’s churches, the V traced through London in the first essay of Lights Out, or indeed, the orbital line, perhaps reminiscent of the dentated serpent circling the Tradescant tomb, that emerges through its historical and mythical counterpoints as pursued in London Orbital. Sinclair’s punctuations sketch invisible relations, and thus open onto other histories, to specific events often irrelevant to that historical event on which the narrative latches initially.

It is as if the energy of the city is so forceful that, in being relentlessly dragged by London’s energy fields, the narrator in Sinclair will catch hold of almost anything from the confusion of signals in order to be able to discern in the graphic re-tracing a narrative ground, some figural motif to economize on the abyss. Such instances of the graphic figure in their now-time [Benjamin’s jetztzeit] of presentation and staging an instance of chorographical perception, retaining in the conjoined relation of presentation and perception ‘the past … which is to say absence’, or what Husserl has termed the retention of now-points [jetztpunkt], as we have already remarked. Neither simply narrative nor image then, the city is marked symbolically, that is to say graphically (to recall the definitions from the OED), and in the apparent synchrony of the frame presentation takes place ‘by virtue of this retention [of the invisible shape] constitutive of the act of perception as “a single continuum that is continuously modified”.'[16] This continuum, called by Husserl a Heraclitean flux, is what both enables and disables; and it is in the articulation of this impossible simultaneity that the graphic text shows itself as a singularly appropriate medium of response to the uncanny structures of the city’s spatial and temporal identities.

IV. Slow Chocolate Autopsy

Dave McKean’s images from Slow Chocolate Autopsy map and project such circuits tellingly. In a number of montages that gather together photographs, film-stills, fragments of type, pen and pencil drawings, maps and etchings, McKean projects uncanny chorographical forms that serve to figure London and particular strands from the history of its discomposed identity. In the various acts of yoking together the heterogeneous fragments and traces, McKean illustrates how the work of the graphic artist is to provide the autopsy, to demonstrate how ‘history [is] that which has passed away’ as Elissa Marder remarks,[17] and which is therefore, only ever available as the projection of assembled graphic elements having to do with place and event. In one such image from Slow Chocolate Autopsy, (SCA, 87) we witness road-signs, surveillance cameras, scraps of text, a Hawksmoor church, a distorted image of an obelisk, the head of a gargoyle a barely discernible, shadowed face superimposed onto an arched window, a cartouche, and projection lines offering some kind of mapping the purposes of which are undecidable. Everything floats, a near simultaneous gathering of graphics irrecuperable into any single form or identity, other than that which might be signalled in the name London.

Each image, each piece of text, performs as a kind of memory-fetish of the city; bearing no connection to any one temporal moment, each trace can be read as serving as ‘a kind of memory trace of a mode of inquiry that does not simply obey the dubious temporality'[18] of linear narrative, narrative presentism, or historical ‘progress’. McKean’s illustrations realize the immanence of Sinclair’s prose. They enact the gathering and concatenation of random now-points, where the narratives are only ever immanent or implicit, or they can chart or imply violent events or narratives through inventions of identity and memory that traverse time. The graphic produces, as it performs, snapshots of history, snapshots of sites and locales, topographies and cultural memories, in the single, and therefore uncanny, location of the frame or panel as the instantaneous autopsy of a ‘series of relayed looks’.[19] In addition, the graphic makes possible the merest chance that what Françoise Dastur describes as the ‘silent event of the encounter'[20] come into ghostly being in the relation between apperception and the multiplicity of the trace. There is thus presented to the gaze — and in this presentation there is also a demand that one bears witness — to an iterable relay of passing moments, oscillating between one another as analogous, ghostly figures of each other, and through the passage of time. This is to be witnessed in another illustration from Slow Chocolate Autopsy (60).

The illustration in question, part of the title page to Chapter Two of Slow Chocolate Autopsy, involves a multiple projection: there is a map of London’s East End, first published in the 1880s, a film still, and a handmade mark on the image. The chapter itself, “No More Yoga of the Nightclub,” offers the reader an imaginative reinvention of the murder of Jack “The Hat” McVitie, in 1967, as witnessed by Sinclair’s time-travelling narrator, Norton. A member of the Kray Brothers’ gang (who, along with the Richardson family, controlled much of organized crime in London’s East End, South London, and Soho during the late 1950s and 1960s), McVitie was killed by Tony and Chris Lambrianou at the order of the Krays, for which murder, along with that of associate George Cornell, they were imprisoned. In Sinclair’s version, McVitie is described as ‘memorising the geography of an event which had not yet happened’ (SCA 66). He has visions of London architecture in the 1990s (68). In this world ‘boundaries warped’ (75), and ‘London settled on its proper axis’ (67). Sinclair’s narrative relies for its effects on disruptions of temporality and space, on alignments in the force field of the city, and McKean’s montage figures such effects analogously, in its combination of film still and map. The still is taken from John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1979), a story of the decline and fall of gangland London. In the image, we see gang boss Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) to the right of the car (a Jaguar, de rigueur in London gang mythology). The scene from which this still comes is shot in London’s Dockland. The location on the map included in the illustration is Whitechapel, the district infamous for the Ripper murders as many will know, but also the site of one of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s churches, Christ Church, Spitalfields.

McKean’s montages figure an impossible simultaneity, the possibilities for the analysis of which are, in principle, endless. The emphasis, as already remarked, is on difference rather than identity; what disturbs in the montage is the reliance on a knowledge of particular East End histories of different orders, so that there is implied an iterable revenance of violent events in close proximity, and with multiple intertextual and discursive resonances. With its immediate citation of film and topography, and from there to other discourses and narratives (myth, architecture, paganism, freemasonry), the image promises an opening from within and yet beyond, as well as in excess of its immediate presentation. And then there is that obviously graphic intrusion, which might be read as either a ladder or a strip of film stills or negative frames. McKean’s singular image is fascinating: for, in figuring the different times of one particular location in London, along with events of differing orders and different modes of presentation, it bears in it the burden for bearing witness to history in inventive ways that open rather than foreclose acts of reading, whereby chorography and autopsy are caught up in a potentially infinite relay.

This can be expanded upon in the following manner. While ‘every history’ is ‘incontestably unique, [and] contains structures of its own conditions of possibility’, as Reinhart Koselleck comments in The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, the ‘finitely delimited spaces’ in which historical events take place have the possibility of changing ‘with a speed other than that of the events themselves’. Every event is thus marked by a ‘temporal multilayeredness’. Such temporal layering and spatial iterability define the ways in which the chorographically inclined graphic text functions. History, Kosselleck avers, ‘proves to be the space for possible repeatability; it is never only diachronic, but, depending on how it is temporally perceived and experienced, it is also synchronic’.[21] We might add to this that the effect of possible repeatability is a translation effect, from the materiality of history to the materiality of the letter (or, indeed, any graphic mark), and that history is in principle translated into historiography. The multilayered surface of an illustration such as McKean’s-and, indeed, any given passage from Sinclair’s writing-renders visible that which is already suggested in the map, the locus, and by the topography and history of the city’s sites, laying bare as it were the occluded chorography beneath its more familiar ‘dermis’.

The radical, phantom-graphic negotiation of which I am speaking effects a mediumistic communication. The passage as prose or poetic montage, along with the montage image call together in the act of making visible the ineffable forces that inform the city. Uncannily, the refusal of a single time, whereby every moment is opened in the now-time of reading, of looking, of experience, suggests that the reader is drawn into this matrix, even as the subject-position exceeds the frame reciprocally in a moment of disturbing temporal passage. For the reader’s gaze assumes the position of the narrating subject’s eye, and thus we are simultaneously figured, implicated in the moment of the frame and in our own time of reading; ours is the eye observing a hand both ours and not ours. Furthermore, we are implicated in what Derrida has referred to as le plus-de-vue, ‘the (no)-more-sight … the visionary vision of the seer who sees beyond the visible present, the overseeing, sur-view, or survival of sight'[22] (it is this which is registered in Jack McVitie’s visionary apostrophes, and Dave McKean’s montages). In this one moment — a moment that is both more and less than one moment, irreducible to a single instant, a sole now-point — the past is never quite past, over or done with; in the double moment of autopsy, analysis and/as the act of seeing with one’s own eye, the pasts of London overflow the frame, the image, the page, so that we are called to trace the connections and bear witness to only a few of the chorographical resonances. Inscription promises to trace, after the event, the immanent trait, the invisible graphic, a not-yet visible structure that will never be present, as we have said. At the same time a graphic heterogeneity is admitted. It is a heterogeneity, as Derrida explains, ‘between the thing drawn [in this case the traces of historical narratives] and the drawing trait [that] remains abyssal …. This heterogeneity of the invisible to the visible can haunt the visible as its very possibility’.[23] And so perception is solicited uncannily, as the force of what can never be witnessed traverses the field of vision in the reception and retention of the graphic in all its multiple motions.

In the images from Slow Chocolate one possible configuration for the otherwise unmappable chrono-topography of a monstrous megalopolis unveils itself. One possible projection of the city as graphic text, as chorography, has the chance of crossing the invisible. Graphic intersections generate the possibility of an image, a phantom site or narrative from within the materiality and history of the city. At stake therefore is the manifestation of the relationship between a certain haunting, uncanny persistence of violence and the idea of the millennial or apocalyptic city, as this can be expressed through the graphic novel. Implicit in this is a two-fold concern: on the one hand, with the ways in which the material environment, the materiality of site and its histories might be understood to determine or to impose itself graphically on writing and image, and, on the other, to explore ways in which writing, in the broad sense of all forms of graphic mark, shapes itself through singular responses so as to attune its representation most faithfully to the call of the city.

V. Phantastry

Something is clearly at work here, having to do with the visionary evocation of what we are tempted to describe as the spirit of London. If Sinclair’s texts can be read as manifestations of chorographic discourse, they are also receivable in another manner. For what should by now be clear is that the graphic, as I am defining its operation in Sinclair, operates through serial and iterable processes of visualization, of making visible the invisible, giving momentary material or graphic articulation to the phantasms of the city’s histories, myths, to what are perceived as the capital’s recurrent psychic forces; or, to articulate this a little differently, the graphic text gives visibility to the invisible traits that write the city in particular ways. In this, every passage figures the work of every other passage, in a graphic iterability of the very condition of the graphic itself: to project momentarily ‘an encounter with the dead, with the ghostliness of ancestral voices and intertextual hauntings’,[24] and thereby re-mark the trace of endless, illimitable flux.

The graphic inscription of such fluxions we designate, in concluding this essay, phantastry, a term serving to signify the phantasmic performative of phantom-graphic modes of production. This word, phantastry, is now almost wholly forgotten. In being nearly invisible — though materially there on the page, it nonetheless resists revelation of any certain meaning — it comes to have its chance in the analysis of the graphic manifestation of what Iain Sinclair has described as the ‘sticky webs of memory’ that trace the city (DS 102). Taking the image above as our immediate example of phantastry, we comprehend an instance of single, fragile synecdoche, a singular semi-fluid figure serving in this essay as a mediation of the ‘conduit for the spirit of place'[25] as that which takes place in the work considered here. Phantastry’s simultaneous materiality and hieratic exclusion does double service in fact; for it figures both the graphic text’s ability to draw our attention to the self-replicating and dividing limits of iterability and un/readability, and the abyssal, untotalizable text that is London.

Appearing to admit of a relation, obviously, both to fantasy and phantasy, and being, we might say a long-lost relative, phantastry’s strangeness materializes, for me at least, that which passes graphically, and thus silently, between phantasy / fantasy; it traces a movement for me between lyrical, possibly non-rational, composition inimical to the drive and tyranny of narrative and psychic projection. The trace of that spectral apparition or phantom that haunts this particular family of words arrives, having to do with what comes to light, and what brings with it illumination. This somewhat dusty term signifies a fantastic display or performance, marked by ostentation or affectation. Proposing, finally, a strong reading of the word, one might understand it as one possible manifestation of what might otherwise be called a trope or a conceit. Moreover, phantastry also refers to a visionary delusion, the projection or phantasm of a fevered or disoriented imagination, perhaps even that particular delusion described by Sinclair as “the madness of seeing London as text. Words. Dates. Addresses. No brick that has not been touched, mentioned in a book” (DS 100).

If there is a madness in seeing London as a text, it is an instability contracted from the city’s chorographic identities, which arrive unexpectedly to leave an indelible, graphic trace on the subject. This is traced nowhere more completely, more graphically, than in the following passage from Dining on Stones:

The man whose magnum opus the Mare Street woman was promoting, peddling around town, had cultivated a massive brain tumour, which pressed angrily on his optic nerves. He had X-rays of the intruder — which he superimposed over a map of medieval London, the walled City. He walked the shape of his pain, his unlanguaged parasite, into the map. His tiny script, pages of it, was hardy to read than my own. But I caught the drift. I didn’t want to be suckered into another malign fiction, in which his story became my story, my reading of his cuneiform text. (DS 13)

The attempted resistance to urban possession is of course already too late for Norton/Sinclair, as we know. The city grows, malignantly, with every walk that stalks and cuts, but only causes a process of excessive, graphic metastasization. Even the Situationist pun — I caught the drift — suggests the passage from one sufferer to another. There are moreover suggestive transferences from Radon Daughters, echoes not only of Sileen’s addiction to X-ray exposure, but his fear of the horror-story ‘drift’, that phantastic ‘contamination’ between subject positions, between ‘He/I’ (RD 12), which ‘arbitrary shift’ exemplifies in its turn the image of ‘[f]riable pages of text reeling across the cobbles’ (RD 12). In the passage from Dining on Stones, transference between ‘he’ and ‘I’ is already ghost-accommodated in the subject’s response to the city.

To read the work of haunting, both in and of the urban environment, and to see the oscillation of the spectral as an uncanny countersignature to, and emerging from within, cultural space, is to perceive, through that reading, a disquieting disruption. As Sinclair says in acknowledgement of the persistence of ghostly motion, ‘facts kept leaking into my fictions, the borders were insecure’ (DS 115). The leakage of which Sinclair speaks is undoubtedly also readable as that hauntological flow that disrupts temporally distinct moments, and serves in its transgression of boundaries to offer one more graphic image as the contemporary urban writer addresses London. The revenant just is the phantom-graphic, barely discernible and yet in its return demanding to be read. A trace not to be confused with the object for which it might stands, this passing ruin, in alluding to a text that can never be read in full, invites imaginative concatenations that in turn generate alternative histories and histories of the other.

The graphic condition of Sinclair’s phantom-graphic interventions disturb the boundaries and ontologies of genre and of aesthetic ideology, where matters of value are related to questions of cultural significance in the maintenance of particular heritages. There is a sense that Sinclair’s writing, conceivable as so many singular acts of mediumship (or, as Sinclair himself might prefer, shamanic activity), acknowledges if not a political then perhaps an ethical responsibility. Additionally, to write of environment, location, cultural space as haunted, and thereby to liberate occluded or forgotten narratives, intimates what Nicholas Royle has described as ‘an encounter with the dead, with the ghostliness of ancestral voices and intertextual hauntings’.[26] Yet any location is undoubtedly overdetermined by countless, excessive traces. All resonate simultaneously, all vie for attention, whether we recognize them or not. Sinclair admits as much in Radon Daughters, when it is realised, in a moment of Swedenborgian epiphany, that

the lost rivers of London — Black Ditch, Walbrook, Neckinger, Effra, Tyburn — affect[s] all surface life …. They were our unconscious. Somewhere in that drifting unfocused world the link was to be found. A door would open on the mysteries of life and death, being and non-being, good and evil. (RD, 139)

Indicative of an invisible network beneath the streets of the city, the catalogue of rivers offers a instance that is tempting to read as intertextual haunting, resonating as it does (via the considerations of Swedenborg that contextualize the revelation of the passage) with catalogues of London location that are to be found in Blake’s Jerusalem, Of course the intertextuality resounds multiply, producing not an echolalalia but what we might call a graphalalia, a disorienting, abyssal condition (named in this essay phantastry). Such lists can be found throughout Sinclair’s writing, disjointed and possibly hieratic co-ordinates, signifying an absent, encrypted, and quite possibly unmappable topography. The desire is for an other London to arrive, but this is not necessarily a London that will, one day, be present. The graphic text may be read as articulating, making visible through its excessive and phantastic representations the seemingly Rosicrucian apprehension that a sign can be simultaneously transparent, available, unequivocal, and encrypted. London is composed of such signs, secrets that are all at once in plain sight and yet which remain withdrawn. Thus there is to be acknowledged in the phantom-graphic a ‘fundamental aesthetic experience that always mediates spirit and sense … in the formation of judgement’.[27] Recognizing this therefore, how one mediates, writes, and reads the city’s flux, its play of phantom-voices and traces, in which one glimpses the ‘hieratic imposing on demotic’ (DS 63), comes into focus. If writing, as a response to cultural space or environment, to topography, and event is to acknowledge its ethical responsibility in its encounter (however impossible the demands of that responsibility might be), what modes of representation, we have to ask, might be appropriate? Perceiving the graphic in the writing of Sinclair, in all its processes of montage and temporal multi-layeredness offers one possible answer, however seemingly delusional or encrypted such a response might be.


[1] Kevin Jackson and Iain Sinclair, The Verbals (Tonbridge: Worple Press, 2003), 97. Hereafter given parenthetically as V.

[2] Iain Sinclair, Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge (1975, 1979) (London: Granta, 1998), 77.

[3] Iain Sinclair and Dave McKean, Slow Chocolate Autopsy (London: Phoenix House, 1997); reference to Slow Chocolate Autopsy will be given as SCA; Iain Sinclair, Dining on Stones or, The Middle Ground (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2004). All references are given parenthetically as DS.

[4] Jacques Derrida and Marie-Françoise Plissart, Rights of Inspection, (1985) trans. David Wills (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1998), n.p.

[5] For a brief, informative discussion of the significance and practice of chorography in Early Modern England, see Bruce McLeod, The Geography of Empire in English Literature 1580-1745 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 95-99.

[6] William Camden, Britain (1610). For a reading of chorographical texts and their ideological function, see Richard Helgerson, ‘The Land Speaks’, in Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 107-47.

[7] Jonathan Crary, ‘Spectacle, Attention, Counter-Memory’, in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Tom McDonough (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 455-67; 460.

[8] Iain Sinclair, London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25 (London: Granta, 2002), 71.

[9] Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair, Rodinsky’s Room (London: Granta, 1999).

[10] Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000), 504. Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot’s biographer, (T. S. Eliot [London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984]) appears a couple of times at least in Martin Rowson’s The Waste Land, once as a cab-driver, and another as a barman in ‘The Fire Sermon’.

[11] Ackroyd, London, 503

[12] Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory (London: Granta, 1997), 155.

[13] Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 11. Vidler’s contention is given in the text box on this page.

[14] Iain Sinclair, Radon Daughters: A voyage, between art and terror, from the Mound of Whitechapel to the limestone pavements of the Burren (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 12. Hereafter RD.

[15] Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893-1917), trans. John Barnet Brough (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991) §11, 32.

[16] Françoise Dastur, Telling Time: Sketch of a phenomenological chrono-logy, (1994) trans. Edward Bullard (London: Athlone Press, 2000), 29.

[17] Elissa Marder, Dead Time: Temporal Disorders in the Wake of Modernity (Baudelaire and Flaubert) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 68.

[18] Marder, Dead Time, 9.

[19] Marder, Dead Time, 68.

[20] Dastur, Telling Time, 71.

[21] Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, trans. Todd Samuel Presner et al., Foreword Hayden White (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 75

[22] Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, (1990) trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 47.

[23] Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, 45.

[24] Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny (London: Routledge, 2003), 147.

[25] Iain Sinclair, Landor’s Tower or, the Imaginary Conversations (London: Granta, 2001), 15.

[26] Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny (London: Routledge, 2003), 147.

[27] Koselleck, Practice of Conceptual History, 197.

To Cite This Article:

Julian Wolfreys, ‘Londonography: Iain Sinclair’s Urban Graphic’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 2 (September 2005). Online at Accessed on [date of access]