Beating the bounds: misreading Iain Sinclair
My sense of Iain Sinclair’s recent book, London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line (Hamish Hamilton, 2015), is determined by a misreading on my part. In a scene where Sinclair recalls giving a reading in a ‘bamboo bar’, one of the punters, a ‘heavy presence, tieless in a loose designer suit that gave off sparks as he moved’ (38), gets a bit confrontational at the Q&A sessions. Grabbing the microphone, he lays into Sinclair:
History, he said, was pigs’ bollocks dipped in sherbert. But if you want to listen to … Arthur Morrison, A Child of the Jago, Tales of Mean Streets, Arnold Circus, Charles Dickens, furniture sweatshops, bagels and … blah blah blah: OK fine. Each to his own. But these are not, my friend, the realities of the moment. You know fuck all about that. About the rewrite of territory, the rescue of the old shitheaps, for which he was responsible: a player, an investor, he put his money where his mouth was. And his tongue was blistered with diamonds. (38)
A couple of things threw me. One was the double ellipsis, the gaps: what did this signify? A halting in the punter’s discourse? A shift of speaker? The problem here is that Sinclair begins to ventriloquise the other man, or vice versa; ‘he said’ appears right at the beginning of the scene, but who said what becomes a little unclear. And this is where I misread, as after ‘blah blah blah’, it sounded like Sinclair was putting down the heckler. ‘But these are not, my friend, the realities of the moment. You know fuck all about that. About the rewrite of territory’: you know fuck all. Wow, I thought, this is something new, Sinclair giving the punter a verbal kiss-off. But wait, no, that can’t be right. It’s not until ‘tongue blistered with diamonds’ that we return to Sinclair speaking, with a far more oblique put-down. It’s the punter telling Sinclair that history is bunk, that money talks (blah blah blah), that London is being purposefully re-written into a different future. Yes, now that is much more likely.
The question is: why did I mis-read the scene so violently? Sinclair telling someone that they know fuck all? How likely is that? (The italics might even be seen as diacritical indicators by Sinclair that ‘this is not me speaking’.) And the answer I came up with is: because I wanted him to say that, wanted him to be angry, wanted him to directly tell the representative of a boorish, know-nothing exploitative capital to fuck off.
Which he never does, of course. But I (would like to) think that he would like to.
In my 2007 book on Sinclair, I called the last chapter ‘Driven to the margins’, which was largely about London Orbital (2002). Since then, his major books, except for Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2009), have elucidated a connection with London which, if not quite attenuated, then expressed the desire or need to tread new territory. Edge of the Orison (2005) re-traced John Clare’s ‘Journey Out of Essex’ and, with the central role of Anna Sinclair and family history, seemed to me to be an extension of the walking/researching/narrating method, treading on directly personal ground in a way not seen in previous books. (It will be interesting to see what Sinclair’s next collaboration with Andrew Kötting, By Our Selves, which also recapitulates Clare’s journey on foot, does with the same primary event.) Ghost Milk (2011) was about the coming London Olympics and the ‘grands projets’ of all such vastly expensive stage-sets; he visits the rotting stadia in the Athens Olympic park as a past that might haunt London’s future. And in American Smoke (2014), Sinclair takes off for the States in search of the writers and writing (particularly poetry) that remain fundamental to his Modernist poetics and world-view, a true ‘lighting out for the territory’.
So London Overground feels like a deliberate return to London, after the pointed tomfoolery of Swandown (2012), where Sinclair’s cerebral discourse acts as a foil to Kötting’s physical cinema of running, jumping and standing still (or piloting a pedalo up English waterways). It narrates a walk that Sinclair takes with Kötting, who is a somewhat different companion to other such as the photographer Marc Atkins or film-maker and author Chris Petit, who were crucial to earlier books. Kötting, who Sinclair has described as a ‘New Age stormtrooper’, is presented in London Overground as a man of physical appetite and activity: pissing in bushes, measuring the miles in terms of pit-stops to refuel, yarning about youthful sexual conquests around London. If not quite Sancho Panza to Sinclair’s Quixote, Kötting represents a different principle of physicality to Sinclair’s, which is always in service of the story (of the books themselves and of literature per se). Kötting’s own body revolts over the 30-odd mile tramp, his feet ‘squelching’ by the end (and in a coda to the book, this broken-down physicality is re-doubled in a shocking account of the motorbike accident Kötting suffered in 2013, where he suffered significant injuries). But his body is present in a way that Sinclair’s own rarely is in his texts. Instead, we are presented with Sinclair's voice.
This voice, or perhaps style, is one that characterises my experience of Sinclair’s texts as much as the territories and terrains they traverse. It’s not surprising that some of the writers and artists that are considered in London Overground have very strong and distinct styles: JG Ballard, Angela Carter, Leon Kossoff, Samuel Beckett. These are distinctive voices of which, like Sinclair, you only have to read a sentence or two to know who is writing.
The circuit (key Sinclair word all the way back to Lud Heat (1975)) that Sinclair and Kötting enact haunts the ‘Ginger Line’ in a similar fashion to the method of London Orbital, where Sinclair and others traced the ‘acoustic footsteps’ of the motorway. The Overground Line is of course much further in, a circle/ circuit that begins in Haggerston and takes in Shadwell, Denmark Hill, Clapham Junction, Shepherd’s Bush, Camden Town, and back to Haggerston. It’s interesting to note how Sinclair confesses that he does not know some of the ground particularly well, that it connects only marginally with his own personal history or recurrent interests.
But there is recapitulation here, deliberately so. When Sinclair describes Kossoff’s ‘method of choosing a number of privileged viewpoints, and returning to them, time after time’ (240) might be describing his own. In another passage, the journey takes on rather more epic clothing:
Enough miles have been covered in this half-day’s walk to call up a discussion about circularity, the Homeric voyage of adventure and return, against the grander reach of the diurnal cycle, an eternal and unchanging figure. Night chasing day chasing night. The abacus of the stars. The eye of heaven orbiting under the dish of the ocean, as Charles Olson says in the Maximus Poems [….] The drawing together of the circle is our faith in that model of the universe. And our love of it. (124)
This then positions London Overground as nostos, a return to home, beating the bounds of Sinclair’s own territory. (‘Beating the bounds’ was a phrase that appeared in my head as I was reading London Overground, and then, on page 72, it appears: ‘A rectangle filled with a unique signature of self: the beating of the bounds’. Did I tune in to Sinclair’s voice or call this phrase up?)
The text is not filled with nostalgia, however, so much as a sense of loss. For all Kötting’s antic presence, the book feels like a lament. This is why, when Sinclair and Kötting call on the venerable (and wonderful) actor Freddie Jones – now starring, completely unknown to me, in Emmerdale – the references to Jones’ performance as King Lear started to make a different sense. (Freddie and his son Toby appear in By Our Selves.) The wintry feel of London Overground – the walk takes place on a cold February day – brought to mind not the wine-dark seas of Homeric nostoi, nor sun-baked La Mancha, but rather Lear’s wanderings around a lost kingdom, lucidly mad, suffering revelation. Sinclair in London Overground is a Winter King, traversing a kingdom split in two, accompanied by a Fool who speaks truth.
As I wrote about in another blog, I’ve recently been listening a lot to the Sleaford Mods, whose angry, aggressive and expletive-filled albums seem to express not only the tenor of the times but also something about myself and the problems of a working-class person entering academia (not least in terms of the voice). The anger, the fuck off-ness of the Sleaford Mods is bracing and invigorating, which is probably why I wanted Sinclair to say the same thing. Where Laura Oldfield Ford, whose Savage Messiah (2011) seems to intersect with the Sleaford Mods’ punk sensibility, has a strong sense of articulating exclusion and deprivation and the fraying fabric of working-class urban lives, that’s not what Sinclair does, and it would be unfair to criticise him for not doing so.
But in a time of ideologically-enforced economic austerity, where a prospective Labour leadership candidate who opposes this is attacked by the establishment as a kind of fifth columnist leading the party to ‘disaster’, and where anger seems to have no purchase on political agency (as Mark Fisher wrote about the Sleaford Mods’ last album), the politics of beating the bounds is more urgent than ever. I like and admire Sinclair’s work a lot (enough to have written a book about him), and the politics of his non-fiction are clear, but in London Overground I missed the savagery and the satire of the early novels, of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987) and Downriver (1990) in particular. In completing the circuit, once again, I wonder where we can go next.