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The energy of the walker, the absorption of the passenger

Joe Moshenska

Two years ago, the notion of discussing the idea of the passenger in the work of Iain Sinclair would have appeared slightly absurd. Sinclair is, after all, the man who walks, and who relies upon the tactile immediacy of the experiences which fill his work. But Sinclair’s two most recent major works, London Orbital and Dining on Stones, have seen him gravitate away from the winding intricacies of Whitechapel and other customary haunts towards the periphery of London, the disputed borderland interlaced with the thoroughfares which constitute his latest obsession: the M25 and the A13. This has in turn led to a contextualisation of the act of walking, an implicit juxtaposition of Sinclair’s own actions with those of the vehicle-bound who zip past him and his walking companions. It is my intention to offer a sketch of the depiction of walking and driving in Sinclair’s work; and by contrasting Sinclair as walker with the figure of the passenger, who occupies an ambiguous role between these two activities, to accentuate significant aspects of Sinclair’s particular mode of urban experience.

1. Close enough to touch: the energy of the walker

In The Verbals, Sinclair tells Kevin Jackson: ‘There are these acoustic chambers in the city, voices and echoes’.[1] These ‘chambers’ are the energised locations, saturated with memory, which abound in Sinclair’s work, the same places described in ‘Suicide Bridge’ as:

charged with an intense & continually reinforced personal magnetism, literally driven down into the granules of soil – so that each single grain is a charged particle of energy, forming a live carpet on which they stand & move, a cathode mosaic of infinitely detailed histories and archetypes. Past and present are coeval, equally radiant.[2]

To walk through or ‘stalk’ these places is the only way to gain access to these hidden accumulations of myth and history. In Lights Out for the Territory we are told:

Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, trampling asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself.[3]

As Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust, walking has ‘that crucial element of the body and the mind in the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.'[4] No other mode of transportation can replicate the immediacy with which the walk allows Sinclair to confront London. He concerns himself with detritus- be it ‘plaster dogs, beer mats, concentrations of used condoms'[5] in Lights Out for the Territory or the ‘pokers, gas-masks, kettles'[6] and mouldy saucepans which fill Rodinsky’s room in Downriver; the focus is on ‘History recovered through stinks and scummy water, smoke you can taste’.[7] Sinclair concentrates upon what Homi K. Bhabha has dubbed ‘stubborn chunks’, the ‘incommensurable elements'[8] which are marginalised in western society: the jetsam of society, that which traditional analyses overlook. Full engagement with such spectacles relies upon the ability to pause, consider, sift — a level of experience denied to one within the confines of a car or train. Yet the walk must not only be closely engaged with the urban landscape, but definitively aimless — like Guy Debord’s Derive, in which:

one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. [9]

The walk which Sinclair documents in Liquid City is paradigmatic. He states ‘We don’t know what we are looking for. And we won’t recognise it even if it bites our ankles.'[10] Not only direction but pace must be arbitrary; hence in Lights Out for the Territory we are told:

Time on these excursions should be allowed to unravel at its own speed, that’s the whole point of the exercise. To shift away from the culture of consumption into a meandering stream. [11]

Here again Sinclair’s sentiment mirrors Debord. The modern society of the spectacle, in which ‘capital [is] accumulated to the point where it becomes image'[12] is dissolved by the acting of walking, consumption dissipating into fluidity.

I would contend, however, that it is possible to go further, and to suggest a meaningful link between Sinclair’s modes of walking and writing. Christopher Tilley, in The Phenomenology of Landscape, his attempt to apply Phenomenology to archaeological theory, suggests a tentative link between the act of walking and a speech act which owes much to the thought of Michel de Certeau. Tilley writes

A walk is always a combination of places and times … Movement through space constructs ‘spatial stories’, forms of narrative understanding. This involves a continuous presencing of previous experience in present contexts … Pedestrian ‘speech acts’ may be likened to the speech acts of language. Walking is a process of appropriation of the topographical system, as speaking is an appropriation of language. It is a spatial acting out of place, as the speech act is an acoustic acting out of language.[13]

Sinclair’s style is notorious for its broken, unfinished, short, jagged and unpunctuated sentences and clauses. The following, paradigmatic extract, a description of the Isle of Dogs, is taken from Lights Out for the Territory:

Anubis land, a reservation of jackals. Death’s promontory. The whole glass raft is a mistake, glitter forms of anachronistic postmodernism (the swamp where that word crawled to die). Instant antiques. Skin grafts peeling before completion.[14]

The first sentence fires out abrupt, tangential canine references; the last, equally abrupt sentence is unexplained, leaving the reader to make the conceptual link between the body rejecting the grafted skin and the city rejecting the savage newness grafted on to it. Meaning rarely floats on the surface of what Sinclair writes: it must be delved for, drawn out slowly. The ideas flash out in quick and anarchic succession, much as the perceptions crowd in to the mind of the walker.

Another result of this style becomes apparent when we consider the following statement, from London Orbital:

Don’t take my word for it, don’t bother with my list of alternative attractions – Junction 21 of the M25, the Siebel building in Egham, Hawksmoor’s gravestone in Shenley; discover your own. In the finding is the experience.[15]

This is a direct challenge to the reader, which suggests that the import of Sinclair’s work lies not in the ogling of his idiosyncratic obsessions, but in an implied challenge to engage with the world to the extent he has. The difficulty of interpretation contributes to this — we are forced into mental activity, and reading can never be complacent. Sinclair’s work, as energised as it is about energy, encourages this direct engagement with the material world. His writing recreates the effect of a vitalised, observant walk through the sensory barrage of the city, and urges us to walk likewise, to fully engage with the landscape.

2. He lived in what he saw. As long as he himself was unobserved[16]

It is notable however that Sinclair’s urban landscape, teeming with spectres and echoes of the past, is decidedly empty of its actual modern inhabitants. In Lights Out for the Territory, the city becomes ‘termite territory: thousands of heads-down workers … Heads in laps, numbers on screen.'[17] Here Sinclair’s position momentarily echoes that of the flâneur; the city is consumed by the crowd, what Charles Baudelaire calls the ‘chaotic city’s teeming waste’,[18] but it is one of the rare occasions in Sinclair’s oeuvre in which a description of a crowd can be found. For Baudelaire, this ability to lose oneself in the crowd is the ultimate satisfaction for the urban walker. In ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ he writes

For the perfect idler, for the passionate observer, it becomes an immense source of enjoyment to establish his dwelling in the throng, in the ebb and flow, the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite.[19]

Walter Benjamin, writing on Baudelaire, stated that ‘The crowd was the veil from behind which the familiar city as phantasmagoria beckoned to the flâneur.'[20] Yet despite his passing reference to the London crowd, Sinclair pays comparatively little attention to the teeming mass of London life which so preoccupied writers such as Eliot and Wordsworth. He is uninterested in the anonymity which accompanies the submersion which Baudelaire and Benjamin document. Though, like Poe’s man of the crowd, Sinclair moves ‘without apparent object’ and ‘with a mad energy’,[21] he is unwilling to do so as part of a large group. Those individuals whom Sinclair encounters are reduced to grotesque stereotypes, notably the policeman in the City of London in Lights Out for the Territory and the lost Frenchman of Liquid City, not to mention the portrayal of his walking companions. Sinclair parodied his own practice in this respect in Dining on Stones, writing ‘The view from the high window … was soothing; no people’ [22] and admitting a focus on ‘place not people, topography instead of narrative. Human figures treated like caricatures, rude cartoons’. [23]

Yet although Sinclair’s urban landscape is curiously empty of the living, it positively teems with the spectres and memories of the dead — of Blake, Rodinsky and William Gull. As will become apparent, the true solitary for Sinclair is not the lone walker but the driver or passenger, not one who passes only strangers in the street but one who is unable to establish meaningful contact with the world.

3. Sensory Deprivation: driving the city

Richard Sennett writes that ‘Navigating the geography of modern society requires very little physical effort, hence engagement.'[24] If walking is the antidote to this modern disengagement from space, driving is its epitome. The driver is whisked through the urban landscape, unable to engage meaningfully with the hidden history of the city. Sinclair states in London Orbital that

Motorists are trained to read signs, watch for hidden cameras, to ready themselves for disaster: the jam, the shunt, the swerve into the service station. They ignore landscape. It happens, but it is as featureless as television; no better, no worse. [25]

In Dining on Stones this becomes ‘the stultifying motor car which robs you of your vision.'[26] To drive is to preclude sensory immediacy, to reduce the world to a flow of images over which the driver has no control, and about which they can form no meaningful conclusions.

Sinclair makes a division in Dining on Stones between writers who gravitate toward the propinquity provided by the walk, and those who prefer the distancing sterility of the car: ‘peds’ and ‘pods’. The division is simple:

Sit at your PC as you sit in the car: pod person. Lose yourself in the rhythms of the walk: pedestrian … It went back through literature.[27]

A dichotomy is thus established, and there is never any doubt as to which side of the divide Sinclair situates himself. Again in Dining on Stones he writes, bluntly:

I don’t like cars. The hand on your head. The way you have to put your trust in a stranger. The certain knowledge that drivers don’t understand, in their locked off trances, that every road is made up from discrete elements. It doesn’t fit together until you walk it.[28]

4. The Urban Passenger, or, the middle ground

The passenger, like the driver, is denied immediate contact with the surrounding world, confined within structures of metal and glass, hurtling through the landscape at a speed which precludes interaction. If the walker is urgently and incessantly active, the passenger is passive, forced to experience the world from afar. Little has been written on the concept of the passenger, but it is significant that Michel de Certeau’s discussion of train travel is entitled ‘Railway navigation and incarceration’. He writes of:

[A] travelling incarceration. Immobile in the train, seeing immobile things slip by … The unchanging passenger is pigeonholed, numbered, and regulated in the grid of the railway car.[29]

This is not the only association of passenger travel with imprisonment; Dickens, in his Sketches by Boz, writes of a bus conductor boasting ‘that he can chuck an old gentleman into the bus, shut him in, and rattle off, afore he knows where it’s a going to.'[30] Even when not explicitly associated with incarceration, however, representations of passenger status often emphasise the requisite degree of disassociation from the world, in the same manner as driving. J.G Ballard heads Sinclair’s list of ‘pods’; his most poddish novel is Concrete Island, in which Maitland, the protagonist, becomes trapped on a traffic island, stranded due to the inability or unwillingness of passing motorists to offer him assistance. Here is the epitome of motorised travel, moving people through what Ballard calls an ‘elaborately signalled landscape,'[31] but denying them the chance to interact with either the world or each other. The concentration here is on drivers, yet Ballard writes of equally distant passengers, who ‘sat stiffly in their seats like a party of mannequins,'[32] participating equally in the alienation embraced by those who choose not to walk.

Such an example suggests that to accept passenger status necessitates a degree of surrender, of willingness to be absorbed by and into the flow of passing apparitions. For Sinclair, driven into a bus in Lights Out for the Territory by a downpour and an impending appointment, the purchase of a bus ticket is a ‘Faustian bargain’; it is ‘to take a sabbatical’, to ‘forget text.'[33] For Marina Fountain in Dining on Stones, passengerhood offers:

Displacement. Her senses given up to blight, erasure … she was happy to let it happen, shifts of geology, registers of light … The train window is the perfect screen.[34]

The walk heightens the senses, attunes the walker to the landscape and its energy; a passenger has their senses erased, the window a barrier between them and the world.

So far, there appears little difference in Sinclair’s conception between the driver and the passenger: both are almost somnambulant, passive, detached from the world, and denied the type of active experience which he champions. Yet there is an important distinction between these modes of vehicular movement. It is significant that a passenger does not control the actual navigation of the vehicle, and is relieved of the responsibility of responding to the codes of driving, of constant vigilance against the disasters — ‘the jam, the shunt, the swerve’ — which Sinclair details. The passenger’s mind is thus technically free to attempt to engage with the landscape rapidly passing by, in a particular manner which has become a source of a very different type of energy for writers other than Sinclair. By considering what is gained by the absorption of the passenger, reasons emerge for which Sinclair might be particularly sceptical about this technique of urban movement.

The work on which I wish to focus in this context is David Gascoyne’s early novel Opening Day, published in 1933 when he was only seventeen. Leon, Gascoyne’s alter ego in the novel, plays truant and travels into London rather than face his father’s wrath for his rudeness toward the housekeeper. A significant portion of the narrative, however, is devoted to descriptions of the journeys Leon undertakes by bus and train in the course of the day. It becomes apparent that for Gascoyne, the passive flow of experiences available to him as passenger is preferable to the type of intimate experience which Sinclair finds in the walk.

For Gascoyne, being a passenger provides an opportunity ‘to lose oneself in an endless maze of abstractions.'[35] The objects which Gascoyne sees are necessarily far less specific than those that Sinclair finds, say, in Rodinsky’s room, where he:

fondled pokers, gas-masks, kettles … scraped at the mould in the saucepans … snorted dust from the heaps of morbid newspapers; sifted foreign wars, forgotten crimes, spasms of violence, royalty, incest, boot-polish, dentures and haemorrhoids.[36]

Gascoyne as passenger will never attain such tactile particularity; yet he is perfectly willing to allow the landscape to dissolve from such minutiae into ‘a ceaselessly changing combination of shapes and forms'[37] or a ‘miraculous panorama of vivid impressions.'[38] It is only once the individual phenomena are allowed to be in a state of perpetual flux that the artist is able to meaningfully interact with them, to create the world anew. Hence Gascoyne sees ‘an old wooden house … like a rickety and ancient ship'[39] and ‘great arches’ which become ‘Babylonian structures.'[40] Freed from the flotsam and jetsam of city life, Gascoyne becomes thoroughly absorbed in it in a manner radically different from Sinclair; by being removed from it as a passenger, the city is transformed, and can thus be aestheticised by the artist.

Although Gascoyne was yet to fully immerse himself in Surrealism at this stage in his life, the Surrealist method is certainly prefigured in this work. André Breton wrote in the first Surrealist Manifesto

I would like to sleep, in order to surrender myself to the dreamers, the way I surrender myself to those who read me with eyes wide open; in order to stop imposing, in this realm, the conscious rhythm of my thought.[41]

This notion of surrender, of absorption, is what Gascoyne finds as a passenger. Experience is rendered protean and dreamlike by this passage through the city. There is a sense, however, in which this notion of the artist as the receptacle for experience is similar to Sinclair’s own work. Breton describes artists as

simple receptacles of so many echoes, modest recording instruments who are not mesmerized by the drawings [they] are making.[42]

Sinclair might well concur with these words; in ‘Suicide Bridge’ man, or rather the enlightened man, the artist, is

utterly possessed by what place is. He stands where a precisely defined exchange is consummated between star and ground. He is the saline medium.[43]

Sinclair thus strives to become a Blakean conduit, the ‘possessed … medium’ who can become the receptacle for the layers of history and myth which his walks reveal. Yet for Breton, this means that as an artist he must ‘stop imposing … the conscious rhythm of my thought’, a sentiment which is echoed in Opening Day when Gascoyne writes:

This change in the tempo of one’s consciousness is not governable by the will. It changes gradually when we are not aware of it. It is only at isolated and comparatively rare intervals that we realize that we are not fully aware of what is going on around us, or that we are unusually deep in observation of minute details. [44]

Here, Sinclair’s divergence form this surrealist ethos becomes apparent. In a revealing moment in The Verbals, Sinclair states:

By nature and temperament I’m absolutely one of those mad Welsh preachers who believes … deliver the speech and you’ll change someone’s life … but I can’t go around spouting that and survive, so I’ll adapt equally well to the Scottish side of me, which is cynical, rational and cynical.[45]

He goes on:

It’s Stevenson, the classic Scottish Jekyll and Hyde thing. One is really deranged and manic, the other is looking in on it being deranged and manic, and commenting on it.[46]

This moment of self analysis is, I would contend, profoundly important for an understanding of Sinclair. Breton desires ‘to stop imposing, in this realm, the conscious rhythm of my thought’; Gascoyne claims that ‘This change in the tempo of one’s consciousness is not governable by the will’; but Sinclair’s writing can be read as an extended and explicit attempt to govern by his will, to impose the rhythm of his footsteps and his thought upon the world. For all his preoccupation with his own idiosyncrasies and ‘insanities’, and those of his world and his acquaintances, there is always this streak of rationality, a refusal to surrender, to be fully absorbed. Describing the bus journey in Lights Out for the Territory, although Sinclair claims ‘Once we relax, let it happen, it’s quite pleasant’ he also affirms that ‘Logic is suspended with your acceptance of passenger status’ and describes the passage through the rainy London streets as ‘a literally mindless progress … stopping and starting without reason … I can’t connect any of this with the elegant fiction of my map.'[47] He has this fundamental need to make connections, to keep his mind active, to graft his own ‘elegant fictions’ on to the landscape surrounding him.

Dining on Stones is possibly the culmination of this need, a novel which exposes the method of his earlier work and turns the reader into a figure much like Sinclair himself, totally absorbed in the work yet simultaneously distanced from it, looking in from without and analysing what they see. Hence a review of Downriver supposedly found by a character in Dining on Stones states:

After some early success, as a latecomer to the school of Ackroyd and Moorcock, his adjective-heavy style with its verbless sentences passed into disfavour and critical neglect.[48]

This mimics the often unsympathetic criticism to which Sinclair’s work has been subjected in reviews, while documenting an apparent fall from grace which ironically reverses the relative acclaim and wide readership which Sinclair’s later work has garnered. Sinclair is equally willing to dissect his own stylistic idiosyncrasies in this work:

When everything else fails, fall back on doctored autobiography: audition friends and acquaintances as fictional monsters, twist facts, push them as far as they’ll go, distort evidence, leaven the mess with half-truths, public scandals, real landscapes.[49]

As so often, the seriousness of these examples of introspective analysis is highly problematic. In fact, the very notion of ‘seriousness’ is often at stake; the question ‘does he really mean this?’ is constantly prompted by Sinclair’s writing, and to fail to discuss the perpetual playfulness and comedic dexterity of Sinclair’s work would be to do it a disservice. He is the a master of dazzlingly twisted similes, describing a drug addled character in Radon Daughters as ‘more stoned than a Saudi leg-over merchant,'[50] and in an article for the London Review of Books coining the wonderful term ‘cultural ambulance chasers’ to describe those readers of his work who have seized upon the hitherto neglected writers and locations which his work promotes.

The very notion of ‘seriousness’ is what is at stake in considering the importance of Sinclair’s comedic aspects. The line between comic hyperbole and statement of fact is often a deliberately fine one; we can be fairly sure he is not serious when he writes in Dining on Stones ‘The Basildon club was the kind of place where they employ bouncers to chuck you in,'[51] but what are we to make of statements such as the following from Liquid City:

I’ve always believed that bringing the best writers, the sharpest intelligences, to any location alters it forever.[52]

Certainly this is in keeping with the psychogeographical ideas which Sinclair expounds: yet surely there is a certain wryness with which these words refer to the ‘sharpest intelligences’ in question, the motley gathering of contemporary poets photographed at the launch of Conductors of Chaos to which these words refer.

This desire to hover between the occult or mystical and the coldly rational is the very reason for which Sinclair must walk, why he is so uncomfortable as passenger. For Gascoyne, the passenger occupies a middle ground, freed both from the responsibility of the highway code and from the need to choose his own speed and direction, to enact an imposition of the will. Gascoyne’s is a writing of total absorption, of willingness to entirely abdicate responsibility for movement and sensory input. Sinclair’s walks, although he writes in Lights Out for the Territory of drifting into the ‘meandering stream’, are not an act of total surrender to the city, its pre-existing routes and thoroughfares, but an attempt to enforce his own schemes and reasons for movement. The passenger moves at a speed the walker never can, propelled through the city by an energy not of their own choosing, and ‘pod’ orientated writers can make this a strength, harness this energy, immerse themselves in it and produce art which reflects this abdication of volition. Sinclair, though, is a thoroughbred ‘ped’; his energy is his own, his to find or create, and the rhythm of his own walking is the rhythm of his will, forcing the city to bend itself to the workings of his mind.


[1] Iain Sinclair & Kevin Jackson, The Verbals (London, 2002), pp. 75-6.

[2] Iain Sinclair, ‘Suicide Bridge’, in Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge (London, 1975), p. 148.

[3] Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory (London, 1997), p. 4.

[4] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust (London, 2001), p. 29.

[5] Lights Out For the Territory, p. 186.

[6] Iain Sinclair, Downriver (London, 1991), p. 136.

[7] Iain Sinclair, London Orbital (London, 2001), p. 36.

[8] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London, 1993), p. 219.

[9] Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the Derive,’ located at (1956).

[10] Iain Sinclair and Marc Atkins, Liquid City, (London, 1998), p. 62.

[11] Lights Out for the Territory, p. 7.

[12] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York, 1994), p. 10.

[13] Christopher Tilley, The Phenomenology of Landscape (London, 1992), p. 28.

[14] Lights Out for the Territory, pp. 40-1.

[15] London Orbital, p. 263.

[16] Iain Sinclair, Dining on Stones (London, 2004), p. 333.

[17] Lights Out for the Territory, pp. 90, 97.

[18] Charles Baudelaire, Complete Poems, ed. James McGowan (Oxford, 1993), p. 185.

[19] Charles Baudelaire. ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. In Selected Writings on Art and Artists, trans. P.E. Charvet (Cambridge, 1972), pp. 385-417 (p. 399).

[20] Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London, 1977), p. 170.

[21] Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories (London, 1996), p. 139.

[22] Dining on Stones, p. 59.

[23] Ibid, p. 129.

[24] Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone (London, 2003), p. 18.

[25] London Orbital, p. 267.

[26] Dining on Stones, p. 181.

[27] Ibid, p. 130.

[28] Ibid, p. 153.

[29] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (London, 1984), p. 111.

[30] Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz (London, 1996), p. 187.

[31] J.G. Ballard, Concrete Island (London, 1994), p. 16.

[32] Ibid, p. 51.

[33] Lights Out for the Territory, p. 138.

[34] Dining on Stones, p. 147.

[35] David Gascoyne, Opening Day (London, 1933), p. 136.

[36] Downriver, p. 136.

[37] Opening Day, p. 72.

[38] Ibid, p. 72.

[39] Ibid, p. 127.

[40] Ibid, p. 135.

[41] André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen Lane (Michigan, 1962), p. 12.

[42] Ibid, pp. 27-8.

[43] Suicide Bridge, p. 149.

[44] Opening Day, p. 80.

[45] The Verbals, p. 59.

[46] Ibid, p. 59.

[47] Lights Out for the Territory, p. 44.

[48] Dining on Stones, p. 349.

[49] Ibid, p. 276.

[50] Iain Sinclair, Radon Daughters (London, 1995), p. 52.

[51] Dining on Stones, p. 349.

[52] Liquid City, p. 214.

To Cite This Article:

Joe Moshenska, ‘The energy of the walker, the absorption of the passenger’.Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 2 (September 2005). Online at Accessed on [date of access]