Writing as Magic in London in Its Summer: Iain Sinclair and the Crafting of Place

By Kathy Acker



The precision. I remember the excitement of reading White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings – my first Iain Sinclair experience – though I don’t remember where and when. And yet every word of Sinclair’s, herein lies his style, is always positing when and where. “There is an interesting condition of the stomach,” begins White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, “where ulcers build like coral, fibrous tissue replacing musculature, cicatrix dividing that shady receptacle into two zones, with communication by means of a narrow isthmus…” This is Sinclair territory, be it of the body, the emotions, the soul or the environs, the city. Craggy, deeply fissured, or painful. Remember: fissures in the earth lead to the underworld, sinister and magic.

Sinclair territory is one in which the word both describes and is what is described. Say ‘cicatrix’ out loud and that sound is the ulcer, the hole in the earth; the sound ‘musculature’, rolling you from one location to the other and so denying fissure, is the ‘unbroken’ or replaced earth.

In White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, Nicholas Lane, a contemporary bookdealer in London, not only has an ulcer but is defined by it. Here is an example of how Sinclair hears rhythm and uses it to create. Listen to this description of Nicholas Lane: “to call him thin would be to underdescribe him. His skin was damp paper over bone. Nothing could get into his intestine so he functioned directly on head energy. An icicle of pure intelligence.” There are four sentences. The second would mirror the perfect balance of the first if the predicate wasn’t a little too long. The third sentence is long, and imbalanced; not the dependent clause. Lengthening, sound and imbalance grow and explode, in the last sentence, into a spark, a phrase, not even a full sentence, but, like the first sentence, perfectly balanced.

Mind you, I am not speaking about formal structure. I’m speaking about vision. In these four sentences, Sinclair is describing an ulcerated landscape. Balance in the body of the bookseller, of the landscape, occurs when the mind is separated from its body. Sinclair has cut into both the living being of Nicholas Lane and of London and opened them to our sight. We experience sound; we see. A visionary is he or she who makes vision happen.

When I was a child, I read my first adult authors, Dickens and Blake. The pages of their books exploded open in my mind a visionary landscape called London. “Under the grass stain, the altar. I dreamed a new dream, meadows of fire.” White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. This is the usual announcement of the visionary. To dream is to see. To see is to make, to bring into being. I can write only by reading and listening, says the visionary, for one makes only when one is made. Thus the angels Blake saw.

Listen further to the language of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. “Nights all up in that tower room, windows blinded, looking out all across the roofs; not nobody in the streets, was there? Little drink, fag, like, if I wanted, go out on the parapets, I do; go where I like, walk, Flower and Dean, Thrawl, Heneage, Chicksand, walk across the river if I wanted, nobody else, not never touched the ground.” Walking prose. To walk is to travel; to travel is to see. The eye, the I cannot stay still because, in their beings, neither the eye nor the I is still. What is movement? It is language itself. Connection. “No man is an island.”

There are two kinds of hedonists. Those who separate body and mind and so turn affairs of the body into matters of dead meet. Then there are those who equate pleasure and wisdom. Sinclair goes for the latter type of hedonism. In Lights Out for the Territory, Iain finally does exactly as he likes, gets rid of made-up plot, that old bourgeois contrivance so beloved by the publishing industry. Goes for what is intrinsic, in pleasure, language and movement. Rhythm. Writers are musicians who work in the crossovers between image and sound and meaning. That crossover named language. Let the literary be concerned only with its own grave.

He began in poetry. Lud Heat, 1975; Suicide Bridge, 1979. The novels started in 1987 with White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. “I wrote White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings,” Iain says, “as I had previously done poems and short stories; writing by hand on big pads of paper. I was scared of not being able to read my own handwriting so on the old typewriter I had back in those days I would type everything up quickly, crudely, not making any changes. Then I would rewrite the whole on a totally different machine, a golfball typewriter. After that I sometimes rewrote the last version by hand. I noted the changes in this text and then typed it all out. Each level of change was based on a different technology.”

We’re sitting in the pub next to the premises of his current publisher Granta. The pub is upmarket, posh food and a view of the canal that runs through what is currently one of the trendiest sections in London. Handbags here cost at least £200 a shot. The canal below us is full of trash. “My writing totally changed,” Iain continues, “when I began Lights Out for the Territory. For the first time I was writing, from the beginning, on a word processor.”

Sinclair is talking only about how he writes, not what he writes. Very un Anglo-Saxon. Imagine book reviews that have no interest in recounting the plots of the novels they’re criticizing. The whole literary industry might collapse. Forget that. Now I’m equating process art and walking. Iain based Lights Out for the Territory on various walks of his through London. “Did you write as you walked?” I ask the tall, slightly sinister-looking ex-used book dealer.

“I made notes. I scribble notes. I wrote letters to the machine.” He reconsiders. Things aren’t that simple. “It’s more like possession. You see, all the writing I’ve done is a kind of possession. You prepare yourself for the state of possession by research or walks or by… whatever… by reading. It may take a long time and it may take no time.”

Iain begins talking, so fast I can barely keep up with him. This is his music. “I had been planning the material for White Chappell since the early or mid-Seventies. I kicked it around in my head for fifteen years! Changing it and changing it. Then, when it was time to write it down, I wrote incredibly fast.

“In the next two novels, Downriver and Radon Daughters, I set out to do something completely different. Six stories that were connected up to sites. To let through the voices of the victims.” One of the characters in White Chappell is Jack the Ripper. “I felt that White Chappell had been too phallo-centric. This time I wanted woman and place to come through.”

kathy-acker.jpgKathy Acker

I’m wondering if women and site are connected and, if so, how? But I can’t find the space to break into Iain’s language.

“I went to look for the first site, the one where a pleasure boat named the Princess Alice had gone down. Practically everyone on it had drowned. I wanted to write about a woman who had survived, although her children didn’t; a few years later she became one of the victims of Jack the Ripper. I went to the wrong site and blundered into another whole series of stories…”

Walking is a listening method. Iain walks to listen to the stories that have been and so are in the city. He’s searching for buried treasure. He’s hunting down London’s identity.

“There were these stories waiting to be told. In the long run, actual walking isn’t necessary because it’s all walking.” It refers to writing. Everything does in the world of creation. It and they. “They are all journeys. Journeys aren’t necessarily walks.” Iain is fascinated by London’s conduits: trains and the river. By James Joyce: in Dubliners and of course in Finnegan’s Wake Joyce gave him possibilities for mapping, for exposing this city. Every map is a narrative. A story or series of stories are revealing themselves.

To be able to go on this treasure hunt the writer must prepare himself, herself through training. “It’s shamanistic in a way… for a long time you must train yourself to write in ways that are fast and accurate. You test yourself to see if you can make mental notes that mean something, represent something. More important is learning how to move into areas of force, of information and energy in which there are stories that need to be released.”

Later on Iain will say to me, “You fall into structures that are magical, potent and, if you get them perfect, it makes things change in the world.”

Finding the Structure of the World

I’m thinking structures. I’ve always taken it for granted that in literary writing content and form are intertwined, one. Now I’m examining my belief. Iain says that the writer is a person who finds, rather than makes, structures. “I began to see the pattern of the living city in myth,” he tells me. “If you look, you can see the structures that lie underneath.”

“Is this how we write? By seeing? By finding?”

“I think so.”

“Then, to write an epic is to see the structure of one’s city or of one’s life as epic?”

“There’s more involved.” Now we’re moving rapidly. “Look at the epic structures of Blake or Milton. In the same way that you rewrite Dickens or Pasolini or whomever, Blake felt obliged to rewrite Milton’s structures and thereby change the cosmic balance of what the latter was doing. Blake thought that the epic structure, the grand structure that Milton had was the key structure.”

“Not stories, but structures…”

“Blake is very much the one, the key figure behind this.” This refers to a lineage, a tradition of English writing. “De Quincey, who treated London as a labyrinth, is another figure because he used a drugged, dreamlike state to get into the city, that palimpsest.” It is in this literary tradition that Sinclair situates his own writing. His favourite writers – Melville, Kerouac, Proust – all travellers. “Ulysses is a walking, an actual journeying, across the city.”

kathy-acker-2.jpgKathy Acker

Joyce’s writings are so immersed in language play that walking must be intertwined with language. “When I started writing, I began in myth and Jung. My early books were totally concerned with British Celtic mythology, earthworks, energy patterns, lines. But I was forced to go out and make a living, and grind my nose down through all that…” I know what you’re referring to, I whisper to myself. Muck. “…and the contemporary city moved in. It was then that I began to see the patterns of the city in terms of myth.” It is myths, not stories, that write reality. Regard the gods.

“If you look at it, every single one of my books is a quest. Generally a doomed quest and yet a quest that takes you into dark places and then into places where you see the stars. A walk for instance is a straight quest. In the old days I walked to Glastonbury or to Stonehenge or wherever. Spiritual quests. My books are like one of the oldest English novels, Pilgrim’s Progress.”

When one finds myth, one sees how one is defined by myth; when one writes in this tradition or lineage, one is only learning how he or she has been written. To see what appears is to tell what will be. The act of the visionary.

Kathy Acker (1947 – 1997) was one of the great rogue and visionary talents of late 20th century language and life. Her many books are available if one looks.