The Marvellous in the Ordinary: An Interview with Iain Sincair
Throughout your work you seem to draw magic out of superficially ordinary things, unearthing energies - is there some method to achieving this?
There's a process whereby the navigation of territory carries within it a fictional germ. By whatever strange combination of circumstances, I ended up in a particular part of East London - which was never part of any plan or design. My way of making sense of it was to undertake journeys, often on foot, and to try to invent strategies that would provide me with narratives. I would meet people by accident, listen to their tales, tease out the history of buildings. It's like being a detective - a kind of memory detective - with the understanding that London is a gigantic corpus of stories, a network of broken radio connections. You're never going to get to the end of it, but different modes seem applicable to different periods of a life.
Buildings in themselves, how you view them, this is a significant part of it?
Absolutely. Buildings are autobiographies. Particularly buildings like the Hawksmoor churches, a big thing for me. At the time of Lud Heat I was working as a gardener in the area, just looking at these structures, trying to make some sense of their power. They seemed to be confirming a dominant presence, and yet, at the time, in the early '70s, nobody was taking much interest in Hawksmoor as an architect. With Christopher Wren's lighter churches punctuating the wards of the City, I felt a connection to the political establishment and to established financial power. They may be very elegant in design, but they're giving the City what it wanted. They are reinforcing the image it chooses to manufacture for itself. The Hawksmoor churches were outside the City. They were renegade. Strange frontier posts for something else, imposed on a bandit landscape.
Central to what you do is the act of walking - in fact you've alluded to it bringing about a particular state.
Walking itself, if you have the time to walk for a period of hours, does engender a fugue-like state, which is an interesting thing to achieve. You get into a natural rhythm, establish a dialogue with the landscape, and it brings with it a receptive state of mind for creating fiction or gathering documentary evidence, whatever you might be doing. So in that sense it's a useful tactic. In another sense it has almost become a radical political act just to walk. There's no way you can exploit the walker. There's nothing to buy into, nothing can be done with pedestrianism, unless you can get walkers dressed up in sponsored T-shirts advertising some conspicuous charity-- making a designer boast about ecological credentials.The walker is the last anarchist of the city.
There's a sense that everything, particularly with London, is now scoped out as a branding opportunity.
There's always a slogan. Improving the image of construction. Working for a better Hackney. People come with their own advert. Even myself: to carry on being published, it only works if I have a brand -- and that brand is to do with walking. I find that a little bit depressing. I'm stuck with it, but really that's only an element of what I'm interested in.
One development with city walking is the way so many people are wired in to electronic devices. Physically they're moving; mentally they're not. At Liverpool Street station you can be swept aside by them, coming at you, heads down. Gabbling. Shouting. Jabbing at screens. So all those benefits that I've been mentioning are no longer part of it. You're logged in to the supernova digital cloud, speeding away from the sense of a physical locality. It's eroding the present tense of the act of walking.When you do that, you're taking everything away.
Devices are powerful in the way they end up changing mass behaviour.
I feel that what I do is already redundant. It's from another age. There are still a lot of people doing exactly what I do, but it's not the way the world is configured. The ability to navigate a passage through a large book, or to negotiate a complex structure, is vanishing fast. You want what you want before you know what that is. You want it now. Students who might be looking into the things I do, for an essay or a doctorate, wouldn't dream of reading the books. They send an email and ask if they can come round, so that I can tell them what I'm on about. Bullet points. Make a recording. Transcribe. Print. Edit.
Just like this, our conversation. I think JG Ballard was the person for whom the interview form, or the transatlantic phone conversation, became as visible as the books. The publication of the Re/Search collection of interviews in 1984 was a significant moment in Ballard's career. Personality, attitude, archive were as important now as text.
Did you use recording devices for the Hackney book? It contains a number of interviews.
For Hackney, and the books around that period, I started to use recordings of voices but shaped them as monologues. I edited out my questions - which of course slanted the way the conversation would go. So even what appears to be an innocent piece of recorded evidence is actually a gently manipulated fiction. I tried this technique in my first book, The Kodak Mantra Diaries, way back in 1972. So I haven't evolved very far. The voices serve something of the function of the photographs in a Sebald book. They play with balance, punctuation, the flow of attention.
It brought about some illuminating sections: the solicitor Bill Parry-Davies, talking about corruption -- and Rob Petit's account of Hackney's surveillance nerve centre, this anonymous room constantly accessed by the Metropolitan Police.
I was astonished by all that. At the surveillance-monitoring centre in the old council buildings in Stoke Newington, there is a remit, which is not to intervene. The watchers might see something going on, but it's very much a case of get the image. Get the image and we'll see if we want to do something later on. The watchers are falling asleep in front of the screens. It did remind me, when I was doing The Falconer with Chris Petit, of the period when this kind of technology was only just coming in. They gave Chris a free hand to go up to the City of London surveillance centre and just play with the cameras. They didn't know, at that point, how to use them. He was free to pan and zoom as he fancied. Then they let him take the tapes away. We edited some of them, with paranoid overlay, into the finished Channel 4 film. Techniques of surveillance and control are now much more sophisticated. You hardly need this clunky stuff. You can't move without being in the movie. London is a surveillance labyrinth, with the City at the heart of the maze. Banks, money. Bad art. Eyes in the sky. Imported military technologies, originally from Northern Ireland. Checkpoints. Snatch squads. Number plate recognition. Denser here than anywhere on the planet.
In the documentary writing such as Hackney, or going back to Lights Out, there's a sense of determination; you feel that the words had to get onto the page. Where did that energy come from?
It's always been there. It's just an aspect of how I look at life, and a compulsion to negotiate my passage through it by writing. It's taken years to understand the process and to describe it, going from something like a neurotic instinct to get something down, to literally having it as my way of being in the world. But the 'self' in the written material is a 'formed self'. It's an exaggeration, it's not an entire portrait, and of course there are some things I wouldn't go into.
You saved up and started the Albion Village Press, in order to get your writing printed and out there. Was it a reaction against the literary industry?
Through the 60s I'd had minor dealings with mainstream publishers and published in magazines like The Transatlantic Review, but I never felt that the kind of writing that I wanted to do belonged there. I didn't want to manipulate the form of the work to make it acceptable to anybody. Rather than wasting a lot of energy and time sending in submissions and so on, I didn't even go there. It was never on. So why not do that older, traditional thing of publishing yourself, taking responsibility for every stage of production, and see what happens? It was economically feasible to operate in a small way. I think the first book, Back Garden Poems, cost fifty quid. But I didn't expect to get any money out of it.
You keep the memory of lost London writers alive, referring to them a great deal. Does this hark back to the bookselling days?
Yes, a lot of it comes out of the bookselling days. The discovery of a category of writers I call the 'Reforgotten.' They were constantly talked about, people saying: "You must read Alexander Baron's The Lowlife. You must read Gerald Kersh, Maclaren-Ross, Patrick Hamilton." Round and round it went. A significant cadre of interesting writers who were just not part of the canon at all. By being in the second-hand book trade, I'd be finding the books and reading them. Hangover Square. Night and the City. Arthur Machen. John Cowper Powys. They Drive By Night. Wide Boys Never Work. Robin Cook. The Crust On Its Uppers. Jim Thompson. David Goodis. The Pillar of Cloud by Francis Stuart. Céline's London Bridge.
Some of these have been re-pressed. There's the London Classics series, and the Harvill Press books with Alexander Baron's Lowlife, Gerald Kersh's Fowler's End, and Henry Green with Caught, about the London Auxiliary Fire Service.And there's Margaret Duffy.
The rediscovered group is so contrasting. Essentially the only things they had in common were that they'd been somewhat forgotten about and were good writers. Alexander Baron is a realistic writer, a working-class writer, whereas Kersh has this strange, warped, hyper-kinetic Jewish humour. Henry Green is a toff, a friend of Evelyn Waugh. Green is a modernist decadent with a great style. Experimental. Slightly out of focus. Upper crust, observing the workers through an alcoholic filter. And a good friend of Terry Southern. Margaret Duffy is a committed feminist, an academic with a very specific take on London as being an organic entity. They don't share much, in attitude or style, but they are all worthy of revival.
There's a world of difference between Duffy and something like The Lowlife.
Absolutely different worlds. In The Lowlife there's that duality: you have the brother who's very respectable, he's moved out into the North London suburbs, and you have the gambler who sticks in Hackney, at the point when the borough is experiencing the first visible wave of black immigration. Soho, for Baron, is used in much the way that Chris Petit treats it in Robinson: an Interzone (to borrow the Burroughs terminology) where anything goes. With The Lowlife, the intimate geography of the book is amazing. It was very interesting to meet Baron, when we made the film The Cardinal and the Corpse, and to hear him talk about how the book came about. How he emerged from the fog of what was essentially war trauma. A sleepwalker, a former Marxist, who'd been through the Second World War the hard way, back home in territory where he struggles to find himself, or to identify meaning in his new life as a survivor. He is describing the kind of deafness that comes after too long an exposure to intolerable noise.
On this idea of the forgotten, do you have any thoughts on the obscurity of these writers? Is a novel by, say, Robert Westerby better off for being a curio discovered by the few?
Somebody like Westerby has a fixed position in time. His books are very much to do with a period. As a way of accessing that period and that state of mind, finding one of his novels (which would be a difficult thing to do now, in the original editions) is like time travel. It allows you to go back. The object is a passport to forgotten attitudes, deleted ways of looking at the world. But I don't think Westerby's novels have the mysterious quality that demands a place in the contemporary world. So in a way it's correct that these books remain obscure, but they're worth finding as well. The obscurity is a badge of a special kind of integrity. Not everybody's going to do it, but particular people will respond to these novels and keep some of them alive for another period. London Classics have re-printed Wide Boys Never Work. I did the introduction, and it was interesting to me that after this, Westerby's wife got in touch. Areas of his biography that I knew nothing about started to emerge.His time in Hollywood. He was working for Disney. Playing table tennis with violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz, socialising with Eric Ambler and King Vidor. The afterlife of these apparently vanished people is interesting.
You've written a lot about the book dealing trade, and we have this recurring Driffield character who pops up at various times.
He keeps disappearing, literally, and then reappearing. Driffield is a self-fictionalising character: his name isn't Driffield, although he calls himself that. I don't know what his real name is. He dresses in outlandish ways and is obviously disguising all manner of character flaws under the noise. Standard diversionary tactic: fancy dress, eccentric manner. Make the weirdness so blatant, nobody will see it.
Driff is there in the first film I made with Chris Petit, The Cardinal and The Corpse. He is playing himself with great conviction. There he is, physically. That's what he looks like. The English love certain kinds of eccentrics. Driff dressed like Evelyn Waugh in his most choleric, country squire period, and he talked like a demented cabbie. One of those unrequired autodidacts who know everything you don't want to hear. Then, at the height of his fame, he chose to vanish completely. He disappeared for a number of years. Turns out he was in India. He re-emerged at the time of London: City of Disappearances.
The themed compilation of writing you edited--it includes that great sequence from Chris Petit's Robinson where the narrator, filling his days as bookshop minder, can't be sure if he's just served his own estranged wife.
Robinson refers back to so many other things: Robin Cook, Ballard, Borges, Fassbinder, Orson Welles. The 'Cookie' character in Robinson is essentially the same character we had in The Cardinal and The Corpse: the novelist Robin Cook (or, as he then called himself, Derek Raymond) playing himself. His original name was Robin Cook but there was an airport novelist who stole that, so he took the first names of two dead friends and came up with 'Derek Raymond'. Robinson, in its origin, is a book catalogue of submerged Soho writing, in which the lost authors, aroused and provoked revenants, return to the labyrinth for one last game.
There's an intersection of ideas in the output of yourself, Chris Petit and Patrick Keiller, but you've not gone into this recurring literary character Robinson as much as them.
There are two very different Robinsons; I interviewed both film-makers about this. Patrick Keiller's Robinson is taken from Kafka's novel Amerika, in which he imagines America - he never went there - as a fantastical, Dickensian place. The Robinson character is minor. Patrick identified him as having what he needed. A joke name, a cipher. Patrick is very interested in the surrealist angle, Czech surrealism. This Robinson sounds like a subversive poet pretending to be English. Chris Petit's Robinson is taken from L. F. Céline and Journey to the End of the Night. Céline is one of his obsessions and one of his heroes. Chris and Patrick - although they both make substantial film essays - are really very different in where they're coming from and in how they operate. Patrick Keiller is steady stare, in control, counting every frame. Even the camera never moves.
I wondered where you see your work in relation to theirs.
It connects with Keiller's fascination for container ports, the Thames Estuary, edgelands, business parks. And facts retrieved from landscape. Connections of writers with particular places. Thematically, there's a strong sympathy there. But Chris Petit is somebody I'd be more comfortable collaborating with, because we share a lot of the same interests and agree in many ways about what constitutes true cinema. I met Chris through book dealing. We've done four relatively substantial things together, lots of smaller things, and it works very well, particularly as we've got to the stage of doing everything by ourselves.
Ballard, who died very nearly five years ago now, was mentioned earlier. Your writing differs quite wildly from his, but there does seem to be a lot of common ground.
Definitely. I mean literally common ground in terms of the whole Shepperton/Thames Valley corridor, in relation to the M25 London Orbital book, which Ballard was always very generous about. But he would never in a million years have approached the thing in the way I did. What he derived from that territory was completely different. And his own. He was not at all interested in aspects of the historical fabric of London, the buildings and so on. He wouldn't have been interested in Hawksmoor, or Portland stone churches, or any of that. But as time went on and I got to know him, I came to appreciate his take on things.
He has a striking vision of the world.
He has. The early routines that become The Atrocity Exhibition are fabulously psychotic, fragmented -- and deranged. Wildly off-balance and still under control. And then the surface becomes smoother, more accessible, even when the underlying forms are exactly the same. In the last years, he was writing books that could be misconstrued as mainstream novels, delivered with a certain elegance, a precise aerodynamic style, and a cold, forensic eye for the telling detail.
In Concrete Island the writing is very clinical.
That's a strange one. It's like one of his earlier short stories but extended-- encouraged to take some breathing space, before locating itself in another liminal, off-highway bowl. An island in the city. The novel floats above his obsession with the elevated Westway ramp, which he talks about as if were some Mayan ruin, a surviving fragment of a pre-modern civilisation. The Westway, Ballard reckoned, was a clue as to how London should be. It should all be like that, but it isn't. There's just this one stilted road and a submerged and overgrown arena. A concrete raft with weird acoustic properties. Ballard anticipates what I said in Ghost Milk: Westfield shopping mall, all of that development, is conceived on the ground where Concrete Island is set. If you follow the description of where Maitland's car goes off the road, that's where it is.
The republished book for which I wrote an introduction - Millennium People - has a group of characters living in Chelsea Marina. They are positioned as middle-class terrorists in economic decline, trying to preserve their status in a part of London now given over to wealthy outsiders. I went to Chelsea Harbour last week as part of the book I'm doing at the moment, which is about following the orbital route of the London Overground railway. And walking the complete circuit in a single day with Andrew Kötting.
A full scale project?
Yes, I'm roughly half way through writing it. The part I've just finished was when I went to Chelsea Harbour, thinking about it in terms of Chelsea Marina. And it was uncannily Ballardian in every way, even though he'd never been there himself. As I was leaving, taking some photographs, I happened to see this shop, and there again the name of it was Vaughan, the principal character, or one of them, in Crash. But to talk of coincidences: In deep time everything connects with everything. It's Michael Moorcock's idea of a multiverse: infinite parallel worlds occurring at the same time, and characters shifting across, back and forth, between these unstable worlds.
After a sense of lines being drawn with Ghost Milk and the subsequent American Smoke, you've re-connected.
I've become re-enthused by observing the post-Olympic moment and seeing what happens next, after that incredible surge of craziness. I wanted to go around London again. The walk became a conversation with Andrew Kötting, a continuation of our adventures on the swan pedalo for the film Swandown. Andrew's very physical, absurdist, up for getting into comic conversations with people. He's lived a lot of his life down in Deptford, in a bit that's now been gentrified -- so, as we moved along,his stories were feeding into the same South London landscape. I thought it was going to be a nice little book, but it's developed into something quite substantial.
There's this notion of "burning a hole through the membrane of the ordinary". It seems to be a great approach: staying open to the possibility of magic in everyday circumstances. Is this essentially what is meant by psychogeography?
It could be, it sounds like a useful description, because nobody knows what psychogeography is. It's become such a plastic term, having started somewhere very specific: a theoretical, countercultural, Paris-based, Situationist term that was applied to a particular set of circumstances. Then the terminology vanishes, until it returns to London, via people like Stewart Home and the London Psychogeographical Association. Now it spreads out to be anything to do with walking, cities -- but the description that you just brought up, burning a hole through the membrane of the ordinary, seems to be what it was about in the first place. This idea of doing something that jolts you into a higher level of reality. You have to re-wire reality. As we walk and navigate, we have our standard neural pathways, and we need to subvert them. We have to develop techniques for countering conditioned reflexes. I think psychogeography could be exactly that. Somehow we've arrived at one of the best descriptions of it I've heard. Being open to the marvellous in the ordinary.
The interview was conducted by Neil Jackson. Many thanks to Iain Sinclair for his time.